I Thirst

March 25, 2016 at 5:11 pm | Posted in world water crisis | 4 Comments
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The following is a sermon I preached ten years or so ago as part of a “Seven Last Words of Christ” service at Allen Temple Baptist Church, the largest Black church in Oakland, California. It suggests that the death of Christ calls us to much more than repentance for personal sin–that it calls us to repent for the thirst we are allowing to afflict people, especially women and children, all around the world.

 

After this, knowing that all was now finished, Jesus said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put the sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. (John 19:28-29

Jesus is coming ever closer to the end of his journey. He has forgiven his persecutors. He has asked his dear friend and his mother to care for one another. He has cried out with incomprehension at being forsaken by his father. And now he speaks of an experience shared by human beings all over the world: He says that he is thirsty.

Someone who suffers what Jesus suffered has every reason to be thirsty. Blows, scourging, multiple falls, nails hammered through his wrists and feet, and the terrible struggle to breathe that comes with being hoisted up on a cross—Jesus endured them all. Scientists tell us that his dehydrated tissues would have sent a flood of stimuli to his brain, eliciting the very words we hear: “I thirst.”

But there’s something puzzling about the verses that we just read from John’s gospel—and let’s be clear, John’s is the only one of the four passion stories that includes the words “I am thirsty.” However much we may be concerned with Jesus’ thirst, the text tells us that Jesus says what he says “in order to fulfill the scripture.” What does this mean?

Recall that the community for whom the evangelist wrote this fourth gospel was not the kind of Christian community that we are accustomed to today. Rather, it was a community of Jewish Christians, still trying to convince their Jewish brothers and sisters that Jesus was the messiah. And so they paid great attention to the parts of Jesus’ life that seemed to fulfill passages in the Torah, the Jewish scripture. With this in mind, some biblical scholars claim that John inserts the words “I thirst”—and the verse that follows, about the Roman soldiers giving Jesus sour wine to drink—to highlight the way Jesus fulfills two passages in the book of psalms. In one of these a forsaken individual cries out that his mouth is dried up like a piece of broken pottery; in another, persecutors give their victim vinegar to drink.

But the passage that we read today doesn’t actually say which scripture Jesus’ words fulfill; it only asserts that they do so. Let’s consider, then, that Jesus’ words—“I am thirsty”—also refer back to and complete an earlier passage in the gospel of John itself, the story of the woman at the well.

I begin by noting the similarities between these two stories. Here, too, Jesus is thirsty. He is sitting by a well near the Samaritan city of Sychar, worn out by his journey, a weariness that foreshadows the far greater weariness of his journey to Calvary. A woman comes to the well to draw water, and Jesus says to her “Give me a drink.” Then they talk to one another.

What Christians generally remember about this story is that in this conversation, the woman tells Jesus that she has no husband, and Jesus responds that she is right, she has had five husbands, and the man she currently lives with is not her husband. From this exchange many conclude that the woman at the well is sexually loose, an adulteress, and that Jesus’ only reason for speaking to her is that their conversation gives him an opportunity to display his great knowledge.

But there is nothing in John 4 to indicate that this woman is sexually immoral; there are a number of stories in the Bible about women obligated by the Law to marry the brothers of their deceased husband in order to raise up children in his memory. Mark 4, where the Sadducees ask Jesus about a series of brothers who marry a widow is just such a story, and there is no suggestion there that the woman is immoral. What is far more likely is in the story of the woman at the well is that the woman herself is very poor, living with a man who is not her husband, because she has no other way to survive. We all know poor women in such situations; in the time of Jesus, it was even harder for poor unmarried women to support themselves than it is today. Another indication that this woman is poor is that she is hauling water, a task so hard and unending that it damaged the postures of the women required to do it.

But despite this woman’s poverty and her bad living situation, Jesus enters into conversation with her. He doesn’t just talk to her; she takes the initiative with him, asking questions and moving the conversation in new directions. She makes such an impact on Jesus that he sends her off, the first Gentile disciple, to evangelize the people of Sychar. In fact, this encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is so powerful that the woman’s entire life is changed. We know this because, as the scripture says, when she went into the city to proclaim the Messiah, she left behind the essential tool of her former way of life, her water jar.

