Monday, March 13, 2023

God in "The More than Meets the Eye"


John 4:5-42

Lent 3 / Year A

One of my all-time favorite movies is Smoke, a 1995 film about Auggie Wren who manages a cigar store on a street corner in Brooklyn.  Every morning at exactly eight o’clock he takes a Polaroid picture of the store across the street.  Auggie has over 4,000 consecutive daily photographs of his corner all labeled by date and mounted in albums.  He calls this project his ‘life’s work.’

One day Auggie shows the photos to Paul, an author who has been mired in the throes of writer’s block since the untimely death of his wife.  Paul doesn’t know what to say about the photos, but admits he has never seen anything like them.  Rapidly flipping from page to page, he observes with some amazement each picture is the same.  Auggie watches him, and then replies, “You’ll never get it if you don’t slow down.  Even though all the pictures are of the same spot, Auggie points out each one is unique.  The differences are in the details: in the way people’s clothes change according to the weather, in the way the light hits the street, in how some days the corner is almost empty, and how other times it is filled with people, bikes, cars, and trucks.  It is just one little part of the world,” Auggie says, “but things take place here too just like everywhere else.” 

The Roman Catholic educator Regina Cole suggests spirituality is an “awareness of the ‘more than meets the eye’ in our daily life.  By this I think she means life is a sacred adventure.  Every day we encounter signs pointing to the active presence of God in the world around us.  If she is right, and I suspect she is, then Auggie is a model of a person who is spiritually alive.  He has found uniqueness, humanity, and the fingerprint of God’s Spirit in something so ordinary it escapes everyone else’s notice.

Today’s readings from the Old Testament and the Gospel of John describe very ordinary events – trudging through the wilderness and going to outskirts of town to draw water from a well.  I must admit a twinge of sympathy for the people of Israel.  If I was part of their band and I had been marching through the desert and I was hungry and thirsty and tired, I would be complaining right along with the best of them.  I think their shortcomings begin with reducing the ordinariness of the day to the mere pursuit of provisions.  They do not look for the hand of God at work in the world around them and thus they do not detect how God is, in fact, providing daily food and drink.  And through this providing, God is reaching out to be in relationship with them.

If you have ever worked all day to prepare a special dinner, taking great care to set the table, arrange a centerpiece, creatively present the food, etc, and then had your family rush in and attack the meal rather than dine together, then you can imagine how God feels.  All God has created and provided, and the intimacy of the relationship God seeks to establish through it, is met with the response, “We don’t have any water!  It is not a helpful model of the spiritual life.

Like Auggie, the Samaritan woman at the well provides us with a very different example.  Yes, she sets herself to a very ordinary task, but she is open to it being more than a daily chore.  She encounters God in the person of Jesus and while he remains somewhat elusive to her, she senses there is something more about him than meets the eye.  She pursues him through conversation and at some point rushes off to tell others about him.  She has not formed a concrete doctrinal statement about the nature of God.  She does not sell her possessions and join a convent.  Heck, she doesn’t even commit to turn away from her risqué lifestyle.  But she does sense she has encountered God. 

You can almost imagine how the conversation is going to go back in village.  In the eyes of the townsfolk I’ll bet she is the least likely person in the community to find God and the old well is one of the least likely places for it happen.  She is nobody special and the well is just too commonplace.

The Christian journalist Malcolm Muggeridge writes that, “Every happening great and small is a parable whereby God speaks to us, and the art of life is to get the message.”  Auggie’s photos and the Samaritan woman’s encounter testify to the truth of his words.  Life is sacred and yet our temptation is to reduce it to secular; to hold God is engaged in an hour of prayer on Sunday morning, but is not found when you are stuck in traffic or doing homework or while taking out the trash.  The temptation is to reduce life to a series of tasks – religion being the task of this hour.  New life comes when we realize in every moment God is reaching out to us to be in relationship with us.  And life is all about getting the message.

So, back to Smoke and Paul with his writer’s block.  He slows down his scanning and begins to take his time.  Without warning he gasps aloud.  His wife appears in one of the pictures.  Suddenly he realizes how an ordinary moment in an ordinary day at an ordinary place is a sacramental moment.  There is more – a lot more – than meets the eye going on around us!