Thursday, March 24, 2011

March27, Lent 3, The Keys of the Kingdom: Opening Your Heart




Note: This is from the Tiffany window at Old First. Photo by Jane Barber.

Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42

I spent my childhood here in Brooklyn, but I was born in Paterson, New Jersey. All my relatives lived in the Paterson suburbs. My uncle Bert lived in Prospect Park, which was Protestant and Republican, and where you got a ticket if you washed your car on Sunday. My aunt Jo lived in Midland Park — also Protestant and Republican. My aunt Betty lived in Haledon — Catholic and Democrat. The joke was that Prospect Park was Judea, Midland Park was Galilee, and Haledon was Samaria.

It was sort of fitting that my aunt Betty lived in Haledon, because she was the sister who was more or less the wild one. She was pretty, and I get the impression she was “hot”. She always had boyfriends, and not from church. My mom remembers she dated a rich guy with a convertible. And then she went and married a Catholic. She was even active as a Democrat.

And she had a key. She had a key to the Haledon spring, on Tilt Street. The boro of Haledon had a natural spring of running water, what the ancients called “living water.” This was good, because the Paterson tap water was so bad. The boro had enclosed it so that you couldn’t get at it without the special key. I don’t know who got those keys, maybe only to Democrats, but my aunt Betty had one. So my relatives would bring her their empty bottles and she’d go and fill them up, but not too often to get in trouble.

It was to the benefit of the Samaritan woman’s neighbors that a fountain started welling up in her, and Jesus had the key that opened up her heart. The fountain flows out of her when she tells the villagers to “Come and meet a man who told me everything I ever did.” But he had only said one thing about her life, just that embarrassing comment about her five ex-husbands and her current boyfriend. She had quickly diverted the conversation away from herself, and they talked theology, and about his mission, and his being the Messiah.

But that’s what seems to have opened her up. And like a geyser the whole truth of her life rose up inside her, into her own mind and soul, at least. He did not have to tell her much to tell her everything. He just used his key. Her life rose up in her, and poured out to her neighbors.

We are not told her name. But she’s one of the five women in the Gospel of John who are a big part of the story. She, and Martha, and three Mary’s: Mary his mother, at the wedding in Cana and then at the cross; Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha, and also of Lazarus, who was raised from the dead; and Mary Magdalene, who on Easter Day met Jesus in the Garden, whom the later tradition suggests had been a prostitute, although the Bible itself never says that.

This Woman-at-the-Well seems more like Mary Magdalene than Jesus’ mother. But she is like the Virgin Mary in her giving birth to a new life that has been conceived in her by the Holy Spirit. She is a model for all of you. For you to be a Christian is for you to give birth to the new you whom the Holy Spirit has conceived in you. Yes, you are you, but you also are another you, the new you in the old you, your new nature conceived in the womb of your old nature by the Holy Spirit and being born again. Each one of you is a Virgin Mary, even if the world regards you as a Mary Magdalene or a Samaritan.

Jesus does not require that you deny your past nor does he help you to escape it. Your old nature lives on in you. But he frees you from the guilt and power of your past and from the grip of your old nature, and the Holy Spirit makes your old nature the virgin mother of your new nature. All your sin and your pain and your frustration and mistakes and loneliness and suffering are give birth to your character and your hope and your love. Not the stagnant kinds of love you thought you had to accept, but God’s love, poured into your heart and overflowing out.

She had tried to love, too much, and in her frustration she had given up, and her current man was a lover only physically. The sign of her frustration is her coming to the well alone, at noon, not sociably in the morning with the other women. She was not respectable.

This is the well of Jacob — Jacob who came as a stranger to a well and asked a woman for a drink and then it got romantic. She knows that story. And here is this strange Jewish guy who is crossing all the social boundaries, who wants to put his lips upon her jug, and she thinks, “the story of my life.” She doesn’t serve him silently, she engages him. Not done. They engage in what the social rules regarded as flirtation, and the disciples are embarrassed by. But her flagrant openness allows her to run back to her village and shamelessly tell her neighbors to “come and meet a man who told me everything I ever did.” “But we already have a good idea of everything you ever did!” How close to the old self is the new self.

Your two natures always come together and they are both in everything. They are as distinct as life and death but they also are as inseparable as life and death. Don’t look at yourself and say, “that good thing I did there was my new nature, and that bad thing there was my old nature.” There are both of you in everything, no matter which of the two is at the moment in control. So you have to believe in the new one. I said last week you have to believe both in Jesus as the Messiah and in your own new life, because the old one has the evidence. Believe in it and go with it. The villagers believed in her and went with her, they could sense new water rising up in her.

What’s the key? Is it the truth, the truth that Jesus tells about himself, as the Messiah, and the truth about herself? She only gave him a half-truth when he told her to go get her husband, but he responded with the whole truth. That’s when she diverted the conversation to theology. Jesus patiently goes with her, respecting her but still engaging her. He does not judge her to condemn her, but as he talks about his mission she can sense the judgment in his words. He talks about "spirit and truth." Energy and solidity. Vitality and fidelity. Movement and commitment. Novelty and faithfulness. These are her issues. She understands herself. She thinks, “the story of my life,” but now in hope instead of resignation. His talk about himself is what unlocks her.

I think the truth is only the teeth on the key, I think the key itself is love. He loves her. Not like other men have loved her, for her attractiveness, because she was hot, because she was loose, because they could take from her. He loves her only to give to her. He loves her only to give her back to herself. He loves her “in spirit”, with his energy, and he treats her with honor and fidelity, he loves her “in truth”. The deepest truth of all is that he loves her. People tell the truth in love, but the deepest truth is the love, the deepest truth about the world is the love of God for the world and for everyone of you within it, no matter how Jesus finds you at the well. That’s a take home: the deepest truth about yourself is the love God has for you. Whatever else you say about yourself when you talk about yourself, the deepest truth about you is the love of God for you.

So back to my aunt Betty. When I was a teenager my brother and I lived in her house for a while. We needed a place to stay, and she took us in. I came to learn her generosity, her sense of humor, her candor and her openness, how direct she was and without pretense, and how unlike everyone else in our family she was not always judging everybody all the time. I learned the other side of her. I came to love her. Later on she became of member of the very conservative church in which she had grown up, which meant she had to forgive them of all their years of judging her. She had to believe in her own life. I am so proud of her. She’s an example of what St. Paul says, that suffering produces endurance, and endurance character, and character hope, and hope does not disappoint us, for God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

Copyright © 2011, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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