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Copyright © 2006 Eugene H. Peterson
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Clearing the Playing Field
"Come to me ... learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart...." MATTHEW 11:28-29
As soon as the Gospels were written, speech without experience began to dabble with the new facts proposed by the existence of the Church.... People tried to think the new life without being touched by it first in some Form of call, listening, passion or change of heart. EUGEN ROSENSTOCK-HUESSY
There are seething energies of spirituality in evidence everywhere. To begin with this is a good thing. But spirituality is also prone to imprecisions that clutter the playing field and make it difficult to carry on a conversation. Four are common: First, spirituality easily, almost inevitably, develops elitist postures as it notices that so many of the men and women that we rub shoulders with in our work and worship are so "unspiritual." Then, in the enthusiasm of firsthand experience, spirituality imperceptibly wanders away from its basic spirituality text, the Bible, and embraces the inviting world of self-help. Now, exposed and vulnerable to a culture that is only too happy to supply the terms of discourse,spirituality is diluted or emptied of any gospel distinctiveness. Finally, in reaction to what is assumed to be "dead" theology, spirituality easily becomes theologically amnesiac and ends up isolated from any awareness of the grand and spacious God horizons, the truly vast landscapes in which we are invited to live out the Christian life.
I want to harness these contemporary but imprecise spirituality energies in biblical leather and direct them in entering the company of Jesus in preparation for joining the actual "play" of Christ in creation, history, and community. I will employ two stories, three texts, four terms, and a dance to clear the field for conversation, get rid of the clutter of misconceptions and misunderstanding in these four areas: two stories to level the playing field so that we live humbly and without pretense (countering elitism); three texts that define a scriptural foundation so that we live obediently (countering self-helpism); four terms that provide gospel foci for living accurately (countering cultural fuzziness); and a dance to bring theology prominently into the field of action so that our imagination is large enough to accommodate our life (countering the shrunken secular horizon).
Story is the most natural way of enlarging and deepening our sense of reality, and then enlisting us as participants in it. Stories open doors to areas or aspects of life that we didn't know were there, or had quit noticing out of over-familiarity, or supposed were out-of-bounds to us. They then welcome us in. Stories are verbal acts of hospitality.
St. John tells two stories early in his Gospel that definitively welcome all into the Christian life.
The first story is of Nicodemus, a Jewish rabbi (John 3). Nervous about his reputation, he came to talk with Jesus under cover of darkness. He would have lost credibility with his rabbi colleagues if it became known that he was consulting this disreputable itinerant teacher, this loose prophetic cannon out of nowhere, the no-place Nazareth in Galilee, so he came to Jesus by night. He came, it seems, without an agenda, simply to get acquainted, opening the conversation by complimenting Jesus: "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God" (John 3:2).
But Jesus discerned an agenda, a yet unspoken question; Nicodemus was after something. Jesus brushed aside the introductory small talk and got down to business; he read Nicodemus's heart and addressed himself to that: "Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above" (3:3). So that is what Nicodemus was there for, to inquire about getting into the kingdom of God, living under the rule of God, participating in the reality of God. That's odd.
Odd, because this is the kind of thing in which Nicodemus was supposed to be an expert. So why is he sneaking around, having a clandestine conversation with Jesus? Was it out of humility? That is plausible. Leaders who are looked up to constantly, who give out answers competently, who everyone assumes are living what they are saying, often have acute experiences of dissonance: "Who I am and what people think I am aren't anywhere close to being the same thing. The better I get as a rabbi and the more my reputation grows, the more I feel like a fraud. I know so much more than I live. The longer I live, the more knowledge I acquire, the wider the gap between what I know and what I live. I'm getting worse by the day...."
So perhaps it was this deep sense of unease, grounded in a true humility, that brought Nicodemus that night to Jesus. He wasn't looking for theological information but for a way in, not for anything more about the kingdom of God but for a personal guide/friend to show him the door and lead him in: "How do I enter ...?"
Or was he there simply out of curiosity? Leaders, if they are to maintain their influence, have to stay ahead of the competition, have to keep up with the trends, know what sells best in the current market. Jesus was attracting an enormous amount of attention these days-so what's his angle? What's his secret? How does he do it? Nicodemus was good at his work, but he knew he couldn't simply rest on his laurels. The world was changing fast. Israel was in a vortex of cultures-Greek learning and Roman government and Jewish moral traditions mixed in with gnostic sects, mystery cults, terrorist bands, and assorted messianic adventurers and fanatics. The mix changed weekly. Nicodemus had to be alert to every shift in the wind if he was going to keep his leadership out in front and on course. Jesus was the latest attraction and so Nicodemus was there that night to dig out some useful piece of strategy or lore. This also is plausible.
But our interest in teasing out the motive that brought Nicodemus to Jesus is not shared by the storyteller, St. John. There is no authorial interest in motive here; this is a story about Jesus, not Nicodemus. Jesus does not question Nicodemus's motives, and John does not explore them. After the brief opening gambit, Jesus seizes the initiative by introducing a startling, attention-demanding metaphor, "born again" or "born from above": "I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above" (3:3); and then, before Nicodemus can so much as catch his breath, Jesus adds anothermetaphor, even odder than the first: "I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit" (3:5). Wind, Breath, and Spirit are the same word in the Aramaic that Jesus presumably spoke and also in the Greek that St. John wrote. The necessity in those languages of using the same term for the movement of air caused by a contraction of the lungs, the movement of air caused by a shift in barometric pressure, and the life-giving movement of the living God in us, required an exercise of the imagination every time the word was used: What's being talked about here, breathing or weather or God?
