Friday, January 20, 2012

Finding the place where you can breathe of the Holy

The story of the Samaritan woman at the well, and her encounter with Jesus, continues today with Jesus telling her about her life with five husbands in John 4:16-26. Hearing this, she recognizes Jesus as a prophet, but says that he is not fitting into her familiar categories of religious dogma and debate.

She notes that her people believe God should be worshipped at their mountain, the place of Jacob's well, and they have a firm historical basis for making that claim.

Jesus's people, she says, maintain that God should be worshipped at the Temple in Jerusalem, on Mt. Zion. She could have said, but politely did not, that Jesus's people have a shakier historical claim. The Temple can only trace its lineage to King David, rather late in comparison to Jacob's well, the founder of all Israel.

Jesus cuts through all this religious muck by telling her: "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem."

You will worship God everywhere because God is everywhere.

Last summer on our journey through the Holy Land, the members of our pilgrim group came to roughly the same realization at roughly the same time: That we all felt stifled by the religious conflict and the oppressiveness of religious dogmas on full display.

The wall separating Palestinian communities
from Israeli communities
The Armenian monks sneered at the Greek monks, the Hasidic Jews looked disdainfully at the Reform Jews, and the Muslims kept to themselves or live behind walls and checkpoints built by the Israelis to keep them separated. Everyone wore distinct garb to separate themselves from everyone else. No one could be neutral, and certainly no one could openly question their own religious dogmas and identity, not without being ostracized or worse. "There are no atheists in Jerusalem," someone told us.

It was hard for us to feel the presence of God in this place that is supposed to be "holy." God felt confined so tightly God could not escape.

Let me explain this another way, because I think Jesus was getting at the same idea in his encounter with the Samaritan woman.

Jesus declared: Let God out.

Look for God beyond the confines of the expected and the dogmatic.

God cannot be enclosed in a temple or a well or in a book, no matter how sacred all of those are. To attempt to confine God into a box is to stifle the holiness within ourselves. God needs to breathe for us to breathe.

As we walked through Jerusalem I began to appreciate more deeply how my own sense of the Holy had grown and been nurtured in sacred places other than Jerusalem. The Holy City was amazing and I would certainly go back. But my sense of the holy has come more deeply in small retreat centers, in the Mojave Desert, on the Karuk Indian rancheria,  and in the churches where I have worshipped and formed lasting friendships. I longed to go somewhere like Iona in Scotland.

There are many holy places on this earth. God dwells everywhere and with each of us, in every living creature, in every rock, in every sea, in every tree. We are connected through the sacred, and that makes us sacramental beings to our core. I hope and pray you will find the sacred places and sacred moments that touch you deeply so that you might breathe of the holiness within yourself.

Art: Depiction of Jesus at the well with Samaritan woman painted in the 4th century in a Rome catacomb.

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