WHY MINNESOTA NICE IS NOT GOOD THEOLOGY
A Sermon by The Reverend Barbara Mraz
March 23, 2014
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
Exodus 17:1-7, John4:5-2
Like all of us, I am especially sensitive to certain phrases. My current favorite is: “So how do you really feel about that?”
I sometimes hear this after I’ve made what I think is an especially emotional or heartfelt statement.
“So how do you really feel about that?” I’m asked.
This phrase is, in my opinion, an indirect and unhelpful way of saying, “Whoa… all that emotion is making me really uncomfortable and you’re kind of scaring me. And, I have no idea how to respond.”
So everyone laughs (at me) to defuse the tension and often avoid direct discussion.
I’ve been told more than once that I should live in New York because keeping Minnesota Nice can be hard for me. Minnesota Passive –Aggressive is what it often seems like to me, as in:
“That is a really interesting outfit.
I mean it’s nice for you.
If you like that sort of thing.
Personally, I don’t but then I’ve never been one of the cool kids. Heh heh.”
There’s a difference between niceness and kindness, between respect and refusing to engage. And it’s clear which side today’s lessons are on.
Scripture is far more direct and uncompromising than we realize. Often what we think it says (because we’ve heard it interpreted it this way for so long) is not what it really says. The consequence of doing Minnesota Nice with the Bible, of not being direct about Scripture, of sanitizing it, and allowing only the most pat and pious interpretations, can cost us a credibility that we need our faith to have.
The lesson from Exodus finds the Israelites in an ugly mood indeed. The camp where Moses has led them has no water and people are angry and quarrelling. They don’t say (wistfully), “Sure was nice back in Egypt where we had water but you know best, Moses….”
No, they tell him, “Hey, we’re dying of thirst here and it’s your fault!” Moses doesn’t respond with, “And how did you like the slavery part in Egypt?” He is direct with God – “They’re ready to stone me! And God responds and provides.
It can often be unproductive to do Minnesota Nice with our faith.
Today’s Gospel is a story that appears only in John, of the woman at the well. It has been misunderstood and misquoted a lot.
Let’s take an honest look at the story and what Scripture tells us about the woman:
- She is, in the eyes of the Jews, a triple outsider: a woman, a Samaritan, and it could reasonably be concluded, not respectable because she gets her water at the hottest time of the day, at noon, and not in the cooler morning or evening hours when the other women gather, as people gather at the water cooler at coffee break.
- She has the longest recorded conversation with Jesus of anyone in scripture.
- She seems to be intelligent, witty, and able to hold her own in the give and take banter she has with Jesus. One person says, “She plays word games with him. She argues theology and politics with him. It’s clear she understands they’re talking about something more than well water.”
- She knows her religious history. The Samaritans were Jewish in that they accepted the Torah but not other parts of the Jewish Bible. The woman refers to their common ancestor Jacob who worshipped on this mountain but notes that Jesus would see Jerusalem as the place to worship.
- She admits she has had five husbands and is current living with a man who is not her husband.
- We don’t know her name her age or what she looks like.
However, a portrait of her has emerged in conservative circles that goes well beyond this information. The conservative preacher John Piper says: “She is a worldly, sensually-minded, unspiritual harlot from Samaria, a whore.”
And another person says, “Before this immoral woman could embrace the Savior, she had to concede the full burden of her sins and be forgiven.”
No, no, no.
She never admits any sinfulness and never asks for forgiveness, nor does Jesus offer any. As for her marital status, the Lutheran David Lose writes, “She very easily could have been widowed or abandoned or divorced(which in the ancient world was pretty much the same thing for a woman). Five times would be heartbreaking but not impossible. Further she could now be living with someone that she was dependent on, in what’s called a Levirate marriage, where a childless woman is married to her deceased husband’s heir yet is not always technically considered the brother’s wife. There are any number of ways that this woman’s story may be tragic rather than scandalous, yet some preachers assume the latter…. The long history of misogyny in Christian teaching and preaching has not ended.”
It is worth taking a moment to compare the Samaritan woman’s conversation with Jesus to what precedes it in John: that is, the encounter with Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a man, a leader of the Jews, but he comes to Jesus at night (“Nick at Night”). Is he afraid of being seen visiting Jesus?
Another Lutheran, Karoline Lewis, writes this: “Nicodemus lasts all of nine verses in his conversation with Jesus before fading into the night from which he came. The Samaritan is an unnamed woman who meets Jesus at noon in full daylight. Whereas Nicodemus is unable to move beyond the confines of his religious system, the Samaritan moves outside of her religious expectation and engages Jesus in theological debate. She hears the actual name of God when Jesus says, ‘I AM he.’ While Nicodemus’ last questioning words to Jesus expose his disbelief, ‘How can this be?’ the last words of the woman at the well lead her to witness to her whole town. … She demonstrates what can happen when we actually engage in conversation and questions about our faith.”
And when the Woman tells people “he told me everything I ever did,” I think that what she means is that Jesus (to use the contemporary phrase) gets her. He understands who she really is beneath the labels, acknowledges her good intentions, her mixed motives, the decisions she maybe had to make, the suffering she’s been through, the burdens she carries – What else could make her run to the village and say “He told me everything I ever did”?
And as for us, what explains the reticence we have with others and with God, our failure to engage and to move our relationships beyond their present state?
We can’t be best friends with everyone we met, of course, and some of us are introverts; we’re shy, busy, preoccupied, or just disinterested. As our last-Wednesday-evening speaker on technology addiction suggested, more and more we are using a tech device to act as an intermediary and reduce “face time.” Hence, people texting each other across the dinner table, using email instead of the more personal phone call (how many of us have called someone while saying to ourselves, “Don’t be home, don’t be home don’t be home…”? )
Perhaps we have been wounded before and don’t want to try getting closer to anyone again. Or our lives are just full.
I think a lot of it is an attempt to keep our anger in check and our fear, fear of being abandoned, fear of what might happen if we become more honest with one another.
And, as for being honest with God? Karoline Lewis again: “The woman at the well demonstrates what can happen when we actually engage in conversation and questions about our faith She shows us that faith is about dialogue growth and change. If we are content we have all the answers, if we believe more in our own convictions (and doubts) than the possibility of revelation, we will be left to ponder whether or not God will choose to be made known.”
In fairness, it can take extraordinary powers to interpret some of the messages sent to us. We cannot all be like little Timmy on the old TV show “Lassie,” the story of an extraordinary collie who lived on a farm with her adoring family.
Lassie runs up to Timmy: “Woof woof.”
“What girl? Little Ellen has fallen down the abandoned well at old man Harper’s place?”
“Good girl. Let’s get help!”
And Lassie leads the way.
Today’s lesson is extraordinary because, foreshadowing his crucifixion, Jesus makes a direct request: “Give me a drink of water.” We are left to wonder what it is that we can provide when asked the same question. The least we can do is avoid thinking about it.
Our hearts may be hard but water is soft. We know that if a bottle is hung above stone, allowing the water to fall drop by drop, it will wear away the stone. And that is why we show up, why we step up, and not remove ourselves from the holy water that will seep into our very souls. Because we, too, are thirsty.
The often-quoted poet Mary Oliver writes:
to see Jesus,
maybe in the clouds
Or on the shore,
On the hard days
I ask myself
if I ever will.
Also there are times
my body whispers to me
that I have.” Amen.
Karoline Lewis, “Commentary on John,” Working Preacher.org
David Lose, sermon on Working Preacher.org
Mary Oliver, “The Vast Ocean Begins Just Outside Our Church” in Thirst, 2007.