Reflection: A Friend in Christ February 4, 2018
Some years ago I was doing a sermon series for Lent on Spiritual Practices, when this story came up. It struck me that what I found in this passage then would be just as helpful to us now. There’s a lot in this passage, and many of you have heard many sermons on it before. But rather than commenting on the theology of the story, I’m going to just take a step back and look at the scene itself as it is depicted.
I noticed how Jesus knew who this woman was, inside and out, and that he spoke to her with compassion and insight. I noticed that the woman, after a few moments of rather startled conversation, recognized Jesus as a prophet, and saw that he had wisdom to offer. I noticed that this was a woman who had probably had a hard life. She’d had a number of husbands, probably because her husbands died young, or even divorced her, leaving her vulnerable in that patriarchal society. The only way she would have been able to survive is to marry again, perhaps to a relative of her previous husband. Levirate marriage, as it was called, was meant to ensure that the man’s name and line lived on through a union between his widow and another member of his family. When Jesus says the man she is not living with is not her husband, this does not necessarily mean that she is an adulteress; it may simply mean that she is living with yet another relative, trying to eke out a living somehow after her string of misfortune and pain. Her appearance at the well in the high heat of the day rather than the cool of the morning suggests that she wasn’t considered quite respectable by the community. Jesus sees her painful situation, but doesn’t seem to judge or condemn her for it. Instead, without hesitation, he speaks to her of his calling and his identity. It’s a remarkable conversation, between two people who should not have been able to talk to each other at all.
Reading this story made me wonder how many of you have people in your life with whom you can be completely vulnerable – people who know the best and the worst of you and still love you. More than that, I wonder how many of you have people who will help you in taming the worst and developing the best. In Christian tradition, we call such relationships “spiritual friendships” – because we understand that the way to bring out the best in each other is to stay centred on our relationship with Jesus. A spiritual friend is someone who helps us walk the way of Jesus. Such friendships can grow over time, or they can be built by conscious choice and given an agreed- upon framework.
Mindy Caliguire, who wrote a book called “Spiritual Friendship says “Spiritual friendship is a relationship that acknowledges God is in the mix, creating a space where we together listen for what God is telling us and together learn the lessons God has to teach. And then we help one another act on this hearing and discovering.” Such relationships often grow slowly as a friendship deepens and stands the test of time. In time we discover that this person shares our values, is committed to the same faith journey, and can be trusted with all that we are. Such relationships are equal, authentic and enduring. Each person is available to the other when they are needed, to hear their story, to listen carefully to what is happening to them in their lives, and to help them see patterns or possibilities that they might not be able to see themselves. Availability is essential; so too, is vulnerability.
Caliguire writes: “a vulnerable relationship is inevitable when God is involved. The mask has been taken off; there is nothing to hide; we are in the presence of the Divine. We are at peace with one another and can reach a level of honesty that we do not have even with ourselves. Correction is not only encouraged it is requested. We know that the other has our good at heart, and we experience it as a great good when we are given assistance. Availability and vulnerability become our unstated vows made to one another. *” [http://www.renovare.us/SPIRITUALRENEWAL/Relationships/SpiritualFriendship/tabid/2515/Default.aspx]
Because we are available and vulnerable to each other, truth may be spoken. We can honestly share with each other the struggles of our faith journey, the places where we are challenged, the highs and lows, and ask for help and the insight of the other. We can pray for each other and with each other, trusting that the other has in their heart a longing that we might each be fully human as God has created us to be.
The relationship between the Samaritan woman and Jesus is not equal – it is more spiritual accompaniment or direction than spiritual friendship – the kind of relationship one might have with a pastor or spiritual director. But perhaps, in time, it might have developed into something more equal. I wonder if Jesus had such friendships to sustain him? Last weekend’s Messy Church program was about friendship. When asked who some of my favourite Biblical friends were, I suggested Jesus and Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and perhaps, Jesus and Mary Magdalene. There is no way to know, really, what those relationship were like. But the elements of depth, trust, vulnerability, and authenticity are certainly present in the conversation we read about in John’s Gospel.
One can find those characteristics in a more structured model of spiritual friendship, that you can see in the following story by Dan Steigerwald on the Open Source Theology blog .(http://www.opensourcetheology.net/node/512) Dan addresses his comments specifically to men, believing that men are less likely to seek out such friendships but can benefit from them far more than they might expect. So, here’s Dan’s story. The language might seem a bit “Jesus-freak-ish” to you in places, but the principles are sound.
