Last revised: March 14, 2020
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THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT — YEAR A
RCL: Exodus 17:1-7; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42
RoCa: Exodus 17:1-7; Romans 5:1-2, 5-8; John 4:5-42
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
This week saw the release of a new book that may be destined to change our political and economic conversations: Capital and Ideology, by Thomas Piketty. It should also have an impact across our churches, if our recent Christendom past didn’t blunt or prevent conversations about the basic justice of economics which is so thoroughly present in Scripture. The Reformation instituted a barrier between theological conversations in church and the economic justice lived out in our societies, the barrier known as “two kingdoms.” In the New Reformation we must return to the Judeo-Christian faith in one Creator God who is active in only one Creation.
“Two kingdoms” discourse is instructive for us to the extent that, from the proper anthropologically theological standpoint (Mimetic Theory!), we can see that the “two kingdoms” are lorded over by two very different kinds of god. The gods of conventional kingdoms — the ones we learn about in history, including the god of Christendom — are gods who justify each culture’s foundational principles — “We do things this way because our gods command it” — generally with an underlying over-againstness of other peoples and societies whose gods tell them to do things a different way.
That is, until Western societies led much of the globe into secularization. In this context, Thomas Piketty’s new book chooses to call the foundational principles of cultures “Ideology.” And his massive historical investigation — spanning a vast variety of cultures over much of the past two millennia (over a thousand pages with few notes) — focuses primarily on the pivotal issue of justice: how each society justifies inequality of wealth (or “capital”) among its people. He uses the word “ideology” in the secular context. From the perspective of Mimetic Theory, I would suggest the word “religion.” In speaking of modern economics ideologies — justifications for inequality — I have already noticed (just a few pages in) how often he uses the word “quasi-religious” to describe these ideologies, and I will be interested to actually count his use of such terms. I also anticipate that in covering the history of the much of the past two millennia he will need to speak overtly of religious justifications, or, in his term, “ideologies.”
Jesus came preaching that the kingdom of God is coming into our midst. In the New Reformation, I propose that we need to not talk about this NOT so much in terms of a second kingdom but in terms of a very different God. The conventional gods of human religions are gods that justify the reigning cultural order, especially its inequalities in distribution of wealth. The Kingdom of God that Jesus came proclaiming was in the tradition of the Jewish prophets as a kingdom that challenges the reigning culture. The so-called “apocalyptic” nature of the Christian message is about a very different kind of God, not a jump into a different history with a second parallel kingdom. It is the entering into this history of our human-generated kingdoms by a God who invites us into a very different way of ordering our societies — a different way of being human where we are all part of one family and so deserving of truly equal opportunities to flourish.
I anticipate that someone like Thomas Piketty is giving us a way to envision such a different, egalitarian way to order our human societies from a secular viewpoint, using secular discourse. It is sorely needed — I believe, a work of the Spirit. But also needed is an opening of discourse among people of the Judeo-Christian tradition to proclaim such a kingdom entering into our midst where conventional justifications of inequality are turned on their head, and we are able to reclaim Jesus’ preaching of a God inviting us into such kingdoms of equal opportunity for all — achieved first and foremost by attending to the flourishing of the least in our human family.
I think you will find in this week’s readings, especially the Second and Gospel Readings, glimpses of that very different God.
Reflections and Questions
1. Is the account of why Moses has to die in Deut. 32:48-52 a mythologization? In the Exodus 17 account of the waters of Meribah, there is no hint of disobedience by either Moses or Aaron, the reason stated for their having to die before reaching the promised land in Deut. 32. Interestingly, there is another account of the waters of Meribah at the beginning of Numbers 20 in which Moses and Aaron disobey by striking the rock twice — but this is a prelude to explaining why Aaron has to die by the end of Numbers 20! I must admit that the Girardian understanding of myth has me questioning what really happened with the deaths of Moses and Aaron. It almost seems more likely to me that they were killed because someone got tired of their leadership, making them the scapegoats at times of crisis, but were able to successfully mythologize the account of Exodus 17 so that God could be blamed for their deaths as appropriate punishments for their disobedience.
1. There is an exegetical note that is of tremendous importance to me. I would dare to say that this decision of translators changes the entire nature of our reading of Romans. I am referring to the last phrase of 5:9 in the NRSV: “saved through him from the wrath of God.” The original Greek is simply: sothesometha di’ autou apo tes orges. In short, there is no trace of the words of God in the original. The translators have assumed God’s ownership of the wrath and inserted it in. (By the way, in verse 5:2, “rejoice in the hope of the glory of God,” Paul does bother to state the words of God, so Paul wasn’t in the habit of leaving out words that we should feel like we need to fill in.)
