The following is a reflection on the Gospel of John, Chapters 3 and 4, shared with the Anglican Dominicans and members of All Souls Episcopal Church in Washington, DC on April 3, 2016, when I made Oblation promises to the Order.
When Sr Elena first told us that our homilies today would be drawn from the Gospel of John Chs. 3 and 4, there were admittedly equal parts joy as well as fear and trembling. Joy, because I have been blessed to preach on these texts before, and fear and trembling because these were so familiar, what could I possibly have to say that would speak to a group of men and women who study the Bible and preach it as a central part of our vocation!
For one thing, in John 3 we find one of the first verses that we memorize during our years at Sunday School, it is a staple of themes that occur during Vacation Bible School, and often times it is used as a shorthand version of the Christian faith. We see it everywhere, on bumper stickers, T-shirts, and in recent years we have even seen it stenciled under the eyes of a certain football player.
If we look at John 4, we find the familiar story of Jesus meeting a woman at Jacob’s Well. Jesus was tired and needed to rest, so his disciples went on ahead into town for food while he recovered from the journey. We can surmise that this woman is fairly low on the social ladder in town, for people normally went out to draw the day’s water early in the morning, and it was also quite a social time to catch up with neighbors. But no one would go out in the heat of the day. Think about it. Would you start a back breaking project around lunch time in August? Of course not! For myself, when I lived in Key West, I was hard pressed to carry my laundry three blocks to the Laundromat at any other time except right when they opened at 7am! So something must be going on for this woman to avoid the rest of town while she went to the well for the day’s water.
It is also appropriate here to do a very quick study in contrasts between Jesus meeting the woman at the well and Jesus meeting Nicodemus in Chapter 3. Nicodemus was a man, a Pharisee, well respected, and part of the religious establishment. He had it all going for him. But when he came to talk to Jesus, he felt the need to do so under the cover of darkness so he wouldn’t be found out. He used flowery and flattering language to even butter Jesus up. The woman, on the other hand, does not even have a name. She was also a Samaritan and an outsider among her community of outcasts. In short, she was a nobody. Not fit for polite society. Someone to be avoided. When she goes to draw water at noon it is because the heat of the sun is easier to bear than the shame of her embarrassment. But Jesus meets her. He engages with her, and they have this wholly remarkable conversation. It cannot be understated all the social conventions that just went out the window. Not only was Jesus a Jew and the woman a Samaritan, but men and women simply did not speak to one another except within the context of family settings. But as we have seen before, Jesus has no qualms about breaking all the usual rules. Whereas Jesus brushes off Nicodemus’ questions and poo-poohs them as if to say, “You should know better than to ask questions like that!” he takes this woman seriously. She MATTERS.
And as they talk, Jesus speaks to her of living water that comes from a well that never runs dry. He names the source of her shame that she has had five husbands over the years and the man she is with now is not her husband at all. She realizes there is more to this man than meets the eye and calls him a prophet. Then they start to talk about God, and it is here where Jesus reveals himself, who he REALLY is by saying two of the words that God used to reveal to Moses exactly who he was and what kind of God He is: “I AM.”
The Gospel of John is famous for, among other things, several “I am” sayings that Jesus uses to describe who he is. “I am the bread of life.” “I am the light of the world.” “I am the resurrection and the life.” It appears for the first time here in the most direct terms possible. He doesn’t reveal himself to a learned man of polite society like Nicodemus. He reveals himself as the Messiah, the Son of God, to someone polite society considers to be a nobody. He reveals to her that he knows exactly why she is living on the margins of her community and still he accepts her. He respects her. He loves her, just as God so loved the world.
As for Nicodemus, Jesus patiently begins by comparing his mission to the story of Moses lifting up the bronze serpent in the wilderness so that the Israelites would not die when they were bitten by poisonous snakes. The serpents that assault us today are no less deadly for they come in the forms of our own vices and shortcomings. These serpents may not only be the internal things we struggle with, but plenty of outside forces which seem to hem us in on every turn from which there may be no escape. But, as Moses fashioned the bronze serpent to show to the Israelites in the wilderness, God sends his Son to be lifted up on the cross for the salvation of the entire human race and all of Creation.
“God so loved the world.”
If we look at the Greek, we know that when the Bible says “God so loved the world” the word that is used is agape, which is the term for God’s unconditional love. Hebrew, like Greek, has several words for love, and one of those words is chesed, which is usually translated as “mercy” or “loving-kindness” or “covenantal loyalty,” but in context in which chesed is used, those don’t quite seem to do it justice. In her book Mystical Hope, Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopal Priest and Spiritual Director calls chesed God’s fierce, burning love. It is an abiding love that is reserved to express the commitment and love that God has for his people. It is not a mere feeling but an all-pervasive force like gravity.
For all of his power, his good works and compassion, at the end in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus relied and trusted on nothing but Gods’ chesed. It is no accident that we say that his final words from the Cross are “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” The Gospel of Matthew sums up Jesus’ own recognition of the need to rely on God alone and not his own power when he said, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?”
But in his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus is also pointing to the resurrection where Jesus is lifted from the grave by the power and love of God, a love that is stronger than death itself. Because of our faith in what God has done in his Son, because we trust that God loves us, we inherit that promise, the gift of eternal life. This is echoed in our Eucharist prayer when it is said “By his death, he has destroyed death, and by his rising to life again he has won for us everlasting life.”
As Anglican Dominicans, we commit ourselves to daily prayer, daily study of the Scriptures and proclamation through preaching. At Seminary, I’m surrounded by some very smart people who are as every bit as brainy and Academic as we Dominicans have a reputation for being. We can sit around and argue the finer points of doctrine and the underlying meaning behind every smallest act of liturgy. Sometimes we seminarians need reminding at the end of all our study, at the end of all of our book knowledge and learning ultimately stands Jesus. At the end of the day, all we can do is fall on God’s chesed and agape, his fierce abiding burning love for us just as Jesus did in Gethsemane … and that will be what carries us through. It is because of the life changing power of the love of God that we can say that we no longer live just for ourselves, but for him, in him and through him who died and rose again.
Every time I get bogged down in trying to answer these questions, I recall a Charlie Brown comic strip where Peppermint Patty and Marcy are discussing about how a faucet works. Marci goes into the basics of plumbing and water pressure. Peppermint Patty looks thoughtfully at the faucet with the running water and says to her friend, “I don’t care how it works. I’m just glad it works.” And it works because God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. It works because Jesus meets the woman and the well and offers her living water which cools her shame when society tells her she is a nobody and quenches the deepest thirst for community and communion with God. It’s like that old Southern Gospel Song with the Chorus that says “I cannot tell you how, and I cannot tell you why, but He’ll tell us all about it in the by and by.”