Here I am sharing the first of two talks given at parishes in the Diocese of Long Island during lenten retreats 2016. They are intended to form part of an eventual book. Your comments are welcome.
The scriptural text on which this reflection is based, John 4, follows afterward for the reader’s convenience in the NRSV translation.
Who are you?
Who are you really?
It’s a question that is basic, foundational, fundamental. And because it is, we set up standard answers to that question and leave it be.
Who are you?
Wife/husband/mother/father/son/daughter/executive/worker/teacher/attorney/athlete/student/democrat/republican/American/liberal/conservative/Christian/Episcopalian/rich/poor – the nest of labels we put on ourselves is at hand to help us introduce ourselves to others and to maintain an identity in this big and busy world of ours, and in the neighborhood, and even in our own kitchen. It is our way of saying: This is who I am.
But really, who are you?
Underneath all the ways you describe yourself and after all the ways other people identify you – friend/neighbor/trustworthy/a great cook/warm/cold/generous/strong/emotional/intelligent – after all that has been said and said again, who are you?
Who are we, as we gather here together in this place?
This is a question that Lent puts before us. A fundamental question whose answer may after all not be found in all the names we use to introduce ourselves to others, or even to help us understand ourselves.
There is something deeper. There is an answer to the question of who I am that is prior to all the others and underneath all the others. We may hardly ever think about it or we may never have heard it at all. It is true in every season, but these six weeks of Lent provide us a particular invitation to look again.
It’s like this. I have a trunk that I bought in 1979. Late that summer I packed it with stuff I thought I needed and shipped it over to Europe where I was going to live as a student. It arrived after me. I opened it and unpacked and used the things in it. Five years later I re-packed it and shipped it back to the USA. Since then it has been with me in every place I have lived. And every so often, with less and less frequency as life goes on and the decades pass, I open it again and dig down and pull things out and marvel at what is there and what memories spring forth and what it has to tell me gently and insistently and truly about my foundations, who I was, who I am, and who I will be.
Whether you have a trunk like that, or a dresser drawer, or a file cabinet, or just the many passages and partitions of your human heart – there lives deep within you both the question and the answer: Who am I?
Now the fascinating truth is that the question – who am I? – comes from us. This is our question. It becomes real as soon as we are old enough to open the eyes of our mind and heart and wonder, where did I come from, and where am I going, and who am I who has come and is going? It is our question.
But the answer does not come from us. The answer comes from elsewhere. The answer comes from the One who is our source and our ultimate goal. The answer comes from God. For us as Christians, we find that voice of God first and clearest in the Word made flesh, Jesus the Christ.
And so we have the long Gospel story we have heard [today/tonight] from the 4th chapter of the Gospel according to John. In one way it is the simplest and most ordinary of stories. It is the account of two people meeting for the first time and entering into conversation. It happens all the time. Right now, somewhere in the world, two human beings are meeting over the produce cart, each one picking up a melon and assessing its readiness for purchase, when it will be ripe and ready to eat; their eyes meet and they begin to talk. And right now, somewhere in the world, two people seated side-by-side at a bar, one perhaps despondent, the other relaxing after work, are beginning to share something of the state of their lives with one another. It is happening right now. And so it happened by Jacob’s well outside the Samaritan city of Sychar one noontime many days ago.
A Jewish man was sitting there alone. His friends had headed into town to buy provisions. And there came a Samaritan woman carrying out a task she did everyday of her life, at least once a day. She was coming to the well for water, carrying her jug.
So in more than a few ways it is an entirely ordinary moment. And yet, it is not.
A man and a woman alone together, even in public, was simply not done in that time and place. A Jew and a Samaritan entering into conversation with one another was simply not done. Particularly prolonged and significant conversation. Particularly the kind of once-in-a-lifetime-this-changes-everything conversation that results in a person leaving behind a simple commodity that was used every day of life to provide one of the gifts most needed to just go on living. The woman ran back into town following this conversation leaving her water pail behind at the well. A simple thing, but one telling the tale that following this apparently chance meeting the whole world looked different to her eyes.
What happened there by the well? I think, in a single sentence, it is something like this: the answer to the question ‘who are you’ shifted on its axis for that unnamed woman.
