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Read all about the latest happenings at Chandler United Methodist Church at 081817.
The weekly e-news is here!
The weekly e-news is here!
Read all about the latest happenings at Chandler United Methodist Church at 081817.
Seeing Old Stories with New Eyes 3/7
Rev. Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church, August 6th, 2017
A couple of you have asked me: hey we moved the furniture around here, what’s going on? What I really want to say is you are lucky we haven’t flipped it around so we face that way, and this is the balcony. I want you to come to church every week expecting something different happens here. Oops. Well, I just spilled that’s different.
There was a workshop I went to fairly recently. There were about 30 of us and we were asked to name one thing we do fairly well or do really well and I had to say: I’m a pretty good thinker. If you give me a few minutes and you are patient with me, I can understand just about anything. I get my brain around a lot of things. Two things can’t seem to understand is the stock market and the attraction of reality TV. Those elude me. Figuring things out gives me the same kind of thrill that I imagine my fly-fishing grandfather got when he was able to pull a big rainbow trout out of a stream in Colorado. Some of you have that same relationship with math. Some of you get really excited when you talk about math and it’s almost like you don’t understand the rest of us are hearing: tooooooooo. That is how it is for me and figuring things out. I’ll run, my mind will try follow, and my mind will try to keep up and I know people toooooooo. That’s how we are. Some of us are that way about science. Some of us are that way about figuring out children and how to best teach children. Some of us are that way about organizing and administrating so that things happen.
I remember in seminary, I spent a lot of afternoons in my study carrel and on into the evening; I would miss dinner. In my library study carrel reading and trying to understand and comprehend and get my brain around really hard theologians like Karl Barth’s work on the dual nature of Christ. I remember that night because I was in my study carrel till about 11 o’clock. I kept reading what Karl Barth was saying and not comprehending it; not getting it. Then about the ninth time through something clicked and I finally got it. And I mean I really got it. I had to go outside and dance. Now I’m a good thinker. I am not good at dancing so we won’t go there.
I feel that same excitement about the art of preaching. To look deep into a biblical text and wake up a tired language and set trapped images free; so that it positively gleams with the meaning that was originally intended. I’m ready to dance. The most perfect sermon is still just an exercise in talking and hearing. Apparently the world could not care less about what you say — really — until you translate what you say and what you think into action. That seems to be something that is understood by the Good Samaritan in our story today. He is the heretic outcast who actually is a better religious person than the religious people. I’ll be frank with you: the task of helping strangers, given the number of people who need help, the overwhelming impossibility of solving everyone’s problems; I really don’t understand the Good Samaritan.
The one in the story that I really understand is the lawyer who asks the question and brings Jesus to tell the story of the Good Samaritan. This lawyer is above all a smart person, a thinker, a well-trained mind. He’s logical but he’s also imaginative, creative, he can make sound connections between seemingly unrelated details and he can root out inconsistencies and impracticalities. He’s a thinker and I understand his thinking. I understand this guy. He’s concerned with the law, if not justice necessarily. He is concerned with drawing a line between right and wrong and good and bad. And because he is following Jesus around the lawyer in the story is also a person who is hungry for God. He has come to wonder if he’s missing something. It might be why he became a teacher of the law, a lawyer, searching to know the law. How do I organize my life so that it is worth living? The question he brings to Jesus is just that: what must I do to inherit eternal life?
He is not the first person to ask that question. Who does not want that? Who does not want to live a life with meaning that you really don’t want to end? We come to think that eternal life means heaven, somewhere in the sweet by and by, the jackpot at the end of the rainbow/ But not if you listen to Jesus; if you listen to Jesus; the jackpot is now. Eternal life means enjoying the life and the breadth and the depth and the sweetness of life that comes when we live an eternal life; now, right this minute! The kingdom of God is at hand. But how do we get that? What must we do to experience that kind of life teacher. He said what must I do to inherit eternal life? The lawyer wants someone to hand him the key. He wants the answer to come from outside of him. But Jesus wants this lawyer to discover it for himself and so in good rabbinic form Jesus answers the question with a question of his own. What is written in the law? Jesus asked this man; what do you read their? This educated, intelligent, intellectual lawyer answers beautifully. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart mind soul and strength and with all your mind and you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.
