Monday, March 20, 2017

If You Knew Who was Standing before You...

“If you knew who it was standing before you…”

Joshua Bell is famous for two reasons.  First, he is a world-renowned violinist and conductor; a recipient of numerous honors and awards.  Which leads to the second reason he is famous.  Most people do not know who he is.  Three days after a critically acclaimed concert hall performance in Washington, DC, Bell donned a baseball cap and repeated his entire 45-minute program at the Metro subway station in L’Enfant Plaza.  27 commuters, only one of whom recognized him, tossed a total of $32.17 into his open case.  Thousands upon thousands of commuters walked past Bell and did not listen even to a small portion of a recital that would have cost them at least $100 to hear a few days earlier.

If you knew who it was standing before you…

In this morning’s Gospel reading we hear again the encounter Jesus has with a Samaritan women drawing water from a well.  Their conversation is rich and full and, for the woman, completely unexpected because Jesus crosses several chasm-sized social divides to engage another human being.  One divide is ethnic.  While Samaritans and Jews worship the same God, Jews refuse to associate with Samaritans because their bloodline is mixed with gentiles.  A second divide is religious.  The two peoples disagree about the canonical books of the bible and sanctioned places of worship.  Another divide relates to gender.  In their day and age, this is not the way men and women normally interact in polite society. 

The final divide is personal.  This woman is rejected by her own community.  She draws water, not in the cool of the morning, when all the other women of the village gather and socialize, but in the heat of the noonday hour.  She is ostracized.  She is divorced – multiple times. Five different men have committed to her and then written a certificate of divorce; essentially putting her out on the street.  Perhaps she is guilty of infidelity.  Tradition seems to view her has having loose morals.  But it is just as likely she is a casualty of a male-dominated society, which views wives as interchangeable parts.  Based on her edgy conversation with Jesus, which reverberates with the kind of verbal sparring associated with male-only rabbinic debates, it is likely this woman’s lone crime in five different marriages is being too “uppity” (read “intelligent”) for her dimwitted husbands’ tastes.

At the beginning of the encounter with Jesus, the woman does not know who is standing before her.  By the end of the story, her testimony becomes an integral part of the conversion of her entire village.  She enables them to see what she comes to see about the person standing before her.

For some reason, the Jesus of the bible and the Jesus of the Christian tradition, is not easy to recognize.  His true identity is obscured, even though he is standing right there in front of a person.

Are you familiar with the story of St. Martin of Tours?  As a young man in the early part of the 4th century, he serves as an officer in the Roman army.  At a time when he is in the process of preparing to be baptized, Martin happens upon a cold, scantily clad beggar.  Acting almost on instinct, Martin removes his heavy red army cloak, draws his sword, and cuts it in half.  He keeps one piece for himself and shares the other with the beggar.  That night, in a dream, Martin has a vision of Jesus wearing his cloak.   

If you knew who it was standing before you...

The Christian tradition is filled with accounts of various people encountering Jesus in the person of another, particularly in the poor and needy.  Mother Teresa of Calcutta talks of seeing Jesus in “the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor”.  She writes about finding a crippled, homeless woman sitting on the side of a street in Rome.  Tumors poke out of the woman’s sparse gray hair: 

My heart was intensely affected at the sight of her and I wanted to scoop her up off the street and save her from her homeless life.  Instead, through tears, I kissed her hands, prayed with her, and gave her a blessed Miraculous Medal.  I overwhelmingly saw Jesus in this woman and I wanted to love and comfort him in her.

If you struggle with this kind of sainthood you are not alone. 

St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the 19th century monastic so devoted to our Lord she is know as “the little flower of Jesus”, writes about one particular nun who has the singular ability of irritating her in everything she does:

As I did not want to give way to my natural dislike for her, I told myself that charity should not only be a matter of feeling but should show itself in deeds.  So I set myself to do for this sister just what I should have done for someone I loved most dearly.

Every time she crosses paths with her sister nun, Thérèse prays for her.  Each and every day she sets herself to do something selfless and thoughtful for her sister.  Whenever Thérèse wants to say something unpleasant in response to something her sister does, she smiles instead.

One day, the sister approaches her with a beaming face and asks, “Sister Thérèse, will you please tell me what attracts you so much to me?  You give me such a charming smile whenever we meet.” St. Thérèse thought to herself, “It is the Jesus hidden in the depths of your soul who attracts me, Jesus who makes the bitterest things sweet!”

If you knew who it was standing before you...

It might just transform the way you see the poor and needy.  It might just transform the way you see the person who most annoys you.  And perhaps, it just might transform the way you see the person looking back at you every morning when you look in the mirror.

John Berger, in his revolutionary 1972 book Ways of Seeing, describes a profound difference between the way men and women are raised in our society:

A woman must continually watch herself.  She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself.  Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping.  From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually…  She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life.  Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another....

Berger goes on to write:

One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear.  Men look at women.  Women watch themselves being looked at.  This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves… Thus she turns herself into an object -- and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.

When you stand in front of a mirror, do you know who it is that is standing in front of you?  Are you simply an object, or are you something more?

I think the woman at the well has to come to recognize two different people.  First, she has to see who it is asking her for water.  This person, she comes to see, is the Messiah, the Christ.  And this is no small perception, to be sure.  Perhaps even more difficult for her is seeing herself in a whole new way.  She, rejected by five husbands and ridiculed by an entire community, she, a half-blood not from good enough stock, she, of a subservient gender in her male-dominated society, she becomes the image-bearer and message-proclaimer of God in Christ residing in each and every human being – the poor, the annoying, the dismissed, me, you!

This prayer of Thanksgiving for the Diversity of Cultures and Races is in one of my favorite collects in the prayer book:

O God, who created all peoples in your image, we thank you for the wonderful diversity of races and cultures in this world.  Enrich our lives by ever-widening circles of fellowship, and show us your presence in those who differ most from us, until our knowledge of your love is made perfect in our love for all your children; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

At a time in our national life when homogeny appears to be the medicine for all that ails and worries us, this prayer is a protest.  At a time when we are creating more and more chasms between people, it reaffirms God’s desire for our lives to be enriched through ever-widening circles of fellowship.  It holds up the conviction of our Scriptures and our tradition that Jesus appears to us in the guise of the other, especially in those people who differ most from us.

If you knew who it was standing before you...