Crossing Barren Deserts and Passing through Raging Waters

Lent 4A

Sitting by the side of the road is a man, blind since birth, begging – as he does every day, day in and day out. Each day much like the one before. And, any thought he gives to what tomorrow might bring is void of imagination because he knows that it will be just like today.  Cast out by his family, cast out by the religious authorities, isolated by his inability to see and by the society which refuses to see him.  And along comes Jesus with his disciples and, as if it were possible to make things even worse, the disciples ask Jesus, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”[1]  The beggar man is right there. He can hear them. And now, by the disciples’ inquiry, he becomes even less than a person – he is simply an object for their theological inquiry.  And perhaps at this point in his life he has become numb to the pain that such treatment brings.  After all, he is living in a culture that does, in fact, blame illness and physical impairment on sinful behavior and the punishment for sin is understood to be passed down from generation to generation.  Or maybe he is not numb but rather curious – perhaps he has spent lonely hours on the side of the road asking the same question – “What have I done to deserve this?” or “What did my parents do that I should be born this way?”
But then Jesus responds in word and in action. He tells the disciples that sin is not the reason for this man’s blindness; rather, it is “so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”[2]  And the next thing you know, Jesus is making mud out or a mixture of the dirt on the ground and the spit from his mouth and he spreads it on the man’s eyes.  How bad must this man’s life have been that he would allow this to happen to him? How desperate must he have been to be healed that he would allow an unnamed stranger to smear this dirty paste on his eyes?  And how desperate and trusting he must have been to do what this unnamed stranger tells him to do: “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.”[3]  And, the beggar man gets up and does as he is told.
There is a hymn that congregations often sing during Lent written by Bob Dufford, a Jesuit priest. 
You shall cross the barren desert,
but you shall not die of thirst.
You shall wander far in safety
though you do not know the way.
You shall speak your words in foreign lands
and all will understand.
You shall see the face of God and live.

If you pass through raging waters
in the sea, you shall not drown,
If you walk amid the burning flames,
you shall not be harmed.
If you stand before the pow’r of hell
and death is at your side,
know that I am with you
through it all.[4]
And since reading this gospel passage earlier in the week, this song has been with me and has taken on new significance. Because now I wonder, what would it take for me to allow a stranger to smear spit-filled mud on my blind eyes, let alone to compel me to cross a barren desert or to pass through raging waters in the sea?  What kind of desperate situation must I be in to think that doing these things would be better than my present life.
There is a desperation that drives refugees from Syria to traverse the barren Sahara Desert where, on average, 14 refugees and migrants from sub-Saharan Africa die each day.  There is a desperation that drives refugees onto boats chartered by people-traffickers in an effort to cross the raging waters of the Mediterranean Sea where in the first nine weeks of this year, 521 people are known to have drowned.[5]  Add to that, an estimated 250 people who are presumed dead when two partially submerged rubber dinghies were found off the coast of Libya on Friday.[6] 
And yet, the refugees continue to make the perilous crossing because that’s what desperation does.  The desperation of the blind man on the side of the road in this morning’s gospel, of course, pales in comparison. But there is another parallel which has to do with the way in which society treats them.  Both the blind man and the Syrian refugees are outcasts and both have become less than human by the treatment they receive from other people.  In the case of the blind beggar, even Jesus’ disciples speak of him as an object to learn from – a case study in the doctrine of sin. And, once his sight is restored, he is a piece of evidence for the Pharisees as they consider whether or not Jesus is a sinner for healing on the Sabbath. 
In a review of the Viet Than Nguyen’s Pulitzer prize winning book Refugees in America, reviewer Joyce Carol Oates writes:

“the refugee loses his identity amid the anonymity of many others like him. In the way that enslaved persons are truncated by the term ‘slaves,’ defined by their condition, there’s a loss of identity in the category term ‘refugees.’”[7]

