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An 8.2 earthquake nearly flattened Armenia in 1989. Over 300,000 people were killed in less than four minutes. In the midst of this destruction and chaos, a father left his wife safe at home and rushed to the school where his son was supposed to be. The school building was as flat as a pancake.

He was so shocked all he could do was stare at the pile of debris that had need a school building minutes earlier. Finding any survivors seemed hopeless. However, the father remembered a promise he made to his son, “No matter what, I’ll always be there for you!” tears ran down his cheeks.

Slowly, he began to concentrate on where he had walked his son to class each morning. His son’s classroom would be in the rear right corner of the building. He rushed over there and started digging through the rubble. As he was digging other forlorn parents came to the school, crying and wailing, “My son! My daughter!” Some well- meaning parents tried pulling the man away from the rubble declaring, “It’s too late. They’re dead! Go, home! Face reality, there’s nothing you can do! You’re just going to make things worse.

To each parent, he asked, “Are you going to help me?” Then he went back to dig for his son, stone by stone. Eventually, the fire chief showed up and tried pulling him off the debris saying, “Fire are breaking out, explosions are happening everywhere. You’re in danger. We’ll take care of it. Go, home!” But the father asked, “Are you going to help me?”

The police came and said, “You’re angry. Distraught. It’s over. Go, home. We’ll handle it.” He asked them, “Are you going to help me?” No one helped.

He continued to dig alone remembering his promise and commitment, “no matter what, I’ll always be there for you.” He dug for eight hours…12 hours…24 hours…then at the 38th hour when he pulled back a boulder, he heard his son’s voice; “Armand!” the father screamed his son’s name.

“Dad? Dad! It’s me! I told the other kids not to worry. I told them that if you were alive, you’d save me. And when you saved me, they’d be saved. You promised ’No matter what, I’ll always be there for you! You did it, Dad! You did it!”

“What going on in there? How is it? The father asked.

“There are 14 of us left out of 33. We’re scared, hungry, thirsty and thankful you’re here. When the building collapsed, it made a wedge, like a triangle, and it saved us.”

“Come on out, son.”

“No, dad! Let the other kids come out first, because I know you’ll get me! No matter what, I know you’ll be there for me!”

I tell this story because I have for too long listened to people in congregations and presbyteries tell me their situation is hopeless. They can do nothing to change their circumstance, so why bother trying to change it? It doesn’t matter if it’s about not enough money, a building in disrepair, or a congregation that had a thousand members, but has now dwindled down to about a hundred folks. Each one of them has expressed their sadness about their situation as hopeless. To tell you the truth I used to wonder, “How can Christians, who celebrate Easter, who celebrate resurrection-life rising out death-be hopeless? How can people exclaim they have no future when every week they read and hear about how God time after time has made a way for life to flourish when it seemed impossible for life to even exist? How God has always made a way out of no way.

One hears it in the psalms of lament such as Psalm 130 that begins ”Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!” and ends with “O Israel hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem. It is the Lord who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.” Every psalm of lament begins with the honest exclamation of pain and grief like those rising from the devastation of Israel’s exile speaking hard, brutal words about how the Israelites were trapped in the rubble of their despair and the debris of their despondency just like the children trapped in the rubble of a building, because Israelites had been forcible taken off their land and dragged in chains to a strange land where they would live as strangers, cut off from family and friends and from the central symbol of their faith-the Temple. One can almost hear the lamenting wail of the psalmist, “My God, my God why have you forsaken us?” as the cry of people who feel as dead as dry bones.

Yet in all, but two of the psalms of lament there is the declaration that God has changed the situation from death to new life. Nearly, all the psalms of lament bear a strong unequivocal witness to God’s compassion enacting a new creation of life sustaining hope.

This is, of course, the message God is telling the prophet Ezekiel to tell the Israelites in Babylon. It is not surprising that God would bring the prophet Ezekiel out to this parched ancient battlefield littered with dry bones, and then ask him, “Ben Adam-son of man-can these bones live?”

Probably Ezekiel could have been a bit cheeky and answered, “Well, yeah sure if I had some steel plates and wires to connect them together. Or, maybe if I had some DNA from the bones, went to the lab, made some synthetic flesh, I might be able to make some semblance of life here given enough time.” However, Ezekiel gives a faithful answer, “Lord, you are the only one who knows the answer.”

That’s when God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to those bleached bones, “dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord, God to these bones….” Ezekiel speaks the words that God gives him to speak that stirs the bones from lifelessness to life. God’s life creating word gets those old bones to rattling around and coming back together again. The same life creating word covers them with sinew and muscle and flesh. The same life creating word brings the breath of life within them restoring them to life. It isn’t surprising God would go to all this trouble because God intends Ezekiel to experience for himself the prophetic word God will give him to speak to the Israelite exiles coming to reality, so that when Ezekiel speaks this word, which will be a word of comfort and possibility, telling the Israelite exiles God will lift off the rubble of despair from them; God will sift through the debris of despondency to bring them to life; God will breathe new life into them; God will raise up new faithful leaders and they will live once again in their homeland the Israelites will hear the truth and certainty of hope in Ezekiel’s voice and trust that no matter what, the Lord their God will always be there for them.

