John 4:5-42 - Sunday, March 26, 2017
It might be easy to lose heart and stay reflective at this point along the way of Lent. It’s the beginning of school spring break after all. People are going away on holidays. Although. Lent can travel with you. Three years ago we went on a cruise. The first night in the dining room, our 16-year-old pointed out the flowers on the table and asked, ‘the flowers are purple cause it’s Lent right?’ There’s the feeling of spring in the air. It’s getting warmer outside, there’s a freshness in the breeze. The time we are spending in the darkness is becoming shorter. And yet, here we are, still extinguishing candles, making our holy space more and more dim. Not forgetting that the ministry of Jesus did not end well. Reminding ourselves that the road we are on leads to the darkness of a tomb. In this time of Lent, Christians are to take the opportunity to explore and examine within themselves what their faith, what our faith, means to us as we live our lives in a world that is vastly different and, I would venture, very much more complex than the world in which Jesus lived. Our United Church of Canada has created a handful of faith statements, written since Union in 1925, but we state still, that the foundation of our Christianity is the Bible. We go to the stories of Jesus’ ministry, his miracles, his way of expressing God’s love to all that he met along his way, and we use them to better understand how we, ourselves, can be God’s love for all we meet along our way. And, as we well know, we cannot offer peace, hope and love unless we have experienced, for ourselves, peace, hope and love.
We cannot participate in Jesus’ example of healing in the world unless we work at healing within our very selves. And, this is some of what Lent is all about. Healing. Repenting. Recognizing where you are hurting or where you feel broken, separated from God. Where your actions have caused pain or where the behaviour of others have resulted in your own pain. Over the past three Sundays we have looked at how our wounded hearts can drive us out into the deserts of our own making, seeking solace and understanding. We have looked at the despair that comes with loss, the loss of a beloved, the loss of a dream or future plans. We heard how Jesus felt ‘disturbed’ with the death of Lazarus—that Jesus, through whom God chose to experience all of what it means to be human in God’s own creation, felt the deepest sort of human emotion, that God in Jesus despaired. And, last week, we looked at the concept of sin, as expressed by the Pharisees and as corrected by Jesus. Sin, to be in such a place so as to not be able to offer one’s best self for the service of God, or to a neighbour, or, even, to yourself.
We have talked about what it means to recognize these areas that need repenting but, once you acknowledge healing is necessary, what IS repenting all about? Catherine MacLean, one of the authors of the United Church’s most recent statement of faith, called A Song of Faith, writes, “We are made at one with God…by our participation in holy possibility…that the holy mystery of of Jesus’ life, work, death, and resurrection includes our willingness to change and [includes] our participation.” How do we move from being willing to change and participate in our own transformation, how do we move into action? The answer is actually quite straightforward. Those of you who have been participating in the Daring Greatly book study this Lent will know what it takes. Brene Brown will say, you need to be willing to be in the arena and be vulnerable with others in your life—your lover, your family, your friends, your neighbour, your enemy. To be vulnerable means to have a willingness to admit that you do not have all the answers. Being vulnerable is being willing to learn and to keep learning. Someone else might have the answer you are looking for or may have the information you need to understand things better. Being vulnerable means being open to the fact that you could be wrong. And that another is right. Or, at least, less wrong than you. Being vulnerable is being aware that you cannot possibly fully understand another person’s experience, if only because you have not lived their life. Being vulnerable often means conceding some of your power so that another can have some power of their own. However, giving up ownership of power in any given situation is uncomfortable. Being vulnerable and open to another person’s point of view and their needs might make what has been CERTAIN in your world//uncertain. And that doesn’t feel good because our society teaches us that we are responsible for our destiny. Our goal in life, we are trained from a young age, is to make certain what is uncertain. Vulnerability, by its very nature, introduces uncertainty into our lives. No one said transformation would be painless.
At the beginning of Daring Greatly, Brene Brown quotes a speech by Theodore Roosevelt in which he says that the person who is willing to enter into the arena to face whatever struggle that is there, if that person falls down and gets up again, they are showing a willingness to be vulnerable in front of all the spectators, of their failures, not just their successes being exposed in front of so many. The Samaritan woman in the scripture reading today was willing to enter into the arena. She was willing to be vulnerable. How do we know this? Because the storyteller tells us in case we don’t get the significance of this societal no-no by saying: “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” In today’s world, we know that in the stories of ancient Israel when a Samaritan enters onto the scene, we, the listeners are to boo and to hiss at them for Samaritans were always the bad guys in the scene. The Samaritans were a disregarded people for the Jews Judea and Galilee. The region of Samaria was once part of the northern kingdom of Israel but they broke away during the reign of King David and set up their own monarchy and form of worship until Assyria invaded and sent most of its inhabitants into exile. We are told in the first book of Kings that the king of Assyria brought five groups of pagans into Samaria to settle there, each worshipping their own pagan gods. Even though the Israelites were joined in covenant to the one true God, they intermarried with these foreigners and adopted their worship and other practices. This is why the Jews, the protagonists of our stories, would not have anything in common with Samaritans—because their assimilation with these pagans had defiled them. Samaria, like the woman at the well, had five husbands and was estranged from her true husband.
