March 12

Augustine: Take and Read

By Marsh Chapel

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John 4:5-42

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Take and read, take and read.  To live the gospel, to love the gospel, to hear and receive the good news, the gospel, means to read, to take, to take and read.  May your reading life in faith, your faithful life in reading, be rekindled today, forever fixed today, made happy and whole today.  You are what and how you read. 

John 4, as we read it today, may be the loveliest, finest narrative in the Fourth Gospel. The woman at the well, the Samaritan woman, meets Jesus and meets us in conversation. She is the quintessential conversationalist.  And she is a woman of power, to be reckoned with, a strong contralto voice daring to challenge, willing to differ with, honest by courage and hard experience, a right true voice not only for Women’s History Month in 2023, but also, and staggeringly more so for her presence and prominence in the Gospel of John, written in 90ce. 

And what a wonder is there in the faintest conversation, let alone this dominical discussion! Ours today, from John 4, is holy, telling conversation, full of the unexpected, full of surprise, full of the utterly personal, full of revelation, full of boundary breaking courage, full of what is saving, healthy, lasting, meaningful, real, and good. Conversation thrives when you know your content, your work, and your audience. There is a mystery lurking under the disarming surface of the simplest conversation. My friend says her favorite two words are ‘awe’ and ‘conversation’. We could add that the two are not very far removed, or apart from each other. 

It may have been that the community which gave birth to the Gospel of John included some Samaritans. This would explain the prominence of this long, intricate passage, devoted to the conversation of Jesus with a Samaritan woman. The Samaritans were outsiders. Here, one of their own takes center–stage. In our time when those outside—immigrants, refugees, the poor, the different, the other—are steadily subjected to heightened measures of exclusion, we benefit from reminders, like this from John 4, that we are called as people of faith, called as Christian people, to care, succor, attention and protection of the ‘least’ among us. The larger question, and it is very much an open question, is whether the humiliation spreading out right now through civil society and culture–wherein inherited, precious forms of civil society are daily shredded with a gratuitous cruelty–coming now to us over the next decade, will chasten us, will humble us, will in that way strengthen us by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. He it is, today, who announces His own presence, and Lordship, in the course of a meandering conversation: I am He, the One who is speaking to you…A spring of water gushing up to eternal life.  

Close reading is crucial to health. 

One day, we visited a dear saint in her home. It was a Christmas morning, following the morning service, with a light snow, and 10 degrees on the Fahrenheit scale. She had been in hospital that week, and sat recuperating in her parlor. Her family was with her. And she had a story to tell.  It is a story to commend and recommend close reading, reading every word, reading as the zenith and apex of spiritual life, even in our age wherein since 2012, at our beloved school (and many others) majors in the humanities have dropped by 50%. 

Earlier that week, on that Tuesday, she had prepared to be taken, by ambulance, from one hospital to another, for a particular procedure. She was a fine, older Methodist lady, so she prepared herself for the trip with what dignity one can muster in a hospital bed, robed in a hospital gown, and alone in the corridor of life. A little makeup, a comb and brush, some careful adjustments of remaining raiment, glasses perched, smile shining.  

She could see the elevator door open, and her stretcher moving out. Then the attendants clearly mentioned her name as they signed the paper work at the desk. The nurse motioned across the hall in the general direction of her room. She poised herself, prepared to be a good, courteous patient. Down the hall the men came, and she waved. They returned the gesture. To her door they rolled—and then, remarkably, rolled on by! They passed to the next room, 129 not 128—such a small difference, a difference for which one needs close reading, a room inhabited alone by a frail, kindly woman who was deaf as a post. Her name was not Smith. “Mrs. Smith?” “YES” she replied, her volume in inverse proportion to her accuracy. Into the stretcher went the wrong woman, and down the hall they moved. My dear parishioner called out, used her buzzer, flailed her arms like a gypsy at the campfire. But in a New York minute they were gone, carrying away the wrong person. On the way home, following the procedure, someone apparently had the presence of mind to look at the stretchered woman’s wrist band, name tag. I wonder how the reader felt not to see the name Smith. A rare moment of revelation. In this case, little lasting harm occurred. Our hospitals, in fact, to my eye, given their hourly commitment to excellence and attention to detail, put other institutions to shame. In this and many ways, the physicians out do the metaphysicians, in the main. 

Yet metaphysical distinctions matter, really matter, as well. There is a crucial difference between sacrifice and misery. There is a crucial difference between holiness and compassion. There is a crucial difference between law and love. There is crucial difference between representation and redemption. There is a crucial difference between incantation and incarnation. There is a crucial difference between innocence and integrity. There is a crucial difference between independence and interdependence.  

