Saturday, September 4, 2010
Words at the Well
You're sensitive to the use and abuse of language, and you recognize how the culture and its various sub-cultures develop their own code words and languages. Even individual businesses have code words and languages. For example, when you see an announcement that says John Smith has elected to pursue career opportunities elsewhere, you know that John Smith has been given his walking papers.
So, too, the Church. The American evangelical church uses – and sometimes misuses – words and language. Or we use code words that we know the meanings for but anyone else might be mystified. For example, are you amil, premil or postmil? And some of us say “mainstream Protestant” when we want to say “those denominations who long ago abandoned the Bible and now embrace all kinds of crazy things.”
Michael Spencer, in Mere Churchianity: Finding Your Way Back to Jesus-Shaped Spirituality, knew how sensitive this whole business of language can be to faith and our understanding of God. He would tell his students that “vocabulary is education.” Language can be inclusive and/or exclusive. It can facilitate entry, and it can erect barriers to entry.
Jesus often used language and common understanding (like the parables) to communicate and to reprimand. The story of Jesus and the woman at the well (John 4) is a classic in this regard.
Traveling near Sychar in Samaria, Jesus asks the woman for a drink of water, and she responds first with statement of social separation – Jews don’t associate with Samaritans. He ignores her answer and goes deeper with a statement about living water. She appeals to history and precedent (“are you greater than our father Jacob?”). He ups the ante and tells her that he offers something far better than Jacob. So she says “let me have this water,” and that’s when he starts talking about her husband – or the man she’s living with. Then she says he must be a prophet, and he goes all the way to saying he’s the Messiah.
Do you see her drift? First the social, then the traditional and historical, then the theological.
It’s a fascinating account from a number of perspectives, and especially so from that of how the woman and Jesus used words and language – she to erect barriers and dodge the real issue and he to keep bringing her right back to it.
And I wonder – do we do that to dodge real issues? Do we focus on the social stuff, the traditions and even theology to keep us from getting to close to the real Messiah?
Spencer would argue that’s exactly what we do.
Perspectives and Abiding in Jesus by Nancy Rosback at Bend the Page.
A Letter to the North American Church by Chaplain Mike at Internet Monk.