Religious art is fascinating, not simply because of what it depicts, but how the artist portrays the subject matter. Art, in whatever form, is about interpretation, and the arts acts as the interpreter, using a particular medium or form to do so, with each interpretation radically different than the next. It is fascinating to see how different artists interpret and portray the same subject.
One such piece of art that fascinates me, and I’ve seen it several times, is a small porcelain figurine that depicts this encounter between Jesus, and the Samaritan woman. 
Jesus sits on one side of the well. He is tall, handsome, masculine, with lots of shoulder length hair. He is deep in conversation with the woman. She stands, leaning over with her elbow resting on the wellhead. She looks directly at Jesus. Her hair is loose and flowing, and her dress is falling off one shoulder. Her hand is under her chin, just so. She is enticing, alluring, and attractive.
Mt. 1:1-7,(8-16) 17
This is the time of year when the long, dark nights dominate and creep ever further into our waking lives. They obscure ordinarily bright paths and make the late afternoon disappear into dusk as it’s barely begun. Below, the ground is cast in darkness, but above the stars shine out longer and brighter. There are more hours to behold that vast glittering expanse of stars and planets. And, it’s one of my favorite moments when among those stars, the constellations begin to make themselves known. Usually a familiar and bright formation like Orion’s belt catches my eye. With that as a reference point, all sorts of other shapes take form as dimmer, obscure points find their way into a larger picture. It’s a magnificent dance to behold and one that humans have been captivated by since they first gazed up into the glittering dome of sky.
The genealogy of Jesus here in the gospel of Matthew stands out like a bright constellation among the multitudes of God’s human creation. Within it, there are bright familiar figures, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Rahab, Ruth and David. They have rich and vibrant stories of God’s promise and provision. And there are more obscure characters, Salathiel, Abiud, and Matthan. They’re lives were not as abundantly captured in Scripture but that their names stand in line with the rest is what really matters.
In our Gospel reading today, Jesus utters a profoundly anguished lament over his beloved people, and the hardness of their hearts. Yet in his grief he also speaks of his deep and abiding faithfulness towards them and his desire to envelop them in the embrace of his unconditional love. His message then was the same it is to us today: stop running from God’s love, turn back and be saved. I think the Gospel today invites us to see the ways in which we are still opposing, running from, and rejecting the love of Jesus Christ.
Many of Jesus’ own people opposed His invitation to live in the fullness of God’s love, just as we do today. All of us have resistance to what Jesus invites. Speaking of Jerusalem, He exclaims “how often have I wanted together your children as a hen gathers her brood under her wings—and you would not!” This rather striking image of Jesus as a hen, protecting her brood from the fox, sacrificing herself, if need be, speaks to something deeply instinctive within us: the desire to be sheltered in a loving embrace, and to know that we are truly safe and deeply loved. If the image of a hen doesn’t quite resonate with you, think of a mother nursing her newborn baby, protecting her in the warmth of her embrace. That desire to be with her child, that indescribable love, that unconditional love, which extends from the core of the mother’s being. Loving her child more than life itself is as natural for her as breathing or drinking. She delights in her child, and would do absolutely anything to protect her, giving her own life in a heartbeat. That is a hint of how great God’s love for us is; yet, sadly the response by humanity has often been to reject God’s call to love one another as He has loved us.
Ask… and it will be given. Search…and you will find. Knock…and the door will be opened for you.
What prevents you from asking, searching, or knocking?
It might be literal lack of clarity. Who should I ask? Where should I search? Is this the right door, or is it that one?
It might be an emotion on the fear continuum: anxiety; suspicion; pessimism; insecurity; loneliness. What if I hear “No” in reply? What if I spend all that energy searching but find nothing helpful, nothing worthwhile? What if I knock and that door remains shut tight, with not a light to be seen behind the dark window panes as night falls?
It might be a well-intentioned desire for independence or self-sufficiency; or the desire to appear competent or smart. What if I can just figure this out by myself? That way, I won’t have to be a burden or impose my question or need on someone else…
Much of God’s provision for us is mysterious, dark, and frustratingly hidden. I know this has been true in my own life, and I suspect it is probably true for many of us. Times when it’s hard to take Jesus at his word when he says, “Ask, and it will be given you.”
