Sunday, March 23, 2014

Phil Kniss: Jesus. Solid rock. Fragile flower.

Lent 3: Encountering God through nourishment
John 4:5-42

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The personal devices people carry around
    are getting more and more sophisticated.
They can detect, and alert you to almost anything.
    So I thought I might just check before I begin . . .

If anyone is carrying a device that sounds an alarm
    when it detects . . . heresy . . .
    you might want to silence it . . . now.
        What I’m about to say could set it off.
        Although I assure you, it would be a false alarm.
            This will only sound like heresy.
            So bear with me, please.

I am going to talk about the fragility and vulnerability . . . of God.

We all know about, and are comfortable with, the Power of God.
    And I will not deny, or seek to diminish, God’s power.

But the very integrity of our Christian faith is at stake,
    if we do not also wrestle with the mystery of God’s vulnerability;
    if we do not also acknowledge that there is, in God’s nature,
        something fragile, something susceptible to being wounded.

I say this, because of the most central affirmation of our faith—
    that God is love.

What got me to thinking about this heretical-sounding idea
    of God’s vulnerability,
    was meditating on today’s Gospel reading,
        the well-known “woman at the well” story.

This is a shocking story at a number of levels.
    For one, it’s amazing how much respect this story gives
        to someone much maligned in Jewish religious culture.
    She had two major strikes against her.
        As a woman, and as a Samaritan,
            she was not thought to be capable
            of any act of faith or devotion that God would accept.
    Furthermore, she was marginalized in her own community,
        as someone with a shady and shameful marital past,
        who came to the village well at noon,
            when no one else from town would be there.

    Yet, this Samaritan woman is shown in the story
        to be one of the first evangelists,
        her words of witness leading a whole town to come
            and encounter Jesus,
            and be changed by him.
    There are at least a dozen possible sermons in that line of thought.

But there is another surprising element to this story.
    And that is how Jesus is portrayed.
    This is a far cry from the stereo-type of the holy Jesus,
        the strong and calm and charismatic figure
        that practically floats from place to place throughout
            Galilee and Judea,
        wowing the crowds with his profound wisdom
            and miraculous powers,
        working wonders everywhere he went,
            while never breaking a sweat,
                never losing an argument,
                never dirtying his pure white robe.

This story shows Jesus at one of his lowest points,
    at least, prior to his arrest and crucifixion.
    The story doesn’t make a big deal about it,
        but if you read it carefully and honestly,
            it’s apparent that Jesus is truly the needy person in the story.
        He is in need, to the point of desperation.

I speak from a little experience.
    I walked part of the Jesus Trail, in Galilee, in the summer.
        But I didn’t have to walk more than a mile or two,
            before I got back into an air-conditioned van.

    Jesus was traveling a great distance on foot.
        It was physically demanding, to an extreme.
        Demanding enough,
            that he and his disciples took the short-cut through Samaria.
        They didn’t take the long way around
            like other Jews trying to maintain their religious purity.
            Any social exchange between a Jew and Samaritan,
                would make the Jew unclean for worship.

    But I really doubt Jesus and his disciples made a strategic decision
        to pass through Samaria to make a religious point.
    I think they probably weighed their physical exhaustion,
        and the fact their supplies were running low,
        over against the religious motivation to go around Samaria,
            and they decided for very practical reasons,
            to take the short cut to water and supplies,
                and deal with the religious purification rituals later.

        I think, of everyone in the group, Jesus was in the worst shape.
        He was the one who plopped down in the shade by the well,
            while the rest of the group went into town to buy food.
    The Gospel text makes a specific point of telling us, in v. 6,
        that Jesus was “tired out by his journey.” Tired out!

    And I imagine the Gospel writer was putting it mildly.
        He was hot, tired, and thirsty. Maybe even a bit cranky.
            Unless you want to say that Jesus did not share
                our basic human experience—
                this connection of body, mind, and emotions—
                that Jesus was immune to the common human experience,
                    that when our bodies suffer,
                    our minds and spirits also suffer.
            And if you say that,
                you really want to be sure your
                heresy detector alarm is turned off.

    No, I don’t think Jesus floated up to the well in Samaria,
        in his pure white robe,
        because he knew he had a divine appointment
            with a Samaritan woman
            that would be recorded for the church throughout the ages.
    On the contrary,
        I believe it was deep visceral, human need,
            that made Jesus collapse by the well,
            and tell his disciples, “You go get the food.
                I can’t take another step.”

