Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Woman at the Well

3rd Sunday of Lent/A March 11, 2012

I love it when films or music – stuff that is out in the world—give us a contemporary lens with which we can view the lessons in the Gospel. Fr Jim referenced Oscar-nominated film “The Artist” on the first two Sundays of Lent as a means of helping us understand silence and listening. Not that we have a series going here, but today, the 3rd Sunday of Lent, there is an Oscar-nominated film that might help us better understand the story of the Samaritan woman at the well.

"The Help" is based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett and is the story about some very extraordinary women who bond over a book that they all contribute to—a book that views the 1960’s South through the eyes of “the help”—the African American women who were the maids—without whom life would have come to a complete halt. The book is secretly written, and comes into being after the assassination of Medger Evers galvanizes the Civil Rights Movement. The women who contribute their stories do so at great peril.There is a scene in “The Help”-----the scene involving Minnie, the outspoken maid that no one would hire, and Celia, the social outcast who hires her. On Minnie’s first day of work, it’s lunch time, and Minnie sits down in the kitchen to eat.Celia brings her plate in from the dining room and sits at the kitchen table with Minnie.“We’ve been over this, Miss Celia,” says Minnie. “You’re supposed to eat in the dining room. That’s how it works. Here, let me take your plate back.” Celia won’t let Minnie take the plate and responds, “I’m fine right here, Minnie.”They eat lunch together, Celia grateful for the company, and Minnie, not so sure about all of this----because the reality of these two women having lunch together simply did not happen in that setting and time.

I thought about Minnie when I read this Gospel story----the maids, and any person of color, were the outcasts ---and still are in so many ways that should make us angry. Celia shouldn’t have been an outcast according to the ‘rules’ of color, but she was--the adult woman still bullied by the mean girls who grew up to be mean women. Celia broke the rules and ate lunch with Minnie, and treated her with dignity and respect. The friendship that grows between these two women helps to heal the pain of being an outcast—for both of them.

The Samaritan woman was the ultimate outcast. Depending on whom you talked to, Jesus was also an outcast. The woman had come to the well in the middle of the day, reasonably sure that she wouldn’t have to deal with anyone, but instead met Jesus. Jesus broke a lot of rules—and one of the rules in this encounter was that Jewish men didn’t talk to women that they weren’t related to—and no good Jewish person would ever speak to a Samaritan at any time for any reason. The woman said, "How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?" A Samaritan woman was considered to be the lowest of human life forms, and she knew this. Jesus apparently didn’t consider her to be anything less than a person of great dignity and worth.

She was a strong woman.Jesus spoke directly to her as an equal. This Gospel reading makes a lot of people uncomfortable because I think that we are afraid of strong women. The Samaritan woman was not who you thought she was. If you look at how Jesus deals with women throughout the Gospels, this interaction shouldn’t surprise you. Jesus treated women as equals. He was very direct in his conversation, yet He didn’t pass judgment. He called it like He saw it. I like that about Jesus. When we hear this Gospel, we tend to not think too highly of the woman at the well---after all, she was divorced 5 times. We allow ourselves to be distracted by her circumstances, because, even now, divorce makes us very uncomfortable. We tend to ostracize folks who suffer the pain of a broken relationship.It’s easy to stand in judgment when you don’t understand the context for someone’s behavior. In first century Palestine, divorce was quite common, and could only be initiated by the husband. He could do so for any reason at all—and for something as trivial as being mad that his dinner was late, or burned, or not what he ordered. The Samaritan woman had been dumped.Dumped--5 times, by 5 different husbands. Then, as now, we blame and shame the victim—the female victim. In first century Palestine, if you were a divorced woman, or a widow, or an orphan---you had no standing and you were the most vulnerable person in society. You had no one to take care of you. She had good reason to hide out in the middle of the day at the well. Yet Jesus treated her with great compassion and had a conversation with her that changed her life. He broke all the social rules about who He should and shouldn’t speak to------and He did it because it was the human and kind thing to do.He treated all people, even those considered to be outcasts, with dignity and respect. The Gospel doesn’t mention whether or not they had lunch, but I like to think that they did.

