In a recent edition of the comic strip called “Non Sequitor” the topic of truth arose. In the first frame of the comic strip the main character, a consistently self-centered girl named Danae, is sitting up comfortably in her bed and is asked by her friendly pet, a horse named Lucy, “Why do you think this will be a snow day?” Danae replies, “Cuz it’s a fact! I’m tweeting about it now to let everyone know.” The conversation continues in the next frame, with the horse saying, “But if you just look, you’ll see, in fact, that it hasn’t snowed.” To which Danae answers, “Well that’s not what it says on twitter.” The baffled horse then says, “Uh, you mean that tweet you just made up??” Danae responds in conclusion, “I call it ‘direct from the source truth.”
What is truth and how we uncover it has been a hot topic in our nation over the past months. New terms have arisen such as “alternative facts” and “fake news” which suggest that, like the child in the comic strip, we can decide what is true or not depending on what best suits our own self-interest. In response to this there are a number of “fact check” sources which aim to point out what is in reality true and not true.
While most of this current discussion about truth has been in the political arena, we know that the topic of truth has a long history among schools of philosophy and religion.
When we turn to our Scriptures we find, especially in the gospel of John, many references to the truth and how we uncover what is true. In John the first chapter, verse 9, we read of the coming of Jesus, “the true light, which enlightens everyone;” followed in verse 14 with a reference to Jesus as “full of grace and truth;” repeated in verse 17 with the words “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” In chapter three we read the story of the religious leader named Nicodemus coming to Jesus during the night seeking the truth. As we discovered last Sunday, in this gospel story Jesus teaches Nicodemus that the truth he seeks is not uncovered without the work of God’s Spirit, without a spiritual awakening or spiritual re-birth.
Connecting the idea of uncovering truth to the image of being born to new life is a common connection made in the teachings of the Twelve Step movement of recovery from addiction to alcohol or other drugs. As one author in the recovery movement put it, “Honesty is a pillar of spiritual awakening. There is no growth without it, and it begins with ourselves. We do not define truth, we accept it, we surrender to it. The truth may not feel good; it can even be painful. This is the pain of birth - the rebirth of the real person. And the promise of this day is the reward of having our integrity and the peace of self-acceptance.”
How uncovering truth can lead to spiritual transformation is illustrated in the experience of the woman at the well. In this story we see how truth is uncovered – truth about us, about God, and about how in Jesus uncovering truth helps set us free so we begin living unafraid.
This unnamed woman who Jesus encounters at the well was an interesting character. She was most certainly not a person who would have been expected to engage in conversation with a Jewish man, especially a man who was a well-known and esteemed teacher and healer like Jesus. As she herself puts it in verse 9, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria.” She knew that it was considered unclean for God’s people in the Jewish community to touch a cup that had been handled by a Samaritan. The Samaritans were considered outside the household of true faith.
In addition to these ethnic and religious barriers, as we see in verse 27, the disciples of Jesus were astonished that he was speaking with a woman – especially in such a public place with a woman he had never before even met. The facts of her being a member of a looked down upon race, religion and gender should have been more than enough for Jesus to avoid talking with this stranger. But, as she was soon to discover, this woman was actually no stranger to Jesus. Jesus uncovers to this woman that he knows the truth about her own life, including her unhappy relationship history. In response she excitedly runs off, leaving behind her water jar and proclaiming a surprising invitation to the people of her city, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!”
You see, the truth that was uncovered by Jesus was not simply the facts about what this woman had done over the course of her life. The greater truth that was uncovered for her was about who Jesus was and what he had to offer to her: God’s gift of living water given so she might filled up with love and freed up with joy to worship God in spirit and in truth.
In that encounter with Jesus, this unnamed Samaritan woman learned that God is not about the business of judging us – our race, our gender, our religious background, our relationship history or even all the things others may or may not see we have done in our lives. Rather than judging or condemning, God is about the work of inviting and healing – inviting us to experience the spirit of love who works within us to fill the empty places in our lives and bring about wholeness. This is the gift of living water which Jesus offered to the woman at the well. He uncovered for her the truth that we have all been created to worship God in spirit and in truth and to share with others the good news of God’s love for all.
The power of this truth is illustrated each year when we begin the season of Lent with the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. As one first time Ash Wednesday observer put it in a recent article in Christian Century magazine; “I’ll never forget sitting in that old box pew, watching as people went up for the imposition of ashes. I realized something: this was a place where people told the truth. The liturgy made them do it. They told the truth about themselves – that they were mortal, that they were sinners, that they were frightened.” But despite the truth of who we are and what we have done, when we receive the mark of the cross, we accept the the love and affirmation of a God who says, “It is from me that you were created and it is to me that you will return. You are my forever, beloved child.”
Jesus came to uncover this truth, especially for those who are considered outsiders, those who are looked upon as somehow less than others based on things such as race or religion, culture or class, gender or marital status. Certainly when Jesus offered the truth of God’s love to the woman at the well he was giving a gift to one who was an outsider in her community.
But the reality is that even those of us who may consider ourselves or be thought of by others as insiders still thirst for the living water that is provided by God’s unconditional love and acceptance. This is illustrated by a woman named Elaine as described by author Wayne Muller in his book entitled Sabbath. Muller describes Elaine as a well-respected professional in her community who sought him out for some counseling. As he describes her, “As a woman from an abusive family, she had for many years struggled, grown, and overcome great sorrow. Now she was very strong. She was proud of what she had become. And while she had achieved professional success, she felt it was now time to explore her inner landscape, the more subtle movements of her spiritual life, and asked if I would be her spiritual director. In spite of her significant accomplishments, Elaine experienced a nagging emptiness…a void, something painful, in need of being filled…when we feel unhealed, we can feel unworthy. I sensed Elaine was uncomfortable and afraid of her emptiness.
‘Tell me about your sense of worth,’ I said. She began by recounting her triumphs and successes, and her growing sense of personal and professional self-esteem. I stopped her. ‘I am not speaking about your self-esteem, which I am sure is justifiably strong considering all you have done in your life. I am asking about the quiet times, the nights before sleep, the silent moments of the day when you are alone, when you are not a successful professional. In the Catholic Mass, there is a phrase spoken before one receives communion: Lord, I am not worthy to receive you. But say the word, and I shall be healed. For some reason, as we sit here together, I am reminded of that phrase. What do you think? Unexpectedly, she wept. Silent sobbing tears, for a long time. She looked at me surprised, as if I had both betrayed and loved her, hurt and thanksgiving arising together in her eyes. We had touched an emptiness that felt like a wound. It was deep inside her, and she did not know what it was. It frightened her.”
Each of us likely knows what it is to feel the fear of emptiness. Like Elaine, it may be the fear of the emptiness that is connected to past experiences of abuse or other traumatic hurts. It may be the fear we feel when confronted with the emptiness of our own human frailty and mortality. It may be the fear of the emptiness we feel at times of loss or times of feeling alone in the world. It may simply be the fear we feel when life appears overwhelming, that no matter how hard we try it will never be enough.
The woman at the well had tried over the years to overcome her fear by filling her emptiness through relationships with six different life partners. Yet, her emptiness and the fear that accompanied it remained. The good news is that Jesus offers us the same gift that he offered her: living water, the love of God which forever holds us and fills us and frees us for living unafraid.
May we, like this woman, personally receive and joyfully share the truth of this good news of God’s love with all people in our community today.