And, they did trust because they were hopers, as Walter Brueggemann describes them. They were, he said, a people whose life story is a partisan, polemical narrative. It is concerned to build a counter community–counter to the oppression of Egypt, counter to the seduction of Canaan, counter to every cultural alternative and every imperial pretense. There is nothing in this narrative that will appeal to outsiders who belong to another consensus, or who share a different ethos and participate in another epistemology. To such persons, Israel’s narratives are silly, narrow, scandalous, and obscurantist. The narrative form of the Torah intends to nurture insiders who are willing to risk a specific universe of discourse and cast their lot there.” Make their lives from that narrative.

The way the Israelites interpreted the events of their life was rooted squarely in the stories of their ancestors’ experiences of God’s presence and compassion and steadfast love and in their own lived experiences in this deep, abiding relationship with God, who is compassionate, steadfast in love and kindness and mercy and who is to be trusted to make a way for life to exist even when it appears there is no way for life to exist.

Jesus demonstrates this same quality of God’s life creating power when he is bringing Lazarus out of the tomb. Jesus does with Martha what God had done with Ezekiel by declaring that even though her brother had been dead for four days he will live again because Jesus is the resurrection and the life and everyone who believes in him –trusts in God- will live even though they may die and everyone who lives and trusts in me,” says Jesus, “will never die. Do you believe me?”

“Yes,” Martha answers before declaring she knows he is the Messiah, the Son of God. God’s life creating Word, who is sent to restore life.”

Then, as they enter the village Mary is weeping and lamenting Lazarus’ death with all the other villagers and Jesus joins them in their distress and grief by weeping before he speaks a word of life, commanding, “Lazarus, come out!”

Of course, Lazarus does come out. Does live again. In this tiny Judean village, God’s life creating word comes, so these villagers might experience for themselves God restoring life and out of this experience trust God will restore their lives, will sustain their lives out of compassion and love for them no matter what their circumstances, even in the face of the seeming certainty of death and become those people who live a partisan, polemical life story that is aimed at building a counter community-counter to oppression, to conventional wisdom and counter to every cultural alternative. And like Israel’s narrative, there is nothing in this narrative that will appeal to outsiders who belong to another consensus, or who share a different ethos and participate in another way of knowing and comprehending the world. To such persons, the narratives of the followers of Christ will be silly, narrow, scandalous, and obscurantist. Yet, Jesus intends to nurture and sustain people who are willing to risk this specific universe of proclamation and who are willing to root their lives in that life story and proclamation.

Just like those who dared to rescue their Jewish neighbors during World War II. These were not extraordinary people, leaders, larger than life heroes. They were ordinary people, teachers, farmers, entrepreneurs, factory workers, rich and poor, single people and parents. They had done nothing extraordinary before or after their acts of rescue. What set them apart, according to studies, is their connections with others in relationships of commitment and care learned from parents, friends, and importantly from the faith tradition of Protestant and Roman Catholicism. These teachings led them to refuse to see Jews as guilty or beyond hope and themselves as helpless or hopeless, despite all the evidence that could be marshaled to the contrary. Instead, they made choices affirming the value and meaningfulness of each life in the middle of a diabolical social order that repeatedly denied it. In doing so, they saved lives and lived compassionately, loving and kind just as Jesus showed them was possible.

This is why both Ezekiel’s story and Lazarus’ story are important for Christians at this time and place because we are called to root our lives not in doctrinal statements, propositional truths, or systematic theologies based on Neo-Platonic-Aristotelian modes of discourse, but to root our lives, our life story, in the God who is compassionate, who is merciful, who is steadfast in love and kindness, who is life, who will be with us to create life, sustain life and nurture life no matter what.

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“My mother,” Bill Moyers said, “used to leave her freshly baked sugar cookies right in the middle of the table, warm and inviting but forbidden until supper was over. If she meant the temptation to be test of discipline, to build character, my brother and I often flunked. I think of this when I hear the story of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Why didn’t God place the forbidden fruit on the very top branch, beyond the reach of innocence? Genesis confronts us with many tempting questions.”

Why didn’t God place the forbidden fruit on the very top branch? Why did God put the tree of knowledge of good and evil right in the garden? And, why did God draw attention to it by telling the man not to eat the fruit because on the day that he did, he would die? Who was the serpent anyway? Why did the woman eat the fruit then give it to the man. Why did the man accept it so passively? Finally, is this a lesson about the choices we make and their consequences?

So many questions to ask. Seemingly, so few answers to receive. However, I think there is a fundamental lesson resting, simply and plainly in this scripture, which becomes clear only when we compare the man and woman’s story with the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.

