In seeking for Spirit wisdom for our faith journey in this extraordinary time of Covid19, the Scripture story that came to mind for me is the symbolic and metaphoric story about the crossing of the sea of Galilee. The wisdom is in the structure of the story and the sea of Galilee is often understood to be a womb for the birth of the Spirit life inspired in our gospel stories.
I refer to the second crossing story in Mark 6, not the first one in Mark 4, simply because in telling a second story we link with our Lenten theme about memorable, life-changing, and spirit grounding encounter with the Holy. While I readily admit that Covid19 and what we are all facing right now is pretty unique and is not something I have faced before, I recognize that most of us have experienced difficult times before, and certainly our ancestors have. We not only have our own stories, but there are ancestral stories before us that guide us, those stories where life was turned on its head. where challenging, unchosen and difficult hard experiences have been thrust upon us.
The disciples find themselves facing a difficult sea crossing for a second time. The first time, the holy in Jesus had fallen asleep in the boat, but this time, the holy in Jesus was doing some “physical distancing”. Jesus instructs the disciple to get into a boat while Jesus goes off to pray. Jesus had a regular spirit practice of grounding himself in the holy.
While Jesus is praying, the disciples are encountering another storm, the wind is against them, and I mean really against them. They were using a boat to cross the sea as a means to speed things up, it was quicker than walking around, but this crossing turned out to be much longer than they thought so that even by the forth watch of the night, or three or four in the morning, they were still rowing and not getting to where they wanted to be.
All of us are beginning to realize that this physical distancing is going to take a lot longer than we initially thought. COVID-19 is a strong wind. We are in the middle of the lake, no way out, except through some tough rowing. Let’s not pretend that this isn’t hard.
Equally, it is harder for some than others, harder for those who are live with compromised immune systems, harder for those who are losing work, harder for those who carry the weight of parenting, harder for those separated from aging family members, harder for the poor.
While we are all in the same boat, not all of us have the same capacity to row and it is a time of compassion as each does and shares according to their capacity so that we are working together against the winds of COVID-19.
This story is also honest by naming the fearfulness the disciples felt. Facing strong winds is a fearful experience. There is nothing wrong with feeling fear, it is a natural feeling in life.
Fear surfaces necessary caution and judicious action. This is why Pema Chodron in her book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, begins by talking about "intimacy with fear". Fear is natural, not to be avoided, but as the structure of the story demonstrates, fear is not the end point because being in a state of fearfulness is debilitating, it paralyses.
In the structure of this symbolic and metaphoric story, the drama heightens when the holy in Jesus comes walking on the water.
Now, having had physical distancing drained into their heads, the disciples were not quite ready for this “spirit nearing” and they freaked out. Thinking the worst, they conspired up a ghost and shouted out in terror, only to have the sacred voice immediately echo back, saying “courage, fear not”. It was not a ghost, it was the holy in Jesus. It is amazing what facts can do to conspiratorial fears.
As I have often mentioned, at least 365 times in the Biblical witness is there the admonition to “fear not”, this being one of them. The admonition is never to avoid fear, but to move beyond a debilitating state of fearfulness. This is the place of spiritual growth and it is easier said than done. It is a growth point for all of us in these fearful times of COVID-19.
In the closing words of this symbolic and metaphoric story, the disciples are described as being silenced, not understanding because their minds were still closed. the narrators in the gospel stories often utilize the disciples as a foil for the holy in Jesus. This literary tool enables the read to see more clearly the choice before them, a choice to live in debilitating fear or the choice to find a way that moves through fear to faith.
In the story, Jesus gets into the boat the wind becomes still. There is a pause. While the story has an appearance of the holy in Jesus magically fixing everything, this understanding denigrates the depth meaning of the story and the Spirit life of the gospels. This narrative, written many years after the life of Jesus, are written to a people considerable challenge in life, who knew hard times, times that were not magically wished away. The silenced winds are a symbolic stillpoint, a pause to calm the fear and connect with faith, faith most especially at the hardest points in life.
