March 23 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Third Sunday in Lent
Texts: Exodus 17: 1-7; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42
Theme: There are some obvious front-runners this week: “The Water of Life”; “The Source of Life”; “Water and the Spirit”. Take your pick. Perhaps “The Well of Life” may capture it better. To remind us that what Christianity is really about is encountering Christ – experiencing his presence – we might prefer something like “Encountering Christ”. But this week I want to focus on that woman who had that experience; and for reasons that will become clearer later I’m going for “Becoming the Best We Can Be”.
Introduction. Whatever else the Season of Lent is, it is a period of great readings, and this week exemplifies this. We start with the drama of real basic human thirst, and the natural human reaction when faced with difficulty. The people grumble, lose their confidence in their leaders and in God, and demand some accountability. Moses passes on their complaints, if only to save his own skin. His own faith is being tested. St Paul takes the opposite approach: our relationship with God has been healed – we are reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. But does that solve anything in the “real” world? And we meet a woman whose mind is also on the basic need for water, yet is open to the possibility that there is more to life than can be hauled up in a bucket.
Background. Is it just me, or has this been a particularly depressing week? A large modern airliner disappears with nearly 300 people on board and no one has any idea where it is? At least, no one who is prepared to say anything that might disclose their surveillance networks. Russia takes possession of the Crimea and is criticised by countries like the USA and the United Kingdom, whose own recent past hardly gives them grazing rights on the moral high-ground. Another child-porn ring is uncovered involving people from many countries including our own. In London the phone-hacking scandal trundles on, revealing ever greater depths to which the greet Fleet Street media, apostles of the Fourth Estate, were prepared to sink in order to make ever greater profits for their shareholders; and from South Africa an even greater horror unfolds as a man tries to excuse the shooting of one person the ground that he thought he was shooting someone else.
For some reason, from all this two, perhaps, more trivial matters have particularly set me off this week. The first was a radio interview with a spokeswoman for some dog-owners, who was asked about the difficulty in complying with recent legislation relating to the classification of certain breeds of dog as dangerous. Apparently the owners of such dogs are lying on their application forms for the registration of their dogs, describing them as “Labrador-cross”, for example, rather than as “pit-bull”. According to this woman the owners have no other choice; if they were honest about the breed, the dog would be recorded as dangerous, and would be subject to all sorts of restrictions. In some cases the dog would have to be neutered. So, the real culprits are the fools who passed the new laws, and or the local councils who do not check that the applicant is telling the truth. The idea that the owner might tell the truth because it is the honest thing to do never seemed to cross this woman’s mind. Who is going to tell the truth if, in doing so, it might cost them money?
And secondly, the ODT published an article by Sue Foley,a Westpac executive, commenting on the findings of a “Women of New Zealand Survey”. Ms Foley did not, of course, want “to impose my own approach to life on anyone else”, and then proceeded to do just that. Ms Foley’s main gripe seemed to be that only 12% of New Zealand women “aspire to being the CEO/boss”; and “only 33% viewed a career as a way to test themselves or be the best they can”. It’s that expression “to be the best they can” that really pressed my button. The assumption underlying Ms Foley’s entire article is that we can become the best we can only through climbing the career ladder (and certainly not stopping half-way up). Ms Foley offered no comment on what to me was the most distressing finding in the survey: when asked “What aspect of New Zealand needs most improvement” only 25% opted for “more social equality and equal opportunity”.
All of which led me to pondering again this wonderful story of the woman at the well. What were her aspirations for her life? Did she dream of one day having power and prestige? A chance to test herself and be the best she could be? Or was she destined to become one of those “women to cringe in later life at the thought of those two horrible words – if only?” We know the answer, but it is one that would seem to make no sense to Ms Foley or those involved in the survey. We know that the woman was simply doing her tiring chore, trudging to the well to get water for her household, before trudging all the way back now burdened with the weight of her pitcher. It was noon, the hottest part of the day.
When she arrives at the well she notices a man resting there. He was tired out by his journey. There are all sorts of barriers between the two of them, barriers of gender, history, culture, and, above all, of understanding. One by one Jesus breaks down these walls that divide. And we watch as she becomes in his presence the best that she can become. From silent water-gatherer, she blossoms into cautious but curious questioner, and then into dialogue-partner, and then into evangelist to her people. She leaves her water-jar, symbol of her career, centre of her daily life, and calls the people of her city. “Come and see for yourselves; come and make up your own minds.” And they heeded her call in large numbers, men as well as women. Not everyone, of course; many stayed in their offices, factories and other work-places, testing themselves and striving to be the best they could be. Some of them might even have become CEO/boss in years to come.