It’s one of those answers that makes the hair on your arm stand up and makes your skin get that prickly feeling. It is so beautiful and right and profound. Jesus tells him: you’ve given the right answer. Do this and you will live. Or did it sound more like this you’ve given the right answer. Do this and you will live CLUNK! You know what to do now; go do it. CLUNK! Why CLUNK? Because the lawyer is thinking about all of the people he passes every day as he goes about his business: people sitting on steps and stoops and sleeping on sidewalks and drinking in doorways. He thinks about the morning headlines in the paper that morning about injured and ill people. He thinks about all the people on his books that cannot pay him. He thinks about the daily mail that brings pleas for conscience: send money for abuse children, send money for injured veterans, and send money for this organization or that organization — the victims of a dozen deadly diseases. He thinks about all the people who can’t pay for the advice they’ve received. He thinks about all the people who need a little bit of free advice.
Do this and you will live — yeah right. Do this and I’ll die of exhaustion. Most of us are pretty hard on the lawyer because we are moving past him. Most of us are the lawyer. We look at him as if he doesn’t get it and we are passing judgment on ourselves because we don’t get it. He is us. If we listen to the lawyer, we will find ourselves. We will probably say what the lawyer says. Desiring to justify himself he asked Jesus to define his terms: and who is my neighbor, he asks, hoping for a little bit to help, a little bit of wiggle room, hoping Jesus might limit his liability so that he might have a prayer of meeting this responsibility. Who is my neighbor he asked. But what he’s really asking is, who is not my neighbor? You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart mind soul and strength and you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself. Who is my neighbor – actually — who’s not my neighbor? Who can I set outside my area of concern and still feel good. He wants to discuss this issue; explore it with Jesus; expose the problems inherent until it all become so complicated that he can do nothing. We do the same thing. Watch this lawyer; he’s us. We stall, doing anything simple by complicating the matter so that we can finally just throw up our hands and say well it’s so poorly defined; it’s so impractical; how can we even hope to do this?
I have friends with whom I do this from time to time, usually when I’m feeling overwhelmed. We go to lunch together. We stack up all the evidence we can find that homelessness is really an insoluble problem and having as much to do with addiction and poor choices and mental health and illiteracy and the government programs trying to solve it as it does with anything else that we might do. How can we hope to even get a handle on this? So we just talk ourselves out of doing anything. We compare our experience and we say things like, well, if we are honest, there’s as many no account poor people as there are no account rich people and if there’s no real connection between goodness and money then why not have money? Poor people with money lose it very quickly we say. Giving it away might make you feel better, but the chances that it really changes someone’s life that is slim. Again, the real problems are outside of our purview to affect and so why do anything. We talk ourselves out of it again. If you’re having a hard time following these arguments — please understand — that’s the point. These arguments are designed not to make things clearer or to resolve an issue, but to convolute the issue and to muddle things so completely that it becomes impossible to do anything.
These arguments are designed to make you feel as if you really are insightful about the issue and that, well, your heart is in the right place and I can prove by talking about it quite intelligently that I know a lot. The thinking and understanding is really the issue. That’s one way this practice of using complexity of a viewpoint as a way of keeping “doing” at arm’s length. There is another way that we use just as readily. We talk ourselves into doing nothing. It is a little more insidious. It happens when we lose ourselves into ourselves and the complexity of our busy lives and the time demands that pull on us and we are subject to this and that and we all know we have to run just to keep up and we don’t keep up and we feel like we are falling further behind and we really don’t even have time for everything that we have to do to stay afloat and families and children and responsibilities and bills to pay and jobs to perform and everywhere we have to be to get our kids raise properly and let alone thinking about people who well, God love him, probably make poor decisions and that’s what put them in that place in the first place. I’m sorry you just can’t be responsible for all of them. I just can’t do it all. I’m busy. There I said it; are you happy now?
