Sunday, February 24, 2008

3 Lent Year A

The story of the Samaritan Woman, the Woman at the Well, is one of those stories that I think we’ve heard many times. But each time I hear it, I hear it new, something different makes sense to me. This is a story that incorporates one of the most powerful forces we know as humans, water. Water invokes life, and death. Water invokes washing and baptism. Water invokes peace and power. Water, when absent leads to thirst, when present too much, leads to flood and drowning.

So imagine the day of this encounter we heard from John’s gospel. High noon, in the desert. The sun was bearing down on the dry, arid ground. A Jewish man sits at the well, he is terribly thirsty, his throat is dry and parched; he has just arrived at this well after walking miles in the desert. He sits at the well, but does not have a bucket or dipper to get any water.

She arrives, bucket on her head, dipper in her hand, a Samaritan woman. She had spent her morning cooking over an outdoor fire, and washing clothes in her bucket of water. The rest of the women won’t come to the well until the cool of the evening, she would rather not be the object of their scorn, so she comes at high noon.The Jewish man asks the Samaritan woman for a drink of water.

This is a scandalous encounter. Two things make it scandalous. First is that they are a man and a woman, a chance meeting at a well, and he talks to her. Men and women did not talk to one another in a public place. This is in violation of the Law they both lived by. The second reason that makes it scandalous is that he is a Jew, and she, a Samaritan. The enmity between Jews and Samaritans is notorious. They traced their lineage similarly through Rachel and Jacob, Sarah and Abraham, and Miriam and Moses, but a split had caused them to worship in two different places, the Jews in Jerusalem, the Samaritans at Mt. Gerizim. Each tribe was devoted to its own place of worship, and was completely intolerant of the other. Intolerance actually is an understatement here. These tribes fought and killed each other over the proper place to worship.

Jesus is known to break boundaries, and this is a story that shows Jesus doing just that. So we have a Jewish man and a Samaritan woman. He asks her for a drink of water. She responds with nothing less than an affront, "you a Jew, ask me, a woman of Samaria, for a drink of water." She is fully aware of the scandal of this encounter. He insists, and speaks of the living water that God gives. Her ears prick, her interest heightens; he has said something that causes her to engage the conversation. She states the obvious. "Sir, you have no bucket, how did you expect to get that living water?"

He responds by describing the spring of water that gushes up to eternal life, and that will quench the thirst eternally. There is no turning back from this scandalous encounter. She places her tentative trust in him, "Sir," she says, "give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty again."

Ah, but then he instructs her in this most surprising way. "Go, call your husband and come back." She answers him, "I have no husband." It strikes me as rather odd that during a chance encounter at a well, between a man and a woman, a Jew and a Samaritan, that she would even tell him the truth. She could have easily lied to him and told him that her husband was out working or something. It seems to me that her faith and trust in him had grown, she trusted him with the truth of who she is. He responds to her with the affirmation, "You have told me the truth."

I think this is a story about a woman who wants desperately to be known and to be loved, she has obviously been looking for love in all the wrong places, and the scandal of this encounter is that she finds a radically liberating kind of love at the well, in the middle of the day, in the middle of the desert, given to her by a Jewish man who shouldn’t even be talking to her. The rest of the scandalous encounter is that he, the Jewish man, the man we know as Jesus, is also known by her, she recognizes him as the Messiah, the one they’ve all been looking for. Once again, however, he is not the King who comes in power and glory, but a tired and thirsty man looking for a drink of water.

He calls her to faith by telling her the truth about herself, and she calls him to be who he is, the Messiah, the Christ, the One who has come in the name of the Lord. Through this relationship of these two people at this well, there is an encounter of the holy, there is transformation. She leaves her bucket at the well, goes into the city and tells everyone about the man she met at the well, and that this man who said such amazing things, was the One sent from God.