    It’s no surprise that a rabbi raised in the synagogue
        can’t keep pace with some fisherman from Galilee.
        So Jesus sat by the well, in need of help.
            Alone. Exhausted. And no bucket to draw water.

This is the situation that set up the interaction
    between Jesus and the Samaritan woman.
    And of that whole conversation back and forth—
        that covered all kinds of topics,
        from marriage to worship to prophetic powers to eternal life—
        there was no statement more surprising and more significant,
            than Jesus’ first words to this woman,
            “Give me a drink.”
        The Samaritan woman understood how shocking that was.
            And she reacted as you would expect.
        She expressed utter disbelief
            that Jesus would ask someone in her position, for a favor.

    Jesus did not hide the fact that this unusual circumstance,
        actually put him in her debt.
        He needed her.
            The despised one.
                No one in her own town
                    would presume to ask a favor from her.
                But Jesus was willing to.
        He was willing to make himself vulnerable.
            He needed her, and didn’t hesitate telling her so.

    His act of vulnerability stunned the Samaritan woman,
        and rendered Jesus’ disciples speechless,
            after they got back from the market.
    This may be the only place in the Bible where we are told
        what the characters in the story did not say.
        V. 27 tells us the questions they did not ask.
            Because they were speechless.

Now, you might ask, is it fair to assume God is vulnerable,
    just because Jesus of Nazareth, as a human, shows vulnerability?

Yes, absolutely. For two main reasons.
    One, it would be heresy to suggest that
        Jesus’ human nature exhibited characteristics that contradicted,
            that were at odds with,
            his divine nature.
        Orthodox Christian doctrine states that, though it is a mystery,
            Jesus was both fully human, and fully divine.
            And both complete natures co-existed, with integrity,
                in one person.
    But the second reason is even more compelling, logically.
        There cannot be authentic love, without vulnerability.
        If God cannot be vulnerable, God cannot love.

What makes this story about Jesus so important,
    and what makes me sound like a heretic
    to suggest that God is vulnerable or fragile,
        is that we spend so much energy
        trying to deny or work around our own vulnerability.

So it’s comforting to worship God the Rock.
    We have a lot invested in our image of God
        as an unshakeable, immovable, rock of Ages.
When all the world seems to be trembling around us,
    how reassuring to worship God the Rock
        who never wavers or quavers.
    The Rock in whom we hide.

Indeed, that is a theological confession
    I am willing to stand on.
    “Jesus, Rock of ages, let me hide myself in thee.”

But that picture is less than complete.
    Because God loves.
    I also willing to stand on this confession: “God is love.”

Because Jesus showed his own vulnerability,
    a Samaritan woman—
        a religiously and socially marginalized Samaritan woman—
    was able to receive, and share in, the saving, healing love of God.

For God to chose love,
    as the primary way of relating to his human creation . . .
    for God to so love the world,
        that God gave up his only begotten,
        as John 3 declared last Sunday . . .
    for God to risk all, for the sake of love . . .
        is for God to be vulnerable.

There cannot be love, without trust.
    There cannot be trust,
        without at least the possibility of that trust being broken.
    If it were not possible for us to refuse God,
        if it were not possible for us to break God’s heart,
        there would be no love between God and us.

I’m not the only one saying these things that sound at first like heresy.
    There was a well-known Swiss priest and spiritual writer
        in the last century—Fr. Maurice Zundel.
    He was a good friend of Pope Paul VI,
        and occasionally preached at the Vatican.
    He wrote these words (translated from the original French):
        “If I could sum up my faith, I would do so as follows . . .
            I believe in the infinite risk taken by God,
            I believe in the fragility of God because,
                if there is indeed nothing stronger than love,
                there is also nothing more fragile.”

I’m also reminded of the now aged, but still active and wise
    Jean Vanier, founder of the l’Arche communities
        for persons with profound mental disabilities.
    He argued that we all need to come to terms
        with our own immense fragility,
        that we should not shun it.
    He said, “Hope stems from the acceptance of reality, as it is.”
    He said that living among the profoundly disabled
        has transformed him, and others,
        because it has a “mysterious way of breaking down the barriers
            which surround our hearts.
        The [weak ones in the community]
            awaken that which is most profound with us;
            our hearts and our desire for relationship.”
    Living among these weak and vulnerable ones, he says,
        leads us into compassion,
        and leads us into the heart of God.

