Tuesday, March 29, 2011

John 4:5-42 (in which Jesus does not have to be male)

I would like to tell you a story.

This story begins with a well. It’s called Jacob’s well. It’s in the Samaritan city of Sychar, near the plot of land that Jacob gave his favored child, Joseph -- Joseph who was the youngest but one of twelve sons, but the firstborn of Joseph’s favored wife, Rachel. The story doesn’t tell us why this well was called Jacob’s Well -- though its listeners might have recalled how Jacob met his beloved wife-to-be at a well. Tomorrow’s lectionary* brings us the story of Abraham’s steward finding a wife for Abraham’s beloved child Isaac at a well -- Isaac who would be Jacob’s father.

This story begins with a person named Jesus, tired from a journey, sitting by this well, at noontime.

This story begins with a Samaritan woman. She has come to the well at noontime to draw water.

Jesus says to the woman: “Give me a drink.” The teller of this story informs us that the disciples, those who have been companions with Jesus on this long journey, have gone into the city to buy food.

Now maybe this Jesus was a man -- and listeners’ expectations were that this would be a marriage story, like Jacob and Rachel, like Isaac and Rebekah. Maybe this Jesus was a man, and the woman felt unsafe, alone out there on the edge of town with a strange man.

Maybe this Jesus was a woman. Maybe the Samaritan woman felt safe from threat of violence because this was another woman. Maybe the Samaritan woman felt apprehensive, wondering what would bring a woman alone to this well at midday (her knowledge of why she came not keeping her from speculation about this stranger).

Maybe this Jesus was a large cat like C. S. Lewis would write about so many centuries later, and the woman was afraid, because Aslan is NOT a Tame Lion.

One might expect any of these things. But what this woman saw, the piece of Jesus’ identity that spoke to her so strongly that she spoke it aloud, was that Jesus was a Jew.

Jesus was a Jew, and she was a Samaritan. Both peoples claimed Mosaic lineage, but the two peoples had broken off long ago, and now they didn’t so much as speak to each other.

This woman says to Jesus, “YOU? ask ME? for a drink of water? Do you not notice who we are? We haven’t invented segregated drinking fountains yet, but that’s basically what’s going on here. What do you think you’re doing?”

Jesus patiently replies, “If you knew the generosity of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked me, and I would have given you living water.”

The woman bites her lip on the ridiculousness of this. She calls Jesus, “Sir,” or, “M’lady,” or some other honorific to soften the scoffing remark she is about to make -- “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and who drank from it with his children and livestock?”

Jesus says, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that 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.”

This sounds intriguing. A little impossible, but intriguing nonetheless. This time the woman’s use of an honorific is less sarcastic, more petitionary. “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

Jesus smiles at her unreadably and says, “Go, call your spouse, and come back.”

A bit downcast now -- or perhaps a bit on-guard, a bit cagey -- the woman replies, “I have no spouse.”

Jesus says to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no spouse;’ for you have been married five times, and you are not married to your current partner. What you have said is true.”

Taking a deep breath and using the honorific one last time, the woman says, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.” And what do you do if you end up in conversation with a prophet? Why not ask them for a decision on the major schism in your religious life? So she says, “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but your people say that the place where everyone must worship is in Jerusalem.”

Jesus says, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Parent of us all, Maker of Heaven and Earth, neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we Jews worship what we know, for God's way of salvation is made available through the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Divine Parent in spirit and truth. Indeed, it is just such worshipers whom the Divine Parent seeks. God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and truth.”

The woman says to Jesus, “I know that the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One, is coming -- who upon arriving will proclaim all things to us.”

Jesus replies, “I who speak to you am the Messiah.”

The dramatic pause here is interrupted by the return of the disciples. They are astonished that Jesus is speaking with this woman, but no one comes out and says, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?”

Taking her cue, the woman leaves her water jar and returns to the city. She says to the people, “Come and see someone who told me everything I have ever done! Could this be the Messiah?” The people leave the city and go to Jesus.

Meanwhile the disciples are urging Jesus, “Rabbi, eat something.”

But Jesus says, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”

So the disciples ask one another, “Surely no one has brought Jesus something to eat?”

Jesus says to them, “The food that keeps me going is doing the will of the One who sent me and bringing this work to completion.

“Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor at harvest time.”

As if to explain this saying of Jesus’, the story returns us to the people of the city. Many Samaritans from that city believe in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony, “This one told me everything I have ever done.” So when they come to Jesus, they ask Jesus to stay with them; and Jesus stays there two days. And many more believe because of Jesus’ word. They say to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”


*For values of "tomorrow" that are true if you are using the RCL and are operating as if I'm telling this story on Sunday Lent 3A 2011.

One of these days I will have a sermon for Lent 3A 2011, but today is not that day.

