A Good Friday Prayer

by Ken Howard

Forgive me, Lord,

for I know not

what I

do.

Despite my best intentions,

I cannot focus

my faith

on

you.

I lurch

left                     and                     right

between

“Hosanna!”                         and                     “Crucify him!”

or

stand                           at a                     distance,

like a

casual acquaintance:

watching,                       silent,                    uninvolved,

saying

“I don’t know the man.”

Betraying                        the best                     that I know.

Help me, Lord,

to see you

for what you are:

A

Savior

who does not rescue me,

but instead

keeps me whole,

and

   helps me                    what I must

face                    face

A

Christ

who empowers me,

not by giving me

power and control,

but

by showing me                          and                         what I could be,

who I am,                                                   if I would follow your call.

Show me Lord,

who I really am:

At the same time

much less                             and                             much more

 than I think                                                      than I can imagine.

A person                                                                       A person

 in need of redemption.                                         worth dying for.

A person loved

by

God.

crown-of-thorns

The Man with the Hammer: A Reflection for Holy Week

hammer-and-nail

by Wendy Dackson

[Jesus'] enemies were not the notorious sinners whom society casts out…it was not the gross sins such as shock respectable people which sent Jesus to the Cross: it was the respectable sins which are in the hearts of all of us.

(William Temple, ‘Palm Sunday to Easter’, pp. 15-16)

I think we all benefit from at least one blood-curdling liturgical moment in our lives. We are particularly blessed if that moment falls during one of the major liturgies of Holy Week.  It is even better if it is something that could not be scripted, planned, or rehearsed.  Finally, it may have the most profound impact if it is a moment that strikes the individual, but goes unremarked by others.

My moment was on Maundy Thursday of 1996, at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in River Hills, an upmarket  north suburb of Milwaukee.  We had completed our elegantly austere agape meal, observed our orderly liturgy of redundant foot-washing (of course, nobody arrives at these things un-pedicured), and duly observed the Holy Eucharist.  At this point, clergy and lay assistants, under the ever-watchful eyes of the Altar Guild, began to strip the altar bare for the prayer vigil that would occur between Thursday evening and the beginning of the Good Friday liturgy.  During this, the congregation recited the 22nd Psalm, as bit by bit, the sanctuary became darker and more sinister.

Notably absent from the congregation was the critical mass of adolescent members of St. Christopher’s.  They had a different job—to assemble the wooden cross that would be a prominent feature of the following day’s dramatization of the crucifixion. It was something that needed to be done, and giving the task to the young people was seen as a way of involving them in the work of the church. As we read aloud the psalmist’s words of agony and despair, I heard hammers striking wood and metal as the youth of the parish undertook their work.

I also heard laughter. Continue reading

Alone or Together: A Question for Holy Week

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by Ken Howard

When Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke to the class of 1993 back in my seminary days, he shared with us an old African proverb which has stuck with me through everything the last two decade threw before me:

If you want to go fast, go alone.
If you want to go far, go together.

Pretty simple. Pretty deep, too.  We live in a world that tells us that fast we go the better off we will be. And if that isn’t enough to motivate us, the world also reminds us that it will judge us on how much we can get done in how little time. The promise of judgment is true. The promise of better is a lie.

The faster we go, the more alone we become. In our haste and our multitasking, we become captives of all that is urgent and render ourselves deaf and blind to the few things that are truly important, and we isolate ourselves not just from each other but from God.  We come to the end of our days tired, lonely, and full of regrets, because while we may have made ourselves go fast, we have kept ourselves from getting anywhere that matters with anyone who cares.

Holy Week is not a race. It’s not a sprint and it’s not a marathon. It’s not at test of speed or endurance. Easter is NOT the finish line, but the beginning of a journey of a lifetime, a journey that can only be accomplished in the company of Christ and of the community of people who form the body of Christ. It is not about re-enacting the suffering and death of Jesus but walking with Jesus through his last week among us as a simple rabbi in order to prepare ourselves to journey with him into his resurrection, and ultimately to our own.