Jesus just doesn’t cooperate with that conversation. We, the lawyer, wants to talk about love and how complicated it is to be open to everyone all the time. Really, can’t Jesus make his instructions a little bit easier to follow? Give me something I can manage like defining who my neighbor is exactly? Jesus knows he is a thinking man and so he tells him the story you’ve heard many times about how it does not matter what we think, what we believe, what we understand, what we know, what we feel and what we say about love. The only thing that matters is what we do about love and how that doing brings life. After Jesus tells the story he lets the lawyer answer his own question: which of these three says Jesus, the two religious types who crossed the road to avoid getting involved or the heretic outsider who took care of the beaten man. Which of these three is the neighbor? The lawyer is a smart cookie and he is very clear that he saw himself in the story Jesus told as one of the two religious types who was too busy moving down the road. We might consider that they didn’t stop for reasons of morality but I don’t read it that way. I read they were too busy being busy. It doesn’t matter why because they passed by and did nothing.
Which of these three do you think proved to be the neighbor to the man who had taken the beating? It’s a set up. Of course there’s only one simple answer to that question, the one the lawyer again gives with great eloquence: the one who showed mercy; the one who did something. Jesus says go and do likewise and you will have a life worth living. You may notice that’s not really an answer to the question the lawyer asked. The question the lawyer asked was who is my neighbor? But the question Jesus answers is: whose neighbor are you? The answer is: anyone’s, everyone’s. Jesus declines to limit the commandment to love and lets the lawyer decide how he will act. One thing is for sure in this text. What Jesus is calling him/us to do is not a leap in our thinking, not a great realization, not a new understanding or knowledge or an emotion or a clear idea. It simply doing; showing mercy; being a neighbor; doing love. This is a sermon about not confusing knowing, understanding, feeling, thinking and saying with actually loving, doing.
The story that follows this one, however, is a little confusing. It’s Mary and Martha there in the home. Martha sits at the feet of Jesus. Mary is trying to get the kitchen and everything cleaned up and she’s doing all the work. Martha is sitting at the feet of Jesus listening. Mary is doing everything out of love and Jesus praises Martha who is sitting at his feet listening. How do we sort that meaning out? Well the point of both of these stories is putting God first in our lives, putting God in front of our busy-ness, in front of our schedule; God first, sometimes to help, sometimes to sit. It’s fine to work. It’s fine to be busy at times but when that is all you are, how can God get a word in edge wise? It’s fine to think and to talk and to be frustrated and feel overwhelmed. But when talk is all we do, how can God fit a word in edge wise? Then we, together with the lawyer to whom Jesus is talking, we see ourselves as so busy, so involved, so overcommitted that it freezes us and we cannot even think about doing one more thing. And so we scurry down the road not even noticing the guys on the sidewalk, not even noticing the women on the corner. We are neighbor to no one.
It seems to me that the first task of loving is to simplify our existence so that we can simply notice an opportunity when it’s in front of us. What if the daily bread that we’ve been given — on a day like today — is enough for two? We might be a little hungry but one other person got fed. What if being a good neighbor is what leads to the fullness of life that you never want to end? What if living that kind of a life where you’ve always got a minute to help, always got a minute to hand a dollar to, always got a minute to… It fills you with joy like catching fish in a stream. To do love in this story and in our lives is to find our way out of thoughts that we have put in place that defeats our desired to do something.
No, we cannot solve homelessness. No, you alone are not going to save every child that has leukemia. No, you cannot send enough money to solve every problem you get in the mail. No, you cannot volunteer enough time to solve everyone’s problem. No, you cannot mentor every kid in the neighborhood. What if you just took care of the problem that was right in front of you? What if the Good Samaritan is good because on that particular day he engaged creatively the one problem that was right in front of him? What if we did that and all he did was a little more than the minimum. The minimum would’ve been stop, care for the man, bless him, tend his wounds and leaving him by the side of the road. That’s the minimum that is required in Jewish law. He took him to an inn, he enrolled him in the end, and he paid for care; a little more than is expected.
