The Bible contains evidence that allegorical interpretations of Old Testament texts were used by New Testament writers. For example, in Galatians chapter 4 of the New Testament, the writer refers to Sarah and Hagar as being allegories of the New Covenant versus the Old Covenant. In regard to our New Testament story today in which Jesus talks to a Samaritan woman around a water well, we will consider this conversation as an allegory of James Fowler's stages of faith development.
Professor James W. Fowler, a developmental psychologist at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, wrote the book Stages of Faith. It proposes a staged development of faith (or spiritual development) across the life span. It is closely related to the work of Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, and Lawrence Kohlberg regarding aspects of psychological development in children and adults. I studied Fowler's stages of faith development when I was working on a Masters in Christian Education from the Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Virginia is the mid-eighties.
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Sermon Text: John 4:5-42
So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink." 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The Samaritan woman said to him, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water." 11The woman said to him, "Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?" 13Jesus said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life."
15The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water." 16Jesus said to her, "Go, call your husband, and come back." 17The woman answered him, "I have no husband." Jesus said to her, "You are right in saying, 'I have no husband'; 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!"
19The woman said to him, "Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem." 21Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." 25The woman said to him, "I know that Messiah is coming" (who is called Christ). "When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us." 26Jesus said to her, "I am he, the one who is speaking to you."
27Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, "What do you want?" or, "Why are you speaking with her?" 28Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29"Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?" 30They left the city and were on their way to him. 31Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, "Rabbi, eat something." 32But he said to them, "I have food to eat that you do not know about." 33So the disciples said to one another, "Surely no one has brought him something to eat?" 34Jesus said to them, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35Do you not say, 'Four months more, then comes the harvest'? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37For here the saying holds true, 'One sows and another reaps.' 38I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor." 39Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman's testimony, "He told me everything I have ever done." 40So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41And many more believed because of his word. 42They said to the woman, "It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world."
This story about a lunch hour meeting with Jesus may be interpreted as an allegory of what happens to each of us over the course of our lifetimes in regard to our spiritual development. As her conversation with Jesus begins let's imagine the Samaritan woman's faith development to be in what James Fowler calls the Stage I Intuitive-Projective faith. This is the stage of first self-awareness. The woman is aware that she is thirsty. We all know when we are thirsty. The thirst impulse is at a subconscious level. The subconscious level is the intuitive level of faith development. This is the faith level of small children when the child is still learning distinctions between what is real and what only seems to be. Some children have imaginary friends who are very real to them. Other children have a certain toy or stuffed animal whom they perceive to be alive and living.
I remember a faith experience I had as a small child. Perhaps I was four years old. I walked out the screen door in the kitchen out into our back yard. I stood on the small concrete deck there and looked out over the backyard up into the sky and into the shining sun. There was a certain freshness, a certain energy in the air. Our dogs were playing the back yard. My daddy was working on the goldfish pond in the backyard. Suddenly I had a very strong sense that the veil between God and me dropped. I was experiencing God in such a powerful way that I couldn't tell the difference between me and God. I felt an overwhelming sense of the power of cosmic love. In that blissful moment, everything was right in the world - everything was perfect. It wasn't that I was apart from the world. I was a part OF the world. There was no doubt in my mind about that. I opened up my arms as if to bless the whole world. That is an example of what James Fowler labels a Stage I Intuitive-Projective faith experience of God.
Now, let's return to the story of the longest recorded conversation between Jesus and a human being in the New Testament. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink." (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) She is operating on faith level one and Jesus takes the conversation to the next level of faith development. Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water."
In her conversation with Jesus, the woman begins to move into Faith Level 2. She says, "Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?" According to Fowler Faith Level 2 is the stage in which the person begins to internalize the stories, teachings and practices that symbolize belonging to his or her community. This stage of faith is based on literalistic beliefs, moral rules and attitudes. Symbols are taken as one-dimensional and literal in meaning. So the woman has trouble with the idea of living water.
The symbol of living water begins to move her faith and she asks Jesus, "Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?"
Jesus stays on Level 2 as he replies: "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life." (John 4:8-14)
A factor initiating transition to Stage 3 is the clash or contradictions in stories that leads to reflection on meanings. Literalism breaks down. The woman now incorporates the symbol of living water and says to Jesus, "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water." (4:15) She knows Jesus is no longer talking about literal water. Jesus is talking about the spiritual energy that invigorates the universe. She moves beyond her literal faith and moves into the world of symbolic meaning. Jesus is speaking to her on faith level three and she understands what he is saying to her.
Stage 3 is often the level of faith of teenagers when they are confirmed in the church as they explore how they will fit into their faith, family and culture. The Samaritan woman is developing her own faith story. She is becoming in her own mind the woman who talked to a prophet who offered her spiritual nourishment and maybe even a way out of her cultural constraints. She was an outcast in her own society. That is why she came to draw water from the well at noon. It would be like a prostitute today who would prefer to go grocery shopping at 2 am rather than 2 pm so she won't see or be seen by those who consider themselves to be upstanding citizens.