You are not the only lonely person out there in your world. Not the only person who has been seduced by the secondhand of the stopwatch. There are a lot of others out there that need to walk with Christ and experience Christ’s patient, deep, and transforming love just as much as you do.

We can put up all the signs, all the banners, all the advertisements in the world. And we should. They are necessary, just insufficient. But in the end, ads can’t truly invite people into community. Only people can do that. It doesn’t matter how you invite them – a phone call or an over-the-fence conversation, a simple note or a forwarded Facebook invite – but it matters that you do.

People won’t follow an advertisement to church, but they will follow you, if you ask them to.

Mission Accomplished?

By The Rev’d Curtis Farr

Palm Sunday A

Palm Sunday MemeWe always do this thing in Episcopal churches (lots of others do too) when on Palm Sunday we gather outside of the church building before the service. Someone deals palms and miniature crosses to everybody, and we wave them all around as we sing something joyful and triumphant like “All glory, laud, and honor,” marching into the church as if we’ve had a major victory.

Following our magnificent entrance into the church, our party is quickly squashed by dramatic lectors who act as “Debbie Downers,” reading the Passion (this year from Matthew).

This always confused me as a child; why would we celebrate just before hearing about Jesus being betrayed by his friends, unfairly tried, and wrongfully murdered? Seems like a pretty obvious case of Bait & Switch—and an overly dramatic one at that. But then again, this is sort of the flow of events of the Palm Sunday story, isn’t it?

Jesus does his best Shrek impression and requests a “donkey,” the disciples find him one, and a humongous crowd covers the road with tree branches as Jesus rides into Jerusalem. They sing, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Everything seems groovy; Jesus is here, presumably to use his political momentum to take some control of the religious scene in Jerusalem. His disciples—all of his followers—are ready to stand with Jesus as he takes his rightful throne…

…which means that the week only got worse for everyone involved.

Jesus didn’t take control of Jerusalem, he didn’t climb to a throne, and he didn’t succumb to the temptations of the devil, who this time met Jesus in his friends and followers’ hopes that he would exploit his political opportunity. The disciples hoped that their mission had been accomplished, but it had hardly begun.

Naturally, the disciples become upset as time days go by and Jesus keeps talking about how he must be crucified. He continues teaching, but his disciples want action.

Stringfellow Palm Sunday Quote“Poor Judas,” William Stringfellow wrote in Free in Obedience, “…portrayed as he usually is as some monstrous traitor, a greedy, hapless, sullen, and despicable man. I suggest it is more faithful to the New Testament to see Judas as a man who had dedicated his life to a great cause and who on the night of the betrayal was desperately and pathetically disillusioned with the One who was his leader. Perhaps Judas felt that he had been betrayed by Christ. And why expect Peter to have the faith not to deny Christ? Only fools have courage for lost causes.”

Naturally, the rulers of Israel and Rome saw Jesus’ potential to grab “their” power and squashed it soon after his seemingly triumphant entry into Jerusalem, yet for his followers, Palm Sunday “is a day of profound humiliation,” to quote Stringfellow again.

The question for you the reader, me the writer, and us the Christians (I’m guessing, because why else are you reading this?) is this: what do we do with the reality of this Palm Sunday closely followed by Good Friday situation? How do we live in the world with the knowledge that maybe Jesus wasn’t about getting “his people” and himself into positions of worldly power or authority? What is our role as witnesses to a world seemingly ruled by the powers of death but in reality ruled by Christ (who conquered death, of course)?

Stringfellow, again, says that our role is sacramental, not moralistic. This means that we live fully involved in the world but with an understanding of how to use what is at our disposal. The only real thing any of us have for certain are our lives—as long as we live, we can offer our lives to whomever and whatever we choose. We also may have money, status, technical abilities, professional training, or any other kind of thing at our disposal. All of these things can be used to worship anything and everything other than God, but they also can be used sacramentally—as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.

