First, I argued, God’s mercy is relentless. Customarily, pious Jews of the first century would have assiduously avoided Samaria, a nation, in their minds, of apostates and half-breeds. Yet Jesus, journeying from Judea in the south to Galilee in the north, moves right through Samaria. Moreover, he speaks to a woman in public (something that men simply didn’t do) and he consorts with someone known to be a sinner. In all of this, Jesus embodies the love of God, which crosses barriers, mocks taboos, and overcomes all of the boundaries that we set for it. Thomas Merton spoke of the Promethean problem in religion, by which he meant the stubborn assumption that God is a distant rival, jealous and protective of his prerogatives. In point of fact, the true God is filled with hesed (tender mercy) and delights in lifting up human beings: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”
As St. Augustine knew, we are all wired for God, hungry for absolute reality. But God, as St. John knew, is love. Therefore, to be filled with God is to be filled with love, which is to say, self-emptying. The moment we receive something of the divine grace, we should make of it a gift and then we will receive more of the divine grace. In a word, our being will increase in the measure that we give it away. This is the “water welling up to eternal life” that Jesus speaks of. God wants not merely to bind up our wounds; he wants to marry us, to make us “partakers of the divine nature.”
But such a strategy leads only to frustration and addiction and hence must be challenged. Indeed, Jesus shows that the woman exhibits this obsessive, addictive quality of desire in regard to her relationships: when she says that she has no husband, Jesus bluntly states, “yes, you’ve had five, and the one you have now is not your husband.” This is not the voice of a wishy-washy relativist, an anything-goes peddler of pseudo-mercy and cheap grace. Rather, it is the commanding voice of one who knows that extreme mercy awakens extreme demand.
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