Spiritual Practice: Honoring Limitations
First, there was last week’s bout with the flu, then there was that retail therapy outing which resulted in a bank account balance just a bit too close for comfort. Somewhere in between those two was a panicky conversation with my dear husband. Actually, before all that, it was a tender conversation with my mom, whose memory is failing her, and my impassioned pleas to explore further medical options in an effort to stave off this loss, and her calm and candid response, without judgment: I guess I’ve just accepted that this, but you haven’t.
It seems God, or the Universe (I think of them interchangeably), has had a lot to say to me lately about how to be with my own and others’ limitations.
This sacred conversation continued this week as I listened to a 2017 On Being interview with philosopher and author Alain de Button (author of Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person, the most-read NYT article of 2016), in which he again and again emphasizes the necessity of honesty and acceptance around our human limitations if we desire to love and be loved well. He says, among other things:
“The more generous we can be toward our flawed humanity, the better chance we’ll have of doing the true, hard work of love.”
And, “One of the things that make relationships so scary is that we need to be weak in front of one another.”
Jesus, I notice as I’ve been sitting with the story of the woman at the well (John 4), doesn’t seem so fearful about being weak in front of another. Instead, he shows us just what that looks like. It looks like a man deeply focused on his work, doing the will of the Father, who by noontime is worn out. So worn out, he stops to rest at a well, while his disciples all make their way into town to get food.
I’m kind of surprised that not one of the disciples hangs back with him. A little one-on-one time with the teacher? A little rest for themselves? It makes me wonder how Jesus’ exhaustion may have played itself out over the course of the morning. Humans do tend to be more direct when they are weary, and maybe the disciples had had enough of Jesus’ forthright truth-telling and were glad for a break from his presence. Who knows.
In any case, Jesus is worn out and thirsty. And, he’s seated at a well, but the water is unavailable to him because he has no water pot with him. Imagine that. Tired. Hot. Thirsty. At a well, but without a water pot. Did he look around for a vessel someone might have left behind? Did he consider climbing down in? Did he ask his Father to send along some angel with a bucket? He was surely feeling the limitation of his humanity.
But, being Jesus and divine, I’m also trusting he must’ve felt great compassion for himself in his human need. And, as self-compassion seems to do, I’m guessing that compassion pooled within, brimming and ready to spill its cool relief onto the fellow humans who crossed his path. Perhaps it was at this point, the Samaritan woman comes, approaching the well.
Jesus, full of compassion, but still thirsty, immediately engages her. “Would you give me a drink of water?” Would you. . . ? No command from Jesus, but a question. Would you. . .?
She answers Jesus’ question with one of her own: “How come you are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” matching Jesus’ counter-cultural behavior with her own simply by continuing the conversation. She must wonder what extraordinary circumstance would cause him to speak to her. Was it his physical thirst? It may have been. Could it have been Jesus’ deeper and divine thirst for connection?
Whatever the case, Jesus responds, “If you knew the generosity of God, and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh, living water.” I would, he says.
Jesus’ honesty about his own need doesn’t diminish his honesty about and offering of his gift ––his being––his being that is radically available as a wellspring within each of us. Jesus shows us how to be present with another holding our human paradox: we are both need and gift. Jesus does not shy away from embodying this duality, and neither should we.
As the conversation continues, Jesus invites the Samaritan woman to come close and be honest about her own thirst and how she’s been addressing it, one man after another. He knows that stepping up more closely to examine our weakness in the presence of compassion can only open us up for healing.
It’s surprising to me, and it’s not, how she doesn’t linger here. Perhaps her shame was triggered, and who wants to stay with that? Perhaps the awe she’s experiencing in being known and still held in Jesus’ compassionate gaze keeps her from getting stuck in the shame. In any case, upon discovering that Jesus is a prophet, she has a burning question. And it’s about, of all things, worship. I wondered a long while about why she is asking about worship. But then it became so obvious. Worship is also about addressing our thirst. She asks, “Our ancestors worshiped God on this mountain, but you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place of worship, right?”
Jesus, ever insistent on keeping the main thing the main thing tells her this about her concerns regarding the right way to worship: “The time has come when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter. It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. . . “
Jesus could honor his limitations and need for rest that day at the well because he was absolutely clear that honoring one’s limitations does not, as we are so quick to think, get in the way of our “doing the will of the Father.” In fact, it is just the opposite. When we honor our limitations, when we are unafraid to show up in our need, new opportunities for sharing our gifts open up before us.
I don’t yet trust this as fully as Jesus. I still find myself trying to engineer a strength in myself or others that is not authentic. And such efforts always do violence to us. But I’m learning. I’m learning, like my mom, to accept my limitations and others’ and to trust that we are held and even healed, praise God, through them.
What limits are you bumping up against lately? In yourself? In another? What would it look like to honor that? What would that feel like in your body? What if, like Jesus, you could trust that such honoring will only make you more available to do the will of the Father?
I invite you to live these questions and see what happens!