The challenge for us then is not to figure out the right combination of word and practice in order to follow Christ; our challenge is to push ourselves and each other to do everything for the sake of God and God’s love for us made known through Christ.

That is our mission, if we choose to accept it.

The Rev’d Curtis Farr is the assistant rector of St. James’s Episcopal Church. He blogs for St. James’s every Wednesday, offering reflections on the readings of scripture from the upcoming Sunday. His personal blog is entitled Bowing to Mystery, on which he posts sermons, articles, pictures, videos, etc.

This is a weekly contribution to the creative and imaginative process of interpreting the black and white fire of Scripture. Sometimes using an adapted process of Midrash, the author includes historical/cultural information, personal anecdotes, and other theologians’ ruminations on selected passages from the upcoming Sunday’s lectionary readings. All are welcome to journey into the fire by using the comment sections on the blog itself, or on Facebook or Tumblr.

Was Ghandi a Christian?… It depends…

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By Ken Howard

Was Ghandi a Christian?… It depends…

If the definition of Christian is “One who becomes an official member of the ‘religion’ of Christianity,” the answer is most certainly “No” (though from his diaries we learn that he almost did, but turned away from Christianity as a religion after being turned away from a segregated church).

If the definition of Christian is “One who loves Christ, follows Christ, and strives to be a Christ-ian (lit. ‘little Christ’),” we may not know for sure whether the answer is “Yes,” but there is room to doubt that the answer is “No.”

As quoted in the attached Christianity Today article by Dibin Samuel, Gandhi’s good friend, theologian and evangelist E. Stanley Jones once asked him: “How can we make Christianity naturalized in India, not a foreign thing, identified with a foreign government and a foreign people, but a part of the national life of India and contributing its power to India’s uplift?”

Gandhi responded, “First, I would suggest that all Christians, missionaries begin to live more like Jesus Christ. Second, practice it without adulterating it or toning it down. Third, emphasize love and make it your working force, for love is central in Christianity. Fourth, study the non–Christian religions more sympathetically to find the good that is within them, in order to have a more sympathetic approach to the people.” (Decent principles of discipleship, I think.)

He was also once quoted as saying, “I love your Christ, it is your Christians I do not like because they are so unlike your Christ… If more of your Christian’s were like your Christ, all India would be Christian.”

Indeed, I am reminded of the words of Jesus, as he explains to his disciples the Parable of the Foolish Bridesmaids:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matt 25:31-46)

Something to think about…

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Dry Bones

By The Rev’d Curtis Farr

Lent 5A: Ezekiel 37:1-14

7062227167_a1261387d3We step closer and closer toward Holy Week, and this week we read all about death and the hope of resurrection—first in Ezekiel’s trek into the valley full of dry bones, second into Bethany where Jesus brings his friend Lazarus back from the dead.

Ezekiel, or “Zeke,” is a prophet, of course, and God teleports him into a valley full of bones—maybe a battlefield. The bones are all dried up; there is no sign of life. God asks Zeke if he thinks that the bones can live again. Zeke says, “God knows.” With a nod of acknowledgement, God tells Zeke to prophesy to the bones. Now prophets often speak to people who don’t listen, but this is ridiculous!

Zeke tells the bones that they will have breath, flesh, muscle, etc. and they will live again and will know that God is God. And it happens just like that, except that they don’t breathe; the reanimated bodies just sort of lied there like department store manikins.

At God’s instruction, Zeke tells the Spirit now to come from every direction and make the manikins breathe. They do, but now they say, “We’re all dried up, we’ve no hope left, and we’re cut off from life.” So God tells Zeke to tell them that God will open up their graves and bring them back into Israel—they’ll have to know God’s reality then! Now God will put the spirit within them and they will really live.

Who is the main character in this imaginative story, God or Zeke?

If the main character is God, we might glean some information about our creator—that God wants God’s children to live, that God can do amazing things and is ultimately more powerful than death, and that God influences people to bring new life into our world (whatever “new life” really means).