And, in the case of the Syrian refugees? They are no longer individuals but problems to be dealt with, a situation that needs to be managed.   I learned this week that 24 African countries receive money from the European Union to “deal with” the refugee problem.[8]  By the year 2020, it is estimated that these countries will have received more than 8 billion Euro to keep refugees out of Europe, to ensure that this problem doesn’t become Europe’s problem.[9]  I cannot even imagine what the same commitment of resources might do to change the lives of the people – not problems – the people who are fleeing Syria.  And here, in the United States, we have had two failed attempts this year by our president to ban refugees from entering our country; but will we remain vigilant to ensure that all such future attempts continue to be thwarted?
Of course, there is an alternative to seeing people as objects, as problems to be solved.  It is the way of Jesus.  Jesus sees a man on the side of the road who cannot see. And he stops, gets his hands dirty, and heals the man.  He treats him with dignity and with respect.  There is a refrain to Bob Dufford’s hymn:
Be not afraid.
I go before you always.
Come, follow, me
and I will give you rest.[10]
Who will you and I be in this story?  Will we be like the Pharisees who are willing to cast aside another human being – or to allow others to do so in our name? Or will we use the gifts God has given us to be like Jesus striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being?

[1] John 9:2
[2] John 9:3
[3] John 9:7
[4] Robert J. Dufford, “You Shall Cross the Barren Desert,” (Portland, OR: Robert J. Dufford, SJ and New Dawn Music, 1975) in Wonder, Love and Praise: A Supplement to The Hymnal 1982, (New York: Church Publishing, 1997), #811.

[5] Hundreds feared dead in the MediterraneanSea,” Al Jazeera, accessed March 25, 2017.

[6] Ibid.
[7] Joyce Carol Oates, “Review of Refugees in America byViet Than Nguyen,” The New Yorker, February 13 and 20, 2017, accessed March 25, 2017.
[8] Caitlin L. Chandler, “Europe’s Refugee Colonialism,” Africa Is a Country, January 26, 2017, accessed March 25, 2017.
[9] Taz.de, Introvideo zumRechercheprojekt,” YouTube, accessed March 25, 2017.
[10] Dufford.