Is it just the NRSV? I have twelve English translations ready at hand with my Bibleworks software program, and eight of the twelve add God into the equation of “the wrath.” (If you are interested in the four which didn’t: the King James, New King James, New American Bible, and [true to its name] Young’s Literal Translation.) In the New Jerusalem Bible, the translators even interpretatively change the verb to “the retribution of God”!
It makes me want to cry out, “My God! It is clear that we are still your enemies!”
We continue to want to make God responsible for our violence — even when St. Paul is trying desperately to work that difficult transformation of the idea of God’s wrath simply into “the wrath.” Paul in Romans is trying to help us to see that the wrath which kills us is our own wrath. If God is said to have a wrath at all, it is simply one of turning us over to the consequences of our own wrath. This addition on the part of the translators completely kills Paul’s efforts! See a full exposition of this thesis regarding Paul’s re-working of the “wrath of God” in Romans in “Nuechterlein on the ‘Wrath of God’ in Romans.”
It becomes imperative that I offer you once again James Alison‘s insights into the transformation of “the wrath of God,” cited from the section “The Pauline Witness” in The Joy of Being Wrong (from chapter four of that book, which we have been featuring during Lent). It is important to give you the first four paragraphs in the body of these reflections:
If it can be accepted that one of the first fruits of the resurrection in terms of human understanding is a new understanding of God (deathless, loving his son, and thus showing righteousness), and simultaneously, a new understanding of humankind (constituted in death, killing the son, and thus showing sinfulness, within a context of forgiveness), then we can imagine (at least) two stages to the preaching of this new insight. The first is an early stage in which this insight is preached as such, within the terms of reference of the linguistic-religious matrix within which the insight was born. The second stage is the gradual development from this insight of a new language about God and about humankind, where, consonant with the insight itself, there begins to develop a theology based on the new understanding of God, and a dependent anthropology based on the new understanding of humanity. It seems to me that we have evidence of exactly this process in the juxtaposition of the Pauline and the Johannine witnesses.
In the Johannine witness, set out above, we have a later stage in the development where the anthropological working out of the insight is clearer, as is the clarification of the understanding of God from elements of discourse formed within human violence. (1) Thus John is able both to offer a theology worked out from the new understanding of God, and reveal the anthropological mechanism that led to the revelation more clearly as an anthropological mechanism. In the Pauline witness we have a somewhat earlier stage in the working out of the same insight, where the place of the Johannine anthropological mechanism is taken by Paul’s meditation on the function of the law. It seems to me that by reading the Pauline version of the same basic insight in the light of the Johannine development it becomes possible to achieve a certain clarity as to what Paul is about that is entirely faithful to his thought. The evidence is to be found in the first eight chapters of Romans. (2)
In the first place we can see that for Paul the Gospel is the Gospel of the righteousness of God. This is what the death and resurrection of Jesus has revealed for him. That is shown in Romans 1:17, and again in Romans 3:25. What has happened in between these two references is that Paul, because of the necessity of clarifying the question of the exact theological nature of the Law, has gone in for a long explanation of the inverse consequence of the same revelation of the righteousness of God: the revelation of what he calls the wrath of God. The content of this revelation is exactly the same as what I suggested above: that all humans are constitutionally wrong (we all have a “debased mind,” 1:28), and constitutionally idolaters, as is demonstrated by our not knowing the righteousness of God. It would be as well to examine this notion of the wrath of God because of the easy misunderstanding to which it is prone.
The word wrath (orgé) appears ten times in Romans. Only once does it appear as the wrath of God (Rom. 1:18). On the one occasion where it appears to be something inflicted by God on people as a result of our wickedness (Rom. 3:5) Paul expressly indicates the mythical nature of the terminology (“I speak in a human way”). On all the other occasions where the term appears (2:5, 8; 4:15; 5:9; 9:22; 12:19; 13:4, 5) it is impersonal. Even in the first case, where the orgé is linked to theou the content of the wrath of God is itself a demythification of a vindictive account of God (whose righteousness has just been declared). For the content of the wrath is the handing over by God of us to ourselves. Three times in the following verses the content of the wrath is described in terms of handing over: 1:24; 1:26; and 1:28. That is to say that the wrath, rather than being an act of divine vengeance is a divine non-resistance to human evil. (3) However, I would suggest that it is more than that. The word “handed over” (paredoken) has, in primitive Christian sources a particularly subtle set of resonances. (4) For God is described as handing over (paredoken) his own son to us in a text no further from our own than Romans 8:32. The handing over of the son to us, and the handing over of ourselves to sin appear to be at the very least parallel. The same verb (paredothé) is used in 4:25 where Jesus was handed over for our trespasses, and raised for our justification. I would suggest that it is the handing over of the son to our killing him that is in fact the same thing as handing us over to our own sins. Thus wrath is life in the sort of world which kills the son of God. (JBW, pp. 125-127)
1. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 151., from “The Pauline Understanding of Desire” (pp. 147-156).
