Complain less. Love more. That’s what I hear emanating from today’s readings as we peer into the experience of the Hebrew people in the wilderness and the account of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.
We all know that people, from time to time and sometimes a lot of the time, complain and grumble. Why did he cut the line or cut me off in traffic? How come she gets all the breaks? Why can’t the neighbors be more agreeable? Then there are the Hebrew people, in the wilderness with Moses having been set free from the slavery of Egypt, complaining and whining about not getting the provisions they were promised. “Did God bring us out here just to let us die? Being slaves back in Egypt was better than this. At least we got a meal there. Is God among us or not?” How soon they seem to have forgotten that all they did in Egypt was complain, although there it was a bit more understandable.
Today we heard from Psalm 95, the Psalms being the hymnbook of the Jewish people. They were sung as a central part of the synagogue service and this particular Psalm, known as the Venite as you may remember, is at the heart of our service of Morning Prayer. In it we find words of joyful singing, worship and heartfelt thanksgiving. At the very end it admonishes the people not to grumble as they did in the wilderness.
When my children were growing up and Bonnie and I would, on occasion, hear some complaining that we thought was not necessary, as it had gone to whining. We told the story of the Israelites in the desert complaining to God when they did not get what they wanted. We taught the kids that the Hebrew word to complain or grumble is “luwn.” It became a strategy in our family when the kids would start to whine to say, “Stop luwning.” Guess what? It worked! Today it causes amusement to us from fond memories.
More seriously, however, we discover in the Psalm that perhaps the best antidote to chronic complaining is to live more from a place of thanksgiving or gratitude. That then opens us up to the possibility of love. Jesus shows us how as we observe the interchange between him and the Samaritan woman at the well.
It is important to know that Jews and Samaritans had a very checkered history to say the least. They had significant theological differences, most of which centered on a disagreement on the correct place to worship, whether it was Mt. Gerazim or Jerusalem. Perhaps even more astonishing, and the cause of great surprise to the disciples, Jesus engages in conversation with a woman. The detail that it occurred in the middle of the day is probably because she knew she wouldn’t have to interact with other people at that time of day as early in the morning was the usual time.
Yet she does meet Jesus there who, shockingly, speaks to her. When she admits to having had five husbands, many of us jump to the conclusion that she is an immoral person. Not so fast. It is also possible that since women were considered property that she is in fact a victim of abuse and has been cast aside many times by men who have owned her. Jesus has uncovered her pain and has done so casting no judgment! All he has offered is a liberating love that has set her free to witness to how she has been touched by him. Her life has been given back as she becomes a source of joy for the people of her community as everyone is blessed because of her witness.
Jesus’ love of her in boundary defying compassion broke down barriers and dividing walls. She did exactly what Psalm 95 asks of us – “Do not harden your hearts.” Stop complaining “as at Meribah (to quarrel), as on the day of Massah (to test) in the wilderness.” She might have had every right to complain, yet Jesus taught her to love as she received love and acceptance from him. Out of a strained relationship she was released for love and eventually mission in the Name of the One who is love.
I want to leave you with an image that I think captures the ministry of Jesus not only to the Samaritan woman, but also to so many others who are on the margins of acceptability. A man lived in a town where almost everyone practiced a different religion than he did. Nevertheless, everyone knew him as a person who was kind and loving to all, as he would always be present to help in any way he could. When he died, he could not be buried in the cemetery where everyone else was buried because he was not of the “correct” faith perspective.
This bothered some people, but they felt helpless to challenge the religious authorities and the man was buried outside of the fence of the cemetery. That night, however, someone went to the cemetery and moved the fence so that the man’s grave was also among the rest of the people who had been buried there.
This is what the ministry of Jesus was always doing: changing the boundaries, moving the fences, so that all would be included in his embrace of love. Because Jesus is the head of the Church and we call him Lord, just as with the Samaritan woman this becomes our mission and ministry too – to tear down all dividing walls, build communities of radical hospitality, and engage in a mission of love that embraces the dignity of every human being. As the Letter to the Romans teaches us today, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Complain less. Love more.