These are crucial distinctions. How are we ever going to make them, and learn consistently to make them well, to…read closely. 

You go and read.  Our conversation partner this Lent, Augustine of Hippo, did so, to his saving benefit.  Augustine was saved by reading, neither the first so redeemed, nor the last. Take, and read.  Augustine is best known for a moment in reading, in a garden. 

You may especially want to read those who have lived through other times of ruin. Reading frees you from the 21st century. Reading cuts you loose from your own time and place. Others too have taught and preached in the ruins of the church.  We imagine we are only generation to live, preach, tithe and die during the withering away of the church.  Not so.  You can, with some reading, read about it. 

You may acquire a love of reading this Lent. I picture a bright late winter day. You are walking the emerald necklace, with lunch and a bag full of books.  You are taking a walk, Boston such a magnificent pedestrian city. 

*You start out a Charlesgate, thinking about reading today…. 

In our time, ‘literacy’ has a new meaning, referring not to those who can read, but to those who do read.  

*You sit beside the lawn at Emmanuel College, to pray… 

In prayer, we can trust the unseen God to give confidence, faith, and your lived capacity to withstand what you cannot understand. Sometimes that is all you have, the faith to withstand what you cannot understand. We are on the edge of eternity in every moment of life. You, teacher, you preacher, you pastor, are living testimony to the Eternal Now.  The one number, the one digital reference you need, at all is this one:  three score and ten, or if by reason of strength, four score. 

*You find a quiet corner along the river and think about the impact of careful reading, and its absence… 

Read now. You remember a history lecture from another year. Robert Kennedy did not have the freedom to do a research paper on Aeschylus the night Martin Luther King was killed, April 4 1968. He either had read or he hadn’t. He had. His 3 minutes in the Indianapolis rain were his greatest words, as George Eliot would have said, ingenious, pithy and without book, because he had read. There is but little left of the historic Protestant church in the Northeast. What there is clings for life to…words, to the words, to the Word. 

*In the glade you wonder about the nature of reading itself… 

And what relationship shall the reader have to the read? Who among us does anywhere near enough to deconstruct our own various contexts? Is the text to have the sole divining voice, or is the reader king? What of the relationship between the unsaid and the uttered? In reading, how do ranges of power dance with colors of truth? Is the truth of Scripture the sole truth—the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth? Or one truth among many? Or primus inter pares? Or an anachronism altogether? How then do you read? 

Be careful how you read, for how read is how you think, and how you think is how you act, and how you act is who you are. 

*You may circle the pond at Jamaica Plain, eat lunch, and read especially from those who have read and preached in various conditions of difficulty, of trouble, of troubles. 

Here is an early spring Saturday in the sun. Take, Read.  

From another generation, I have loved Frank McCourt, for McCourt in his Angela’s Ashes is really giving you a hymn to language. He sits by the hospital bed of his eleven year old girlfriend.  She teaches him a poem, “The Highwayman”…the highway man came riding… and yes,…she dies. He is so hungry that he finds a soiled newspaper, with the remains of fish and chips, and licks the grease…and the words…off the paper. That is, McCourt’s lovely bildungsroman, Angela’s Ashes, ends with the young boy escaping his past, escaping his family of origin, escaping the biology that threatens always to become full destiny, and feeding himself. He is so hungry that he finds trashed newspapers in which the daily fish and chips have been wrapped, and he licks the papers clean of scraps and bits and crumbs and oil, until the words on the paper fill his mouth. His whole book is about his deliverance, how he learned to live…by reading, how he learned to love…through words.  

*At last, as the afternoon is fading, you had back to BU, you pause for a minute on the way home, to read this last passage from Augustine’s Confessions… 

I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when suddenly I heard the voice of a boy or a girl I know not which–coming from the neighboring house, chanting over and over again, “Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.” [”tolle lege, tolle lege”] Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to think whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard the like. So, damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not but think that this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should light upon. For I had heard how Anthony, accidentally coming into church while the gospel was being read, received the admonition as if what was read had been addressed to him: “Go and sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.” By such an oracle he was forthwith converted to thee. 

So, I quickly returned to the bench where Alypius was sitting, for there I had put down the apostle’s book when I had left there. I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.” I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away. (Outler translation, Book V111) 

At dinner someone may ask what the most recent Lenten Sunday sermon was about. You would say, well, it mentioned Augustine.  And, I think he was singing a song of love for reading; I think he was raising a hymn of praise for reading; I think he was lining out a psalm of affirmation for reading… 

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

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