2. Gil Bailie, “Paul’s Letter to the Romans” audio tape series, tape #4.
3. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, pp. 171-173. He sees Romans 5:1-11 as parallel to 1 Corinthians 13 in laying out for us the foundation of a new human order based on “The True Triangle of Love: Faith, Hope, and Love” — from the first part of chapter 7, “Sacred Violence and the Reformation of Desire,” pp. 161-173. Here is the conclusion which puts Romans 5:1-11 at the heart of his argument:
For Paul the chief concrete image of agape is the self-giving of Christ in the crucifixion. In Romans 5:1-11 the triad of faith, hope, and love points to the work of Christ as the substance of the idea of love. The essence of the divine agape is the act of God in giving the Son to die for enemies (Rom 5:10). In Galatians 2:19-21 the crucifixion is a demonstration of the fact that God “loved me and gave himself for me” (tou agapesantos me kai paradontos heauton hyper emou — Gal 2:20). In 2 Corinthians 5:14 — “the love of Christ controls us because we are convinced that one has died for all (hyper panton); therefore all have died” — expresses the same idea.The essence of these statements is in the preposition hyper with the genitive: Christ died on our behalf, to do us good, to give us something of value. This inverts the insinuation of the serpent that God is envious. It demonstrates the divine generosity and thus disarms rivalry with God, replacing it with the proper mimesis of God’s love. (p. 173)
Reflections and Questions
1. “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son…” I view this as the evangelical basis for the Christian ethical charge to love others even to the point of loving our enemies. We come to be able to love our enemies because God loved us even while we were still enemies. See “My Core Convictions,” Part II.
1. James Alison, Raising Abel, p. 195. Alison gives the penultimate word in this book to Rev. 7 and John 4, with their images of satisfied desire in never-ending waters. (The last word goes to Hebrews 12:18-24.) Some of what comes before his quote of John 4 connects to the issue of suffering raised by Romans 5:1-5 (mentioned above). But I’m only going to share the last paragraph:
Here it seems to me that we have a key issue: the revelation of God’s absolutely creative vitality serves to re-create and nourish our imagination, and, at the same time, the fact that we be induced into praising God, opening out our imagination, works to allow us to be seduced by a beauty and a joy which, they alone, serve to re-create in us ever deeper desires which will never be frustrated, which will be satisfied and fulfilled beyond our wildest hopes. It is not for nothing that an Elder points the seer of Revelation to those who are dressed in white, bringing together elements from Isaiah (49:10 and 25:8), and from Psalm 23, and mixing them with the image of the lamb standing slain in the center of the heavenly liturgy: ‘These are they which have come out of the great tribulation, and have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb. It is because of this that they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple: and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall they suffer the scorching of the sun, for the lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.’ (Rev 7:14-17) Fountains of living water! The biblical symbol par excellence, proper to a harsh, dry, Middle Eastern land, of human desire absolutely fulfilled, without frustration, running over, harmonious and peaceable. It is this same fountain which Jesus had offered to the woman at the well of Samaria, instead of the water which does not satisfy: ‘The one who drinks of the water which I shall give will never more be thirsty: for the water that I shall give will become in that person a spring of water welling up into life without end.’ (John 4:14) The fixing of the mind on the things that are above has as its end to recreate in us a pacific imitative desire which does not know frustration, but whose longing, viscerally moved, is to participate actively, by creating the wedding banquet of the Lamb in the midst of this world, in God’s creative vivaciousness, utterly incapable of frustration.
2. Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of John” audio tape series, tape # 4. Link to my notes / transcription of Bailie’s lecture on John 3-4.
3. Brian McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus, p. 38; and We Make the Road by Walking, p. 107. In The Secret Message, McLaren is reading the stories of John 3-4 together to raise the question of why Jesus seemingly spoke in ways of hiding his message.
Nicodemus has only been with Jesus for a matter of seconds, and already he’s confused. Why isn’t Jesus making his message clear? Why is his message so hidden — in metaphors, in strange and convoluted language? “How can a person be born anew if he’s already an adult? This is ridiculous! I’m not supposed to climb back into my mother’s uterus, am I?” (see John 3:4).