This story operates on a deeper level as well. The story we hear in Exodus is all about thirsty people, they wonder to Moses about whether they will just fall down dead from thirst in the desert. Moses goes to the Lord, and learns that he must strike the rock and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink. I think part of the reason these two stories are set together as they are is to illustrate the absolute newness that Jesus brings to our relationship with God. The well at which the Samaritan woman and Jesus meet is Jacob’s well. It is the well of the Jewish and Samaritan forebears; it is the well of our forebears. And what Jesus does is to replace the well of our forebears with the spring of living water. Jesus is the new water, the living spring. Everyone who drinks of the well of our forebears will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the spring of living water will never be thirsty. The Samaritan women not only recognized this, she drank of it.

We may find ourselves in the dryness of the wilderness; we may find ourselves doing some wandering. But as the woman at the well encountered Jesus in the desert; we too are assured we also encounter Jesus in the spring of living water. The water of baptism, the water that sustains our lives. Jesus says that we will never be thirsty again, I don’t know about you, but I get thirsty. I think what Jesus may have been illustrating is that when we go to the well that promises us youth, the well that promises us immortality, the well that promises us success and fortune, the well that promises us happiness and prosperity, we will continue to thirst. When we go to the spring of living water, when we go to Jesus, the food and drink that we are given will nourish us, will sustain us, and will give us new life. You see, each time we come here, to this place, we encounter Jesus.
Each time we confess all that we have done, and all that we have left undone, we encounter Jesus. Each time we come to this table to eat and to drink we encounter Jesus. And each time we encounter Jesus, we are changed, we are transformed.

The Lord is full of compassion and mercy: Come let us adore him. Amen

Saturday, February 16, 2008

2 Lent Yr A

Nicodemus asks the question every one of us asks, or wants to ask anyway, “How can these things be?” Nicodemus was a man of the Pharisee sect; he was a prominent leader of the Jews. And yet, late in the cover of night, he went to Jesus to find out the truth. How can these things be, he asked. How can you be the Son of Man Jesus? How can you turn water into wine? How can you say we must be born again, we are born only once. How can these things be?

You and I live in a world of reason and science. We live in a world where we spend much time and energy on finding the explanation, testing the hypothesis, repeating the experiment to see if we can get the same results many many times. This is a fine world; it’s a world of question and answer, a world of fact and proof. But side by side with the world of reason and science is the world of narrative, the world of story. Who you are today has everything to do with how you were formed, and who formed you. It has everything to do with the people in your life, and it has everything to do with how you learned to respond to the challenges that were set before you. This is where truth lives. The world of science and reason and the world of narrative are not mutually exclusive worlds, they address different questions though.

Nicodemus asked the question how does this happen, he wants a proof and evidence, and Jesus answered with the truth of relationship, Jesus answered with the truth of the story. Jesus referred Nicodemus, the learned Jew, to the story he would know so well, the story that is part of the very fiber of his being, the story of Moses and the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. Jesus essentially says to Nicodemus, remember who and whose you are, you are a child of God, you are constituted by the truth of wandering in the wilderness, just like Moses, just like the people that followed Moses. And what happened to them? They were slaves brought out of Egypt into the promised land. They were in bondage and they were freed. Jesus says to Nicodemus you can be free too, free from the bondage that holds you to death. You can have new life and freedom that comes with the truth of God who came into this world, God who loved the world so much that God gave God’s Son, the one and only Son, so that no one needs to be destroyed, by believing in him, anyone can have whole and lasting life. God came into the world to put the world right again. God who came into this world so that something absolutely new could happen.

Nicodemus had to come out of the cover of darkness and into the light to ask his question. Nicodemus was astounded to learn that what is offered is not the same ol same ol. What is offered is not the reason and explanation of the law, but the new creation, the new life, that comes in the person of Jesus Christ. The answer Nicodemus gets is about the new life that is offered through Jesus, it is about love, and love is not reasonable. This story shows that the new life, the new creation that is available through Jesus Christ is nothing like anything anyone ever knew or experienced previously.

