March 15

The Faith of Saint Teresa of Avila

By Marsh Chapel

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John 4: 5-42

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Our worries today include immediate personal experience of hurt, say in betrayal; they include financial anxieties of the week; they include the shades of untruth now shadowing portions of society, culture, and, especially political leadership;  they include viral infection and protection for the elderly and the impaired; but we do remember also, amid all these global matters, the globe itself in which the worries abide.

It may help, this morning, in earshot of the Gospel, to listen for voices of faith, today women’s voices of faith.

With me, over time, you for instance have found the voice of Mary Pipher one such:  from Reviving Ophelia to Women Rowing North, and much in between across decades.  Last week she offered a reminder of the wonder in snow—think what we have missed in snow, for good and ill this winter.  Come Sunday, it may be a quiet way to reset our sense of faith, in listening to her hope of heaven:

All of my life I have loved snow.

When I was a girl in the 1950s, snow fell often in the long winters of western Nebraska. I remember one winter when, after the streets were plowed, mountains of snow 10 feet tall stood in the middle of the streets. As a young mother, my favorite days were snow days when our family could stay home and play board games. I would make soup and popcorn. I relished taking my children outside to do the things that I had done in the snow as a girl. I loved falling asleep with my family safe on a blizzardy night when the streets were impassable and a blanket of peace covered our town.

Now, snow has become a profoundly spiritual experience. When it snows, I sit by my window and watch it fall. I go deep into its purity and softness.

Snow falls inside and outside of me. It settles my brain and calms my body.

I hope death feels like watching the snow grow thicker and thicker. Doctors call dying of a morphine overdose being “snowed.” I would not mind that at all. I would like to disappear in a whiteout.  Mary Pipher, NYT, 3/5/20


Perhaps the quintessential woman’s voice of faith in the New Testament is found in our Gospel today, John 4.  We have our troubles, for sure.  Here she is, ready to help us.

One lone woman at one old well is here to help us.

In a region well versed in religious difference and dispute, our Lord is pictured in John 4 cutting through religion. For Samaritan simply substitute ‘other’, religious other. If Nicodemus reminds us that we are free, and he does, the Samaritan woman reminds us that we are responsible, and we are. Freedom gives birth to responsibility. Jesus leaves the familiarity of Judah. He crosses, on this memory, multiple lines. He crosses the geographical line. He crosses the gender line. He crosses the racial line. He crosses the status line. He crosses the religious line. Our woman spells it out. You, a Jew: I, a Samaritan.

Jesus Christ is the Lord of life, not the Lord of religion. He calls us from religion to faith, out of false consciousness into a whole new way of being.

Spirit and truth, spirit and truth.

Our lone woman knows her Samaritan religion: Samaria, Jacob, ancestor, marriage (she knows marriage better than Elizabeth Taylor), holy mountain, Messiah. She is not a Jew and she is not a Christian, but you can substitute for her religious vocabulary any number of similarly developed religious tongues. She knows religion. Jesus offers her faith. Jesus offers her the religion of unreligion. The Lord offers us the religion of unreligion.

The Jesus of the Fourth Gospel is not easily blended with his counterparts in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Rather than projecting our own needs for uniformity out onto these ancient, holy, mysterious, puzzling and powerful writings, we first will want to listen to them. Listen. We need to let the Bible speak to us. Now, the Jesus of John 4 is a very different Jesus. He sees into others’ minds. He knows things without being told. He divines the secrets hidden in the heart. He stands alone and in public view with a woman, a Samaritan woman, a troubled Samaritan woman. This Jesus is guided along in a lengthy mystagogical conversation, full of riddles, double entendres, hidden meanings, mysterious silences. He offers living water. In none of this does one find a single correspondence with the earlier three quests for Jesus in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John’s is an entirely different Jesus. So, asked one bright student, which is true?

Excellent question.

And here is an answer. They all are. They all truly represent the actual historical experience of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, which various little communities in his fledging church did have of him. All four are historically accurate. With accuracy they describe the Jesus known in the actual lives of the communities of Mark, forty years after Calvary; Matthew, fifty years after Calvary; Luke, fifty-five years after Calvary; and John sixty years after Calvary. They give us grace and freedom to sense Jesus, as they did, present among us, as He was among them. He is risen. He is not here. See the place where they laid him.


A third woman’s voice of faith, a close cousin to that of both Mary Pipher and that of the Samaritan woman, is the voice of our Lenten conversation partner, 2020, St. Teresa of Avila.  In the preparation for these sermons, one fine resource, on which we rely in these weeks, is that of Rowan Williams, when he still had time to write of such things: Rowan Williams, Teresa of Avila, (London:  Continuum, 1991):

Says Rowan Williams

Teresa of Avila is one of the most accessible and attractive of all the great writers in the Christian mystical tradition; but her very human attractiveness and the fascination of her unusual experiences of vision and rapture tend to obscure two salient facts about her.  First, she was a woman reacting to a particularly difficult epoch in the history of the Spanish state and church; and second, she was an independent theological thinker. (ix)

Muses Rowan Williams:

23  Hence the importance of friendship:  simply to elevate virtue over honour can lead to a strongly individualistic ethic, marked by just as much paralyzing anxiety as the honour system.  Joining a religious community is a commitment to equality, and so to reciprocal pastoral care (nurture and criticism):  this is set out most fully in the first fifteen chapters of THE WAY OF PERFECTION.  It is thus also to expose oneself to the ordinary misunderstandings of common life; and to be able to live with these, not seeking constantly to defend and justify oneself, is the path to the highest virtue…it is incompatible with the religious life to want always to be right.