Not only now, in this time of seclusion, isolation, and separation, but in many parts of my life it has been tempting (and I use the word tempting with all of its sinister weight) to read the world and not see God’s provision whatsoever. I admit that this is frighteningly easy, at least for me.
Yet, in hindsight all of these situations that I have read as set-backs or crises—graves for my soul and my character—have really in fact been rich times of provision. And always right under my nose. And I am put in mind of these temptation as we continue our Lenten walk together.
It occurs to me that so often it is easy for us to talk about the disciplines we engage during Lent as “curbs”—to use a word that we brothers have used in our Rule to contrast the living reality of our life and the disciplines that form it. We say that the disciplines of our life are not mere curbs. And so then, what are they?
The issue that Jesus and his disciples did not wash their hands was not the Pharisees’ concern about the spread of germs. This is about ritual purity. The Mosaic Law defined certain kinds of uncleanness which required a kind of ritual washing to make oneself again worthy. The Pharisees believed that Moses received other commandments from God communicated privately to the Pharisees down through the generations.
Many, many people were labeled unclean – because of their birthright (being a Samaritan, for example); because of their vocation (being a shepherd or a tax collector, for example); because of their poverty (because they could not afford to purchase a clean animal or bird for temple sacrifice to atone for their sins); because of their sickness (because they could not afford to see a doctor); or simply because of their humanity (for example, a woman who had given birth to a child). All these people, and many other types, were unclean. Whenever a Pharisee came from the marketplace or public gathering, hand-washing was required to ritually cleanse oneself, if only because of having accidentally touched an unclean person. Before and after every meal, a ritual hand-washing was required according to certain ceremonial practices. All cups, pots, brazen vessels, and sitting places also had to be ritually cleansed.
You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.
There is something which stirs under the weight of words like “vow,” “obedience,” “poverty,” “repentance.” To the contemporary Western imagination, the thing which stirs—the family of obscure reminders about our nature as creatures—elicits a quiet shrug: “we already know what these words mean, and those are postures we’ve outgrown, have we not? The mature, modern person has no need of these archaic patterns, for the self-made man or woman is vowed to no one but themselves; one need only obey the agreed upon social conventions (even if our conscience may quiver from time to time); poverty is, as a matter of categorical necessity, a social ill to be triumphed over, escaped, conquered; it has nothing to do with our essential nature; and to repent? well, let’s not deny our dominion over ourselves—our bodies are, after all, our own.”
Much anxiety stems from what we don’t know and can’t know, especially what will happen. Fearing uncertainty, we often focus on what knowledge we have as something to grasp.
Nicodemus, a religious leader, comes to Jesus sounding confident. “We know who you are. We know what is possible and impossible. No one can do the signs you are doing apart from God, so we know that you are a teacher from God.”
Jesus replies, “No one can see the kingdom without being born from above.”
“How is that possible?” Nicodemus asks. “Can one enter the womb again?”
Jesus says, “One must be born of water and spirit, must be born from above.”
“How is that possible?” Nicodemus asks. Now he clearly doesn’t understand.
Jesus is neither direct nor clear. There are still many ideas for what “of water and spirit” means. Perhaps the language confuses Nicodemus. Perhaps it’s the radical reversal. Nicodemus was born in the established, assumed way, from a Jewish mother. Part of his trouble may be from being an insider. That others can enter God’s family from outside is bewildering.[i]
Nicodemus comes confident in his knowledge, thinks he knows who Jesus is, what is possible, what makes sense, therefore what must be true. Nicodemus comes at night, a sign that he’s in the dark, that he cannot see, that he does not know.
Such certainty traps. Holding so tight to tradition and reason restricts hearing God. The Spirit moves like wind, blowing where it will. We cannot predict nor contain. When we think we’ve grasped God, we are overly confident in our knowledge. God is always more. As religious people we can be too certain about our religious knowledge and not hear the news, good and often disturbing news of Jesus.