And some of them noticed something that worried them a lot. They noticed that those who had downed tools and followed that crazy woman out into the wilderness to listen to some ne’er-do-well from Nazareth seemed changed somehow. They seemed happier, more contented with their lot, kinder, readier to help others, more confident and less liable to worry about the future; more committed to helping their neighbours instead of spying on them or gossiping about them; more committed to telling the truth even when it could cost them their lives. And one or two or more of them, in older age, found themselves muttering to themselves those horrible words – if only – “if only I had followed them – if only I had listened to that crazy woman – if only I had met that man from Nazareth when I had the chance.”
Exodus. I’ve always struggled with passages like this. I hate being hot, tired and thirsty; and when I am I look for someone to blame for my predicament. Whose idea was it that we should go for a walk? So I’m instinctively with the grumblers in situations like this. I forget all the times when things went wonderfully right; the beauty of the surroundings, the pleasure of the walk, the gentle, cooling breeze. I don’t so much enjoy their presence as lament their absence. The people turn on Moses, but, of course, they are really complaining about God. Moses knows that, and refers their complaint on to God. Not in so many words, of course: he wraps up his complaint to make it look like a plea for wisdom or guidance. “What should I do?” really means, “You got us into this, now do something to get us out of it.” God gives him what he wants – a plan of action. It is a plan to journey on, to go forward, not to retreat. God will be there to meet them and to meet their needs. We notice that Moses does as he is commanded. We are not told what God does: that goes without saying. Notice, too, that the place is to be remembered, not as the place where God provided water to drink, but as the place where the people quarrelled and tested the Lord.
Taking It Personally.
· In times of difficulty, the people lose faith. Can you relate to that? Or has it been your experience that times of difficulty strengthen your faith?
· Are you inclined to blames others at such times?
· Are you inclined to look back to the good old days?
· Notice the question the Israelites ask at the end of this passage: “is the Lord with us or not?” That’s the real issue, isn’t it? Have you ever asked yourself that question? How would you answer that question now?
Romans. St Paul proclaims what for him is the one unassailable fact as he ponders the work of Jesus Christ: as a result of that work we are reconciled to God – our relationship with God has been healed. In the light of that, even the terrible times we experience from time to time can be accepted (if not welcomed) as opportunities for new spiritual growth. And all this is God’s gift to us, not because we have cleaned up our act and become worthy of God’s love, but precisely so that we might clean up our act and become worthy of the love we have already received. “While we were yet sinners...” is not for St Paul an astute piece of theological exposition, or a nice piece of liturgy: it is breathtakingly wonderful good news!
Taking It Personally.
· Notice how balanced the two halves of this passage are. What saves the first half from becoming a sort of self-improvement guide?
· Are verses 3-5 true to your own experience or not?
· What does it mean for you that you are reconciled to God? Do you feel at peace with God?
John. Another of the wonderful dialogue narratives through which John teaches us the spiritual life within the context of the everyday world. Today we have an unnamed woman – she stands for all of us (men as well as women) who have basic needs that have to be met if life is to continue. Water, I guess, is second only to air in our list of the necessities of life. And yet, in surely the most telling phrase in this whole wonderful story, in the wake of her encounter with Jesus “the woman left her water jar and went back to the city”. She forgets even her need for water in her excitement. Feminist theologians might want to make something of the fact that she does not have a name; but surely we cannot doubt that Jesus treats her as a person in her own right. He is patient with her (more patient than he was with Nicodemus) leading her from one insight to the next, one step to the next on the spiritual journey. More, he makes himself vulnerable in her presence. He asks her for help, which she could have refused; he reveals his true identity to her, which she could have ridiculed. And when it was over she thought only of her neighbours. Had she taken back her pitcher of water she might have shared it with her own household: what she had received from Jesus was more than enough for everybody in the city to share if they wanted to.
Taking It Personally.
· A wonderful passage for Ignatian prayer, using your imagination. Place yourself at the well. Watch and listen as the drama unfolds. Notice how the woman gradually grows in confidence. But notice, too, how Jesus becomes energised in this episode. He starts “tired out by his journey”. By the end he is ready for the curious crowds coming to him. What do you make of that?
· Jesus reveals to the woman that he knows her through and through. What might Jesus know about you that you would rather he didn’t know?
· Suppose your neighbour came to you to ask for some water – would you give him/her some?
· Now suppose your neighbour comes to you for help to meet Jesus. What would you say or do?