Sermon preached March 23, 2014
Texts: John 4:5-42
It seems that I have a number of friends who are either turning fifty, or getting quite close. I passed that by just a few years ago myself, and I sometimes like to think age time and age. I was a boy in the 1960s and it is interesting to consider that the 1930s were closer in time to me then, than the 1960s are to today. One of the gifts of growing older is that we are able to store up a lot in our memories. One of the challenges is that sometimes we remember more about something that happened in the 1960s than something that happened yesterday.
So here’s a blast from the past:
“Windy” The Association http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RsY8l0Jg3lY
I remember that song. I was eight when it was a number one song in 1967 – forty seven years ago. I think it is still a catchy song. Who’s peekin’ out from under a stairway, calling a name that’s lighter than air? Who’s bending down to give me a rainbow? Everyone knows it’s Windy.
But Windy sounds remarkably like God, God as Spirit, as blowing wind. In his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus tells her, “God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and truth.”
God is Spirit. The words that get translated Spirit are linked to the words for both breath and wind, and this is true for both Hebrew and Greek. Frederick Buechner is right in putting together that little equation spirit=breath=life. In the previous chapter of John’s gospel, from which we read last week, Jesus said, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” This has something to do with God as Spirit, as blowing wind.
In this third sermon on the shades of God, I want to say three things about God as Spirit, as blowing wind, and then draw out what that may mean for us in our lives.
God as Spirit should often be imagined as a refreshing gentle breeze. I am going to mix my metaphors here something terrible, but I hope it will be o.k. In the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, the discussion begins with water. Jesus asks her for some, but then he goes off in this cryptic and mysterious direction. “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman responds by asking where Jesus intends to get this water from as he has no bucket. Again, he responds rather mysteriously. “Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
Jesus is saying something about God as Spirit, using water imagery. But his remarks are translatable into wind imagery. Water is refreshing. It cools. Gentle breezes refresh and cool. God’s Spirit is like a gentle breeze in our lives, needed particularly when life feels hot and dry and parched. Then we need a little living water. Then we need a little gentle breeze.
Winds, even when they are gentle, move things around. Winds are not always gentle, and the stronger the wind, the more things get blown about. God’s Spirit is like a blowing wind that rearranges things in our lives and in the world. One of the most remarkable things about the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well is that it happened at all. The gospel writer includes this little explanatory note that is vitally important – “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” Here is the way a more contemporary theologian described the situation of Jesus’ time. “Because of the continual threat of defilement, and still more of being infected by false doctrine, association with Samaritans and Gentiles was unwelcome and taboo” (Ernst Kasemann, Jesus Means Freedom, 23). There were also some strictures against a Jewish man conversing alone with a Jewish woman, and an encounter at a well would have been particularly fraught with tension for there are overtones of courtship in such encounters in the biblical tradition. Recall the disciples’ reaction – “they were astonished that he was speaking with a woman.” If Jesus is an indication of the nature of God as Spirit, as blowing wind, then this wind blows down barriers. This Spirit is willing to shake things up.
God as Spirit, as blowing wind also has a certain freedom, a certain unpredictability about it. Again, the words from John 3 are helpful and instructive. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” This is not to suggest that God is unreliable, only to suggest that God will blow through our lives in ways we had not imagined or predicted.
So let me repeat an important point in this shades of God sermon series. To better understand the shades of God, is to better understand the direction for our lives. St. Maximus the Confessor: If we are made, as we are, in the image of God, let us become the image both of ourselves and of God (The Philokalia, II, 171)
So what does thinking about God as Spirit and as blowing wind suggest for our lives?
God as gentle breeze suggests our need to receive God’s Spirit, to be open to the Spirit’s work in our lives. We all need a little refreshing breeze from time to time in our lives. Joan Chittister speaks of the Spirit as one who “whispers us into the great quest within” (In Search of Belief, 162). The gentle breeze of God whispers, and our task is sometimes just to listen. In Help, Thanks, Wow Anne Lamott writes about grace as wind. “But grace can be the experience of a second wind, when even though what you want is clarity and resolution, what you get is stamina and poignancy and the strength to hang on” (47). The gentle breeze of God is such a gift of grace.
Anthony Robinson, a UCC pastor in Seattle, writes about a tendency in Christians in long-standing denominations to see themselves as givers only. God brings us together in the church to do good. He argues that this is out of balance. A one-sided emphasis on giving and behaving as giver… can blind us to our own needs – for grace, for healing, for conversion, for God (Transforming Congregational Culture, 67). We are strong, and have gifts to give. We are also, in Robinson’s words: The self that is anxious and the self that is hurting; the self that is, yes, capable of giving but that also needs to receive the gifts of God and the grace of God (67)
This Spirit of God that we welcome into our lives as a gentle breeze, also stirs things up. In another of his books, Anthony Robinson writes, “The work of the Holy Spirit is often disruptive, challenging, and disturbing” (What’s Theology Got To Do With It?, 140) God loves us as we are, and there are things in our lives that could and should change. God loves the world as it is, and there are things in the world that could and should and need to change. Spirit-filled people are open to change as the winds of the Spirit blow. Spirit-filled people are often those working to disrupt social distinctions that are not life-giving. We are moved to reach out to the others at the wells of life – and the other may be someone in poverty, or someone of a different background, or someone of a different racial-ethnic background, or someone of a different sexual orientation, or someone of a different religious background. We humans have a gift for dividing. The wind-blowing Spirit of God seems to like to blow down divisions and blow people together.
So here’s another blast from my past. When I was in high school, there was this guy, John Powell, whose writings could be found on multi-colored posters. In fact his books often had pages that were like those posters. Here is one poster saying: “The behavior of the fully human being is always unpredictable – simply because it is free” (Why Am I Afraid To Tell You Who I Am?, 81) There is something important here for we who seek to live in the image of God as Spirit and blowing wind. There should be in our lives a certain freedom, a certain unpredictability. Now it is important to distinguish unpredictability from unreliability. They are different, I think. For followers of Jesus who tells us God is Spirit, there should be in our lives a certain spontaneity, a certain liveliness, a certain curiosity. I appreciate the words of Pamela Cooper-White. Images of spirit as wind, breath, life force and inspiration collide and combine to form an impression of great power and energy, space enough for air to swirl, a feeling of freedom and release (Many Voices, 91)
God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and truth. The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.
If I were to sum up what it might mean to live into this image of ourselves and of God, I might say it is to:
Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection. (Wendell Berry, “Manifesto”)
Or maybe the best image is that of the dance. The universe belongs to the dancer. The person who does not dance does not know what is coming to pass (The Acts of John, in Jurgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 19). The music of God the Spirit, the blowing wind, comes to us as a gift of grace to be received then shared. Dancing to the Spirit’s music will change us, and take us in unpredictable directions. Still, the invitation is to dance on the winds of the Spirit.
“Windy” The Association http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RsY8l0Jg3lY