You recall, the man and the woman are in the garden God has created as part of the whole of creation. God created the man and the woman for a purpose- a vocation. They are to keep and till the garden. They are to be God’s stewards of creation and exercise care and concern in preserving creation as God created and ordered it. God, also, created them to be companions for each other. They were to live together in a relationship of mutuality; helping each other, caring for the other and working with the other person. They will be a community together. There is no hierarchy or relationship of superior to inferior. Neither is more important than the other. They stand together as one. This is the vision of community no matter how many people reside in the community. All are to be one. Now, God gave them gifts for this vocation- food for their physical nourishment. They could eat the fruit of any tree of the garden. And, pleasure in their work. God, also empowered them for this task with the freedom to carry it out, and with authority over the rest of creation.

But there was a limit to their freedom and authority. For God told the man, “of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat because on the day you eat the fruit of that tree you will die.”

Well, one day as the woman and the man are busy working in the garden, the serpent comes to the woman. Now the serpent is characterized as the craftiest of wild animals God created. However, being crafty does not necessarily only mean being sneaky, conniving, or diabolical. It does mean those things, yet it also means skillful, ingenious, or dexterous. So, the serpent can be deceitful or the serpent can be ingenious depending upon how the serpent chooses to use its crafty character.

On this particular day, the serpent asks, “Did God really say, ’you shall not from any tree in the garden?” A simple question. No hint of untoward motive on the part of the serpent. Just asking what God’s word was regarding the fruit of the trees. Actually, the serpent is really wondering how much freedom God has given to humans. What choices do they get to make if indeed they get to make any choices at all. A clever question because a yes or no response is impossible. By the way, just for the record, the serpent is asking both the man and the woman the question. The “You” in Hebrew is a plural, so both of them are asked the question. The man remains silent while the woman answers the question.

“We, “said the woman, “can eat the fruit of any of the trees in the garden, except God said ‘you shall not eat the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you will die.”

Fairly straightforward answer. She does add a prohibition God did not give the man earlier, but the man may have added that to God’s word when he re-told the command. “Nope, can’t eat it or you’ll die. As a matter of fact you can’t even touch it. Touch it and you’ll die too.” We really don’t know where the extra bit of the command comes from, but the woman is pretty sure about the command and what it means and the man is too, since he remains silent.

“Did God really say that to you?” the serpent asks. “C’mon, you want the truth. You won’t die. God just said that because God knows when you eat the fruit your eyes will be opened and you’ll be like God. You’ll know what God knows. You’ll know about good and evil.”

Well, the serpent’s response jolts the man and woman’s reality. The seeds of doubt are sown just by the serpent’s words. The serpent doesn’t “do” anything, but ask a question and offer a different version of why God doesn’t want them to eat the fruit of that tree. I can almost hear the questions going back and forth between them. “We won’t die if we eat it? Can the serpent be telling us the truth? Why would God say such a thing if it wasn’t true? And, what’s this stuff about being like God. It’d be good to be like God. Look, at all that God can do! Does it just come from knowing good and evil? Will we see the world and ourselves as God does?  Does God not want us to be like God? Is God holding us back from realizing our true potential?”

The serpent seems to be telling the truth. Yet, is he? Is death only about physical death or is there a broader definition of death that they don’t know about? Has the serpent held out the possibility of something more for them? Something that will enable them to transcend who they are, where they are, and their limitations. “The serpent calls God a liar,” says Leon Kass, a professor of ethics, “and the serpent undermines God’s authority and offers what seems to be an exciting new possibility.”

While the woman and the man do not voice their questions or their ponderings out loud, we get an inkling of their thinking as the woman judges the fruits beauty, its goodness as food, and its desirability to make one wise. All of which combine to tell us they have decided to trust the serpent and their own decision making abilities rather than trusting God’s word and the boundaries and limitations God placed upon them.

Compare the woman and the man’s actions with Jesus’ actions in the wilderness. Just as with the man and woman, God had a purpose for Jesus. Jesus came to save people from their sins and to be Emanuel, “God with us.” And, God empowered Jesus for this vocation with the words God spoke at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my Son, the beloved with whom I am well pleased.”  Then, Jesus is led out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit before he begins his ministry. For forty days and nights Jesus fasts- a real Lent- and he is famished. Can you imagine fasting for forty days and nights? It’s tough just to go a few hours without eating! But, Jesus does it for forty days and nights. He is famished and, perhaps, weak.

Enter the devil, in Greek the word is diabolos and comes from the verb to separate or to cause conflict. This is what diabolos, or Satan in Hebrew, is about doing. The goal is to separate human beings from God. So, here comes diabolos aka the Tempter with what Henri Nouwen calls the three compulsions of this world.

The first, to be relevant. “Hey, if you’re the Son of God turn these stones into loaves a bread. That’s what the people are expecting from the Messiah. C’mon, if you’re relay the Son of God it’ll be easy. C’mon, I dare ya. I double dog dare ya. C’mon turn the stones into loaves of bread. It’ll remind people about how God provided manna in the wilderness for the people. C’mon.”

