Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 27, 2011:

First Reading: Exodus 17:1-7

Psalm: Psalm 95

Second Reading: Romans 5:1-11

Gospel: John 4:5-42

If you didn't read much of the Bible, you might assume that Samaritans are good people; after all, wasn't the only person who stopped to help the traveler who was assaulted and left for dead, wasn't that person a Samaritan?

Yes, and that's part of the point of the story that many of us miss. Church officials didn't stop to help. The only person who did stop to help was one of the lowest people in the social stratosphere.

Actually, today's Gospel introduces us to one lower, a Samaritan woman. We know that she has low status because she's a Samaritan and because she's coming to the well later in the day. It would have been the custom to come early in the morning to socialize, and the fact that she doesn't come then speaks volumes. She's a woman in a patriarchal society and part of a group (Samaritans) who have almost no social status. It would only be worse if she was a prostitute or a slave.

Yet, Jesus has a long conversation with her, the longest that he has with anyone recorded in the New Testament. Here, again this week, Jesus is in Mystic mode. She asks questions, and he gives her complex answers.

But unlike Nicodemus, she grasps his meaning immediately. And she believes. She goes back to her city and spreads the good news. And her fellow citizens believe her and follow her back to follow Jesus. Notice how she has gone from isolation to community.

Jesus preaches to them and seems to include them, complete outsiders, in his vision of the Kingdom. Hence the good news: Jesus came for us all.

Years ago, I listened to NPR commemorate the 40th anniversary of Mr. Rodgers and the neighborhood that he created for so many children on PBS television. They played a clip of him speaking to the grown ups who had grown up watching him. He reminded us of what he had told us when we were children: "I like you just the way you are."

I felt tears well up from a deep, inside place. How seldom we hear that, either as children or as grown ups! How often are we exhorted to improve ourselves this way or that way. How relentlessly we quest for perfection.

In this Gospel, we hear a similar voice to Mr. Rodgers, the voice of Christ who will spend time with people who are completely outcast. We are never too lost for God. We don't have to improve ourselves to win salvation. God doesn't tell us that we'll win love if we just lose ten pounds or pray more often or work one more night in the soup kitchen or give away ten more dollars a week to worthy charities.

Jesus doesn't send the Samaritan woman back to town until he's made a connection with her. He doesn't say, "Hey, if you're at a well at noon, you must be a real slut, if the women won't even let you come to the well with them in the morning. Mend your slutty ways, and maybe I'll let you be part of my vision for the Kingdom."

No, he spends time with her and that's how he wins her over. He knows that humans can't change themselves in the hopes of some kind of redemption; we can’t even lose 10 pounds in time for our class reunion, much less make the substantial changes that will take us into a healthier older age. However, Jesus knows the path to true change; he knows that humans are more likely to change if they feel like God loves them and wants to be with them just the way they are. Jesus comes to say, “You’ve lived in the land of self-loathing long enough. Sit with me and talk about what matters.” That treatment might be enough to motivate us to behave like we are the light of the world.

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