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After a heated, but thoughtful discussion of Scripture in the little church a man stood up and said, “Well, all that’s been said is okay. But I think it can all be summed up by a bumper sticker I saw the other day, “The Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it.” End of discussion.

             We do chuckle at the shrink wrapped, simplistic faith of the man who so glibly and simplistically speaks of the Bible, but if we’re honest, we admit that among us, too, there is a tendency to sheer off the grand reality of God to fit the narrow confines of our own experience, our own social context, or our own prejudices.

Which is to say, very often we want God in a box. We want to be able to confine God into a box built out of our individual definitions of what God can do, ought to do, must do, should do, and all that God certainly can’t and won’t do. But, the truth is God won’t fit into anybody’s box no matter how well constructed it seems to be. God will do what God chooses to do in all of God’s amazing, enigmatic, and disrupting way..

            One hot day in the middle of a life broken by failed marriages, societal oppression, poverty, and degrading town gossip, a Samaritan woman discovers how disrupting, enigmatic and amazing God can be when she goes to draw water from the well Jacob had created for his family so many centuries before outside the city called Sychar that stood on the site of the ancient city of Shechem.

As she approaches the well she notices a man, a Judean man, standing next to it, which is unusual for many reasons. First, this is a time when a person wouldn’t have come to the well to draw water then carry it back to the village. Water was fetched in the morning or in the evening when all the women came to the well and drew their water and shared their news, and gossip of the village. Yet, Jesus is just leaning against the well when a Samaritan woman comes to the well at the only time she could come because she is not welcome in her community. You see, she is the chipped cup of her community. She has all the bumps, scratches, cracks and chips, the imperfections, and the inadequacies so many of us have that keep us from being perfect. She is like the chipped bowl sitting in the cupboard at my home, the bowl with the flaw I keep at the back of the cupboard and the one I never use with company because I’d be embarrassed for anyone to know I have such an imperfect bowl.

I keep its imperfection, its broken and chipped side hidden in the same way this woman came to the well when no one else would see her or talk to her because she hid herself away from the rest of the community because the community turned away from her, they were embarrassed to acknowledge such an imperfect person lived in their village..

            The second unusual aspect of this meeting is that, Jesus asks her for a drink of water. Normally in the ancient Near East a man, particularly a rabbi, would not speak to a woman, who was not his wife, mother, sister, daughter, aunt, grandmother, or some relation to him, even to ask her for a drink of water or food to eat. Not only that, but Jesus is a Judean and Judeans never speak to a Samaritan because Judeans thought Samaritans were at best the scum of the earth often referring to them as half-human-half-animal. As a matter of fact, most Judeans would take a longer journey just to keep from traveling through Samaria. Though, they shared a common faith tradition, the Judeans did not consider Samaritans brothers and sisters in the faith and went so far as to say they weren’t even descendents of Abraham and Sarah. Sort of like today when one group of Christians claims those who don’t agree with them aren’t really Christians at all. Sort of like what happened when Rob Bell, a United Methodist pastor in North Carolina lost his position as pastor of a church because he openly has doubts about hell and its prominence in Christian theology.

So, the woman is surprised that a Judean would speak to her let alone ask her for water.  

            Then, Jesus tells her if she knew the gift of God he had for her and who he was, he would have given her living water, water more life giving than the water she comes to draw out of the well. Water that is like the water God poured out of a rock in the wilderness for the Hebrews, who complained they were dying of thirst. All she had to do was ask. But, she doesn’t understand what he is saying. Her mind is focused on the reality she has perceived in a particular pattern of life, so she  fails to grasp the paradigm shifting, counter-cultural, totally new thing God is bringing into being through Jesus even when he tells her that there will come a time when God is neither worshipped on Mt. Gerizim in Samaria nor in the Jerusalem temple, but God would be worshipped in spirit and truth because God cannot be contained on the top of a particular mountain or constrained within the confines of the Holy of Holies behind the large curtain in the Jerusalem temple. Geography or a particular building would no longer be important for worshipping God. Sounds a little contemporary doesn’t it? This is, in part, what the emerging churches that worship in houses, storefronts, gyms, health clubs and nightclubs are reminding us. God is worshipped when the people of God gather together. It is the people who make worship happen, who are the ones God seeks through Jesus. It is not a building with a lovely pulpit, stained glass windows, nor a temple high on a mount.