I know for me, it is often at the hardest points in life that my most memorable and life-changing encounters with the holy have happened.
That possibility happens in the silence, in the pause. the invitation is to open the spirit and mind to the God-way in the midst of the hard. In the boat we find ourselves in, let us welcome the wisdom from this story which reminds us of "spirit nearing" in this difficult time of physical distancing.
May we seek holy still points, as we support and strengthen one another in rowing in the reality of the hard winds that are blowing.
So for me, the story of the Samaritan woman, in its structure, lifts up this woman as a prophet, a prophet who links her washed hand with the washed hands of Jesus, and teaches us about the “living water” vision of Jesus.
The story goes like this. Jesus is journeying between places and goes through Samaria where he stops at a town called Sychar. Sychar is the place where Jacob’s well is, a well that nourished ancestors of many diverse peoples, including the ancestors of Jesus and of a Samaritan woman who also happened to be at the well.
We are told that Jesus stops at noon hour, in the heat of the day when everyone is supposed to be sitting under trees napping or having a siesta. Jesus wanting some alone space sent companions into the city to get food. He probably needed some think time, his own healthy practice of social distancing.
But something unexpected and unusual happens. A woman comes to the well at noon hour. One doesn’t usually do manual labour at the hottest time of the day, so this is unusual.
In the past, I have often seen the appearance of this woman at this time as evidence of her being a social outcast who sneaks out to the well in order to get water when no one else is there. Recently, I am not so sure, not so sure because of the Spirit-strength of this woman.
Her way of being suggests that she is not someone cowering to the pressures of others, but rather she is a woman who is asserting direction over her own life. I have a growing sense that this woman is at the well by choice, she is there knowing she can be alone, have some healthy social distance if you will.
We do learn later in the telling of the story, that this woman is a woman who has been married five times and that the man she is presently living with is not a husband. This again, has been used to identify this woman as a woman of ill-refute, as someone bad, when in fact, logic suggests otherwise. Probabilities are that the five husbands are the not so good ones and that this woman is strong and smart and good to not put up with bad husbands and that at this juncture in her life she is wise enough to live with someone before marrying them.
Everything in this story suggests this is a woman who is forging her own path, and mostly doing it against social conventions. She no doubt was the talk of the town for her choices.
Understanding this woman as one who is forging her own path influences how one hear the conversation between this woman and Jesus, a conversation that is all about breaking down social barriers, about destroying unhealthy social distances.
Jesus asks the woman for a drink of water. Instead of quietly and silently obeying and getting water, she speaks up, she challenges him for even asking her for a drink given the distance between their social standing in life. He a man, she a woman. He a Jew, she a Samaritan.
Her spirited way immediately creates a context where the conversation moves beyond a physical drink to a theological discussion about which mountain to honour God and what is meant by “living water”. It is all wondrously opaque but in the structure of the story, this woman is clearly smart and good and aware. The structure of the story is all about breaking down social barriers, about reducing unhealthy social distance.
Folks, we are called to a time where we all face the demand to seek out healthy social distance, just as this Samaritan woman and Jesus were. In seeking social distance, they became catalysts for breaking down social barriers, for destroying unhealthy social distances.
The COVID-19 pandemic is already revealing the impacts of social barriers and forcing discussions on who gets looked after when work dries up and who doesn’t and the list of social injustices, locally and globally, goes on and on. I am glad our government is recognizing that and planning on doing something about it.
So, in the Lent of 2020, when we are unexpectedly being forced to “let go” of a lot of stuff…not chosen but a given reality because of the necessity for social distancing, may we find the strength to allow this time, where there is pain, to also be a time of possibility, a time for spiritual nurture through the embrace of unusual behaviours like going to wells at noon hour, even as we are being offered a time, an occasion to yet again “let go” of the injustices that happen with social barriers, by becoming nearer to one another in heart, and not just those we know but those we don’t know.
In this story, the Samaritan woman and Jesus discovered they were kindred spirits despite the social distances between them. Both of them are ones who had gone against social norms in order to follow the sacred ways in spirit and in truth.