Most days nothing happens but some days; what if we spent ten minutes talking with that lonely neighbor whose wife died last month? What if we make it our opportunity to take a meal to a young Mom down the street who just had surgery? What if we see it as an opportunity that when in our work group the conversation turns into Islam-a-phobia we intervene and say: guys knock it off, that’s nonsense? What if we look as an opportunity to buy a sandwich for the man we see every day on the corner looking for something? What we see is an opportunity when we come out of the grocery store to get out our jumper cables and help someone get there car start? How do we love when the opportunity presents itself each day? You know what it means to do love because you have been the recipient of someone’s love. But remember, knowing the right answer does not change a thing. Whose neighbor are you? Go and do love.
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Rev. Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church, July 30th, 2017
We are looking at texts that we know, we have heard, they are familiar to us. We are looking at them again to see what we have not seen in them; what do they tell us about ourselves. Most of us know the story of the rich young ruler probably because we don’t like it. Although we may not know, Mark is the only one who suggests that he is rich. Matthew is the only one who says he is a young and Luke is the only one who called him a ruler. But the fact that this young rich ruler shows up in all three of the Synoptic Gospels is a pretty good indication that his story is true; although we do wish that he had never shown up at all. Because in him we have one of the hardest sayings in the Bible: go sell what you own, give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me. Mark does not say right off that the man is rich but you could tell, not because he has good manners and falls on his knees in front of Jesus but because he addresses Jesus so grandly and uses the right words for upper social tiers. Good teacher. You can tell he’s rich because of the question he asks: what must I do to inherit eternal life?
This is an individual who is not burdened with questions of survival like: where can I find a job and how do I feed my family. This man does not have to spend his time trying to make ends meet. He is able to pursue the good life to come, secure in his existence. Because that’s one of the things that will foment in his day not as if it was gotten unfairly if if you acquired money in that day through cheating or through lying or being mean, it was no better than poison for those who had it. But if you acquired a bit more than your neighbor honest means like inheritance then it was seen as a sign of God’s blessing and you were one of God’s chosen. Bestowing wealth on people was understood as the way God set you free from the daily grind. Your responsibility then was to serve the Lord. That was the understanding of the society of the day. So this man approaches Jesus, he’s got money in his pocket, he has no shame about his great possessions and if anything in his mind, the number of digits to the left of the decimal point where his credentials, the very thing that gave him the right to approach Jesus and asked the question.
Jesus is not impressed. He looks down at the man kneeling before him and he sees someone who is clearly above average and wants to stay that way; someone who wants to achieve as much in heaven as he is achieved on earth; someone who is willing to do whatever is required of him to add eternal life to the possessions he carries. Maybe the man hopes that Jesus will say to him: buy a pair of shoes for everyone: man, woman and child in all of Judea and the man will say well that’s costly but I’ll do it. Better yet, throw all of your dust covers on your furniture and put stuff in storage, lock up the house, leave it all behind and come follow me, accompany me on my travels. He maybe hoping Jesus will say that. He is an extraordinary man, and he wants an extraordinary assignment. Unfortunately Jesus does not cooperate. Jesus says: you know the commandments and Jesus reels off about half of them. Do this. Do not do that. Do this. Do not do this. Honor your father and mother. Any first grader could list that list; it is one of the most important things of childhood if you’re a young Jewish male or woman is knowing the Ten Commandments and keeping them. This man wants to do something to earn his way in. So Jesus has just told him you earn your way in by doing the same thing as everyone else. That man did not want to hear that. He doesn’t see himself like everyone else.
