“Lord, you truly are the Savior of the world; give me living water, that I may never thirst again.” John 4:42.
Recently, I noticed an article in the New York Times announcing that the Rev. Timothy Keller, the highly regarded pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, is stepping down from his role as “Senior Pastor.”
His ministry began with a prayer group of fifteen. It grew to a community of more than 5,000 souls on the Upper West Side of Manhattan; and with associated members via their robust website — around the country and worldwide.
Keller’s essential work is to reach out to those who might be called “religiously unaffiliated.” He is a remarkable pastor, preacher, and social commentator; and someone whose ministry and preaching style, I have followed.
His religious service is more of a bible reading, and a statement of witness drawing from the scriptural text. And, he asks of his member that they too – “witness to Christ.” At times, Keller’s approach reminds me of techniques developed by Billy Graham but updated, linked to his specific congregation, with individual testimonies that are very contemporary.
In fact, several years ago, while on sabbatical from Saint Mary’s, I had the opportunity to go to his Church, listen to him, and see his remarkable, vibrant, youthful congregation, which is located nearby Columbia University.
At times, when I look at a scriptural passage such as the one that we just read, I ask myself, what would Tim Keller say, or how would he preach to this passage from John’s gospel?
Among the vital feature of this reading is that it comes at the beginning of John’s gospel, John 4, and at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry.
It is important to note that in John 3, Jesus is in dialogue with Nicodemus, where the very centerpiece of the text turns on the phrase, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that everyone…may have eternal life.” (John 3:16).
Clearly, everyone is familiar with this phase, since we see it – from time to time promoted by fans from the sidelines at football or basketball games.
So what is the gospel writer doing? John is setting up a series of conversations or dialogues of Jesus with Nicodemus, the woman in our gospel today, and in the successive Lenten Sundays, the healing of the blind man, and the raising of Lazarus. All of these and more, let us listen to the conversation going on among these searching souls, whose thirst is quenched from the living waters that Christ alone can give.
Again the intent on the part of our Lenten liturgy is to reach out to those so-called “religiously unaffiliated,” or those who have a hunger to hear the word of God that they too may enjoy the waters of new life restored to sight, and new life in Christ.
Especially in our own culture, when speaking about religion outside the family and close friends may be difficult. According to an April 2016 study, the Pew Center on Religion and Public Life reported that most Americans don’t argue about religion or even talk about it. Their polling shows that half of U.S. adults seldom or never discuss religion with non-family members.
For Roman Catholics, clearly, we are the most polite of mainline groups. When asked: “What do you personally think is the best thing to do when someone disagrees with you about religion?” Only 2% of Catholics would want to change their minds. 66% would try to understand the person’s beliefs, and among all the religious groups surveyed, Catholics ranked the highest at 31% in avoiding the theological conversation altogether.
This is why we take time today, to read these bible narratives, and speak and listen to, especially those who are about to receive the Easter sacraments. What’s your life story, how have you come to Christ, and our particular parish community? These and so many more questions can help forward a conversation about how to best enrich our faith experience here and now.
Now let’s focus on the woman at the well, just for a moment.
Perhaps in all of scripture, a woman finally has a voice. While we don’t know her name, we do hear her concerns, her amazement at speaking with the young rabbi, and also her ability to be among the first evangelists. After all, she tells her townspeople: “Come see a man who told me everything. Could he possibly be the Christ?”
Interestingly, we don’t really know her by name, yet in the Greek tradition she is called “Photine,” and in the Russian Orthodox Church, she is given the name of “Svetlana,” both names mean the “bearer of light.”
The work of the Christian is to “bear light” in our attempts to reach out to those who have not heard of Jesus’s saving grace.
Moreover, a woman’s voice, the female voice has a unique quality, and as writer Carol Gilligan suggests, “an ethics of care” that must be heard – whether in the home or the school. How about this voice being listened to on the Supreme Court, or in the hospital surgery when fighting disease, or preaching from the pulpit?
The gospel gives evidence of this, and its high time for our Church and its leaders to consider how women can speak on behalf of the gospel. To my mind, it’s an untapped grace.
Over the many years of my teaching, I had the opportunity to read the great writers and thinkers, past and present. This has helped me to look more deeply into my own appreciation for the word of God.
Individual writers have changed my thinking. For example, Carol Gilligan’s book “In a Different Voice,” published by Harvard in 1982, forwarded the notion that a woman’s voice, in contrast to men is more relational, and may have a vital resonance when making moral/ethical decisions. This book went on to create a massive following with scholars and writers.
More important for us this Sunday, is how the woman at the well enables others to hear the words of the young Rabbi Jesus, and look more deeply into his potential and draw on him as the source of life-giving water.
This Lenten season is the opportunity that we reach out to the “religiously unaffiliated” – and borrowing a line from media critic Marshall McLuhan: “Reach out, and touch someone.”
After all, communication is the beginning of understanding.
Saint Perpetua, Lafayette, CA.