Lent 3 March 27, 2011

Exodus 17:1-7                                                                     

John 4:5-42                                                                            

Once there lived a great master of the Zen tradition of Buddhism. He was called, as was the practice with such masters, by the name of the village in which he lived, Joshu. In this village there was by legend a great stone bridge, the greatest in all of China. Now this master lived to the age of 120 and was renowned as a teacher. Monks travelled from all over to meet and train with him.

Once, late in his life, perhaps after 70 years of honing his knowledge and skill, a young monk came to meet him: The young monk said, “I have long heard of the great stone bridge of Joshu, but now I am here and I don’t see the stone bridge, I see only a single-log bridge.” The young monk was thinking, you see,  that he had heard all his life of this great spiritual master Joshu, and here he had come this long way and found only a frail old man.

Joshu looked at the young man and replied, “You don’t see the stone bridge; you see only a single-log bridge.” The young monk repeated, “What is the great stone bridge of Joshu?” And Joshu answered, “Horses cross, donkeys cross.”

Zen Buddhism is full of such stories, the point of which is to shake loose people’s ways of thinking, their ways of looking at life, so that they may achieve spiritual insight. There is a legend that Jesus and the Buddha met, and while historically there is certainly nothing to that, the Jesus we meet in St. John’s gospel can remind us of Zen stories like that of the great stone bridge of Joshu. The story of Nicodemus that we heard last week: Jesus talking about being “born from above.” The story this morning of the Samaritan woman at the well: Jesus offering her living water. These are like Zen stories, offered to shake us loose so that we may attain deeper spiritual insight.

What kind of spiritual mind do we need to see in a single-log crossing, a great stone bridge? What kind of spiritual mind do we need to see in a frail old man, a renowned master? What kind of spiritual mind do we need to see in a story about an outcast woman at an ancient well the story of our own lives, our own thirst for living water? What kind of mind do we need to see in this itinerant preacher from Nazareth the deeper reality of the Son of God, whose way of light and truth is our way to salvation?

My daughter Kate is on the search committee in her own parish in Ohio, interviewing candidates for their next rector. She calls me now and then to report on their progress. After a recent interview, one committee member complained that she wasn’t sure the candidate was really orthodox enough. “I need him to swear on the Bible,” she said, “that he believes every word of the Nicene Creed.”

“That’s the wrong approach,” I told her. You should be asking, “What does it mean to you that you believe in God as creator of heaven and earth? What does it mean to you that you believe in Jesus as God’s Son? What does it mean to you that you believe in the communion of saints?” What does it mean to you in the way you live your life, the way you see the world? And how do you convey that meaning to other people: how do you witness to your faith?

In other words, is the Nicene Creed just a single-log bridge? Is believing it, as Alice in Wonderland so famously put it, like “believing six impossible things before breakfast”? Or do we see in the Creed and the Bible and all the rich inheritance of our religion the mystery of the great stone bridge, where “horses cross, donkeys cross” – we ourselves cross? Is this candidate you’re interviewing – is his faith alive? Can he help you make your faith alive? That, I said, is what you need to be searching for in your committee.

We live, you and I, in a time of literalism, of narrow vision and mean dreams. We have shrunk reality down so much that it is no longer really real. And in the shrinking, we have shrunk ourselves. What are we worth besides what we produce and consume? But this shrunken world we’ve made is closing in on us. Look at the events of the last decade. The tragedy of 9/11 could have led us to open up a whole new way for America to relate to the rest of the world, a way of reconciliation that acknowledged and healed the injustices of the past and held out new hope and love as the basis for the future. But here we are, embroiled in terrible and ultimately unwinnable wars. Do we really think war is the answer? The Great Recession, out of which we are still struggling to emerge, could have led us to take a whole new look at our economic and political systems, envisioning changes so that they would truly serve us rather than enslaving us to serve them. But instead our state and national legislatures are engaged in playing zero-sum power  games with our future.

Yet God is not dead and God is not done with us. Still there walks among us this young Jew from Nazareth. To some he is just a single-log bridge, a quixotic religious figure like so many others, long dead now, his religion losing out these days to soccer games and dance competitions. But to others this Jesus is the great stone bridge, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God; the One who sees more deeply into us than we see into ourselves, the One who tells us all we’ve ever been and done and could be and do, the One who gives us living water and feeds us with his Body and his Blood.

 “We ourselves have heard him, and we know that he really is the Savior of the world.”

– John 4:42

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