Jesus simply says, “bread is not that important to life. One does not live only by eating bread and food, but has life by every word that comes from God’s mouth. God creates life by God’s word and I’m not here to do miracles for the sake of proving who I am. That’s not God’s purpose or plan for me.”

The Tempter comes back with the second compulsion, to be spectacular. “Okay! Well, lets see if you really trust God. Jump off the pinnacle here of the Temple and see if God sends down angels to catch you.  Remember scripture says, “He will command his angels concerning you, on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”

“Yes,” Jesus said, “But it is also written, ‘do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Don’t see if God really will do what God promises to do. Realize that God’s promises are real promises and that God always does what God promises to do. That is what trusting God is about. And, God has given me a path to walk and I will be walking that path. I am to be obedient only to God’s will. Not mine. Not yours. Not anyone else’s. Only God’s.

Then, the Tempter retorts with the third compulsion, to be powerful. “Yeah, yeah. Look, I will give you all the power, wealth, and kingdoms on the entire earth. Everything you see here. All you have to do is bow down and worship me. That’s all. Do it and you get everything. Power. Wealth. Tower bildings made of gold. Kingdoms. Servants. The whole enchilada. Huh. Huh. Huh What d’ya say?”

“Away with you Satan!” Jesus says, “It is written, worship the Lord your God and serve only God.”

Jesus is tempted with the same temptation as the woman and the man, to be like God. “if you are the Son of God, “ says the devil, “then act like it. Use your power to create food, orchestrate a spectacular miracle, and rule over all the kingdoms of the world.” But, Jesus doesn’t give in to the temptations. Rather, he chooses to live as God has created him to live, doing what God has planned for him to do, and trusting God completely.  The man and the woman do not.

“You ask what did Adam and Eve do wrong in the garden, “said Marianne Thompson a professor of New Testament, “they fail to trust God-that what God says will happen, will happen, or that what God prohibits is for their own good.”

The man and woman try to reach beyond the limits of their creatureliness, to transcend creation, but they cannot. They have knowledge of good and evil, but it is knowledge limited by the contingency of human life. All we can know is the past and the present. We cannot accurately see into the future, nor do we completely comprehend the impact down the road for the choices we make today. The woman and the man didn’t know that their choice would lead to a death that is defined in Scripture as separation of persons from God. The breaking of their relationship with and their separation from God becomes a physical reality when they are expelled from the garden. Yet, they broke not only their relationship with God, but with each other as well. When God asks the man how he knows he is naked then tells him what he has done and God asks why he did it. The man blames the woman. “It’s not my fault, She gave it to me!” Then, the woman blames the serpent in turn. Both fail to take responsibility for their own choices and actions. As they blame each other, conflict ensues and their relationship is damaged. I doubt they saw all of these consequences coming from that one choice. But, how many of us do?

Test this out by any choice you have made at any point in your life. Look at the impact of choices you’ve made have had on your life. Look at the impact of choices made fifty years ago by chemical companies to dump waste into rivers and land such as at Love Canal in Niagara Falls or coal mining waste dumped into rivers and streams. We can’t know what God knows because we do not have God’s perspective on the entire created order. We can’t be like God, exercising God’s authority or claiming God’s wisdom because we are not God.

In resisting the temptation to be like God, Jesus countered every word of the tempter with a word of God. By doing this, he proved himself to be the Son of God and accepted the limitations of power and authority imposed upon him. As Paul wrote to the Philippians, “though Jesus was in form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

The good news is Jesus’ victory over temptation provides us with hope that we, too can resist if we trust God and God’s word. Jesus’ example shows us the power of God’s word. The woman and the man’s downfall was trusting the tempter’s word as the basis for their choice and, thus, not trusting God’s word. But we must rely on the truth, the faithfulness of the word of God no matter what other voices declare it absurd or invalid. No matter what experiences urges us to doubt or presume on it.

Jesus’ victory over temptation gives us life beyond our bondage to sin and death. Because Jesus, Son of God, resisted the temptation to be like God, because he accepted being a servant, taking on himself our full humanity including all the burden of our sin and guilt, we are saved.

We still experience temptations and we still may sin. But through Christ we have the strength and the courage to be the people God created us to be, the people who are truly ourselves when we live in an intimate relationship with God and as a community of mutuality with each other.

As John Calvin writes, “We are God’s people; let us therefore live for God. We are God’s people; let God’s wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God’s people; let all parts of our life strive toward God as our only goal.” We are God’s people let us find our life and rest in God alone.

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Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!

All creation from the highest heaven to the deepest seas raises a chorus of praise for God. Brothers sun, wind and air, Sisters moon, stars, and water, rocks and the hills lift up a strong united voice singing praise to the Lord.  All you great diversity of people over the earth from the rich to the poor, the presidents and prime ministers to citizens who vote, farmers and factory workers to doctors and lawyers, men and women, adults and children raise your voices in songs of God’s praise.

