Staying in the Conversation
February 27, 2005
No other evangelist takes more time with a story than does John. Matthew, Mark and Luke give us a narrative in a few verses. John routinely takes a whole chapter. Today’s Gospel of the Woman at the Well is a case in point. But one of the advantages of such lengthy narratives is that we can watch and detect development in the characters that are within them. In today’s story we see the Woman at the Well change. What begins as an encounter marked with suspicion and hostility, eventually reaches the acceptance of Jesus as Messiah and Lord.
What John is trying to do in these lengthy narratives is to reveal to us the circumstances in which we can expect to encounter Jesus. John prepares us to see in concrete circumstances the possibility of meeting the Risen Lord. In this story of the Woman at the Well, John tells us that we can expect to meet the Lord in conversation, especially in conversations with those who think differently than us. Opposition is certainly the context of this story. The narrative depends on us understanding that there was antipathy, suspicion, and hostility between Jews and Samaritans. Both culturally and religiously, they were groups opposed to one another. This is why Jesus’ request for a drink was such a brass move and why it would seem to have little chance of success. The ordinary Samaritan would have laughed and turned away from a thirsty Jew asking for a drink. The Samaritan woman in the gospel does laugh, but then she stays to listen and, in the conversation, she discovers a deeper truth.
This story tells us that it is when we enter into conversation with those who think differently from us, we can expect to meet Christ. It is hard to imagine a more relevant topic for our society. For, as commentators have noticed over the last year, America is a polarized nation. We are a nation divided into distinct and clear camps. There are red states and blue states, Democrats and Republicans. We are divided over the role of religion in politics, over our involvement in the war. We are in disagreement over the future of Social Security. We do not agree about gay marriage or over the norms for family life. This Gospel tells us that, instead of withdrawing and remaining only in our own thoughts and convictions, we should reach out to those who think differently. We should talk and listen, believing that in that conversation we can discover a deeper truth.
The story even points out what we should be listening for. It tells us that we should listen for common threads of our humanity, for failures, for our highest ideals.
The conversation between Jesus and the woman begins with a conversation about the basics of life, about water. Jesus and the woman have a different understanding of what water is but they are in agreement on the common thirst to drink. This common understanding moves their conversation forward. When we discuss with those who think differently from us, we should be looking for a common thirst, a common thread of our humanity that can unite us. Even if we do not agree, we can at least identify what we share.
The story also points to the importance of recognizing our failures. The woman is faced with and accepts her disastrous past, her multiple failed marriages. In this honesty of her failure, a step is taken towards the truth. In the same way, when we talk with others who have a different point of view, any honesty on either side cannot help but lead us forward. Admitting that we have weaknesses, that we are imperfect, opens our mind to listen for the possible truth in another’s position.
Finally, the woman and Jesus end up speaking about religion, about their highest ideals. In discussing the most important beliefs, they are able to move beyond the smaller issues. They move beyond where worship should take place and agree on the principle of worshipping in spirit and in truth. In the same way, when we discuss with those who have a different point of view, we will often be more successful if we can engage with them around our highest ideals rather than being caught up in the details of how to achieve them. If we can find a commonality on the good we hope to achieve, we may be able to resolve the strategies which divide us.
The story of the Woman at the Well tells us that we can expect to find Jesus in dialogue with others, especially with others who think differently. It is not a naïve story, imagining that once we begin to talk all obstacles will disappear. But it does tell us that if we are willing to listen, looking for common threads of our humanity, the reality of failure, and the power of our highest ideals, we can make progress. We will probably not end up thinking the same way. But if we open ourselves to the dialogue, we can discover a deeper truth and find Christ in the interaction. There are many places we can find Jesus. Today’s Gospel reminds us that we can find Him in conversation, in dialogue with one another. If that is true, we must not hold ourselves back or shut ourselves off from interaction with those who think differently. It is only by staying in the conversation, that we can hope to encounter the Risen Lord.
February 24, 2008
A man was flying his private plane and was forced to make a crash landing out west in the middle of nowhere. Although he was able to parachute to safety, he found himself without any means of communication or provisions. His only option was to walk to civilization. He walked for hours, and after awhile he was unable to even stand on his feet. So he started to crawl across the desolate terrain. Then he ran into a necktie salesman. The salesman said to him, “Good morning! Would you like to buy one of my beautiful new neckties?” The man said, “Are you out of your mind? I’m dying here of thirst; I don’t need a necktie!” So the salesman shrugged his shoulders and went away. The man continued to crawl across the ground knowing that if he did not find something to drink soon, he would die. As he crawled to the top of the hill he saw an unbelievable sight. There down below him was a posh martini club, in the middle of nowhere, with neon signs and a big parking lot filled with cars. Quickly he crawled up to the doorman and said, “Please, I’m dying of thirst. I need something to drink” “Sorry, sir,” the doorman said, “gentlemen are not admitted without a necktie.”
