The Water Is Alive

Third Sunday in Lent  |  John 4:5-42

John writes of simple things. Light. Bread. Water. All of them speak to us of God, of this person Jesus.

In the noon-day heat of the story, Jesus sits by a well and tells a woman about water that is alive. Those who are raised in Christianity, who grew up surrounded by its imagery, will not even pause at the words—living water—being already steeped in such language.

OverlookingStream 002Living water.

It is an odd phrase, particularly in modern English. In Greek in the first century, the phrase meant water that moves. Living water comes from a stream or a gushing spring: it is water that is not still, unlike the water of a well. In John’s gospel, though, the words point to the source of life.

The woman doesn’t seem to understand. Jesus tries again. He claims that the water he could give would keep springing up inside the drinker, an odd thing. The woman, being of a practical mind, takes his words literally and so misunderstands, thinking only of freedom from hauling buckets of water from the well.

Jesus stops trying to explain the water. He finds other ways to open her mind.

We might see that like Jesus and this woman, God waits for us at the point of our need. When she arrived at the well, Jesus had arranged to be there. That gives us hope that when we find ourselves in the noon heat with an empty bucket, God is already there waiting.

Like the gospel writer, we might also pay attention to simple things. While God could make an appearance with trumpets and a chorus of angels, this gospel tells us that God is more likely to be present in a drink of water, the taste of bread, the sunlight. The evidence of scripture is that God prefers simple things.

Light. Bread. Water. These are the most basic things we need for life. John uses them to teach us of the nature of God.

Limits of Grace

Seventh Sunday After Epiphany  |  Matthew 5:38-48

An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, that was the law. Simple enough, you might say.

Candle In DarknessWhen we hear it, we hear a legal prescription—if they harm you, you harm them the same way. Do unto them as they did unto you. The ancient world heard a prohibition, a limit, changing revenge to justice—this far you may go, and no farther. If they steal your goat, you may not kill their families, burn their tents, and take their herds. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a goat for a goat. The law was a limit to vengeance and, strangely, a provision of grace. It took modern people, with all our advances, to listen to that law and hear words inciting violence.

Jesus goes beyond the limits—give them another eye for an eye, give them another tooth for a tooth. Another cheek, another garment, a second mile. Undermine violence with peace. Love your enemies.

Be perfect.

Then there is the way we hear that last word: τέλειός. Teleios. Perfect is the word used in most translations, and most of us hear a word meaning to be without imperfections, without error. To be fair, the word could have meant that, twenty centuries ago. More importantly, and with more use for us, it also meant mature, complete, fulfilled, or pertaining to the end.

Try the whole last verse again: Be mature, complete, fulfilled, therefore, as your father in heaven is mature, complete and fulfilled.

Does that sound different? We’re not aiming at modern perfection anymore, with all of those impossible expectations. We’re walking toward maturity, completeness, fulfillment, our end goal as a human being, something as ancient as life itself.

When the ones who are incomplete, immature, or unfulfilled come to beg, to demand, to inflict harm in the vain attempt to allay their own needs, Jesus is saying find the means to bring them along the path. Show them the way.

Go beyond the limits. Go to the very good end.

Kingdom of the Least

Fifth Sunday After Epiphany  |  Matthew 5:13-20

There is no privacy around God.

God is in our houses and in our Salt Fireyards, on the sidewalk, at our offices and workplaces. Worst of all, God is in our minds, the little corners and dark boxes of our hearts where we thought we had hidden the things that would make other people think less of us. Or point at us. Or at the very least pretend that they are better than us and would never do, never think, never feel the terrible and the petty things that we have done and thought and felt.

God has known them all, and that may be the most terrifying aspect of God.

If Jesus is to be believed, God knows these things and loves us, without reservation. Knowing all of it, God loves us.

For some, that is great and well received news, the gospel itself. For the rest of us, not so sure about receiving unabashed love from an unseen God, it takes some getting used to.

Salt. Light. Cities on hills. These are tasted, seen, entered into, or they are of no purpose. Jesus says that if we are not seen,  if our lives cannot be touched and tasted, if we are not open to other people, then we are of little use.

There is so little privacy around people anyway, we say. Our lives are open, we are seen, and more than we care to know is known about us. Most of us may be read as plainly as these words may be read, if a person has learned the skill of reading.

The law was clear. Leviticus and Deuteronomy. (That should be an exclamation—“Leviticus and Deuteronomy! — along the lines of “Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat!”)

We read all of those rules the ancient people lived by — what to eat, what to wear, most of all how to act toward other people, toward God — and we hear Jesus saying that if we have broken the least rule, then we are the least soul in God’s kingdom, at the bottom of the great heap of souls.

We are all on the bottom of the heap. This heap has no top, not even a middle, just flat bottom all the way.

Yet the law itself was not meant as a burden. The law was a way of life, the way of life, the way to live in this life. It was not a means to an end, not a key that fits the gate of the next life.

How then could this man Jesus be the fulfillment of the way to live? What does it mean to fulfill the way of life?

Life was never about the rules. It is always about the love.

Do not murder, since it is against the rules, we say? Love one another, and we will not cause harm.

They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. — Isaiah 11:9