95 “(The soul) understands that it is required to preoccupy itself  with God, that it needs to focus on Him so it can escape all sorts of danger.  On the other hand, it finds it mustn’t overlook a single point of worldly etiquette, because that might provide occasions of sin to people who think their honor hinges on these niceties”.

Opines Rowan Williams:

101. Teresa is in the uncomfortable position of having to advise men who presumably know a lot more than she does.   The only way she can to it is to convince them of her weakness and their strength.  “His yoke is sweet, and it is important not to drag the soul, as they say, but to bring it along gently, so that it will make better progress.

  1. “It used to please me enormously to think of my soul as a garden, and imagine that the Lord was walking in it. I begged him to increase the fragrance of those little flowers of virtue that were, it seemed, just starting to bloom…I didn’t want anything for myself, and invited Him to cut whichever blossoms he wanted, because I already knew that the plants would be better for pruning”.

115. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) had called for a thorough reform of all the religious orders, and the man charged with whipping the Carmelites into shape was Prior General Giovanni Battista Rossi, known to Spaniards as Rubeo.


The voice of faith in the life of Teresa of Avila brings back to us the centrality of prayer, the necessity of contemplation.  After her death, several of her works were published, the primary ones being two historical texts, Life of the Mother Teresa of Jesus (1611),  Book of the Foundations (1610), and four spiritual ones, The Way of Perfection ((1583), The Interior Castle (1588), Spiritual Relations, Exclamations of the Soul to God (1588), and Conceptions on the Love of God (1588).  She left behind 31 poems and 458 letters.  The mystical, spiritual works are essays in contemplation, in depiction of the contemplative life as an approach to God.  You can hear in her titles, even, the emphases in the works:  way, wholeness, relationships, ecstasy, love….God.

Our current cultural condition, driven by a mercantile capitalism largely unfettered by other potent restraints, including religious restraints, makes little space for, makes little time for contemplation.  Yes, we have calls to wellness and stillness.  Yes, there are apps for brief daily meditations.  Yes, we dimly recognize that there probably is more to life than what is measured in contract, income, consumption, and schedule.  But for the regular woman or man, for you, for me, lengthy contemplation and the rigorous preparations for it, are present largely by their absence.  So, the sixteenth century Spanish mystics, with their poetic disciplines, are foreign, to the main, for us.  And so they have something wonderful, mysterious and deep to offer us.

A few of us spent the year together, as college juniors, in Segovia, Spain, not far from Avila, now more than forty years ago.  Francisco Franco was still in power, the Guardia Civil kept order except when surprised by Basque militants, the corrida de toros far exceeded futbol in popularity, the country was quietly preparing to emerge from fascismo, the waiters had seen and served Ernest Hemingway even if they had not read his book about their town—Por Quien Doblan Las Campanas, people still read the poets—from Calderon to Machado and back, and the evening paseo was the heart of the day for all, large and small, short and tall, rich and poor and all.  Y mientras otros…let me lie in the shade of a tree, singing.  The year abroad can be the best part of college, as it was for us, long ago.  There was, that is, a lived experience that was not allergic to contemplation.

A fourth, nearby woman’s voice of faith can be found right here, in the work of Marsh Chapel.  As Dr. Jessica Chicka has written, in the daily Marsh Lenten Devotions: Jesus reminds us that our physical need for water will always be a constant – we will become thirsty again. That thirst must continue to be quenched by access to clean water, a concern for the Samaritan woman, who must make long treks to the well to secure the water she needs for her daily living. She even mocks Jesus a bit, citing that he has no bucket to even fetch his own water. But she is able to assist him, because he asks for her help. In exchange Jesus offers her the Living Waters of the Spirit, seeing past her outsider status as a Samaritan woman but instead as a person deserving the good news found in the grace of God. She, then, in turn, shares this Living Water with her community, evangelizing the work of Jesus. Each is assisted by the other in sharing water both literal and metaphysical, enabling them to live.

I wonder, with these four voices in our ears, whether we might find the discipline, take the time, to wander a bit in the wilds of contemplation, the forests primeval of prayer?  This might just be the Lent in which to do so.

First, amid the changes, challenges and uncertainties of our current moment, please be mindful that I and our staff team here have you in prayer, and have a daily, watchful interest in noting ways to be of ongoing service and support.  We are with you, we are for you, and we carry a daily pastoral embrace of you:  you can easily find our contact information on the Marsh website (*link to Marsh website chaplains page). The verse from Philippians comes to mind, ‘in all things in prayer and supplication with thanksgiving lift your needs to God’ (Phil 4:6).  In that same spirit, I might suggest that you, day by day, lift one particular person, from our community, or from your own personal community, in quiet prayer.  Our Lenten sermon series, relying on St. Theresa of Avila, as it happens, is centered on prayer.  We will have an added dimension in our prayer lives, just now, given the challenges of the day and hour.  We are praying for you.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

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