What We All Need

Again and again Jesus reached out to people who were considered “unacceptable” by the conventions of polite society.  There were rigid boundaries drawn between the righteous and the unrighteous, the clean and the unclean, women and men, Jews and Gentiles.  Jesus was forever reaching out to the marginalized, the least, and the lost, the unclean proclaiming that God’s grace and compassion overrides the rules.

The woman at the well is perhaps the classic story.  Jesus was reaching across of chasm of centuries of conflict and animosity between Jews and Samaritans.  The Samaritans were the descendants of the ten Northern Tribes of Israel who had broken with the tribes of Judah and Benjamin 800 years before the birth of Jesus.  One second century rabbi claimed that to eat the bread of the Samaritans was the same as eating the flesh of swine.  The animosity of that conflict between Jews and Samaritans had persisted for more than a millennium and rivaled the intractable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians today.   

Early on Easter Sunday morning, a group of five Israelis were fired upon by a Palestinian Policeman as they drove to pray at the “Tomb of Joseph” in the West Bank.  One of the Israelis, Ben-Yosef Livnat, a Jerusalem resident in his mid-twenties, and the nephew of Limor Livnat, a prominent hardline Cabinet minister from the ruling Likud Party was killed.  Jewish worshippers regularly enter the city of Shechem, also known as Nablus, with a military escort to pray at the building traditionally identified as the grave site of the biblical Joseph, located inside Palestinian-ruled territory.  Those visits are coordinated with the Palestinian police forces.  Israeli and Palestinian officials said this visit was not cleared with either side.   A meeting between the two sides was immediately scheduled to discuss the shooting, the Israeli military reported.  Now please note that the City of Shechem, Nablus, is the site of the Biblical City of Sychar.  Jesus was trying to reach across three thousand years of animosity and hate.

We also should not discount the taboos of contact between the sexes in the Middle East.  I have told the story before of the orthodox Jewish man, who would not get into an airport limousine in Jerusalem, if he was going to have to sit next to Beth, who was a woman and a stranger.  Beth and I had to trade places before the man would get into the van.  I will be interested to hear Madison Paul’s stories, when she returns from Amman Jordan this summer.   Contact between men and women in the Middle East even today is very circumscribed.  And in our story Jesus was speaking to a woman, a stranger, a Samaritan – by every definition an enemy.

In this encounter Jesus was also reaching across another social boundary.  The woman was coming to the well at mid-day in the heat of the day, rather than in the cool of the early in the morning, or the evening, because she was also an outcaste from her own people.  She was a woman who had been used and abused.  Not a prostitute, but a woman who possibly through no fault of her own had been divorced, and who then had attached herself to one man after another in hopes of forming a stable relationship that would provide for her economically.  Divorce in the ancient Near East was very easy for men.  All a man had to do was say three times:  I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you, hand the woman a written bill of divorce, and he was done with her.

In a world where women had few options for earning a living, a suddenly unattached woman labored under a terrible disadvantage.  Often women who were divorced made their way down the food chain of available men, until they scraped the bottom of the barrel.  Her economic prospects were poor, she was likely to suffer abuse, and a caste off woman was looked down upon by the rest of her village.  Certainly Jesus had no business talking to such a woman.

But Jesus was in need.  He was thirsty.  The woman had a jar with a rope to haul up water from the well.  Jesus embraced his need and asked for a drink.  And here let me point out that part of reaching across the chasm of ethnic hate, the separation of the sexes, the social wall between clean and unclean, was Jesus honestly embracing his need.  So often we miss the moment of encounter because we are afraid to be human.

Back on April 10th in the sermon on Servant Leadership I lifted up a quotation from Henri Nouwen’s famous book The Wounded Healer:   “The one who leads forth in strength binds people up.  The  one who leads forth in weakness sets people free.”   And that reminds me of the statement of faith by Pippa Abston that that was supposed to appear in the Huntsville Times on the Friday after the tornado.

Pippa is a wounded healer, and she was courageous enough to embrace her own neediness in her faith statement:

How has faith changed you?  Well, it certainly hasn’t seemed to make me more saintly.  People who spend time with me and see some of the unkind things I do might fairly say “What a fraud! She doesn’t act like a Christian at all.”

I’m still plagued with the same sticky demons I have always fought – mine are impatience, judgmentalism, selfishness, and inflexibility.  Likely there are others I don’t know about yet.

The hilarious thing is that I am most critical of other people who behave judgmentally, or people who seem lazy – and inflexibility is probably a type of laziness, so I’m just as guilty!

We all have our particular faults.  I doubt one is really worse than another.   I can only hope the hurtful things I’ve said or done have at least caused others to take heed and avoid those mistakes themselves.

I’ve tried to remember compassion more as I’ve gotten older, and perhaps over the years, with persistence, my acts of Love will eventually outweigh the rest.

Mainly I’ve learned about suffering from loving those stricken by illness, physical and mental.  I could see how hard life was for the families of my seriously ill patients, but I had never imagined the depth of sorrow I could experience and survive until these things happened in my own family. The pain of witnessing has brought me to my knees.  In comparison, childbirth’s no more than a twinge.

Too often I can do nothing to heal the suffering of my loved ones, other than try to give my unflinching presence.

But no sorrow is really individual.  All joys and all sufferings belong to everyone in the world, because of our inescapable connection to one another.  It is useless to keep a tally!  I have not found that Love lessens the intensity of hurt.  Instead, Love embraces and permeates us in our suffering.  In Love, we are always, always whole.

Pippa, I want to thank you for the courage to share your woundedness and humanness with the rest of us.  Your example may help to set some of the rest of us free to embrace our own neediness and so be able to reach across the barriers that wall us off from one another.

Let me pause a minute and share with you a video of a dramatic monologue of the woman at the well: https://hurstrobert.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/woman-at-the-well.mp4

“To be known is to be loved and to love is to be known otherwise what is point of doing either one in the first place?”  I think that is the real challenge for those of us who try to be the community of faith following Jesus.  Can we courageously share with one another our real hopes and dreams, the demons that distract us, our real prayer needs, so that other people can pray with us and for us?  Can we be that open and honest with one another?  If we can do that, miracles can happen.  For “to be known is to be loved and to love is to be known and we all need this too.  We all need it for our own.”


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