If the main character is Zeke, we might focus our energy on what it is that we are to do in order to bring new life into the world. Are we to also prophesy to those who miss those who have died, who seem dead, or who actually are dead? Will we know when God tells us to do something, or is that direct/prophet connection to God limited to a select few like Zeke?

Or maybe the main character in this isn’t God or Zeke at all! Maybe the main character is the ruach (“breath,” “wind,” or “spirit”) of God. The ruach mentioned here is the same ruach God breathed into the first human in the garden, the same one that moves in the Lazarus story in John, the same one breathed into Jesus crucified to lift him to resurrection life, and the very same one that comes to us in baptism. This ruach is like Christopher Walken—it seems to be in everything!

Warning: Imagining Christopher Walken as the Holy Spirit may cause waking nightmares and could seriously damage you, spiritually.

If ruach is the main character of this story, what might we learn from its role?

Even as the bodies are reanimated, they lack hope and feel disconnected. Their home was destroyed, and they were murdered. Now outside of their land—a familiar place of communion with God and one another—they are fearful that God has abandoned them altogether. Yet God is very present with them—so present that God speaks directly to one who walks among them in the valley; a mouthpiece of the divine. But God is also present in ruach, and all they need to do is to breathe in God’s presence.

Thousands of years later we have piled up a lot of conceptions of the Holy Spirit—overused by some and underused by just as many. Focusing only on the sort of metaphorical image of God’s presence being as accessible to us as air is to breathe, consider how fear prevents us from living just as much as death does.

In life, that is; and this life is what we’re talking about here…right? Fear has perfected the art of preventing us from living, to the point that we can find ourselves somewhat paralyzed by fear—of the unknown future, of a broken relationship, of a major decision.

Fear paralyzes, but God promises and provides abundant life. The promise of that life is extended to the whole world through Jesus the Christ who gave his life in a manner that emphasized how nothing worldly can make God or God’s goodness any less real—not in the heights of the mountains, the depths of the valleys, nor in death or life—nothing separates us from the love of God.

John Donne, who we remember this week on our calendar of saints, wrote, “And at Thy death giving such liberal dole,/Moist with one drop of Thy blood my dry soul.”

The reality and brutality of Jesus’ sacrifice at death nourishes our dry souls in a way similar to when God revitalized the dry bones in Ezekiel’s midst. Can the dry bones of our churches, our governments, our society, our public discourse, our economies, our relationships, and our souls find renewed life? Can we find solidarity with those in despair, and can we be messengers of God’s goodness and advocates for those who could use some advocacy?

God only knows.

The Rev’d Curtis Farr is the assistant rector of St. James’s Episcopal Church. He blogs for St. James’s every Wednesday, offering reflections on the readings of scripture from the upcoming Sunday. His personal blog is entitled Bowing to Mystery, on which he posts sermons, articles, pictures, videos, etc.

This is a weekly contribution to the creative and imaginative process of interpreting the black and white fire of Scripture. Sometimes using an adapted process of Midrash, the author includes historical/cultural information, personal anecdotes, and other theologians’ ruminations on selected passages from the upcoming Sunday’s lectionary readings. All are welcome to journey into the fire by using the comment sections on the blog itself, or on Facebook or Tumblr.

Photo: James Poulter, 2012, Flickr

Weakness is Strong

By The Rev’d Curtis Farr

Lent 4A: 1 Samuel 16:1-13

4621364513_a7e66219c1Think that some of that New Testament talk about the weak being strong and the disadvantaged being blessed was revolutionary? Think again. The story of David’s unlikely rise to power as the youngest, one of the smallest, and the least likely brother of eight sons is just one example of how the Hebrew Scriptures (or Old Testament) demonstrates God’s desire to lift up the lowly.

Samuel, a big deal in Israel—a prophet who talks to God even more directly than Moses it seems—is mourning over Saul’s fall from the throne. God is ready for Samuel to go and find the new king, so God sends him to Jesse. Of course, he’ll have to do so discreetly without arousing Saul and the awkwardness of picking his successor. God gives Samuel a game plan and Samuel meets up with Jesse.

