Wednesday, January 29, 2020

The Woman at the Well: Important Conversations to Save the Planet

Conference for defense contractors

As an opponent of nuclear weapons, and as a proponent of nuclear disarmament, I am inclined to seek out people who think like me: other opponents of nuclear weapons, other proponents of nuclear disarmament.

Given an opportunity to travel to a meeting or conference or rally, my first question tends to be, "Am I likely to run into 'my people' there?"

It's a reasonable enough impulse. This is hard work. We all need to draw strength from others who are committed to the same cause. And, as a practical matter, it's important to be together in the same place from time to time, in order to make plans and coordinate efforts.

Recently, though, I've been thinking a lot about the story of the woman at the well (John 4:5-42). It's a story about what happens when people who are not very much alike have an encounter with each other. It's based on particular conditions that existed 2,000 years ago; but it's also about what's happening right here - now, today.

I notice three important things happening in the story:

* Jesus is talking to -- gasp! -- a Samaritan

* Jesus "tells her everything she's ever done"

* the two of them eventually get around to the main thing: the desire for "living water"

From this story, and from the Good Samaritan, I've heard many times that Samaritans were a group of people that Jesus' Jewish audience would have considered "off limits." I'm finally beginning to admit to myself that I probably haven't really understood this in the past. I thought, "Well, Samaritans did things like eat pork and Jews don't eat pork, so, yeah, they would have been considered outsiders." But since I don't really have strong feelings about eating pork, this is a pretty weak characterization.

It's beginning to occur to me that, to understand the depth of feeling about "Samaritans" that is intended in this story, I would need to think about a group that is devoted to living a life that is antithetical to the one I value. For instance - instead of opponents of nuclear weapons and proponents of nuclear disarmament, I should think about proponents of nuclear weapons and opponents of nuclear disarmament. I should imagine a conversation around the counter at the diner in Amarillo, TX, near the Pantex nuclear weapons plant.

Okay, but what does the "tells her everything she's ever done" mean? I used to think that it had something to do with psychic powers or the ability to read minds -- or, anyway, at least profound powers of deduction, like Sherlock Holmes.

I have now come to believe that it has a much simpler meaning. It refers to two people having a conversation, and one of them reflecting back to the other person what he heard her say. Is that so remarkable? Does that explain the joy with which the Samaritan woman reported to her neighbors about Jesus?

When you think about it, we are seldom such good listeners. When was the last time somebody listened -- really listened -- to what you were trying to say? Most of the time, most of us are two busy thinking about what we are going to say next to be able to listen to the other person. Sure, we listen -- but we're really just listening for the pause that will be our signal to talk.

I imagine the Samaritan Woman expected to be talked at -- and instead discovered to her surprise that she had been listened to.

The climax of the story, though, is the part about "living water." It comes at the wrap-up of the conversation -- it's sort of like the end of a meeting, where someone says, "Okay, so where did we end up?" The Samaritan Woman says to Jesus, in essence, Okay, I think we're done talking, so let's do what we need to do. You take your water and then I'll take mine. This is sort of the 1st century version of, Well, I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree.

Jesus says, Why do we have to stop being in conversation? Instead of "getting down to brass tacks" -- you take your water and then I'll take mine -- he suggests something that is perhaps less easy but also more fulfilling. I believe that what he was suggesting with the words "living water" (and what she heard in those words) was relationship -- the way of staying in connection with each other (and staying in connection with God) that includes communication in both directions and growth on both sides. And I believe that is what drew her in, and what sent her  out to tell other people.

I am an opponent of nuclear weapons, and as a proponent of nuclear disarmament. I don't know if I have the courage to go to a well where people are likely to think exactly the opposite of what I think. I don't know if I will have the patience to listen. And I don't know if I even really believe (yet) it's worth it to stay in relationship with them.

But I am pretty sure that if I want to follow in the Way of Jesus I am going to have to try.

More: See Want to "Save the Planet"? What Might We Learn from the Way of Jesus?

No comments:

Post a Comment