Pouting in the Pit or Preaching to the People?

If I had been assigned the task of putting together the Old Testament, it would probably look a lot different than the one we use today.  First of all, I would take the opportunity to get rid of some of the folks I’ve never liked.

I know David is a pretty significant character, given that he is the ancestor of Jesus and all, but the whole infidelity thing has always bothered me—so, either David would have to go, or I would revise the story to take out his transgression.

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I would keep Deborah, for sure.  And maybe write a little more about her— we don’t really have enough female leaders in the Bible, right? 

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Elijah and his wonder-workings are too good to pass up, so he’d stay.

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Elisha, on the other hand, would have to go. After all, I think it is highly inappropriate to retaliate just because some little boy has called you – ‘baldy.’ (- 2 Kings 2:32-35)

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In my version of the Old Testament, Amos would stay with his beautiful metaphors of God’s justice rolling down like cascading waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

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Hosea would have go—his divine marriage metaphor just doesn’t work for me. —    (Hosea 1:2-3:5)

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And some of the smaller, minor prophetic books seem redundant, so I’d probably cut some of them and add someone a little more modern like Dorothy Day or Martin Luther King Jr.

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But the person I’d be least likely to include in my canon would be Jonah.  Sure, it makes for a great story, being swallowed by a fish.  But if you look at his character, it just doesn’t meet what I like to think of as good family values.

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Let’s see, the first time he ‘got the call’ from the Lord, Jonah went running the other direction.

In fact, he tried to hide from God by getting in a ship with a bunch of sailors and going to sea. Jonah must have known what God had in mind.  God must have known that God wasn’t going to cause destruction upon those Ninevehites.  Jonah must have known that God was merciful, even to those who run away.  And Jonah, in his indignation, did not want the good news to come to people like them.  Jonah thought he could keep the good news from the Ninevehites.  So he wimped out and ran as far away as he could from God’s call.

Okay, maybe not the first place that I would go if I were hiding from God, but this is Jonah’s story, not mine.  Not only does Jonah not listen to God, but he tries to make things better by getting the sailors to dump him overboard.

Jonah goes into the ocean only to be swallowed by a giant fish.

I don’t recall enough of my high school biology classes to remember much about fish anatomy.  I presume they must have ample stomachs.

But one big enough to hold a person, for three days? 

Or maybe Jonah was just a petite person?

I’d be curious to know what the Biblical literalists do with this one.

At any rate, Jonah’s marine home is short-lived, as he is literally ‘vomited‘ by the fish onto the shores of Nineveh.  God comes to him a second time, as we have in today’s lesson.

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I wonder why God is so patient with little Jonah here. It’s equally as unbelievable as Jonah’s being swallowed up by the fish.  He’s already proven himself to be a bit of a weasel and reasonably fool-hardy to boot.  Why God didn’t look for another more qualified person to prophecy to Nineveh?

But God tells Jonah, again, to go to Nineveh.  Get up, God says, Go to Nineveh and proclaim the message. 

So Jonah, grudgingly, picks himself up out of the sand and wipes off the fish goo.  His fists are clenched, his face twisted, as he stomps off to do the ministry he was called to do.

We never get to find out why it is that Jonah is so opposed to going to Nineveh.  We don’t know why these people, the Ninevehites, who were so eager to hear good news, were the object of Jonah’s disdain.

Why did Jonah dislike them so?  Why is it that sharing the good news was so awful for Jonah, that he would have preferred the cold sea to ministering to them? Was it because the Ninevites were different than Jonah?  Was this an ancient ‘race problem’?

Perhaps Jonah wanted to claim God for himself, and not share him with those of a different lifestyle and culture?  Was this an ancient case of ‘affirmative-action’?  Did Jonah think that these non-Jews were getting special treatment?

Maybe Jonah was upset because he had been faithful to the covenant, keeping the law, and earning the love of God, while the Ninevehites—who had done none of these things, were about to receive this very same love of God.

Was he mad because he had played by the rules, the same rules that had gotten him ahead in life?  Was Jonah jealous that God would waste his time on people he refused to get to know? 

