The water cooler bubbled in the corner of the break room as Bob walked in. He was looking for a quiet place to pray. His Bible study group at the Baptist church had covenanted together to add a Lenten Rule – a spiritual practice throughout the forty days of Lent that helped them to prepare and practice their faith in a new way. He walked in, looking for a quiet room, but instead found a raucous conversation around the table. He started to turn out, but then he caught a piece of the conversation. It was about prayer! He was fascinated and decided to pull up a chair and listen. Each of the co-workers around the room was sharing their experience with prayer:
- Tiffany from Sales had been experimenting with transcendental meditation and various Buddhist practices of prayer.
- Ahmed found a place to pray five times a day, where he could face East, including going up to the roof at the office during work.
- Maria prayed the rosary in Spanish every day, and had since she was a little girl.
- Zach laughed when they asked him how he prayed…he didn’t believe in God and thought it was all a pretty big joke. He said he appreciated their devotion, but it wasn’t for him.
Bob’s head spun as they turned to him. This was all too much for him to take in. Nearing retirement age, he had been with the company a long time. And he remembered a time at the company when everyone in office was a Christian, or at least said they were. Religious diversity meant that there were Baptists AND Methodists! He remembered when the Baptist preacher was invited by the company to conduct Bible studies in this very work room. But now it was a different time and a little intimidating for him. He was used to a culture where everyone believed the same way, where everyone worshipped and practiced and prayed the same way. This new reality terrified him.
Anyone ever feel like Bob? He, like many of us, finds himself in a pluralistic culture in which we live as a place with a whole host of competing truth claims. It is not just about different religions, but different ways to define truth. Once upon a time, those of us who are Christians we could expect that a lot of American society knew of our faith, and most practiced it. But now, we live in a time and place of pluralism, and we cannot assume that others share our faith, or even know about it.
David Lose suggests that adding to the discomfort and fear is that truth is now constructed instead of received. When many of us were young, we received the teachings of our faith – how to worship, how to pray, what to believe. But Lose explains that we are moving into a time in which it is more accurate to say that we are constructing that faith – each of us for ourselves. It is now the norm for people to piece together their faith practices – or choose no practice at all. It is part of what is meant when many people say they are spiritual, but not religious. They have learned how to create their own set of faith practices, including prayer. But it was not received as a total package from any organized religion or faith group. It’s like the kid who refuses to put together the Legos like the book tells her to, but instead pulls some from various different set and makes her own creation.
For many of us, this new reality is terrifying and intimidating. Like Bob, we have never had to explain or defend or even – honestly – understand our beliefs. Everyone believed the same, so why bother? And we miss that, and yearn for someone to snap their fingers and make America 1958 again. I am convinced that most people afraid of other truth claims and practices don’t feel confident enough in their own, and it is their doubt that motivates their fear, which in many cases motivates their prejudice.
Ours is not first generation to struggle with competing truth claims. In our passage today, John tells us that Jesus is traveling through Samaria. Now, many of us have heard that Samaritans hated by Jews, but we may not understand why. Basically, it came down to competing truth claims. To oppositional worship practices.
A quick history lesson. Hundreds of years before Jesus, the Jews lived in a divided Kingdom. After David and Solomon’s reign, the kingdom was divided into Northern and Southern kingdoms. In 722, the Assyrians defeated the Northern Divided kingdom, and many of the Jews were exiled and not heard from again. But some were left.
Meanwhile, the Southern Kingdom survived the Assyrians and went on to rule for another couple hundred years. Until the next big Empire showed up – the Babylonians. This time, in 586, they weren’t so lucky and they were defeated and exiled to Babylon. But some were left.
Over time, two variant faith practices developed. The exiles from the southern Kingdom were allowed to return and rebuild. Ezra and Nehemiah returned and rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, and the people began to practice there. But those who had been left over in the Northern Kingdom were given the opportunity to build their own temple – under the empire building of Alexander the Great. So, they built on Mt. Gerazim a competing temple.
What resulted were competing temples and competing faith practices and competing truth claims. The divide grew deeper and deeper, until Jesus’ time, when both groups hated each other. They wouldn’t even talk to each other. They didn’t drink or eat after each other. Remember when you were young and your biggest concern was fear of cooties? This was akin to generational cooties!
And what made things worse was that Galilee – further north than Samaria – supported the Temple in Jerusalem. So, Galileans who wanted to worship at the Temple had to travel through Samaria, past the hated Samaritans. Some of them actually built roads around Samaria so they would have to get their cooties on them. But others went through and held their noses the whole way.
So, when we read in the Gospels that Jesus was in Samaria or dealing with Samaritans, this is all that is at stake. Jesus who was born in Galilee and called his disciples in Galilee and began his ministry in Galilee, had to travel through the land of the hated Samaritans between home and Temple. There is a reason that we read so much about them in the New Testament.
