Last week a prominent Jewish religious leader had a meeting with Jesus where Jesus talked about wind and Spirit and eternal life. Nicodemus approached Jesus from a place of theological and religious privilege. Jesus told him in no uncertain terms that his privileged religious heritage did not make him any better than anyone else – he still needed a spiritual awakening, he needed the Divine Spirit to touch his human spirit in a way that would lead him into participation in God’s life and love, which is what this Gospel calls eternal life.
This week we read about another person who has a conversation with Jesus about spiritual reality who is, for the most part, the opposite of Nicodemus. Jesus’ conversation partner today is a woman. From the perspective of most Jewish males in Jesus’ day that alone would have disqualified her from receiving religious instruction from a rabbi, just as in a number of Christian circles today being female disqualifies one from certain types of ministry. Not here of course, but certainly in many churches. She is also a Samaritan and would have been considered by most Jews of that day outside the loop of God’s blessing and redemption. In evangelical Christian language she would have been designated as “lost” or “unsaved.” But Jesus, as we see in the story, is no respecter of societal and religious conventions and norms. From Jesus’ vantage point this Samaritan woman was not any more lost or any more in need of spiritual awakening than Nicodemus, the Pharisee. So, by bringing these two stories together the Gospel writer shows Jesus breaking down the wall of separation between the so-called “chosen” people and the so-called “rejected” people, as well as the conventional barriers of “gender” and “race.” Now, if we aspire to follow Jesus we too will be in the business of crossing borders and barriers to meet people where they are, rather than constructing them. Nicodemus’ religious privilege made him no better and this woman’s lack thereof made her no worse. Both are in the same boat. They are equally children of God and equally in need of divine grace. Both are in need of an awakening generated by God’s Spirit and both in need of the intimacy that comes with God’s fellowship and friendship. Jesus meets both the Jewish religious leader and the Samaritan woman in the same place – no one is any better or worse. The need that Jesus speaks to is a universal human need.
Last Tuesday I attended the program on immigrants and refugees sponsored by the Kentucky Council of Churches in the Capital annex. Did you know that Kentucky Refugee Ministries is doing some great work and that since opening its doors in 1990 has resettled over 15,000 refugees, representing 50 nationalities and ethnic groups? The state of Kentucky is 14th in the nation in annual refugee arrivals. Did you know that the application and screening process takes an average of 18 to 24 months and that refugees are the most thoroughly vetted individuals to enter the US? After one year they can apply for permanent residency and after 5 years can become naturalized citizens. I am hoping that our church will be able in some way to participate in this ministry in the future, though most all of the refugees are resettled in Louisville or Lexington. Right now, however, there are no new refugee arrivals. Our president has put a ban on all refugees entering our country for four months and that includes all nations, not just certain Muslim nations. However, last week the court struck down that ban just the way they did the first one, so we will have to see how this plays out. But even if the ban is allowed to remain, it will not remain forever. The political landscape will change because of the outcry from peace and justice loving people.
At the meeting I heard from Zena, a Muslim refugee from Iraq who is here in Kentucky with her husband and two children. She proudly informed us that both her children have a 4.0 grade average in school. She was a computer engineer in Iraq and she worked with people of other religious faiths and nationalities. Well, a terrorist group in Iraq decided to target her and those who worked with her. Two of her friends were killed. And she likely would have been too if she remained in the country. A reminder that refugee bans result in people being killed. Her and her family found refuge here in the US. She pointed out in her talk that Muslim radicals/terrorists target peace loving Muslims just as they do any other group. Muslim terrorists are no more authentically Muslim than Christian KKK members are authentically Christian (and I hope you get that because a lot of Christians don’t). She believes as we believe that the heart of true religion is love your neighbor as yourself and she pointed to our common humanity as the basis for such love. We are sisters and brothers. She had to be careful with her words but I suspect she also would say that not only do we share a common humanity, we share a common connection to and identity in God, even though we may go about nurturing that connection in some very different ways.
Nicodemus the Jew and this woman, a Samaritan, share a common humanity and a common connection to the Divine that transcends gender, race, and religion. Christians and Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus and people of diverse faiths and good people of no faith have much to teach and offer one another. We can learn from them and they can learn from us.
Not long ago I shared a story that Philip Newell tells about one of the teachers he has worked closely with over the years, a rabbi whose name is Nahum. It’s a story worth sharing again. Several summers ago Philip and rabbi Nahum were teaching separate classes at a Conference in New Mexico. They usually co-taught the same class, but here they were teaching different classes. One morning Philip’s group was reflecting on the passage in John’s gospel where Mary comes to the tomb and sees Jesus and tries to hold on to him. As Philip reflected on that passage with his group, he thought about how Christianity has tried to “hold on” to Jesus and make him exclusively ours. He decided to share this theological observation with Rabbi Nahum. Philip sat with Nahum at lunch and as he shared this observation he began to inexplicably weep. Instead of being just a theological observation, it became a confession to his Jewish friend how we Christians have tried to make Jesus an exclusive Christian possession, when in reality he belongs to all of us. Dr. Newell writes, “Jesus was born a Jew, lived a Jew, and died as a faithful Jew. He was not a Christian. Christianity came later. How can we both love him and, at the same time, not clutch him possessively? How can we cherish the gift of his teachings and not claim them solely as ours?”
