I had a sixteen year hiatus from church between the years I was fifteen and thirty-one. In my late twenties, when I began to think about my spiritual life and contemplated going to church I was hesitant, fearful. Like most fears my fear was not rational. I was afraid that going to church would mean that I would lose myself. Growing up I was always the obedient daughter who excelled at life, but I never voiced my own opinions. I lost my self in what others wanted me to be and do. The church of my childhood reinforced that role for girls and daughters and I was a good little girl. But when my family left the church and stopped practicing Christianity, I had the opportunity to rethink everything and figure out who I was and what I wanted. So finding out as a 28 year old that I was being pulled back into church life was powerful and terrifying. But my desire to return was two-fold: I wanted a community where I could belong with a group of people who had similar life experiences and hopes and a place where I could ask questions about God and grow a more mature spirituality.
Figuring out how to be a Christian in the world today is challenging because there are many ways to be a Christian, across a wide swath of denominations, values and beliefs. In this season of Lent we have been pondering who we are as a faith community, how we can grow and deepen the spiritual lives of individuals, and how we can expand our identity as a community centered church that feeds people in mind, body, and spirit to make an impact on the world around us. We have been exploring this through our Sunday morning scripture readings, through the five disciplines that help us observe a Holy Lent as defined in the Book of Common Prayer, and through our newly forming Spirituality Commission.
In each of the Sunday morning sermons I have taken one of the five Lenten disciplines: prayer, self-examination, reading scripture, repentance, and fasting, and connected it to the readings, its history in the Christian tradition, and how it might enhance one’s spirituality. So far I’ve talked about prayer and self examination. Today I’m reflecting on fasting. Fasting is an ancient practice found in many faith traditions. For Christians the point of fasting is to help one focus on God. Whenever one craves what one has given up one is to turn one’s attention to God through prayer and self-examination. When we think about fasting we usually think about not eating some food, like giving up chocolate for Lent.
One can also fast from something one does. For example, I know a number of people who are fasting from Facebook for Lent. So instead of going on one’s computer and checking out Facebook one spends time in prayer instead.
I said on Ash Wednesday that my Lenten discipline was going to be a fast from false busyness. I was going to slow down and be more present to my life. I thought of this because of several articles I’ve read recently which say that people have a tendency to stay really busy as a way of avoiding their lives - avoiding challenges in a marriage or parenting - really busy to avoid working on deepening relationships. Or being really busy because just the act of being busy makes one feel important and useful. I’m fasting from that kind of busyness and taking time to look at my life and my relationships. I’m taking time to focus on prayer and self-examination and God’s presence in my life.
Which is exactly what happens in our scripture reading this morning. Both Jesus and this woman at the well stop long enough to become vulnerable with one another which leads them to take a good hard look at their lives and come to a deeper understanding of self. Who Jesus is and who this woman is.
It seems that her life did not turn out as she had hoped. As a woman in that day and time she had no choice of who her husband was. And, if one husband died a brother or another male family member of that husband was obligated to take her as his wife. Sometimes no one would do that and the woman was abandoned, left to starve and die.
This is a story about a woman who has stood up to the challenges in her life and survived. Her ability to enter into a debate with Jesus speaks to her strength. Unlike Nicodemus in the Gospel story from last week who came to Jesus in darkness, she appears in the light of day. This points to her willingness to be out in the open, honest about who she is, willing to be vulnerable and yet courageous, feeling strength in her sense of self.
Brene Brown writes that embracing our vulnerability is risky and takes courage. “The root of the word courage is cor—the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage had a very different definition than it does today. Courage originally meant ‘To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.”’
And so this woman and Jesus have a courageous heart to heart conversation. By the way, this is the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in the Bible.
In the context of this profound conversation three things happen. 1. Jesus has travelled to Samaria, a land despised by the Hebrew people and with whom the Hebrews are in constant conflict. So, Jesus moves outside of his comfort zone, taking a risk, being vulnerable, and another example of how Jesus often went to the people instead of expecting them to come to him; 2. Jesus is the one who is thirsty, yearning for a cup of water, but he has no means of giving himself that water. This woman can give him a cup of water and she does. Jesus understands that his willingness to be vulnerable creates the opportunity for a deeper relationship to form with this woman, and with others 3. Jesus breaks with the male/female protocol and speaks with her and she with him. Each becomes vulnerable to the other and they end up seeing one another, and themselves, with more depth, understanding, and compassion, which changes each of them forever.
Another important detail of this story is that the woman leaves her water jar at the well when she runs off to tell the townspeople about her encounter with Jesus. She can fast from that burden because she has a new purpose. Now she is the vessel of living water, she is the bearer of God’s love. Being heard and seen by Jesus she is able to authentically carry within her the fullness of her story, knowing that she is loved for being who she is. She becomes both vulnerable and strong, willing to share this love with the townspeople.
In a similar way, the purpose of our mission to feed people in mind, body, and spirit, is to deepen our relationships with other people through joining them at the well of life, listening deeply, and sharing expansively of our selves, becoming God’s living water to our neighbors far and near.
A reflection on John 4:5-42 for Lent 3A