Prayer: Accountability

How do you make a golf ball float? You take some root beer, two scoops of ice cream, and a golf ball…

If you’re keeping score at home, that’s the second week in a row I’ve started with a painful joke; scratch that: intentionally started with a bad joke. But if puns are good enough for Jesus, then they’re OK by me.

Our lesson this morning is a long one. And to set the stage, it helps to step back a bit into history. After the united kingdoms of Saul, David, and Solomon, the ancient kingdom of Israel was split in two. The southern kingdom was Judah, whose inhabitants were known as Jews. The northern kingdom was Israel, also called Samaria, whose inhabitants were Samaritans.

Eventually, both kingdoms were defeated by the Babylonians. The Jews were taken into exile. The Samaritans stayed, which created the rumor that they had intermarried with their conquerors. When the Jews returned from exile, they looked down upon the Samaritans for this supposed racial impurity. Over time, even though both peoples had their origins in the ancient Israelites, distinctions built up. Samaritans centered their worship around their temple in the city of Shechem. Jews focused on Jerusalem.

When the first and second Jerusalem temples were destroyed, Judaism adapted into the rabbinic form we currently know, centered around prayers and observances rather than sacrifices and pilgrimages. The Samaritan temple was never destroyed; in fact, today you can still visit the 500 Samaritans who live atop Mt. Gerizim. At Passover, they still practice the ancient sacrifices.

But back to Jesus. He was born in Judea (the new name of ancient Judah) and grew up in Nazareth, north of Samaria, to Jewish parents. In order for Jesus and the disciples to make their way to Jerusalem in the south, they had to pass through Samaria. And you could do worse than the town of Sychar, where Jacob’s Well was situated.

It is there that Jesus encounters this unnamed Samaritan woman. Given the history between Jews and Samaritans, it’s a scandal that he even deems to speak with her. And given the cultural context, the fact that he’s a man and she’s a woman makes the scene even more outrageous.

The conversation is both direct and playful. Jesus asks her for water, which stuns her: a Jewish man asking a Samaritan woman for water? Oh, if only you knew who was asking you for water. You would ask him for water instead! That’s when Jesus drops his first pun: “I can give you moving water.”

She thinks he’s talking about water that physically moves – that is, the spring that lies at the bottom of the well, not the still water that people draw from. “How can you get water down that deep if you don’t even have a bucket?”

But Jesus isn’t talking about that kind of moving. He’s speaking of spiritual sustenance, a moving water, a life force that moves us, changes and transforms us forever. Through this whole conversation, Jesus is introduced to the residents of Sychar, who come to believe that Jesus is Savior.

It’s an incredible story, and one that bears more examination than time allows. In it, old traditional divisions are broken down, and Jesus’ role is revealed as far beyond that of a single tribe. It is a global one, an embrace that blows our assumptions out of the water. This Jesus is always full of surprises.

The tidbit of this lesson that demands our attention today is the moment where Jesus confronts the Samaritan woman with the fact that her morality is, um, fuzzy at best. She has been married five times, and the man she lives with is not her husband. To be fair to her, the ancient world did not make much of a place for a single woman. And we don’t know what happened to those five husbands: Did they divorce? If so, why? Or did they all eat poison mushrooms? And what’s the story with her current “man”? It is one thing for us to assume things about her; it’s another thing for all of us to recognize how flawed even the best of our relationships can be, a connection that can only be sustained by grace and mercy.

But something is bubbling just below the surface in this conversation. Whatever it is, it’s the moment where she realizes that Jesus is more than just a Jew who happened upon Jacob’s Well; he is, at the very least, a prophet who seems to be able to peer deep into her soul. In other words, this encounter with Jesus contains many things: word play, revelation, teaching…it also contains an element of accountability.

That’s not a word we like very much in our independent, individualistic culture: accountability. Being “held accountable” feels somehow like we’re not grown up enough to take care of ourselves. And yet, if we are really honest, it’s probably the thing we need most.

When people ask me about the Presbyterian system, I often describe it as one that balances support and accountability. We are one of 100 Presbyterian churches in Atlanta, one of 10,000 in the United States. And our system connects us to those other churches in a way that benefits us: we have resources and staff at our disposal that make things possible that we couldn’t do otherwise. At the same time, we are also accountable to that system. Our minutes and finances are reviewed annually to make sure we are doing everything on the up and up. Given that churches and pastors can end up in the headlines, this accountability that is built into Presbyterianism is a very healthy and necessary thing.

I believe the same is true of our relationship with Christ. We are loved unconditionally. It’s not necessarily that we have done anything to deserve this love; instead, it is by virtue of who Christ is that we are loved. We are worthy of being loved, yes. But that worth is not because we have earned it. That love existed before anything else, before we first drew breath.

Accountability comes into play in our response. Christ’s love is not contingent on us doing the right thing. At the same time, Christ’s love includes calling us to account when we have done wrong. If it doesn’t, then it’s not love – it’s flattery.

Prayer, like everything else in our lives of faith, requires some level of accountability. Over the past few weeks, our Invitation Team members have been sharing their reflections with you on what it takes to develop a daily prayer habit. For some, it’s accountability – having someone else whom you know you will have to check in with and tell how it’s going. The mere thought of having to tell another soul what your prayer life is like can be enough to get us on track.

If that works for you, I suggest you do just that: find a prayer partner whom you know will hold you accountable. It doesn’t have to be someone here – maybe it’s a friend who lives on the other side of the country, but you know will be honest with you, someone you can share this journey with who will love you even when you blow it.