worship notes: lent III...

Introduction
Lent invites us into a counter-cultural journey – and way of being – that is
beyond anything we have known or can imagine. It prods and cajoles, lures and challenges us personally and as a faith community to step outside of our well-defined, one dimensional technological certitude so that we may be embraced by the realm of God’s grace. To use the words of Professor Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament master extradinaire, Lent leads us towards the irascible God of the Bible who cannot and will not be controlled, limited, superficially defined or reduced to the lowest common denominator of an increasingly dumbed-down culture. Christians, like ancient Israel facing exile in Babylon, are implored to remember and renew their commitment to live as a peculiar people in the midst of those who have accommodated their hearts and minds and habits to the “normalcy of deathliness.” Bruegge-mann writes that ours is a journey at odds with our culture. The Jewish imagination, which informed the way of Jesus, instructed faithful men and women of the Old Testament in the practice of God’s peculiarity that was always at odds and at risk from the empires of greed and violence. “Over time, Jews devised signals to give shape and form to God’s oddity – Sabbath, kosher, circumcision.”

In parallel fashion, for like reasons, the baptismal imagination of the New Testament is equally peculiar and particular because Christians are always to be odd men and women come together in odd communities and congregations who are always at odd, always at risk, always in the presence of large culture empires that want to dissolve our oddity for reasons of state, always telling the girls and boys we are different because we have been with Jesus. We are to be forever reimagining and retelling and reliving our lives through both the scandal of Friday and the rumor of Sunday. For we, like Jews, have devised our own signals of oddity: the notice of new life where once only death prevailed, the bread of brokenness, the wine of blessedness – and the neighbor, always the neighbor – who is for us a signal of the love of God.
(Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope, pp. 9-10)

The first task of the preacher, therefore, must be the maintenance and nurture of our oddity – and that is always troublesome. As Brueggemann goes on to confess: “In the Christian West the baptized community is now in something like ancient Israel’s exile, a place I characterize as hostile or indifferent to our primal faith claims. We are in our own Babylon… where many find it too complicated and expensive to maintain our peculiar identity.” That is why Christians return once every year to Lent: I’ve been seduced and confused about the ways of the Lord just as you have, too.

To get back to the costly peculiarities of our calling, we practice a Holy Lent. We walk with Jesus from the Mountain of Transfiguration down into the Valley of the Shadow of death on the way to center of power in Jerusalem and the Cross. Each step along this way – each Sunday of this season and the subsequent ordinary days of the week – is designed to help us renew our oddity and return more fully to God’s grace.

The Sunday before Ash Wednesday tells a story about listening to Jesus: at the close of the lesson we hear the words, “This is my Beloved… listen to him.” Ash Wednesday speaks to us of practicing a peculiar form of listening – waiting on the Lord in private and public prayer – from the Old French preir meaning to “ask.” On the third Sunday we heard of Nicodemus who wanted to trust Jesus but was afraid and kept his faith hidden in the shadows of night: that’s sometimes true for us too when we’re confused or troubled and feel like we’ve been trapped in the darkness. But at the end of the story, Nicodemus is given the courage to join others as they bury the Lord with tenderness telling us that night is not forever for a light shines in the darkness that will not be overcome.

Now, on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, we have the story of Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman at the well. This one holds personal joy for me – and I’ll mention the specifics in a moment – but it is also wildly peculiar and liberating in ways that you may find surprising. I know that as I studied this text last week yet another layer of grace was revealed. So, let’s first wrestle with the Gospel through the discipline of Lent and then connect it to how our United Church of Christ confession celebrates that “Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Lord, has come to us and shared our common lot, conquering sin and death and reconciling the world to himself” helps us reclaim our Christian oddity for this generation. (For those who are counting, that’s two broad points with three amplifications…)

Insights
The three insights about the gospel that I think warrant some conversation
are: first, the significance of Jesus being in conversation with a Samaritan woman; second, that this conversation takes place in day light rather than night; and third, that even though tradition links this woman to some type of sexual sin, there’s no evidence of it in the story. Rather, this is much more about an unlikely person gaining insight than having to repent. It is a story of joy. We start with why Jesus finds himself in Samaria and why this has symbolic value. John’s gospel states that Jesus was headed back to Galilee from Jerusalem (in the south of ancient Israel) and had to travel north through Samaria.