But what does this woman’s water jar have to do with Jesus’ words from the cross? To clarify this, recall that early in their conversation, the woman wondered aloud how it could be that Jesus, a Jew, would ask for water from a Samaritan. Jesus tells her that if she had known whom she was speaking to, she would have asked him, and he would have given her “living water.” Those who drink this living water, Jesus says, will never be thirsty again.

Now many interpreters think that the main purpose of the story of the woman at the well is precisely this teaching about “living water”—perhaps they would call it “spiritual water.” For them, spiritual water is far more significant than the actual water this poor Samaritan woman hauls back and forth. They highlight the connection between these verses and the seventh chapter of John’s gospel when Jesus cries out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me… (for) out of the believer’s womb shall flow rivers of living water.” Indeed, when this passage says that this living water is the Spirit whom believers will not receive until Jesus is glorified, it seems to refer directly to the crucifixion. This emphasis on the superiority of living, that is to say, spiritual water, makes the woman at the well look even worse than she did before; first, she was a sexual sinner; now she’s so stupid that she confuses Jesus’ living water with real water. Even after Jesus proclaims that his water is the water of eternal life, this poor woman says, “”Sir, give it to me, so that I may not have to keep coming here to draw it.”

But I have a feeling that these people who are so taken up with the superiority of “living water” don’t understand what it is to be really thirsty. Perhaps they are like the great majority of us Americans, who simply turn on our taps, and out comes as much water as we want, at a very low price. It seems unlikely that they are the billion people around the world who lack access to clean drinking water, or the three billion people who have no sanitation. Neither are they the millions of contemporary women who, like the Samaritan woman, spend their days hauling water over long distances. And they are surely not the 40,000 children who die each day from diseases caused by contaminated water.

Finally, those who argue that the spiritual replaces or transcends the material in John’s gospel are not really the followers of Jesus. For when Jesus on the cross prepares to give up his spirit, he does not say: “I am thirsty for living water.” He says “I am thirsty.” We know that this is not just a question of symbolic water divorced from the body because we feel in our own bodies how Jesus must have felt when he got nothing but sour wine to quench his last thirst. And we know that the first gift he bestowed on his newly created church was the water that flowed out from his pierced side along with his most precious blood.

All over the world, men and women are crying out with Jesus on the cross, “I am thirsty.” They are thirsty for the word of God, the gospel of Jesus Christ. And they are thirsty to become sources of living water for their sisters and brothers, as the Samaritan woman was to the citizens of Sychar. But they cannot do this if they are literally dying of thirst, as is the case with so many in Africa, and India, and Latin America. How can women study and preach the gospel if they are doomed never to leave their water jars behind? How can girls go to school to learn to read the gospel if they are never free, as so many of them are not, from the endless task of hauling water? How can babies and small children grow up to be the disciples of Jesus if they die from cholera or dysentery before they are five years old? And last of all, how can we ever reach the kingdom of heaven if we allow such things to happen?

Jesus is hanging from the cross, preparing to send the Spirit onto the church to carry his word to the ends of the earth. When he cries out “I am thirsty,” let us not give him sour wine but the fresh and living water he so desires.

 

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Sophia: And Still She Rises

March 12, 2016 at 12:11 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Despite the grandeur of that title, I’m going to start with a story.

Back in the early 1980s, two friends and I, Hal Taussig and Susan Cady (now Cole) conducted a number of programs on Sophia, the figure of Wisdom in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Several of the programs were at Grailville, the Grail’s farm and conference center outside Cincinnati. One was for the annual meeting of Church Women United, I believe. Hal and Susan were (and still are) United Methodist ministers and had introduced Sophia spirituality and ritual in a church they were co-pastoring in West Philadelphia, and Hal, a biblical studies scholar, had been doing research on her.

Anyhow, according to the chapter on Hal and Susan’s Sophia work in Elizabeth Ursic’s 2014 book  Women, Ritual and Power, in 1984 I was the respondent to a workshop on Sophia that Susan and Hal gave at Arch Street United Methodist Church in Center City Philadelphia. Afterwards, I suggested that Susan and Hal consider writing a book on Sophia.