The singer of this psalm invites, “All creation be partners in this song! Praise the Lord!” This invitation is an imperative cry. It is strong and exuberant and loud and demanding! It is a cry that cannot be ignored because there are more important things to do. It is a cry that demands not just a simple, “God is great. God is good.” singsong response or a whispering kind of “God is good.”

It is a cry demanding a strong, exuberant, joy filled, shouting, glad, demanding, happy, celebrating, clap your hands, stomp your feet, “God is good! All the time! God is good! All the time!” response. It is a cry to join in an act that is equally poetic and audacious as it is self-abandoning and subversive.

It is a cry that reminds creation that God took a deep, dark, formless void, a hajata tohu vohu, and brought order, light and shape to it. God took a place where life was not and was not possible, then created a place where life exists and where life not only flourishes, it is sustainable. God created by life by speaking life into being by God’s Word. Each day God spoke life, order, shape came into being. First light for day and dark for night. Second, oceans and sky. Third, dry land called earth. At the same time seas and oceans were given boundaries. Then, fruit trees and all other trees and green plants were brought to life. Fourth, sun in the sky for day and the moon and stars for night were given their reason for being. Together, their movements in the sky would be signs for days, weeks, years. For the changing seasons. Fifth, fish and all the other creatures living in the waters were given life. Then birds flying in the air receive life. Sixth, wild and domestic animals and all the creeping things receive life. Then, human kind, men and women, are created in God’s image and likeness and given their purpose. They are to be stewards of God’s creation by relating and exercising dominion of creation in the way God does; as a servant. Seventh, God rests. Creation is whole and complete, so God rests and by resting, God set within creation’s time God’s rhythm of work and rest.

Where there was only formlessness, God created a complex, highly textured, intricate woven tapestry of a dynamic, organic life containing within it the fingerprints of God’s creative touch from the largest mountains and deepest oceans to the minutest sub-atomic particles.

What also becomes clear in our remembrance of how God creates life is the relationship between humanity and land, people and place. Wendell Berry, poet and farmer, makes this point clear in his essay “Local Economies to Save the Land and the People,” when he writes, “we must not speak or think of the land alone or the people alone, but always and only both together. If we want to save the land, we must save the people who belong to the land. If we want to save the people, we must save the land the people belong to.” Berry continues to point out how the destructiveness of driving or encouraging people to leave the land in favor of an industrialized life of being consumers instead of being producers, where one has a “Job,” but not a vocational calling or a vocational choice is destroying local communities and local economies. Because,  when a people move to find the “job” to earn the money to buy what one does not produce, they fail to live in a community of mutual usefulness. That place where small store owners know their patrons, skilled craftsman are known by the quality of their work and where farmers grow crops for subsistence and for sale locally because people live in their home counties where they not only know the people going back  generations, but also know the names of all the trees in the forests near them. People were rooted to the land and to the people. Industrialization in all of its forms creates “jobs,” but it also creates the destruction of mutually useful and mutually supportive communities by making people able to be exploited by corporations with wealth and power or to be discarded when the “job” the economy falters or when a machine can perform their jobs.

In our remembrance of how God creates life and how the industrialization of life prompts the need to save both people and the creation in order to save the fragile relationships of mutuality inherent in both, we hear the psalmist’s imperative cry to “Praise the Lord!” as more than a call to exclaim and celebrate our wonderment and awe at God’s creative act. Rather, his loud and demanding cry calls us to speak about God. To describe how our ancestors and we have experienced God’s presence as the key to living into our future.

We speak about God by telling what God has done. We speak about creation because it tells us that God seeks relationships of mutuality defined best by Martin Luther King, Jr. as ”I can never fully be who I ought to be unless you are fully who you are to be.”

We speak about God’s call to Abram, the giving of a child to Sarah and Abram in their old age, the deliverance of the Hebrews out of bondage in Egypt, the Hebrews being brought to the land promised by God to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob because they tell us that God keeps God’s promises and God’s promises are about life.

We speak about the Hebrews being fed manna and quail and water in the desert, God sending prophet after prophet to the people Israel, the bringing of Israel out of exile and back to the promised land, the promise of a Messiah bringing justice and peace because they tell us that God is faithful to the relationship with us despite our unfaithfulness.

We speak about God coming to be with us in the midst of creation as a child born in the humblest and unexpected of places, of the healing ministry of Jesus the Christ, of the self-giving love Jesus lived in his relationships with other persons and taught us was God’s way, of Jesus’ willingness to die on a cross for our sakes, of Jesus’ resurrection and the hope it brings into our lives because they tell us God is merciful and forgiving, seeking to reconcile our broken relationship with God by doing for us what we could never do for ourselves-namely bearing the burden and the consequences of the guilt and shame of our sins that break apart all our relationships. And doing this because God loves us with a love that is the full expression of mutuality. A love we can never be separated from no matter the place, time, or circumstance because not even death can separate us from God’s love.

