Who Are You? Where Are You? What Have You Done? (Homily)
February 27, 2005
Third Sunday of Lent
Exodus 17:3-7 and John 4:5-42
We usually read the Bible looking for answers, and that’s right and good. There are lots of answers in it. But what if we read the Bible looking for questions? What if we shifted our attention and listed all the questions we find?
Where are you? That’s what God asks Adam and Eve in the garden, after they’ve sinned. What have you done? Pretty good questions. Am I my brother’s keeper? That’s Cain’s question after he murders Abel, and it’s a good one, too. Am I responsible for others, and how? Who am I? That’s what Moses asks before the burning bush, in the wilderness. Who am I to do such an enormous thing? What powers do I have? But also, more simply: What is my nature? What is my identity?
There are questions all over the place in the Bible, they’re everywhere, and what if we focused on them for a while, in our prayer and devotion? What if that’s really the point of the Bible, not to settle things but to open them up? What if that’s what the church really is: people living together with the questions? What if that’s what dogma and doctrine really are, not fixed pronouncements but deep and searching questions, questions about the right things and the important things?
Who are you? Where are you? What have you done?
Questions are certainly key to the reading from Exodus today, from the whining and complaining of the Israelites--“Why did you ever make us leave Egypt?”--to the whining and complaining of Moses--“What shall I do with these people?” But on the other hand these questions are pretty justified, I think, given all that’s happened to the Israelites, their centuries of slavery and their poverty and hunger in the wilderness. Sure, there were a few miracles, but they’re explainable as natural phenomena--the hand of the Lord isn’t entirely clear here, as it never is entirely clear--and anyway, the miracles didn’t last very long. Now the people are in the desert, now they feel abandoned, as we so often do, in our lives and our prayer. So often there doesn’t seem to be a lot of evidence to justify faith. What about the Tsunami? What about all the disease and injustice in the world? What about the unimaginable number of children who die every day, every hour, not just the unborn but the born, too, in their poverty and their emptiness? Where is God when the bombs fall? Where is God when a good man gets cancer, when a good mother dies? When a job is lost, or a marriage?
“Religion has never made me happy,” Von Hugel says in a letter to his niece. “Religion has never made me comfy. I have been in the deserts ten years.” And this is the realism of the Bible, too. It doesn’t deny suffering. It doesn’t promise no-brains-no-headaches forevermore. “Is the Lord in our midst or not?” That’s the final question in this passage from Exodus, and it’s a good one and a necessary one, even though of course God really is in our midst and present in our lives, in the end, after all. To embrace such questions is to admit that life isn’t easy. To embrace such questions is to admit that life is too complicated for formula and judgment. “All deepened life is deepened suffering, deepened dreariness, deepened joy,” Von Hugel says--joy as the last note, the highest note, but something we can’t experience without the suffering, too.
To say we have all the answers is to presume to be God. To say we have all the answers is arrogant and blasphemous and entirely misses the point of what religious experience really is: not a receiving of laws but a living of love, an entering into greater and greater depth and significance and consequence. “Remember these things are mysteries,” the great Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor says, “and that if they were such that we could understand them, they wouldn’t be worth understanding. A god you understood would be less than yourself.”
Certainly Jesus is more a teller of stories and an asker of questions than he is anything else. “Why are you grumbling?” “Which man did the right thing?” “Who do you say that I am?” The gospels are a tissue of questions, and not just the questions of Jesus but the questions about him, including the wrong questions, the stupid ones, as here in the gospel of John for today. When Jesus says that he brings a living water, the Samaritan woman takes him literally. Where? Does that mean that I don’t have to keep using the well? When Jesus tells the disciples that he has spiritual food, they turn to one another: did someone get him a sandwich? Has he eaten already? This is how it always is. People are always living on the surface, asking the wrong questions. How I can impress my boss? How long will it take me to firm up my abs? How can I afford that sexy new car? Or, who is breaking what commandment? Who shouldn’t be allowed in our church? What can I do to force this person out or make this person look bad?
No, Jesus says. No. His whole ministry is one long, difficult effort to get people to change the questions they are asking, to learn the compassion and humility they need to live without the black and white rules of the Pharisees and others. He doesn’t often succeed, really--look at what happens to him in the end--but in the case of the Samaritan woman, he does, through patient listening, through this long, sustained conversation. Finally she gets beyond the literal and the flat and the closed. Finally she knows who Jesus is, and she knows because she’s experienced him, in the flesh, in his person, as we do, too, in our lives and in the eucharist. She’s not converted because Jesus dumps a lot of abstract dogma on her. She’s not converted because Jesus lays a lot of moral teaching on her--he doesn’t judge her at all, directly, doesn’t explicitly condemn her when she admits to living with a man who is not her husband. No. He just listens, standing there in the sun, in a dusty robe. In fact, there’s hardly any moral teaching anywhere in the Gospel of John. There’s nothing about abortion or capital punishment or the war in Iraq, nothing about sexual identity. Not a thing. To know eternal life, Jesus keeps saying, all we have to do is follow him.
In this sense the woman’s first question is more profound than she realizes. “Where can you get this living water?” Yes. That’s the only question worth asking after all, not who’s in and who’s out, who’s right and who’s wrong. The water we are thirsting for is living water, it’s running water, it’s always rushing and flowing and moving, and the only question worth asking is how we can get to it, how we can plunge into it.
And in that sense, too, we have the answer--but a profound answer, a living answer.
“I am he, the one speaking with you,” Jesus says. I am a person, not a debate topic--I am a man, not an idea--and what I ask for is friendship. What I ask for is relationship. And as in any friendship, any marriage, there is always growth and change. As in any love, we never come to the end of the other, never stopping asking questions.
As O’Connor puts it, dogma is “the gateway to mystery.” What if that’s true? What if this is really what dogma is? What if this is really who Jesus is? The gate? The way? The answer who is always asking questions, leading us further and further in?
I am he. I am speaking to you now.
Who are you? Where are you? What have you done?