Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Believer's Heart: Sermon on John 7:37-52


Scripture can be found here....

It was one of the most joyous festivals on the Jewish calendar—it still is, “z’man simchateinu,” “the season of our rejoicing.” And then as now, it took place immediately following the most solemn festival of the year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when Jews fast and “afflict the soul,” showing remorse for the sins of the past twelve months.[i] This morning’s passage takes place during the season of joy, the festival of Booths, more commonly called by its Hebrew name, “Sukkot.”

Like the other two major festivals, Passover and Pentecost, Sukkot carries layers of meaning. It is a festival that is “both historical and agricultural.” I first learned about Sukkot in seminary, where it was celebrated by the construction of a Sukkah (booth) on the lawn. The website Judaism 101 states: “In honor of the holiday's historical significance, we are commanded to dwell in temporary shelters, as our ancestors did in the wilderness.” Therefore the Sukkah, by tradition, has to be open to the elements—you can have a loose covering, say, of tree branches, but you have to be able to see the stars through the roof, the rain has to be able to come in. Jews live in their Sukkah for the length of the festival, as their health permits. In it they have an experience that reminds them of God’s provision, even when they were on the move in the wilderness. Sukkot also functions as a harvest festival. The temporary shelters are often decorated with various kinds of squash and corn, giving the booth a decidedly Thanksgiving-ish feel.[ii]

If you think about it, one element very definitively joins these two aspects of the celebration together, the harvest festival and the commemoration of the wilderness journey: that element is water. God miraculously provided water in the desert, so that the people would not die of thirst, and so that they would learn to trust in God’s ongoing and dependable care. And a harvest festival, especially one taking place in the Middle East, would, of course, have to take note of water, without which the crops would never grow.

So each day of this very joyous, very important week-long celebration, there was a solemn procession of the high priest to the pool at Siloam, where a golden pitcher was filled with water, and solemnly processed back to the temple, where it was poured out as an offering upon the high altar.

We come in at the middle of the story, which starts at the beginning of the chapter. There, we learn, Jesus is hiding out in Galilee, because, verse 1 tells us, the “Jews were trying to kill him.”

This verse, even though it’s not a part of our passage, deserves a full-stop. We ‘re going to have to leave the season of joy for a few minutes to turn to a subject more appropriate to a Christian Day of Atonement. We’ve been in the gospel of John for a full two months, and it’s past time we talked about how that term “the Jews” is used throughout this gospel. The first thing you need to know is that in the Greek, the word is “Judeans,” which refers to the inhabitants of region of Judea. And in fact, Jesus is hiding out from certain inhabitants of Judea—those religious authorities who are threatened by the things he has been saying or doing.

But more important than that, is the history of the writing of this gospel. When the author of the fourth gospel was committing his words to papyrus, Jews who were followers of Jesus were in the midst of a terrible and escalating conflict with Jews who were not followers of Jesus. In fact, the conflict had reached such a boiling point that the Jesus-followers had been kicked out of the synagogue, and were no longer permitted to worship alongside their kith and kin.

Now, if you are wondering how people who used to worship together and get along just fine could get to such a point of conflict and even verbal violence, just look at those churches in our own denomination who are struggling with the issue of the ordination of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered ministers, deacons, or elders. In the news this week is First Presbyterian Church of Houston, which is holding a congregational meeting this morning for the purpose of voting on whether or not to leave the PCUSA. In times of heated disagreement, even with those we love, sometimes we feel betrayed and feel the need to part ways. We can say terrible things. We can cut people off, and cut them out. The gospel of John, while depicting the life and ministry of Jesus, is also portraying life 60 or more years later, when people who had formerly worshipped side-by-side had turned against each other.

The utter tragedy of this is the fact that this gospel has been its unique origin story. The accusation “the Jews killed Jesus” stuck, despite the following facts: 1, Jesus was himself an observant Jew. 2, every one of the twelve apostles were also Jews. 3, Historically, Jews were not permitted by the Romans to kill anyone. And 4, It was, in fact, the Roman Empire that executed Jesus. When we read the words “the Jews” in this gospel, we must remember that we are getting two stories: A story of Jesus, and a story of the recriminations that flew around in the midst of a dreadful family fight that inadvertently led to centuries of discrimination, murder, and even genocide.

