By Diane Eaton
Expectancy Deficit Disorder is a common malady in the church.
Church disputes are not unusual, and neither is their tendency to polarize people. But what’s truly unusual is the rigorous work of self-reflection. That’s how we discover one malady we share in common. It’s this: wanting too little – too little from God. I call it Expectancy Deficit Disorder (EDD). As a fellow Presbyterian, I say: together we’re at risk of seeking after something less than what God has for us. But, we’ll never have God’s best while we’re going after something less. And we’ll never ask for God’s best if we don’t expect it: “Ye have not because ye ask not.” (James 4:2 KJV)
That was the problem for the woman Jesus met at Jacob’s well. When Jesus probed into her personal life, where he wanted to bring healing and transformation, she deflected the conversation away from herself and onto the ongoing religious conflict. Her people, the Samaritans, were embroiled with the Jewish people in an irreconcilable conflict over which mountain was God’s choice for worship. Jesus did not take sides, but instead announced a radically different system of worship: “God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth.” (John. 4:24 NIV)
In other words, a relationship with God would no longer be defined by location or practice: place or form. That was the “old wineskin” worship system. “Place and form” was to be replaced by “spirit and truth” through the “living water” Christ’s Spirit operating in the hearts of anyone who wants it and seeks after it. That’s God’s best!
At first the woman merely wanted better circumstances. She wanted Jesus’s “living water” so she wouldn’t have to trudge to the well anymore. But she wasn’t asking for enough — not yet. Jesus helped her overcome her EDD — and then she was able to drink deeply of the “living water.” Soon, through her testimony and Jesus’s presence, fellow Samaritans discovered this amazing “water.” Note: This entire event took place outside their traditional place and form of worship!
This was God’s best, and still is! It’s God’s transforming love — not confined within the boundaries of religious place and form, but through his Spirit and Truth working within. This “wind” can never be managed within the “old wineskin” — including today’s worship communities which are held together by systemized categories of place and form.
Last year I visited Jacob’s Well in the West Bank. An Orthodox Church now sits over the well. While exploring the site, I noticed bullet holes in the gate and walls — signs of historical conflict. I say, we have this same bent. We too will keep fighting over “old wineskin” entities as long as we are afflicted with EDD: wanting too little from God. Oh the anguish that results from such faulty pursuits – just as at the very location where Jesus offered God’s best.
We do care about our own Christian communities, but that doesn’t mean we want God’s best. Like the woman, we too deflect personal conviction by focusing on the current conflict. Oh, we may rightfully value scripture, prayer, and evangelism. But we want to squeeze it all into “old wineskin” entities. It won’t work, just as Jesus warned. We’ll drift into disputes over matters related to “place and form” — like property, events, rituals, clergy roles, music and so forth. Because old wineskins are inflexible, the cracks will just widen as we embark on restorative missions. Polarities fester as opposing sides view themselves to be defending God’s way.
However, controversies can benefit us — if we allow them to expose to us our darker qualities — like self-righteousness, ungraciousness, anger, fear, or controlling tendencies. That’s the stuff that interests God because that’s where he wants to bring transformation. Facing our darker side is messy and disturbing, but this is how we personally acquire a thirst for God’s best.
Speaking personally, church troubles over the years have helped me see how deeply I was dependent on the church for my sense of worth and belonging. I needed the church to function properly for my own sense of security. However, I was expecting fallen sinners to provide what only God could. I was afflicted with EDD, and needed to see it. God’s Spirit continually uses my distresses to draw me to him, and like the Samaritan woman, to acquire an ever-deepening yearning for God’s best.
After her encounter with Jesus, the Samaritan woman probably wasn’t treated much better in her religious community. It didn’t change. The bitter conflict continued — and still continues. Yet she came to enjoy a blessing no one could rob from her, because it welled up from within her: God’s best.
Still today, no worship location, organizational structure, or sacrament can provide God’s best for us. That requires an ongoing miracle of grace through Spirit and truth. But it comes at a cost: it requires us to pry our fingers off of God’s project and stop trying to control it, lest we quench the free movement of the Spirit among the people. Inner transformation doesn’t happen according to our managed programs.
And now I raise a probing personal question for us all: Am I merely striving after a renewal of the “old wineskin” — or do I want God’s best?
If renovation is all we want, then we’ll keep diverting our attention to the ruptures, just like the Samaritan woman did at first. And we’ll keep expending fruitless energy patching the cracks. We’ll end up spiritually bankrupt, with little to give. That’s the sad prognosis of EDD.
Why strive for second best when we can have God’s best? Why strive after something that won’t satisfy, when we can be truly fulfilled and effective through Christ’s “living water”?
Do you want God’s best for you, regardless of personal cost? Then that’s what you’ll go after, and that’s what you’ll receive: “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (Matthew 21:22)
Diane Eaton is a member of the Board of Directors of The Renewal Fellowship. A version of this article first appeared as a PresbyCan Daily Devotional.