True Love's True Form:
The Gospel According to
A Sermon Preached at The Gathering: A Family of Faith Episcopal Church, Walkersville, MD, March 3, 2002
In the name of God, who created all peoples; in the name of God, who is at work in our world to redeem all flesh; in the name of God, whose Spirit empowers us to proclaim the Good News of redemption with our very lives; Amen.
So, what's the story here? Jesus is thirsty; he goes to the well for a drink. A woman approaches the well and encounters Jesus. Jesus asks for a drink. Actually, he doesn't exactly "ask" -- he uses the imperative. It's not a question, and it's not a request -- he's issuing a demand. The woman is suspicious -- she asks a bunch of questions, to the effect of "who do you think you are?" Those questions bring up a history that's hurtful (we'll talk more about that in a bit). Together, she and Jesus envision a future. And then she makes a demand of Jesus -- she commands him to give her living water. Again, it's not a question, and not a request; she too uses the imperative, making a demand. She leaves that conversation commissioned as an evangelist, with Jesus having obeyed her command to give her living water. Jesus leaves without his drink. The woman runs to her village to tell the story, and the villagers listen and believe.
In some ways, this is a familiar story to many of us who have been coming to The Gathering for a while. Many of us here have a story that's a lot like this woman's. This woman in the story wasn't religious, at least in the view of the people most people thought of as religious. She wasn't even respectable. First off, she was a Samaritan. Samaritans are people from Samaria, and 'Samaritan' wasn't always a dirty word. Samaritans used to worship together with Judeans, the people who lived around Jerusalem. They worshipped together in the Temple in Jerusalem, the Temple King Solomon built. But that Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in the 7th century BC. They destroyed it as a way of saying, "Our god kicks your god's butt." Surely if the God of Israel was all that powerful, he wouldn't let his house be destroyed. And up until the Babylonians destroyed the Temple, a lot of people in Israel would have agreed. "Not by might, not by power, but by God's spirit" was how the army of Israel was victorious, according to Israel's scripture. So even if the Babylonian army was bigger and stronger and had better weapons, Israel could defeat Babylon because Israel's god was better. That's the line of thinking, anyway. When the Temple was destroyed, Israel was not about to start thinking that Babylon's gods were more powerful. Instead, they asked themselves what they might have done to make God so angry that God left God's house and God's Promised Land.
There were at least two schools of thought on the matter. Both schools thought that Israel was defeated because God’s people weren’t doing God’s will. They had different ideas on what God’s will was, though. One school of thought comes from people like Isaiah, who said that God doesn’t dwell in a house made by human hands, so God isn’t interested in buildings. In fact, according to this prophetic school, God wants justice for the poor, and if you’re going to build a building, that usually means spending lots of money that could be spent on the poor. Too often, it means taking money from the poor to build God’s house, letting some of God’s people go without a home entirely. Here’s what Isaiah (1:11-17) says:
"What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?" says the Lord; "I have had enough of burnt offerings." When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand?... Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow."
The other view of why Israel was defeated came from Ezra and Nehemiah. They said that God had abandoned Israel because Israel wasn’t sufficiently pure. Once the captive Israelites returned from Babylon, Ezra and Nehemiah wanted to make sure nothing like their defeat ever happened again, and the cure they prescribed was being more careful about purity. They were particularly peeved with those who had been allowed to stay in the land when the elites had been hauled off in captivity to Babylon, as many of those left behind had married foreigners. Ezra and Nehemiah demanded that men who had married foreign women divorce them and abandon them immediately. To be sure, the women were not thrilled with this proclamation, and many of the men weren’t either. In particular, most of the men of Samaria decided not to abandon their wives. So Ezra and Nehemiah, who thought that God wanted Israel to be pure -- one culture, no mixing it up with people who were different -- decided that Samaritans were creeps. Literally, the Samaritans were sleeping with the enemy. Ezra and Nehemiah pretty much won the debate. Once the Temple was rebuilt, Samaritans weren’t welcome to worship there; the Samaritans ended up building their own temple. Samaritans weren’t welcome to study the Torah in the schools of Judea, so they formed their own schools. And no self-respecting Judean would be caught dead sharing a cup with a Samaritan. As time went on, Samaritans started having more than a few choice words about Judeans; the hatred became mutual.
The story of the encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well illustrates a number of points about evangelism, about what it will mean for us to seek to be and proclaim Good News in our communities. The first is that Jesus doesn’t side with Ezra and Nehemiah in saying that what God wants is for God’s people to adopt one culture. The community that Jesus calls is not one of conformity, but of service. Jesus does not ask the woman at the well to become a Judean, and his initial demand is not that she clean up her act. Instead, Jesus asks her immediately to serve when he says, "Give me a drink."
