Sunday, March 15, 2020

Eternal Life, Temporal Needs: A Sunday Rumination

     The importance of metaphor in the Gospels would be difficult to overstate. A case in point is today’s reading from the Gospel according to John:

     [Jesus] left Judea, and went again into Galilee. And he was of necessity to pass through Samaria. He cometh therefore to a city of Samaria, which is called Sichar, near the land which Jacob gave to his son Joseph.
     Now Jacob's well was there. Jesus therefore being wearied with his journey, sat thus on the well. It was about the sixth hour.
     There cometh a woman of Samaria, to draw water. Jesus saith to her: Give me to drink. For his disciples were gone into the city to buy meats.
     Then that Samaritan woman saith to him: How dost thou, being a Jew, ask of me to drink, who am a Samaritan woman? For the Jews do not communicate with the Samaritans.
     Jesus answered, and said to her: If thou didst know the gift of God, and who he is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou perhaps wouldst have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water.
     The woman saith to him: Sir, thou hast nothing wherein to draw, and the well is deep; from whence then hast thou living water? Art thou greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank thereof himself, and his children, and his cattle?
     Jesus answered, and said to her: Whosoever drinketh of this water, shall thirst again; but he that shall drink of the water that I will give him, shall not thirst for ever: But the water that I will give him, shall become in him a fountain of water, springing up into life everlasting.
     The woman saith to him: Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come hither to draw.

     [John 4:3-15]

     A useful interpretation of what’s going on in the above encounter requires more knowledge of the context than many persons possess. It raises several questions:

  1. What was the nature of the enmity between the Jews and the Samaritans?
  2. What is the significance of the phrase “who am a Samaritan woman?”
  3. If Jesus can dispense “living water,” why does he ask for water from the woman?
  4. Why does the woman imagine that Jesus’ “living water” would free her of the need to visit the well each day?

     First, the Jews and the Samaritans were temporal enemies. In the time of the Assyrian conquest of the region, the Samaritans had submitted to the Assyrians. The Jews, who had not, were carried away as captives. Memories in the region were as long, and forgiveness was as rare, as they are there today. This also illuminates why the tale of the “Good Samaritan” had and has such force.

     Second, the custom of that time and place was that an unaccompanied woman must have neither contact nor conversation with any man to whom she is unrelated by blood or marriage. For Jesus, a Jewish male, to invite conversation and exchange with a Samaritan woman was thus doubly surprising.

     Third, Jesus was both fully divine and fully human. His divinity did not spare Him the demands of the body, though it is possible at least that He might have been able to withstand them when we lesser ones would be compelled to surrender to them.

     Fourth and most telling of all, the Samaritans, like the Jews of that time, assumed that the Messiah would be a temporal leader: a warrior-king who would free Israel from temporal bondage and make it the Great Power of its region. Neither the Jews nor the Samaritans imagined that the Messiah would be a purely spiritual leader with no designs on temporal power. Thus, the Samaritan woman interpreted Jesus’ offer of “living water” as a temporal boon: something that would prevent her body from ever again suffering thirst. The remainder of the chapter details how He brought her to the deeper understanding He intended.

     Jesus’ offer of “living water” is a metaphor for the grace of God, the acceptance of which would grant eternal life in bliss in the nearness of God. His later description of Himself as “living bread” is an exact parallel:

     They said therefore to [Jesus]: What sign therefore dost thou shew, that we may see, and may believe thee? What dost thou work? Our fathers did eat manna in the desert, as it is written: He gave them bread from heaven to eat.
     Then Jesus said to them: Amen, amen I say to you; Moses gave you not bread from heaven, but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life to the world.
     They said therefore unto him: Lord, give us always this bread.
     And Jesus said to them: I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall not hunger: and he that believeth in me shall never thirst.

     [John 6:30-35]

     Bread and water that will sustain us eternally are not things of this world, but of the next. The necessities of this world are for us who live in it to provide ourselves. And like all else under the veil of Time, they last only for a little while. But He who “was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be,” who gave Himself as blood sacrifice in expiation for the sins of men, shall nourish the believer forever. In offering His “living water” to a Samaritan woman – that place and time’s nearest approach to an “untouchable” for a Jewish male – He confirmed her as a child of God, no less entitled to His love than any Jew. It ignited her gift of faith.

     Jesus’ metaphors were tailored to the understandings of the people of first century Judea, Samaria, and Galilee. Those temporal understandings were an ingress route for His deeper message: the availability of eternal life in the nearness of God. It is a longstanding feature of Judaism that explicit discussion of the afterlife – even whether there is one – is generally avoided. “The Law is for Man,” saith the rabbis: i.e., for Man’s temporal existence, which was – and is – all that Judaic teaching cares to address.

     Jesus had a higher need to address. Among the great purposes of His time in the flesh was to proclaim the kingdom of God: a realm beyond the temporal to which men, if they live righteous lives, can gain access after death. But to speak of such things to an audience whose existing belief system focused resolutely upon the temporal realm required the employment of metaphors and parables at virtually every turn. In a sense, He had no choice.

     Just as in first-century Israel, we who live must provide for our own temporal needs by temporal means. There are no exceptions. But the greatest of Teachers, by exploiting our innate grasp of our bodily needs and wrapping potent metaphors around them, has told us of the life that lies beyond this one, and what we must do to be admitted to it.

     If two thousand years of study and interpretation of the Gospels have brought us anything, it is the understanding that this life is only an introduction. If we grasp its laws, both as engraved in our natures and as made explicit by Christ, and live by the moral-ethical code it expresses, we will be admitted to a life infinitely beyond what we know on Earth. This is what He meant when He said that “No man cometh to the Father except through Me.” For “geographically speaking,” He is everywhere...but to go “through Him” to the Father requires that we accept what He taught and live by it.

     May God bless and keep you all.

1 comment:

Grandpa said...

dear brother Francis, in this time of dire news; this was a much needed and appreciated rest for my old eyes. Thank you for the focus on the eternal.