Teacher I’ve kept all of these things since my youth. In that moment Jesus loves him. We can’t hear the tone but there’s something in this text that tells us that he did not say those words pompously or impatiently. He must’ve said those words like a confession. I’ve kept the law all my life which is how I know it is not enough. I have amassed great wealth which is how I know it’s not enough. He is saying I am a rich man. I am rich in things and rich in respectability and I’m rich in obedience to the law which is how I know none of those things is enough to give me the life that I want. What must I do to inherit eternal life, the kind of life worth living forever? The text tells us, Jesus loves him. This man is ripe, he’s ready for God and he has come to the end of what he can do for himself. He’s come to the end of what society can do for him. Jesus looks at him; Jesus loves him; Jesus recognizes him as a seeker; someone who is kept God’s word; someone who is kept his own word; someone who has translated his beliefs into a genuine obedience of the heart of God; someone who knows there is more and who knows to go looking for it.
But Jesus does more than look at the man. He also looks into him. Jesus is a physician making a diagnosis. He looks inside of him to see what is the matter? What is the right medicine that will heal you? Jesus looks at him with as much compassion as he looked at anyone who was blind or deaf or paralyzed. Jesus was aching to make him whole. And then of course Jesus chose his words carefully, said to the man: you lack one thing. I’m sure the man’s heart begins to spin in joy of finally hearing what it is I got to do to inherit eternal life. Whatever it is I will do it. Whatever it costs I will pay it. Whatever it requires of this young man he will do it. He will anything for this extra prize of eternal life in his pocket. Only the words of Jesus turn out to not be a matter of addition but of subtraction: go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor you will have treasure in heaven, and then come, follow me. It is a rich prescription for a rich man; designed to melt the lump in his throat and the knot in his stomach by dissolving the burden on his back, a hulk that keeps banging into the doorframe of the doorway into the presence of God. Jesus offers him an invitation to become smaller and more agile by closing his accounts on earth and opening one in heaven, so that is treasure will be drawing interest inside of that tiny gate instead of keeping him outside of it.
It is a dare. Jesus didn’t say I dare you but it was a dare to become a new creature, defined in a new way, to trade in all of those words that have described him up until now: wealthy and committed and gritty and cultured and responsible and educated and powerful and obedient and good — to trade them all in on one radically different word, free.
It seems to me that we Christians mangle this story in two different ways. First, when we act like it’s not about money. It is! And second by acting as if it were only about money. It is about money and as far as Jesus is concerned money is a lot like nuclear power, it is able to do a lot of good in the world but only within strongly built and carefully regulated corridors. Most of us don’t do well handling money. We get contaminated by its power and we contaminate others as we wield it carelessly. We want it too desperately and we use it too manipulatively. We believe in money too fiercely and we defend it too cruelly. Every now and then someone manages to use money well. But Jesus tells us the odds of that are about as good as they are of pressing a camel through a microchip. The story of the rich young ruler is a story about money. It’s not only about money. If it were that might be good news for us because then we could put together build up our treasury and buy our way into heaven. You know the deal: cash in our chips and we buy our tickets, we put them in our pocket. But you know that’s not the deal. None of us earns eternal life no matter what we do. We can keep the Commandments until we are blue in the face. We can sign our paycheck over to our favorite charity. We can rattle our tin cups on the street for supper money without earning a place of God’s banquet table because the kingdom of God is not for sale.
The poor cannot buy it with their poverty any more than the rich can buy it with their wealth. The kingdom of God is God’s consummate gift given to whomever God pleases for whatever reasons please God. The catch is you have to be free to receive the gift. You cannot be otherwise engaged. You can’t be tied up right now. You can’t be too tied down. You can’t be too occupied. You can’t accept God’s gift if you have no spare hands to take it because they are clutching your possessions. You can’t make or it is all of your rooms are already full. And you can’t follow if you are not free to go. That’s why the rich young ruler went away so sorrowful because all at once he understood that he was not free. His wealth was supposed to make him free, but kneeling in front of Jesus he understood all at once that that is not so. Jesus is painfully clear give up what defines you, what defines your life and follow me. Put God first and follow me. The rich guy can’t do that.