We return, now, to our passage. Not even this joyous festival could, at first, entice Jesus to venture to Jerusalem, because he was hiding out, avoiding the places where the religious authorities might see and hear him, and be provoked. But Jesus’ brothers goad him to go—even though, or maybe because, they don’t believe in a thing he is saying or doing. “Sure,” they say, “show yourself to the people!”

And, maybe because of a funny kind of sibling dynamic, he goes. And he stands up in the temple and teaches and preaches, and attracts exactly the kind of attention he didn’t want.

And now it is the last day of the festival. Each day for seven days, the high priest has processed solemnly to the pool of Siloam, filled a golden pitcher with water, and processed back to the temple to pour out the water as an offering. On this eight and final day, the great day of the festival, Jesus cries out. It’s as if something has been bottled up inside him, and he can’t hold back any longer. He cries, “‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” And once again, we have Jesus identifying himself as the source of living water, just as he did in his long conversation by Jacob’s well in Samaria. And just in case we’ve forgotten, John reminds us: Jesus is talking about the Spirit.

I imagine Jesus, here, at the end of his rope. He is on a mission to reveal the power and glory and love of God to a very doubtful world. He has the support of his followers, the twelve. And he has the support of people like the Samaritan woman with whom he conversed at the well, but, let’s face it, she’s the definition of an outsider. He has the sporadic support of the crowds, but that ebbs and flows like the tide. He doesn’t have the support of the religious authorities; they seem ready to judge him from the start. He doesn’t even have the support of his own family, the brothers he was raised with. I think he feels a kind of desperation, born of the urgency he feels to get out his message and the frustration he feels at being so consistently undermined and misunderstood. And he blurts it out: Are you thirsty for the Spirit of God? Are you dying for being parched in the wilderness of your everyday life? Come and get it: I’ve got the living water, the living Spirit you need to refresh yourself, and fill you up, and make you glow again. I am the source. Come to me if you are thirsty. Take a nice long drink. Jesus is talking about the Spirit.

But here’s the surprise: Jesus is also talking about us. We are the believers. We are the ones with the hearts out of which the living water will flow, because once we take a drink, once we have been refreshed—well, we can’t help turning to the next guy and saying, “You won’t believe how wonderful this living water is. Here, try a sip.” Jesus is talking about the joy you feel when you know you have basked—even for a moment—in the presence of God, when you know that the Spirit is flowing through you. When you read a verse of scripture and think, My God, that was meant for me. Or when you sing a hymn, and realize that through that music, God is singing you.  Or when you join together with other people to create something beautiful for God, something life-giving for God’s people, and you realize, right in the middle of it, God is doing this wonderful thing, we are riding God’s wave here! That’s it: that’s the living water. It flows and we are quenched, we are laughing, we feel alive and hopeful and like maybe we’d better drop to our knees and say “Thanks.” It flows, and we think, somebody should have a party, because this is worth celebrating!

It doesn’t go well for Jesus. Have you ever tried to do something beautiful, and you feel as if it all went terribly wrong? It doesn’t go well for Jesus. The crowd is divided. The bigwigs are having a fight, and trying to figure out why no one will arrest this muckraker. And our passage ends on a miserable, negative note, when Nicodemus, the one authority who stands up for Jesus—or maybe, just stands up for due process—is shut down with a nasty verbal slap: What, are you from that backwater Galilee too?

But just because people don’t agree, doesn’t mean that the Spirit is quenched. Out of the believer’s heart will flow rivers of living water. Out of our own being, out of who we are (we people of faith trying to figure all this out two thousand years later), out of our hearts will flow God’s Holy Spirit, and someone else will be quenched.

A couple of days ago at a gathering of friends, we closed with this prayer:

Christ calls you deeper into what you are here to do.
Deeper into the present moment,
deeper into the life you are already living.
Deeper into the truth that is already before you.
Deeper into the Presence that is already within you.[iii]

We are called, both in seasons of joy and seasons of self-reflection, to go deeper and to recognize that the living water is already within us, that the Spirit is already moving among us, and that all we need do, is to let the river flow. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Healing and Hope: A Sermon on John 4 and 5

Scripture can be found here.....

