In today’s Gospel Story (John 4:5-52) Jesus meets the Samaritan Woman at the well. According to Jewish religious law at the time, Jews were forbidden to have any contact with Samaritans, who were considered to be outcasts because their understand of God was different from that of the Jewish religious system. Also, Jewish men did not talk to women alone. So, by talking with her Jesus became defiled. In the course of their conversation Jesus told the woman about her life and marital status. He did not condemn or judge her, but just talked about it with her, and this got her attention.
The Story highlights some differences in religious approach to life: some folks say, “we have a Story”, while others say, “we have a System”.
“We have a Story.” Our Story is about Jesus becoming one of us to show us our Father loving us always and without exception. When we focus on the Story we are very much like Jesus’ early followers as we look at how Jesus lived, what he said and did, and ask ourselves what does this mean for us in our time and place right here and now. We welcome folks who are different from us in any way.
We do our best to be open to the Spirit guiding us. Religion is not so much a series of doctrines, as important as doctrines may be, but more an awareness of and openness to the depths, richness, and beauty of human experience and everyone’s own life. It is always a willingness to be led to these in the challenges of our everyday life and the folks we encounter. By its very nature the Story of God loving us moves us to be open and reach out to all, welcoming and not judging, accepting and not excluding. The Story’s motto might be, “Don’t do to others what you don’t want others to do to you”, or, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27)”. The Story by its nature is inclusive – it invites people into the community – and open to transcendence and mystery – the Holy Spirit in our everyday living.
“We have a System.” Our system is absolute, telling us what to do and believe in every circumstance. We have no doubts, and we don’t question anything, especially the forbidden topics. Any who do question these are severely punished. We don’t have to think, we just have to conform. Any who disagree with this system are wrong, and they cannot come in. We exclude folks who are different from us in any way.
For many this system has replaced the Story. It more important to follow the system than to try to live Jesus’ Gospel. The system always knows exactly what Jesus would do and have us do. Throughout history this system has done significant things based on its interpretation of the Gospel: it fostered the crusades in which countless thousands were killed because they were different and the System deemed them wrong; it developed the Inquisition to protect itself from all who would question it; it approved and justified slavery; it encouraged racial and gender segregation; it taught/teaches that women are secondary and so are to be denied the same rights and privileges as men; it inflicts pain on folks whose marriages have failed and who have tried again to find marital happiness, judging them as living in perpetual sin and denying the access to Eucharist. The system’s adherents often see themselves to be holier than others, whom they judge to be in error and wrong. Its ultimate goal is to protect itself and its power at all costs. The System’s motto might be, “Get thee behind me, Satan”, or, “Man was made for the Sabbath, not the Sabbath for man”. The System by its nature is exclusive – it keeps people out of the community.
There is no doubt where Jesus stood. It is his Story that his followers are trying to live. By reaching out to the Samaritan Woman he showed that the religious system of his time was wrong in being exclusive, that his Father’s love is inclusive. He did not always accept the system’s values, especially when they claimed certain folks to be defiled or unacceptable. He showed us that in his Father’s love everyone is acceptable and loved. He told the Woman about her life, and did not condemn her, and loved her with her story. And so as she began to know the story in her own life, she shared it with others in her town. They also responded to the Story.
This is not to say that some kind of a system isn’t useful. Any system is a good servant but a bad master. Pope Francis seems to be trying to move the system back to being a servant of the Gospel, rather than the Gospel being a servant of the system. He calls us to read Jesus’ Story continually, and to be open to wherever it would take us. Many folks do not accept him and believe that he is wrong. The System is strong and its followers entrenched., and the nature of the System is to protect itself at all cost and against all comers, even the Pope. Following Jesus’ example, we might learn from Francis that honest and open dialogue, not rancorous judging, is necessary as we try to live the Gospel in our own life’s setting. This has to come from our own prayer and openness to the Gospel. He reminds us that we all need Jesus’ help, that we are all sinners, and this is good.
Another element of the Story might come to us as Jesus talked with the Woman about her life. He knew everything that she had done, and seemed to recognize that she didn’t love herself. He simply spent time with her and loved her with her own story. And so with us. Jesus knows everything we have done, our deepest and darkest secrets, and loves us with them. Those parts of ourself that we do not accept or love, he does accept and love. Perhaps, as we become aware of the Story in our own life we might begin to live it where we are. We might realize we do not have to judge others since we are all in the same boat — we need Jesus’ Story ourselves. And others need us to live it.
Just saying . . .