He is the only person in the whole Gospel of Mark who walks away from an invitation to follow Jesus. He is the only wounded individual who declines healing. Not being rich and important and powerful scared him more than the bondage of his wealth. He could not believe that the opposite of rich might not be poor. The opposite of rich is free. Then Jesus looked around at his disciples and he said how hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God. They were amazed at his words — absolutely astonished by them — Mark tells us. Jesus was challenging the social order of the day turning it upside down, taking their understanding of where God was in their midst and turning it upside down. Jesus stated clearly that wealth is not God’s gift. Those who rode through the gates of Jerusalem on golden litters would find their handlebars stuck on the gates of God’s kingdom. So will all of us who cannot leave things behind. The thing I can’t figure out about this text is why the disciples were so amazed. Two of them had left their fishing business behind. Two more of them had left their fishing boat and the father behind. Another one of them had left behind an incredibly lucrative career collecting taxes to follow Jesus. All of them had walked away from something not because it was a prerequisite for becoming a disciple; it was more like a consequence, really. He called; they followed; stuff got left behind. Not because stuff was bad but because it was heavy and in the way. Not because they had to but because they wanted to. He called and nothing else in the entire world seemed all that important anymore.
Jesus was so much more real to them than anything else in their lives and so it was no big heroic thing to follow him. He set them free. That’s all! It was not their achievements, it was his gift. So who can be saved? Well, who is brave enough to be free? This is actually my favorite part of the text because everything up until now tells me that I’ve missed out because I’m pretty good at making excuses and talking myself out of this text and I’m too hardheaded and too grippy to let go. I am the rich man in the story and there’s no way that I can save myself. Fortunately, we have the big mouth of the group, Peter, and I guess if you say enough words you can eventually say the right ones. I think these are the right ones. I don’t think these are Peter’s words; I think it is a gift from the spirit. Peter poses the question, the right question, then who of us can be saved? And the right question hasn’t changed in all of these years, and neither has the answer,
Jesus said for us it is impossible, but not God. For God all things are possible. We follow a Jesus who asks us to wonder at what point do we have enough and at what point have we crossed over into selfishness. We have a Jesus who asks us to wonder at what point our acquisition of wealth and material goods and collecting stuff became a hindrance to our discipleship. All things are possible through God, through our relationship with God, including the answers to those questions. The apostle Paul picked up on this and he summarized it this way, you are saved by God’s grace. This salvation is God’s gift to you; it is not something you possessed; it is not something you have done of which you can be proud. Instead, you are God’s accomplishment. You are created in Christ Jesus to do good things. Your life in God, doing God’s good thing is the way of God’s kingdom. Peace and blessings to you. No not peace and blessings. The struggles of life to you as you practice God’s way.
Rev. Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church, July 23, 2017
You are — I’m sure — acquainted with the notion of echo. If you ever been in a place and you notice that there is an echo and you slow your voice and you wait for it to come back. You shout ECHO and see if it comes back to you. Yeah, shout it child! A wave goes out and if you are lucky a wave will come back again and again. There’s a hearing and a re-hearing.
Our text today is an ancient story. It is not original to this passage. It’s an echo of the ancestors, our ancients. It is also biblical comedy; it’s also irony; it’s also a love story; but mostly it’s a very old story. A stranger comes to Jacob’s well at high noon. The part we left out is Jesus did not have to go that way. He took the long way to go through the land of Samaria. That’s not the shortest route. It’s not as-the-crow-flies from where he was to where he was going. At this well he meets a woman who has come to draw water. He is thirsty, she is thirsty and there is a forbidden interaction between them. It’s not the way things were done.
