Living, Life-Giving Water
First Presbyterian Church
January 29th, 2012
Scholars' Version (SV)
Scholars' Version (SV)
We are making our way through the Gospel of John during Winter. Episcopal Bishop and biblical scholar, John Shelby Spong, wrote this about the Gospel of John in his latest book, Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World:
If I had to give my readers one clue and one clue only that would unlock the Fourth Gospel and allow its honesty and wonder to flow forth, it would be that the author is constantly poking fun at anyone who would take his message literally, misunderstand his use of symbols or attempt to literalize the words he has attributed to Jesus. P. 387
Spong goes on to say:
Time after time, the author of the Fourth Gospel asserts that this book is an interpretive book, not a literal one. It is a symbolic book, not a historical book or a biographical story. To read the Fourth Gospel with literal eyes is to miss the essence of its message. Yet throughout Christian history, this book has been read with literal eyes and this literal misreading has been used to buttress the case for orthodoxy, binding creeds and the rationally incomprehensible ecclesiastical doctrines that stand at the heart of what people assume is essential Christianity. P. 389-390.
I don’t know about you, but I agree with him. A literal, supernaturalistic reading of John’s gospel has kept the church mired in superstition. We are supposed to read Jesus as if he really did all these things and said all these things. Then we are supposed to believe it is all true. To the degree that we can believe and not doubt, we supposedly have faith. I don’t think that is faith. I think those mental gymnastics serve to make people credulous and obedient. Or they dismiss the whole thing as silly.
What might we gain from reading the Gospel of John critically? The interesting thing about reading John, is not Jesus, the symbolic character, but the author. Why did the author present Jesus in this way? Why did he have Jesus say and do all of these things?
One of the realities that the Gospel of John reflects is a late first century conflict between two siblings. This past week I spoke with Rabbi Rob Cabelli on my radio program. It will be broadcast sometime in the next couple of months. He is a rabbi at a Congregation Beth Israel in Asheville. I asked him what he would like Christians to know about Judaism. What do Christians get wrong and what would he like them to get right?
He said that people often confuse biblical Israel with contemporary Judaism. He said that Judaism and Christianity are not parent-child but sister-brother. They both arose at the same time from a common parent which was biblical Israel.
When we read the Gospel of John, we are reading one side of a bitter sibling conflict. Jesus is being used by the author as a mouthpiece for the movement that would become Christianity. Last week, we looked at the conversation with Jesus and Nicodemus. In the text itself, Jesus addresses Nicodemus as a plural. Listen to the text.
"You are a teacher of Israel, and you don’t understand this? Let me tell y’all this: we tell what we know, and we give evidence about what we’ve seen, but none of y’all accepts our evidence.”
This isn’t the historical Jesus. This is the author using the character Jesus to say what the author wants to say. This is obvious. It is a plural. It is as though the author is telling all readers,
“Look how obvious I am being. I am making this up!”
Through the character Jesus and his conversations with opponents, the author is replaying the argument between these two siblings. One sibling will find a home in the synagogue and the other will find a home in the church. Two thousand years later, we know that one sibling became more powerful and numerous and we have a legacy of anti-semitism that has been fueled by the gospels and a misunderstanding of who Jesus was and who killed him.
In chapter four, Jesus meets this woman at Jacob's well. A Samaritan woman. This one is a third party. Samaritans did not make animal sacrifices at the temple in Jerusalem. They had another holy place to make sacrifices. She asks who worships on the right mountain, the Samaritans or the Jews? Jesus, representing the author John, says in effect, “Neither.”
“But the time is coming—in fact, it’s already here—for true worshipers to worship the Father as he truly is, without regard to place.” (Scholars' Version)
The place is important. By the time John’s gospel is being written, the temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed by the Romans. That is the crisis event that started these new religions, what has become modern Judaism and Christianity.
In this first century literature we see these movements trying to figure out where they are going and what they are about. Jesus is the symbolic figure who represents this new movement, a movement without a place. There is no Temple, no place for animal sacrifice, and that is true for the Jews and the Christians. They both have to figure out who they are without a place. What is worship if you don’t sacrifice animals? That is what ancient religion is. They have to figure out who they are and what they do now.
The answer from John’s gospel is that the mystical presence of Jesus is the place and the focus of worship. He is the living water, he is the bread from heaven. Just to make sure you don’t get too literal about that, John invents these conversations between Jesus and these other characters in which the characters don’t get it.
The woman at the well says:
“Sir, give me some of this water, so I’ll never be thirsty or have to keep coming back here for water.” (SV)
Later his disciples tell him to eat something and Jesus replies that he has food they know nothing about and they say to one another,
“Has someone already brought him food?” (SV)
John has Jesus speak in these lofty spiritual metaphors and nobody gets him, including his own disciples. The author is continually looking at us and shouting,
“Hey, this is a metaphor!”