“Sickness is a place,” wrote Flannery O’Connor, “and it’s always a place where there’s no company, where nobody can follow.”[i]

In today’s readings from John’s gospel, we are given two stories of healing, and they are so different, it was impossible to choose just one.  In one story we have a sick child, a little boy, who is “at the point of death”—an illness that has suddenly and dramatically interrupted a young life. In the ot
her, we have a man for whom illness is a way of life: he has spent 38 years lying near a pool that contains healing properties, without managing to get in. In the first story, we have a man of power and influence, interceding on behalf of his son. In the second we have a man who, on his own, is powerless to do much of anything for himself. The royal official is most likely a gentile, a non-believer. The man by the pool in Jerusalem is the same religion as Jesus, a Jew.

But what binds the stories together is illness: that other country of which O’Connor speaks. What binds these stories together are the miraculous healings that come about because each of these people had an encounter with Jesus.

Taking the stories one at a time, then: In the first we have a father whose son is sick. The father is a royal official, a man who, we can presume, has some power at his disposal, and also some wealth. A man who orders people around. A man who, more often than not, gets his way.

But when his little boy is sick—and this is the thing about illness—his power vanishes. His wealth is insignificant. He cannot command the disease, the fever, the cancer—whatever it is that has brought his child to the edge of the abyss between life and death. And so he leaves Capernaum for Cana in Galilee, which is roughly the same distance as Binghamton to Owego: less than half an hour in a car, but a walk of about ten hours. The royal official has heard of Jesus.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t much like the Jesus he meets. Jesus’ first response is to rebuff the man entirely. “You just want a show. You just want a magic act so that you can ‘ooooh’ and ‘ahhhh.’” I try to envision myself in the man’s position, and all I can imagine is anger.

You’ve heard of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, right? She of the “Five Stages of Grief”? Except, as it turns out, they are not really successive stages, and, as it also turns out, they can apply to our experiences of other kinds of trauma as well. Such as, the terror of thinking your child is about to die. Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance. They often occur in a jumble, or all together, or two or three at a time. No rhyme or reason, because each human heart and psyche is unique. Here, anger is a reasonable response.
But this man doesn’t have the luxury of being able to be angry. He does not lash out. Instead, ignoring Jesus’ dismissive words, he begs. “Sir, come down before my little boy dies.” And so Jesus gives him the good news: Your son will live. And so the royal official begins his long walk home. Another ten hours, six if he’s on horseback or in a carriage. A long not knowing, a long lingering in the other country that is illness, even the illness of one you adore.

Our second story presents us with an odd protagonist: the man by the pool. We are not exactly told that his illness is his fault. Not exactly. But in this week in which we lost Philip Seymour Hoffman to heroin addiction, we are already alert to some situations in which we, like Jesus, are tempted to lean in close to the afflicted person and ask, “Do you want to be made well?” You know the diseases—the cancers for which there is no ribbon, because we assume the person brought it on by their own bad behavior. Addictions. There’s a lot of sorrow out there about the great actor we lost. There’s also a lot of judgment. Didn’t he want to get well?

Jesus asks the unnamed man by the pool. Don’t you want to get well? Well, he answers, I have no one to help me to get to the pool when the healing is ready. And Jesus—this abrupt Jesus we have today—says, Get up and go. And what follows is a stunning series of conversations in which the healed man not only does not express any gratitude for his brand new life, but actually turns Jesus in to the religious authorities for healing on the Sabbath. (This, in order to get out of trouble for carrying his mat around on the Sabbath.) Jesus sees him one last time, and leaves him with some ominous words that sound much like a threat.

So the good news is, people are healed, both the child who is completely offstage and the man who goes and tattles on Jesus. And maybe the really good news, if we want the whole world to be healed, is that these stories tell us unequivocally that there is no relationship between good behavior and miraculous healings. The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike, and healing, apparently, is like the rain.

Healing takes place! This is good news! So why does this all still feel so… hard?

