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The Tree Of Knowledge
March 14, 1993

JOHN 4:5-26

The students in the one-room grades 1-8 rural school prided themselves on harassing teachers. The big burly eighth grade boys had caused a succession of teachers to either quit or get fired for their inability to discipline. The school board was desperate. Finally they decided to go into the next county and hire an experienced retired teacher. The day came for the new teacher to start. Students gathered on the lawn in front of the school to wait for the teacher's arrival. They made bets on how long the teacher would last.

9:00 came and went, no teacher. 10:00 came and went, no teacher. Finally, someone shouted, "Look, someone's coming!" Far in the distance they saw a cloud of dust, an old horse pulling an old wagon upon which an old man sat. Slowly, the horse, wagon and man came to the school. The students watched in wonder and amazement, some of laughing at the idea of an old man controlling them. When the horse got in front of the school, the old man pulled on the reins and said, "Whoa!" but the horse didn't stop. The old horse kept plodding along. The man again pulled on the reins and said, "Whoa!" but to no avail. Then slowly, the old man pulled an old pistol from his pocket, aimed it at the horse's head and pulled the trigger. The horse fell down dead. The old man slowly blew the smoke away from the pistol, slowly replaced it in his pocket, looked at the dumfounded, wide-eyed students and slowly said, "Just wanted you to know that when I say whoa, I mean whoa!"

Some kids just aren't interested in learning! Some adults aren't interested in learning. They haven't had a new idea in years. Some folks just aren't interested in knowledge! They have not discovered the joy and rewards of learning. In T. H. White's novel about King Arthur's Court, The Once and Future King,

Merlyn said,

The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world around you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then--to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you.

On the other hand, there are some folks who know a lot, but they don't know much! In the Scripture lesson today, Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well. The woman at the well knew a great deal, but she didn't know much! Look at what she knew.

. She knew the customs. She knew that Jews and Samaritans had nothing to do with each other. When Jesus asked her for a drink because she had a bucket, she replied, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" She knew that a Jewish man should not be talking to a Samaritan woman.

. She knew how to draw water. She knew that any fool needed a bucket in order to get water out of a well. When Jesus told her she should have asked him for living water she replied, "Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?"

. But, she also knew how to take advantage of an unusual development. The idea of living water captured her imagination. She asked, "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water." She knew about water, but she didn't know much about living water.

. She also knew how to change the subject. She was a master at distraction. . When Jesus told her to get her husband, she replied, "I have no husband." Jesus said, "You are right in saying 'I have no husband'; for you have had five husbands, and the one you are living with now is not your husband.." The woman, not missing a beat, changed the subject, "Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place people must worship is in Jerusalem." Have you noticed how some people shift to theology when the scrutiny of truth gets too personal and uncomfortable! All of a sudden, she got religion!

. She even knew about the Messiah. She said, "I know that Messiah is coming...When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us."

The woman at the well knew a lot, had a lot of knowledge, but she didn't know much. She did run back to the village and spread the news about this strange man who called himself the Messiah. Several believed in Christ because of her testimony, but there is no evidence that she believed or that she committed herself to the Messiah and his cause. She was too busy warding off judgment, too busy protecting herself from scrutiny, too busy putting on the best impression, too intent on displaying her knowledge on many subjects, rather than learning, stretching, growing, and discovering the living water.

We are looking at the Tree of Knowledge this morning. The Tree of Life is our Lenten theme. The ancient magical tree that granted immortality to all who ate of its fruit became symbolic of the living relationship with God, a relationship Christians identify with Jesus. A living, dynamic relationship with God includes wisdom, healing, beauty, compassion, and knowledge.

There are those who have given up on knowledge. Like the pupils in the one-room school, they have not discovered the joy of learning. There are those who know a great deal like the woman at the well, but they don't know much! There is also a difference between knowing about and knowing. There is a difference between knowing about a subject and knowing the subject. There is a difference between knowing about a person and knowing the person. There is a difference between knowing about God and knowing God.

What might help us is to sharpen our understanding of knowledge. Parker Palmer has developed a theory of knowledge as relationship rather than learning objective data. In Weavings, a journal of the Christian spiritual life, published by the Upper Room, Parker Palmer criticizes our usual approach to knowledge.

Western culture...has developed a way of knowing, teaching, and learning I shall call "objectivism." The name is apt: objectivism treats everything as an inert object to be manipulated (rather than a living subject to be related to).

Objectivism has been the common approach in education where everything we study becomes an inert object from which we maintain our distance. We study it; we learn about it. We have done the same with religious education where God is objectified, seen as something "out there" from which we maintain our distance. Palmer contends that knowledge is not about objective data, but a relationship with truth. Truth, supposedly that which we are pursuing through learning, shares the same Germanic root as troth.

To enter into a relationship with truth is to become betrothed, to engage the known with one's whole self, an engagement one enters with attentiveness, care, and good will. To know in truth is to allow one's self to be known as well, to be vulnerable to the challenges and changes any true relationship brings.

Truth has to do with relationships, not with facts and reasons. Knowledge of God is knowledge not about God, but knowing God in relationship. Genuine learning is a profoundly religious act. Genuine learning brings us into relationship with that which we are struggling. Take suffering for example. Suffering is an occasion for learning and gaining knowledge. Illness, alienation, anxiety, disgrace, injustice, loss of love, grief, death may threaten to destroy us, but when we find the courage to learn, we enter into relationship with that which causes suffering. Rather than try to skim along on life's surface, dive deeply into these experiences. Whatever life deals out, dive deeply into the pain, and discover the tremendous healing, compassion, and knowledge of God.

Learning as relationship is a great adventure, but there is a risk. For, what if you discover a cherished belief is no longer viable for you? Are you prepared to give up an old, comfortable belief? What if you discover a new truth that causes you to change your life, change your way of thinking, change a goal or a value? Are you prepared to change your life? There is a great adventure in learning, and adventure involves risk.

Knowledge is about knowing. Knowledge is about relationships. Our closing hymn this morning states it well. I may not know a great deal about much, but "I know whom I have believed!" I may not know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future. I may not know all there is to know about God, or even know much at all about God, but I know whom I have believed.

© 1993 Douglas I. Norris