They go to Jesse’s house and take a look at his sons, one by one. The first one is cut—totally ripped; he looks like he’d make a powerful king. God’s like, “Biceps schmiceps, look into his heart—his soul.”

Move along, Eliab.

Then Jesse calls Abinadab. Then he calls another son, and another, and another, and two more. God says, “no” to every one of them.

Finally Samuel asks, “Do you have any other sons?”

And Jesse is like, “Only my youngest—the bashful pretty boy, David. He’s out with the sheep.”

When David comes into the house, God tells Samuel to anoint him as king. And that was that. David becomes a great king after he defeats Goliath and does a whole bunch of other good stuff (I’m not going to tell you the whole story…pick up a Bible!).

But there you have it—David is this young, petite, pretty boy, yet from something so small comes something so great. If it sounds like Jesus’ Parable of the Mustard Seed or like any other number of things in the Bible, it’s because this is one of those themes that just seems to come up time and time again.

Why would God use the small things to do the great things? And what does it mean for us? Are we like David, or are we like his oldest brother Eliab—powerful? For different reasons, each of us are probably a little bit of both. What this might mean is that in seeking God’s purposes for our lives, we can freely pay attention to all parts of our identity and seek to do the greatest amount of good with things that seem like shortcomings or weaknesses.

What parts of you do you typically write off as weaknesses or shortcomings? How can you use those to follow Jesus and treat others with the love that God shows to us?

The Rev’d Curtis Farr is the assistant rector of St. James’s Episcopal Church. He blogs for St. James’s every Wednesday, offering reflections on the readings of scripture from the upcoming Sunday. His personal blog is entitled Bowing to Mystery, on which he posts sermons, articles, pictures, videos, etc.

This is a weekly contribution to the creative and imaginative process of interpreting the black and white fire of Scripture. Sometimes using an adapted process of Midrash, the author includes historical/cultural information, personal anecdotes, and other theologians’ ruminations on selected passages from the upcoming Sunday’s lectionary readings. All are welcome to journey into the fire by using the comment sections on the blog itself, or on Facebook or Tumblr.

Photo: Ian Scott, Flickr

Letting Go of “Leadership”

Letting go of leadershipby Wendy Dackson

A number of years ago, I was very close to a young married couple with a small child who I knew from my church.  I thoroughly enjoyed their company, and we spent practically every waking hour of the weekends together.  We would make plans to go to museums, the zoo, air shows, shopping, and everything else that three adults and a toddler can do.  It was a lot of fun—for about a year.  I was finding that, as fond of them as I truly was, I also dreaded the Thursday night conversation after choir practice of ‘what are we doing on Saturday?’  I sometimes wanted a Saturday to do things that single women in their thirties might want to do (including just slobbing out with a book or cleaning my apartment).

In the course of a conversation with another single friend in her late forties, this concern came up, and she gave me an image that I found helpful.  She said that a jar needs a lid, but sometimes, in the course of time, the rim and the lid can get clogged with stuff that makes it difficult to put them together correctly.  You need to separate the jar from the lid, clean the screw-threads, let it air dry, and only then can they go together again as they were meant to do.  This metaphor helped me understand that as important as my time with this family was, I also needed to separate from them on occasion, and by doing that it would help rather than hinder the positive relationship I had with my married-with-children friends.