One of the two major roads into Northern Israel forked in the city of Sychor, once known as Schechem, and led directly to Nazareth so it was natural to take this route. Just as we would choose to get to Lee by heading down 7 rather than going first to Great Barrington and cutting back, so too with Jesus. But Sychor was part of Samaria and there was tension between Judeans and Samaritans: what do you remember about the origins this problem? We know from the parable of the Good Samaritan that something outrageous happened, but what do you recall about why?

As you might imagine the origins of the animosity between Jews and Samaritans are contested. In Jewish biblical commentary we’re told that “Samaritans are descendants of two distinct groups: the remnant of the ten tribes associated with the Northern Kingdom of ancient Israel who were deported when the North was conquered in 722 BCE, and foreign colonists from Babylonia and Media brought in by the Assyrian conquerors of this region. Tension between the Samaritans and the Jews who returned from their exile in Babylon (200 years later) was created in part by the Samaritans opposition to the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.” (The Jewish Annotated New Testament, p. 165) Christian commentators are less nuanced: both sides mistrusted one another for inter-related reasons. Jews in the south denigrated Samaritans because they had intermarried with non-Jews during the time of their conquest and set up a center for worship on Mt. Gerizim not Jerusalem. Samaritans, in turn, believed that they held some spiritual authenticity over Jews for while they may have intermarried with foreigners and added new rituals to the old ways, some of them had always remained in the Promised Land without being driven into the shame of exile.

Do you grasp the problem? Both peoples are related, both traditions have connections to the land and the faith; both sides were equally compromised yet thought that they alone held a monopoly on virtue while their opponents were riddled with impurity. Think contemporary Palestine and Israel or Northern Ireland before the Good Friday Peace Accords. I heard one of the leaders of the peace movement in Northern Ireland, Padraig O’Tuana of the Corrymeela Community, last week on Krista Tippett’s “On Being” radio program. It has been his life work to bring a just peace to his home and his people – both Catholic and Protestant – without sentimental-izing or demonizing one or the other. He notes that it takes time, patience and proximity for people to find peace with those they have been trained to hate. Not agreement, for even lovers disagree, but rather a careful listening and a cautious trust that refuses to demonize the other. “Peace in the real world,” he observes involves: committed guarantees to the other’s safety.

So that’s the first insight: Jesus is in Samaria – a place riddled with
tensions, history and hatred and seems to be there to make peace. And he does this through a conversation and a drink out in the open with a Samaritan woman: that is the second insight. Some commentators suggest that unrelated men and women in that culture rarely interacted in public; some early Jewish Pharisees even insisted that a Samaritan woman was consigned to perpetual impurity. She wasn’t damned – that would be too strong – just unfit for community life. Yet there’s Jesus sitting by a well, a place usually inhabited by women, and it could even be Jacob’s Well as the Jewish patriarchs once lived in that place, and he’s having a chat with an outsider. What’s more, he asks the woman if he might share her drinking utensil because he is thirsty. Did you get that? Share her drinking cup? It would appear that Jesus is disregarding any traditional division between Jews and Samaritans and wants to share a common cup with like he was part of her family. The gospel is giving us clues and this shared drinking utensil in broad daylight is a biggest one. So what strikes you about this ministry of peace-making through a shared drink?

This story is full of surprises and my favorite is that nowhere does Jesus speak to this woman about sin, adultery or prostitution as so many sermons have proclaimed. Bible scholar, David Lohse, hits a home run when he writes:

This story that has been notoriously misinterpreted, in part because we read it in isolation of the rest of John’s gospel and in part because of the Church’s history of bad treatment of women. I don’t think the Samaritan woman is a prostitute. I don’t think that she has a shady past and I don’t think Jesus has to forgive her.
Rather, I think he calls her not to repentance, but to life-giving faith – and here’s why. This story stands in contrast to last week’s tale of Nicodemus, who only ventures out in the night, a symbol of disbelief. He wrestles for years with what to do next before responding to God’s love with tender joy. This woman does just the opposite: she listens, she “sees” or believes in the daylight and trusts that Jesus is a prophet going beyond the outmoded boundaries of either Mt. Gerizim or Jerusalem. She responds by leaving “behind her ordinary tasks and life (symbolized by her water jar) to share the extraordinary news of the one who sees us truly and deeply (“he told me everything I have done”), who loves us just as we are and commissions us to share this blessing with others.
 (Lohse, Working Preacher)