The story used to illustrate this amazing love that God has for God’s beloved is the story of birth. Nicodemus asks is it like entering a second time into the mother’s womb, and Jesus’ answer is that it is not, it is being born of the spirit. This story expands the possibility of how and when new birth and the power of the spirit work, rather than limiting the power of the spirit to one way or one time. You do not now where the spirit comes from or where the spirit goes, but the spirit is always about birth, the spirit is always about new creation, the spirit is always about the new life that God affects in our world.

There is no same ol same ol. There is no business as usual. God is about something absolutely new in our world. And that something new is not reasonable and explainable. That something new is about the love that God is and has for us, the beloved. We are marked and chosen, we are the delight of God’s life. So if Lent is a time of wilderness wandering, how can we come out of the cover of darkness and into the light of God’s amazing and abundant love for us? How can Lent help us be born into the new life
God has for us in and through Jesus Christ? We can pay attention. We can wake up. Lent gives us the opportunity to open ourselves to the possibility of the spirit.

Lent is so counter-cultural. We are seduced by the comforts and conveniences of this world, with it’s plasma screens, espresso machines, wifi, iphones, and instant messaging. We are seduced by the ease of our lives, we have warm houses with stoves and refrigerators and toilets. Now, I don’t think there is anything wrong with all this, but I do think it seduces us into forgetting who and whose we are. Lent helps us remember. Lent helps us to stay in the light, to keep our eyes and ears open to God’s amazing love for us, for each and every one of us, and therefore to our response to God’s amazing love for us.

I may need to be brought kicking and screaming into Lent, you may enter Lent easily and happily, but either way, Lent helps us to pay attention to what matters, what’s important. Lent calls us to turn around, to look at God and then to look at our lives and to take stock. God calls us to pay attention. Wake up. Don’t let the cultural message of greed lull you into believing that what you possess is all there is.

Not only is God’s love available to you, it is available to everyone. Not only does God come into this world for you, God comes into this world for all of us together. Our response to God’s amazing and abundant love is to share it, not to posses it or to hoard it. This journey of Lent helps us to be emptied of that which enslaves us in order to be filled with the love that frees us, with the love that must be shared.

This is where the transformation happens. This is where we become who we are called to be. We can’t just hop over Lent, like sometimes I wish we could, we need to be in the midst of it, we need to experience the moments of wilderness and wandering, as well as the moments of hope and love, this is what forms and shapes us into the persons that God calls us to be, persons of vast love and charity, persons for whom God’s new creation and love hold hope and joy and freedom.

The Lord is full of compassion and mercy: Come let us adore him. Amen

Saturday, February 9, 2008

1 Lent Yr A

Well here it is the first Sunday of lent, and we have readings full of temptation and evil and sin. I don’t know how we can even get a good start on Lent when we have those three hanging over our heads already. But, it is a very good beginning place, the wilderness. It is a good place for us to begin Lent.

In the gospel of Matthew, this story of Jesus and Satan takes place at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. This story happens just after Jesus is baptized, and the spirit of God descended like a dove, and all the witnesses heard the voice from heaven say, “This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.” Just after that Jesus is led into the wilderness by that same spirit, fasts for 40 days and 40 nights, and along comes that devil.

What is it that happens here? I think an important key to understanding this wilderness experience of Jesus’ is in the words of the tempter. First, the tempter twice calls into question Jesus’ relationship to God his father. “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread and, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.” And then the tempter demands Jesus’ worship, the tempter says, “fall down and worship me.”

What is happening in the text is that Jesus has been identified as a holy man, in fact as God’s son. The devil, Satan, the tempter, has challenged Jesus’ honor as the Son of God. Thus, the tempter says if you are the Son of God. The tempter really is offering a test, and the test is the test of kinship. And, by appealing to the words of his father, Jesus successfully defends the claim to sonship, and the devil is forced to await a new opportunity.

But what does this story really mean to you and to me? It was important to the first hearers of the story of Jesus to know that Jesus was in fact the Son of God. That was why this story was first told. It may be important for you and I to know that Jesus is the Son of God, but I think for reasons that are very different than the first century Christian. Jesus’ sonship is not about power and authority, but instead, Jesus’ sonship is about relationship. Jesus’ sonship brings you and I into that same relationship with God.

