Water! The Creative, Transforming God…

Posted: April 25, 2017 in Uncategorized

Lent 3A, 2017 John 4: 5-42

Water! The Creative, Transforming God…

Over the last few days and weeks we in New Zealand have been reminded just how fortunate we are compared to some other countries. We have experienced some downpours of rain that have challenged our infrastructure and cause havoc among many lives. Thank fully loss of live has been minimal and in most cases confined to livestock trapped in the sudden deluge. These events have reminded us again just how fortunate we are to be a nation with water aplenty. The blessing of this is highlighted when we think of our nearest neighbour Australia with its vast dry deserts. One of the driest continents on earth, where water is a precious commodity. In fact it would be fair to say that water is everything. Water is life…

You might even remember here the words of the Baptism liturgy where we spend quite a number of words on water with a focus on the active, dynamic symbol of water. We might also make connections with the middle east, the birthplace of Jesus and make connections also with the precious nature of water in a dry climate. We might also perhaps remember that too much water has powerful destructive potential be it in New Zealand a land of plenty water or Australia a land with less. We might also note that the story we heard this morning from the storyteller we call John uses the symbol of water and then that we are in the middle of the season called Lent, which begins with stories around a time in the desert, a place of little to no water,
When we explore this in its context a bit we might see that like Australia Galilee is one perhaps not the driest but of close to a driest inhabited place on earth, and so we might say they have some inkling of how precious water is. Australian maps boldly show some rivers that only flow once a year. And in some cases only flow a few times in a century. The truth is that numerous travelers, from the early explorers through to present day have perished for lack of water. No water, no life. Water and life go together. One quote is that to survive in the Australian desert “is to know the sources of moisture and how to tap into the watertable” (Ferguson & Allen 1990:37).

And that’s what the early settlers found so difficult. A dry, hot place. A place that had to be ‘conquered’ to get anywhere. So hostile and barren did the land appear to them, that they could never dream of co-operating with it. We in New Zealand perhaps are so blessed with water and so used to co-operating with it that we err on the side of exploiting it and end up being reminded of its preciousness when our exploitation hits back. When our homes get flooded by a rising water table or a failure of our control systems. We are reminded to treasure water because it means life.

When we look at the collection of stories told by John, we see that he tells several stories using water. Water turned into wine. Water to wash disciple’s feet. Jesus walking on water. And of course, there are all those exciting fishing stories. A bit like those TV programs where the presenter kisses the fish before throwing it back depicting the thrill of the catch is not about killing and eating the diminishing number of fish but rather about the thrill of the chance to catch or not and when the randomness has been beaten the satisfaction of the catch is manifest Randomness has been won over by certainty. Order is restored and chance banished and the throwing back is rubbing it in. The living water has delivered and been dominated.

Today’s story of a Samaritan woman Jesus met at a well, belongs in this collection. In this story John has Jesus asking the woman for a drink of water. Indeed, the conversation between the two, is the longest of any Jesus is supposed to have had with anyone. Traditionally, the substance of the story is said to be about ‘liberal’ Jesus talking to an immoral Samaritan ‘outsider’ woman. The difficulty with this interpretation is that it trips up the rest of the story. Immediately after Jesus describes her past, she says, “I see that you are a prophet” and asks him where one should worship. If you believe the worst of her, this is nothing more than a clumsy attempt to change the topic. But if you can imagine another scenario, things look different. “Seeing” in John, it’s crucial to note, is all-important. “To see” is often connected with belief. When the woman says, “I see you are a prophet,” she is making a confession of faith. Why? Because Jesus has “seen” her. He has seen her plight — of dependence, not immorality. He has recognized her, spoken with her, offered her something of incomparable worth. He has seen her — she exists for him, has worth, value, significance and all of this is treatment to which she is unaccustomed. And so when he speaks of her past both knowingly and compassionately, she realizes she is in the presence of a prophet. For this reason only does she risk the central question that has divided Samaritans and Jews for centuries. This is no awkward dodge or academic diversion; this is a heartfelt question that gets to the core of what separates her from Jesus. And when Jesus surprises her with an answer that is simultaneously more hopeful and penetrating than she’d expected, she leaves her water jar behind to tell her neighbours about this man.

So if this seems at least as probable an interpretation as the more routine traditional one, why do so many preachers assume the worst of her? There are two possible reasons for this. First, there is a long history of misogyny in Christian theology that stands in sharp contrast to the important role women play in the gospels themselves. Women, the four evangelists testify, supported Jesus’ ministry. They were present at the tomb when their male companions fled. And they were the first witnesses to the resurrection. Yet from asserting that Eve was the one who succumbed to temptation (conveniently ignoring that the author of Genesis says Adam was right there with her — Gen. 3:6) to assuming this Samaritan woman must be a prostitute, there is the ugly taint of chauvinism present in too much Christian preaching, perhaps particularly so in those traditions that refuse to recognize the equality of women to preach and teach with the same authority as men. But as many scholars have pointed out, this and similar interpretations are an awful misreading of an important story.

