Blog|The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young
“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done” (Jn. 4)!
1. Every day we hear about horrifying violence and misery in Ukraine – trench warfare in freezing rain, missile strikes, civilians tortured and murdered, cities, schools, museums, libraries destroyed, 500 churches and religious sites obliterated.[i] Several hundred thousand people have perished there in just one year.[ii] Lately, trying to understand, I have been reading the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004).
Milosz was about fourteen years old during World War I when the German army invaded Vilnius. He was there with just his mother because his father had been conscripted by the Russians. Later in the Polish-Soviet War in 1919, he and his mother were fired on by troops. Throughout World War II Milosz secretly helped Jewish families to survive. He witnessed Nazi soldiers burning down Warsaw in August 1944.
He writes, “I do not regret those years in Warsaw, which was, I believe, the most agonizing spot in the whole of terrorized Europe. Had I chosen emigration, my life would certainly have followed a very different course. But my knowledge of the crimes which Europe has witnessed in the twentieth century would be less direct, less concrete than it is.”[iii]
For six years after the war Milosz served as a cultural attaché for the People’s Republic of Poland until his outspoken criticisms of the Soviet leadership made it necessary for him to defect to the West. He ended up having a long career at the University of California, Berkeley. Some faculty colleagues were surprised when he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1980. They did not even know he was a poet. He wrote poetry almost entirely in Polish. Americans could not understand and Polish readers were prevented by censorship from reading it.
He writes as a refugee and an immigrant. “Faithful mother tongue, / I have been serving you. / Every night, I used to set before you little bowls of colors / so you could have your birch, your cricket, your finch / as preserved in my memory…/ You were my native land.” He goes on, “Now, I confess my doubt. / There are moments when it seems to me I have squandered my life. / For you are a tongue of the debased, / of the unreasonable, hating themselves / even more than they hate other nations, / a tongue of informers, / a tongue of the confused, / ill with their own innocence. //But without you who am I?…”[iv] Milosz persists in this lonely work because he does not want us to forget what happened.
Milosz writes about terrifying destruction and cruelty. “You who wronged a simple man / Bursting into laughter at the crime, / And kept a pack of fools around you / To mix good and evil, to blur the line, // Though everyone bowed down before you, / saying virtue and wisdom lit your way… / Do not feel safe. The poet remembers. / You can kill one, but another is born.”[v]
Why would I spend so much time studying this record of human depravity? In part because of Milosz’s deep Christian faith. This belief helps him to see the beauty of the world even in the midst of stark suffering. Let me share his poem “Veni Creator.”
“Come, Holy Spirit, / bending or not bending the grasses, / appearing or not above our heads in a tongue of flame, / at hay harvest or when they plough in the orchards or when snow / covers crippled firs in the Sierra Nevada. / I am only a man: I need visible signs. / I tire easily, building the stairway of abstraction. / Many a time I asked, you know it well, that the statue in the church / lift its hand, only once, just once, for me.”
“But I understand that signs must be human, / therefore call one man, anywhere on earth, / not me – after all I have some decency – /and allow me, when I look at him, to marvel at you.”[vi]
2. For Christians that one person who helps us to marvel at God is Jesus. If all we had of the Bible were this one story of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman that would be enough. Jesus talks longer to her than to his friends the disciples, or to his family, or in defending himself before the authorities. She is the first person he reveals himself to, the first one to realize who he is. She is the first person to tell others about Jesus, the first preacher. We follow in her footsteps this morning. In a sign of respect let’s call her Leah.
Recently under pressure from the governor’s office, the Florida Department of education lobbied the College Board to remove certain ideas and methodologies from the Advanced Placement course in African American Studies.[vii] One of the most important concepts that was erased is called intersectionality. Kimberlé Crenshaw first articulated this simple idea in 1989. She points out that race, gender, class, sexuality, disability, etc. intersect and uniquely shape our experience. It means that if you are a wealthy, Black, cisgender middle-aged man the world will look different than if you are a Black trans teenager living on the streets.