We speak about how God spoke through an angel to Joseph telling him to get up and take his family to Egypt, so they will be safe and far away from Herod’s murder of thousands of innocent children, about how when we felt confused and lost the Holy Spirit led us out of our confusion to the place we belonged, about the time we were alone and weeping tears of grief and God sat beside us and rocked us in God’s loving embrace because in speaking about these times we witness that God is present to protect us, to lead us, to comfort us, to touch us, and to transform our lives by God’s grace and power.

Our exuberant, shouting, celebrating, songs of praise speak of God’s presence, God’s reliability, God’s steadfast and self-giving love, God’s mercy and faithfulness. Yet, these songs of praise also tell us about ourselves.

We use poetic words and metaphorical phrasings in these songs of praise that evoke for us images of God, that generate and suggest to us concrete ways of understanding who God is-the mother that rocks a crying child to sleep in her lap, a mighty fortress strong and able to keep us safe within protective walls, a confidante who walks and talks with us. Yet, these same poetic words and metaphorical phrasings always resist every closed meaning or attempt to put God in a box to be controlled or manipulated. These poetic words of praise are so open to many meanings and ambiguity they leave wide latitude for us, who sing these words to accept and affirm a different version of reality than the one popular culture affirms. For as Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament scholar and professor reminds us, “If we eventually become the way we talk, if reality sooner or later follows speech than our utterance of praise may eventually wean us from our memo-shaped mastery-our 30 second sound byte shaped world, so we may fully live in the world God created.

Just as our poetic words and metaphorical phrasings open us to the full reality of God’s kingdom, our act of praise is an audacious act because we seek to show how great and significant God is. How prominent God is in our lives. We dare to do this act of praise as though we are giving something to God that God needs or desires until we are met in moment of our praise with the surprising gift of illumination; our relationship with God is refined and deepened. We realize our praise arises out of an intimate communion with the One who is wholly reliable, who is so fully present with us, who loves us so dearly that in this moment of praise singing we give ourselves completely and unreservedly to God as an act of joyful gratitude for all the goodness of life.

We abandon ourselves to God in gratitude and gladly celebrate the Lord’s claim on our whole lives. Here our praise is subversive because we say there are no other gods, kings, or loyalties who can give us gifts, who have benefits to bestow, no summons to make, and no allegiance to claim. They are massively and forcefully dismissed. Every other loyalty that would put a hedge of vested interest between God and us is critiqued and dismissed in our song of praise.

There is only one Lord of the universe, we sing. God alone is sovereign of our lives. And, this sovereignty is embodied in the birth of Jesus the Christ, the Word made flesh embodying the reign of God in the ministry of a suffering servant who creates and renews life for us and for the whole of creation just as God created life by God’s Word in the beginning.

Halleu Adonai! Praise Christ the Lord!

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When I was about seven, I was busily writing the “Further Adventures of Winnie the Pooh” stories, which my sister illustrated with crayon drawings. We’d sell our books on the sidewalk to whomever passed by us. Most children had a lemonade stand; I had a small publishing enterprise. Grown-ups would stop to look at the books and they would ask me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  I said, “I want to write stories and I want to tell stories.” They would say, “That’s nice.”

When I was twelve they began saying to me, “That’s a nice dream, but it’s too hard making a living writing stories” then off they’d go with a barrage of facts, making writing stories sound like an utterly ridiculous goal.

Invariably, they finished up by saying, “It’s nice to have big dreams, but you need to face the facts of life. You need to get a real job with a real income like everybody else. This is, after all, the 20th Century.”

The way they said it made it sound as if the mere fact of living in that century settled the issue for all time.  It was as though they agreed with Clifton Fadiman’s statement, “All of life is an earnest search for the right manila folder in which we get filed away.”  As if they lived in the grip of fatalism that believes everything is as it has always been and forever will be. As though life proceeds like clockwork. As if something need to have happened only a couple of times in the past three years for our minds to declare it “inevitable” and “irrevocable.” As if a leaf is green because it could be nothing else. The poor are poor because they are poor. Everything is as it is due to routine, predictability, and given enough time and government research grants, everything shall be explained and demystified.

“The world is as it is. It can’t be changed,” they seemed to be saying.

Yet, when I hear God speaking through the prophet Isaiah, “And a child shall lead them” I wonder why will it be that a child shall lead humanity into the incredible beauty of God’s vision for our lives that is poetically described by Isaiah? After all, children in the ancient near east and even today are among the most vulnerable and least powerful persons in a community. On their own, children do not create legislation, pass laws, or even have their voice taken seriously by those who do make laws. They depend upon others to keep them safe and provide for them. They depend upon adult leaders to lead them into lives of creativity and vitality.

On their own, children are often unable or at the very least find it difficult to protect themselves or their interests.  Just look at the news reports and magazine articles about child labor in India, Pakistan and throughout South Asia, not to mention the plight of children in refugee camps in Turkey, or the young girls sold as brides to men old enough to be their grandfathers.

So, why does God tell us through the prophet Isaiah, in God’s peaceable kingdom a child will be the leader?  What is it about a child that will make them the best choice for leadership?

