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Saturday, March 7, 2015

Agape as flowing water

If I ever get a chance to preach on this Sunday, I’m taking it. I don’t think that, in a lectionary packed with the riches of creation, there’s a Sunday with a denser set of images, tumbling over one another and leaving us thirsty for more revelation. I’ve written about the Third Sunday of Lent three times before, concentrating on the gospel, the story of the Samaritan woman. And that aspect of the story is amazing, what it reveals to us about the divine lover, the “seventh husband,” and the racial, national, and religious reconciliation suggested by the “marriage” of a Jew and a Samaritan at the well of Jacob. I've written about more on how Romans 5 affected me, and that’s really where I want to go this year again, but referring it back to the Exodus story, to John 4, and ultimately to the paschal mystery of God.


Six years ago, I was involved with a book discussion at our local Presbyterian church on Marcus Borg’s and John Dominic Crossan’s work, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus's Final Days in Jerusalem, about which I’ve spoken to you before. We got into a discussion about atonement theory. Crossan and Borg posit an atonement theology that does not demand that we imagine God making Christ suffer a terrible death to appease his wrath, and I have to say that I find that comforting, though I would go further than Crossan and Borg do (I can do that, because I don’t have any academic credentials to protect.) A challenge was put to this theory by a citation of Romans 5, which just happens to be the 2nd reading for this 3rd Sunday of Lent as we celebrate it at St. Anne’s and wherever there are catechumens in the community, with the readings from Lectionary Year A.

What would be, to an ancient desert civilization like Israel’s, a more cogent, stirring symbol of the possibilities life has to offer than a spring bubbling out of desert rock, or a well that never runs dry? As a child born in Ohio and growing up in Arizona, I tried, year after year in grade school, to have a vegetable garden in our back yard. It may have grown out of one of those famous get-rich-quick schemes kids find in their magazines: I know that one or two years I tried to make some money selling flower and vegetable seeds door-to-door, encouraged in my entrepreneurship by Superman, Green Lantern, or the kids in “Boys’ Life.” I’m also sure that people in the neighborhoods must have thought I was nuts. Nevertheless, I dutifully and self-motivatedly cleared a 12x12 patch in a corner of our backyard that got at least a modicum of shade from the back fence and a mulberry tree, and tried to make things grow back there. No matter how hard I tried (and God knows it’s just as well: I’m sure I watered the plants with asbestos-laden runoff from our evaporative cooler), the patch of ground turned into a sun-baked clutch of clay, and any intrepid legumes or grasses (I actually managed to strangle up a few stalks of popcorn once) looked scraggly and tired from their struggle with a forced overdose of solar energy.


Even allowing for the expertise of ages of desert farming, life in Israel must have been a crapshoot in those years. And the memory of flooded wadis, stories of water gushing from rock, and the storied oases of their ancestors must have offered some dreamy hope and solace to their quotidian labors. Enter these two stories, from Exodus and John 4, drawing on all the promise and longing of fresh, free, abundant water for desert dwellers.



Amid these two stories of abundance, refreshment, and the imaginative easing of the burden of life, Paul’s letter to Romans describes the love of God as so abundant that it must be seen as agape, the pouring-out of self with no hope or care for recovery, payback, or even gratitude. While we were still sinners Christ died for us, Paul says. When we were desert rock, Christ was water. When we were locked in an arid quest for impotent gods who just made us thirstier with their empty promises, there was our divine lover with a promise of bubbling water that would make of our thirst a distant memory. And more than that, the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. God doesn’t even keep that to self, but the water bubbles up from within us. We’ve been made a source of life and hope for others as well. To me, this is yet another biblical reminder that it is God first and foremost whose nature is described by Jesus as the one who lives the “perfect” life to which he calls us in the Sermon on the Mount: love your enemies; do good to those who hate you. Rather than leave us in the wrath that is of our own making, the result of our skewed desire, jealousy, and covetous violence, God intervenes in Jesus to show us a way out of our self-made hell. 


Two echoes will reverberate from the story of water from the rock and “living water” that will flow through Christ into the Christian and thus into the world forever. John will later describe, after the death of Jesus in which, John says, he “handed over the spirit” to the disciples at the foot of cross, that “blood and water” flowed from his right side when pierced by the Roman lance. This “blood and water” has been the source of theological and medical speculation, as though John were only writing some kind of autopsy report. But John, who never wastes a detail, is describing the last of Jesus being poured out in agape, and is bringing our imagination back to the spring of water that is the source of life, and perhaps, mixed with blood and pouring from the body of the Lord, describing the blessed birth of the new world pouring from the womb of Christ. Later, in the book of Revelation, describing the new Jerusalem that is the site of the marriage of the Church and the Lamb, “John” describes the river of life “flowing out of the throne of God and the Lamb,” a river that Ezekiel had seen flowing out of “the right side of the temple,” a fresh, deepening torrent marking the boundaries of the chosen. 


This Sunday’s readings describe an abundant agape that dissipates the tiresome and idolatrous images of a bloodthirsty god demanding the death of his son to assuage his anger and revulsion over some insult of mortals. It’s only because of our need to build revenge into our image of god and call it justice, our addictive craving for the justification of war and violence and the accumulation of power that we have settled for the lesser gods who have demanded blood sacrifice, crusade, jihad, and inquisition. There, at the well, is the image of the invisible God, thirsty, chatty, and with an amazing offer of a well that never runs dry. With the Samaritan woman, and all the desert people who lived and died before and after her, I want to say, with all my heart, “Give me this living water, sir, so I don’t have to keep coming back to this old well.”


For archiving sake, other posts on the first scrutiny and the 3rd Sunday of Lent, Year A:

The Mystery of Sin (1) - Where's Your Samaria
Of Wells, Women, and Song (2014)
The Element of Surprise (2015)
Scrutinies: The Mystery of Sin and Grace (2014 - archive of all scrutiny posts thru last year)

Thanks for reading.