Of all the people for Jesus to talk to Leah is a particularly interesting choice. Taking an intersectional approach, Leah is a triple outsider.[viii] First, she is a Samaritan. Samaritans were ostracized, regarded as a mixed race people descended from the Assyrian invaders and the Jews left behind during the Babylonian captivity. The ancient historian Josephus writes about how Jews and Samaritans hated and murdered each other.[ix]
Second, Leah is a woman. Women were not allowed to participate in public life. Every morning faithful male Jews would pray, “thank God I am not a woman.” Women were regarded as dangerous. Religious teachers were not allowed to talk to women in public, not even their own wives. An intersectionality approach shows us that Samaritan women were regarded as particularly and permanently unclean. Jews did not share drinking vessels with Samaritans because according to the Mishnah tractate, Niddah 4:1, “Samaritan women are deemed menstruants from the cradle.”[x]
Third, Leah is a disgraced woman. The others make their visit to the well in the morning. They chat as they work together. But Leah is not welcome. She is one of the people they talk about and so she has come alone at noon. She has had five husbands and lives with a man who is not her husband.
Leah is used to being avoided. She and Jesus have every reason to stay away from each other. How surprising it must be when Jesus looks at her gently and asks for water. Why is he here? Is he lost? She knows from the way he looks and how he speaks that he is a Jew, and that what he is asking for somehow breaks their rules.
They talk and against all expectations Leah begins to understand the “living water” Jesus offers her. She says, “Sir, give me this water” (Jn. 4). Then the subject abruptly changes and Jesus asks her to get her husband. At this turning point she has a choice. She could say, “I thought we were talking about religion. Why ask such a personal question?” Or she could lie.[xi]
Saying, “I have no husband,” is barely and only literally true. Jesus tells her the rest of the truth about herself. Instead of pulling away, he moves closer to her and all of a sudden it feels overwhelming. She tries to change the subject back to religion and that old debate between Jews and Samaritans. She probably thinks that if Jesus knows about the husbands, he must know pretty much everything else too. She hopes to use this debate to confuse matters, to step back away from him and hide.
But this does not work. When she steps back, he moves toward her. He will not let her simply slip away. Just as she tries to hide herself, he will show her who he really is. She says, “I know the Messiah is coming.” And Jesus says, “I am he.”
This is the first time he has told anyone. It is a moment for complete honesty. The triple outsider and the Messiah encounter each other with no pretenses. All the rules, taboos, prejudices, history fall away forgotten.
Jesus shows Leah who she really is. Beyond all possible human identities, she is a child of God. And this is true today too. The Messiah is the one in whose presence we know who we really are – the good and the bad, the possibilities for the future. The Messiah shows us ourselves by crossing all boundaries, breaking all rules, and speaking to us like someone we have known for our whole life.
When we know we are children of God, we can go back to face people we thought we never could face again. We can say with courage, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done.”
3. As a faithful Christian the poet Czeslaw Milsoz understood the way that Jesus gives us the possibility of a new beginning beyond the identities we claim and the ones imposed on us. He writes about this in one of his last poems “Late Ripeness.”
“Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year, / I felt a door opening in me and I entered / the clarity of early morning. / One after another my former lives were departing, / like ships, together with their sorrow. // And the countries, cities, gardens, the bays of seas / assigned to my brush came closer, / ready now to be described better than they were before// I was not separated from people/ grief and pity joined us. / We forget – I kept saying – that we are all children of the King. // For where we came from there is no division / into Yes and No, into is, was, and will be.//… I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard, / as are all men and women living at the same time, / whether they are aware of it or not.”[xii]
I have learned so much from Jesus, from that long-distant Samaritan woman and from Czeslaw Milosz. There is living water in the most agonizing spot in terrorized Europe. Even when we are isolated by loneliness and surrounded by strangers, we have a visible sign. The statute lifts its hand. We no longer have to be separated from others. God is spirit and we are all children of the King. Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done.