Now this wouldn’t be obvious if we didn’t already know the other part of the story – hence the role of the preacher – so let me be explicit: Not only does this unnamed Samaritan woman stand in contrast to Nicodemus, but she acts in ways that are consistent with other followers of Jesus: Think of Andrew, who after responding to Jesus’ invitation to “come and see,” goes and tells his brother Peter they have found the Messiah (1:39-42). The pattern is repeated in Philip’s invitation to Nathanael to come and see (1:45-46). And this nameless woman not only shares the same insight and activity as Jesus’ principle disciples… (she does them better) because where they each told one other person, she tells all her neighbors! (Lohse, ibid)

Conclusion

In the tradition of the United Church of Christ we like to say – in fact we formally confess in our Statement of Faith – that God has come to us in Jesus Christ and shared our common lot. God has joined our lives as one who knows our pains and joys and realities. God has conquered sin and death so that nothing can separate us from the love of God and one another. And when we know this – when we experience this and trust this – we are compelled to share it. And because I have experienced this blessing from the very core of my being, I find that just like that Samaritan woman at the well, I have been set free for joy by Jesus.

Some of you will remember my story about the first time I went to confession, right? I was in Cleveland as a young urban preacher. I had gone through a complex and messy divorce. And I was wondering what the devil God had in store for me next? After a meeting, a friend of mine said, “Maybe you might want to join me over at Father Jim O’Donnell’s Oasis House on Thursday night for Eucharist? You might like it.” In time, I went – and I did like it – and got to talking with Fr. Jim who also helped me deepen my prayer.

After about two years, I told Jim I’d been moved by a book on retreat about a man who found himself unburdened after years of suffering when he made a confession to an Episcopalian priest. Jim smiled and said, “Maybe it’s time for you to make a confession?” I protested that I was a Protestant and didn’t do that stuff so he said, “Ok, take your time but it is almost Lent and might be useful.” Mostly to appease him, I begrudgingly agreed and made an appointment. But when the day came, it totally slipped my mind and I had to call him and ask for forgiveness. To my horror Jim didn’t scold me, he simply asked for another appointment. I agreed but two weeks later came down with some psycho-somatic, stomach bug and cancelled again. Over the phone, Jim just said, “Lumsden, no problem, just remember: you can run but you can’t hide… I’ll be waiting.”

And wait he did – for another four weeks -- until I finally got the courage to
reschedule and show up. We sat in a small room on the East Side of Cleveland, not far from the King-Kennedy projects. Face-to-face Fr. Jim explained that confession is saying out loud to another person what we need to say to God. It is like the fourth step in AA. AT first, I stammered and putzed around saying some stupid and trivial things until all of a sudden the flood gates opened and all the hurtful, shameful, ugly and vile things I had ever thought or done came pouring out of me like a torrent. I couldn’t look up I was so disgusted with myself. Eventually, in what felt like an hour, I peeked and Jim was still sitting there looking at me through kind eyes. He took my hands and said the sweetest words I have ever heard: God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of your son, you have reconciled the world to yourself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the church, may God grant you pardon and peace. I absolve you of your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. He made the sign of the Cross on my forehead and I wept again – but this time filled with a lightness that made me want to dance.

In fact, I jumped up ready to go I was so filled gratitude only to hear him say: And now for your penance. “Oh my God,” I gasped, “I’m a Protestant and we don’t DO penance.” “You do now, man,” he said, “and what I ask of you is what Jesus asked of the woman at the well: Go and do likewise.” I didn’t remember the details of that story so Jim told me, “Go and find out.” Which I did, discovering that Jesus hadn’t judged her either – he trusted and loved her and listened to her as she opened her heart to him – and the only thing that was asked in return was that she share the joy she knew with others. That was my gift, my penance, my calling: to share joy. Beloved in Christ, it doesn’t get ANY better than that. For this is the good news for us today and every day. Go and do likewise.

credits:
1) The Samaritan Woman at the Well, He Qi
2) Woman at the Well ii (Hyatt Moore)
3) valeriesjodin.com
4) ... Christ and the Samaritan woman
5) Img_1802_small

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