Listen to their conversation again in memory. Look at what happens there. They begin in the here and now. Jesus is thirsty and the woman has a bucket. But in a moment or two she finds herself asking aloud, in a challenging way, if Jesus thinks he is greater than the ancestor Jacob who dug the well. Why? Because Jesus has proclaimed himself as the bringer of a water that lives within the person, assuages every thirst, and springs up to unending life. This water the woman wants, at first only because she imagines it will save her the trouble of making the trek from the city center to the well each day. But Jesus presses on with her, asking her to bring her husband. To this question, a testing and no-doubt painful one in her own personal history, she responds in brief with the truth, the whole truth. And in return Jesus offers the deeper truth that allows her to recognize in him more than an ordinary man, in fact, a prophet.
The woman moves on to talk about right worship. Is she trying to change the subject? To get away from her personal history? Or is this for her, as it was for her people, an important question: ‘are we Samaritans right in how and where we worship God, or are you Jews right?’ Jesus affirms the role of the Jews as the carriers of salvation to the world, but then goes on to announce the arrival of a radically new moment. As this moment is rendered in the Scriptural translation called The Message:
“. . . the time is coming—it has, in fact, come—when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter. It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”
This revelation, which had to be startling to hear from anyone, moves the woman finally to express her desire and hope in the coming of the Messiah, the Christ.
Jesus, at this point of arrival in their talk, affirms then:
“I am he. You don’t have to wait any longer or look any further.”
And she runs back to the city, to her family and friends and neighbors with the question of her heart popping out of her lips, “Could this be the Messiah?”
What a distance they traveled together from Jesus’ first request for water, for the drink that – for all we know from the Gospel – he never actually received. So perhaps his thirst remained. But her thirst was both increased and promised ready relief.
What happened there?
That woman was blessed to come to know that she already stood in relationship with God, and with God’s Messiah, with the Christ, the Savior. Her eyes were opened to see that neither her personal history nor the story of her people – both of which were seen by some as preventing her from knowing and being known by God – neither one in any way prevented her from knowing herself as a beloved child of God and living in that love. In fact, she was revealed to herself as already there, already loved, already belonging to God.
What did she have to do to come to this point?
That day, to the point of midday, she simply carried on as she would have on any other day. We do not know what her thoughts and concerns were as she approached the well, as she first realized that there was a stranger seated there. She may have been thinking about her past. She may have been wondering about some of her life decisions. She may have been worried about money. She may have been concerned about her children. Or she may have not had a care in the world.
In any case, she did nothing to bring about this moment of meeting, of revelation, of relationship. It came and arrived as sheer gift. The only thing required of her was to accept it. The initiative came from God in the person of the Christ. The invitation came there. The opportunity came from there. She only needed the willingness to recognize the initiative, to hear the invitation, to see the opportunity, and to engage in the conversation. And she did. And everything changed.
Or rather, nothing changed.
Perhaps even better, one thing changed. Her eyes are opened to come to know who she is. Who she really is.
And so, to return to the beginning: Who are you? Who are you really?
I would invite you to let go now of all the words and labels that you or others have used to identify you throughout your life thus far. Let them all go. No need to assess whether they are accurate or not, and in what measure. For the moment here, for our purposes, just release them all.
Now be this person. Be that person approaching Jacob’s well in the noonday of life. Be the one seeing that someone unfamiliar is there. Go up to him. Let him speak what he has to say to you. And answer honestly. Bring your history. Bring all you are. Enter into conversation with him. See where it leads. If you enter deeply into this dialogue in prayer; if you use the gift of your imagination and the faith that you have today; this conversation of yours will be as real as that of the Samaritan woman with Jesus. And as transforming. And what will be made known, only to you, in its own perfect way, is who you are. Who you are underneath it all. Who you are in relationship to God. Who you are in thirst for real life. Who you are in hunger for the Savior.
Pray that meeting now. Pray it when you arrive home.
Simply allow this moment of Lent to be what it is meant to be: an empowering reminder of who you are in the sight of God and all that your true identity implies for your life. For your hope. For your joy. For your final destination.
Jesus is at the well now. Go there. Give him the water he asks for from you. And receive the inner spring of life he is offering to you.
©John P. McGinty 2016
So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’
Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am he,the one who is speaking to you.’
Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ They left the city and were on their way to him.
Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, ‘Rabbi, eat something.’ But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ So the disciples said to one another, ‘Surely no one has brought him something to eat?’ Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, “Four months more, then comes the harvest”? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.” I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour.’
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word.They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’