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Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Second thoughts: Is the Lord in our midst or not? (A3L)

A couple of weeks ago, Terry and I did an evening of reflection with Jennifer Budziak and the wonderful musicians of Old St. Patrick's church in the city as part of OSP's Lenten mission. I began by speaking about growing up in a desert climate not unlike parts of Israel. I was a boy in Arizona, and went to high school and novitiate in California, so even before the twenty years I spent there between 1973 and '93 I had a long experience of being a desert dweller. Like the people of the scriptures, I had an appreciation for rain, rivers, and that rare exotic glimpse of a lake or ocean. Before I was twenty, I had had two very good friends who died from exposure to the unforgiving heat of the Mojave desert.

So the song we began, after an opening prayer hymn called "Be Thou My Vision," with "Your Mercy Like Rain," my setting of Psalm 85, a ritual prayer for prayer for good rain to bring a good food crop, that associates God's mercy and justice coming to earth with the rain that falls from the sky. It is a prayer that God make present for us the love and safety that we remember was given to our ancestors. "Let us see your kindness; grant us your salvation." But as interested as I am and was in that aspect of the psalm, it is the reference to water in the desert as a sign of God's promises kept and ongoing favor that I wanted to latch onto. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, one of the most repeated signs of God's favor and the approach of God's reign is water in the desert: justice rolling like a river, and integrity like a flowing stream, the desert blooming like a garden, richly watered, a river flowing out from city of God, making all the surrounding countryside fertile.

We've picked that up in our Christian hymnody, as I'm sure you've already begun to recall. "Let Justice Roll like a River," we sing, "Down by the Riverside," "Shall We Gather at the River," "There's a Wideness in God's Mercy (like the wideness of the sea...)," "Come to the Water," "Lead Us to the Water," "Healing River." One of my songs from the late 1980s, "As We Remember," asks God to "show us your mercy, harsh and lovely as the sea."

All of that was fresh in my mind as I was hearing the readings Sunday, though I was admittedly distracted by a respiratory ailment I was fighting. In the first reading from Exodus, it is a lack of water that frustrates and panics the wandering Jews during their desert sojourn after the Exodus. Moses, also frustrated with them and understandably sympathetic a little irritated with the freedom they had received being so full of deprivation and scarcity, appeals to God for some help. The "something out of nothing" God, the God whose name turns out to mean something like, "none of your business", gives them a flowing stream of water out of rock. Health and safety (i.e., salvation) in the real world, just in the nick of time.

Flowing water is the subject of the gospel as well, although perhaps this water, quenching the thirst of the two involved in a cross-cultural courtship at a well already famous for its matchmaking, is more important for its meta meaning than its chemical nature or nutritional value. Here, water that quenches inner thirst is copious and flows from the heart of God; the sere and desiccated human desire to know and be known, to be released from all kinds of prejudicial judgment, is slaked from an ocean of living water that promises no thirst ever again. It is such a torrent of life that, in the case of this story at least, it is able to drown the enmity of rival cultures, that of Jew and Samaritan, in its sweet flood, and bring them together in a way never before imagined possible in the experience of the wide-open reign of God that was preached from the heart of this itinerant rabbi and his slow-to-learn Jewish disciples. So complete was this transformation that scholar John Dominic Crossan conjectures that it may even have been a Samaritan convert to Christ who was the author of the fourth gospel.

The key for me is that it is, in this story, not the Samaritan woman whose thirst opens up the conversation, but that of Jesus, the thirsty heart of God made flesh at the well in Samaria. It is God's thirst for us, God's mostly unrequited love for humanity, that opens up the conversation that reconciles the world of the Samaritan woman and her Jewish suitor, and previous rival. God's thirst for a people kept Israel safe through its desert sojourn. And St. Paul, in Romans 5, tells us in plain language what we need to know about that thirsty love: that it precedes our own, and makes our love and forgiveness possible.
And hope does not disappoint,
because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts
through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

For Christ, while we were still helpless,
died at the appointed time for the ungodly.
Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person,
though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die.
But God proves his love for us
in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.
It was nothing that we did that merited God's love and forgiveness. Nothing that we did makes it possible for us to believe, have hope, and love. It is "the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit" that makes that possible.

My "so what?" Well, it's something to imagine that the risen Christ, the one who awaits humanity at the well, who awaits me with all my needs and thirsts and prejudices and rivalries, is the very one who summoned "something out of nothing." The one who looks at me across the empty bucket, me, who get a lot of what I feel about myself from what others feel, who sometimes feel only as alive and worth knowing as other people see me, that one knows everything I've ever done and loves me, likes me, anyway. What's more important, Christ feels that way about everyone at the same time. I'm not in rivalry with anyone for God's affection, nor is there any rivalry in God for mine. Love is patient.

What does it mean for us to be loved with the regard of one who is "something out of nothing," who does not know either death nor scarcity, but is the source of abundance and possibility, whose love precedes any desire or asking for it? Well, for one thing, it means that those who preach scarcity and need and division are not preaching the same God. It means that they are failing to understand the simple truth that the only way to have enough is to make enough available to everyone. It means that those who cling and pander to prejudice and fear against others who are in need and asking for assistance are not in touch with any actual Christian idea about who God is, what God wants, and what Christ came for. To me, it means that fear is useless and vain, and the best way to get whatever we need to assuage our thirst is to give a drink of water to that nagging voice that is asking us for a drink, no matter what language the words are being spoken in, or what side of our border the words are coming from. It may be the voice of the perceived rival, maybe even enemy, that will awaken in me my own thirst, and giving water to the thirsty other will finally make me alive with an unquenchable life.

“If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,' you would have asked him 
and he would have given you living water.”

This seems about as relevant to my life as anything in tomorrow's newspaper. Is the Lord in our midst, or not? It seems so. It just might be that God's voice sounds like that of someone we suspect is out to get us, wants our job or our best stuff, and is asking for something they really need. And the only way to get to God is to risk whatever bucket it might be we're grasping, risk alienation from our in-group, risk our identity as us-and-not-them, and give them what they're asking for. The conversation that starts when we're both sipping from the bucket we were hiding might turn us from burned-out phonies clutching the pursestrings of our ennui into surprise witnesses to something new happening: the appearance of "Something-out-of-nothing" right here among us, like a brook bubbling out of a rock.