Second, when we imitate Jesus, we will be called to cross boundaries of culture and custom. When Jesus spoke to the woman at the well, he took a serious risk. In their culture, speaking to a woman who is alone could bring her husband, her father, or her brothers running to defend her honor. The presumption would be that a man who spoke to her was trying to pick up on her, but Jesus isn’t afraid to behave scandalously to reach out to others. And the woman violates custom in her bold response to Jesus, first in challenging his authority, then in her bold proclamation of the Good News of that encounter.
We also see in this story a dynamic we need to acknowledge in evangelism: when we start reaching out across those boundaries, we will in many cases be in conversation with people who have been hurt deeply by people who in some ways looked like us. Hurtful experiences with Christians and in churches are so common that there’s a stock phrase to describe them -- people describe themselves as "church-damaged." Religious people have in Jesus’ name acted hatefully as well as hurtfully. You don’t have to reach back to the Crusades for examples. When many people hear the word Christian, they think of Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who said in his decision this month that his Christianity was the motivating factor behind his decision not just to take a child away from his mother because the mother is lesbian, but to advocate using "the power of the sword, that is, the power to prohibit conduct with physical penalties, such as confinement and even execution" against gay people. They think of a promising student of theirs, whose parents threw her out on the street while quoting biblical proverbs and injunctions. When they see a cross, they think of cross burning. When they see someone coming toward them with a cross around their neck or a bible in their hand, they run. We have to understand that people who look like us have hurt a lot of people deeply, and the more vocally and visibly some insult and persecute others in Christ’s name, the more intentionally, specifically, and persistently we have to extend welcome to and provide services for those marginalized communities.
Every Episcopal church in this country has a sign out front that says "The Episcopal Church welcomes you," but let me tell you about my experience when Karen and I were getting ready to move to Western Maryland. I called about two dozen parishes in this part of the state to ask whether we’d be welcome. I’d explain that I’ve taught adult education classes and trained small group facilitators, led in youth groups and multicultural worship, and served as a lay pastoral and eucharistic visitor, and that I was looking for a parish where I could be deeply involved in parish life and supported in discernment for ordained ministry. Of those who returned my calls, the response was uniformly enthusiastic -- at least, initially. As soon as I said, "great! My partner and I will look forward to visiting.... she's very involved in the church too, so our parish home needs to be a place we both feel good about," there’d often be an awkward silence. "You should probably try St. Swibbins down the road," the priest would say, "I think you’d be more comfortable there."[*] Folks, if any Episcopal parishes are actively turning away Bible-loving, Prayer Book-quoting, deeply religious people like Karen and me, imagine what kind of reception other friends of mine have gotten in churches with signs outside proclaiming their welcome for everybody. And that’s just my experience; it’s not by any means the limit of the historical barriers we’ve tried to set up between the Good News and black people, people in this country whose primary language is not English, and many others who are even more on the margins in our churches than they are in our society. We’ve got a lot of work to do to overcome that history. Like Jesus with the woman at the well, we’re going to have to do a lot of listening to hard questions to confront that history and envision a future together.
Like Jesus, we will find ourselves transformed in that encounter. Jesus started that conversation with a very specific demand: "Give me a drink." But he’d encountered someone who wasn’t going to conform readily to his demands. He answered her questions rather than imposing his own agenda, and when the two part, Jesus has obeyed the woman’s demand for living water, but Jesus has dropped his demand entirely.
I’m involved in the 20/20 movement in the Episcopal Church, which is a movement to engage in outreach to our communities such that our church becomes a vital body of deep commitment, reflecting the full diversity of our society and doubling our active membership by the year 2020. In The Gathering, we’re seeking to double our membership too. Let’s get ready. I’d like to do a little exercise with you, using today’s gospel.
Take a minute and close your eyes, if you’re comfortable doing that. Imagine yourself participating in the story. But imagine yourself not at the well, but in the village. Imagine being a member of that culture. Who are you? Are you a man, a woman, a boy, a girl? Do you have children? Are your parents in the village? Are you a merchant? A potter? What are you wearing? What are you carrying? Is it hot, or cool? What does the sky look like? Is there a breeze? Imagine growing up alongside this woman. The conversations you might have had in childhood. The first times you found out about her acting out. Seeing her parents in the village, ashamed. How you would have felt if you’d seen her with your father, your brother, your son. And imagine one day, you see this woman running toward the village. What is she doing? Imagine her rushing toward you. What expression is on her face? Everybody is looking at her, at you as she rushes toward you. How does that feel? Imagine her telling her story about the man she met at the well. Imagine the moment she tells you that the Messiah has chosen to reveal himself to her. Imagine the moment you first start thinking that this woman, the one who brought so much shame to her parents, who gave the whole village a bad reputation, is right, that she did meet the Messiah, that if you want to learn what he’s revealed, you’ll have to listen to her. And when you’re ready, open your eyes again.