My best friend’s lesbian christology is what first started me thinking of Jesus as other than always-default-male, and continues to be foundational in my continuing explorations of that.

For helping to spur and/or shape this particular retelling, thanks also to: Molly’s friend Val (who told a folktale at Molly’s Peach Fuzz Party on Saturday), Support Pastor Ian H., Chris D., and Julia W. (and Ian T. for Lenten weekday morning prayer).

Thanks to The Inclusive Bible and Eugene Peterson’s The Message for some phrasing assists (and to the NRSV for providing the base text).

Monday, March 7, 2011

on sympathetic satire

Ari and I were talking about Jane Austen this afternoon (she recently reread Mansfield Park), and I came to the conclusion that I'm not really wired for sympathetic satire (as a creator or a consumer) -- AFAIC, if you're going to bitingly satirize someone, it's because you don't like them; if you do like them, you tell them that they are wrong so they can fix it. (Ari said: "Well Jane Austen was telling people -- she just thought they'd enjoy it more as a novel than as a diatribe." I said, "But if it's a novel, people can say, 'Oh, I'm not like that.' You need to write them a letter directly.")

I, um, sometimes tend toward strongly dichotomous paradigms...

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

on fear

rydra_wong posted yesterday:
Z is for Zara, who knew her own strength

Two passages I found this morning, linked for thought-provocation. Krista thinks fear may not actually be the mind-killer:

You must chase fear from time to time.

You must dive in and come out the other side. You must risk this shame and humiliation. You must risk dropping the bar with a soul-shattering crash. {...}

And along the way, feel the edges of your spirit crisping up, growing into sharper focus. When I am truly afraid with a healthy fear that says I am having adventures and stretching the envelope of my secure life – that is when I am closest to gnawing on the juicy bones of my existence. I am sucking every last drop of nourishing marrow from that present-ness.

And in a sidethread at fandom_wank, ealusaid has some interesting things to say about agency (note: includes discussion of abuse):

It's my observation that some people who live with a lot of toxicity have absolutely no sense of their own agency.

{...} And I think what that also gives is no real sense of how hard you can punch, which leads to either under-or-over-evaluating one's own strength. I never, ever, ever showed social or verbal aggression when I was a kid, so when I learned how to hold my own in arguments when I was a teen, I spent a long time thinking if I said ANYTHING it would be THE MOST HURTFUL THING EVAR, so I would say in this halting little voice "I think, um, on this one point, you're not entirely correct."

Then I had a brief period where I went "...Waaaait, no, that's not working! I want my blows to hurt them as much as theirs hurt me! YOU FUCKING SHITSTICK, YOU WOULDN'T KNOW RIGHT FROM YOUR ASSHOLE, NOW SHUT THE FUCK UP." And friends kind of had to say "Honey? That was six times harsher than you needed."

Learning how to gauge hits is really hard. Especially if you have no idea that's what you're learning.
Commenting on rydra_wong's post, niqaeli said:
So, my thought on that first article is that fear, like pain, is a message. It is a non-neutrally coded message because it is meant to strongly hold your attention. And, like pain, sometimes the message is one that is not helpful or useful to you, and so you set it aside and do something other than what that message advises. And then again, sometimes that message's advice will save your life.

So: do not ever ignore fear. Ignoring fear is not bravery, it's stupidity. Evaluate your fear. Look at where it's coming from, what's triggering it. Fear is an emotion our body uses to guide us. And trying to go outside your comfort zone, whatever your comfort zone is, will almost always trigger it (get back by the fire, we know the fire, don't go out, it's not safe); don't ignore that either. Listen to it; it will give you a map to your mental geography. If you want to go outside your comfort zone regularly enough to expand it, you have to know where that comfort zone is. And your fear tells you, every time you venture up to the edges and outside.

And never ignore fear only because you cannot identify its source and an explanation for it; that fear may be the fear that will save your life. That fear may be the fear that your subconscious has generated by picking up a thousand tiny things and put them together and now frightens you badly, saying, leave, get out, run, anywhere but here.

I've ignored fear before and that's how I learned not to. I said, no, surely this makes no sense, I will hang out with this person anyway. Well, I didn't get axe-murdered (obviously) but I did get scared to utter hell and ended up quite literally running away from them. I don't honestly know what would've happened if I hadn't gotten the hell out, finally, when my conscious mind finally decided enough weird shit had been said and I started running; I just know that I never want to be that frightened again. And if I'd listened to the fear sooner, I never would've gotten to that point.

Fear isn't the mindkiller; it's really the shepherd dog of the mind. Whatever patterns the mind already knows, it wants to keep them intact (and it has no idea whether those patterns are good, bad, or indifferent). It drives the mind to the same path; maybe there's better pastures to graze, but it knowsthis path. It will sniff out coyotes and other predators and warn us away, also. But it's not good to be herded; and that's all down to how we choose to interact with fear. Better to have a dog that communicates with us things like "coyotes ahead," or "strange scent, dangerous," or "that's an unfamiliar path, don't know what's down it," and make the decisions for ourselves.
I have heard that idea before -- about fear being a message from our ~subconscious, a message that bears listening to but which we are to choose how to respond to. It's an idea I could certainly stand to be reminded of, though.

