Third Sunday of Lent : I’ll Let You In On This.

Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11.

John 4:5-42.

Jesus was going through Samaria.  For many if not most Jews, this was an odd side trip.  It was not strange for Galileans, since the way to Jerusalem passed through it. The road came near the town Sychar, outside of which was the land Jacob gave to Joseph, where Jacob’s Well was. Jesus came there to rest from a tiring long day’s walk. His disciples had gone to get food. The well was still in daily use, providing water to those who lived nearby. So, a woman from nearby came to draw water from the well. (This was a hard task that women had to do every day: travel to get the water, then lift to fill jugs, then carry the jugs back home.)  Jesus then asked her to get him a drink.  The request surprised her, since it was clear Jesus was a Jew and he was asking a favor from a Samaritan. A rare thing indeed, such was the hate Jews had for them.

But this was more than a request for help in quenching thirst. It was an attempt to start a conversation (Jews didn’t do that, either). Jesus drew her further in by talking about ‘living water’.  Now, to her, that phrase meant water that was moving, perhaps in a current deep at the bottom of the well.  But Jesus meant something different: water of which, once you drink it, you will never thirst again. This interested her, for it meant never having to lug the jugs again (v.15).  To show her that he wasn’t kidding, he got into her personal life. So she was amazed; how’d he know this!

This is a prophet, she thought, someone who could speak from God about what hurts her people, so she asks questions about what separates Samaritan religion from Jewish faith.  Jesus didn’t pander by saying that Samaritans were right, because they were not, and he said so.  But then he said something truly remarkable: the day was at hand when the whole matter would be a thing of the past, where what mattered was worshiping “in spirit and truth’.

She thought, this isn’t just a prophet. Only the Messiah chosen and sent from God could tell us about it. This was exactly where Jesus was leading her with his answers. So she came out with it: ‘you’re talking like the Messiah’.

That’s when Jesus makes the most astounding statement of all: “I AM“.  This tired Jewish guy by the well, the one with the nerve to discuss high matters of faith with a woman, and a Samaritan at that, the stranger who knew what her life was like — this one speaking to her was God Himself. He let her in on the greatest secret of all. No wonder she was so excited she left her water pots behind and ran back to tell everyone.

That, of course, was what the disciples saw as they came back. Hey, what would they know?

A Challenge, and a Testimony

I was reading Tony Jones’ blog, where he challenged progressive Christian bloggers to write about God.

Boy, did that one come out of the blue. Not that progressive Christians don’t write about God. But they rarely write directly about God. You can see some of their thoughts about God lying behind their thoughts about church, politics, theology, spiritual practices, etc.. But one gets a sense that they really don’t like to talk about God, at least not where others can see it. Jones asks, and even though I don’t consider myself a ‘progressive’ Christian (more of a politically-centrist mainline Lutheran who’s in active and positive conversation with evangelicals and Pentecostalists – whew!), I think I should take a whack at it.

Or at least, I thought so when I first read it a week ago. Since then, I’ve thought about God, and thought about writing about God. But a bazillion things kept happening – radio, music, family, charity, household chores, and the cares of a guy who’s been far too single for far too long. In the past, every five years or so, I would immerse myself in thinking of God. I’d read something someone wrote in an article or book, and suddenly I’d spend the next month or so consumed with pursuing the thoughts that spun off from it. And I’d learn a whole lot. Eventually it would hit me that what God wanted me to do was not to obsess over thinking about God, but rather to spend my time building a life where I could get down to the business of loving people. I wish I could say I’ve done it well, but there’s a big hole in that which I could drive an 18-wheeler through.

But now that I’m writing here, what about God?

I could write of God’s attributes, but those are really there to state some basic, core truths about God. They set up the most important questions about God which come from daily life, which is often lived in the exceptions on the edge of those truths. I won’t get into the ‘omnis’, either, because ‘omni’ rhymes with ‘Romney’, and I’d get sick from thinking of ‘Romniscience’. But take the attribute saying that God doesn’t change. I’ve never in my life experienced God’s character or personality or love change, nor do I see that happening in history or the Bible. But I do see God caring enough to change tactics and actions, which are how character is shown. In Scripture, it shows when someone steps out in faith to intercede for others before God. I can testify that I’ve seen it be so in life, too. Love is a relationship, and God acts in ways that are made necessary by that love. It can be harsh, blunt, and direct. It can even be at times blissful and (yecch) even cute.