I don’t know about you, but the first time I imagined myself in the village and not at the well, I experienced a complicated series of feelings when I imagined that woman rushing toward me. And how would I feel if I became convinced that a person I fear or dismiss had met Jesus, and had something to teach me about him? After all, fearing people and dismissing them are often two sides of the same coin -- we dismiss people not because we believe in our heart of hearts that they’re unworthy of being heard, but because we’re afraid of what might happen to our feelings about ourselves or others’ feelings about us if they were taken seriously. But I’ll tell you, Jesus has not been asleep even when we haven’t been reaching out. When we talk about welcoming everyone whom God loves to our community, we’re talking about receiving people who have been out at the well with Jesus. Are we ready to receive the gifts, the ministry of people we’ve feared, and who had reason to fear us? Can we receive from people who are not respectable? Can we receive people who challenge us to be transformed?
And what do we mean when we say we are being transformed, as in 2 Corinthians 3:18, "All of us, with unveiled faces, are being transformed into God’s image from one degree of glory to another."
Oddly enough, this verse makes me think about the movie Shrek. Shrek is the story of an ogre, a big, green, fat, belching, crude creature, who rescues the Princess Fiona, who looks a lot like Cameron Diaz animated digitally and given red hair. Princess Fiona is under a curse; “By day one thing, by night another, until true love’s kiss restores true love’s true form.” Every night, she becomes an ogre, every bit as green and fat as Shrek. Every day, she becomes Cameron Diaz with red hair again, and the cycle will repeat until she finally experiences true love and takes true love’s true form. True love’s true form – that’s what we are being transformed into. Now, when I think about “true love’s true form,” my culture gives me lots of images to draw from: white, thin, and part of a wedding-cake couple – no belches, no zits, no flaws, no transgressions.
This model my culture gives me is ASSIMILATION, not God’s transformation. Assimilation at its best is like Duloc, Lord Farquad’s kingdom in Shrek, which gets rid of everyone who doesn’t fit in; Lord Farquad literally banishes all misfits to the swamp. The “good” news it has to offer is that if you follow their rules and play their game, they just might let you in to The Most Boring Place on Earth. At its worst, assimilation is like what the Borg does in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The Borg is a huge living ship that moves from place to place, assimilating whole cultures by sucking people in, chopping off parts that don’t fit and replacing them with mechanical parts. The Borg erases all trace of difference between people to form a unity that obliterates identity in a completely harmonious – and totally inhuman – machine. The arrival of the Borg is not Good News, yet some people talk about Christianity as if it were all about chopping off unacceptable parts of people’s personalities and turning off their minds. Where’s the Good News in that?
We get a lot closer to the Good News of the transformation God offer in what Princess Fiona and Shrek experience. Like Fiona and Shrek, we become more truly ourselves in loving encounter with those whom we think of as other.
When Princess Fiona finally breaks the spell and takes "true love’s true form,"; it’s not the form she grew up thinking was beautiful. In fact, it’s the form she had at night -- the ogre one. A lot of the folks in perfect (and perfectly sterile) Duloc probably thought of the transformed Princess Fiona as monstrous. But there’s more real joy in the loving community of monsters, blind mice, breakdancing pigs, and a one-legged gingerbread man surrounding Fiona and Shrek at their wedding than in a thousand Dulocs. The Good News we have to share, the Good News that Jesus shared with the woman at the well and that the woman brought to her village, is not that we can all fit in if we try hard enough or pray long enough. One of my favorite verses from a hymn (489 in the 1982 Hymnal) puts it like this:
Not to oppress, but summon all
their truest life to find,
in love God sent his Son to save,
not to condemn mankind.
The Good News is that, all -- and I mean absolutely everybody, without precondition -- are welcome to join a community of ogres finding true love’s true form in our relationships with each other, a community of misfits and freaks and fairies and dragons of every description feasting at Jesus’ table.
We’re going to be living the story of the woman at the well as we live into this truth and share it with others. Like the woman at the well, we will be called to serve in ways that seem transgressive -- we’ll be crossing barriers of culture and custom. Like Jesus, we and our agendas will be transformed as we learn to love those we were taught to fear. Like the Samaritan villagers, we will hear Good News from those we least expect to teach us.
God’s love is bigger than our most extravagant dreams, and we are all being transformed as God works in and through us. Thanks be to God!
[*] The Diocese of Maryland has an Affirming Parishes program; currently there are 30 parishes listed as Affirming, among 118 parishes total in the diocese. The Diocese is currently conducting a series of Sacred Conversations on Human Sexuality, which aim to increase understanding among those holding different positions in the diocese on questions surrounding human sexuality.
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