The Death of God
Elie Wiesel in Night tells the story of Akiba Drumer, a rabbi from a small town in Poland.
He was old and bent, his lips constantly trembling. He was always praying, in the block, at work, in the ranks. He recited entire pages from the Talmud, arguing with himself, asking and answering himself endless questions. One day, he said to me:
“It’s over. God is no longer with us.”
And as though he regretted having uttered such words so coldly, so dryly, he added in his broken voice, “ I know. No one has the right to say things like that. I know that very well. Man is too insignificant, too limited, to even try to comprehend God’s mysterious ways. But what can someone like myself do? I’m neither a sage nor a just man. I am not a saint. I’m a simple creature of flesh and bone. I suffer hell in my soul and my flesh. I also have eyes and I see what is being done here. Where is God’s mercy? Where’s God? How can I believe, how can anyone believe in this God of Mercy?”
Poor Akiba Drumer, if only he could have kept his faith in God, if only he could have considered this suffering a divine test, he would not have been swept away by the selection. But as soon as he felt the first chinks in his faith, he lost all incentive to fight and opened the door to death.
When the selection came, he was doomed from the start, offering his neck to the executioner, as it were. All he asked of us was:
“In three days, I’ll be gone … Say Kaddish for me.”
We promised: in three days, when we would see the smoke rising from the chimney, we would think of him. We would gather ten men and hold a special service. All his friends would say Kaddish.
Wiesel, Elie (2012-02-07). Night (pp. 76-77). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.
Wiesel and how many other sufferers wonder why God doesn’t sweep in like Mr. Incredible. Why doesn’t God just tear down the barbed wire, pummel the Nazi guards and release the prisoners from their bondage. Again and again the Bible talks about God’s mercy on the poor, the prisoner, the powerless. If God is so on their side why doesn’t he act?
Why doesn’t the world stay saved?
No matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again. Sometimes I just want it to stay saved! You know, for a little bit? I feel like the maid; I just cleaned up this mess! Can we keep it clean for… for ten minutes!
Jesus then refuses to use Mr. Incredible powers on his own behalf. He doesn’t turn stones into bread. He doesn’t offer a display of angelic rescue-entitlement for the crowd at the temple. He doesn’t cut a deal with the devil for political and military power. He instead walks the long, patient road of suffering believing that his Father can be trusted and that his suffering will not be in vain.
A Notoriously Hard Sell
Jesus’ road of suffering is a notoriously hard sell. During the portion of his ministry when he acts much like Mr. Incredible in the Galilee he’s wildly popular. Everyone wants to have a piece of him, to touch him, to be his friend, to be near the promise that his obvious power offers.
During that portion of his ministry as the Gospel of Mark shows him repeatedly sneaking away to solitary places for rest and prayer. You get the sense that his popularity threatens to overtake him.
You also get the sense that despite his popularity and political power that is increasingly being recognized he’s most at odds with the giant misunderstanding that marks his relationships. The more power he displays the more he reinforces the crowd’s misguided expectations for his Messiahship. The more miracles he does the more the crowds tempt him to be just the kind of Son of God that Satan tempted him to be. How can he be understood to be Christ the Lord and not Miracle Max?
An Ambassador Recruits Emissaries
So Jesus the Messiah wishes to recruit individuals who will relay on his behalf the message that the creator God of Israel can in fact be trusted to rescue his broken world. He’s recruit people to communicate this convincingly to a world beat down by the kind of suffering Wiesel and how many others describe. They will have to communicate it to a world that is more than skeptical.
A world where we have long since given up the idea that any god will rescue us out of his mercy or kindness and so have now resorted to numerous strategies and coping mechanisms to take matters into our own hands. If we cannot rescue the world, or even rescue ourselves, at least we can find small ways to make our suffering bearable and take the edge off the pain. We can take pride in having overcome our adversaries at least in small, quiet ways.
How will any of these people have any understanding of what Jesus is saying? How will they not quickly confuse his message for the common fantasy and wish of greater power to save ourselves and save the world in the way we imagine in needs to be saved?
In the Gospel of John John selects the stories of two encounters with Jesus to illustrate Jesus’ approach.
In John 3 Jesus is approached by a wealthy, powerful, learned man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus has through the reports about Jesus come to the conclusion that something powerful is going on in, with and through Jesus but he would have much to lose by approaching Jesus publicly so he arranges a covert meeting with Jesus at night.
Nicodemus expects to be treated with the kind of deference that he feels his position and accomplishments merit and is dismayed by how unimpressed Jesus is with his credentials. Nicodemus imagines that if Jesus really is the Messiah that Jesus will see the value of a possible relationship with a man like Nicodemus, one with connections, reputation, influence, wealth and power. Nicodemus imagines that he is exactly the kind of man that Jesus needs, as so imagines everyone else.