Thus, here in the first few chapters of John, a profound conversation unfolds. He and his disciples are travelling through Samaria and he sits down at a well and starts talking to a woman. This seems normal for us, but in this context, it is anything but normal! He was forbidden by his culture to talk to a woman, especially about theological matters, especially to a Samaritan! They all have seriously mega-cooties! And all of this comes out of the conversation. The woman tells him that he shouldn’t be talking to her. Explains that he can’t ask for a drink of water because he can’t drink after her. Eventually, she rehearses their history about the competing worship claims between the Temples at Mt. Garazim and Jerusalem. The stage is set for a battle between truth claims. A generational debate starts to play out in which there can be only one winner, one faith practice, one truth claim emerging victorious.
But Jesus doesn’t want to play.
He immediately moves to a level deeper and more profound than faith cooties. When he knows the rules about talking to a woman, he talks to her anyway. When he knows that they aren’t supposed to drink after each other, he asks for a drink. When she starts talking about the difference between their faith practices, Jesus moves to a more profound level and begins to explain to woman who he is. What he is about. He refused to get sucked into the culture war, and wasn’t about to be intimidated or afraid to act out of who he was called to be.
Jesus has no desire to compete. His model is one of clarity of self and of purpose, not proving others right or wrong. He shares with this woman who is and what he is about and it changes her completely. Be careful not to get distracted here. A lot of times, we will get stuck on the fact that she has had five husbands. We start to moralize and talk about her sin, but you will notice that Jesus doesn’t judge her at all, not even name it as sin. The reality is that if she had had five husbands, in that culture it wouldn’t have been her fault anyway. It was a way for Jesus to reach out to her on a personal level, not stay on the surface level of stereotype and prejudice. This is not a story about her morality. This is a story about the way that Jesus breaks through the cultural angst about competing truth claims and simply acts out of who he was called to be.
And that is what made all the difference. The woman is amazed. The townspeople that she shares the story with are amazed. The disciples are amazed. The town begs him to stay there with them and preach and teach them, and so he stays an extra couple of days in the place where he and his disciples shouldn’t be caught dead!
And the passage ends actually a few verses later, with a powerful statement, that the Two-Way this week caught was the real crux of the whole story:
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’
Jesus refuses to play their fear-motivated, culture-mandated games, and the result is that the whole town believes. They quit playing, too!
Is it possible for us to do the same thing? Obviously, we aren’t Jesus. And our end goal will not be to claim divinity for ourselves, or say that we are the Messiah, or do the things that Jesus did. Only Jesus was Jesus. But, Jesus told us to follow him, and be like him, and follow his example.
Again, it is David Lose who gives us direction as to what this might look like. In our pluralistic culture, he finds that the ancient practice of confession becomes paramount. In a world of competing truth claims, we have to understand what we believe about truth. We cannot expect the culture around us to tell us what to believe. What has Christ done in your life? How are you changed? How has your thirst been quenched by Jesus? How do you confess him to be your Lord and Savior? And this doesn’t have to happen with pointed fingers and raised tempers and fear-driven prejudice. It comes from a clear sense of who we are and who we are called to be. It’s what Jesus did.
And it’s what the woman at the well did! She confessed and witnessed to what Jesus spoke into her life. And that confession led to more people listening, and more people wanting to hear for himself: we have heard for ourselves and we know.
We must become less intimidated by differences in our world and more clear of our own faith and faith practices. Theresa Blythe shares a model of prayer that does just this. Many of you have heard of lectio divina, or holy reading, primarily as it relates to Scripture. But she invites us to use the same method to read our community as well. To pray for and lift up those we meet, instead of running in fear from anyone who is different, until we can huddle with those who are the same behind safe walls. It has five steps:
- Quiet your heart and mind and prepare to listen to God and not the fears in your head.
- Reading (lectio). Read your community. Perhaps it is your neighborhood. Or your school. Or your workplace. What do you see there? How is God at work in this place? Let an event or memory from his place play like a video in your mind. What do you notice from this event or place?
- Reflect upon a piece of what you notice. Like a word of Scripture that jumps out at you, perhaps a face or a house or a classroom stand out in your mind. How does this piece make you feel? What thoughts come to mind?
- Pray to God about what you have thought and felt. What do you want to say to God and how are you hearing God respond?
- Like Mary, who stored all of these things up in her heart, allow it all to sink in. Journal about it if that makes sense to you. Tell a close friend or spiritual advisor, if you are more verbal.
In this way, we can learn to “listen to our lives,” as Frederick Buechner suggests. We can read the “life texts” that God has given to us and feel like God’s Spirit it breathing through us here.
Bob felt every eye in the room on him, and he took a deep breath. He told about his experience with prayer. He gushed about his Bible study group and the relationships he had built there. He talked about their decision to employ a Lenten Rule, and how he was actually looking for a place to practice it when he happened upon their conversation. Eyes around the room were locked on him, and several heads nodded. All of them knew Bob and knew that he had been with the company forever, but this was the first time that he shared his story openly, and several were touched by his vulnerability.
Later in the day, Zach stopped by Bob’s desk. Zach had been a part of Bob’s church when he was a youth, but had disappeared from the faith and felt like the church had no place in his life. But the way that Bob described it, he wondered if he had been a little hasty in the way that he had judged it, and him, and God. He wasn’t ready to believe, or really ready to show up on Sunday. But he wanted to hear more about Bob’s prayer.
And Bob was more than happy to share.