Jonah, in his refusal to go to Nineveh, was saying that he knew more than God.  Surely, you don’t want me to go there, to those people, Jonah was speaking.  You wouldn’t want me to spend time with people who don’t share my same values, could you?

God, Jonah must have been thinking, you must have misspoken.  I’ll just wait over here for a while until you come to your senses.  Indeed, your message can’t be for people like them.

I said earlier, how I would choose to keep Jonah, among others, out of the Hebrew Scriptures.  I mean, his story is disturbing, perhaps too distressing. There is a part of Jonah’s story that hits a little too close to home.

There is a part of Jonah’s story that looks a little too much like myself, like someone I wish I were not.

It’s the part of me that get jealous when I hear other people’s good news.  It’s the part of me that gets angry when it feels like others get rewarded for not following the rules.  It’s the part of me that would instead judge a person based on stereotypes then get to know her for myself.

And its this same part of me that fakes happiness for a friend when deep down I am scowling with envy.  It’s this little, but persistent part of me that would instead remain in my insecurity than enjoy the Nineveh’s of the world. 

It’s the part of me that would rather pout in the cold stomach of a fish than celebrate what God has done. 

There is this pit, deep inside of me that resists being seen.  There is an ugliness that shows itself when one’s guard is down.

And it is from this pit that we find ourselves doing things for which we are later ashamed, like feeling for our wallets when we walk past a person of color, like only having friends who look like us, like thinking less of immigrants or the working poor.

These shameful parts of ourselves show themselves at unexpected moments.  We try to hide them by insisting that, ‘yes, I have black friends,’ or ‘skin color doesn’t matter to me.’ But our ugliness keeps us, like Jonah, sitting in the pit of a fish, holding us prison to our jealous fears and insecurities. 

But God doesn’t want us to stay in these pits.  God doesn’t want us to stay in the stomach of a fish when there are places like Nineveh that have yet to hear the good news.  God offers us a way out of our hatred, our isolation, and our shame.

And God doesn’t want us to rewrite scripture or pretend that there are not parts of us yearning for connection and security.  God knows that we are held prisoner to shame and envy. But God does not want us to live that way.  God does not want us to keep on living in the stomach of a fish!

That’s why God sent Jesus to us.  That’s why God offers us a new way to live, a new way that doesn’t see envy before humanity.  God teaches us this new way to live. God frees us from our pits of despair in the simplest of ways.  We don’t need to stay bound by our ugliness and insignificance.

Because God loves it away. 

God loved little Jonah, stuck in a fish, insignificant next to giant Nineveh, the giant sea, and the giant fish.  God found little Jonah, who had tossed himself away to sea, who was afraid of all that life had to offer and returned him to safety.

God seeks us out, especially when we feel insignificant, especially when we are isolated, and returns us to dry land.  God loves us out of our shame.  God loves us out of our insecurity and our envy. God loves away any ugliness that may be buried deep inside.

But the story doesn’t stop here. 

God rescues us from the pit, so that we may be freed to go to places like Nineveh, that we may be able to love others as we have been loved.

God rescues us from the isolation that we may connect with others.  And those of us, like Jonah, who know what it feels to be trapped in the pit of a stomach don’t forget this feeling of insignificance.

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But instead of being bound by this feeling, we use it to seek out others who may feel or who may be treated that way.

God sought us out, so we can do nothing else but seek others out, and share with them this great love that has restored our humanity and given us life.

Because with God’s love, no one is insignificant, no one is shamed, and all are made whole.

Amen.

 

A New Identity – Jesus and the Woman at the Well

Jacob’s well stood at the crossroads outside of town in Sychar in Samaria as the scripture reading tells us.  Though it still head good, clean drinking water in reservoir, by the time Jesus was around it was more of shrine than a well.  According to the Old Testament tradition, Jacob in the ancient Israelite past bought this land, dug the well and left it to Joseph, his favorite son.  Joseph, when he died, was carried back from Egypt and buried there. 