Something similar happens in the next major episode in John’s Gospel, in another conversation — this time with a woman who is only semi-Jewish, belonging to the “half-breed” Samaritans. She’s never heard of Jesus before, and she’s rather surprised when he, a Jewish man, engages her, a Samaritan woman, in conversation by a well. He asks for a drink, which she gives him. Then he says, “If you knew who I am, you’d ask me for living water” (see John 4:10). Living water — an evocative image that sounds like yet another metaphor for “an extraordinary life to the full,” yet another metaphor for the kingdom of God. What’s that supposed to mean? She’s confused. She doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Why would Jesus be so unclear? Why hide his message in metaphors?
You might wonder how McLaren answers this important question about the strangeness of Jesus’ message. The first suggested answer comes about ten pages later:
But if it’s the heart that counts, then hearts can’t be coerced; nobody can be forced. They can be invited, attracted, intrigued, enticed, and challenged — but not forced. And that, perhaps, is the greatest genius of a parable: it doesn’t grab you by the lapels and scream in your face, “Repent, you vile sinner! Turn or burn!” Rather, it works gently, subtly, indirectly. It respects your dignity. It doesn’t batter you into submission but leaves you free to discover and choose for yourself
Maybe that’s why the message of the kingdom of God comes, then, not as a simple formula or list of information and not as an angry threat or ultimatum, but instead as a secret hidden in a parable, like a treasure hidden in a field, like a seed hidden in soil, like yeast hidden in dough.
Human kingdoms advance by force and violence with falling bombs and flying bullets, but God’s kingdom advances by stories, fictions, tales that are easily ignored and easily misunderstood. Perhaps that’s the only way it can be. (pp. 48-49)
The Samaritan woman also is featured in Chapter 23, “Jesus and the Multitudes,” of We Make the Road by Walking, p. 107. In some ways it follows up the above question about the strangeness of Jesus’ message, offering another reason — namely, that Jesus’ core message “turned the normal dominance pyramid on its head”:
In his parables, he constantly made heroes of people from the multitudes: day laborers, small farmers, women working in the home, slaves, and children. He captured the dilemma of what we would call middle management — the stewards, tax collectors, and their associates who extracted income from the poor and powerless below them for the sake of the rich and powerful above them. And he exposed the duplicity and greed of those at the top — especially the religious leaders who enjoyed a cozy, lucrative alliance with the rich elites.
In addressing the social realities of his day, Jesus constantly turned the normal dominance pyramid on its head, confusing even his disciples.
Take, for example, the time . . . Jesus and his disciples were passing through Samaria, a region that “proper folks” hated to pass through because its inhabitants were considered religiously and culturally “unclean” (John 4:4-42). Jesus decided to wait outside the city while his companions went into town to buy lunch. When they returned, Jesus was sitting by a well, deep in a spiritual and theological conversation with a Samaritan woman . . . and one with a sketchy reputation at that. The sight of Jesus and this woman talking respectfully was a triple shock to the disciples: men didn’t normally speak with women as peers, Jews didn’t normally associate with Samaritans, and “clean” people didn’t normally interact with those they considered morally stained. (pp. 106-7)
4. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, p. 100. In a section on healing ministry, Marr reads the Samaritan woman alongside the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1-10). Picking up mid-stream on the Gerasene story:
When robbed of their victim, the possessed town implodes in its collective violence and becomes the sacrificial victim. When a community “needs” a victim, for somebody to be sick, then the community is toxic. It cannot stand.
The anthropological dimension of this story can be seen more clearly by comparing it with that of the Samaritan woman at the well, which has none of the mythological trappings. (Jn. 4:1-42) It is the woman at the well, and not any of the other people of Sychar, who greets Jesus. The woman is alone at the most social place in town and at the time of day when nobody else would want to be there, indications that the woman is the town’s scapegoat. There is no exorcism, but the woman eventually becomes possessed by Jesus when she drinks the water he has to give, just as the Gerasene demoniac became possessed by Jesus once the demons were driven out. The woman goes to tell the townspeople about Jesus as the Gerasene demoniac was told to spread the word throughout his area of what Jesus had done for him. The story in Sychar has a happier ending than the story in Gerasa. The people come out to listen to Jesus, a mimetic process where they give up their collective victim in exchange for the water of rebirth that Jesus has to give. Perhaps this foretells a happier ending for Gerasa someday and a happier ending for our own society. In these two stories, we can see that the principalities and powers do not refer just to the empire, although that is part of it. Rather, the principalities and powers consist of people just like us. Ordinary people can easily contribute to an unhealthy climate that makes sure some people are sick and don’t get well. But just as the Gerasene demoniac was healed, when everybody else in town was not, indicates that those who know they are sick and blind can be healed and those who think they are healthy and can see are really too sick and blind to be healed. (p. 100)
5. Richard Rohr, Things Hidden (clearly a nod to Girard’s magnum opus), p. 45; and The Divine Dance, p. 88. In a section of Things Hidden on God as offering us union, Rohr writes about water as a basic sign of that offer:
There’s the symbol of God’s constant and gracious invitation to union, God flowing out toward us, God choosing us before we ever choose back. The code word for that is water. Watch for it.