Well, take a look at the painting of the peaceable kingdom. What is it that adults see? Do you see all the animals just hanging out together, predators and prey standing next to each other? Do you see their faces and do you detect the smiles on their faces as if the painter Edward Hicks said, “Now, everyone say cheese?”  Do you wonder why it is that they are smiling? Is it because the prey is no longer fearful? Or maybe they are calm because they are in a forest with such an abundance of water and plants to eat, that hunger isn’t an issue for any of the animals, so the predators have decided it’s good to be a vegan. Do you see the children in the painting? Why are they the age the painter has depicted? And, did you notice that one is a male and one is a female? Do you see the angel? Can you see far into the background and see William Penn, the Quaker, affirming a peace treaty with Delaware tribe? Yet, what does this have to do with the peaceable kingdom and Isaiah 11?

Well, let’s think about it through the eyes of a child. What does a child sees in this painting? Does the child see the peaceable kingdom as perhaps really the Garden of Eden? I wonder if children would see the picture divided between the animals’ peaceable kingdom and the humans’ peaceable kingdom? I wonder if children might see more than we see?

Several years ago, Tina and I and two of our children went to see the movie August Rush. It is a marvelous movie not only for the music that runs like a thread throughout the story connecting each of the people together and drawing them together, but also for the story of a young not quite twelve year old boy who hears music in all the sounds of the world around him whether he is standing in the middle of a corn field as the wind blows the stalks in amazing swirling and flowing patterns or he is standing in the middle of New York City listening to music being created by the interplay of car engines, horns, shoes scrapping across pavement, water bubbling in a fountain, and people’s voices echoing in the air of the city. Each of these is its own symphony playing notes of music that is his life, which is seeking the music of his long lost mother and father’s lives, so they might be reunited and made whole.

While no one believes him or understands him, the boy refuses to give up on this vision and he finds imaginative ways to make the music of his life spread far out into New York City knowing that his mother and father will hear it and be drawn to him.

Perhaps, that is the reason God chooses a child to lead humanity to the peaceable kingdom. Maybe, it is because children see life as amazing. A child makes no rigid distinction between the tales of wizards and fairies and the tales of historians. As G. K. Chesterton notes, there was a reason why Cinderella was younger than her ugly sisters. “A child“ ,he writes, ”of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened the door and saw a dragon.”

I think this is the reason children picked up Harry Potter books and couldn’t put them down.  I think they became enmeshed and awed to wonder by a world that is beyond our predictable, everyday routine. Where there are brooms to ride in games played high above our heads, invisibility cloaks and maps that show people moving about a castle school where the pictures talk to you. At least, I know this is why I couldn’t put them down and will be re-reading them for years to come. The Harry Potter books and books about knights of the round tables, princes and princesses and others like them invite us to open our minds and imagine there is more to life than what we see.

In imaginative literature, music, plays and art, we are invited to look beyond the surface of life and see that a leaf is green for a reason that has nothing to do with rational science.

In many ways, Isaiah is, also, reminding us to look beyond the surface of this life to see that a leaf is green because God meant it to be. Every leaf that is green or red or yellow and not beige is so because of God’s choice. The world is something, which has been meant, designed, brought into being by God’s choice. And, it is here for our wonder, our surprise and our enjoyment. Even the repetition of cycles and routines is meant more for us to wonder about than to see them as dull and pointless. Maybe, we are supposed to be looking at the grass as a signal to us. Maybe the stars are trying to get us to understand some message they have for us, maybe the rising of the sun each day is making a point we will discover only if we pay close attention to it.

Perhaps, the point it is making is that God has chosen the order of the world and the repetition within creation as a way to speak to us about its vitality and health. Like the child who laughs at a joke and says, “daddy tell it again and again and again. Or, like the child who falls in love with swinging on a swing and says, “Mommy, do it again. Do it again!” I wonder if God says to the irises each spring and apples and oranges “do it again. Do it again.” So, we might wonder at the continual renewal of life and be surprised at the first blooms of flowers popping up from the ground, reminding us how God creates life anew each day.

Maybe, the shoot that springs forth from the tree stump is God’s way of reminding us that God is the God of green life. That God is the one who brings forth greenness when we have felt as if we were dry as summer dust. Hildegard of Bingen wrote in the 12th Century about the veriditas or the greening, healing power of God. “God through Christ is bringing the healing and lush greenness of God’s kingdom to a shriveled and wilted humanity.” Even, Paul’s word to the Roman church in chapter 15:13 of his epistle might be translated as Eugene Peterson has, “Oh! May the God of green hope fill you up with joy, fill you with peace, so that your believing lives, filled with the life-giving energy of the Holy Spirit, will brim over with hope!”

Maybe we need a child to lead us in becoming children, so we might see the new heaven and new earth, which is not fully our present heaven and earth, coming into being as God intends it to come into being with a shoot coming out from the stump of Jesse and a wolf living with a lamb, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a child leading us to hear God’s music of life creating the symphony which draws all people and creation together into God’s peaceable kingdom.