The mere fact that Jesus approached the woman at the well put them both in very awkward social positions. The Samaritan is right to be cautious; "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" She immediately recognizes and names their differences; drawing attention to the fact that it’s unlikely their conversation is going to be fruitful. Yet, she engages, even if guardedly. She may not have high hopes at the moment, but neither has she allowed cynicism to define her whole being. The conversation begins with mutual vulnerability—a willingness to risk something for the sake of faith. Jesus risks critique for talking to a) a single woman and b) a Samaritan. We see the impropriety of it in the disciples’ behaviour. The woman risks ridicule when she testifies to other Samaritans that Jesus is someone worth following, even though he’s not one of them. Relationship requires vulnerability. This is where truthful conversations, which lead to healing and transformation must start—from a place of reciprocal vulnerability, from a space that recognizes that each party risks being known and being seen.
Conversation is essential for relationships to develop and thrive. Not the dialogue happens today, particularly the so-called conversations that are taking place as political discourse seem to dominate the news—“I’m right. You’re wrong. So there.” We are living in a time when open and honest conversation needs to be cultivated and valued. Practiced and pursued. Longed for and lived. Without real conversation, we lack intimacy and understanding; connection and empathy. Without real conversation, we risk detachment and distance. The conversation of the Samaritan woman and Jesus is emblematic of what true relationship looks like—mutuality, reciprocity, and regard. The components of conversation that allow for vulnerability to exist and transformation to happen are questions, time and being prepared to be surprised. Questions are critical to healing. Not the types of questions in which you already know the answers or questions that are asked only to be polite. The questions needed for vulnerability to thrive are those that communicate curiosity, an interest in the other, a longing for information and understanding. The woman at the well is full of questions, thoughtful questions, questions that matter and lead Jesus to reveal to her who he really is. We have seen throughout his ministry that Jesus affirms questions, even invites them, as he does in this encounter at the well. Questions strengthen relationship.
For these conversations that matter and in which there is an intentional and genuine interest in the other takes time. They take time because it is likely there will be moments of misunderstanding. The Samaritan woman is first confused by Jesus’ offer, but she does not let that halt the conversation. And, finally, when it comes to having a conversation with those you are striving to be in relationship with, with those relationships you are working at healing, with those conversations with Jesus, asking him what would he do, what would he and God have you do, you must be prepared to be surprised. Expect to hear something about your lover, your friend, your neighbour, your enemy that you did not understand before but, maybe, makes sense to you now. Expect God to reveal something about God’s self that you have never seen before. We are not told this today but the unnamed woman at the well is the first one to whom Jesus reveals his true identity—I AM, the first absolute I AM in the Gospel of John—not to the Jewish leaders or to the disciples, but to her, a religious, social, political outsider. Be prepared to be surprised. There is one final characteristic of conversation that strives for healing and to be life-giving and that is the anticipation of being changed in the process. The woman at the well goes from shamed to witness. From dismissed to disciple. From alone to being a sheep of Jesus’ own fold.
The failure of the disciples in this story is a failure of the imagination as they awkwardly respond to Jesus’s interaction to this woman and worry about its appropriateness. They do not enter into the conversation. Jane Goodall, “Change happens by listening and then starting a dialogue with the people who are doing something you don’t believe is right.” Dorothy Day, a founder of the Catholic Workers Movement grew up in a middle-class, nominally Christian home in the early 1900s. At university she paid her way. She refused to rely financially on her parents. She dropped out of school after two years and lived a carefree life while exploring socialism and other economies outside of pure capitalism. Although her younger years involved several lovers, an abortion and then the birth of a child out of wedlock, Dorothy’s religious exploration and ongoing call from God, led her converting to Catholicism. She continued to question the injustice experienced by labourers and unfair labour practices. Dorothy recognized a lack of Catholic leadership in social activism and so began the Catholic Workers Movement, which called upon Christians to use their gifts and talents to help fellow workers and the poor.
I mentioned John Newton, who wrote Amazing Grace, last week—about how his mind was changed and he went from being a slave trader to being an abolitionist. He did not change his mind in one, mind-blowing moment of revelation. Rather, his mind was changed over a number of years, as he grew from becoming Christian in his younger years and began asking questions about what it means to be human in God’s world, began asking why one type of person is consider not worthy of being fully human while others are owned and enslaved. His mind was changed, slowly, over time as he turned his face towards God, to what God wants for this world, to peace and hope for every person, so that no one suffers at the hand of another human.
Conversations matter. I invite you to stay in the conversation throughout this Lent. You will not be alone. Thanks be to God.