We have the Red Sea itself, the water from the rock in the desert (Numbers 20:1-13, where so much is made of Moses doubting it and the people grumbling) the fountain that the temple itself becomes (Ezekiel 47:1-12; Revelation 22:1-2) . There is the momentous crossing through the Jordan River (Joshua 3) that John the Baptist builds into his baptismal initiation rite (Mark 1:5), then the water flowing from the side of Christ (John 19:34), the living water that Jesus says he is (John 7:38), the living water that he offers the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42).
Water is almost always an invitation to that first, subtle religious experience, when the desire just laps up against you and your mind and heart are opened for the first time. It’s the first gnawing, inviting sense that there’s something more. It’s the momentary recognition that the inside of things is even bigger than the outside.
A lot of the medieval mystics, especially women, use this language of God flowing out toward them and through them (Mechtild of Magdeburg, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila). For Christians it becomes the objective trinitarian flow of God’s life in us, through us, with us, for us — and usually in spite of us.
It is experienced as an allowing and an enjoying, never a producing or an attainment. So watch for the word and image of water and consider it an invitation. (pp. 45-46)
In The Divine Dance, Rohr cites John 4 in a section very similar to Sara Miles below, titled “Loving All the Wrong People”:
“Only we have the Spirit.”
I was taught this in my church growing up; and then I found that every religion says the same thing. Isn’t that interesting?
There’s a phrase for this; it’s called group narcissism. It has nothing to do with love for God; it isn’t a search for truth or love. It’s a grasping for control, and every group at its less mature stages of development will try to put God into the pocket of its own members-only jackets!
Why do I say something so unequivocal? Because I dare you to find a world religion that doesn’t do this. But we don’t need to look any further than our own Old Testament. Here are some prevalent religious mind-sets from those times that were carried over into Jesus’ first-century world — and how Jesus responds to them.
“God ignores the Samaritans.”
The Samaritans, living in proximity to the Jewish people, were considered a mixed race with “mixed” religion, and were therefore not to be associated with, as John’s gospel explains matter-of-factly: “Jews, of course, do not associate with Samaritans” (John 4:9). But then Jesus tells a parable praising the extraordinary kindness of a Samaritan (see Luke 10:25-37); another time, when he travels through Samaria, he surprises a Samaritan woman — as well as his own disciples — by talking to her directly, engaging her in a conversation about deep spiritual matters. (See John 4:4-42.) Jesus also displays God’s favor toward Samaritans in other ways. (See, for example, Luke 9:52-56; 17:11-19.)
…Jesus messes everything up! What does he do? He consistently makes the outsider the heroes of his parables and the recipients of God’s multifaceted grace. To not recognize and learn from this is culpable ignorance at this point.
By and large, we didn’t get it. Catholicism replicated almost down to fine detail the ritual and legalistic mistakes of Judaism, and Protestantism has imitated us quite well, while trying to cover their tracks by just getting legalistic about very different issues. But it is the same ego game.
And one could easily argue that our fellow Abrahamic path, Islam, has followed suit in mirroring our most egregious members-only behavior. Because that’s where immature religion always finds itself; it isn’t first of all a search for Holy Mystery and how to love. Most early religion is a search for the egoic self, a search for the moral high ground, and certainly for being better than those other people over there.
To draw from Karl Rahner again, he suggested that for fifty years we should all basically stop using the word God. Because, he says, we normally don’t have a clue what we are talking about! This becomes quite evident when we see what we have done with Jesus himself, who was given as the fully visible and obvious manifestation — and we still used him for our small culture wars. We still pulled him inside of our smaller psyche and out of the protective silence of the Trinity. We pretended we understood him perfectly whenever we could interpret him for our own wars, prejudices, and dominations. Poor Jesus.
So let’s just be humble and call God “the Holy Mystery” for fifty years, to cauterize the wound we’ve inflicted on our culture and ourselves. And maybe, as Rahner suggested, after half a century, we can get the language clarified and a little more humble, deferring to this Holy Mystery in grateful recognition that we’re not in charge of very much and we understand very little. (pp. 88-89)
6. Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion, pp. 186-87; and Grounded, pp. 75-77. In Christianity After Religion, Butler Bass is meditating on the transition in our time from religion to spirituality around three B-words: Believe, Behave, Belong. In the context of religion, the latter is the usual ordering in terms of priority. Religion has prioritized Believing. But the transition to an age of spirituality reverses that prioritizing, placing more emphasis on Belonging.
