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The Third Sunday of Lent | By the Rev. Scott Lee

Updated: Jun 7, 2023

Last week Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, and in his conversation with Jesus he generally misunderstood what Jesus was saying. Jesus said that those who would enter the Kingdom of God must be born again, by which he meant that they must take on a new way of thinking and imagining the world and their relationship with God and other people. “You must be born from above,” said Jesus; and Nicodemus, taking him literally, asked “"How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?”

Jesus was speaking symbolically and metaphorically and mystically, and Nicodemus could only think literally and in ways much too small for the Kingdom of God Jesus came to show us.

Today Jesus encounters a woman at a well, and he both embodies and speaks to her about the life-giving water of compassion, of acceptance of all people, including her, a Samaritan woman. This compassion and acceptance, if we will drink deeply of them, will well up in us and coming gushing out like a geyser. If humanity would drink and proffer that kind of water, then, as the prophet Habakkuk says, “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea..” That is the kind of water Jesus is talking about, but the woman, at least at first, can only think of wells and buckets and the kind of water you wash your hands and clothes in.

Two conversations two weeks in a row in which the deeper meaning of Jesus’s words is misunderstood.

Here in the thick of Lent it is worth asking what these two stories of misunderstanding might mean for us who are trying to live in the Kingdom of God.

Surely the first thing to consider is the importance of listening. I can recall more than once when I began to respond to someone before hearing all they had to say. In fact I developed a saying I use from time to time as an apology. Finding that I’ve begun to talk when I should have been listening, I am known to say by way of apology, “I’m sorry, if I’d just listen, I might better hear your question.” Listening is important. Indeed it is sacrificial – we have to get our own self-centeredness out of the way, making a hospitable place for the other to be heard. It’s not as easy as it sounds. If it were easy, there would not be so much misunderstanding among us.

And not it’s not just about listening to other people. But listening for the voice of God. Listening for the voice of Jesus. I think it is important to take advantage of the ways our Prayer Book allows for shifting and rearranging the way we worship. In parish ministry, I would do that in the hope that we would hear things with freshness and at ever greater depth. I think it is good to hear the Lord’s Prayer say, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” I think the word sin packs a wallop that the word trespasses lost long, long ago. Do you hear the difference? Trespasses? Sins? I had a parishioner once who said, “Trespasses sounds like just a ‘whoops’, but sin is serious business.” What would it mean for us to hear, deeply, truly hear that Jesus expects us to forgive the sins of others? I’m not entirely sure, but I know it begins with deeply listening to him say it.

What I am talking about is listening not just with the ears, but with the whole person – heart, soul and imagination. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart with all your soul and all your mind,” we are told; and what can “mind” mean unless it means thinking, examining, reinterpreting, asking what more and deeper meaning we may have missed at first? I think one of the reasons I have been devoted to reading The Divine Comedy for almost fifty years is that Dante’s story runs simultaneously on four different tracks of meaning. The entire poem is an adventure in discovering meaning that you may never have noticed, no matter how many times it has been read.

My friend Michael and I once heard the Prelude to John’s Gospel read so well in Seminary Chapel, that, as we were leaving, we both said – virtually simultaneously – that it was like hearing it fresh and new and for the very first time ever.

A second thing we can learn from these misunderstood conversations with Jesus we hear about this morning and last week is to ask ourselves the question, “What assumptions do we make that we need to reëxamine.” Nicodemus was told he had a lot more yet to know and understand. The woman at the well was told she was missing the point – both of her conversation with Jesus – and with her understanding of God. Nicodemus thought he had God figured out. The woman at the well thought that the differences between her and other people were more important than they really are. Of both Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman it can be said, “Your God is too small.”

And that is the title of an important book from the previous century written by J. B. Phillips. Let me share an extended quotation:

No one is ever really at ease in facing what we call "life" and "death" without a religious faith. The trouble with many people today is that they have not found a God big enough for modern needs. While their experience of life has grown in a score of directions, and their mental horizons have been expanded to the point of bewilderment by world events and by scientific discoveries, their ideas of God have remained largely static. It is obviously impossible for an adult to worship the conception of God that exists in the mind of a child of Sunday-school age, unless he is prepared to deny his own experience of life. [1]

He goes on to say:

It often appears to those outside the Churches that this is precisely the attitude of Christian people. If they are not strenuously defending an outgrown conception of God, then they are cherishing a hothouse God who could only exist between the pages of the Bible or inside the four walls of a Church. Therefore to join in with the worship of a Church would be to become a party to a piece of mass-hypocrisy and to buy a sense of security at the price of the sense of truth, and many men and women of goodwill will not consent to such a transaction. [2]

Surely remaining committed to this kind of “too small God” is one of the primary reasons that many wise and introspective people have turned their backs on what they perceive as “religion” in order to embrace what is called “spirituality,” – a false dichotomy if there ever was one – and one the church has in so many ways foisted onto the world. What many wise and introspective persons of good conscience have turned their backs on is the religion of a God who is “too small.” We can only pray that they will find the openness of mind to give us, the thinking church, another hearing.

Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, who are really only stand-ins for you and me, have the chance to learn from Jesus that we must be willing to reexamine our understanding of God. If our God really cares whether or not you wear a hat to church – as the Episcopal God certainly used to do; or if our God is really watching you carefully and recording precisely every mistake you make and every shortcoming you have; if our God really wants to torment us or anyone else for all eternity; if our God is there only to comfort and console us and not also to challenge and to change us, then almost certainly, in Phillips’s words, “[Our] God is too small.” It is Lent. The church invites us, as we heard on Ash Wednesday, to use this time before Easter as a time for “self-examination and repentance” for “prayer, fasting, and self-denial,” and for reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” Self-examination and repentance – that can mean, if we will let it, being willing, to do what Jesus asks Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman to do; that is to look deep within ourselves with honesty and openness and then be willing to change our thinking based on what we find there.

Prayer – not just giving God our to do list or reminding God of what we need and want, but listening, deeply listening for how God is calling us to change and grow. Fasting – that doesn’t mean just going without food or whatever, but can mean giving up anything that distracts us from God – like our defensiveness: giving up for a little while the ancient refrain, “But I don’t like change.” Fast from that fear and try instead imagining how our life could be better if we would change and grow in the ways we already sense God is calling us to do. Fast from a diet of fear, trying to nourish ourselves on trust.

Reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. Following the assertions of Thomas Merton we can say that the Bible is that kind of book that when you ask it “What kind of book are you,” says to the reader, “And who are you that is reading me?” What happens if we engage in that conversation and begin to answer that question? [3]

So much goes on around us that we choose not to know or hear. We see it in Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman. In fact this chronic propensity of ours – not to listen, not to hear, not to understand – happens all throughout John’s Gospel. It is often called John’s use of irony. That is why – at least in part – why we read it during Lent – so that we can hear Jesus’s invitation to listen, to grow, to think in new and more wonderful ways.

"If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying all this to you, you would have asked him, and he would have given the water of life." He would and he will.

[1] Phillips, J.B., Your God is Too Small, 1952, p.7

[2] Page 7

[3] Merton, Thomas, Opening the Bible, 1970, passim.

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