Exodus 17:1-7 • Psalm 95 • Romans 5:1-11 • John 4:5-42
The readings this week are all over the place, and yet (spoiler alert), all about the same thing: grace. In Exodus, the Hebrew people are wandering around in the wilderness, thirsty and mad about it. In John, Jesus is thirsty and dealing with it through a most unusual character. In Romans, the apostle Paul is knee-deep in theological distinctions.
So! Let's begin with Romans, and "justification by faith," a term suggesting that people are justified – that is, in the right – not because of what they've done but because of what they know: grace. Knowing grace means an awareness of every minute of life as a gift: something one did not have to earn. Justification by faith takes the pressure off of us hapless human creatures, stumbling around thirsty but demanding, and moves us towards a humble, grace-filled posture more appropriate to our relative place in the universe. Justification by faith keeps us paying attention to the grace in life instead of trying to justify ourselves, always trying to prove – to ourselves and others – that we are in the right.
Proving one is right, blameless, or faultless is closely tied to worrying about what others think. The opinion of others, as a way of deciding how to behave, is deep within us as human beings. From our earliest years in life, we begin to notice whether others approve or not and to modify our own behavior accordingly. This has adaptive value. Think for instance of the child who starts to run into the street, stopping when his parents cry out. Or the adult who stands up in front of the room to speak, waiting for the group to quiet itself quickly. A human community could not survive without some ability to co-regulate.
The problem, though, is that in the end, being regulated by others doesn't work very well. Using what others think to guide how one will behave leads to an endless cycle of trying harder and failing more. Here we come to Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well: two people who are relatively uninterested in what others think. The Samaritan woman, with five previous husbands and unmarried in her sixth relationship, is operating outside of her community's mores. To be sure, she's aware and sensitive to criticism, going to the well at the hottest part of the day to avoid others; still, her behavior reflects a willingness to flout conventions. Jesus, exhausted from his travels, is breaking several societal norms, including talking to a woman alone and drinking water provided by a Samaritan. Their conversation is a free-ranging discussion, with a sort of SNL vibe to it, apparently one they were both enjoying so thoroughly that Jesus opens himself up to a pretty big truth he's never said out loud before: I am he, the messiah.
Next, the Samaritan woman literally takes this information and runs with it. Leaving her water jug and returning to the village, she tells everyone about Jesus, making herself, at least temporarily, the village heroine. Perhaps the lack of judgement from Jesus had set her free to bridge the cutoff between herself and others. Moral judgement separates people from one another; both the judger and the judged are equally lessened in the process. The alternative is living by grace.
The person who lives by grace spends no energy on judging others, nor on meeting the rules or expectations of others. Instead, she is developing and following her own inner compass while remaining in relationship with others. Within herself, she is finding a strength unavailable to her when her attention was focused outward; surprisingly, both the interest and the capacity to serve others are increased now that she is less dependent on their approval.
The free grace of life is available to anyone willing to stop trying to be right in the eyes of the world. Living fully and freely is the result.
Morning: Where, today, can I care a little less about what others think?
Evening: When did I fall into judging, criticizing, or blaming others?