Now who would have imagined that survival depended on a necktie? But such an improbable connection was the experience of the Samaritan woman in today’s gospel. As she approached the well to draw water, she saw a man sitting there. She recognized that he was a Jew. There was no love lost between Jews and Samaritans. So she probably said to herself, “The last thing I need in the middle of a busy day is to deal with one of those people.” As the woman approached the man there was little expectation that the encounter would be l any other than a nuisance. Little did she think that this meeting at the well would change her life. But it did. As they talked together about water and worship, she came to see that this Jew was the Messiah, the one she had been waiting for her whole life long. What began as an unpromising encounter, turned out not only to be a blessing, but indeed the way to her salvation.
God can be present in any person and in any circumstance. Even in those circumstances which at first seem quite unpromising. It is the point of the story of the Samaritan woman to assert that truth. Therefore the story asks us: How often do we miss the presence of God because we presume that God cannot be present in this person or in this situation? How often do we rush by people and opportunities because we are convinced that we have something to do which is much more important? How often do we brush people aside because we have already prejudged that they have nothing to offer us? How often do we push forward toward our goal or agenda and in the process leave Christ behind?
The story of the Samaritan woman does not guarantee us that we will find Christ in every place. But it tells us that we will find Christ more often, if we look for Christ in every place, if we live our lives with expectation that we about to meet the Lord. If we live with that expectation, it changes the way we approach every situation. We begin to act less out of duty or responsibility and more out of the anticipation of being blessed. Parents begin to help their children with homework, not simply because that is a parent’s responsibility, but because they believe that in such an encounter Christ could teach them something, Christ could touch their hearts. Co-workers begin to listen and be attentive to another not simply to help another but out of the belief that in such an encounter Christ could help them, Christ could show them something about themselves. We begin to address a problem in our family or a misunderstanding in our marriage, not simply because that problem needs to be addressed, but also because we expect that in such an encounter Christ could bless us—Christ could give us reason to be thankful.
Christians do not dismiss any person or opportunity, because they know that Christ can be present anywhere. As preposterous as it might seem to have survival depend on a necktie, or salvation depend on speaking to an enemy at a well, we believe that such connections are possible. We believe that in the course of an ordinary day, God is always capable of touching our hearts. We believe that in the most unpromising situations, we can encounter the Savior of the World.
Our Hungry Heart
March 27, 2011
John 4: 5-42
Bruce Springsteen begins one of his songs, “Everybody has a hungry heart.” It is his way of saying that all of us want something in our life, something we need, something we desire. Perhaps we want someone to love, someone with whom we can share our life and build a family. Perhaps we want to play for the NFL. Maybe we want to be a doctor, a physician, or an entrepreneur within our own community. Perhaps we want to be respected in the eyes of others and admired in the eyes of our peers. Each one of us longs for something: that our spouse would love us differently, that our friends would treat us with more mutuality and respect, that we could make a lot of money and become a millionaire. Our hearts are hungry. They reach out for something that we desire. It is the way that we are. It is a part of the human condition.
Now, at first glance this hunger in our heart can seem like a kind of selfishness, simply catering to our own desires. But today’s Gospel presents such hunger in a very different perspective. It tells us that God has placed the hunger in our lives and in our hearts and plans to use that hunger to lead us to eternal life.
The Samaritan woman in today’s gospel comes to the well because she wants water. She wants the water in the well, the water to drink, the water with which to clean and cook. But because she comes to the well for that water, she meets Jesus. There she listens to him as he talks about a living water that will lead to salvation. The woman does not come to the well to find Christ’s water, she comes to find the water that is in the well. But her thirst for that water leads her to consider and ultimately to accept the water that only Jesus can give. A natural water leads her to an eternal water. A physical thirst leads her to a drink beyond her imagining.
Because God has put a hunger and thirst in our life, our desire to satisfy that hunger and thirst can be seen as a spiritual journey. As we reach out for the things that we want, we are not following a way of selfishness. We are following a way to God. This is because there is nothing that will ultimately satisfy us other than God alone. Other things in our life might for a time distract us or amuse us, but only the knowledge of God’s love and a life lived according to God’s word will ultimately make us happy.
St. Augustine, one of the great theologians of the Church, spoke eloquently on this topic. He said, “Oh God, you have created us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in you.” Ronald Rolheiser, a great spiritual writer of our time, has described this hunger in our hearts as “a holy longing”—holy, because if we follow it, it will ultimately lead us to God.
Every good and natural thing that we reach out for is a limited good. And as we confront the limited nature of the things we desire, they push us to seek the unlimited goodness who is God. Money will only keep us happy for so long. Then we will long for something else. Even the closest and most intimate human relationship has its down side. As we face that disappointing side, we recognize that we want something more. It is gratifying to be successful in our work, in our relationships, and in the eyes of others. But once we claim that success, our heart says, “Is that all there is?”
God has placed hunger in our hearts to lead us to eternal life. The Gospel today tells us: Go for the things you want, try to attain them, do not be deterred. Work as hard and as honestly as you can to make money. Love the people in your life as deeply as you can. Be the best teacher or accountant or NFL football player that you can be. But then do not be surprised if it is not enough.
The Samaritan woman looks out at us from today’s Gospel and says, “When you find the water you seek, you will want more. God has made us that way. The water you find is meant to lead you to the water that only Jesus can give.”