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The Speaking One


Old Testament Reading: Isaiah 7:1-17

New Testament Reading: Luke 16:19-31

Text: John 4:16-26

Today's sermon is prompted by a question Lucy Tucker asked a few weeks ago about a point I made in my Advent column in The Epistle. In it I observed that nowhere in the four gospels does Jesus ever make the affirmation Christian theologians, had they been there, would certainly have coached him to make, namely, "I am the Messiah."

Lucy said that sometimes he seems to imply it so clearly that it would be the worst kind of nitpicking to refuse to count it as an affirmation. The clearest instance would be in the passage I just read. In it, the Samaritan woman voices her pious expectation that the Messiah will one day come to answer all her questions, and Jesus tells her that day has arrived. "I who speak to you am he."

If that's what he meant, or what the gospel writer meant, then I still maintain it is the exception that proves the rule! Because even when he comes so close, the point one cannot escape is that he does not even here cross over the line. It would have been so easy to say, given what he had already said, and what he was about to imply anyway, "I am the Messiah you seek." Why didn't he?

I am going to suggest that it is because that is not what he meant at all. At least I am going to suggest another plausible way of understanding the text. That's all I can do, all anyone can do, since we cannot positively recover the original author's intent.

Let me point out that the translation "I who speak to you am he" must not go completely unchallenged. It is a good possible translation, but it could with equal justification be rendered, "I am the one who is speaking with you." That is in fact a slightly more natural interpretation of the Greek, in my opinion, and it happens not to be any kind of Messianic affirmation or implication.

The text as I propose to read it would coincide in meaning with another from the Gospel of Thomas, saying 52, "His disciples said to him: Twenty-four prophets spoke in Israel and they all spoke about thee. He said to them: You have dismissed the Living One who is before you and you have spoken about the dead."

In both passages Jesus rebuts someone's pious Messianic expectation, rejecting it instead as an impious dodge, a self-deceptive deferral of present truth in the name of future hope. Jesus' point is by no means whether he or someone else is the Messiah, whether the Messiah has come or not or whether he will ever come. The point is that someone is shutting their ears to the truth now sounding in order to catch the strains of some imagined future truth somewhere out on the distant horizon.

A question of truth has been posed between Jesus and the woman of Samaria, two questions in fact. The first is how she ought to manage her sexuality. The second has to do with the relative merits of Samaritan versus Jewish liturgy. The woman seems to want answers to these questions, at least to the second. And she is lucky enough to have stumbled onto Jesus of Nazareth as a conversation partner, he whom most of us would wish most dearly to be able to ask religious questions.

And Jesus of Nazareth offers her an answer! Now there's luck! But she shakes it off like a dog shaking off bath water. She has absolutely no interest in whatever this unknown Jew has to say. She knows no answer can count for anything except that which she does not have! The theoretical answer, still an unfilled blank, to be given one day, when Messiah comes, or to be precise, when Hell freezes over.

No answer Jesus can give her in the present is to be preferred or valued equally to that which exists only in the future, that which is not and cannot be available to her in the present. All available answers are rejected so that she may rest content with having no answer at all.

Do you see? The futurity of the answer functions only as an excuse for not listening to any proffered answer. And of course it is an excuse the Samaritan wants, not an answer. Because an answer would force her to make changes she cares not to make. Notice how she only raised the liturgical question of Mount Zion versus Mount Gerizim as the proper location for a Temple in the first place to distract Jesus from an issue of personal embarrassment. The real issue to which she did not want Jesus' answer that noon, which had suddenly become a good deal hotter under the stranger's terrible scrutiny, was not what mount on which to worship but rather what bed in which to sleep. An answer was precisely what she wanted to avoid.

Now there's a paradox. How can you avoid something if you don't know what it is? How would you even know it was the sort of thing one would want to avoid? If I tell you, "Listen, So-&-so's a real troublemaker. Avoid him at all costs," I have to go on to tell you "Here's how to spot him." Otherwise I am just wasting your time.

What made the Samaritan so dead certain that Jesus' answer was to be avoided? The answer is clear: really, she already knew it. Her conscience told her long ago, and she was living with its burden. She had repressed it as best she could. And she sensed this man was about to undo that work.

She says, and means no mere polite flattery: "Sir, I perceive you are a prophet." She means she knows he is one of those inconvenient ones whose business is to do just what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 14:25: a prophet discloses the secrets of the listener's heart. She has the sudden dreadful certainty that out of his mouth will issue the incriminating voice of her own conscience, and it will be a sharp, two-edged sword.

So she seeks to parry the thrust of that sword by the deft stroke of appealing to an even higher and, more importantly, an absent, thus silent, authority: the sleeping and probably imaginary Messiah, who does us sinners the favor of taking his own sweet time lest we have to face the music.

To appeal to his absent authority is to invoke his authority to buttress and give warrant to her convenient agnosticism. "How am I to be sure that bed-hopping is wrong unless King Messiah should settle the question once and for all?  Until he does, as Paul says, "Do not pronounce judgment before the time."

What Jesus does is to cast the sword from her hand with a bold stroke. He sweeps away the imaginary authority of the Messiah in favor of the authority of a simple voice of unknown name that speaks a truth so clear that the conscience must yield to it. One takes hasty refuge in the thickets of epistemology only when one wants the truth to seem less clear than it is. "Messiah may be coming, but I am the one speaking to you now." The truth is here, the truth to which your conscience bears eloquent witness. The word is near you: it is in your heart, it is on your tongue. Do not launch up to the heavens, claiming to seek it when all the time you are only trying to flee from it.

Do you insist on believing in an infallible Bible because otherwise you can't be sure of any religious doctrines? Even having it would be no guarantee, because then you'd need an infallible interpreter of that infallible book. No guarantee of infallibility could be as clear and convincing as the voice of conscience and religious experience, which is what your faith is based on in the final analysis.

Will your confidence in the Bible be shaken if you don't believe in it as an inerrant revelation? Will your ability to be challenged and convicted by the gospels be lessened if you can't any more be sure that the historical Jesus said everything there attributed to him? I have a simple test for you! Just open the gospels and start reading! Are you challenged? Are you convicted?

Are the Bible's teachings, the Gospels' teachings, really so vacuous and unpersuasive that you would be unmoved to take them seriously unless you knew they were spoken by a god? Then they are poor revelations indeed! Do you have to have some theologian prove the Bible's words deserve your obedience before your conscience will feel their authority? Then, my friend, you are hard of heart! It is superfluous whether Jesus ever said one of these things! It doesn't matter whether God inspired the Bible or it was written by a roomful of monkeys pecking randomly on typewriters!

Forget the inspired Word of God! Have done with waiting for the Messiah, searching for the historical Jesus! This book, this text, this voice, is the one that is speaking to you now. If your conscience cannot hear it and will not heed it, a thousand men raised from the dead, a million messiahs will not add one whit to its authority.




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