In characteristic fashion in the Gospel of John Jesus approaches Nicodemus with an ambiguity that will not only trip Nicodemus up but do so in a way that will reveal to Nicodemus, and to us, the shape of our bias which keeps us from seeing, believing and following Jesus.
Jesus will tell Nicodemus “unless one is born anothen you cannot see the kingdom of God”. “anothen” has two meanings in Greek, it can mean “again” or “from above”. Nicodemus will express his incredulity by embracing “again” but Jesus clearly means “from above” which is from where Jesus claims to have come. We will see Jesus enter into this kind of ambiguities with people repeatedly in the Gospel of John.
The Samaritan Woman at the Well
Now we, and everyone else in Jesus’ day would with Nicodemus imagine that Nicodemus is EXACTLY the kind of person that Jesus needs for his mission, but we would also have imagined he’d turn stones into bread, show some angel power and flex some political muscle.
While the writer Luke takes two books to show us the work of Jesus and the Holy Spirit in sending out emissaries to the world, John will do his work with one book. In the book of Acts the Holy Spirit will move disciples of Jesus out into the larger world, in John Jesus begins the movement, and he does so with the most unlikely agent.
All of the things that Nicodemus is, the woman at the well isn’t. Nicodemus is a man in a world where only men were allowed to be witnesses in court because only men were thought to be reliable tellers of the truth.
Nicodemus is a Jew, educated, respected, influential. This woman is going to the well at midday when she knows the other women of the town won’t be there. Who would want to carry her daily supply of water at the hottest time of day? Everything Nicodemus had in reputation this woman had in notoriety.
This woman was also a Samaritan. The Samaritans were the half-breed heretical cousins of the Jews and there was nothing below the surface about the contempt the two groups had for each other. Nicodemus had a pedigree, the Samaritans were considered to be Assyrian-bred mongrels who pretended to be God’s chosen people but who revered an altered Bible at a knock-off temple at Mt. Gerizim which a hundred years before the Jews had destroyed. Jews traveling from the Galilee to Judea did their best to avoid contact with Samaritans and the Samaritans resented having to allow them passage through their land.
Nicodemus was an upstanding man in his community whose morals were undoubtedly beyond reproach. This woman, as we will see had marital if not sexual issues. Jews were allowed to marry three times, this woman had been married 5 times and was currently living with a man who was not her husband, and possibly the husband of another woman. Women couldn’t normally initiate divorce in that context so she had been either widowed or disposed of by five different men. This together with the time of day she went to the well are clues to what kind of reputation she had with the respectable Samaritans of the town.
Meeting at the Well
Jesus is left alone by the well as his disciples have gone into town to buy food. We find Jesus again, as we found him with the devil in the desert, bereft of even the common supplies needed for human life. Here, as in the desert, he doesn’t use his “Mr. Incredible” powers to supply himself with even the most basic needs. He is voluntarily reduced by all appearances to a beggar.
When he approaches the woman she is startled. He comes to her from below, beneath her, making her in that moment a possible benefactor. Being a benefactor in that culture was a very big deal. It was a position of power and authority.
I wonder if this woman had ever in her life had the opportunity to be a benefactor for anyone. Having been divorced by not three but five husbands, and now occupying the socially shameful and powerless place of depending upon a man who had no social obligation towards here she is a poster child of a sinful victim. The last thing she could be was a benefactor, responsible for the survival, welfare or well-being for anyone.
Empowered by her new-found position she does what many powerful people do, remind her inferior of her position of superiority according to conventional wisdom. “How can a Jew ask a Samaritan woman for water?”
The question besides illuminating the religious, historical and social barriers between them reminded Jesus of the rules that were supposed to bind him, the rules of ceremonial cleanliness. Jews didn’t share utensils with Samaritans so partaking of water from her bucket would have been verboten.
While Nicodemus had approached Jesus at night, here Jesus approaches this woman in broad daylight. While Jesus is willing to engage a potential disciples like Nicodemus, this is the kind of disciple Jesus seems eager to seek out.
The Ambiguous Language Trap
As the Samaritan woman is enjoying her moment of potential benefaction and her rare opportunity to remind her cultural adversary of his place of need, Jesus invites her into the same language ambiguous space of learning with which he engaged Nicodemus.
John 4:10–12 (NET)
10 Jesus answered her, “If you had known the gift of God and who it is who said to you, ‘Give me some water to drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”11 “Sir,” the woman said to him, “you have no bucket and the well is deep; where then do you get this living water?12 Surely you’re not greater than our ancestor Jacob, are you? For he gave us this well and drank from it himself, along with his sons and his livestock.”
If you remember what Jesus said to Nicodemus you’d feel the ambiguity of God’s electing grace. Unless this woman is born from above she cannot SEE the situation that she imagines is clear before her.