No sooner have we asked the question than John clarifies matters by putting the literal and the metaphorical together side by side: "The wind [pneuma] blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit [pneuma]" (3:8).
Nicodemus shakes his head. He doesn't get it.
* * *
Another story follows, this one of the Samaritan woman (John 4). This story takes place not at night as with Nicodemus but in broad daylight by Jacob's Well in Samaria. Jesus is sitting alone when the woman comes to get water. Jesus opens the conversation by asking for a drink. The woman is surprised even to be spoken to by this man, this Jew, for there were centuries of religious bad blood between the two ethnic groups.
She is surprised, but is she also wary? Do we detect an edge to her voice in her reply, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" (4:9). Does she mistrust this man sitting at the well? It would seem she had good reason to. She is a woman hard-used by life. Later in the narrative we will find that she has been married five times and is now living with a sixth man without benefit of marriage. It is not difficult to conjure a scenario of serial rejections, multiple failures, year by year accumulating wounds and scars in mind and body. For her, to be a woman is to be a victim. To be near a man is to be near danger. What is this stranger going to do next, say next? Her guard is up.
Or is it just the opposite? Maybe that was not mistrust we detected in her question, but a teasing flirtatiousness. Maybe she is on the hunt. Maybe she used up those five husbands, one after another, and is now working her seductive ways on this sixth. Maybe she sees men as opportunities for gratification or access to power or advancement and when they no longer serve her pride or ambition or lust she dumps them. It is entirely possible that from the moment she saw Jesus she began calculating strategies of seduction: "Well, this is a nice surprise! Let's see what I can get out of this one."
We love playing these little games. Filling in the blanks, guessing at the reality behind the appearances, getting the inside scoop on people's lives. But again, just as in the Nicodemus story, Jesus shows no interest in playing the game and John shows no interest in exploring motives. He takes her just as he finds her, no questions asked. We realize that, as before with Nicodemus, this is a story not about the woman but about Jesus.
After the opening conversational exchange at the well, Jesus starts talking in riddles: "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water" (4:10). Soon it becomes clear to us that Jesus is using the word "water" as a metaphor with the Samaritan just as he used "wind" as a metaphor with Nicodemus. The word "water" that initially referred to well water pulled up by a bucket is now being used to refer to something quite different, something interior, "a spring of water gushing up [in them] to eternal life" (4:14). And then the earlier Nicodemus metaphor is added: "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth" (4:24).
"Spirit" again, the word that connects our sensory experience of breath and wind with the nature and activity of God. Just as the conversation is on the brink of degenerating into a squabble over where to worship, Jesus' words suddenly create a new reality in which God takes the center ground.
The woman gets it. She makes the connection between things she knows about messiah and what Jesus says to her, what he is to her. She is converted on the spot.
* * *
The striking thing about these two stories, set in parallel as they are by St. John, is that God's Spirit is at the heart of the action: the aliveness of God, the creating presence of God, the breath breathed into our lives just as it was breathed into Adam, the breath that makes us alive in ways that biology can neither command nor account for.
There is a corresponding feature: the stories taken together insist on accessibility. There is an unfortunate connotation that often accompanies the contemporary use of the word "spiritual"-a tinge of elitism, that only a select or in-the-know few can get in on it. But these two stories dismiss even a hint of that. The God-breathed life is common, it is totally accessible across the whole spectrum of the human condition. We are welcomed into life, period. There are no pre-conditions.
This realization of generous welcome is achieved first of all by the choice of vocabulary. The introductory metaphors in each story are completely accessible; everyone knows the words without using a dictionary; they come out of ordinary life. With Nicodemus it is birth; with the Samaritan it is water. We all have sufficient experience of those two words to know what is going on without further instruction. We all know what birth is: our being here is proof that we were born. We all know what water is: we drink it or wash with it several times a day. The metaphor common to both stories, wind/breath, is also plain. We all know what wind/breath is: blow on your hand, take a deep breath, look at the leaves blowing in the breeze.
And then there are these features:
The first story is about a man; the second about a woman. There is no preferred gender in the Christian life.
The first story takes place in the city, the center of sophistication and learning and fashion; the second on the outskirts of a small town in the country. Geography has no bearing on perception or aptitude.
Nicodemus is a respectable member of a strictly orthodox sect of the Pharisees; the Samaritan is a disreputable member of the despised heretical sect of the Samaritans. Racial background, religious identity, and moral track record are neither here nor there in matters of spirituality.
The man is named; the woman is unnamed. Reputation and standing in the community don't seem to count for anything.
There is also this: Nicodemus opens the conversation with Jesus with a religious statement, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God." Jesus opens the conversation with the woman by asking for a drink of water, a sentence that doesn't sound the least bit religious. It doesn't seem to make any difference in the Christian life who gets things started, Jesus or us, or what the subject matter is, heavenly or earthly.
And in both stories a reputation is put at risk: Nicodemus risks his reputation by being seen with Jesus; Jesus risks his reputation by being seen with the Samaritan woman. There is a sense of ignoring conventions here on both sides, a crossing of the lines of caution, a willingness on both sides to risk misunderstanding. When we get close to the heart of things, we aren't dealing with assured results or conventional behavior. So -
A man and a woman.
City and country.
An insider and an outsider.
A professional and a layperson.
A respectable man and a disreputable woman.
An orthodox and a heretic.
One who takes initiative; one who lets it be taken.
One named, the other anonymous.
Human reputation at risk; divine reputation at risk.
There is also this: In both conversations "spirit" is the pivotal word. "Spirit" links the differences and contrasts in the two stories and makes them aspects of one story.
Excerpted from Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places by Eugene H. Peterson Copyright © 2006 by Eugene H. Peterson. Excerpted by permission.
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