The original hearers of this recanting, this story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman must have wondered to themselves: am I standing on familiar ground? This story sounds familiar. And as I told you in the past, there is nothing new in the New Testament. This scene and the characters in it would have awakened resonance of another story that happened beside a well, a romance lodged deep in the memory of the community. Genesis 29 tells us the story of Jacob, the sojourner, the lonely boy coming to the well at high noon and he beholds his kinswoman Rachel. Genesis adds dryly to the story: and her father sheep. Just as aside, if we want to talk about problems in our biblical text, this is one of them that you would mention a woman and sheep in the same sentence. But back to our story in the story of Jacob and Rachel, boy meets girl, boy kisses girl. What happens is he waters her father’s sheep and then kisses Rachel and he weeps aloud. It tells us how lonely he was and she kisses him back and there is a little bit a romance there, a little bit of chase and with a huge assist from Leah, they create a family of tribes, children of Israel, they save the nation from destruction. That’s the way a love story is supposed to go. Somebody saves somebody but we are not exactly sure who saved who. Did Jacob save Rachel or did Rachel save Jacob? Or did the sheep save them all? We are not really sure because it’s all there in the story. That’s the way a love story is supposed to go.
In John’s version of the story — of course — it takes a little bit of a different turn. There is no sheep really — not the shearing kind – there are Samaritans and they need to be watered too. But in this conversation at the well it takes a while to get to the sheep, the Samaritans. There are some sharply spoken words at the side of the well and the conversation assumes the character of a confrontation, a fight that is charged with significance much greater than romance or making babies. He is a teacher from above brimming with heavenly insight. She is a woman of the world and she has now become hardened to the jokes that are told about her in the village. Like Jesus, she is thirsty but she thirsts for something she cannot name. What could these two at the well have in common to talk about? Yet they are talking. Isn’t it ironic — don’t you think — two levels of understanding thirst here as well as a gulf between them? The poor woman, just from the community she grew up in; just from the images she has, she has no idea how she thirsts. And there’s a certain comic hopelessness to her attempt to comprehend and argue with what this man is saying to her.
In the midst of the story there are those of us too, who are invited to hear this, who struggle with our own blindness and try to sort out what this text is saying. We are genuinely seeking from our darkness some sense of light. We are thirsty but can’t quite say for what. It is the sort of irony that causes us false starts in life. We chase after anybody with a good word because surely they know what they’re talking about and it takes us a long time to find out they may not. We chase after anybody with a crowd around them because obviously you’re saying something good and we find out that nine out of ten people is not a good predictor that they have something we need. We chase after something that tastes good and then we find out later on that it has other effects on us that we don’t really want. We thirst, we hunger but eventually a path to understanding opens and we have to talk our way through it like this woman at the well had to talk her way through her argument with Jesus.
But when he offers her living water she begins to get an inkling that something is happening here, but she scoffs at him and says: you don’t even have a bucket. That’s biblical comedy right there. But when she hears of water welling up to eternal life, suddenly the comedy is no longer important. The arguments are no longer in her and she says: sir, give me this water. Then the comic relief comes to an abrupt end with a slap on your face statement of: go, call your husband. What do you say to Jesus when this isn’t even your fifth husband and you’re not even married to the man you are living.
Without the awkward details of this woman’s sexual history, all we have is a menial dialogue about truth and enlightenment. It’s just a nice head conversation. We could pass it by be none the worse. But with these details of this woman’s sexual history, we have a reality check that grabs us all and saves our lives. Let us be very clear about the tone of the text; Jesus is not judging her; Jesus is not slut-shaming her. That is the read of our cultural religion and its stunning obsession with controlling female genitalia. Let’s get even clearer here. Female genitalia do not become looser from intercourse. No more than male genitalia become smaller from intercourse. This is just silly. But again, it is our cultural religion and their obsession with the physical body. It is silly and Jesus is not silly.
The tension of the text remains. What’s happening here is Jesus is offering up comment on the culture, out of which this woman came. It’s not all that different from the culture in which he came in the first century Palestine. A woman had no rights, no voice. So out of necessity this particular woman had attached herself to men. She may have loved them but it was an issue of necessity, either you have a man or you have nothing and you had nowhere. You tried to find somebody to take you in and a whole lot of women couldn’t and ended up prostitutes just trying to survive.
