Br. Randy Greve, OHC
Third Sunday in Lent, Year A - Sunday, March 19, 2017
The season of Lent is often popularized as being a time of giving up, of forgoing some pleasure or habit during the 40 days as an exercise in self-denial. Lent can become a time of mere external withdrawal without an intention for conversion. In its fullest and best understanding, Lent is purposeful and profound. It is actually about the courage to face our lives honestly, especially the ways in which we fall short, and amend our thoughts, words, and deeds so that the life of Christ in us can shine through more clearly. Lent is a focused opportunity to lament wandering from my true home and to discover of the grace of freedom offered by God which opens my true self.
It is a time to go deeper. Often an individual Christian’s life or a church’s life is about the outer world of programs, events, outreach – all of which is good in itself, but that is not all there is to the Christian life. Often the outer activity becomes a way of avoiding or ignoring our souls. It is easier to check my phone or write an email than to turn my gaze to the murky and mysterious world within. Lent is the reminder that while we can’t chart it on a spreadsheet or check it off a “to-do” list, attending to our soul’s journey has value and takes time and attention. Going deeper is asking the question ’What is going on inside of me?’ ’What do I think, feel, desire, remember, question, and how can I enter into dialogue with God about my inner life?’
We never fully arrive at complete clarity about all of these aspects of our humanness, but we reflect over and over again so that we may come to know and love God, ourselves, and our neighbor with our whole self. However deep we think we have gone, we can go farther down. Down below the layers of ego and defense to the raw, unfiltered, unedited core of myself. That is what the wilderness is about, that is the goal toward which the Lenten sacrifices are pointing us.
The Gospel for today is particularly powerful as we undergo it within the context of the Lenten season. The narrative is simply a conversation between a man and a woman at a well on a hot day. The meaning of the story has the power to change me and change you, because the conversation is about the very nature of who God is, how God comes to us, and the heart of an encounter that upends the way we are conditioned to believe the world works.
It is a conversation that never was supposed to happen. Jewish men, especially single men, especially rabbis, were not supposed to speak to women, especially single women, especially Samaritan women. The Samaritans were viewed by the Jewish people as a racially inferior half-breed whose alternative traditions and customs of worship put them outside of the common understanding of the time. Because many centuries before they had intermingled with other tribes, their lineage as children of the covenant was corrupted, thus John’s comment that these two peoples had nothing to do with each other.
The setting of the story gives us some important insight into this woman’s status: during the summer months the women would have gathered at the well to draw water in the morning and evening when it was cooler. This woman is at the well at noon, likely in order to avoid the awkward and shaming encounters with other women who surely knew of her scandalous sexual history.
So she is rejected by the rejected, at the lowest place among an already labeled people. In a culture where social standing was everything, she is among the very bottom. It tells us something profound about the love of Jesus that the longest recorded conversation with one person in all the gospels would be with someone who was viewed, and therefore likely viewed herself, as having no human value to anyone, except perhaps in fleeting moments by a succession of husbands who abandoned her or died one by one.
They meet at a well. John delights in playing with the image of water, of exploring the interplay between physical and spiritual desire, the tension between outer conformity and inner transformation. The woman is responding at the literal level and then, tentatively, begins to open up to a theological conversation. She seems content to keep talk at a comfortably impersonal level, stepping into the dispute, when she recognizes that Jesus is a rabbi, between the Jewish and Samaritan ways of worship.
Jesus is not content with a chat about externals, he is about the heart. He is always about the heart. He makes a request which puts the divine finger on her deepest pain. If Jesus is about the heart, he cares about all that is in the heart, even, perhaps especially, the places we would sooner leave alone.
The water that he offers, that is his very life, is not a Band-Aid that covers over our wounds, it is life by going through. Jesus understands perfectly well who this woman is, her status, her self-image, her loneliness. Because he loves her he does not let the social and religious barriers get in the way of being present to her as a person. Perhaps for the first time in a long time, if ever, this sister is known and loved. She is not shamed, shunned, labeled, or rejected as the inferior other as the external expectations would have had Jesus do. He gives her the gift of dignity by knowing her history and being lovingly present with her in that knowing.
We come to the well to draw water, the living water of the spirit. We come to places apart, for times of prayer, listening, and reading to have our deep thirst quenched by the spiritual refreshment that is offered to us. We are present to these sources because we have a genuine thirst for God, a desire for conversion and new life. We come with all that we are, the parts we know as well as our unconscious impulses. We bring to the well our agendas of control, our desire to know what is going to happen, to be open (but only up to a point). We come to the well with our ambivalence.
Coming to the well in search of living water is the risk, sometimes terribly awkward, uncomfortable, and intimate, of being present to the presence of Jesus. It is safer to stay in the realm of outer conformity, to focus all our energy on work in the world. It is risky to be enfolded in so great a love – it is pure gift, it is not based on my goodness, it is not under my control, it will not give me all the answers or bend to my will. The presence of Jesus is piercing, asking, nudging, whispering, and speaking more often with cryptic symbols and metaphors than moral agendas. His presence is a perplexing paradox of intense intimacy and uncontainable otherness.
The great temptation of Lent, especially for those of us who have been on the journey for a while, is to believe in ourselves; to resolve on our own, in our own strength and from our own plan, to be better people –at least on the surface. There is more – the water Jesus offers is better than our resolve. The spiritual life is life in the light of the love of Christ who knows and stays, whose loving gaze never wavers in the presence of my labels and secrets and failures.
The spiritual journey is being taken to the place of knowing I am known and loved at the core of my being. Living from that reality changes me from the inside-out. How deep can we go? We can go as deep as our hearts and as wide as our thirst. Christ is there – there with refreshment, there with the only real response to our deepest longing – he is there waiting, forgiving, welcoming us home. Amen.