In the end, the three of us wrote it together. In 1986, Harper and Row published Sophia: The Future of Feminist Spirituality. In 1989, a second edition appeared, including Sophia the Future… and 143 additional pages of bible study , ritual and worship materials, sermons, hymns and songs, under the new title, Wisdom’s Feast: Sophia in Study and Celebration.  Eight years later, Sheed and Ward reissued that second edition, with a new preface.

And now, I am somewhat stupefied to announce, Apocryphile Press, in Berkeley, California, has issued what I have taken to calling the thirtieth anniversary edition of Wisdom’s Feast. (The new edition was literally published in 2015, and the book that was published in 1986 was actually Sophia: The Future of Feminist Spirituality, but “thirtieth anniversary edition” has a nicer ring to it than “twenty-ninth anniversary edition of the book that comprises the first section of Wisdom’s Feast,” don’t you think?)

Several things make Wisdom’s Feast  and particularly Sophia: The Future…noteworthy.   Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza had already written about Sophia with considerable enthusiasm in 1983. But Sophia: The Future of Feminist Spirituality and Wisdom’s Feast were both published well before She Who Is,  Elizabeth Johnson’s systematic theological treatment of God as Spirit-Sophia, Jesus-Sophia, and Mother Sophia (1992). Since then, Sophia has played a significant  role in Christian theology, spirituality and politics; even evangelical women are increasingly taken with her. As we wrote in the preface to the 1996 edition of Wisdom’s Feast, “Although we obviously thought at (the time of the publication of the first edition of this book) that Sophia was important, as we reflect on all that has happened, we can only conclude that we were on to something.”

What also happened, in addition to the growth of Sophia spirituality and ritual in churches and women’s groups across the US and Europe, was a significant political conflict over the legitimacy of Sophia in the Christian tradition. This included nasty attempts to have Hal and especially Susan censored for their work, something we discuss at length in the preface to the 1996 edition of Wisdom’s Feast (that preface is included in this new edition as well). Indeed, as we argue in the preface to this 2016 edition, it seems likely that the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ condemnation of Elizabeth Johnson’s 2007 book Quest for the Living God can be traced back, impart at least, to the Sophia arguments Johnson made in She Who Is.

If anyone had told me, back in 1986, when I was in my first year of seminary and supporting myself as a free-lance grant writer, that a thirtieth anniversary edition of this book would be coming out in 2016, I suspect I would have laughed out loud. Today I’m just smiling.

If you’d like to take a look, or even get a copy, Wisdom’s Feast is available on Amazon, here.

And if you’d like to join us at our book celebration on Saturday, April 9, at 2 PM, at the Arch Street United Methodist Church in Center City Philadelphia we’d love to have you. (An appropriate location, since that’s the church where Susan and Hal and I did the program back in 1984 that got this book launched!)

And still She rises.

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The Cruelest of All Mothers

March 5, 2016 at 11:50 am | Posted in Catholic sisters, feminism, women | 1 Comment
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The Cruelest of All Mothers: Marie de l’Incarnation, Motherhood, and Christian Tradition by Mary Dunn. Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press, 2016. Hardback, $45; e-book, $44.99. 150 pp. plus back matter.

For Christian feminists, a book about the life of Marie Guyart de l’Incarnation, the little known French-Canadian Ursuline nun canonized in 2014, can’t help but be welcome. As the title of Mary Dunn’s remarkable new study suggests, however, The Cruelest of All Mothers is a good deal more than a saint’s life.

Raised in Tours, France, Marie Guyart began having mystical encounters with Christ at the age of seven and longed to become a nun, but her parents forced her to marry. She did so in 1617, age eighteen. In 1619, she gave birth to a son, Claude, and six months later, her husband died.

Guyart spent most of the next eleven years raising her son, supporting them both by working in her brother-in-law’s business, while continuing to long for the religious life. In 1631 she entered the Ursulines at Tours—all convents were cloistered in those days—over the strenuous objections of her son, who was left without visible means of support. Two years later, in a vision, the Virgin Mary told Marie she had plans for her in Canada. In 1639, Marie and three other Ursulines sailed to Quebec, where she spent the rest of her life.

Marie de l’Incarnation’s ministry was impressive in many respects. She founded the Ursulines in Canada and served as their superior for eighteen years. She also learned multiple indigenous languages and translated the catechism into Iroquois. But the issue at the center of Dunn’s analysis is Guyart’s abandonment of her eleven-year-old son and the meaning(s) of that act in light of Christian perspectives on motherhood and contemporary scholarship.

