Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Jesus Needs

Scripture for the 3rd Sunday in Lent includes Exodus 17:1-7; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42

Spring is springing. I know, some of you want more evidence of the claim. O ye of little faith… So consider the following proof that Spring has come:

The goldfinches at our feeders, like the leaf buds on the willow trees, are turning gold.

Bird-song in our yards and fields and woods is turning operatic, the crooners are crooning and those being courted are fanning the flames.

Friday, I saw a crow pumping his way through the air above the student union, a long tuft of grass clamped in his beak, heading from his avian Home Depot to build that nest.

And most of our students are gone, so it must be Spring.

The evidence that spoke to my soul was that crow. Seeing him rise with purloined college property reminded me that we aren’t the only species enjoying the results of our gardens. Watching his determination navigating that beakful I was reminded of the raven Noah sent out from the ark, forty days after that great rescue vessel had come to rest on Mount Ararat: that bird “went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth.”

And we think we’ve had a tough winter.

Water, water everywhere in the Book of Genesis, but not a drop to drink, there in the wilderness along the Sinai desert, says the Book of Exodus. On Easter Eve, we will hear the dramatic rescue God achieved for the Hebrew slaves escaping from Egypt; but today we fast-forward to the tough going that followed, when those refugees quarreled with Moses, demanding to know what he would do about their lack of water. What kind of spring break was this, that their lives might be in peril for lack of foresight by the tour management?

In the companion story from John’s Gospel we see Jesus, tired out by his own long desert journey, sitting down by an historic well near the Samaritan city of Sychar. Like the Hebrew refugees encamped at Rephidim, Jesus sits right above a source of water. Like his ancestors, Jesus lacks the tool he needs to get that water. He has no bucket.

I guess you could say that in the Exodus story, Moses has the tool needed to raise that water: his miraculous staff, straight from Hogwarts. But the way the Exodus story reads, the tool the refugees lack is faith, trust in God, confidence in Moses: Their situation matches those words we spoke in today’s collect: they had no power in themselves to help themselves. Well, they did, but they squandered it by their quarreling, their complaining; it seeped through the tightly-gripped fingers of their anxiety. They were powerless, helpless through their incessant blaming of Moses, their inner pool of responsibility evaporated.

By contrast, Jesus is not short on faith, trust, and confidence. But he puts himself quite purposefully into a helpless mode, sitting by a deep well with no bucket. Jesus needs. Jesus needs help. He has power in himself to help himself—recall those intense temptations he met and mastered in the desert—but he chooses to set up shop dead center in the human experience. As St. Paul puts it today, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly… while we still were sinners, Christ died for us.” This Savior is not revealed as a take-charge sort of guy. He gets the point about voluntary vulnerability. Heaven knows how long he was sitting there, before a Samaritan woman arrives. He wasn’t doing it for effect. He needed. He needed help. And he willingly saw the waiting as part of the providence of God.

We know that this story sounded in the first century a lot kinkier than it does to us. “Oh, good, here comes a Samaritan woman,” we may say, with all our enlightened naivete. In fact, this encounter occurs along a razor blade of judgment and scorn. The first sign of this is in the words of the woman herself: “How is it that you, a Jewish preacher type, ask a drink of me, obviously a woman, and, in case you hadn’t noticed, a resident of Samaria?” Our patron St. John, wielding his stylus, edits the moment: “Traditionally, Jews and Samaritans don’t share their toys and tools (sort of like Episcopalians and Methodists, with that sloppy schism back in the 18th century, or Episcopalians and Roman Catholics, split asunder by a bloody Reformation).” And then, hello, aren’t the culture police watching as you, a man, speak publicly to me, a woman?

Jesus needs. Jesus needs help. God needs Jesus to occupy this forbidden ground for the sake of reconciliation.

The woman’s story is, as you’ll have noticed, a long one, a complicated one. Five husbands, and (no wonder) she’s no longer quite so interested in marrying her current significant other. This history suggests additional layers of judgmentalism she may fall prey to. And additional reason why God needs Jesus to be right where he is, and as he is, for the work of reconciling love to move forward.

She becomes an apostle to the Samaritans. But notice how even they, her own kinsmen, dismiss her at the end: “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe this Jesus is the Messiah, for we have heard him ourselves (and everyone knows a woman cannot be trusted as a dependable witness)…” Nyah, nyah, nyah… Plenty of people were prepared to call her a sinner. The Gospel of John our patron presents her as an apostle.

That’s one way this story turns everything on its head. Remember the other: for that apostle to have been called, Jesus had to need, had to be powerless a while to create the terms under which they would meet. For the Church to grow, for the kingdom of God to increase, for alienation to give way to reconciliation, Jesus needs… Jesus needs us… Needs us to reconsider the nature of powerlessness, how it may be the holy ground, the vulnerable condition, the way, the truth, the life in which we may meet reconciling love, and help it happen.