Is there anything worse than sticking out in a group of people? Is there anything more humiliating than showing up for a party with an outfit that is far too formal or far too casual? Is there anything more uncomfortable than realizing that you don’t understand the jokes being told in a group, or that you can’t relate at all to the complaints and observations of daily life being made in conversation?
It is painful to be an outsider, to have that feeling in the pit of your stomach, knowing that you don’t belong. Like that Sesame Street feature: “One of these things is not like the others.” And yet, this is how Evelyn Underhill, the sister in faith whose example we remember today, spent most of her life.
She was an inquisitive and intensely spiritual woman who lived at the turn of the last century. She is known as a modern-day mystic and the writer of a book entitled “Mysticism,” which outlines a history of Christian mysticism and attempts to de-“mystify” this aspect of spirituality for skeptical readers.
Her interest in and reading and writing on the subject of spirituality was not something shared by her family. Indeed, her predisposition to visions and mystical experiences set her apart from even most religious people, especially in the increasingly skeptical modern world. Her mystical experiences led her to write and argue about the practical nature of mysticism, insisting that anyone could experience a close relationship with the holy. Often, though, mystics have lived lonely lives at the periphery of the Christian community; they were revered but also feared for their unpredictable behavior. Sometimes they provided a too-vivid portrait of God way of being in the world, challenging society’s status quo, creating a jarring, unsettling environment around them as they resist the expectations of secular culture.
Mystics, by their lives of deep prayer and close communion with God, teach their communities by example that God is other—their nonsensical behavior and unconventional ways of communicating remind us that we humans are to mold our lives to God, not the other way around.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus is–unsurprisingly–doing something nonsensical and unconventional in talking with this woman at the well. We catch Jesus and the Samaritan woman in the midst of their conversation as she asks him why the Jews say people have to worship only in Jerusalem, when her ancestors have worshiped on mount Gerizim for generations. She wonders why Jews think they are so much better than Samaritans; you can hear her resentment of the perceived secondary status of Samaritans in her question, “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you Jews says that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship.”
Jesus responds that location isn’t the most important aspect of worship, nor is one’s ancestral background–Jew or Samaritan; what matters most is to know whom you are worshiping. “You worship what you do not know,” Jesus proclaims, alluding to the Samaritan people breaking off from the Hebrew nation during the time of the exile. Samaritans knew and believed that a savior was coming, but stubbornly maintained independent worship sites and rituals. Jesus reminds her that the Scriptures say the Messiah will come from the Jews, and though they have plenty of shortcomings, they’ve held fast to the promise that God made to Abraham. The Jews continue to worship in knowledge and hope of their Redeemer. Of course, we learn in the New Testament that not all Jews really know who they are worshiping either—many reject Christ and his saving message.
The essential thing to know about God isn’t complicated or complex, but it is something to contemplate for decades: God is other. God is not a reflection of people, God is spirit and truth; people, by our fallen nature, are not spiritual and truthful. We are hopelessly lost when left to our own devices; as our brother Paul says so astutely in Romans, “For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do… For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice” (7:15, 19). Those true worshipers whom God seeks are willing to submit themselves to the Holy Spirit’s molding—they are people who recognize their fallenness and desire God’s transformation to become fully human. We are made to be in the image of God, and we best reflect God’s image when we seek him in spirit and in truth. Those people who seek God, not on a mountain or in a specific city, but with a sincere heart and a mind hungry for truth, find the one true God, revealed in Jesus and with us today through the Holy Spirit. True worshipers worship the God that they know, having spent time seeking him in prayer, finding him in Bible study and learning about him in communion with other true worshipers.
The Samaritan woman sought to be a true worshiper, asking Jesus questions and spending time with him. In this story, we are shown that being a true worshiper does not depend solely upon whether you are Jewish or whether you go to a particular building to seek God. What matters most is seeking and finding the truth—all truth is God’s truth and we are led to truth in worship by the Holy Spirit.
Likewise, Evelyn Underhill, by her lifelong pursuit of God and her conviction to test the spirits she heard and saw, reminds us that God is apparent and near to people, not faraway and unknown. However, this nearness is not an easy companionship; it takes effort to unmask and begin to know God deeply. We must exert energy and invest time in order to enjoy the spirit God desires to bestow upon us and to become enlightened with his truth. Mystics, while often living and worshiping near the fringes of our communities, serve as very important reminders that God is at work at the fringes, and indeed, God does great work where people are willing to be thought of as strange or out-of-step with society—people who do not fear being thought of as outsiders. Outsiders are more readily transformed by God, they are ready to be changed and molded, not hemmed in or held hostage by societal norms. Mystics show us the way to let go of cultural expectations for appropriate behavior and polite conversation. God seeks to share spirit and truth with us when we allow ourselves to be cast in his image. May we learn how to fearlessly follow our Lord, reflecting upon the examples of Evelyn Underhill and the Samaritan woman at the well. Amen.