What do we not see or know because of containers we’ve constructed? It’s may not be new yet we have forgotten. As descendants of Abraham, we are blessed so that allpeople may be blessed. Reading the Gospel of John, we hear from chapter one Jesus comes expanding God’s family to all people: “To all who received him, who called on his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”[ii]No matter lineage or background, all can be born of the Spirit. Everyone is invited to be children of God.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” We also heard it in the Letter to the Romans: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.”
To those already inside, this may be disturbing that others will join. To those on the margins, this is especially good news of welcome and belonging. Insiders may not realize their own position, their own need. Everyone is welcome, at home, belonging as God’s children.
As adults, we may be uncomfortable hearing ourselves called children. We still have much to learn. Perhaps “born from above” is Jesus’ invitation to “not knowing,” to taking a childlike perspective.[iii]Countering serious adults who strive for certainty, Jesus invites a childlike playfulness, a way of becoming. Grownups get trapped in reasoning, in quests for certainty, right and wrong, and social acceptance. Like Nicodemus, we think we know. If we’re not sure, we may ask in secret to not be seen by others.
A childlike perspective is playful. Open to questions. Exploring possibilities widely. To play is to gaze in wonder. To do something simply because it delights. Act with freedom and inhibition, unconcerned about what others may think. Get down low and get up close to look. Try it out. Take risks. Be vulnerable.
A playful perspective faces the unknown with courage to discover, with risk to behold. In play, we let down our guard. We need play in our relationships to show up as we are. There is more to relating than behaviors in which we feel familiar and confident. Risking the new takes us further. A childlike playfulness ushers in becoming more.
A childlike prayerfulness opens us to more. Pray as you can, as you already do. And take a risk, try something new. There are endless ways to pray. In the face of anxiety and uncertainty, play with your prayer, going beyond seeming proficiency. Try a medium with which you’re not familiar and discover what unfolds.
I find it helpful returning to crayons or trying pastels or paints or clay—something hands on. Coloring in a way we long haven’t, even doing so down on the floor, helps prompt a childlike perspective. Put color on the page and play. Be simple and gentle with yourself. Rather than seeking to know, just be. Surprisingly, it’s then that we see.
Playfulness goes beyond knowledge, beyond definitions or grasping. A playful perspective is open to mystery. Today we celebrate the Trinity, one God in three persons. The divine nature as a community of persons is not logical, not to be grasped. Rather than knowing, join our brothers and sisters, all the children of the world, playfully praying with God who is mystery.
[i]Frances Taylor Gench (2007) Encounters with Jesus: Studies in the Gospel of John. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, p21.
[iii]Jean Vanier (2004) Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John. New York: Paulist Press, p75.
Today is both Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day. Fasting and ashes seem opposite of feasting and chocolate. Some celebrated yesterday, love with Mardi Gras.
Recently I visited two of my best friends. The past couple months had been very intense and hard for them. Amid a more chaotic house, we sat sharing stories of disaster and trouble. Each time I visit we go deep quickly being vulnerable about our lives. We bear witness to each other’s wounds and wonders. Our love is palpable. We are humble and truthful in sharing our questions, limits, losses, and desires.
Lent is about love, a clearing season to be deeply honest with God. We kneel to confess first hearing: “Dear friends in Christ, God is steadfast in love and infinite in mercy.”[i] We acknowledge our mortality, our frailty, failure, and limitation. Love humbly speaks raw, unvarnished truth, and love listens: love with ashes.
Who is more important? We compare power and privilege, background, connection, skill and status. Earlier in the chapter for today’s Gospel reading, Jesus’ disciples asked: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”[i] What’s the top which then defines the whole, including us? We wrestle for rank and worry about worth.
Jesus “called a child, whom he put among them, and said ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”[ii] Become like children. Change your perspective. Rather than seeking power, skill, and status, acknowledge your need. Ask for help. Let yourself be helped and held. Relish wonder and love without embarrassment. Experiment, imagine, and playfully discover new ways of being. Gaze, dance, build, and fly. Become like children.
Who is more important? Each one. “Welcome one such child in my name, and you welcome me,” says Jesus. Woe to any who would “put a stumbling block before one of these little ones,” Jesus warns. “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones.”[iii]