At the end of the story, this Samaritan woman returns to the village to invite people to come and meet Jesus because she heard in his words and deeds one who knew all about her, knew the independent and spirited pathway she had forged in life. It was a time of coming together, a time of breaking down social barrier which began as she and Jesus both sought some healthy social distance.
The story of the Samaritan woman at the well is one where the Spirit of the Christ freed her to be the prophet she always was….and in this time of trouble and stress and pain and challenge of Covid-19, let us take the time to find our own spirit strength and our own prophetic voices. Let us too, drink of living waters.
I am a cradle to grave United Church of Canada member. Or at least, cradle to 49, and it looks good from here. I was baptized on Mother’s Day in 1969 when I was about 10 weeks old, we said grace at dinner every night, and we went to church every Sunday. My parents were at various times, the Sunday School Superintendent, Chair of Worship Committee, Treasurer and Chair of the Board. When I was 13, I was confirmed, and the church gave me a Bible. I decided I should read it, and having no guidance on how to do this, I started at the beginning. I did this most nights before bed until I was about 20, and I have read the Bible through several times.
Now when you start at the beginning of Genesis, it doesn’t take long before you encounter stories that make you go WTF?! It was the sexism that my 13 year old self most strongly felt. I did not understand why Lot’s response to people wanting to rape his guests was to offer them his daughters to rape instead. Nor did I understand how a reasonable response in the law to raping a woman was to pay her father money and to marry her.
I thought a lot about these things. There was no way that this represented the God I knew. So I decided that God had told people the Bible stories, and that they had failed to understand them and had written them down wrong. For those who know me well, I want you to note two things about this story. First, while I am often seen as someone who approaches things first through the lens of intellectualism, my first engagement with Biblical literalism was profoundly one of faith. I didn’t read about different approaches to Biblical interpretation and decide one was superior, I simply realized a literal interpretation was impossible to reconcile with my God. The second thing about this story, which will be more familiar to those who know me, is my complete arrogance. At 13, I had no problem whatsoever in saying that my own experience of God and justice was superior to the Bible. I had to figure out how it worked, but never once did I doubt that my loving and just God was real and that the Bible was wrong, or at least, not to be read as fact.
I’m grateful that I was raised in the United Church, because I know many who encounter a serious conflict between their intellect and reading the Bible literally. Either they continue to believe that the Bible is true and decide therefore that God and religion are horrible (and atheists are often the most literal readers of the Bible), or they decide that the Bible is worthless and while they retain some faith in God, they leave organized religion entirely.
Fast forward over 20 years from this time, and I encountered Marcus Borg for the first time. While Borg sometimes opens my mind and heart to new ideas, mostly his contributions to my faith have been: first, to give me the ability to articulate what I believe and second, to help me to go deeper.
As a lawyer and then a negotiator, I have sometimes joked that I talk for a living. I admire hugely Borg’s ability to communicate. He writes with clarity. He is both intellectual and accessible. He explains concepts clearly, and provides many metaphors to express his views. In fact, if I have a “take home” message for today, it wouldn’t be about any particular idea, it would be my strong recommendation to read Borg.
The first book of his which I read is The Heart of Christianity. In the preface, Borg writes “For some time now, I have been convinced that there are no intellectual impediments to being Christian.” Both Jesus and Hebrew scholars agree that the most important commandment is to Love God with all our hearts, minds, soul and strength. We are not expected to jettison our brains in order to love God. I knew this to be true at 13, and Borg has helped me have the language I need to express my faith seriously, to atheists, to agnostics, to questioners, to fundamentalists and all others.
Borg was, as Brian mentioned, a leading figure in the Jesus Seminar with John Dominic Crossan. The Jesus Seminar was a group of academics focussed on the study of the Jesus of history versus the Christ of faith. One of his best known books is Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, subtitled, Taking the Bible Seriously but not Literally. I think his entire bibliography could be called Taking Christianity Seriously but not Literally. There are many people who feel that Progressive Christianity is a not serious form of Christianity, but Borg is not one of them. In fact, by looking at Christian faith through the progressive lenses of grace, metaphor, sacrament and justice, Christian faith is freed to become truly serious.
