Exodus 17: 3-7; John 4: 5-42
In his book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey makes the point, and I paraphrase, that more often than not we don’t listen to understand the other but rather listen with the intent to reply or react. We have it all figured out, and so often without even knowing it, we predict the end of a conversation or another’s thought based on judgement, our own opinion, or simply the tapes that play over and over in our heads that have already determined the outcome. We don’t listen to understand but rather listen to reply, to react, to the other. Any, in the word of Jesus, life-giving water we may have becomes stagnant in the process. We like predictability. We like certainty. Listening to understand, however, puts us in a place of vulnerability of possibly having to let go of things and change.
That brings us to today’s gospel of the Samaritan Woman. Even that story we can predict where it’s going. We know it and it’s hard to listen to it in a different way, a new way. But that’s also the life of this woman and she likes it that way or at least wants it that way. Even the fact that she arrives at the well at noon. It’s crazy. No one in their right mind would go to the well at that time of day. It’s too hot and it would be grueling. The time for the women to go was early in the morning or at evening, when the sun isn’t so hot. But mindful that she wants the predictability, she already knows all of that and it becomes a way to avoid others, to cut herself off from them and their judgment. You see, she not only has a set of tapes about all of them, she has them about herself. If she avoids them she can avoid that feeling of guilt and shame that she has defined herself by because of her life. Jesus points out that she’s been married several times and is currently in another relationship but not married. She knows it and they do as well.
This time is different, though, because she encounters Jesus. Now even in this case she comes off as rather terse towards him. He too doesn’t belong there so she doesn’t quite know what to do. Her predictable situation now has uncertainty. But she also has a running tape about men and Jews that only complicates the matter and so she’s less than thrilled for this encounter. Our immediate thought often with John’s Gospel, though, is that Jesus is the one that doesn’t listen to understand. He seems to talk past her and there is a great deal of misunderstanding. The tapes are no longer working with him. I’m guessing it’s often the case in our own relationships as to why there is conflict, because there is misunderstanding. But it’s not Jesus that doesn’t understand. It’s me and it’s you; it’s us that don’t understand. He’s not trying to move himself to a deeper understanding he’s trying to move her and us to a deeper place, trying to break through the wall we create for ourselves that cuts us off from others and God’s love and mercy. We think these defense mechanisms are going to somehow protect us from hurt, but they only isolate us more and cut us off from each other and God. Her hurt and pain runs so deep but she begins to show signs of it breaking down. In John’s Gospel this conversion, this transformation is all a process. She begins to doubt. She begins to question. No, not necessarily God because she still hasn’t come to that realization, but certainly the predictability that she has created for herself, the tapes that she runs were beginning to break down.
It’s not just her, though, it’s also the disciples in this passage. They too are confused and rather dumbfounded by the actions of Jesus. Again, it appears that it’s him that doesn’t understand but it’s them. As Jews they too are aware of the judgment and the relationship that they have with Samaritans. As much as she knows it with them, they too know it with her. They aren’t to cross in the way that Jesus is leading them. They ask about food knowing he must be hungry and he speaks about something deep within them, the food that nourishes the heart and soul but they don’t know how to react, to respond. Their tapes as well seem to be getting frayed. When we cut ourselves off from the living water and the food of eternal life, we become stagnant. As Jesus says, you will always want more because you thirst and hunger for something that just isn’t satisfying you. There is a deeper hunger and a deeper thirst that Jesus will try to lead us through these weeks of John’s Gospel. He listens to understand. Can we do the same in return?
Which brings us to the Israelites. If anyone like predictability it was the Israelites. Think about it. These are the people that have just been led to this great liberation, set free from bondage, but almost immediately want to return to what they know. We find comfort in certainty and predictability. It makes us feel safe and gives us something to hold onto in life. But it also dries them up and dries us up. They quickly flee the living water of their own lives and return to grumbling, what they so often do best. They love to complain and see themselves as victims. That’s the tape they play. They, more often than not, do not listen to understand what and where Moses is leading, they listen to reply, to react through their own selfishness and their own small view of the world.
The readings the next few Sundays are going to challenge us in this way and to try to listen to them with fresh ears and hearts. Our natural inclination is to listen with the old tapes, knowing how the story ends and predicting its outcome. We like it that way but it also leads to suffering, isolation, and cutting ourselves off from the living water. We are invited to imagine ourselves sitting at the well with Jesus. The encounter alone breaks down our predictability of the situation and of our lives. He doesn’t listen to reply or to react but rather to understand. Can we do the same? Or better yet, do we want to do the same? Sometimes we just don’t want to change and be transformed. It’s much easier to live in the predictability of our lives, no matter how miserable we may become. Courage, we pray for that courage, to sit with Jesus at the well and allow ourselves to be vulnerable, open, and generous with sharing our story, our hurt and pain that continues to cut us off. He wants so much of and for each of us if we can simply listen to understand, and before you know it, sure, it may lead to doubt and uncertainty in our lives, but if can finally begin to open us to the love and mercy the savior of the world has to offer each of us.