And the transition from religious to spiritual also changes the questions. In the chapter on Belonging, she proposes that the religious question, “Who am I?”, changes to the spiritual question, “Whose am I?” Her citation of John 4 comes in the context of that latter question:
In John 4, Jesus meets a woman at a well. The conversation quickly turns to the question of Jesus’s identity when she asks, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask of drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (4:9). Jesus speaks of water, wells, and worship, and then springs it on her that he is the Messiah. How does the woman respond? She drops her water jar, runs back to town, and tells everyone, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” (4:29). In this story, questions of Jesus’s identity and her identity thread together in mutual revelation. Knowing who Jesus is leads her to know who she is — and, instead of feeling shame about her mistakes, she feels new freedom to tell her story. And so it goes throughout the Gospels. Almost everyone leaves Jesus’s company saying: “He made me whole!” “I have been healed!” “I’m not a prostitute, a sinner, an outcast, or a leper. I now know who I really am!” “I may be a Samaritan, but I can still know God.” “I am loved!” “I am accepted as I am!” Being “in” Jesus, in his presence or in conversation with him, pushes the other person beyond social roles and masks to deeper awareness of “Who am I?” transforming the question from an external one to a relational one that might be better rendered “Whose am I?”
Thus, the biblical query “Who am I in God?” is a starting point of Christian spirituality. Why do Christians pray? Christians do not pray to have wishes granted; rather, Christians pray to find themselves in God and that they might be more aware of their motives and actions. Why do Christians worship? Christians do not worship to be entertained; rather, Christians listen to sermons, sing, and partake of bread and wine in community to be in Jesus’s presence and come to know themselves better. Why do Christians serve others? Christians do not act charitably to earn heavenly credit; rather, Christians find Jesus in their neighbors and such proximity enables greater insight to live fully in the world. Christians practice seeking Jesus in their lives because when they find themselves in God, pretense slips away to reveal the truest dimensions of selfhood and gives individuals the power to act in transforming ways. (pp. 186-87)
Grounded, basically develops the latter theme even more universally — that the ongoing spiritual revolution of our time is about finding God in the world. There are chapters on finding God in the human world, but the book opens with three beautiful chapters on finding God in Creation — Dirt, Water, Sky. The story of Jesus engaging the Samaritan woman at the well finds its natural place in the chapter on Water:
I have heard many sermons on this passage; indeed, I have preached a few. Typically Christians cite this passage to prove a unique claim of Jesus — that Jesus is “living water,” a moniker that identifies Jesus as divine. In the story, Jesus does more than Jacob, the Hebrew patriarch who provided the drinking well, a spot most likely deemed sacred by local villagers. Instead, Jesus implies that he is water, not just a well. As he and the woman talk throughout the rest of John’s chapter, Jesus layers on spiritual metaphors for water: liberation, yearning for salvation, hospitality, healing, and as a source of life. With each poetic turn, his invitation to these waters becomes more compelling. Wisdom, like a spring, bubbles up through his insights. He gives water, and he is water. Just as John had indicated earlier, the kingdom comes through water and spirit.
The encounter is an interesting parallel to the story of Eve. In Genesis, the devil tempts the woman to eat forbidden fruit to gain divine knowledge. At the well, Jesus invites this Samaritan woman to drink God’s water to gain spiritual wisdom. The entire story is a reversal of the one recounting the origin of sin; here, Jesus and the woman reenact Eden with a different result. The woman’s eyes are opened; she understands. Yet, instead of being run out of the garden by an angry god, she runs and tells her friends that she has met the One who is Living Water. She is not cursed. Rather, the woman is blessed and offers blessing. Water is present at creation, and it is here also, at the world’s re-creation through Jesus.
This story, with its multiple meanings, frames the Christian imagination regarding water. Oddly enough, in the spiritual history of water, it is not really unique. (Its most unique feature is how ordinary it is; unlike many other ancient water stories, there are no supernatural elements present, no demons, no monsters. There is only Jesus’s insight to the woman’s spiritual needs.) The story of Jesus and the woman at the well echoes shared human experience, perhaps even a universal one. God provides — or the gods provide — water and the water is (in some way or another) divine. Although later Christian theology will carefully draw a distinction between water-as-symbol and water-as-God, one must admit that even for the staunchest monotheist the metaphorical territory here is pretty thin. Water is life; life is water. Living water is God; God is living water.