As I was thinking these thoughts about fragility and God,
    Vi Dutcher posted an article this past week,
        that reinforced it even further.
    It was an article that quoted an interview from 1980s
        by the PBS journalist and ordained preacher Bill Moyers,
        who interviewed the philosopher Martha Nussbaum.

    Nussbaum speaks of a deep paradox in the human condition:
        that our capacity to be vulnerable,
            is an essential part of being able to trust others,
                and therefore love others,
                and therefore experience human goodness.
        But that very same vulnerability
            is what allows tragedy to befall us.
    “Being human,” she says, “means
        accepting promises from other people
        and trusting that other people will be good to you.”
    Even though sometimes that trust is violated,
        if we retreat inward, in order to protect ourselves,
        we are choosing not to be human anymore.
    She says, and I quote, “The ethical [human] life . . . is based on
        a trust in the uncertain and on a willingness to be exposed;
        it’s based on being more like a plant than like a jewel,
        something rather fragile,
            but whose very particular beauty
            is inseparable from its fragility.”

When I read those words,
    I saw immediately the connection to the biblical images
        for God and for Christ.
    Yes, we worship God as immovable Rock.
        The one in whom we hide, and take refuge.
    But we also worship God, as the tender shoot
        growing from the root of Jesse,
            as the Rose of Sharon,
            as the true Vine,
            as the mother hen—
                each image portraying tender beauty and love,
                a beauty that is inseparable from its vulnerability.
        And none more so than the lamb of God,
            whose very bruises and mortal wounds,
            are the source of our healing.

God’s love for us, and for all the world, is so great
    that God chooses to take on vulnerability and fragility,
        as part of his essential being,
        and to open himself to the wounds of the world.
God’s love for us leads God to trust us—us frail human beings—
    gathered into a frail human organism, the church,
    trusts us to be true partners in God’s healing and saving mission.

Thus, God opens himself again, and again,
    to the possibility of being disappointed, wounded, hurt.

In the face of such overwhelming love,
    can we do anything, but reciprocate?
    How can we not also throw in our lot with such a God?
        And risk ourselves, our interests, our very lives,
            for the sake of such goodness and love.
        And how can we not also open ourselves to the other?
            Whether family member or church member.
            Whether neighbor or stranger or enemy.

    Yes, we make ourselves vulnerable,
        whenever we choose to love another.
    Yes, we risk being wounded,
        whenever we remove our self-protective armor
            that we like to wear for safety and certainty.
    And yes, that vulnerability is the very thing we need to be human,
        in the way Jesus showed us how to be human.
        Because, in his own humanity,
            Jesus revealed the character
                of a loving, beautiful, and vulnerable God.

    To live like Jesus,
        to live a flourishing life, in God and with others,
            requires a deep willingness on our part,
            to trust and to be vulnerable.

Singer-songwriter Jerry Derstine, son of Virginia Derstine,
    from this congregation,
    wrote a song we love to sing
        that celebrates God’s power and stability,
    “Jesus, Rock of Ages, let me hide myself in thee,
        Jesus, Living Water, let me drink from your flowing stream.”
    And then let’s expand that image,
        by adding a second refrain:
    “Jesus, fragile Flower, let me trust my life with thee,
        Jesus, living Water, let me drink from your flowing stream.”

As we sing,
    may we, sincerely and truthfully,
        be making both these requests of God the Rock, and the Flower.
        Let me hide myself in the security of your power.
        And let me trust my life to the vulnerable beauty of your love.

—Phil Kniss, March 23, 2014

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1 comment:

  1. I grew up attending Blue Ridge Christian School and Bridgewater and moved out of the area in the mid-90s. I was recalling, as we head into Easter, all the wonderful songs that our choir teacher, Mrs. Gregson, taught us, and was unable to remember all the lyrics to Derstine's beautiful "Rock of Ages" until I encountered your blog. I was surprised to find that the writer was a local of the area; as an adolescent I had always assumed that it was an older song. Thanks for the information that connected me to a childhood memory and a lovely song.

    -Tonya L. Cooper