Sunday, March 19, 2017

3rd Sunday of Lent: Shall we gather at the well?

Exodus 17:1-7
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-14

“Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.”  John 5:14

There is a popular beer commercial that ends with the actor encouraging us to “Stay thirsty, my friends”.  The point is obvious: as long as we are thirsty, we are more likely to buy this product.  As a former beer drinker myself, I can attest to this reality; as much as I once drank, my thirst was never quenched.  Not in those moments and not until I finally walked away from it.  I was drinking more than my share – but - from the wrong well.

And I dare say too many of us are; and because of our neglect of those things which really matter and have everlasting value, so go our children and our grandchildren – because we have convinced ourselves – and them - that even a momentary sense of satisfaction by temporal means is better than no satisfaction at all.  If the world does not give us what we desire, we convince ourselves we have been cheated out of something we are due.

I thought of all this as I pondered the real meaning of this chance encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman; and I wondered what it is we truly seek.  Or do we bother to seek at all, believing ourselves to have all we need, having been convinced by cheap preachers of a cheap religion counted only as an event rather than as a way of viewing and acting in the world?

I’ve begun reading a new book entitled The Benedict Option (Rod Dreher, 2017).  Dreher has been fascinated with the 6th-century monk for some time and has written several articles about the modern Church’s need to reexamine The Rule of St. Benedict, a basic instruction on how to live faithfully and communally in the wake of the collapse of the Roman Empire and an almost complete collapse of any sense of moral value.

The basic premise of the book is the same basic premise of the Encounter at the Well: discovering for the first time – or rediscovering once again – our truest sense of who we are and to Whom we belong.  Mr. Dreher maintains the Church has become “content to be the chaplain to a consumerist culture losing all sense of what it means to be a Christian” (Benedict Option, Intro, pg 2).

Yet even as we may have been convinced by some that all may already be lost, we are also reminded by The Rule of St. Benedict and the period in which St. Benedict operated that all seemed lost even then.  History, however, tells another story.  Even in the darkest periods of persecution, the Church grew stronger – a fulfillment of Jesus’ assurance that the “gates of hell will not prevail against the Church” (Matthew 16:18). 

Here’s where the depth of that Promise matters to us: Jesus did not promise an everlasting Western Church or an American Church or a self-declared Church.  It is the true Church, the faithful Church expressing itself fully and unreservedly as the Living Body of Christ Himself which will prevail against the “gates of hell” and the rising tide of modern culture.  All other “churches” will falter.

So it cannot be simply a matter of being “good”.  There is no indication the Samaritan woman at the well was not a “good” person.  Even though much is insinuated in her situation as the “wife of five husbands” and even in the observation that “the [man] you have now is not your husband” (John 4:18), it would be fairer to assume that, according to the standards of human culture, the woman did what she felt she needed to do just to survive.  Surely in her own mind, she was a “good” person.

The funniest thing is this woman likely fits into a social mold known as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (MTD), a phrase coined in 2005 by sociologists (Christian Smith & Melinda Lundquist Denton) who studied the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers from a wide variety of backgrounds (Dreher, pg 10).

The basic tenets of MTD are: 1) a Creator God who exists and watches over human life, 2) God wants people to be good, nice, and fair, 3) the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself, 4) God does not need to be involved unless/until there is a problem to be resolved, and 5) good people go to heaven when they die (Dreher, pg 10).

Not least of the problems with MTD is the notion of subjective happiness and subjective goodness; that is, we make the rules and set the standard.  It lacks the Christian disciplines of prayer, repentance, self-sacrificial love, purity of heart, true and active and engaged worship of the One, True God, and communal accountability – that is, seeing to the well-being of others.  Christianity commends suffering as a spiritual discipline, even sometimes necessary; MTD avoids suffering at all cost, even the cost of someone else’s life.  

MTD accepts temporal pleasures as “signs” from Above without critical, biblical analysis.  This means when we get our way, God is good.  However, when something goes wrong, God is non-existent and/or it’s someone else’s fault.  Suffering is considered a curse rather than the reality of living in a fallen world.

Compare the woman at the well with the widow in Luke 21 who gave only two mites to the Temple treasury, yet it was “all she had” left to give (Luke 21:1-4).  She had no mind for what she might have need of beyond that very intimate moment between herself and her God, for in that moment she gave herself completely over to The Lord.  No one and nothing else mattered.

The woman at the well did everything and perhaps anything she felt she needed to do just to survive.  The widow was entirely focused on her God and His Glory and “gave more than anyone”, according to Jesus.  The woman at the well was entirely focused on herself and her comfort. 

Insert these two woman into the contemporary culture.  How will they be judged even by Christians?   It is very likely the widow would be looked upon as a “fool” who is perhaps trying to “buy” her way into Heaven, ignoring the possibility that The Lord wants her to be “happy”; while the woman at the well would be admired for her stamina and willful determination to overcome her obstacles by whatever means necessary, moral and immoral.

Here is the challenge of the Church today.  We cannot tell the difference because we think we’re no longer thirsty.  We have convinced ourselves we are satisfied with a sufficiently adjusted narrative that has largely been given over to our own satisfaction according to our own desires and demands. 

What we may have learned to settle for, however, may not be the purity of the Water of Life we are offered; but we have a hard time discerning the difference because we have learned to settle for whatever we can get our hands on.  It may still be water, but it may also contain things which will do us harm.  Like the beer I mentioned earlier, we think any liquid will do to quench our thirst as long as we say “Jesus” a lot and post “Jesus” stuff on social media.

The point is not whether we have enough of The Word of God to get by; it is about whether we have too much of a world and a culture that will dilute The Word to the point of being ineffective and less than satisfying. 

Our God chose to reveal Himself in the person of Christ Jesus because He looked upon a very thirsty world in a very dry climate and has invited us – we who more closely identify with the woman at the well than with the widow in the Temple – to drink our fill of the Pure Word.  The Word of God will not always – in fact, may never – fit our current narrative nor will it support or justify the choices we’ve already made.

Yet again and again we are invited to drink of the Fountain of Repentance and the regeneration of Life Eternal.  This is the Way, the Truth, and the Life – for it is the Word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.  

No comments: