Thursday, March 03, 2005

More on "the woman at the well"...

My friend Eric called me on the fact that I have too often said, "I need to write more on this..." and then don't. So, fulfilling my most recent promise, here are some reflections on Pastor John M. Buchanan's sermon last Sunday on the John 4 story of "Jesus and the Samaritan woman." (By Friday March 4th, his sermon should be available at the Fourth Presbyterian website.) I wish I could say that these were my insights - but I'm glad to pass Pr. John's wisdom around. Let me start off with a personal insight into one of his points.

My friend Barb hates driving down 55th St. in Chicago. It's a straight shot, dead west, to Midway Airport from the LSTC neighborhood - in good weather and traffic, maybe 20 minutes. But it runs through some admittedly sketchy neighborhoods - where a young white woman would be more than a little nervous breaking down or changing a tire. So, now imagine an equilateral triangle. The bottom right corner is LSTC. When Barb drives to Midway, instead of driving west across the base of the triangle, she takes Lake Shore Drive way up north, then picks up I-55 near McCormick Place (the top point of the triangle), and drives south to Cicero, and down to Midway Airport (the left bottom corner).

In short, she'll go way the hell out of her way not to go through bad neighborhoods.

In the same way, the way my map of the Bible lands looks, going from Judea in the south to Galilee in the north would run straight through Samaria. But Pr. Buchanan pointed out that to the Jews, Samaria is a bad neighborhood. They didn't have to go through it; they could have just as easily gone around. But it seems Jesus isn't put off by bad neighborhoods - or cultural prejudice, either.

Samaritans and Jews had been part of a mutual despising culture for seven centuries. Imagine race relations in the southern US states - with segregated bathrooms and drinking fountains and public transportation and rejection of basic civil rights for blacks - and then imagine it going on for seven hundred years instead of 230. Sadly, US history is full of white women and men who befriended blacks in those days - and how they were shunned, rejected, often driven from their homes, businesses destroyed, even killed. That is the role Jesus plays in speaking to the Samaritan woman:
- a man, talking to an unmarried woman
- an unmarried rabbi, talking to an unclean, outcast, immoral woman
- a Jew, offering to drink from the same cup as a despised Samaritan
Jesus breaks through cultural taboos and seven centuries of prejudice in speaking to this woman. And then he shares with her what no one has yet heard - that he is, indeed, the One who both Samaritans and Jews have been waiting for.

(A personal aside: the closest thing to this I can think of in our current day would be Pat Robertson going to an AIDS clinic, offering to drink from the same cup as a gay patient, embracing him, and inviting him into the Kingdom, without first telling him to repent of his orientation first. To me, it's that outrageous an idea.)

Pr. Buchanan also pointed out that Jesus didn't say to the Samaritan woman, "You need to come to Jerusalem, start worshiping right, be cleansed, and then I'll tell you a big secret." There was no "Become like us, and then you're 'in'" requirement. This triggered something in me.

For years, I have struggled with a lot of fundamentalist theology which says, in effect, "You need to get right with Jesus, and come to him." Just yesterday, I heard a female radio preacher talking about how "You need to be holy, as Christ is holy. Practice holiness, so you may approach the throne of God."

I have news for you - if that's true, I'm screwed. Utterly and completely screwed. There is about as much chance of me being "holy, as Christ is holy" as there is of me sprouting wings and flying to the sun.

Now, I'm not saying that I am not in the process of growing in Christ, of sanctification; not in the least. In the recovery community, they have a saying: "If you take a drunken horse-thief, and just sober him up, what you're left with is a sober horse-thief." I believe with all my heart that I am called to grow closer to Christ's example than I am - and that this growth is part of the process of "discipleship" or "spiritual formation."

But I am saying that I'm never gonna "get there" this side of the final trumpet. And I also believe that "straighten up your life and follow Jesus" rejects the good news from the book of Romans: "But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8, NRSV). A Lutheran pastor, speaking at the 1995 AA International conference, said, "A pastor who says 'you need to quit drinking and come to Jesus' is just like saying 'you need to get clean enough to get in the bathtub.' That's not what the message of Romans says. Just get in the bathtub, and be clean."

Puts an entirely different spin on "Just As I Am," doesn't it?

The last point I'll share from Pr. Buchanan - and one that I'm sure he gets a lot of flack for, this week - is the idea of difference and diversity. Quoting Rabbi Professor Jonathan Sacks' book The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, he suggested that the church needs to change from a mentality of "You need to be like me before I can validate your right to exist" to one of "you can be as you are without my needing to destroy you."

Isn't it interesting? Since the Crusades, we've been waging war against the infidels. In the fifties in the US, it was "godless Communism." In the 70's, it was Spiro Agnew against the "nattering nabobs of negativity." Rabbi Sacks, and Pr. Buchanan, both ask: is there space for difference? Is our faith authenticated by exclusivity, by who we are and we keep out?

Do I withhold love from my neighbor until they become like me, and vote like me, and live and love like me? Did Jesus really command us to "Love your neighbor as long as he is like yourself"? Hmmm... maybe not.

I hope his words made people wonder about how we are and how we love those who are not like us, both individually and as "the church." I know it's made me think - and even pray - differently.


Rick said...

Hey brother. Man you hit another one out of the park. (I told you my wife loves you!)

Yes, God goes to the places where the dominant religious folks avoid. God comes to us. In my own journey I did not COME TO God, God found my fearful, broken soul and offered me a drink from the Living Well.

Isn't that the message of God? INCARNATION--- Comes coems to humanity. God doesn't avoid humanity.

When I think about how the church continues to decline, no wonder-- we keep waiting for folks to (be)come to (like) us rather than for us to go to them.

Drink deeply from the Well,

[rhymes with kerouac] said...

I'm also amazed by the fact that after this encounter she -- yes, *she* -- went on to become an evangelist.

Doesn't God know this isn't the way we do things?

Poor Mad Peter said...

If it's true, we're all screwed, Big Guy. Especially those of us who think we are holy...

Me, I'm a holy fool, and i no longer mind the cream-pie leavings on my face...

Mitch said...

Hi! What a wonderful article!

Much of who I am is wrapped around an unfortunate encounter with some men of Christ. Your article pins the issue down for me. I appreciate this very much.

I feel like a snarly rabbid dog, ready to snap at anyone who tries to change me. (and I have snapped before at the least perception of manipulation).

radioreb said...

Just what sort of blog diet are you on? Thanks for speaking truth into the hearts of the "screwed." Be careful, next thing you know you'll be in dangerous dischord with Chuck Colson.