“The life streams of Bill, Albert and Derek have once again converged on this dreary Monday evening. The three leaders have gathered to connect and share their experiences of God’s presence and activity over the previous week. After a round of lighthearted jabs at Albert (Al, for short) over the results of the U.S. presidential election, Derek suddenly shifts the mood to a more serious note. He is visibly troubled. He takes the initiative and shares that earlier in the week he has had a serious run-in with his boss over the re-assigning of a colleague to a different departmental team (on the grounds that the colleague is “ill-suited to the challenge at hand”). Derek is still reeling from what he perceives as a hasty, slap-in-the-face decision handed down to one of their team’s most respected participants.
As Bill and Al listen to Derek’s emotional recounting of this incident, Bill proposes that the three pause and pray. “Let’s invite God’s presence into this evening”, Bill urges in earnest. “I sense that Jesus may not only want to unburden Derek, but may well want to minister to us all in some special ways tonight.” After a refreshing dose of silence before the Lord and a heartfelt prayer for the Spirit to guide their time together, Bill invites Derek to be the first “speaker” for the evening. He also suggests that he himself assume the role of “listener”, while Al takes on the role of “observer.” The three know the routine well and settle into those postures without hesitation. Bill opens this “attending exercise” by inviting Derek to tell a little bit more about his journey this past week. For nearly twenty minutes Derek unfolds the story of his tense interaction with his boss, with Bill occasionally interjecting poignant questions. Derek’s pained facial expressions betray his ongoing agitation over this incident. Bill’s probing questions help Derek to explore his reactions to his boss. They also help him to get in touch with what Christ may be speaking to him through this conflict.
As Derek processes his week aloud, he notes in himself something he has not seen earlier (even though he has already gained some insight through reflectively journaling that heated exchange with his boss). Thanks to a well-placed question by Bill, Derek begins to see that he is highly critical of his boss and overly sensitive to his fast-moving leadership style. Derek seems surprised to note that he has indeed reacted out of some unresolved hurt in his own life. This hurt he realizes is related to a painful incident in his previous job, when he felt misunderstood by his boss and hastily “relieved” from an important project. Derek sees that he has been unfairly projecting his own experience into this recent conflict, and in turn has been drawing some harsh conclusions about his boss’s motives and “reckless” decision-making pattern.
After a fifteen minute barrage of reflective processing about his week, Derek has become more self-aware and less burdened emotionally. He notes God putting His finger on the critical spirit he tends to exhibit when relating to his boss. He sees that he has been moving in mistrust, rather than honestly seeking to assist and under-gird his boss’s decision-making. Al closes this round of the attending exercise by sharing his own perceptions of what he senses God may have been doing or saying in the unfolding of Derek’s story this evening.
This sort of exchange is repeated for the next 40 minutes. Bill and Al each take on the role of the speaker for a 20 minute segment, with the other two men rotating in the roles of listener and observer. Like Derek, both men also find useful gleanings from this communal attempt at discerning God’s presence and activity in their lives over the previous week. The three men end the evening together by taking time to pray over some of the issues which have arisen through their interaction. After some more last-minute jabs at Al for voting for George Bush, the three close the evening over good beer and cheap-imitation Cuban cigars. They rejoice once again over their decision to journey together as spiritual friends.”
I have been blessed in my life to have both the less formal, more organic form of spiritual friendship, as well as this more structured form. In all cases, they have helped me live my faith more fully, maintain trust in God, and see more clearly the places God is active in my life. I would encourage each of you to consider if you have such friendships in your life – people who will help you stay connected to the source of life, that living water of which Jesus spoke. If not, I’d encourage you to seek them out. Living Christian life in secular society is not always easy; spiritual friendships can be one of the practices that sustain our life in Christ. I’d encourage you to reach out to each other, to mentor and support each other, in this journey we’re making in the footsteps of Jesus. It’s my hope that the Neighbourhood Groups we gathered for the first time last weekend will be a source of such friendships.
The ancient Roman philosopher Cicero called friendship the “sun of life, . . . the best gift which the immortal gods have given us with the exception of wisdom.” In Christian tradition our friendships can be what keep us pointed towards and grounded in the Son of Life, Jesus the Christ, who is our wisdom and the source of living water. Amen.
Salesian spiritual friendship http://www4.desales.edu/~salesian/resources/articles/english/friendship2.html
OpenSource theology – intentional spiritual friendships http://www.opensourcetheology.net/node/512
Huffington post – re reading of this story – non –moralistic, non-misogynistic