That relationship is about grace and love, not about power and authority. That relationship is about wandering in the wilderness and knowing that God is right there with us. The wilderness is a place in which we all spend quite a bit of time, if we are truthful with ourselves. And it is in the wilderness that our loyalty is tested, if you will. I am not suggesting that this is a game to be won or lost, but a place and a time in our lives where we have the opportunity to live fully the life we have been given, to use completely the gifts we have been given, to experience fully the relationships that we have been given.

Wilderness is a time and a place that we do not choose for ourselves; wilderness is a time and a place in which the circumstances of our lives put us. But when we are in the wilderness, we do have a choice to live it gracefully, or to live it disgracefully.

Wilderness may be a time of uncertainty, or of doubt. Wilderness may be a time of pain or loneliness. Wilderness may be a time of wandering without purpose. Wilderness is a place we find ourselves without really knowing how we got there, or how and when we will get home.

I have seen people wandering in the wilderness of no purpose. One of the signs that someone is wandering in the wilderness of no purpose is that they gaze upon themselves for the way out. They say things like “if only I were a better person, I would feel so much more loved, and then I would be happy.” Or, “if only I had a bigger house, or a bigger car, I would be much more loved and then I would be happy.” Or, “if only I could win the big prize, people would respect me more.” Or, “if I had the perfect job, the perfect husband, and the perfect kids by the time I am 30, I will be successful.” Gazing upon oneself only leads to more wandering in the wilderness, and the wilderness becomes so familiar, it seems like home.

I have seen people wandering in the wilderness of doubt and uncertainty. Questions have no place in the wilderness of doubt and uncertainty. Only answers. The pursuit of the answer is all that matters, the pursuit of the one way, the right way is all that matters, the pursuit of the right over the good, is all that matters. This is endless wandering.

You see, when we accept wilderness wandering as a time and place of intimate relationship with God, when we see that wilderness wandering is a time of deep relationship building with God, then wilderness wandering becomes a place of newness, a place of intimacy, a place of growth, not a place of desolation.

I remember a friend, many years ago, telling me he had grown up in the desert in Arizona. He said that most people think of the desert as an arid, desolate place, a place where nothing grows. He said that when you live in the desert over many seasons, you begin to see it as a place where amazing and beautiful things come to bloom. It seems like there is no water, but the water is just stored differently than it is in the forest or the plains. When Rick and Tom and Willie and I camped in Big Bend National Park, way in the south of Texas, we were able to see that beauty that only is born out of the desert.

In the wilderness, God is not absent, it is not desolate and without nourishment, God is present in ways that are like water in the cactus, ways that give life but may look and feel so very unusual. God is not absent in the wilderness, God is about being with you in ways that are way more intimate than we can imagine. God is about nourishing a relationship that will bear love and grace in you in ways that are absolutely new and different. God is about strengthening a relationship with you that will enable you to face the tempter and claim God as your father, and claim that you are chosen and marked by God’s love, delight of God’s life.

You have heard me say that I must be brought kicking and screaming into the wilderness of Lent. The wilderness journey is nothing I would ever choose for myself on my own. Loneliness is not for me. Thank God for Lent. Because it is in the loneliness and the pain, it is in the repentance and turning, that we find God again, and we learn that God has never left us, that God has been there all along, we just couldn’t see God for all the junk and stuff that had been cluttering our lives. The junk and the stuff that includes the pursuit of happiness, the junk and the stuff that includes needing the right answers, instead of living with the questions. The wilderness of Lent helps us to unclutter, the wilderness of Lent helps us to focus on what is truly important. And what is truly important is the relationship that God calls us into. The relationship that brings life out of death.

In the midst of the wilderness we are able to listen more deeply to God’s love for us. In the midst of the wilderness, we are to be patient. In the midst of the wilderness we finally can be filled with grace. Don’t go trying to find wilderness, but when wilderness finds you, remember who and whose you are. You are chosen and marked by God’s love, delight of God’s life.

The Lord is full of compassion and mercy: Come let us adore him. Amen