Sunday, March 23, 2014

Nicodemus, The Samaritan Woman, and Mahler All Walked into a Watering Hole....

Listening to the Mahler 4 and 5 in the same week one is struck by the contrast. Like day and night. The 4th ends on notes of near silence reminiscent of the still, small voice Elijah hears, after Judith Blegen sings of heavenly music: “The angelic voices refresh our spirits, and joy wakens in all.” Then comes the opening funeral march of the 5th alternating with second theme, “Suddenly faster. Passionate. Savage.” All followed by the second movement headed, “Stormily and with utmost vehemence!”  It is two different sonic worlds! Which apparently was Mahler’s goal: “To write a symphony is to construct a world with all the means at our disposal.” Whole worlds complete with light and shade, joy and sorrow, despair and hope, rough edges and all.

The Fourth Gospel is like this. Chapter 3 has Nicodemus, a leader of the Jewish people, coming to Jesus in the dark of night to ask questions, to probe him, but not wanting to risk his reputation. Nicodemus has questions. He cannot be seen with Jesus. Jesus seems to be offering riddles and plays on words: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8) To which Nic is left asking, “How can these things be?” He is not seen again until he joins Joseph of Arimathea to give Jesus a decent burial. He appears to have come in darkness and left in darkness with Jesus concluding that “light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light….”

In chapter 4 it is “about noon.” The sun is high in the sky. Jesus has been traveling through Samaria near Jacob’s well. Jesus is tired and sitting by the well when a Samaritan woman comes to draw water.  As we learn later, there is a reason she does not come in the cool of the early morning when all the other women in town come to draw water. She has had five husbands, and the man she is with now is not her husband. Were she to come in the cool of the day with the others she would be open to taunts, the subject of gossip, and most likely shunned, so she comes mid-day, alone, by herself.  Jesus speaks to her of Spirit as well. That he speaks to her at all is daring since it was considered taboo for a man to speak to any woman publicly that was not his wife. But he engages her in theological discourse, and she, unlike the somewhat timid and perplexed Nicodemus, pushes back, challenges Jesus’ claims. It is like the ancient days when patriarchs like Abraham and Moses would debate God, challenge God, and persuade God to make other choices.

What is striking about this story is in the beginning. Jesus is tired. The woman comes to draw water. Jesus addresses her, “Give me a drink.” She is shocked, but able to reply, “How is it that you a Jew, as a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” For not only was it unusual for a man to speak to a woman in public, but it was even more surprising for a Jew to speak to a Samaritan. There was a long history of bad feelings among Jews and Samaritans in part having to do with the correct place to worship: Jerusalem or Samaria. Things have not changed much in that regard.

So here is the scene. Perhaps the most broken, lonely, and repeatedly abandoned woman in all of scripture, this Samaritan woman, who is not even given a name in the story, is addressed in the light of mid-day for a drink of water. Jesus now, like Nicodemus in chapter 3, is the one risking his reputation, but as we know that was the way he rolled. But she does not know this. All she knows is that here is a stranger, an enemy of her people no less, addressing her out of his weakness. He is tired. He is thirsty. For the first time in as long as she can remember, here is someone who needs her to do him a favor.

That is, by asking for a drink of water, Jesus has given her value – there is something she can do for him.

Most men would have ignored her. Or, walked away. Or, said something derogatory.  But this is Jesus, and he sees that she is someone who, broken though she is, is beloved in the eyes of God. After a probing conversation about Spirit and water and worshipping God neither in Samaria nor Jerusalem but in Spirit and truth, she says, “I know that God’s anointed is coming….when he comes he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus says, “I am he.”

The Mahler 4 ends on the quietest most silent of notes. The fourth movement of the 5th is a long, meditative moment in time with just harp and strings. I imagine when Jesus says “I am he,” time stands still. The Samaritan Woman, The Word, the Logos, the Word that is with God and is God, silently looking at one another.  How she must have felt! She is talking to the one her people, all people, had been waiting for, and he asks her to do  him a favor because he is tired, he is thirsty, and it is all out in the open at Jacob’s well in the light of day for all to see!

“Just then the disciples came. They were astonished that he was talking with a woman….” Leave it to the disciples to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time! The woman flees back to her city, newly empowered, given new freedom, new  identity. She becomes the first evangelist! She says to the people who had shunned her, gossiped about her and looked down upon her, “Come see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him to see for themselves.

There is so much in this story, in these two stories, one at night, one in broad daylight. There is an entire world contained in these two stories. John the evangelist uses every story telling technique at his disposal to open our eyes and ears and minds and hearts. How often have we crept about in the darkness afraid to let others know what we are thinking? How often do we see someone, woman or man, like this lonely, broken Samaritan Woman and pass them by? Let alone stop to affirm that yes, you are a person like me. I am a person like you. For that is what Jesus is doing. He lets his vulnerability reach out to hers. He may as well be saying, “Do not listen to all the others. Let them have their petty squabbles. It is not about all your husbands. It is not about Jacob’s well. It is not about what mountain, place or temple in which to worship the Almighty. It is about this moment here and now. Let’s share a drink together and initiate a new way of being in this world.”

She is then empowered to proclaim to others what she has seen and heard. Others go out to see for themselves. A movement begins in the most unlikely manner, in the most unlikely place, among the most unlikely two people.

There is a mystery in the Fourth Gospel not unlike the more mysterious passages in Mahler’s music. Near the end of the gospel  there is made mention of “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” or the Beloved Disciple. Go look at Amazon and you will see dozens of books claiming to settle the mystery of who the Beloved Disciple is. There is one book, however, by James P. Carse called, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple, which does not seek to make a case or cite evidence.  Carse simply imagines this woman, the Samaritan Woman, is “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” I am good with that. We all should be. This fourth chapter of John may in fact be the Gospel, the Good News, in miniature. If this is the only gospel story you knew, it would be enough to know the entire universe about Jesus. It is an entire world in one easy to remember story. We should all be the Samaritan Woman, because in the end, we all are.

“The angelic voices refresh our spirits, and joy wakens in all.” Amen.

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