I’m experiencing the same uncomfortable, clogged-up relationship lately with the word ‘leadership’, especially when it applies to the church.  It was triggered yesterday, when this (admittedly very good) blog post was shared on two separate Facebook pages:  http://careynieuwhof.com/2014/03/why-we-need-more-entrepreneurial-church-leaders-not-more-shepherds/ .  I am in agreement with what Nieuwhof says about pastors being responsible for small groups of people (usually ‘local churches’), and that there is a need for people who can think beyond the local.  I’d add that it needs to extend beyond just launching a bunch of new communities, but to do some serious work on the inter-relatedness and distinctiveness of various types of communities (such as my interest in the differences of dioceses throughout the Anglican Communion, or the question of identity for Anglicans whose first language is not English, such as the Francophone Network of the Anglican Communion).  It needs not just to seek opportunities for bringing new people in, but to create spaces for reflection which leads to more considered action.  And it needs not to be limited to the ordained. Continue reading

ARE YOU LEADING A ZOMBIE PARISH? Part 3: OMG! Now what do I do?

Zombie Church 2

The third part of a three-part series – click here for Part 1.

Okay. You’ve taken the quiz and found out you’re leading a Zombie church or a church that’s at risk for becoming Undead. What do you do now?

Neither condition is easy to deal with. But stretching our Zombie metaphor just a little further, clearly a church that is at risk for going Zombie would be a lot easy-er to deal with than a church that has already become Undead. After all, a church that is “merely” at risk still has a mind capable of critical thought. But by “definition,” a church that has actually gone Zombie no longer has a functioning mind and has lost the capacity for independent thought and with that the capacity for self-critical reflection.

If your church is merely at risk of becoming infected with Undeadness, you may be able to engage the congregation’s critical faculties by having the members of your Vestry or Board take the same quiz you just did and then ask them what they make of their scores. While the quiz is admittedly somewhat tongue-in-cheek, engaging your leadership playfully on issues such as these may gain a lot more traction than a more somber approach. Once the can see the signs of impending Undeadness, they might be able to find a pathway back to full health. After all, while it may really piss you off first, knowing the truth will ultimately make you free (John 8:32).

If your church has already joined the ranks of the Undead, you are facing an infinitely greater challenge. Just as Hollywood Zombies do pretty good jobs of emulating many activities of the living, a Zombie church can also do a more than halfway-decent job of imitating healthy church life: often good enough to lure in the occasional non-member, and generally good enough to convince its own leadership and membership that a healthy, friendly, welcoming congregation. They may have even convinced themselves that they want to grow (but just can’t seem to figure out why they don’t). More often, however, they may be found employing rationalizations like, “Growing in number is not the only kind of growth: growing in depth is valid, too.” Not that there’s anything wrong with growing deeper. It’s just that actually deepening one’s relationship with Christ usually translates into a deeper encounter with Christ’s transforming love, which is usually marked by a natural desire to share that love with others.

When a church becomes so thoroughly convinced by its own rationalizations that it no longer retains the capacity for self-criticism, the only recourse may the proverbial “bullet to the head.” Once in a while, a Zombie church, as it grows closer to actual death, may benefit from the salutary effect of staring death in the face. Occasionally, this insight, combined with new leadership at the helm, may be capable of beginning the long road back to health. I’ve seen it happen, but it is rare. Unfortunately, many Zombie churches would rather die than change. And if this is the case, the only options left are either: (a) let it “live” until it depletes the last of its own (a perhaps other’s) resources of time, talent, and treasure, or (b) put it out of its misery now while sufficient resources remain to start a new church or invest in the living in some other way.

Daunting, right? Yet I can offer two rays of hope: Question #7 and a lot of prayer. If you can help your church remember WHY it exists – its reason for being – its first love – the Truth that can make it free – there may be a chance to come back from the brink. And prayer because, as Jesus said, “This kind can come out only through prayer” (Mark 9:29).

dry bones live

Thirsty

By The Rev’d Curtis Farr

Lent 3: John 4:5-42

8592076710_e8e0375bcaWe’re going to step a little (a lot) beyond the lectionary this week because I think it might be important—or interesting, at least. We’re going to cover John 4:5-15 and jump to John 19:28-30. Read ahead, if you like.