The Gospel of John is one side of an ancient sibling rivalry that became calcified in canon and creed. A critical reading can loosen that up, but I recognize that it can also take the magic out of it. Nevertheless, I think that faith can become stronger when it dances with doubt. A faith, critically engaged, can develop into something more liberating and lasting. It isn’t always easy at first. I think, speaking personally, that it is worth it.
There is another gospel in which Jesus functions as a character. I should say that Jesus functions as a character in all of the gospels. Perhaps buried in them is an historical figure. But for the most part, Jesus is like the shape of water in Pat Boran’s poem, The Shape of Water:
Even when I cup it in my hands,
Trying to see it for what it is,
It takes my own shape, if temporarily;
It gives my own reflection back to me.
In the Gospel of Thomas, the author has Jesus say:
Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find. When they find, they will be disturbed. When they are disturbed, they will marvel, and will rule over all. (SV)
I heard a quote the other day that says the same thing in another way. This is from Gloria Steinem.
“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”
Yes, a critical reading of the gospels may be disturbing. But it just might set you free.
- What happens if we go ahead and read the gospels critically?
- What happens if we realize that the figure of Jesus is a character the authors (and especially John) use to tell a story particular for their time?
- What happens when we challenge the voices of loud, red-faced preachers in our heads warning us that if we start thinking for ourselves we are paving our own road to hell?
- What happens if we allow this story from John not be something we had to believe but instead allowed it to flow through us like “living, life-giving water?”
The truth will set you free.
When I read any other literature, I don’t read it worrying over whether or not I need to believe it. I let it be and allow it to speak freely and I give myself freedom to hear it. I read John’s Jesus now as a story for what it means to live a life that is authentic, free and life-giving, like water.
Jesus said to the woman at Jacob’s well:
“If you knew what God can give you, and who just said to you, “give me a drink,’ you would ask him and he would give you living, life-giving water.”
Mister, you don’t have anything to draw water with,” she says, “and the well is deep; just where will you get this ‘living, life-giving water?’ Can you do better than our patriarch Jacob? He left us this well, which used to quench his thirst and that of his family and his livestock.”
Jesus responded to her, “Whoever drinks this water will get thirsty again; but all who drink the water I’ll provide them with will never get thirsty again; it will be a source of water within them, a fountain of unending life.”
The woman says to him, “Sir, give me some of this water, so I’ll never be thirsty or have to keep coming back here for water.” (SV)
We, the readers, know that as long as she is alive she will still have to drink real water, no matter what living, life-giving water she gets from Jesus. The spiritual life doesn’t replace the physical life. The question the text asks me is what is life like when living, life-giving water is within like a fountain of unending life?
For me, it means first of all that life still happens. I need to eat and drink and do the things of life. I still need to go every day to Jacob’s well. I still live with the contingencies of life, a body that will age and eventually die, grief and loss, change and more change. But, the water within is an awareness that allows me to kiss life as it goes by. It is a fountain of refreshment from which I can draw. It is the living water of authenticity and integrity that is stronger than my fear about the contingencies of life.
It is an ocean of courage to take a risk, to try a new thing, to stand with someone who hurts, to be honest, to open my own self to a larger experience of life. When I feel afraid, anxious, awkward, out of place, or ashamed that I am not all I am “supposed” to be, I can draw from the river, that ocean, that fountain, that well of life-giving authenticity that says speak your truth, live your truth, find joy, and be the master of your thoughts and feelings. You are loved. You belong. The very elements of the universe are in you.
John’s portrait of Jesus is a portrait of a person with a deep center of peace that nothing could disturb. The living, life-giving water flowed so clearly and robustly that others thought he must have been “born from above.” The point of the story as the author tells us again and again is that that water, that living, life-giving, born from above water is within you.
Jesus is the reflection of who you are.
Again from Pat Boran’s poem:
Great telescopes and simple mirrors
Water leaves for us everywhere
To show the connections between things,
To show us what we really are.
This coming September will mark my 20th anniversary as an ordained minister. Over the years, I continue to find that folks, including myself, have a thirst for belonging and for being OK. It is a thirst for love. I have also learned that that thirst for love will not be satisfied for waiting for others to give it to us. The greatest gift we can offer another is not to give the living, life-giving water. We cannot do that. The greatest gift is to give others permission and encouragement to lower that bucket, swim in that river, dive in that ocean, dance in that fountain, and open that spigot within.
Because my friends, it is the Holy Spigot.