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I was speaking with a man about the story of a young lady whose life had been radically transformed by the gospel. She had been addicted to heroin, was cutting, and had been spared from jail only because her father was a very wealthy member of the community. After her encounter with the gospel she was soon free from addiction, an honor student, and started a ministry for other young women who were cutting. The man with whom I was speaking said, "Jesus saw who she could become, and loved that person."
At first that sounded like a wonderful statement, but the more I thought about it the more it bothered me. A couple of hours later I discovered what was bothering me. I thought, "No, Jesus saw her as she was and loved her as she was."
You can go a number of different directions with the story of Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, but I would like to focus on the woman's response to Jesus when she returned to speak with the people of her town. She said, "Come and meet a man who told me everything I ever did."
Would that be strong selling point for you? Would you really want to meet someone who could tell you everything you ever did? Would you want to see someone to whom every thought of your heart was laid bare? What are the things you would rather he not tell you about yourself?
Let's return to that later. The woman whom Jesus met at the well had most likely gone to the well hoping that she would not be seen. That's the only reason she would have gone at the time of day she was there, and the only reason she would have gone there alone. It would be a bit like a young woman walking across a large college campus alone at night. It was neither safe nor comfortable for this woman to go to the well alone in the heat of the day. Apparently she felt safer and more comfortable going alone in the heat of the day than enduring the company of the other women of the city.
There are many people I've known who say that they like Jesus but they don't want any part of organized religion. They would rather pray alone than pray with others. They would rather study the Bible on their own than join a group to study scripture.
What is at the heart of this discomfort with organized religion? There are a number of reasons people feel this way. Could part of it be that they don't feel safe or comfortable in the church? Do we say things to them like, "Jesus sees the person you can become and he loves that person?" Implicit in that statement of course is that Jesus does not love the person you are.
As Episcopalians we love to think that we are very accepting and tolerant. We love to say things like, "God loves you, no exceptions," or "Welcome regardless." I have never been in any congregation where there were not certain things that would cause at least some of the members of that congregation to say, "God sees the person you can become, and he loves that person."
What are those things in your parish? What are the things that would cause the Samaritan woman to feel safer and more comfortable on her own in the heat of the day than she would in your parish? How can you address these issues so that people could feel truly comfortable and safe? How can we create parishes where it can truly be said with conviction, "God loves you no exceptions."
In the prologue of the Gospel According to John, John wrote the incarnate Word was full of grace and truth. Are we afraid of grace and truth? There cannot be grace without truth, but how hard is it to really tell the truth? When someone offends us, how often do we say something like, "It was nothing," when the truth is it really was something, and it really did hurt? By taking away the truth, we minimize the grace. If it was nothing, there is little to be forgiven. How often do we minimize the truth by saying we're all sinners in need of grace in a way that fails to acknowledge the destructive nature of sin? If we do that then we have minimized the hope and joy that come with genuine grace.
Perhaps the best way to combat those things in our parishes that would keep people from truly experiencing the grace of God would be to start telling the truth, not just the truth about the past, but the truth about the present. Do we have the courage to tell the truth? Here's a bit of truth. Sometimes I get impatient with the people who call the church for assistance when they are asking for more than I have to give and are unwilling to accept a referral to an agency that can help them. Depending on the day, I may not be as gentle with them as I should be. That's not okay. It's not a representation of the love of Jesus. It's destructive to them and to me. And God loves me in those moments as much as he loves me when I am patient and gentle. That's grace and truth.
So would I want to meet a person who could tell me everything I ever did? Would I want to be in the presence of someone to whom every thought of my heart was laid bare? It might be frightening at first. The Samaritan woman tried to change the subject several times, but at the end of the conversation, she was excited to know that Jesus knew everything she ever did. She was so excited about it that she ran to tell everyone in her town that she met a man who told her everything she ever did. She was excited because she experienced grace and truth. Finally there was someone from whom she did not have to hide. Finally there was someone who saw who she was and loved her.
Perhaps the best way to address those things in our parishes that might cause the Samaritan woman to feel more comfortable going to the well alone in the heat of the day is to lead our people to the one who can tell them everything they ever did. We cannot give what we do not possess. If we want our parishes to be places of grace and truth, the people must first experience grace and truth. They must encounter the one who can tell them everything they ever did and loves them. How can we help them to experience grace and truth?
The Rev. Ronald (RJ) Johnson