Maybe it’s because healing isn’t always easy, not even miraculous healing.

Think of the father traveling across Galilee for hours and hours, not knowing. This is what one scholar calls a perfect image of the life of faith. We put one foot in front of the other hoping, but not knowing. And think of the man who takes up his mat and walks, only to entirely disavow Jesus because he is afraid of the religious authorities. His infirmity is gone, but his fear remains. He doesn’t yet know how to cross back from that other country into the land of the living.

Illness, addiction, disease, trauma and injury—these things can isolate us. They can take us from a world we know and are familiar with into a land that is unknown, and seemingly untraveled. There are no markers on the roads, just our own feet trudging forward because it’s the only way we know to go.

Maybe healing, true healing, begins the minute we start to believe we are not alone. The minute we recognize that others have gone through, that they are going through, what we are going through. This is the genius of the Twelve Steps… they get people out of their heads, where all the excuses live, and help them understand that the path to recovery is a well-worn road … in fact, if they look around, it is a crowded highway, filled with boon companions.  

Perhaps true healing begins the minute that we know, not only that we are not alone, but that we are held in the palm God’s hand. That, no matter the outcome of our illness—whether or not we receive a cure we are longing for—that we will receive God’s healing, which is to say, the firm and beautiful and transforming knowledge of ourselves as abiding, forever, in the very heart of God’s love. Maybe this is what’s on Jesus’ mind this morning. His heart is ever and only wanting us to know that our truest healing comes when we are resting in God’s love.

Maybe sickness is a place where nobody can follow. But it is also a place where we can find companions if we remember to look for them. And every place—the long road across Galilee or the highway across the Southern Tier, the place where we are stuck by the side of the road or are waiting by the side of the pool—in any place and every place, we can and will be found by God. And whether we are sleepless in our own beds, or sleepless beside the hospital bed that holds our beloved—we can know that we are held by God, day and night, waking and sleeping, living and dying. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] From a 1956 letter, collected in The Habit of Being, ed. Sally Fitzgerald.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

A Question of Living Water: A Sermon on John 4:1-42

Jesus and the Samaritan Woman by He Qi

Scripture can be found here...

Let me introduce you to someone very special to me. Someone I’ve known at least since I was 28 years old, studying for ministry, but never, ever, dreaming I might one day be called upon to stand in front of a congregation and speak about scripture. Someone I was introduced to because a Boston College chaplain nevertheless asked me, one winter day, “How would you like to preach during Lent?” To which I instantly replied, YES, almost without thinking about it, and which is how I met her. And, as near as I can calculate, that is how on March 18, 1990, the third Sunday in Lent, I stood in the Trinity Chapel at the Newton Campus to preached my first sermon ever, on the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well.

There is so much to say about this passage. That is the peril of preaching on a passage you truly love. Too much to say, too much risk of what one generous-hearted preaching mentor kindly called, “a kitchen-sink-sermon,” as in, everything but. So, I’m going to let her lead the way. Specifically, I’m going to let her introduce herself by means of the questions she asks Jesus—four reasonable, challenging, sometimes impertinent, and ultimately, soul-baring questions.

Question #1: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”

It is the first century of the common era. This is Samaria, which is to say, non-Judean, non-Jewish territory. Jews and Samaritans had been one people, once upon a time. But after the split into northern and southern kingdoms, they had evolved into bitter enemies, and a central wound in that division had to do with where one could truly worship God. For Judeans, those in the southern kingdom, that was Jerusalem.

So, the first part of her question has to do with the woman’s incredulity that Jesus, a Jew, would ask a drink of water from a Samaritan. The second part of her surprise is that Jesus would ask it from a Samaritan woman. To this day, in some expressions of Judaism, men and women who are neither married nor related in some way simply do not speak to one another when unchaperoned. The Samaritan woman has noticed that Jesus has crossed barriers of religious belief, and of ethnicity, and of traditionally permitted gender interactions, in order to ask her for water. She demands to know why.

Question #2: “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?”