Stage 4 faith development most appropriately takes form in young adulthood but for many adults it emerges only in the mid-thirties or forties. This happened for me in college as I let go of the rigid, literalistic, fundamentalism of my youth and accepted a broader, more nuanced approach to God and faith. One step along this path for me was moving from a more constrained literalistic faith to a more allegorical, symbolic interpretation of the Bible.
As I moved into Stage 4 of faith development I appreciated more the complexity of life. I had built an elaborate castle of meaning in Stage 3 and it was terrifying to me to watch it crumble before me. I was not sure what, if anything, would be erected where it once stood. I felt like a car without a steering wheel. One way of putting it is that I "let go and let God" on a deep level. This was a painful growth from Stage 3 to Stage 4. Ironically, it took a lot of faith for me to let go of Stage 3 and move into Stage 4. I did not even have such language or understanding at the time when it happened. It was more like letting everything go and trusting in God for something new. That something new that emerged could be described as Stage 4 of my faith development according to James Fowler's model.
If you find yourself in a time of trouble, when your understanding of the world, God and yourself is crumbling beneath your feet, know that rather than "losing it" you may be moving into a higher stage of faith development. As you leave a stage of faith behind it often feels like a crumbling disaster inside of you. Know that such a feeling may signify that you are growing in your faith.
So it is with this Samaritan woman at the well. Her current level of faith is dissolving before her very eyes. She says to Jesus, "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water." Then her ears turn red as she listens to his response. Jesus said to her, "Go, call your husband, and come back." Everything is broken down inside of her. The woman answered him, "I have no husband." Her soul is laid bare before him. Jesus said to her, "You are right in saying, 'I have no husband'; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!" (4:14-17) That had to hurt. Moving from one level of faith development hurts. There is no way to avoid the pain. It is a necessary part of the process.
Feeling overwhelmed, looking for cover, she does what we all do when a nerve has been touched unexpectedly. We change the topic. She brings religion into the conversation as a distraction. The woman said to him, "Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem." Jesus tells her that God in not in Jerusalem nor Mount "Anything." God is inside us and all around us. Specifically, Jesus said to her, "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth."
The woman said to him, "I know that Messiah is coming" (who is called Christ). "When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us."
Jesus said to her, "I am he, the one who is speaking to you."
Jesus once again challenges her to the next level of faith development. Stage 5 Conjunctive faith involves the integration into self of much that was suppressed or unrecognized in the interest of Stage 4's self-certainty. This stage develops a "second naivete'' (Ricoeur) in which symbolic power is reunited with conceptual meanings. Here there must also be a new reclaiming and reworking of one's past. There must be an opening to the voices of one's "deeper self."
I think Stage 5 is where I am today and where some of you may be as well. I sometimes feel I am revisiting earlier themes of my youth and dealing with them on a higher level in the imaginary spiral construct that helps me imagine these things. Its danger lies in the direction of a paralyzing passivity or inaction, giving rise to complacency or cynical withdrawal, due to its paradoxical understanding of truth. The strength of Stage 5 is the rise of the ironic imagination - -a capacity to see and be in one's or one's group's most powerful meanings, while simultaneously recognizing that they are relative, partial and inevitably distorting understandings of transcendent reality. But this stage remains divided. It lives and acts between an untransformed world and a transforming vision and loyalties. In some few cases this division yields to the call of the radical actualization that we call Stage 6.
Stage 6 is exceedingly rare. This is the level of faith of Jesus and a small percentage of others in the world at any time. Such universalizers are often experienced as subversive of the structures (including religious structures) that provide meaning for the majority. Many persons in this stage die at the hands of those whom they hope to change. Universalizers are often more honored and revered after death than during their lives. The rare persons who may be described by this stage have a special grace that makes them seem more lucid, more simple, and yet somehow more fully human than the rest of us.
We see Jesus at Stage 6 when the woman said to him, "I know that Messiah is coming" (who is called Christ). "When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us." Jesus said to her, "I am he, the one who is speaking to you." (Jon 4:25-26) That was a very radical statement for Jesus to make in that culture or even in our ours. It soon led to his execution.
The rest of the story of the Samaritan woman finds her sharing her faith, such as it was, and bringing many people to grow in their own faith. Jesus emphasizes that we are to share our faith, whatever level of faith we may be in at the present time. So the message for today is to share what faith you have regardless of which stage of faith you are in. Although her faith was not Stage 6 she shared from her faith level and it helped to bring along other people. So don't worry which stage of faith you have and focus on sharing what faith you have and it will make a difference in the lives of others. God wants you to use you to share your faith no matter which stage of your faith. As ever, God has a way of taking what little we provide and transforming it into something greater. This is how we cooperate with God in the building up of God's kingdom on earth.- - -
*In writing this sermon, I found helpful a synopsis of Fowler's Stages of Faith from Joann Wolski Conn (ed.), Women's Spirituality: Resources for Christian Development. (Paulist, 1986), pp. 226-232. Online: http://faculty.plts.edu/gpence/html/fowler.htm