Meeting at the Well

Lent 3A

Wells in Hebrew culture were the local hot spots.  It was usually a young woman’s responsibility to go to the well early in the day, perhaps as the sun was just coming up, to draw water to supply the household for the day.  She would arrive at the well just as the other women from the neighboring households were arriving.  These would be women she’d encounter each day – much like the people we encounter at the coffee pot at work – same time, same place – or passing in the hallway at school as we travel the same path from our first class to our second.  I imagine these women would catch up on the local news – results of the most recent basketball match-up between rivaling teams or eyes rolling as they recount the latest political news that becomes harder and harder to believe with each passing day, and then, let’s not forget the social news.  Because, in community, we care about one another and part of caring is knowing what’s going on.  Who has been ill and needs our prayers. Who is recently out of work and might need support with networking.  Who has had a new child that might appreciate a meal or two being delivered.  So, the well was not only a wellspring of water, but a wellspring of news and community building as well.  And then, there’s the gossip. We don’t like to admit it, but it happens.  It starts out innocently enough – a question of concern about someone who is missing – but it quickly escalates into all kinds of assumptions and rumors of “well, I heard. . .” And, I hesitate to bring it up because this well is the social center for women, but, can we be honest and admit, we are all guilty of this from time to time?
But in today’s story, the well is not a busy place at all.  In fact, it opens with just “Jesus, tired out by his journey” sitting by the well in the middle of the day.[1]  And along comes a woman from the nearby Samaritan city who is coming to draw water from the well.  Let’s stop right there for a minute because that first century audience is already thinking to themselves, “what is going on here?!” Why is this woman at the well in the middle of the day and not at dawn? What has she done to cause her to be shunned by the other women in the community?  That’s how odd it would be for a woman to be at the well in the middle of the day.  It makes me wonder if some of the gossip at the well each morning is about her – and her five husbands and about the man she is living with now.  The scandal.  And that’s exactly what we are supposed to think.  Because the gospel writer takes us right there – right into the heart of the matter when Jesus says to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.”[2]  And with this one sentence, Jesus opens up her woundedness and begins to share with her the invitation that is open to her and to all – Jews and Samaritans alike. An invitation to “worship the Father in spirit and truth.”[3] The woman says to Jesus, “I know that Messiah is coming.”[4]  And Jesus reveals to her that he is Messiah, the one that all Samaritans and all Jews – have been waiting for.  “I am he,” he says, “the one who is speaking to you.”[5] She is the first person to whom Jesus openly reveals himself – he has not even spoken these words to his disciples.  And in that moment, I wonder, is he opening up his woundedness to her.  And, if the disciples hadn’t come bursting in on the scene, where might the conversation have gone.
Humans spend a great deal of time focusing on what’s not working in our world and in our relationships.  We are good at describing differences.  I always chuckle when I think back on those high school writing assignments which began “compare and contrast” because all my writing assumed that the only thing worth writing about were the differences.  And the constant feedback I received – and eventually came to incorporate in my writing – was that I was also to evaluate the similarities.  The gospel story sets us all up to quickly identify the differences:  a man, a woman; a Jew, a Samaritan; a woman of ill-repute, a man who is the Son of God.  But by the end of the story, we are invited to see that we have two humans who share at least part of the Scriptures in common – both Samaritans and Jews worship the same God and have in common the first five books of the Bible.  And both are outsiders in their own communities. The Samaritan woman set apart because of her notorious life and Jesus set apart for shaking things up in the Jewish community – by the way, later in John’s gospel, the Pharisees say to Jesus, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?”[6] And Jesus’ response?  “I do not have a demon.”[7]  He never responds to the charge that he might be a Samaritan. Why? Perhaps because he has come to realize that the difference between Jew and Samaritan is of no consequence whatsoever as both worship the same God.  Perhaps because he has been changed by his encounter with the Samaritan at the well just as she most certainly has been changed by her encounter with Jesus.
For you and for me, where are our wells?  That is, where are the places where we can meet the unexpected person, perhaps a stranger or perhaps even someone we thought we knew but, in conversation, might discover we’ve never really known at all.  Those wells, I’m afraid, are becoming harder and harder to find as we spend more and more time with affinity groups.  I’ve watched groups on Facebook “gang up” on someone who expresses an opposing view until that person leaves the group.  And I wonder, if we continue to seek out and expel those who are different from us, will we ultimately find ourselves standing alone?  I’ve watched our nation divide as two sides pull apart at an imaginary middle that cannot hold up against the tension. And I wonder, if we continue to only see the other side as “other” will any of us remain standing?  After all, even in a game of tug of war, when one side falls, the other side usually falls too.
This encounter of Jesus and the Samaritan woman offers another way.  It’s the way of honest and difficult dialogue.  Many of us – myself included – may need to learn these skills again.  We haven’t used them in too long and our skills are rusty.  But, there are people in our community who can teach us, who can model for us, who can walk alongside us. In the Diocese of Chicago, training is offered that teaches participants how to have what are called “Fierce Conversations” -   “vital conversations that interrogate reality, provoke learning, resolve tough challenges and enrich relationships.”[8]  In our own congregation, Motoko Maegawa is on the National SEED staff.  Motoko is presenting / presented this morning’s Adult Forum, “Exploring Windows and Mirrors” as an introduction to the National SEED Project on Inclusive Curriculum.  It is just one example of how SEED Leaders facilitate dialogue which aims to strengthen equitable and diverse practices.  Others in our congregation including myself, Liz McElhatton, Andrea Nowack, and Katie Kuriyama have recently attended the Analyzing and Understanding Systemic Racism workshop run by Chicago Regional Organizing for Antiracism. Each of these programs offers a different approach to engaging complex issues with a diverse group of individuals; but they all share their commitment to bringing people together to work across difference for the common good. They all are committed to gathering at the well, to encounter and deeply engage the unexpected visitor, guest or friend.
And there is yet another well in our community. It is here in this place – at the font and at the table. A place where we gather across difference to drink of the living water and to break bread together. A place where we may yet encounter the unexpected guest or, better still might take a moment to invite that visitor, guest or friend to “come and see.”[9]

[1] John 4:6
[2] John 4:16
[3] John 4:23
[4] John 4:25
[5] John 4:26
[6] John 8:48.
[7] John 8:49a.
[8] “Fierce Conversations Workshop,” The Nicholas Center, (Chicago, IL: 2014), Flyer, accessed March 18, 2017.
[9] John 4:29