In Jesus’ response to the Samaritan woman’s first question, he tweaked her for not knowing something she could hardly be expected to know: that he was the bearer of something he referred to as “living water.” In her very reasonable response, she asks where and how Jesus expects to get it. I imagine her, arms akimbo. I see her with a raised eyebrow. I hear her, and her voice is dripping with sarcasm.

Question #3: “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”

Her third question follows right after her second. Are you greater than our ancestor, Jacob?

Hear how many ways we can hear this question. First, most obvious, is “Just who do you think you are?” Second, a more toned down, sincere query as to what exact power Jesus is claiming to have, he who claims to be able to give something that appears to be nowhere in sight—living water, which to the woman, still means fresh water, flowing, and not well water.

But hear that word: Our. Our ancestor. This woman, even while she is challenging Jesus, even while she is acutely aware of the differences between then—Samaritan and Jew, woman and man—she asks her question in a way that pushes Jesus to recognize, instead, what binds them: their common ancestor, in Greek, “the father of us,” Jacob. They are connected. They are kin. Jesus cannot deny it.

Jesus replies with an enticing description. The water from the well will eventually run dry. But the water Jesus is offering… the living water… will never run dry.
“The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

And now it is the woman’s turn. “Sir, give me this water.”  And in that entreaty, we learn so much about her. We learn her deep thirst for more than a cold cup on a hot day. We learn of her longing for something that will quench her soul as well as her body, something delicious to her heart as well as her mouth. Give me this water. We learn of her boldness. We learn of her deepest hopes. Give me this water.

Jesus’ response is curious, and leads to what is perhaps the most misinterpreted of all the conversations in the gospel of John. Jesus says, “Go get your husband.” “I don’t have a husband.” “No kidding. You’ve had five, and that one you’re with isn’t your husband at all, is he?”

It might surprise you, and then again, it might not, that this has historically been read as an indictment of the woman’s marital and sexual history. Although—it must be mentioned, if Jesus is referring to the woman’s track record of marriages and divorces, women had no power to divorce men. Men had all the power to divorce women, for any reason whatsoever, including a woman’s failure to bear a child. So if, let’s just say for the sake of argument, Jesus is really referring to the woman’s having been married so many times, and the fact that she is no longer considered marriageable, I can only imagine Jesus to be referring to it in a way that lets the woman know he sees her pain. He sees her powerlessness. He sees one of the reasons, perhaps, why she is so very thirsty for that living water.

However, this is John’s gospel, let’s not forget, and so we have a Jesus of metaphors, and a Jesus of symbols. One of the charges Jews made against Samaritans was that they had five gods, because the northern kingdom territories had five sanctuaries. But the Hebrew word for false god is ba’al, a word that means, god, lord, and also, husband. It’s not only possible, it’s highly likely, that Jesus was making that charge here—Samaritans have five ba’als, five gods. In one scenario, Jesus is engaging in shaming of a personal nature. In the other, he is taking on the woman’s theology. This is the gospel of John. What do you think he is most likely to be doing?

And this is why her response—“Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem”—is not a non sequitur. She gets exactly what Jesus is saying, and it has nothing to do with her marital status. It’s about meeting God on God’s terms. Worship in Spirit and in truth. And in the next breath Jesus says, in effect, In the long run, it doesn’t matter where we worship. What matters is living water. What matters is your deep spiritual thirst. What matters is the Spirit—who, remember, blows wherever and however she chooses—and what matters is the truth.
Question #4 (paired with Statement #1): “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!”  “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

I have introduced you to someone very dear to me: the first female evangelist of John’s gospel (though not the last). After the banter and the sparring, and, by the way, the non-existent cup of water poor thirsty Jesus never does get, after Jesus’ enigmatic and dangerous answer to that last question (“I am he.”), after all that: Come and see. The unnamed Samaritan woman would like to introduce us to Jesus.

Come and see one who doesn’t get put out when you ask questions.

Come and see one who knows you better than you know yourself.

Come and see one who offers endlessly quenching living water for thirsty, parched, even dying souls and bodies.

Come and see the one who merrily breaks down barriers of religion, of race, of gender.

Come and see the one who invites us to sit at table to be strengthened so that we, too, can go and be living water for a thirsty world.

Come and see.

Thanks be to God. Amen.