Jesus names two things “the gift of God” which refers to the Holy Spirit and “who it is who said to you” meaning himself. This is John doing Luke and Acts in the same story.
The one before her who seems so inept as to not meet his most basic needs suggests that she should have offered him “living water”. She is thinking natural, moving water but again Jesus’ message is ambiguous. Later Jesus will say this…
John 7:38–39 (NET)
38 let the one who believes in me drink. Just as the scripture says, ‘From within him will flow rivers of living water.’ ”39 (Now he said this about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were going to receive, for the Spirit had not yet been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.)
Her response is essentially the same as that of Nicodemus with his “born again” incredulity. She presciently and yet mockingly asks if this seemingly ignorant and disabled Jew would be greater than Jacob, the great benefactor of their common ancestry who was supposed to have provided the well. The point is piercing, bringing again into the conversation all the political and relational conflict between their peoples together with the Samaritan claims of lineage and correctness. Who would claim to be greater than patriarch Jacob? Someone without enough sense to bring a bucket to a deep well? Such a man who asks for water then offers water from some unseen source? She sees him not as any sort of potential benefactor but rather as some sort of fool.
If Not Mr. Incredible, Then At Least A Competent Water District
Jesus now begins to press into the ambiguity of his invitation and illuminate where this woman’s very practical thoughts lie. If this Jews at the well without a bucket will be any help at all he could at least help her with her misery and her problems. She is a sinful victim who is stuck in life with few resources to help herself. She is trapped in this world of suffering and the ways she has worked to try to give her options and solutions have only dug her whole deeper. The five men she’s married, the socially acceptable means of economic and social security have all failed to pan out. She, like Lindsey Vonn has now charter her own course. What she’d really like out of Jesus is a little help.
Nothing demonstrates the difference between Mr. Incredible and Jesus better than the observation that if you were omniscient and omnipotent and you wanted to “save” and “cure” a lot of people addressing the needs one by one is a foolish way to proceed. Like this cartoon of putting Superman to work generating electricity Jesus could have extended far more lives by teaching the people how to produce penicillin and teaching the basics about good sanitation. In this case what the woman would really like is indoor plumbing.
Now Jesus begins to reveal himself to her in a gentle, but confrontative way. She’s been the one playing the culture cards against him, now he asks for the most basic element of propriety. “Is the man of the house home?” before we go any further inquiring about your plumbing request?
No, there is no husband.
That’s right, five husbands have left you without resources and the man you’re living with isn’t even extending any legal or social responsibility towards you.
She is undone. Her moment of benefaction dissolves. Her vulnerability is exposed. What will this Jewish man now do?
She defers again to the divide between them as if perhaps she can hide behind it. “Jews worship in Jerusalem, Samaritans at Gerizim, maybe you should move along and continue your journey to be with your kind and leave me alone.”
In his answer Jesus acknowledges the divide but subtly closes the distance and includes her into the community of those who call the creator God Father.
Jesus doesn’t say his Father is only the father of Jews, but her father as well. He now invites her to stand with him and worship their shared Father. He crosses over the divide and positions himself as her brother and she as his sister. While other men have left her and rejected her or refused to become family with her, Jesus does.
The Messiah, The I Am
Now instead of pointing out the religious division between her, she again presciently mentions the Messiah, the promised one who in the minds of Jews and Samaritans will fight a war of national liberation and free their people from pagan imperial rule.
Jesus here does something very unusual. He claims to be the Messiah, and he claims to be Yhwh.
The Gospel of John is known for this “I Am” sayings of Jesus but it is interesting that this is the first one. Jesus gave no such explicit self revelation to Nicodemus. Nicodemus would have scoffed and ran at such a disclosure. It would have been a stumbling stone for Nicodemus. Jesus now discloses himself to her. How will she respond?
He knows all, but loves me still
Suddenly the disciples return and they see a very startling and awkward social, moral and religious situation before them. Their moral and religious filters are engaged and questions immediately pop into their minds. This all looks inappropriate but they don’t dare to say anything.
The woman too is caught in this new space. When this situation arose she was in a position of power by how Jesus approached it. As the conversation unfolded she felt safe with this man in the ways she had always been unsafe with other men, and unsafe spiritually and religiously in the ways she had felt safe by virtue of appealing to the religious tradition of the Samaritans. She flees the scene leaving her water jar.
The next scene is her back in her village. The village that she avoided out of shame, out of shunning, now she seeks. She comes as someone who might be warning of a storm, or an invading army, but her words bring good news, not news of doom.
Her message couldn’t be more ironic or shocking. This woman who has been shamed or shunned by the village for her moral failures or failures as a woman of value cries that THIS man told her everything she ever did. We might imagine that the village would be horrified at the thought of this. This woman who married and was rejected by 5 husbands and now lives with a man who isn’t her husband and may be someone else’s is happy because this prophet has seen her past?