The story of Jesus and this woman of Samaria turns out to be a love story after all. For only someone who knows you for who you really are — in your situation as it is — and loves you as you really are and not as you pretend to be. This is the beauty of this text. This woman is fully known and she is fully loved as she is; where she is. If Jesus was slut-shaming her, he would’ve given her instructions: you go home and dump that guy and get out. He said none of that. He was simply observing her life. Only one who loves you can look at your past without blinking. And when something we regard as shameful, when something we regard as regrettable, when something that has a hold on us gets brushed by the love of God, about all we can say is thank you. And we are set free. The water in our dry and barren souls, the water begins to come. We Christians know a lot about love, not make-believe nonsense love, real love. I look at you and see you for exactly who you are love. Because of this text, because he told me everything I ever did; all of it!
Like our Samaritans sister, we tried to believe, we struggle with what to believe. We were looking for a list on how to believe. Nine things, I believe all of them! Because we turned belief into a twenty-first century word having to do with intellectual awareness and that we ascribe to anything you say about Jesus. That is not what belief meant in the first century. Belief in the first century — that beautiful Greek word pisto — simply meant what is important to you becomes important to me. If I believe in you, what is important to you becomes important to me. So to believe in Jesus means what is important to Jesus becomes important to me. But we don’t really hear that because our cultural religion doesn’t tell us that; our culture religion is all in the head. And so we get comfortable with words that sound religious, but we don’t connect them to a relationship with Jesus. We talk about salvation as a nation, but mostly that means buckets of money we can take to the bank. We have elevated listening to ourselves into an art form but we don’t bother listening to the one who can tell us everything we’ve done. We’ve elevated television watching to a binge form but we don’t watch the one who shows us the way to God’s kingdom. We make family a substitute for salvation as if the church had never heard of God’s family. And most of all, we love ourselves so much that we invest in technology that we are sure is going to make our life fulfilling because we are connected to one another. But we overlook our connection or lack of connection to the one who finds his way to us in the heat of the day.
We are surely comical people. We might expect that the conclusion of this story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman to be that Jesus accompanies her into the village: to advocate for her, to validate her, to speak on her behalf. But that’s not what happens. He tells her: you go, you go, you tell, you use your voice. What better gift is there to someone who has no voice: go; tell; use your voice. We attach ourselves to God and our voice finds resonance. That’s the way to know if the water welling up in us is living water because our voice will find resonance and were no longer content to be dry in a barren land. We must speak up and change our world, our village. This is a commentary on what it means to be loved too. Do our relationships increase our voice, our resonance? Are we heard for what we are saying? Do they deepen the timber of our voice or do they undercut us. Do they talk over us? Do they ignore us and walk away?
This is where it gets a little bit weird in the text. We might expect that the giver of voice and water, our hero in the story, to ride off on a white horse, in view of the few baffled Samaritans like a prophet or like a Greek hero; victorious in life, only to later be taken into heaven. But instead, this one from above chooses to submit to the foolishness of the cross. He moves out of this story and down the road and he becomes silent as the suffering servant. He gives voice to you, but he becomes silent, a failure in the eyes of the world. With unbearable irony, this keeper of living water will say to Roman and Jewish spectators: I thirst. Chew on that for an afternoon. Jesus says: I thirst. And once he is dead, he is poked in the side and outflows blood and water.
I think that’s the best evidence that this is a love story. We are not quite sure where it begins and we are not sure where it ends and there are too many levels happening in this passage and connections to make and meanings to comprehend and double entendres and ironic twists; to many of them for me — or I think anyone else — to offer a final word about its meaning. But we must latch on and we must start talking about this passage in our lives because that’s the ending of all three of these stories — you do know that — the story from Genesis 29 Jacob and Rachel. Tell your children and grandchildren and all the nations of the world what God has done through you. To the woman at the well, go and tell! He told me everything I had ever done. To disciples trying to figure out what to do next after Jesus’ body has disappeared and then reappeared to them, go and tell, make disciples. In all honesty I think maybe the best way for me to end today is to just stop talking and to let you pick up the conversation inside of you and let you pick up the conversation with one another and talk about living water welling up in you.