The woman at the well did not know who she was talking to. This is of specific importance in today’s gospel reading (Jn. 4:5-42). To her this man was some strange Jew – particularly strange in the fact that he would talk to a Samaritan woman.
A danger in the life of faith is that we turn faith and Jesus himself into an idea. The problem with that is that in order to grasp an idea you have to have it all figured out. Also, ideas are passive. They wait for our acting upon them. Jesus is not an idea, he is a person and faith is not an ideology, it is an encounter. People can introduce themselves to us without our expectation. It happens all the time. Some person comes up to us on the street or in the store. People are active. They can necessitate an encounter. This is what Jesus did at the well. “Give me a drink,” he asks of the woman.
You may have seen the painting of Jesus standing at the door and knocking. An aspect of that painting is that there is no door handle on Jesus’ side of the door. He stands waiting. There is some truth to that depiction of Christ. In faith there is an element where we have to open the door to Christ and let him into our lives. But, in light of today’s gospel, this image falls far short. Christ initiates! Not only does he not stand meekly rapping on the door, he busts the door down! “…whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst … You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’ For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” We should imagine a stranger approaching us in the supermarket and saying something similar in regards to our life. How would we respond? However we might respond, I doubt we would regard that stranger as a passive, shrinking violet.
The Christ that we proclaim as Christians is a person – a person who once was dead and who now lives. A person who can enter into our lives however and whenever he so chooses. Frankly, keeping Christ as an idea can be a mechanism on our part that we deploy to keep Christ and the fullness of the demands of the gospel on our life at bay. It is much easier to put off an “idea” as a nice thought for “sometime down the road” than it is to put off a person who is staring us in the face and whose presence necessitates a response. Christ necessitates a response.
In the fifth chapter of Luke’s gospel we find the call of Simon Peter. It is interesting to note how Luke presents this call. Jesus sees two boats on the shore and the fishermen washing their nets. Luke then writes, “Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land.” Then after teaching for a while, Jesus says to Simon, “Put out into the deep and lower your nets for a catch.” In neither instance does Jesus ask permission. He did not ask Peter’s permission to get into the boat, he just got in. Then, he tells Peter (an accomplished fisherman) to lower the nets. Jesus walked into the very midst of Peter’s life, even his livelihood, and totally redirects it. An idea cannot do this, only a person can.
Keeping Christ as an idea might seem safe and comfortable but it limits and even deadens life. It was only through her encounter with this man who is Jesus that the woman at the well found healing from the scars she bore and the pain that had hardened her heart. Freed from that burden she, who had been the outcast of her village, became the messenger who helped to bring her fellow villagers to believe in Christ.
Jesus is not an idea, he is a person and faith is not an ideology, it is a living encounter.
The woman said, “I know that the Messiah is coming…” Jesus responds, “I am he, the one speaking with you.”
While reflecting on the message of the parables in the first volume of his work on Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Emeritus Benedict writes this:
The time of Jesus, the time of the disciples, is the time of sowing and of the seed. The “Kingdom of God” is present in seed form. Observed from the outside, the seed is something minuscule. It is easy to overlook. The mustard seed – an image of the Kingdom of God – is the smallest of seeds yet it bears the whole tree within it. The seed is the presence of what is to come in the future. In the seed, that which is to come is already here in a hidden way. It is the presence of a promise.
Further on, Pope Emeritus Benedict will refer to the resurrection of Christ as “the smallest mustard seed of history” precisely because it was so improbable. Living as Christian disciples nearly two thousand years after the fact, we can – on the surface – find this statement to be counterintuitive. “What does he mean that the resurrection is the smallest mustard seed of history?” We know and we claim the resurrection to be the defining point of all human history yet Pope Emeritus Benedict is getting at an extremely fine point here. The resurrection of Christ is a seed and it is the smallest of seeds because at no other time in all of human history had the stone of the tomb been rolled away nor had any human person been resurrected to eternal life. In this “seed” death is conquered and the tomb is emptied! And the seed bears fruit!
The seed of the resurrection “bears the whole tree within it” and “is the presence of what is to come in the future”. The mystery of the Transfiguration (Mt. 17:1-9), which we reflect upon this second Sunday of Lent, is itself a foreshadowing and a glimpse of the fullness of what is to come!
Throughout Scripture we find that God is a gardener and has the patience and deliberateness of a gardener. In the account of creation itself we see that God plants all of creation and takes great delight in it. A little further on in Genesis – from this Sunday’s first reading – (Gen. 12:1-4a) we find that God chooses a people and plants them in human history. From the littlest seed of Abram’s faith, God will make a great nation …, from which all the communities of the earth shall find blessing. Centuries later, our Lord (a son of this great nation promised to Abram) takes Peter, James and John up on a high mountain and is transfigured before them. Moses and Elijah appearing beside him – Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets! It could be said that God has so cultivated creation and human history that now this “seed” who bears all of the fullness of the Kingdom of God within himself and who is indeed the fullness of what is to come in the Kingdom is brought forth and is preparing to die that we might have life!