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But this history meant nothing to the woman who was at the well in our gospel text.  She was there in the noon day heat to get a drink of water.  The well was only a drinking fountain to her.  Being outside of town, the well was remote, not many people went around the well, especially in the noon day heat.  She had it all to herself, at least she thought.  No women in her right mind would come to draw water in the noon day heat.  That’s the way the woman wanted it, far away from all the town’s gossip and watchful eye.

She had managed to make a mess of her life.  As far back as she could remember, there had always been a restless urge in her, an unsatisfied longing, and a thirst that could not be quenched.  She went through life as one possessed, looking for love in all the wrong places.  She had married the wrong men, eating and drinking and being merry.  She made promises and quickly had to break them.  She was used and because of her abuse she lost her self-esteem.  She lost herself.

So when she arrived at the well that hot mid-day afternoon, it never occurred to her that the man she saw there would reach out in her direction.  He was a man, a Jew, maybe even a rabbi.  She was a woman, a Samaritan, living in sin.  The wall of separation between them was high.  Women and men didn’t speak in public; especially a Samaritan woman and a man of the Jewish faith.

images“Give me a drink,” this man said to her.  And in the discussion that followed, this woman at the well in Samaria found both her true self and God. Jesus speaks to the woman at the well longer than he does to anyone else in John’s gospel.  Longer than he talks to any of the disciples, longer than he talks to his accusers, longer than he talks to his own family.  In fact, this Samaritan woman is the first person Jesus revels his true identity to in the Gospel of John.  She is the first outsider to guess who Jesus is and to tell others about him.  She is the first evangelist, John’s Gospel tell us, and her testimony about Jesus brings others to faith in Christ.

line-in-sandIn Jesus’ presence she found herself and the reality of her own sin. 

Jesus must have had a way with cutting through the small talk and getting to the heart of the issue.  He looked into her eye, and she could not put off the guilt.  And so in a moment of complete disclosure, this woman, who was considered untouchable by the divine and the Son of God stand face to face with no pretense about their identity.  Both stand fully lit at high noon for a bright moment in time, everything that separates this woman and Jesus fall forgotten to the ground.

When Jesus came, the woman of Sychar found in him peace for her troubled spirit, answers to her questions, and the living water of God’s forgiveness and grace for her soul.  Jesus spoke words of hope to her:  “Those who drink of the water 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.”  But even more than these words was his presence—the calm strength of Jesus, the sound of authority in his voice, the assurance of his love.  She must have been assured that Jesus was God.  And somehow, she stood face-to-face with him.

I’m sure that the gospel writer, John intended this story to follow the story of Jesus and Nicodemus.  We heard that story last week.  After encountering Jesus in the middle of the night, Nicodemus (a leader of the Jews), falls silent when he learns who Jesus truly is, and then in the very next chapter of John’s gospel, we see an irreligious fallen woman at the water well when she takes an unexpected step:  she is the one who acknowledges Jesus as the messiah, not Nicodemus.  She is the one who remains in the light of the day and spreads the good news of Jesus.  She runs out after meeting him and tells others about the man she just met, bringing them to the good news of Christ, and as a result of her testimony, the Bible says that many came to believe in Jesus.

It’s as if John intended to place these two stories back to back for the reader to see the difference between the two.  You might recall that Nicodemus meets with Jesus in the dark for fear that others would discover he met with this itinerate preacher.  But, here is this fallen woman meeting with Jesus in the light of the day at noon.

And notice what Jesus does.  He deals with this woman’s thirst, and not her sin.  He reached out to her, not to cast shame and send her further away from God’s presence, but Jesus empowered her, he literally transformed her life.

Few of the people around Jesus have as much to tell about him and his effect upon them as the woman at the well in Samaria. 

The truth is, we are all like the woman at the well, and we all thirst for the Living Water that God provides.  We thirst for a savior who will meet us where we are on our level, not in some far away distant space, but a God who is like us.  The beauty of the story of the Samaritan woman at the well is that God reaches out to all and welcomes everyone to taste the living water.  No matter who you are, what you’ve done or haven’t done, you are all invited.  So come, accept your invitation and come.  Receive a drink way down in the well of Living Water of God’s grace. For in Christ, we are forgiven, redeemed, and refreshed by this living water.

In Jesus name.  Amen.