We know that He asked her for something to drink. When she challenged Him over this request, He responded with the discourse on Living Water, which makes me think of El Salvador, our Rice Bowl country for this week. Many of you know that I spent time in El Salvador during the summer of 2007 with Catholic Relief Services. Some of CRS’ work there focuses on ensuring clean water for all. It was there that I realized how we take water for granted here----we live in one of the few countries in the world where you can put your cup under the tap and drink what comes out of it. Not so in El Salvador. You have to drink and brush your teeth with bottled water. When you take a shower, you have to plug your ears, eyes and nose to make sure that no water gets in. If you don’t take those precautions, the water will make you very, very sick. I took all the precautions, and I still ended up getting sick for the rest of that summer. Clean water is what they don’t have there, and what we take for granted here. If you use bottled water, perhaps you could give it up for the rest of Lent, and refill your bottle from the tap-- and then put what you save into the Rice Bowl for El Salvador. We don’t know what we have.

My journey in El Salvador helped me to more clearly understand the meaning of Living Water, and I can’t hear this Gospel now without remembering what they don’t have there. That’s the truth about us---we don’t know what we have. The troubling, and ultimately healing thing in today’s Gospel is that Jesus told the Samaritan women the truth about herself---which is the truth that we all must hear---that we are wounded, broken sinners in need of healing, grace and un-bottled Living Water.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Calling Disciples

3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B January 22, 2012

People often ask me why the cycle of readings doesn’t follow the chronological course of the life of Jesus---I mean, Christmas was less than a month ago, and already we have the story of Jesus calling the disciples. The short, overly-simplistic answer is that the Gospels aren’t biographies of Jesus---they aren’t about His life story as such. A few personality details emerge---and one gets the sense that there is more to Jesus than what is on the page. The 3rd Sunday of Ordinary time marks the preparation for public ministry, next week, on the 4th Sunday of Ordinary Time, the ministry begins in earnest. The Gospel of Mark doesn’t linger on anything, and it’s clear that it’s not a biography.

The Gospels are about His identity as being sent by God and an attempt to tell this story in a particular way for a particular audience or community. Mark’s Gospel, which we read every 3 years, doesn’t even have the story of the birth of Jesus—it begins with the preaching of John the Baptist, followed by the Baptism and Temptation of Jesus, and then the beginning of His ministry in Galilee with the call of the first disciples. The Gospels focus on that crucial three years of public ministry -- there isn’t a chapter in any of the Gospels entitled “Jesus, the Hidden Teen Years.”

The way that our culture ‘does’ Christmas continues to make us forget what it all is really about—everything about Christmas, including the music, should point us to Easter and everything in between. The Gospel today invites us to consider what it is we should understand after the Christmas rush is over. A few years ago, I ran across this wonderful quote from Howard Thurman, who was an early mentor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I’ve used this on my Christmas cards.

When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone

When the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flocks

The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among people, to make music in the heart.”

That’s what happens in today’s Gospel---Jesus begins the “work of Christmas.” Jesus calls the first disciples—and us, to the ‘work of Christmas.’

Following Jesus is easy only in the ‘talking about it’ phase. If it was really easy, everyone would do this, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. The first reading is the story of Jonah, after he got himself spit out by the whale and did what God asked him to do. Our first reading is from Ch. 3---if you go back and read Ch. 1 the first thing you find out is that God called Jonah, and told him to go to Ninevah. Jonah responds by hopping on a ship and going in the opposite direction, to Tarshish. He paid dearly for that

God’s call is not something that people respond to with great welcome---because we know that it’s going to require something of us, usually something we don’t want to do or give up. In terms of calling people, Jesus fares a bit better in the Gospel reading, and I suspect it’s because the disciples didn’t know what they were getting themselves into. Had they known ahead of time, I sometimes wonder if they would have dropped everything to follow Jesus. Following Jesus always leads to the Cross. Jesus somehow neglected to mention this when he asked Peter, Andrew, James and John to follow him. We know about the Cross, and perhaps that’s why it’s so difficult for us to follow Jesus. We have an idea of the cost, and like Jonah, we want to jump in a boat and sail as fast as possible in the opposite direction. What we have yet to figure out is that God always catches up to us. We can run, but we can’t hide. We believe in a God who loves us so much that He comes after us.

But here’s the thing to remember---Jesus didn’t ask us to do this alone. The first thing Jesus did was to call disciples----he formed a small group. This I the model for us. We don’t ‘do’ this alone---we do this as a community. We don’t gather here every Sunday to be alone with Jesus---we join the Body of Christ around the table. We encourage, challenge and support each other. We gather with an extraordinary community—I consider myself so very blessed because I get to work with an amazing staff and pastor--and with all of you. I have the most wonderful teams, and I get to work with an extraordinary group of young people. I know who my friends are—and one of the things that we all have in common is that we all share some part of this sacred work of Christmas.

Jesus left His work for us to finish. The work of Christmas then, is done by us, and begins in us.

“To find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among people, to make music in the heart.”

Let us begin.