By Steven A. Peay
I remember very vividly the first time that I ever asked a girl to dance. It was at our eighth-grade party at William Penn School, Public School 49, in Indianapolis. I thought she was the most wonderful creature God had ever put breath into. She was standing there by the punchbowl, and I summoned every ounce of courage in me, walked over to her, and said, “May I please have a cup of punch?” Two cups of punch and several cookies later, I had finally overcome my fear of rejection — I just thought I was scared then, but now I know what to call it — and I asked her to dance.
When I asked her to dance, I did so with all sorts of caveats about who I was and wasn’t, what I could or couldn’t do, and how I was about the most undesirable guy in the whole eighth-grade class, being the short, pudgy, nerdy one. And guess what? She said “Yes,” and we danced to “Cherish.” I’ll never forget it! That night I discovered several things: (1) I can talk to people; (2) I can’t dance; and (3) I don’t need to live my life justifying myself. That night I just thought I was making excuses and protecting myself, but now I know what to call it.
What I have learned is that relationships involve risks and discovery, and the relationship with God is no different. God takes a risk opening himself to us, just as much as we do in opening ourselves to God. God took the risk of relationship in the call of Israel out of slavery in Egypt to become his covenant people. God also took a risk in becoming one of us in Jesus Christ and talking to that woman by the well in Samaria. The Scriptures show us story after story in which God takes the risk of relationship with humanity, and in doing so allows us to move beyond self-justification.
What we see in Exodus is the relationship at the punchbowl stage, if you will; the first stages of a “people in training.” Even though they’ve made the commitment of following the Lord out of Egypt, they’re still very much at risk. They had seen the signs that God was good and willed to be close to them. They had experienced the fire and the cloud, the crossing of the sea, and the deliverance from Pharaoh’s soldiers. Now they began to experience the unfamiliar and the unknown. The risks they were facing were real.
These people had no ability to forage for food and to feed themselves. They were artisans and laborers, not wilderness survival experts. This wasn’t a little weekend excursion. Hunger, thirst, and the question of whether they would survive the desert were suddenly very real and very present to them.
So what did they do? Well, they didn’t think back to the relationship with God and recall the good things that had happened. Rather, they began to question God’s integrity and make excuses for their situations — they began to justify themselves. They thought back to life as it had been and decided that slavery with food was a great deal less risky than freedom and possible starvation in the wilderness. They questioned God and confronted God’s “mouthpiece,” Moses. “Why did you do this?” they asked. “Is the Lord really among us or not?”
Moses was in a very threatening situation, went to God, and pleaded for the people, but God was not pleased. The people got their water, and later they got the meat they wanted. God was true to his promise, but Israel had not been so true in its relationship with God. The people had not learned that taking risks, that moving beyond self-justification (making excuses for one’s self), is the only way we move from doubt to faith, and we move into the kind of relationship that sustains us even in the wilderness times. All of life and every relationship, at least those that are real, are charged with risk and, ultimately, free of self-justification.
I would bet that everyone here today has known the fear of risk in a relationship. What is more, I would say all of us have had a time when our trust in God has wavered. Israel’s story and the story of the woman at the well are our stories, too. How does the story go? Like this: I opened my life to God and accepted him in faith. I thought that then God would assist, protect, and save me. I thought I would finally be safe. Now I am not so sure. I’ve experienced disappointment, lost my job, lost a loved one — the list is endless. Because I’ve got these doubts, I don’t know if it’s worth it to continue believing. Does that sound at all familiar?
When the Israelites murmured in this way, God became angry, and justifiably so. Why? Not only had they mistrusted God, but they weren’t interested in relating to him. They only wanted God to do something for them. So, God reacted to them exactly the same way you or I would react to someone who had declared undying friendship with us, only to find out we were being used. God wants to relate to us, not be our celestial handyman. To think only of what someone can do for us isn’t a relationship — it’s certainly not how we should think of relating to God.
The woman at the well, then, becomes a type of Israel and of us. She doesn’t understand that Jesus doesn’t want a drink; he wants a relationship. As one of the Church Fathers said, he wanted her. She’s concerned about all the wrong things — she wants what can be done for her. Instead, Jesus keeps inviting her to take the risk of relationship, and seeks to have her open herself to the presence of God right there in front of her.
She’s thirsty, but doesn’t realize that the water isn’t in the well, it’s deep inside her, and that the well of relationship needs to be unblocked. I so liked what Etty Hillesum wrote: “There is a really deep well inside me. And in it dwells God. Sometimes I am there too. But more often stones and grit block the well, and God is buried beneath. Then God must be dug out again.”
What blocks the well are our fears, our reluctance to take a risk, and our desire to justify ourselves. I’ve used that term a great deal, and it is simply another term for excuse, or alibi, or exercise of self-protection. It puts the onus back on us and takes away the ability to experience what God freely offers — himself and grace.
The woman at the well reminds us that our struggle to know God is important and that we must always take the risk of relationship. She wrestles with who this stranger is as much as Israel wrestled with who God was. Only in wrestling do we discover the identity of this elusive Divine presence. Sometimes that struggle even involves suffering, but even there we can find God.
As Paul tells the Romans, “we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
I ran across a piece that spoke of the late Mother Teresa’s “business card” that had this on it: “The fruit of silence is prayer. The fruit of prayer is faith. The fruit of faith is love. The Fruit of love is service. The fruit of service is peace.”
I think she was on to something. It’s not what God does for us that makes the difference, that turns justification by faith into yet another exercise in self-justification. Rather, it’s that God is for us. All of us have to discover the reality that God is in our midst and that it is his living presence with us that makes all the difference — that is what is so amazing about grace!
I’m not saying the discovery is easy — it isn’t. I would also hasten to add that, in my experience, any relationship that has ever really meant something hasn’t been easy, and involved a great deal of risk. The point is that the effort and the risk have been worth it because of the relationship, because of the person that we’ve come to know, and the person we’ve become because of that knowledge. As small an incident as it was, I am a different person because I took that risk on that long-ago night and asked that young lady to dance.
God continues to take the risk and opens the invitation to relationship to each one of us through Word and Sacrament and through his people. Christ invites us to drink and eat of something more than the drink or food that takes away the physical thirst and hunger we experience. Right here, right now, we are invited to share in oneness with God and with one another, but to do so we must take the risk and open ourselves to God’s presence.
The relationship, I believe, is worth the risk because God is trustworthy.
Opening ourselves to the presence of God, taking the risk of relationship, accepting the drink at the well, can make all the difference. It starts when we look beyond ourselves. Move beyond self-justification, and into the presence of God — the table is open.
The Very Rev. Steven A. Peay was dean-president emeritus of Nashotah House Theological Seminary.