            While all of this seemed strange and mysterious to the woman, the most enigmatic, the most amazing and disrupting thing of all is Jesus knew all about this woman. Jesus knew everything there was to know about her. He knew she had been married five times and was not married to the man she was currently living with. Jesus knows this woman the way Psalm 139 tells us God knows us. When we are being formed in the womb, when we are born, when we rise up, when we go to bed, when we leave our homes, and when we return home. There is no place in the universe we can go to hide from God and there is nothing we do or fail to do that is beyond God’s sight or knowledge. We are completely and utterly known just as we are Just as this woman was.

            Being so completely known must have been a bit frightening for this woman because she lived on the edges of the village life. She was excluded from the social life of the village and treated with contempt by the other women of the village because of her past and because of her present. Indeed, she was daily rejected because daily she walked to the well-not in the cool morning with the other women, but in the heat of midday, alone. I suspect she was, also, degraded by the looks, and the comments made as she walked through the village. As Anne Lamont writes, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life.” Maybe, there were some people who prayed for her, but they would never consider coming near her. Speaking to her. Listening to her. I imagined she lived with the nagging voice of her own self-criticism bouncing around within her telling how imperfect, unworthy, and like junk she was.

            How would it feel to be her? What would it be like for each one of us to be so completely known that nothing is hidden? Would we be frightened? Worried, perhaps, that if people really knew us, they wouldn’t like us, wouldn’t let us belong to their community. That is one of the biggest issues for people today, particularly young men and women, because they desperately want to belong to a community. The isolation, cracked social relationships, the rapidity of change, the restless and broken communities of our society have left many young adults with a longing for a community, who can help them make sense of the world, help them find purpose for their lives, and where people care about them for who they really are, not as people would like them to be. But, do you know what is most amazing?

         Jesus does not reject her, exclude her, or treat her with contempt. Instead, Jesus does what no other person does; he speaks to her and listens to her. Then, Jesus does something equally amazing and enigmatic. He reveals himself to her. It happens in the simple “I am he” statement that echoes God’s answer to Moses when Moses asks God for a name to say to the Hebrews in Egypt, so they will know Moses comes as the one sent by God to deliver them out of bondage and bring them to the new life God has for them. God simply tells Moses to say, “I am” has sent me. Tell them the one who creates life, who is life itself, has sent you. In his own simple statement, Jesus reveals that he is God; he is life, to this unlikely Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well.  When Jesus makes this self-revelation, he does what no one would have expected God to do to one who was so clearly an outsider; he offers her the gift of God’s restoring and renewing living water that brings wholeness and holiness to her life. The living water that is God’s steadfast love, kindness and compassion we call grace. Grace that is as enigmatic and disrupting as it is amazing.

            As Paul reminds us,” the proof of God’s amazing love is this, when we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” At the moment when we were estranged from God, when we turned away from God and rejected God’s way of living together, Christ dies for us. At the moment when we are at our weakest , the moment we are at our most chipped, scratched and cracked God comes to us and stands with us in the middle of our loneliness and alienation to suffer with us and suffer for us, to heal us to wholeness.

The gift of grace is not a gift given for being good and perfect. Nor, is it something owed to complaining humankind. Nor, is this gift of grace given because people had the good sense to ask for it. Rather, God chooses to come to us where we are and as we are with a hand grabbing us, holding onto us, and pulling us up out of the murky darkness and dead waters of our chaotic, chipped lives to set us on the path to a life of abundance, wholeness, holiness and hope. A life shattering all the accepted false patterns and paradigms of reality, so we might see what is really real.

            Receiving this gift of living water, the Samaritan woman could only respond by leaving her water pot on the ground as if she wanted it to represent the life she was leaving behind. No more failed relationships, no more attacks on her self-esteem, no more an outcast in life, she had tasted of the living water and was preparing to live. Blessed, forgiven, empowered, liberated, and filled with courage this Samaritan woman has a mission for the Messiah. This nameless Samaritan woman who left her water pot at the well has become herself a vessel for the gospel. Her life and testimony become the conduit for the redemption of all of her Samaritan relatives and neighbors. Her life, a clay jar, now contains the great treasure of grace, and she shares it with others, regardless of cultural codes, rules, or customs. Her life becomes the pitcher that contains Christ’s living water for the world. In her testimony she offers an opportunity to taste the water that will quench people’s thirst and restore their being to wholeness and holiness.

