The Rev. Becky McDaniel. This sermon is based on John 4:5-42.
Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”
I am always comforted by the stories in the gospels that reveal the humanity of Jesus. Here he is: tired, thirsty, sitting down to rest and engaging in what turns out to be one of the longest conversations he has with one person in the gospels. It is quite a conversation, and as it progresses, we glimpse less of his human nature and more of his divinity, culminating in the assertion by the Samaritans that this truly is the savior of the world. The Samaritan woman does not recognize him as the messiah at first, perhaps because she sees his very human side, and it takes some convincing and some discernment on her part to make that final testimony. It takes a change in her mind and heart to recognize the spirit within him. She is willing to say that he is a prophet, since he is aware of her history, but the messiah? She needs more convincing for that: “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”
We know that this Samaritan woman is not the only person in the gospel stories who fails to recognize the messiah. The apostles are always wrestling with the identity of Jesus, and of course after the resurrection, he is mistaken for the gardener and a fellow traveler on the dusty road to Emmaus.
We, too, struggle with the identity of Jesus, especially since the dawn of the historical-critical method of biblical scholarship. Is Jesus a prophet, an itinerant teacher, a zealot, an Essene, a wisdom teacher, the messiah, the son of God? Who is this Jesus? The debate is not new, of course. The fourth fifth centuries and their councils resulted in upheaval and disarray in the church, and the struggle has continued since, often resulting in division and accusations of heresy. In 2017, Christians don’t find ourselves suffering punishment for believing differently, but we sure do suffer from apathy and disillusionment when it comes to defining the parameters of our faith.
But could the problem be that we are (and the disciples were) looking for a specific face of Jesus? Could it be that we expect to see Jesus in one way, neglecting the vast possibilities of the many faces of God? If you have ever spent time in contemplation with icons, you know that there are many, many faces of Christ. There is the peaceful sacred heart icon, there is the Christ Pantocrator with the eye of judgment, there are dark-skinned Christ icons, light skinned Anglo-icons, suffering servant icons, and Christ the King icons. There are icons highlighting the femininity of Christ, and there are fiercely masculine icons. We can begin to understand from the sacred art of iconography that there is not one way to see or experience Christ.
The religion scholar, Diana Eck, who directs the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, in her beautiful book Encountering God, describes the many faces of Jesus Christ as the many “tastes of the Divine that are awakened in us each year through the repetition of the story of Christ in the Christian liturgical calendar.” She writes of the not-yet Christ that gives us the taste of hope, the divine child Christ that gives us the taste of delight and tenderness, the healer Christ that gives us the taste of liberation and wholeness, the tempted Christ that gives us the taste of suffering, the risen Christ that gives us the taste of joy and faith. Beyond the liturgical calendar we can see the face of the bold teacher, the angry prophet, the playful wedding guest, and on and on.
Right now we are in the season of Lent, when the face of Christ gives us the taste of temptation and suffering. We are in the wilderness with Jesus, tasting fear and anguish, even loneliness and abandonment.
Contemplating this face of Jesus is crucial to our faith. We cannot miss the suffering and death and show up for the resurrection on Easter Sunday. We need to experience the yearly wilderness of Holy Week and especially Good Friday in order to see the fullness of God’s face.
I recently discovered a poem by Andrew Hudgins called “Christ as a Gardener.” It captures the face of Jesus as the gardener who creates new life in a winter garden where it seemed there was only death. This Jesus gives us the taste of resurrection hope as we trust that things which were cast down are being raised up and things which had grown old are being made new. As we dwell in the wilderness with Jesus this Lent, amidst the dead undergrowth, we wait patiently for the arrival of the gardener who makes all things new:
Christ as a Gardener
The boxwoods planted in the park spell LIVE.
I never noticed it until they died.
Before, the entwined green had smudged the word
unreadable. And when they take their own advice
again – come spring, come Easter – no one will know
a word is buried in the leaves. I love the way
that Mary thought her resurrected Lord
a gardener. It wasn’t just the broad-brimmed hat
and muddy robe that fooled her: he was that changed.
He looks across the unturned field, the riot
of unscythed grass, the smattering of wildflowers.
Before he can stop himself, he’s on his knees.
He roots up stubborn weeds, pinches the suckers,
deciding order here – what lives, what dies,
and how. But it goes deeper even than that.
His hands burn and his bare feet smolder. He longs
to lie down inside the long, dew-moist furrows
and press his pierced side and his broken forehead
into the dirt. But he’s already done it –
passed through one death and out the other side.
He laughs. He kicks his bright spade in the earth
and turns it over. Spring flashes by, then harvest.
Beneath his feet, seeds dance into the air.
They rise, and he, not noticing, ascends
on midair steppingstones of dandelion,
of milkweed, thistle, cattail, and goldrenrod.
Contemplating Christ as a gardener, remembering the many faces of God, realizing that all too often we expect one face in one place, let us continue our Lenten journey, opening ourselves to the many faces of God as we look to the cross and beyond.