In chapter 1 Dunn “explicates” Marie’s abandonment of Claude in the context of the times, that is, in the way that Marie herself was likely to have understood it: as a sacrifice performed in conformity with God’s will, modeled after the crucifixion. Marie’s deep desire to stay with her son would have been irrelevant. But in chapter 2, Dunn suggests that the abandonment may instead have been quite the opposite: a refusal on Marie’s part to conform to the norms of seventeenth-century French family life, in which parents’ greatest obligation was to protect the “patrimony” of their children.

But, Dunn reminds us, human actions rarely fall into neat, either/or categories, in this case, those of submission or resistance. Dunn therefore draws on the work of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu to explore the abandonment as what was likely within the boundaries of Guyart’s own time that “left little (positive) room for actual maternal bodies and real maternal practice.” Fundamental to this world-view were centuries of Christian teaching in which motherhood itself was portrayed as fleshly and the renunciation of children as heroic. The seventeenth-century Christian privileging of self-sacrifice as the ultimate in spiritual practice reinforced these longstanding teachings. In her own time, then, Marie had little choice but to abandon Claude if she believed God had called her to the mystical life.

Dunn goes on to suggest, however, that in another time and place, Marie might have been able to understand motherhood itself, and not only its renunciation, as a sacrifice modeled on that of Christ. Now let me acknowledge at this point that feminist discussions of sacrifice in recent decades have been something of a minefield, with theologians like Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker denouncing Christian notions of sacrifice as inherently misogynistic, even sadistic. In her final chapter, however, Dunn uses the work of the French feminist psychoanalytic theorist Julia Kristeva to undercut such dismissals of sacrifice, embedded as they are in binary, Cartesian, either/or thinking. For Kristeva maternal subjectivity—itself the model of all human subjectivity—is a mother’s willingness to “give herself up” in order to make room for the other within. (But) a mother’s willingness to give herself up does not end in the annihilation of the mother in the service of others, but in the enrichment of the mother through the inclusion of the other (13).

In fact, as Dunn explains, Kristeva’s understanding of motherhood folds into each other the pivotal categories that have been held in opposition throughout Western/Christian history: agape and eros, the Word and the flesh, syntax and rhythm, male and female. Furthermore, this Kristevan model of motherhood as sacrifice and fulfillment finds its closest analogue in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross because that sacrifice ended in life, not death, that is, in the Resurrection and the formation of the Christian community. Similarly, motherhood culminates in new life and profound connection. In fact, as the book continues, Dunn demonstrates that motherhood was infolded into Guyart’s spirituality throughout her life despite—or because of—the abandonment of her son

Dunn’s reading of motherhood in the life of Marie Guyart’s life and in Christian history is itself a significant achievement. But Dunn introduces a third, galvanizing layer to her narrative: her own experience of motherhood, and especially, of mothering a child with a rare genetic disorder. Already half way through the introduction, Dunn writes about being the mother of two older children, Bobby and Frankie, three years and one year old respectively, at a time when attitudes toward motherhood are very different from those of the sixteenth-century. Throughout the book. Dunn returns to this experience of mothering these two and then two more children, the last one, Aggie, born with the genetic disorder.

At first glance, there would seem to be few similarities between Dunn and Guyart. Dunn stays at home, devoting much time and attention to her children, and especially to Aggie. Yet a careful reading of Dunn’s intermittent shifts from Guyart’s motherhood to her own brings a certain similarity to the surface: Dunn also experiences ambivalence, or at least anxiety, about the daughter the doctors assure her will be quite unlike her other children. Aggie is Dunn’s dear child but also the abject, the other that ancient Christian teaching identified with the flesh and with motherhood itself, and which seventeenth-century Christian spirituality urged Guyart to reject. It’s to Dunn’s considerable credit as a scholar and a writer that she doesn’t resolve this tension, this binary, any more than she resolves the tensions within Guyart’s own experience of motherhood. As we continue the feminist effort to tranform the hierarchical binaries with which the church and Western civilization have burdened us, neither may we opt for easy resolutions.

 

This review appears in the March-June 2016 issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference and in the March 2016 issue of Gumbo,  the newsletter of the Grail in the USA.

 

 

 

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