                 “Being a witness,” theologian Linda Bridges writes, “is allowing one’s life to be the conduit of God’s grace for another. Our name or family pedigree does not matter. Our past history is of no particular concern. All that God requires is willing vessels who will leave behind the past and walk boldly into the future, carrying the living water of God’s forgiveness and mercy in their lives. A nameless woman from Samaria walks before us as a paradigm of the new creation God intends each one of us to be.” May it be so for you and for me as we join her on the way.

 

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         “To journey without being changed is to be a nomad. To change without journeying is to be a chameleon. To journey and to be transformed by the journey is to be a pilgrim.”

            Mark Nebo reminds us with these few words that we, who choose to walk with Jesus to Jerusalem, are all pilgrims. We are sojourners on a transformative journey whose final destination is far off into an eternity that stretches well beyond these Lenten days and weeks to the foot of Christ’s cross where we will weep our hosannas and shout joyous hallelujahs inside the empty tomb of resurrection.

            Now, you may not feel you are sojourners after all we haven’t physically traveled away from home toward some distant place, however the truth is we are all pilgrims in the same way that all Christians are pilgrims because the Greek word “paroika” means sojourner and is the root of the English word “parish” meaning a “congregation of pilgrims or sojourners” and second,  because the life of faith is a continuing journey with and to God that is not limited by geography, but rather is both an outward and an inward journey. 

            Indeed, you traveled outward on Sunday mornings when you leave your homes to come to a church to worship and in doing so you continue your sojourning, your pilgrimage to deepen your inward spiritual journey. Even a sanctuary is a place for traveling whether one walks up the aisles to find a place to sit and rest and to listen or one is invited to walk up the aisle to participate in the Lord’s Supper by intinction or to bring an offering to God’s table. Classic cathedrals have ambulatories, which are simply a rounded corridor at the very front of the church that is literally, “a place for walking.” I suppose every sanctuary could a place for walking around if they did some major renovations. Of course that might be a risky thing to do.

            Yet, risk is part of every pilgrim’s journey. My favorite psalm, Psalm 121 speaks to us of the risks of sojourning in its very first line, “I lift my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come?” Here is the affirmation that every pilgrim knows, the world is a dangerous place. The psalmist wrote those words to describe the foreboding sense of danger from nomadic bands of bandits or armies as well as the wild beasts of the wilderness taking refuge in the crags and crevices of the hills. However, the world is still a dangerous place shrouded in the darkness of seeking hidden answers to big and important questions such as, “how did life begin?” How do I find the purpose for my life? Where will I belong? Where can I be safe and find good food and shelter?

            The world is, also, a place shrouded in the darkness of death from physical violence, emotional turmoil, unremitting and destructive chaotic change, disease, and fearful anxiousness leading to conflict. Think about how the survivors of the 8.9  and all the other 350 earthquakes and the tsunami and the nuclear reactor meltdown in Japan must have felt after more than a week of complete darkness and bitter cold with very little heat,  little water, little food while saturated with grief and despair? How can they not be lifting their eyes to the hills and wondering, pleading, crying out, “from where will our help come?”

            I imagine Abram asked that same question as he and Sarah and his nephew Lot began their journey from Haran to the place God would show them. Their sojourn comes as a response to God’s call, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land I will show you” but this was not an easy call to hear because it meant leaving everything that was familiar, that was safe, that was secure, everything that defined who Abram and Sarah were at a time in their lives when life should have been settled. At a time when their lives had become routine and when the shape of their lives must have seemed complete. Instead, they leave all of this behind them to begin a journey solely based upon God’s promises. This is very much like what the Irish monk Columba did around 563 AD when he set out in a coracle, a circular dish boat, without anchor or oars, praying God’s wind would carry him to a new life.

             What makes this extraordinary journey possible is Abram and Sarah’s being like open cups ready to receive what God was offering them. And, they had to be open. As Joyce Rupp writes, “Most everything needs to be opened in order for it serve its purpose. Clothes need to be opened before we can put them on and receive their warmth and protection. A book requires opening before the contents can be shared. A house has to have a door or window opened before it can provide us shelter.”

            It is the same with a cup. If a cup is full to the brim, nothing more can be added to it. If a lid is placed over it, nothing can be poured into it. The same is true for the cup that is our being and our life. God needs an opening in order to get our attention, to have a conversation with us, to nourish us and to stretch us toward greater growth, to revitalize and renew us as Rupp has said. This means we have to let go of some of the stuff filling up and cluttering our lives. I have to say this was very much on my mind when my wife and I bought a house and realized we didn’t have enough room for all our furniture, so we have to decide which of our possessions we have to let go.

