February 24, 2008
Edwards (Knox) United Church
Third Sunday of Lent
Click here for an easy to print or email Adobe PDF version of this post.
The Rev. Dr. George Hermanson
This encounter of Jesus with the woman at the well is one of longest discussions Jesus has with anyone in the gospels. It gives us an understanding of the meaning of Jesus. The story is about how religious innovators offer better answers to our existential questions - better than those we have lived in. It also points to how a new religious culture comes into being. And it illustrates how that new insight is transmitted down through history. It is a good way to understand how God works in every day life and how reality is changed.
This encounter gives us a template to examine what is happening in our world. It helps us to deal with our past. And it gives us a lens to examine our relationship with those close to us.
Think first about the news this past weekend. Kosovo declares independence. It has been said that nationalism, tribalism, and xenophobia define us politically. Look at the tensions in our world and most have to do with nationalistic ideologies. And those tensions get inflamed by the interests of outside forces, whether it is to sell arms in Darfur, or to control the flow of oil.
Kosovo has been in bitter conflict for six hundred years. We do not know if their act will bring peace or whether this is just the latest chapter in this often violent history. We can ask similar questions about the impact of nationalistic ideologies or xenophobic responses we have here in North America. This experience would not have been foreign to Jesus and the woman.
Jesus comes into a Samaritan territory - a history of tension and violence. For a good Jew would have no truck with a Samaritan and vice versa. She was outside the kingdom of God according to the prevailing ideas of the time. She is the consummate outsider.
Yet Jesus breaks this ancient product of violence. Walls are broken down. He offers a view of the kingdom of God where all are welcomed. True we bring our context but our context does not have to define us - our loyalty is wider than group or tribe - it is the kingdom of God which includes all.
Also she has a past. In her community this past defined her negatively. And she accepted this definition. We know this because she did not come with the other women to the well. She was shunned and she defined herself this way.
Yet here is Jesus accepting her as she is. He breaks the taboos by asking for water from her. This means he does not judge her past, just an acceptance. Like all of us, we come with a past, but it does not have to define us.
Then there is a third level of the conversation. She is a woman. Thus has no place in pubic discourse. Jesus, by custom, should not have had such a long theological conversation with her- in fact no conversation. He goes beyond the boundaries of his time. The kingdom message is, full participation of all - those who were excluded by gender are now included. It gives us a lens to examine our relationships with those around us. Where do we draw lines and say this person does not belong? While our gender equality is still to be worked on, we can use this as template to see how xenophobia destroys, how homophobia destroys, and how attitudes of superiority, be it race or gender, devalues our common good.
In Jesus we have a new insight into the nature of reality and an answer to our existential questions. Jesus points to the character of God who loves the world into a new reality. In every moment of existence there is a lure offered by God to redefine how we relate to one another. And it is an affirmation to which we can respond. And we add our own dimension to God’s aim. It is like jazz: God sets down the basic melody and we riff it, so that in the next moment we have a new melody offered back to us from God with which we play.
The story asks us to re-imagine the import of the past. The question of free will is always with us. Some would have us fully determined by our past. Others would have it that we create reality. The story is realistic about the influence of the past. It is a given, just as our context is. However, we are not a victim of the past. We cannot do away with the negative and positive experiences we have had. What we can do is reinterpret them. The woman responded to the invitation of receiving the "living water." This is symbolic of an open future offered by God, to be able escape the past’s attempt to define us. It is to say, "Yes this did happen, but it will not control the meaning of our life."
In making choices we are to be realistic. We have to ask what is around us? What other things influence us? It is a call to critical consciousness. It is to use critical thinking so we transcend influences that want to make us passive and captive.
More than critical thinking is needed. It is to be open to the sense of God that enlivens each moment of history. That God is seeking the restoration of life. God is offering the dream of a peaceful kingdom. And we are invited to help make this a reality. And we can see that lure of God not only in our religious tradition but also within those who call us to a better reality.
We can take seriously the insights of those who dream that we can live together in peace and harmony. This dream can motivate us, call us to act differently in this moment. When we pray for healing and peace we become those who work for healing and peace. Just as the woman was transformed by the encounter our encounter with the sense of God who persuasively calls us to our better selves, we too can be transformed.
The woman, given her transformation and freeing experience, goes to tell others. “Look at me, I am different. Come and see.” We become transformational agents in our world.
The story is about being open to God. When we create open space in our hearts the beauty of God slides in. In that moment everything is possible. We see the novel opportunities for transformation in us and others, we see ourselves as a web of relationships, no us and them, only we. Given that dream we go out to touch this world with our hands of love.
To be energized we need to be embedded in spiritual discipline - to practice our faith in ritual and action. Prayer is a beginning. We open ourselves to God. Prayer places us within the embrace of the one who embraces us. God is offering in every moment a dream to be built upon, and prayer is a way of listening. Prayer opens us to God’s creative transformed offered in every moment of existence. God is here, and everywhere luring us into beauty. Walter Wink says “the future belongs to those who pray.”
Every day we make choices. Prayer is a way we sort out the better from the good. And prayer is also a walking activity. What we choose we become and we can transcend our choices by listening to the call to go beyond what we have created as the boundaries of life. Prayer invites us to go further into novel reality. We bring all that we are, our past, our present, our hopes, all that we think and feel to God in prayer. We offer to God our best for God to use and to share within the web of relationships.
What we share is the character of God. This story tells God’s character is compassion, justice, redemption, forgiveness, healing and liberation. We pray that this reality will be our dream. Prayer calls us into more depth and beauty, using our best insights to create bigger dreams of how we share and organize our world. It is a call to go beyond the boundaries we have created, to move to God whose circle is ever increasing, the one whose hospitality has no bounds, and invites all to the table beginning with the outcast.