When Jesus comes upon a Samaritan city called Sychar—near the well where Jacob met his wife Rebekah—he comes across a Samaritan woman at noontime gathering water. And remember that gathering water wasn’t for fun, it was for survival and to provide for the family. Also remember that Samaritans didn’t comingle with Jews (that one is in the text as a freebie…read up on your post-Exodus Old Testament to find out why), or Google it.

Jesus approaches the Samaritan woman and asks for a drink. She’s taken aback. How is it that a Jewish man is approaching a Samaritan woman at all, let alone for a drink. She’s right to be perplexed, but Jesus reveals that if she knew who he was, she would have already crossed that cultural boundary and asked him for a drink…and he would’ve given her living water.

Hold up. What is “living water?” Basically living water, ύδωρζωυ (hudorzo), is water that is not collected: rivers, streams…etc. Ponds and lakes are collected water. Wells have collected water, while springs have living water—they produce it as its source.

But is Jesus talking about a river? Again, if you’re reading this literally, you’ll have to stretch your imagination to include the possibility that a river would pour out of Jesus somehow. Obviously there is a deeper meaning here.

Let’s go there.

Jacob gave them this well that provides water for drinking but comes along with the necessity to work for the water, plunging buckets deep down to receive just enough water for a day. Jesus says that his living water will provide for her more than a day’s worth; this water will allow her to never be thirsty again.

This sounds good to the Samaritan woman, so she asks Jesus—this time calling him “Sir” instead of “you, a Jew,” for some of this water.

Let’s imagine that the water of which Jesus speaks is the Holy Spirit. There are numerous connections between water and spirit. (Think the spirit moving over the waters in creation and how Jesus tells Nicodemus that one must be born of water and spirit to enter the kingdom of God.) This might be a solid guess, especially considering how later in John, Jesus will tell his disciples that the Holy Spirit will come to take his place with them to move among and sustain them. The movement of the Spirit is kind of like a spring of water from a divine source that drenches people in holiness.

Going with this idea that from Jesus comes the Holy Spirit, which will continue to move among the people of the world as living water continues to flow from springs through rivers and streams, we run into a predicament later in John 19:28-30.

When Jesus is about to die on the cross, he says, “I thirst.”

Whoa.

Wait a minute.

Jesus, the one who brings living water that can quench thirst eternally, the one who makes wells and the bottled water industry irrelevant…Jesus thirsts?

One remarkable thing about this passage is the utter humanity that John exhibits in including this statement of bodily need. John’s gospel account is not known for displaying a human Jesus. As the readers, we know from the very beginning that Jesus is the Christ. We’re in on all the jokes when other characters don’t get it. We know when Jesus approaches the woman at the well that she is about to be astounded by the divine, but in this moment John reminds us that Jesus was human. And in this moment we are not in on the joke as we were before. We’re left near the end of this gospel wondering how the provider of living water can thirst.

This is a mystery worth sitting in for a while—it is worth praying, meditating, and pondering the humanity and divinity of Jesus. It is worth not rushing to answer these questions and instead use this opportunity to grow more familiar with paradox.

As you think about these questions, remember last week’s reading from John, in which Nicodemus is so focused on how it all works—focused on his own certainty rather than approaching God as one approaches a life-giving relationship with another.

One of the ways that the Living God calls us deeper into relationship is by seeking our trust, our patience, and our love. Perhaps it is from that kind of approach that we are quenched by living water.

The Rev’d Curtis Farr is the assistant rector of St. James’s Episcopal Church. He blogs for St. James’s every Wednesday, offering reflections on the readings of scripture from the upcoming Sunday. His personal blog is entitled Bowing to Mystery, on which he posts sermons, articles, pictures, videos, etc.

This is a weekly contribution to the creative and imaginative process of interpreting the black and white fire of Scripture. Sometimes using an adapted process of Midrash, the author includes historical/cultural information, personal anecdotes, and other theologians’ ruminations on selected passages from the upcoming Sunday’s lectionary readings. All are welcome to journey into the fire by using the comment sections on the blog itself, or on Facebook or Tumblr.

Photo Credit: See-Ming Lee 2013, Flickr