I think sometimes we try to say too much about God. What we really know about God is what we find in the Bible, and even that is colored by the understandings of the authors who wrote it and the societies they live in. While our experiences and our formulations give us much insight, ultimately they are not God, but educated guesses. And what does the Bible tell us about the First Person of God? More than anything else, it tells us to look at the Second – Jesus. Hear what Jesus says, see what Jesus does. Hear from those He taught, who witnessed this. We can, in a sense, ‘know’ God, who, like any lover, wants to be better known and understood by God’s beloved. God wants us to see Jesus, by whom we can know, understand, and love the One Jesus called ‘Father’. I’m not asking you to question the Scriptural report less, but I am begging you to trust it more, even when your instincts say otherwise.

I don’t know if this is much of a help to Tony or progressive Christians. They’re doing a lot of the heavy lifting in thought and practice right now. I’m mainly writing as testimony this time. More might come, maybe even tomorrow. But this is all for now.

Do you believe everything you think?

This election season is a monsoon of communication that doesn’t really communicate. The communication is done with much skill, so the failure is not in the technique. And there’s no lack of good information, even if you have to dig to find it. But today, communication fails mostly because of the frame of mind and intentions of those who make and receive it.

A key problem is that we tend to believe everything we think. We all do that. I do that. This leads to an imperialism of thought: I treat the way I think it is as how it really is, and when someone else differs, they’re wrong, and their thinking must be repaired.  But my mind (and yours) is not good enough for that.  My logic falls apart at some point. My lack of information betrays me. My intuitions, left to themselves, divert me.  My feelings drive me past the point where I should stop. My imagination whips up fantasies that often severely distort reality, yet still influence how I deal with it.

Since the only point of view I actually experience is my own, the only way I can become less of a thoroughly self-obsessed wiseass is for outside forces to push me to a new place from which I will see the world differently. And indeed, this is what happens to all of us. Each of us thinks in ways that have been shaped, gathered together, and imaged by media, institutions, culture, and the people around us. Other points of view show us what I can’t see from where I am. That’s actually a good thing to a point, because none of us have anywhere near enough experience to understand more than a few matters well. Without such constant reshaping, gathering, and imaging, we don’t learn.

Good to a point.

That point is when we let those others do the thinking for us. Life is so much simpler that way. There’s less responsibility in it. When people tire of thinking, they use the phrase ‘my head hurts’.  It takes work to seek, sift, solve the puzzle, and figure out what to do with what you’ve discovered. Few of us are built to turn everything into a doctoral dissertation.  And, truth be told, we don’t have to. It is enough just to think things through until a clear direction task hold.  That’s enough to prevent us from being someone else’s servant. We have enough of our own biases without taking on another’s and holding it just as tightly.

Now, assume you’ve been doing this right. You listen to others, to yourselves, you feel, you sense, you imagine, you think things through. That leaves one more barrier: pride. It hits in this form: “I’ve already thought this through. I came to my stance rightly. While I know that I don’t know it all, that’s just a technicality at this point.  I really *do* know.” But that is not how knowledge works. No matter how rightly you process knowledge, you are small, and wisdom is BIG. Each little bit of understanding comes as part of a huge context, with large subcontexts within it. What’s needed is ‘epistemic humility‘ – being wise enough, with enough self-perspective, to truly understand that you don’t ultimately know. Epistemic humility doesn’t mean that you don’t aim high, it means you don’t live under the illusion you’ve reached as high as it goes. You are not God. You’re in the same boat as everyone else. This leaves you in no position to hate or judge your neighbor. You can learn. You can trust that what you’ve learned is true, and it matters that you keep learning more. But there’s always something partial or broken or incomplete about it. You can’t get out of that. There are some things that come from understanding this: tolerance, an open heart, and a listening ear. And due to those, increased wisdom.