I really like the image of fear as a sheepdog -- the idea of "instinctive" responses being rooted in familiar patterns, and tending to keep us in familiar patterns, but (familiar) patterns of course aren't inherently good (or bad).

In a similar vein is willful_zephyr's comment:
I've always taken that as letting fear rule you, letting it make the decisions, that is the mind-killer.

Even further, being ruled by the fear of fear itself goes on to be the soul-killer.

To that end, you are correct in that it must occasionally be embraced. You need to learn your fear well enough to know when it is being wise and when it is full of crap. Mostly, we all need to learn to function while being afraid.

I like the non-neutrally coded message metaphor.
Krista in her post also has a really evocative story about how fear causes us to be much more attentive -- and how that isn't inherently a bad thing.
There is, indeed, much to fear in Arizona. Here, the terrain is baked hard.

This ground will chew you up and hork you out along with a mouthful of tobacco spit. The gravel crumbles underfoot and the rocks are spiky.

Everything has poky spines, from the saguaro’s skewers to the barrel cactus’ fish-hook harpoons, to the innocent-looking teddy-bear cholla’s pincushions. Even Camelback Mountain is named after a spine, which it resembles – all bony vertebrae and pithy humps. Our hiking guide carries pliers, in case our tender flesh might need a good yank or scrape. It’s a scary place.

I do this hike twice. The first time, I wear my tried-and-true Merrells, which are the stylistic equivalent of wearing Kleenex boxes on one’s feet. Like the old “It’s boxy but it’s good” slogan for Volvo, these are sturdy sensible shoes that any British Depression-era sanitorium nurse would have been proud to wear.

I clomp with impunity over hill and dale with these bad boys. I scarcely notice the danger. I dare a saguaro to piss me off – I will kick you in the effin face, cactus!! If I had a big gun like the Whole Foods peeps, I would blast baby animals like Leonard Smalls in Raising Arizona.

The second time I hike, I wear Vibrams, essentially barefooting over Nature’s minefield. Now my senses are sharp. I am paying attention. My steps are different – I have to chart a course from step to step, dancing from rock to trench to crevice to slippery sand. My toes grip like a gecko’s. I am there, deeply present in the experience.

Fear has a way of capturing our attention.
Also from Krista's post:
Fear of negative evaluation: FNE.

I love me some TLAs. I’ve long been a fan of FMO – fear of missing out. FMO is what you experience when you can’t say no to things. ‘Cause, like, what if you miss something? What if something happens and you’re not there? What if there’s some crucial piece of information you don’t have?

If you have FMO you’re nodding right now, except you’re probably distracted because you’re also watching an instructional video and downloading an article and doing some committee paperwork, just in case.

Fear of negative evaluation involves constant preoccupation with other people’s potentially negative judgements of you. You do everything you can to avoid these judgements, because they scare the hell out of you.
  • You might be a people-pleaser. Approve of me! Approve of me!
  • You might be a pre-emptive self-criticizer – you shoot in like a ninja to crap on yourself before anyone else can. If you ninja crap yourself then you got there first, bitches!! You are the baddest and the best putdowner! Nobody else can hurt you with their slings and arrows like numero uno!
  • You might fret and worry and whittle your spirit down to a little nub. What if? What if? What if?
  • You might avoid situations where you could look bad or stupid. Looking bad or stupid is shameful and to be avoided at all costs. Consequently, of course, there is no juice in your life because to do anything fun or exciting or adventurous usually involves some potential element of silliness or screwups.
Notice what all these have in common? Two things:
  • Despite being focused on other people’s judgements, FNE is – ironically — incredibly narcissistic (What do they think of me? They must have noticed me! They really really give a shit about every tiny thing I’m doing and saying and thinking! They are so carefully observing me that they totally notice that extra piece of toast I ate!).
  • FNE leaches your life dry of every last bit of joy.
The f_w comment thread was also interesting, about how people develop responses that are sense-making and even relatively effective in toxic/abusive situations but which aren't so helpful/appropriate in other situations. In addition to the bit rydra_wong quoted, this comment from ekaterinv also felt resonant to me:
Plus if that's all you're used to, you don't know it's possible to deal with conflict in any other way. Things are either smooth and seemingly perfect or they're completely fucking out of whack and you're being blamed for everything that has ever gone wrong EVER, and are an evil, horrible, rotten brat from hell for not cleaning your room well enough. You feel you can either be a mouse or a rampaging lion, and rampaging lion looks a lot more appealing when you're angry.