We are about halfway through the Lenten season, and you’ll remember I told you that this year we could expect this series of profound and long Gospel readings from John, addressing deep human questions. You just heard another one of those, the story of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well. If you think back to Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus last week, you’ll immediately notice some similarities. In both those readings, Our Lord is talking with someone in a non-traditional setting, getting into a conversation which turns on a basic misunderstanding about what a word means, and ending up addressing a deep human question.
Last week Mark and I watched the film Manchester by the Sea. I can’t say I liked it that much- it's not really a movie you "like." It was nice seeing our old neighborhood; we lived in the next town over from Manchester for many years. And I certainly think Casey Affleck deserved his Best Actor Oscar. But the movie is unremittingly bleak. It tells the story of a man returning to the place where he once made a mistake that ended in tragedy, and the world it inhabits is a world without God. The church shows up in that world, don’t get me wrong; a funeral happens, a priest mutters some words, but there is no sense that anyone has the slightest understanding that any of that could ever have actual effective power to help you.
In the world of Manchester by the Sea, forgiveness is unattainable, friends and loved ones get held at arm’s length, mistakes are forever, and you are a prisoner of your past. It’s a world that lives if there had been no incarnation of Jesus to make God available, no Good Friday, no Easter, as if we were completely on our own to cope with the mess that sin has made of us. In Manchester by the Sea, Sin rules, and redemption is impossible. Death rules, and resurrection is impossible. I think the movie was so popular in part because that’s the world many people de facto live in.
If you are here today, you are in a minority. Even though Ash Wednesday is the entry point that launches Lent, even though it sets in motion our annual approach to the central event of the Christian life, even though this is one of the high points of the year in any liturgical church, it’s a rare parish where the participation on Ash Wednesday is as high as on, say, any one good Sunday morning. So if you are here on Ash Wednesday, doing what practicing Christians do together, you are in a minority.
But, of course, it’s not just Ash Wednesday. If you are participating in a church at all, you are in a minority. This has been true in the USA for as long as we have records, with one odd blip of divergence in the middle of the last century. People over-report attending church, just as they say “yes, I always floss,” but even the over-reported numbers aren’t majorities. For most of our history in America, church participation has been pretty steady at about a third of Americans. It was lower when the country was founded in the late 18th century, a very skeptical time, and it’s lower now, but apart from the 1950s when it nearly hit half the population, it’s usually about a third. For most of the history of this country, participating in a church put you in the minority.
The minority nature of commitment to spiritual community is a reality that is highlighted throughout the Scriptures, too; the whole people of Israel, for example, are almost never faithful. God instead takes small communities or groups of prophets to represent the people, and works with them, or he chooses a remnant – a great Biblical word – a remnant, to stand in for the whole. This concept finds its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus, who stands in for us sinners as the sinless one. He represents us before God, he carries our sin, he is the minority of true humanity that responds perfectly to God, standing in for us, shouldering the burdens that all the rest of us fail to carry, and offering prayer and sacrifice on our behalf.