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?

We Don’t Care Enough to Hear You.

I’ve written many times on politics, using two basic ideas to point a way forward.
(1) We’ve all got something to learn, and
(2) We all have a stake in each other.

The one act that encompasses both “learning” and “each other” is listening.

You’d think that, given its importance, that America would be setting up new ways to listen to each other. The new technology gives us listening opportunities we could hardly imagine 50 years ago. The old technologies, especially the oldest one, of face-to-face in-person relationships, are still fully available to us should we want to use them.

But there’s the rub. When it comes to political decision-making, we’d rather not use them. We don’t really want to listen, and when we do, we seem to forget how to really do it. Our listening is selective — usually limited to stuff we’ve already decided we want to hear. When it comes to politics, even those of us who are spiritually inclined to go to great lengths to achieve mindfulness tune out other people’s politics. Even those who speak at length of how every person is made in God’s image seem just fine with blowing other people off over their politics.

The political world has trouble listening. One reason is that it loves being distracted. In this election, to most people, the real matter-at-hand is the state of the economy. Immigration and debt figure large, too. But instead, what gets most of the time on the news shows and the political ads? Birth certificates. Tax returns. Strange comments by strange legislators. Who leaks what secrets. Extreme words from talking heads and media stars. Half-truths, quarter-truths, and outright lies about the candidates’ records. Broad accusations about corporate slavery and Marxism. Even hints of violence if the other side wins. If your friend or your colleague at work kept looking away to talk to someone else, or paid more attention to the bird at the window than to you, would you think they were listening to you? When political discourse gets distracted, it cannot accomplish its main tasks.

American politics no longer has mediating activities. There’s no place where people can walk through matters with each other, with some urgency but no demand of a timetable nor of a particular pre-determined conclusion. We have to cobble together our own ad hoc substitute for gathering information. But gathering information is not the same as hearing others share their stories with us, meeting them more as people and less as members of a political faction.

One of our worst habits in political discussion is that we don’t show that we understand what’s being said. When you’re really listening, you’ll occasionally paraphrase, saying back to them what they said to see if you’ve got it right. Instead, the political world interrupts, quotes directly, wrenches it completely out of context, and shoots back with snappy rejoinders and cynical dismissal. They listen only for nuggets to latch on to for a flame-out response. The result? We can’t really understand what’s really being said.

The tameness of the US press’ questions has long been noted by political scientists. But it’s gotten so bad that when a truly incisive question is asked, it stands out almost like it’s a historic moment. US viewers of BBC (British) news love it so much because the Beeb still actually pursues questions that aren’t on the candidates’ approved list, and they’re likely to bite back when they’re being manipulated. Here, in the land of the free-for-a-small-fee, the idea of a true followup question is something out of a fictional fairy-land.

I know my own reaction when someone is clearly not listening to me. I get angry. And the more they do it, the angrier I get. And when I’m angry, I’m also no longer listening. Most of us are that way; most of the few who aren’t that way choose calmly to stop listening. It’s easy to understand why that leads to an angrier, more dismissive political world. When you don’t listen, you don’t understand. When you don’t understand, you don’t decide, you don’t act, you don’t move ahead. You get gridlock. And you get stuck in the same place while the world changes around you and time leaves you behind. Or worse: anger builds into a new, ugly civil war.

Learning how to listen may prove to be key to our nation’s future.

Christians Are Not the Center of the Universe

God is.

OK, so now I’ve stated the obvious. But I find it has to be said, thanks to the way the blogosphere has been working.

  • the Religious Right believes it knows the answers and thus has a right to control what happens.
  • the Progressive Christians and the mainline Left talk as if everything anyone in the evangelical sector believes is not only untrue, but is malicious and is the root cause of the many distortions of today’s American politics.
  • the outspoken atheists are all too happy to extend the blame — but they also include the moderates and progressives in that blame.
  • the media talk about such matters as if they agree with all of the above — Christians in politics is seen as this all-pervasive force that makes the entire rotten thing spin around.
  • People in general see people of faith doing nothing but slashing at each other, which leads many of them to blame all of the above for the mean spirit of our current political world.

But is it true?  In part yes, to be sure.  But not as much as all this talk would indicate. The truth?

  1. The Religious Right doesn’t have enough voters by itself, in most places, even with their higher turnout, to determine the general elections.  They win because there is a sector of people who never set foot in a church who support the same candidates and the same extreme rhetoric.  They don’t read the Bible, may not even have one in the house (unless it’s somewhere in a storage box).  But they watch Fox News religiously, listen to talk radio, and think Obama is a Muslim.
  2. Most people are not evaluating the candidates on the basis of faith.  (Not even many evangelicals or Catholics.) They are evaluating them on the basis of a fairly naked and poorly-informed form of self-interest. The corollary to this is simple:
  3. most folks aren’t sitting around with bated breath waiting for us Christians to make up our minds so they can vote accordingly.
  4. Most decisions that are made by government are not made because of religious faith. Not even the ones where the President flies the flag of faith. They are made because of a complicated set of influences and reasons that revolve around power, freedom, security, and wealth. Faith is a part, but mostly a small part, of that mix. The corollary to this is simple too:
  5. most of the ugly stuff that happens, which the various religious factions blame on the beliefs of the others, actually happens mostly because of non-religious factors. There are complex sociological, psychological, economic, and cultural influences which made these ‘evils’ possible.  Religious faith is a large factor, but is rarely if ever determinative. It is much more likely that the view of the faithful reflects these other influences than is the other way around.

None of this is meant to make light of the influence of practicing Christians on politics or culture. It is potent.  But its strength lies in subtext more than in text.  It is far too simplistic a thing to blame public and political behaviors on someone’s view of hell or perceived duty to protect the poor or any other such matter. But people of all sorts are doing it. They are saying, ‘you keep saying your faith is the reason everything happens the way it does, so you’re to blame.’

If only something this simple were true.  But it is not.  Thus we shouldn’t act — or write — as if it is.