Indeed, letting go, emptying ourselves of all that clutters our lives physically and spiritually is one of the demands sojourners with God need to do. We can’t take everything with us on our journey because if we try to hang onto everything we won’t get very far. We won’t be open to the new direction God may be calling us to go. As a matter of fact we may not be able to hear God speaking to us for all the clanging and banging of the stuff we are trying to carry with us. In addition, we have to willingly take the lid off our resistance to change, so we might be open to what God is offering to pour into us.

            You see, I believe God is offering us a new life that is not just an extension of the same old life we’ve lived, but one that will be transformative for each person’s life, for an entire congregation’s life, for an entire community’s life and, for the life of all humanity and creation.

            That is what is significant about the promises God makes to Abram and Sarah. Yes, God promises to show them the land that God intends to give them, but more importantly God intends to give them children and grandchildren who will be the foundation of a whole people who will be a blessing to the world. Abram and Sarah have no children when God calls them and they are in their eighties, well beyond children bearing. They have been barren for all of their married life and in their old age this translates into them not having much of a future. Indeed, this family’s barrenness had become a metaphor for human hopelessness because there is nothing Abram and Sarah can do to create their own future. Until God speaks a powerful word of life directly into their situation of barrenness with the promises for the blessing of new life through children, who are brought into being by the sheer grace they receive as a gift. Abram and Sarah did nothing to earn or deserve this grace, nor will they do anything on their journey to earn and deserve this grace. God does not depend upon the potentiality or actions of this family to bring the blessing of a new and transformed life into being because God’s word of life carries within itself all the power it needs to create life, to create a new people defined, shaped and molded like a clay cup by God’s summoning and life creating word. God’s Word on its own asserts the freedom and power of God to work God’s will to bring life out of death like situations or even death itself.

            Here in this beginning of Abram and Sarah’s journey with God is the resurrection paradigm of a call to sojourn to a transformed life by being open to receive, to be filled with God’s presence and in the willingness to trust God alone in a journey away from the status quo, away from the predictable toward the mystery that we will only comprehend in the light of hindsight when we taste the providential fruits of grace, which have been with us every step of the way as the psalmist assures us is the truth because our help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth and it is the Lord who is with us always, in all our going out and all our coming in, today and for all our days..

            On this day, I invite you to pray with me this prayer from Richard of Chichester (1197-1253), “O Lord Jesus Christ, yourself the Way, the Truth, and the Life, grant to us who shall tread in your earthly footsteps a sense of awe, wonder and holiness. May our hearts burn within us as we come to know you more clearly, love you more dearly and follow you more nearly.” Amen.

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The light was so radiant and so bright it overwhelmed everything. No longer were the tops of the other mountains or the valleys stretching out from the mountain visible. Even the dark brown ground and rocks and crags were hidden from sight as the entire mountaintop was bathed in warm radiance.

The light shone with an intensity the three of them had never known before in their lives transforming the dull cloth of Jesus’ clothing a dazzling white that was sparkling like diamonds sending shoots of light all around him. Even transforming his face into an iridescent glow…

Then, in the midst of this wondrous light Moses and Elijah appeared! And, they were speaking with Jesus! Here were the two advocates for Torah and the covenant. Here were the two prophets from old. The prophets the people rejected, but whom God vindicated. The prophets who performed miracles and who had been taken up into the transcendent glory of God! Here were Moses and Elijah who had both spoken to God on Mountaintops. Who had been in the presence of the Lord of the universe, the creator of life and had spoken to God directly just as they were now speaking to Jesus directly. This was not simply an echo of the Exodus and the still small voice on the mountain; it was the continuing conversation with God.

This conversation will lead us down a path of sustainable living as a community of God’s people, if we would only “listen to him, God’s beloved.” Yet, it is precisely in listening where we fail because listening, true listening requires us to be attentive to the words spoken, to repeat them back, so they other person knows they have been heard, not interpreted, and that we have comprehended what was said, then we are to engage the conversation about the deep meaning of the words and the direction God’s beloved would have us sojourn. Also, “listen” means in the ancient biblical Hebrew to faithfully and obediently act on what was heard, not on what we wished we heard. This is, of course, the struggle for followers of Christ because it means we will have to let go of our own self-centered agendas, so we might center our lives in God and seek to love the other person by seeking their well-being, their health, their wholeness, which is a complete turnaround from our contemporary society and our contemporary church.

