A church member recently loaned me the book With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God by Skye Jethani. The author examines different “postures” or approaches to our relationship with God. One is what he labels “Life Under God.” It is an effort to win God’s favor by combining rituals and morality. It is an approach through which we “are seeking to exert control over God through strict adherence to rituals… and moral codes… We put God into our debt and expect him to do our bidding in exchange for our worship and righteous behavior.”[i] On a communal scale, this results in churches and religious leaders functioning as “divine police” “ensuring no one violates the Almighty’s will, because it’s not just the individual on the line, but the whole community.”[ii]
On Monday, Oct. 15, at 6 p.m. during Trinity’s Fusion gathering, I’ll be talking about the story in John, chapter 4, of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. Growing up, the woman’s sexual exploits seemed to merit salacious speculation on the part of bible preachers and teachers. I also recall preachers who labeled the woman’s question to Jesus about worship as an effort to change the subject in order to avoid confronting her own moral shortcomings.
But today I feel differently about the story and the woman.
For one thing, Jesus only seems to name her life’s circumstances in order to demonstrate that he is more than some random guy passing through town. Frequently in John’s gospel, Jesus knows the unknowable. In chapter 1, his intimate knowledge of Nathanael prompts surprise followed by a profession of faith. Jesus repeatedly seems to “call us as he sees us” not in an effort to embarrass; but to cut through the pretense and get at the heart of who we really are. It’s a “zero to sixty” path to intimacy.
Once the Samaritan woman recognizes that Jesus (through his inexplicable knowledge of her life) must have a “God vibe” going on, she asks Jesus a question of incredible importance. It is a question about how to be in relationship with God; about how to enter in to God’s presence and it leads to a conversation in which Jesus discloses his true identity for the first time in John’s gospel.
In reading Jethani’s book, it occurs to me that this story of the Samaritan woman is so often examined from a “life under God” approach. It is reduced to a lesson in morality: Jesus confronted her with her sin and led her toward repentance and faith.
But maybe there’s a different way to view the story. Jesus never tells the woman to repent. He never circles back to “confront” her immoral behavior. Instead, the woman’s sincere and deeply important question is where Jesus focuses his attention. In his book, Jethani talks about how our lives change when we take on a posture of life with God. It seems to me that few gospel characters understand this concept of life with God better than the Samaritan woman. And, even though she is a woman, a foreigner, and living in a dubious setting, Jesus is “all in” to dialog with her about what life with God looks like. That’s the kind of dialogue that gets Jesus and the woman excited. And if Jesus had made her gender, ethnicity, or morality the focus of the conversation, they likely would have never gotten any farther.
It seems to me that we have become, increasingly, a culture more concerned with policing one another’s morals than with honest dialogue about how to be in relationship with God and with one another. And it doesn’t seem that such an approach is doing much to help the Church or the world. But what might happen if we could come together around the table to discuss with openness our common seeking of God? Perhaps in our common quest, we might experience community.
Right now in the United Methodist Church we are bitterly divided over the issues of gender and sexuality. As we move toward the February General Conference, there is discussion of winners and losers, allies and opponents, factions and successions… because we have focused on a moral issue over which we do not agree. What if our focus changed? What if we could sit down face to face with one another and agree to discuss the most important question: how can we be in deeper, more loving relationship with God and with others? If that is our primary question, then surely – despite our differences – we can come together.
[i] With by Skye Jethani. 2011; Thomas Nelson Pub; p. 27
[ii] Ibid, p. 31