What is alarming, gloriously, wonderfully alarming, is that this man knows everything she’s ever done and yet invited her into his friendship, into his fellowship, into his circle. She fled at the appearance of the other men, but this man seems different from all other men she’s ever met.
The Mr. Incredible the Samaritan Village Thought It Wanted
It is right here that we see the problem with the Mr. Incredibles we fantasize about having as friends or being. If the Samaritan village had petitioned Mr. Incredible to rid the village of the evil that it was suffering from this woman might have been his victim. Can Mr. Incredible save both Nazis and Jews? Can he save both Romans and Jews? Can Mr. Incredible save his enemies?
Elie Wiesel was of course not the only victim of Nazi crimes. Corrie Ten Boom was part of a family that was hiding Jews from the Nazis. Their crime was discovered and the family was sent to the camps to suffer what the Jews had suffered. After the war there was interest in her story and she became an evangelist. In her book The Hiding Place she tells this story.
I CONTINUED to speak, partly because the home in Bloemendaal ran on contributions, partly because the hunger for Betsie’s story seemed to increase with time. I traveled all over Holland, to other parts of Europe, to the United States.
But the place where the hunger was greatest was Germany. Germany was a land in ruin, cities of ashes and rubble, but more terrifying still, minds and hearts of ashes. Just to cross the border was to feel the great weight that hung over that land.
It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, the former S.S. man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the processing center at Ravensbruck. He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time. And suddenly it was all there—the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, Betsie’s pain-blanched face.
He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. “How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein.” he said. “To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away!”
His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often to the people in Bloemendaal the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side.
Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him.
I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give Your forgiveness. As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand, a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me.
And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.
Boom, Corrie Ten; Elizabeth Sherrill; John Sherrill (2006-01-01). The Hiding Place (pp. 247-248). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Messiah, Not Miracle Max
For this woman, burdened with shame, this was the kind of Mr. Incredible she had been waiting for. Was she impressed that he knew her sin? Yes. But the point was that her sin and shame did not get in the way of his gentle approach and invitation into his circle.
At the news of this the two makes it way to see Jesus.
The Savior of the World
While the town is making their way to Jesus, Jesus does to his disciples what he did to Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman. They too are invited into Jesus’ mission through a verbal misunderstanding.
John 4:31–38 (NET)
31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.”
32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”
33 So the disciples began to say to one another, “No one brought him anything to eat, did they?”
34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to complete his work.35 Don’t you say, ‘There are four more months and then comes the harvest?’ I tell you, look up and see that the fields are already white for harvest! 36 The one who reaps receives pay and gathers fruit for eternal life, so that the one who sows and the one who reaps can rejoice together. 37 For in this instance the saying is true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap what you did not work for; others have labored and you have entered into their labor.”
They don’t understand, but his words will be fulfilled before their eyes.
John 4:39–42 (NET)
39 Now many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the report of the woman who testified, “He told me everything I ever did.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they began asking him to stay with them. He stayed there two days, 41 and because of his word many more believed.
42 They said to the woman, “No longer do we believe because of your words, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this one really is the Savior of the world.”
How Jesus and The Holy Spirit Save the World
So our Lenten journey began with Jesus refusing to turn stones into bread, grab attention through an angelic show or gain political and military power through Satan’s help. Jesus’ mission would not come through using it like Mr. Incredible to crush enemies, but to heal wounds, forgive sins and turn ancient enemies into brothers and sisters.
The emissaries of the mission are as mysterious as the manner of the mission itself. Jesus tells the woman about “springs of living water” and tells his disciples about “food that you nothing about” and in their very midst, even when they don’t understand what is happening, the water and the food are doing their work and exerting their power.
As one pastor noted about this story,
the Reverend Donn Moomaw, told me that this is the story of a woman who came for water but who went home with the well.
Bruner, F. D. (2012). The Gospel of John: A Commentary (p. 273). Grand Rapids, MI;Cambridge, U.K.: Eerdmans.
The Holy Spirit was moving through this woman and using this woman to bring the living water to her village, the village she previously avoided in shame.
Why could she receive Jesus and see Jesus in a way that Nicodemus could not? She thirsted for the water Jesus was giving in a way Nicodemus was not. Nicodemus came at night because he considered himself an enemy of God but he was suspect of Jesus. The woman likely considered herself an enemy of God but by finding grace in this safe man who loved her even though he knew her past. This was the kind of Messiah she thirsted for.
Through this Jesus official disciples get a lesson in what would unfold in Luke’s book of Acts. It will be Jesus grace for sinners that will bring in the shamed, the heretics, those that the “godly” imagine are unworthy or ill born. They are born from above. They see the kingdom of God. They see their savior.