A second reason preachers cast this woman in the role of prostitute is that it plays into the belief that Christianity, and religion generally, is chiefly about morality. Treating the Bible as one long, if peculiar, cartoon, we read every story we find in terms of sin and forgiveness, moral depravity and repentance. But this story is not about immorality; it’s about identity. In the previous scene, Jesus was encountered by a male Jewish religious authority who could not comprehend who or what Jesus was. In this scene, he encounters the polar opposite, and perhaps precisely because she is at the other end of the power spectrum, she recognizes not just who Jesus is but what he offers — dignity. Jesus invites her to not be defined by her circumstances and offers her an identity that lifts her above her tragedy. And she accepts, playing a unique role in Jesus’ ministry as she is the first character in John’s gospel to seek out others to tell them about Jesus.

 

If we preachers can rise above the misogyny and moralism that characterizes too much Christian theology, we have the opportunity to tell this woman’s story for what it is: a story of the transforming power of love and the capacity to receive and live into a new identity.

When we stay with the story… with the help of Amy-Jill Levine, the Jewish New Testament scholar: We find that (One) The woman is not an outsider. Jewish Jesus is the outsider. She is a Samaritan, and they are on her home turf. (Two) that the woman’s visit to the well in the daylight, is a storyteller’s device about seeing the ‘light’, rather than an indication of social ostracism. The Samaritan woman is the one who sees. Who has understood, has received the revelation, has seen the light. And (Three) There is absolutely nothing that indicates she is ‘sinful’ or sexually promiscuous. “The… woman (might be) unfortunate, but she is not sinful…  The only ones who condemn her are the biblical scholars.” (Levine 2006:137)

Another person who might help us appreciate this story beyond the traditional, is a bloke called Rick Marshall.  Taking John’s image of a well and the rising up of the water, Marshall says: “Who knows where (the water) comes from.  But we drink it and go on living our lives…  That’s how the creative, transforming power of God is:  Who knows where it comes from, but it sustains us and we go on living our lives. It is like the randomness of creation, the serendipity of evolution, the potential of water. We are called to trust the ‘Living Water’.” (Rick Marshall. P&F Web site, 2005) It nourishes the dryness and the damp but if in our seeking to control it rather than trust it we will kill it or abuse it and we have a desert flash flood or a sodden earth catastrophe. It sustains us if we trust it and we go on living our lives. “We experience the creating, transforming power of God routinely, quietly moving through life, our life.” (Rick Marshall. P&F Web site, 2005)

I wonder if this is also what the storyteller we call John had in mind, when he told the story of Jesus asking a woman for a drink. Water is life, It is a Living water. It permeates our living, it is our livings life blood. Randal Wehler’s poem attempts to explore this sense of this living water’s place in the scheme of life.

A Face In The River

by Randall Wehler

 

I stand on a bank of a running river, immersed in a flow of my own called life

Sad, happy, fearful, calm, and joyous awe-filled waves lap up all around me

 

The waters seem to call to something deep inside me, awakened to a Godly spirit

Seeing that what life gives — the good and the bad — must have meaning and purpose

 

Though poised on the river’s shore, it’s but a short walk into the cleansing waters

I can suspend, weightless, against the flowing Earthly energy of fluid sustenance

 

I feel nourished, also, by God’s numinous presence whose works are all around me

Having been created with awareness to contemplate the divine, the world, myself

 

The Sun shines, coloring flowing waters with changing hues throughout the day

As a divine presence guides me daily to think, feel, and experience the wonder

 

Were I to stare down into these waters when they’re calm and my spirit serene

I’d see my face reflected, maybe sensing a glimpse of God dwelling inside me

 

My life and spirit move onward — questioning, seeking, finding, and knowing

As the river’s waters flow, coursing a movement into channels of Earthly design

 

I can rest assured that God (as understood) can guide us all in Christ-like ways

Reflecting on scripture where Jesus declares God’s provision of “living waters”

 

This living water is so intrinsically part of life that it is easy to become complacent about it, to take it for granted. That is the nature of this living water. So wonderfully precious yet so invisible it is taken for granted. This living water is how the transforming presentness of Creativity God is. It sustains us as we live our lives, quietly moving through life, our life. So we might live life to the full, love wastefully, and be all that we can be.  (John S Spong)

 

Notes: de Mello, A. The Song of the Bird. 10th edition. India: Anand. Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1988. Ferguson, G. & R. Allen. ”Thirsty in a Dry Land: The Migrant Experience of the Absence of God” in G. Ferguson & J. Chryssavgis. The Desert is Alive. Melbourne. JBCE, 1990. Levine, A-J. The Misunderstood Jew. The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. New York. HarperOne, 2006.

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