I have nowhere near the time I would need to delve well into even one of Borg’s substantive topics, but I’m going to introduce two. The first is the meaning of faith, and the second is the meaning of saying Jesus is Lord.
I love Borg’s definitions of Faith. In our modern times, literalist Christians have insisted that Christianity, and Faith, are about Believing. Believing a certain set of things which is the modern definition of orthodoxy. Believing, in contrast to knowing, and to some extent, believing in contrast to fact, like literal readings of the creation story. While this element of Faith was always part of Christianity, before modern scientific knowledge, it took no effort to believe the Bible was factual. The emphasis on Belief as fundamental to faith is actually modern.
Borg reminds us of three other definitions of Faith, all of which are relational. First, Faith is trust in God, like floating in a deep ocean. God is our safe place, our rock, our support. This faith invites us to let go of anxiety.
Second, Faith is faithfulness, fidelity, and committing oneself to God alone and to God completely. It is not about committing oneself to statements about God, but to God. And in our times, it is about being faithful to God over the idolatry of money, power and privilege.
Third, Faith is about a vision. Whether we see the world as terrible followed by certain death, or whether we have a vision of Life and the World as being Good, as being Sacred. God is generous, nourishing, grace. This way of seeing the world leads to radical trust, and frees us from worry.
Christianity is therefore not mostly a question of creeds or beliefs. It is more, much more, than that. Faith is a verb.
Jesus is Lord! Jesus is my Lord! That’s not something you hear on a typical Sunday at First United Church. But, according to Borg, it is a far more political statement than one might think, and it is a truly radical statement. The key to understanding the statement is to know that the Emperor was called Lord. So saying Jesus is Lord is saying Caesar is not. Caesar was also called the Son of God, Lord of Lords, Saviour, and King of Kings. He was said to have brought Peace on Earth. And so to the early Christians, saying Jesus is Lord was a direct challenge to the empire.
And that empire killed Jesus. But the Easter message is that God said no to the Empire. God said no to that domination system. And God said yes to Jesus and his vision. Borg speaks of a personal transformational aspect to Easter, which I do not have time to review, but he also speaks to Easter as having a political meaning. It indicts the way domination systems built on power and wealth oppress the world.
Borg continues: “If we ask why the God of the Bible cares about politics, about systemic justice, the answer is disarmingly simple. God cares about justice because the God of the Bible cares about suffering. And the single biggest cause of unnecessary human suffering throughout history has been and is unjust social systems.”
What would it mean for us, the Christian Church as a whole, to take this seriously? What if Jesus were Lord today, and President today, and Prime Minister, and pop star, and great athlete? What if Jesus, and the message of Jesus received the attention and energy of Beyonce and Messi and Donald Trump? What if loving what God loves was the foundational principle of our social and political systems?
I wish I had time to talk about so much more than this. I would address Borg’s views on:
- the nature of God, explaining panentheism versus supernatural theism,
- the profound meaning which arises from an historical-metaphorical reading of the Bible,
- a meaning of Born Again which was invigorating to me as a Progressive Christian,
- the place of Christianity in a plural world for Christians who do not think Christianity represents the only truth,
- a clear articulation of the distinctions between traditional and emerging forms of Christianity, including our emphasis on bringing God’s justice into reality today instead of a focus on preparing for life after death, and
- a reclaiming of the concept of sin as useful for our journey.
Some of these ideas have been sprinkled throughout this service, but much remains.
I will close by reiterating this: Borg has given me the language to articulate to others why there are no intellectual impediments to Christianity for me. There are no impediments of any kind. And a life of loving God, and loving what God loves, seems like the best possible life. Thanks be to God.
Please note: as the text of a reflection offered orally during a church service, the text does not meet any standards for scholarly citation. There is no intention to fail to attribute however, and many of the ideas come directly from Marcus Borg “The Heart of Christianity”.