Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Nicodemus and the Samaritan Woman

Last Sunday, Warren Swenson, a middler seminarian from Sewanee who is spending two semesters in our parish, used a phrase that not only helped me see something new in the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3:1-17) but that has also given me new insights into this week's encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:5-42). When describing Jesus' conversation with the leader of the Jews, Warren noted for us that Jesus was trying to reassure his eager inquirer instead of confound him. In short, after Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born from above and Nicodemus responds with confusion, Jesus tells him about the wind as a way of understanding what it means to be born of the Spirit. The description of the wind, Warren argued, was to help Nicodemus understand that being born again isn't as simple or straightforward as climbing back into one's mother's womb and being rebirthed a second time. It's more subtle, intangible than that.

There was something about the way that Warren said it that has helped me draw a connection between that conversation with Nicodemus and this Sunday's conversation with the Samaritan woman. After some ice-breaking back and forth about water and the well and Jews not asking Samaritans for a drink, Jesus offers a rich theological statement: "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water." Boom. Living water. There it is. Jesus has just introduced another complex soteriological (i.e. having to do with salvation) concept as if he expected his audience to understand. "If you want to see the kingdom of heaven," he said to Nicodemus,  "you must be born from above." Likewise, "If you knew who it was who is speaking to you," Jesus tells the woman of Samaria, "you would have asked for living water."

But what is living water? It's as illusive as being born from above. How is she supposed to know what that means? How are we supposed to know? Well, like last week, Jesus fills that out for us.

The woman responds to Jesus' statement about living water by asking where he's going to get that living water. He has no bucket. The well is deep. Is he claiming to be greater than Jacob, who gave his people this well? But Jesus isn't talking about that kind of water, so he explains, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life." But what sort of explanation is that? He's still speaking in metaphors. Is he talking about life? Is he talking about water? What does he mean? Understandably, the woman is still confused: "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water." She wants water--water to quench her thirst. But Jesus isn't talking about that kind of water or that kind of thirst.

With Nicodemus, we have the benefit of the rest of John's gospel account to see how the seeds of this initial conversation bear fruit in John 7, when he stands up for Jesus by asking that he get a fair hearing, and in John 19, when he goes with Joseph of Arimathea to prepare Jesus' body for burial. With the woman, however, it all has to be finished by the end of chapter 4, so Jesus speeds things along. "Go, call your husband!" he tells her, but, of course, she has no husband. She's had five husbands and is currently living with a man with whom she is not married. Jesus' prophetic insights--both into her marital history and into the unresolved guilt she is carrying because of it--open up the door for clarification. The woman goes from recognition of a prophet to discussion of the right place for worship, and Jesus takes the opportunity to identify himself as the one upon whom right worship will be centered--the Messiah who is to come. "I am he," Jesus tells her, and the rest of the story fills out around that revealed truth.

But it all starts with a confusing statement. Sometimes churchpeople make the truth of the gospel hard to grasp. We use words like "grace" and "repentance" and "redemption" and "salvation" and "born again," and we don't always ground those in a way that makes sense. Even "love" doesn't mean to our culture (an emotion of affection) what it means in the Christian framework (an other-directed selflessness). Jesus, however, hangs with these people. He meets them where they are, drops a theological bomb in their laps, but doesn't then walk away. He stays. He explains. He uses images to help them get a glimpse of what he's saying. Sometimes he knows he has to leave things unfinished, but other times the opportunity presents itself to make the case clearly.

What about us? When we preach the gospel, do we assume too much of our congregations? Are we basing our message on concepts that are foreign to today's worshippers? Should we break things down a little more thoroughly? What can we do to recognize how hard it can be to hear the message of salvation? How can we, like Jesus, say it more plainly?

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