[i] “500 churches and religious sites destroyed in Ukraine during the war,” World Council of Churches, 22 February 2023. https://www.oikoumene.org/news/500-churches-and-religious-sites-destroyed-in-ukraine-during-the-war
[ii] “The number of Russian troops killed and wounded in Ukraine is approaching 200,000, a stark symbol of just how badly President Vladimir V. Putin’s invasion has gone, according to American and other Western officials.” Helene Cooper, Eric Schmitt, and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Soaring Death Toll Gives Grim Insight Into Russian Tactics,” The New York Times, 2 February 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/02/us/politics/ukraine-russia-casualties.html
[iii] Milosz was in Warsaw when it was bombed as part of the German invasion. With colleagues from Polish Radio he escaped. When he learned that his future wife Janina was there, he returned for her. This quote is from Czeslaw Milosz, The Captive Mind (1953).
[iv] Czeslaw Milosz, “My Faithful Mother Tongue” (1968) The Collected Poems (NY: Ecco Press, 1988) 216.
[v] “You who wronged a simple man / Bursting into laughter at the crime, / And kept a pack of fools around you / To mix good and evil, to blur the line, // Though everyone bowed down before you, / saying virtue and wisdom lit your way, /Striking gold medals in your honor, Glad to have survived another day,// Do not feel safe. The poet remembers. / You can kill one, but another is born./The words are written down, the deed, the date.//And you’d have done better with a winter dawn, / A rope, and a branch bowed beneath your weight.” Czeslaw Milosz, “You Who Wronged” (1950), The Collected Poems (NY: Ecco Press, 1988) 106.
[vi] Czeslaw Milosz, “Veni Creator” (1961), The Collected Poems (NY: Ecco Press, 1988) 194.
[vii] “Intersectionality… posits that race, class, gender, sexuality and other forms of identity intersect in ways that shape individuals’ experience of the world.” Dana Goldstein, Stephanie Saul and Anemona Hartocollis, “Florida officials had repeated contact with College Board over African American Studies,” The New York Times, 9 February 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/09/us/florida-college-board-african-american-studies.html
[viii] A great deal of my account of this has been influenced by the following. Barbara Brown Taylor, “Identity Confirmation: John 4:5-42,” The Christian Century, 12 February 2008. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2008-02/identity-confirmation?code=IKeroTclkxra5Bnp5Hgg&utm_source=Christian+Century+Newsletter&utm_campaign=a1a9300470-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_SCP_2023-03-06&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_b00cd618da-a1a9300470-86237307
[x] Herman Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (NY: T&T Clark, 2005) 164.
[xi] This section and the meeting of the “triple outsider” and the Messiah comes directly from Barbara Brown Taylor, “Identity Confirmation: John 4:5-42,” The Christian Century, 12 February 2008.
[xii] “Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year, / I felt a door opening in me and I entered / the clarity of early morning. / One after another my former lives were departing, / like ships, together with their sorrow. // And the countries, cities, gardens, the bays of seas / assigned to my brush came closer, / ready now to be described better than they were before// I was not separated from people/ grief and pity joined us. / We forget – I kept saying – that we are all children of the King. // For where we came from there is no division / into Yes and No, into is, was, and will be.// We were miserable, we used no more than a hundredth part / of the gift we received for our long journey.// Moments from yesterday and from centuries ago – / a sword blow, the painting of eyelashes before a mirror / of polished metal, a lethal musket shot, a caravel / staving its hull against a reef – they dwell in us, / waiting for fulfillment.//I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard, / as are all men and women living at the same time, / whether they are aware of it or not.”
Czeslaw “Late Ripeness,” Milosz (tr. Robert Hass and Czeslaw Milosz), Second Space: New Poems by Czeslaw Milosz (NY: Harper Collins, 2004). https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/49453/late-ripeness