There was a famous tightrope walker who was determined to walk a tightrope from the American to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. Word got around that he was going to attempt the feat, so on the day of his attempt there were large crowds on each side ready to cheer him on. Seeing the crowds, he yelled out to them: "I have no net and no safety line. Do you believe that I can do it?"
Of course, wanting to see him make the attempt, the crowd of people enthusiastically agreed: "We believe you can do it!"
The tightrope walker calmly stepped out onto the wire and confidently made his way across to great applause. Standing now on the Canadian side of the falls, he motioned to the crowd to quiet down. "I have here a blind-fold. Who believes that I can make it back across blind-folded?"
The crowd again yelled: "We believe you can do it!"
He made his way across again--a little less steady this time. The wind picked up a little and the wire swayed, but he kept his footing and made it back the the American side. Now people in the crowd were exclaiming to each other: "What could anyone possibly do to top that?"
He again motioned for them to quiet down. "You may think that crossing blind-folded would be a feat impossible to top, but I intend to top it. Who believes that I can make it across not only blind-folded, but carrying a person on my back?"
The crowd roared to life: "You can do it! We believe you can!"
"Good." said the tightrope walker. "Now, any volunteers?" With that, the crowd was silent.
Believing in a person is different than believing in an idea. The crowd in the story was willing to believe in the possibility that the tightrope walker could make it across the falls--especially because the stakes for them personally were low. But when the stakes increased, when they were asked to entrust themselves to this person, their belief wasn't enough.
Now, to be honest, I wouldn't have volunteered either. I don't know this tightrope walker and I don't know whether he is a hero or a fool. If I knew him better--knew for certain his capabilities and his intentions--I might be more willing to trust him.
We are often like this with God. We may believe many things about God. We may even believe them quite strongly and for solid reasons. Admittedly, though, the personal stakes involved in believing ideas about God are pretty low. Like the crowd, we are willing to believe in the hope that something good or interesting will happen as a result.
This is not the kind of belief to which the scriptures refer. In today's Gospel reading, the woman at the well comes to believe in Jesus as the Messiah--to the point where she is willing to swallow her own pride and shame to proclaim the good news to the townspeople she has been avoiding.
In the story, it is midday when the woman goes out to the well to draw water. For those of us who live in hot climates, this is obviously not the optimal time to be out carrying heavy water jugs around. Most women in the town would have made their trip to the well in the cooler hours near dawn or dusk. But this particular woman knows that; she is actively trying to avoid the others.
We eventually find out why: she lived a scandalous life. The other townspeople were probably none too kind about it either. It was easier to just avoid them all, with their stares, snickers and rude comments. Yet after a short time with Jesus, she had the courage to not only face all of these people, but to proclaim the Good News to them. She had come to know and trust him...but for that to happen, Jesus had to break down the barriers that stood in the way of a real relationship.
First, she was sure that she was disqualified from a relationship be the accidents of her birth: "How is it that you would ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?" Jesus makes it clear that neither her gender, her culture or her ethnicity matters a bit to what he is asking. How many times have we failed to get closer to God because we have decided that we aren't the 'right sort of person'--that saints don't come from our neighborhood or social class or state in life. Yet Jesus knows where we are from, who our family is and how much money is (or isn't!) in our wallets. He keeps calling us anyway.
Next, the woman tries to start a religious argument. "We Samaritans say that the place to worship God is on this mountain but you people say the place to worship is in Jerusalem." While Jesus makes it clear that there are right and wrong answers to religious questions, he also makes it clear that his offer has nothing to do with her belief in certain propositions. The Father is looking for people to worship in spirit and truth and she is invited regardless.
We, too, sometimes put our religious doubts or disagreements in the way of a relationship with God. "I don't want to get to know you until I understand [the problem of evil|sexual morality|teachings on bioethics|fill-in-the-blank...]." The problem with this approach, of course, is that our understanding grows as we grow in relationship with God. Jesus promised to send us the Holy Spirit to lead and guide us into all truth, but in order to respond to the Spirit's promptings we need to first develop some trust. He can't lead us into all truth if we won't be led. This doesn't mean uncritical acceptance of everything. Ask questions--but commit yourself to struggling with the answers. Lay down your preconceptions. Only then can God explain himself to you successfully.
Thirdly, the woman is a prisoner of her own sins. Who hasn't felt unworthy to answer God's call? Yet the Lord does not want us to let that feeling of unworthiness hold us back. He does not want our past to keep us from having a future. Just like the woman at the well, he knows everything already. And he's still calling you--yes, even you--with all of your imperfections and failings. He isn't waiting for you to fix them before he will love you. As we heard in the second reading from St. Paul, even while we were sinners Christ loved us first--loved us enough to give even his own life for us.
This Lent, along with those other resolutions we may have made, lets resolve to work on our relationship with God: to trust him enough to come to him with all of our fears, doubts and sins knowing that, just like the woman at the well, he will accept us as we are and call us to greater things.