In the not too distant future, however, living water might be mere theological memory — a spiritual element increasingly lost to rising generations. If nothing else, our descendants will surely interpret the spirituality of water in starkly different ways than we do now. Water is under siege all over the planet, watersheds are collapsing, streams and rivers dying, even once safe water systems face toxic threats. The story of Jesus and the woman at the well — the search for both safe water to drink and the water of salvation — may be more urgent than ever. Much depends on how we navigate these rivers of change. (pp. 76-77)
7. Sara Miles, Jesus Freak, pp. 12-13. The opening chapter, “Come and See,” is set-up with this paragraph, outlining the ensuing sections (in italics):
In stories that still have the power to scare us, Jesus tells his disciples to live by the upside-down values of God’s kingdom, rather than the fear-driven values of human society. He shows how family, tribe, money, violence, and religion — the powers of the world — cannot stand against the love of God. And he tells us that we, too, are called to follow him in breaking down all worldly divisions that get in the way of carrying out his instructions. Sure, it’s impossible to feed five thousand people, make a deaf man hear, bring a dead girl to life, as long as you obey human rules. So do it God’s way instead, Jesus teaches. Say yes. Jump right in. Come and see. Embrace the wrong people. Don’t idolize religion. Have mercy. Jesus’ tips cast a light forward, steering us through the dark. (p. 3)
Her reflections on Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman come under the section, “Embrace the wrong people”:
Then, in the story of the Samaritan woman, Jesus chooses to engage with a three-time outcast. She’s female; she’s a member of a despised, loathsome race, the historic enemies of the true people of God. And, to top it all off, she’s five times married, and living with a man she isn’t married to. The Samaritan woman is repugnant, not only to a Jew like Jesus but to her neighbors. She has to go alone to the well, because no decent person wants to be seen in her company
But Jesus is thirsty. He asks for water. He offers her water that will slake her thirst forever.
And when the woman argues, claiming insolently that this is Jacob’s well and that her traditions of worship are correct, he doesn’t tell her she’s wrong and his people are right. He says the Spirit of God isn’t limited by tribe or ancestors or behavior; it’s poured out for everyone. Then, without judgment, he tells her ‘exactly who she is.
The Samaritan woman doesn’t fully understand Jesus. She doesn’t immediately accept the relationship he offers. Even when he tells her the truth, she tries to cling to her own received religious dogma.
But she really wants that water. “Give me some of that water,” she demands of the strange rabbi. And her thirst leads her to bring others to the well — without telling them what to believe, just by echoing the great door-opening Gospel invitation, Come and see. Jesus transforms this woman without a name, this despised status offender, and she becomes the first person to preach Jesus as Messiah. Which would seem to suggest that salvation does not depend on getting things right. It depends on thirst. (pp. 12-13)
Reflections and Questions
1. Many of the details of this story are lost on the modern audience who do not realize the dynamics of a first century Jewish man talking to a Samaritan woman. I think it is helpful to get into character as one of the Samaritan men from this woman’s town (or, for female preachers, the woman herself) who came to believe because of her testimony. In more of a narrative form, it is easier to fill in some of those dynamics without it sounding too much like a lecture. For an example, see the sermons “A Shocking Revelation,” the 1996, 1999, and 2002 versions, which start out similarly but have differing conclusions. In 1996 I focused more on Bailie’s theme of having a loving encounter with Jesus that changes, that gives us the psychological (he uses the term “ontological” more these days) depth we need to exist in our modern situation. In 1999 I emphasized more the fact that this woman’s testimony was the first key to the many other Samaritans who came to have an encounter with Jesus, too, through her. We were emphasizing outreach into our urban neighborhood at Emmaus, and a key to that is learning to share our own healing encounters with Jesus. The 2002 version is somewhat of a hybrid; I was also using the format of reading John’s text within the character’s telling of the story.
2. An element that I missed in my 1996 and 1999 renderings of this story (which I tried to correct a bit in 2002) is one for which, as a man, I welcome the help of female colleagues to see: the mythologizing element for a woman such as the one we meet in this story. The ending of her marriages may have been for relatively innocent reasons in a culture in which the husband has a complete monopoly on the matter of divorce. The succession of marriages would have the habit of building on one another to destroy the woman’s reputation — sadly, perhaps even to the point at which she internalizes it, too. It seems by the habit of going to the well at midday, a time when she would be least likely to meet others, that she had a bad reputation. But in a patriarchal society, how much of that reputation grew out of the woman’s own actions, and how much out of the scapegoating mechanisms of a culture oppressive to women?