Is it no wonder that those three disciples fall prostrate and are caught in fear at the enormity of the vision presented before their eyes? In any icon of the Transfiguration you will see that Peter, James and John are cowering, even turning away and hiding their faces. The vision terrifies in its magnificence, wonder and beauty! God is at work and in the transfiguration we are afforded the slightest glimpse of this work! …then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
So … what are we disciples of Christ in 2014 to do? I would say that the Gospel calls us to hold fast to this smallest mustard seed of history! In many ways the truth of Christ still remains small and perhaps it always will this side of history. Many people still scoff and deride Christ and his message, the violence of this world rages, fear and the constant message of “Save yourself!” abounds in our time. Yet, as Christians we hold to something different and by this we set our lives and our hope. I would also say that the Gospel calls us to train our sight by this smallest mustard seed of history. Christ is bringing about the Kingdom; God is at work healing his creation. The powers of the world desperately want to claim all our attention for fear that we notice what God is doing. When we recognize God at work, the powers of the world lose any and all illusion of authority.
Christians, turn toward the Transfiguration and away from the false illusions of our time! Hold fast to Christ and train your sight to the healing work of the smallest mustard seed of history!
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
It is said that old heresies never die; they just keep coming back in different forms. There is truth to this and I find it revealed in the pervasive spirit of Gnosticism present in our culture and time – specifically, Gnosticism’s denial of nature and creation. Historically, Gnosticism was a blending of aspects of Christianity, philosophy, and Eastern mystery religions that challenged the orthodox faith in its first centuries. Gnosticism highlighted secret knowledge as key to salvation as well as denigrating what it saw as the shackle or prison of creation and the physical body. The early Church had to answer the distortions of Gnosticism and it did so by maintaining the continuity of the same God revealed in the Old and New Testaments and holding to the profound truth of the incarnation.
Now, jump ahead to America in 2014. It seems a contradiction and an irony that in a time that prides itself on being increasingly “ecologically conscious” we find the re-emergence of the gnostic temptation of denigrating and fleeing creation but this, I would propose, is exactly what is happening. We find this temptation to flee the “confines” of creation all around us; i.e. trends in body modification from covering the body in tattoos to the extremes of plastic surgery and body building (as noted by Jared Zimmerer in his post “Desire and the Human Form”for Word on Fire), the now felt need for a plethora of distinctions in gender identification (apparently the biological stamp of “male” and “female” no longer suffices and gender can be determined distinct from biology and creation), the temptation to play God and use advances in technology and scientific understanding to craft babies to our liking, the stubborn refusal to admit that climate is changing and that humanity has a role to play in this (here I would refer readers to the encyclical “Caritatis in Veritate” by Pope Benedict as well as his Message for the Celebration of the World Day of Peace – January 1,2010). What is common in all of these (and many more) seeming disparate social trends? I would argue that one element held in common is the gnostic trend to seek to flee the confines of creation.
In this context what then is the Christian to do? Be radical; make the choice to live within the reality of nature. Here is a point to reflect upon: for those who participate and pray the Liturgy of the Hours, look through your Breviary and notice how many of the opening songs of morning and evening prayer refer to creation and grace … and the two are not opposed! This is the genius of Christianity on display and the prayer of the Church is teaching us an essential truth! Grace does not abolish creation nor does it overcome it; grace sustains creation, peacefully enters within creation, heals creation and works with creation. Creation is not to be fled from but rather embraced because within the very “confines” of creation, God’s grace is at work and to be found! Any attempt to flee creation is based on error and confusion.
Here are some thoughts (not a definitive and exhaustive list) on what it means to be radical and actually seek to live within the reality of creation.
Accept yourself for who you are and others for who they are. Throughout Scripture we are reminded again and again that God is the creator and that God loves his creation. That includes you, me and every other person. Yes, there is the reality of sin and our need for a savior but the savior has come and his healing grace is offered. Allow God’s gentle grace to work in your life. Part of living with this gentle grace, I believe, is to not give in to the common temptation to affix a label to oneself or others. The human person is an ever-dynamic mystery; labels cut off mystery. Be willing to live in this mystery and trust that God is at work.
Celebrate the sacraments. Sacraments reveal in an utterly unique way the reality of grace working through creation and not opposed to creation. Learn the wisdom of the sacraments not in an attempt to “figure it out” but rather to live in the mystery and through them to be brought to deeper understanding.
Develop a mature understanding of Scripture, especially the Gospels. Gone are the days when Christians could get by on leaving the Scriptures to the “professionals”. A part of every day should be spent with the Scriptures, particularly the Gospels. Notice how creation plays a major part throughout the Gospel story, i.e. Jesus walking on water, the star of Bethlehem, Jesus teaching on the lilies of the field, Jesus and the disciples walking on the road, the bread and wine used for the last supper – the list could go on and on.
Fast. Hunger has a way of clarifying priorities and through fasting we are quickly reminded that we are embodied beings.
Develop healthy friendships. True and healthy friendships, though often rare, are a gift from God. Friendship helps to anchor us in ourselves and in our world.
Turn off the TV and social media. Entertainment and social media certainly have their place and can be beneficial tools in helping to enlighten and educate the human spirit but my experience has shown when not used in a measured and balanced way they quickly lead to isolation, superficial relationships and a chronic cynicism and jeering attitude which stunt maturity and are besetting sins of our time.
Enjoy nature. Creation gives glory to the Creator. Creation also teaches, gives insight and enables us to gain perspective.
Practice humility and through this practice realize that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves.
Not long ago I was out for a walk in the mountains, coming over a rise I was met by a herd of at least eight deer peacefully and calmly grazing in a field and drinking water from a stream. They noticed me but rather than seeming startled and bounding away they calmly moved off into the woods. It was a beautiful sight and a gift. Like the deer that yearns for running streams so my soul thirsts for you my God.
Creation is not to be fled from. Be radical! Choose to live within the context of creation!