In this story from John 4 some of the Samaritans in the village are deeply impacted by the woman’s testimony and decide to meet Jesus for themselves. After experiencing Jesus themselves they conclude that truly he is the Savior of the world. If Jesus is in indeed in some sense the savior of the world then he cannot be simply the savior of Christians. If Jesus is the savior of the world then he is not exclusively ours. This also means that mediators, prophets, mystics, teachers, and reformers in other religious traditions are not exclusive theirs. We have much to learn from one another and teach one another.
There is a point in the conversation between Jesus and the woman where the topic of worship comes up. In that interchange Jesus makes clear, it seems to me, that what matters most is not place or form of worship, not religious creed or ritual. What matters most is our common need to be awakened, led, and filled with the Divine Spirit who is everywhere and in everyone. God is Spirit says Jesus. And our great need is to experience the Spirit – to know, connect with, and be filled with Spirit. The Spirit is living water. God is living water – Spirit is just another image of God, another way of talking about God. The Spirit bestows and generates life.
Now, we Christians partake of the living water by following Jesus. Jesus is our gateway into the experience of living water. Not exclusively so, but preeminently so, primarily so. When we trust God the way Jesus trusted God and when we love others the way Jesus loved others, then we too like Jesus become wells for living water to gush forth. Our lives become a source of life and blessing to others.
Now, it seems to me that if any of us are to become wells of living water, if we are to become fountains that shower blessing on others, then we must thirst for it, we must nurture an interest in and acquire a passion for the living water, for life in God. We are not going to drink if we do not thirst. True religion is not about keeping rules and believing doctrines, it’s about falling in love with God. It’s about becoming a fountain for the divine love and life to flow out. So, a critical question is this: What is it that makes a person thirsty for living water? How is this thirst for living water nurtured? I wish I could tell you. There’s a lot of mystery here.
I can understand, though, why some people have not acquired a thirst. One reason, I think, is because of our tendency to equate the spiritual life with organized religion. Organized religion can be good or bad. Healthy religion guides people into life. Bad religion turns people away. Bad religion doesn’t quench spiritual thirst, it crushes it. As I have said many times, religion can be the best thing in the world, but it can also be the worst thing.
I love the story that the late Fred Craddock tells about being at a church ministering when a young lady, maybe 15 or 16 approached him after the service with a question. What she asked was this: “Will I go to hell for not wanting to go to heaven.” He said, “Why in the world are you asking that?” She said, “Well, my mother’s real suspicious. Every time I go out I hear ‘Where are you going? Who are you going with? What are you going to do? Or when I come in I get, ‘Who were you with? What’d you do? Where have you been?’ All the time suspicious. And the way she tries to get at me is: ‘If you do this or if you don’t do this then you won’t go to heaven!’ That’s what she tells me, ‘You won’t go to heaven.’” Fred didn’t know what to say; he was kind of at a loss. He had said to his son several times, “You are grounded,” but he never meant it in any ultimate sense. But for this young lady, if heaven meant living with Christians like her mother then she didn’t want to go.
I can understand why some folks have never acquired a thirst for living water, because the so called living water that was offered to them was not living water at all – it was more like ditch water. It was contaminated water. The living water of the Spirit spreads grace and gratitude and fullness of life wherever it flows. It’s life-giving and life-affirming, not life-diminishing or condemning. I wish I knew what to tell you to do to stimulate your thirst for living water. Unfortunately, there is no magic formula or single sure-fire prescription that fits all.
In my own life I didn’t acquire this deeper thirst until I was several years into vocational ministry. I came to a place where I started to question my calling. I began to wonder if any of what I had been taught was really true. Then, quite by happenchance really I came across two books that made all the difference for me. One was by Dallas Willard, an evangelical who was a philosophy professor by trade. It is titled, The Divine Conspiracy. The other was a book was by Jesus scholar Marcus Borg. It is titled, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. And then too, not long after that I discovered the writings and teachings of Richard Rohr. I began to see through the help of these teachers the beauty and power of the very human life of Jesus of Nazareth and the actual possibility of entering into that life to some degree. I still knew that I would never be like Jesus, but I could now envision the human possibility. And somehow I stepped into the flow of divine life. I wish I could somehow reproduce what I experienced so you would experience it too, but I can’t. You might read the same books that I read and not have the experience I had at all. In fact, your experience, your awakening may not come through books at all. That’s the mystery of the wind and flowing water of the Spirit. We can’t control it. But, and this is important, we are not helpless. There are some things we can do that God cannot and will not do for us. Let me give you two things you can do.
One thing all of us can do is ask and seek. Jesus said, “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find.” The Greek tense implies continuous or repeated action. Ask and keep on asking. Seek and keep on seeking. This is something we all can do. We can repeatedly ask and seek. And by the way, this is where a healthy faith community is important. Remember, I said organized religion can be the worst or the best thing in the world. A vibrant, healthy community of faith helps us nurture this deeper thirst. Another thing we can do: We can persistently work at being a blessing to others. We can intentionally strive to be a blessing to others by bestowing blessings on others. We can put ourselves in the direction of the flow of the Spirit. The Spirit is all about mercy and justice. So just start doing mercy and justice. Go about trying to be a blessing to others and you will quite naturally step into the flow of divine life.
We can do these two things. We can ask God to stimulate our thirst, and we can intentionally seek to be a blessing to others. And just maybe, out of our lives will spring forth fountains of living water.
Gracious God, create in us a thirst for life that is life indeed. Let us acquire a thirst for the living water that is deeply satisfying and life producing, rather than keep grasping after things that do not refresh or restore or enhance life at all, but just leave us and those around us feeling empty. May our lives become wells from which your living water can gush forth. Amen.