Monday, March 21, 2011

Devotional for the Thirteenth Day of Lent

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” (John 4:27)

In God, whose word I praise,
in the Lord, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I am not afraid.
What can a mere mortal do to me? (Psalm 56:10-11)

Fear is a powerful and reactive emotion. When we are frightened we move quickly and with energy. It’s part of our innate desire to survive, so when we hear a bear sniffing around our tent, we instantly come to high alert, without much thought except to remain safe. When we soon discover that the so-called bear is just the family dog checking out the surroundings of the campsite, the fear that overwhelmed us dissipates rapidly. Fear can hit 60 in 2 seconds and then stop on a dime as if nothing happened.

The larger context of John 4:27 is the conversation that Jesus initiated with a Samaritan woman. The reason that his disciples were astonished when they saw what was happening was that faithful Jewish men were not supposed to have any contact with Samaritans, especially the female type. Samaritans were considered to be half-Jewish heretics, and Jews stayed away from them. What were Jesus’ disciples to make of this violation? Was there fear woven into their astonishment?

Fear is often associated with the possibility of loss. If someone can take something from me, then fear and the need to protect rise up. Perhaps the disciples feared losing their faithful Jewish leader to the uncleanness and heretical ways of the Samaritans. This kind of fear of loss rose up in a number of people who opposed Jesus. They saw him reach out to tax collectors, prostitutes, and others defined by the general category of “sinners.” In fact, he was once mocked by being called “friend of sinners.” Those who feared losing their dominant place in their society sought to silence Jesus by having him illegally executed. Destroying what you fear normally causes fear to dissipate because everything can then go back to normal.

We who follow Jesus get caught up in fear all the time. The US legislature passes laws that we don’t like, and we join our party of choice to scream about fear. Someone writes a book exploring and challenging certain theological viewpoints, and fear drives the critics to cast the evildoer into outer darkness, where there is weeping, gnashing of teeth, and a loss of royalties. We hear a viewpoint about faith that is different than ours, and we withdraw, fearing that we are about to lose something vital to our eternal destiny.

Some of this is natural. When we are hit with something that runs cross-grain to our closely held beliefs, there is a reaction against the possibility of change. Often we seek to discredit the new idea. Other times we hunker down and shore up the props of our belief system. Less frequently to do we listen deeply and openly, asking God to show us if perhaps we have seen things incompletely and are now being invited into something richer and more generous than what we knew before. At the very least, we might actually learn to love those we had feared, even if we don’t agree.

The psalmist speaks of trusting God and not being afraid. “Do not fear” is the most common admonition in the Bible. It probably has to be repeated a lot because we humans carry fear around like keys in our pockets.

Love is also powerful. But unlike fear, it isn’t reactive or violent. It requires presence and the willingness to be changed by relationship. Fear is not the way of Jesus, but love clearly is.

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