3. Another element to attend to would be the idea of living water posed above under the Romans 5 lesson. The water which quenches (in John 6 it will be the bread of life which satisfies) is a remedy for the distortions of human desire. With mimetic desire bouncing off of one another, our desires become famished cravings, a continual thirst for more — in short, addictions. Only Jesus offers the living water of desiring in God’s love (the antidote to desiring through each other) that can quench our thirst.
And Jesus mixes his metaphors when the disciples return with food, telling them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work” (John 4:34). There could hardly be a more direct playing into the language of mimetic theory. Jesus came to satisfy our famished cravings by nourishing us with God’s desire. (The language of completing God’s work also looks ahead to next week’s John 9 passage and James Alison‘s brilliant reading of it.)
4. In 2005 I began the Lenten season by preaching the story of Genesis 3 around the insight of mimetic theory into persons as being constituted through the eyes of others. “Self-consciousness,” often tied with the maturation process of ‘losing the innocence’ of childhood, is, according to mimetic theory, more accurately an “other-consciousness.” We become increasingly aware of how others see us, and so we increasingly see ourselves through the eyes of others. My reflections for Lent 1 bring out the role of eyes in the Genesis 3 story; and I suggest a good February story, the movie Groundhog Day, as an illustration of seeing ourselves and the world through the eyes of others. I also suggest an ideal Girardian resource for understanding this theme, namely, Chapter 9 of James Alison‘s On Being Liked.
John 3 presents the opportunity to extend this theme over several weeks — the theme of persons constituted through the eyes of others — through its language of being born from above. We are reborn from above as we find ourselves being known through God’s loving eyes in Jesus Christ. Nicodemus is still perhaps too closed off to this possibility. He even comes under the cover of darkness, signaling his not wanting to be seen.
This week’s text in John 4 provides a good example of being reborn in the Samaritan woman at the well. She encounters Jesus in the bright light of high noon, and through the eyes of Jesus she is able to see herself in a new light. And Lent 4A brings a climax of these themes, perhaps, with the John 9 text about rebirthing humanity and healing our blindness by seeing ourselves through the forgiving eyes of Jesus. Will there be an extension of these themes for the John 11 text of Lent 5A? In 2005 I’m in a team ministry and don’t preach every week; but perhaps 2008 will provide the opportunity for five weeks under the theme: “Reborn from above to eternal life through God’s loving eyes in Jesus Christ.”
5. The 2005 sermon (largely extemporized from notes and not offered here as a manuscript) did have behind it the theme of seeing ourselves through others, but developed it in terms of John’s basic image: I spoke of our thirst for an unconditional love to affirm us as worthy human beings. We all suffer from this to some extent or another. But I explored it in the case of this woman and the parallel modern categories of sexism and racism. I had attended the Friday before a town hall meeting on racism. There are the huge institutional ways in which racism affects people of color, such as much higher incarceration rates, especially for drug offenses. (The statistics show that white people are most frequently imprisoned for violent crimes, as we would expect; but people of color are currently most often imprisoned not for violent crime, but for drug offenses.) Prison is a sure place in our modern world for a person’s spirit to die of thirst. But it is even more difficult for white folks to understand all the little ways that people of color face day-to-day of having their affirmation dried up. The woman of color who was presenting on fair housing took a moment to tell one of these stories. She is a black Latina woman and was shopping with a fair-skinned woman of Mexican heritage; she was the one trying to make the purchase, but the sales clerk kept addressing her fair-skinned friend.
As a white male, I can become aware of the privilege that this rarely if ever happens to me. I’ve seen it happen to my wife: we are buying a car together and she is doing most of the talking, but the sales person keeps addressing me. I’ve seen it happen to people in wheel-chairs, that others will talk to the person pushing the chair as if the one in the chair isn’t there. It happens a lot to children — I’ve done it myself — that we address the adult with them on a matter that more directly involves them. There are so many ways everyday in which we treat others as lesser, and we ourselves are treated as such. There are also insidious and massive ways in which such treatment as lessers is institutionalized around skin color, ethnic heritage, gender, physical ability, sexual preference, and so on. And so our world continues to be thirsty for the unconditional love of a heavenly parent who shows no preferential treatment, sending the Son to die as one cast out and raising him as the source of living water of that unconditional love and forgiveness. The woman at the well, and her fellow citizens of Sychar, received a foretaste of that living water for poured out for all in the cross. (Remember that John is the only evangelist who has a soldier pierce Jesus’s side for a gush of water.)
Notes from the James Alison excerpt above
1. But see John 3:36 ! It is clear from the context, however, that this is an anthropological reality, not a theological one. It is less immediately clear that the same is true of the Pauline uses of wrath (though it is no less true).