The society we live within is based upon demanding we get what we want, and getting it right now, sort of like a two or three year-olds’ tantrum. This is what is happening in the politics of multi-million dollar television ad wars sponsored largely by the wealthy in an attempt to control who gets elected and controlling laws and policies that will benefit the elites at the expense of everyone else. This is at the heart of corporate mergers designed to gain control of media, so a corporation has the ability to control what is seen and heard in the homes of millions of people, which allows competing voices or disparate voices and ideas to be silenced. This is at the heart of the McDonaldization of culture designed to devalue substantive food and devalue human work and skill in the name of homogeneity and mechanization. This is at the heart of Monsanto’s drive to patent human genetics and all food genetics in the name of corporate profits and shareholder wealth. This is at the heart of the concentration of poverty in small tightly bounded neighborhoods and keeping it in place for the next generations through lack of meaningful work, inadequate diets leading to an inability of children to learn, which in turn condemns them to narrower career choices and continuing the cycle of poverty, violence and self-destructive hopelessness.

None of this is what Jesus taught. What he taught us to do was to be centered in God, to be focused on sustaining life for all as responsible stewards of life, to bring everyone into the community, so the community is whole and thriving, to care for the most vulnerable, the powerless, those who are most at risk to be abused or neglected, and to practice non-violence, forgiveness and reconciliation.

So, now the question for us in this age is, will we open our ears to listen and faithfully act according to God’s beloved or will we refuse transformation, refuse change, refuse resurrection?

Our answer comes not by the words we utter, but in the actions we do today and tomorrow.

 

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I read an observation about jazz by Wynton Marsalis, “Jazz is not just, “Well man, this is what I feel like playing.” It’s a very structured thing that comes down from a tradition and requires a lot of thought and study.” i have been pondering this and the realization about the other aspect of jazz I read about “the complex history of jazz beginning with the blending of New Orleans ragtime piano, brass bands, African folk music and the blues and gospel, which was coupled with a social context of lament, praise and yearning and hope. As jazz matured it was the seed bed for swing, Latin and Afro-Cuban, bebop, fusion, rock, and “cool” jazz. It is played by soloists, duos, trios, ensembles, quartets and quintets, big bands, now even symphonies. This diversity sprouts a diversity of instrumentation and complex range of musicianship from self-taught to highly conservatory trained virtuosos. This may explain why Wynton Marsalis is acclaimed for jazz and for classical musicianship.” Jazz is vital and alive because it improvises and gives breath to innovation and improvisation which is exactly what I and other storytellers are doing.

Storytellers often innovate and improvise with stories they tell because every time a story is told by a storyteller it is changed by the tellers’ voice, change of emphasis on a word here or there and by the perspective of the storyteller. The story might be contemporary or it might be quite ancient, but the very act of telling the story will mean that the story takes on a slightly different nuance, different meaning because of how the storyteller tells it. Also, storytellers often study the structure and traditions of stories and storytelling, so they might improvise and innovate knowing why they are moving in the direction they are moving mindfully and attentive to the act of improvisation and innovation. They are not just showing up and saying, “I just feel like saying this story this way today.” or because they forgot most of the story they were going to tell.

Yet there is one more place of congruence for jazz musicians and storytellers because both jazz musicians and story tellers know that performance is contextual and must be contextual because it happens in a particular place at a particular time and before a particular people.

I believe, as I read Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles and the Gospels, that this is how the church matured as well. The church is jazz and storytelling with a rich tradition of story and liturgy and meaning and symbols, which if handed over to each generation becomes richer and deeper. The early church matured out of a tradition already rich and deep as part of the diversity of God’s people as the apostles and members of the early church improvised and innovated led by God through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit in each of the contexts of Jerusalem, Ethiopia, Greece, Roman city states and among people who had to learn something of the old tradition along with the improvisation and innovation before they too would eventually improvise and innovate. This is what congregations need to learn as part of the story- telling nature of being God’s people called Christians. They are to be more like jazz musicians and storytellers who learn the tradition and the structure by study and by practice, so they too might improvise and innovate within their context just as the early church did. I am convinced that Christians and whole congregations need to focus their energy, imagination, creativity and resources in becoming like jazz musicians and storytellers because I believe this is how congregational growth and transformation occurs as opposed to a formulaic plan based upon the principles of McDonaldization and industrial modernity or the latest quick fix product or fad sold to denominational hierarchies as “the silver bullet” that will solve all of their membership and relevancy woes.

Additionally, this is one of the steps along the path of congregational sustainability because it encourages the folks in the congregation to do what they are naturally capable of doing-telling stories.

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