I pray this may be your vision and your hope for this Advent and Christmas, as surely as it is mine.

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“Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” (I Cor. 1:30.)

As Jesus Christ is God’s assurance of the forgiveness of all our sins, so in the same way and with the same seriousness is he also God’s mighty claim upon our whole life. Through him befalls us a joyful deliverance from the godless fetters of this world for a free, grateful service to his creatures.

We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords—areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.”

These statements from the Theological Declaration of Barmen affirmed that Christ is King of our whole life. In doing so, they rejected the white supremacy, anti-Semitism and authoritarianism of Nazi regime that sought to take over the German Evangelical Federation of reformed churches and pronounce Adolf Hitler not simply the leader of the government, but head of the church supplanting Jesus Christ and declaring himself God.

The more than 100 pastors who signed this declaration in the town of Barmen, Germany and who went to their churches and preached this the next Sunday did so fully aware that they would be arrested and put into concentration camps, which they all were and where nearly all of them died.

Declaring Jesus Christ as Lord of the entirety of our lives, is a bold and profound statement of faith affirming that every aspect of our lives is evaluated from the basis of our being faithful followers of Jesus Christ. No ideology, no political party, no philosophical understanding, no Ann Rynd, no economic theory, no government or contemporary cultural movement replaces our commitment and obedience to God in Christ, who is the image of the invisible God, for in him all things in heaven and earth were created, things visible and invisible whether of thrones or dominions, or rulers or powers-all things have been created through Jesus and in him all things hold together. This does not make it easy or convenient to be a follower of Christ.

For one thing, we will be challenged to live fully the love ethic of loving God with the totality of our being and loving our neighbor as ourselves, including our enemies, but at the same time we are called to stand with those who are the most vulnerable in our society to being bullied, to being oppressed, to being abused whether through words, emotional abuse or violence. We are challenged to be like the peacemakers who were trained to accompany Christian mission co-workers in places like Columbia and Iraq as they taught people how to read, to write, and to learn skilled trades like carpentry, plumbing or farming as well sharing the gospel, except we may be doing this in or own communities with Muslim brothers and sisters or Jewish brothers and sisters as well as migrant workers, the LGBTQ community and immigrant communities.

After World War II, one of the pastors who was present at writing of the Barmen declaration, Martin Niemoller, wrote this, “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

It is the reminder that followers of Christ must be as publicly present and vocal in teaching and living the gospel as Jesus was when he sat with lepers, prostitutes, radicals, tax collectors and other people society labeled outcasts.

In this public presence, we are challenged to speak up as hate surfaces more and more. Since the election over 10,000 acts of hate have occurred ranging from signs of swastikas to words saying kill the Jews, Muslims, Latinos and African Americans appearing on dorm rooms, automobiles, public buildings and throughout social media, to a Muslim woman being robbed, to Hispanic and African American teachers at a New Jersey school being told by students that they didn’t have to listen to them anymore because those teachers would be gone soon; to the FBI releasing information that there was a 65% rise in hate crimes against Muslims in 2015, to the announcement that a White House advisor to Trump is Steve Bannon the one who gives voice to white supremacists and anti-Semitics to Kellyanne Conway of the Trump campaign threatening U. S. Senator Harry Reid for speaking out against Trump.

As the Theological Declaration of Barmen reminds us when we are speaking out against hate we are to be “speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body [is] joined and knit together,” as Paul wrote to the house churches of Ephesus. “The Christian Church,” the Barmen declaration states, “is the congregation of the brethren in which Jesus Christ acts presently as the Lord in Word and Sacrament through the Holy Spirit. As the Church of pardoned sinners, it hasto testify in the midst of a sinful world, with its faith as with its obedience, with its message as with its order and that it lives and wants to live solely from God’s comfort and from Jesus’ direction in the expectation of his appearance.

We reject the false doctrine, as though the church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.”

We are challenged to affirm that in Christ all false barriers separating us from other people have been broken down as Paul reminds us, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, nor male or female, for all are one in Christ,” all are one humanity and no one is to be excluded or denied their humanity. All the ways humans devise to create stratified societies are acts of sinfulness whether it is of elites and ordinary folks or wealthy and poor communities or creating societies based upon some lives mattering more than other lives because of an ingrained, cultural myth of superiority and inferiority or because some are considered chosen and some condemned or some deemed civilized and others uncivilized, since Jesus frequently crossed social boundaries to heal and to bring into the community those relegated to the margins, affirming by his actions that all persons are created in the image and likeness of God and all are to be treated with respect.

We are to do all of this while knowing we are God’s beloved and clothing ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience as well as bearing with one another in relationships where forgiveness is given and every aspect of our community life together is wrapped in self-giving love, which binds everything together in a harmony yielding peace.

We do this way because the one we declare to be Lord of our life is the one who is a total reversal of the roles usually assigned to royalty, leadership and servitude. He refuses to be the master of the world, the mighty monarch, the spiller of blood. His reign subverts our notion of kings, presidents and leaders. He is the king who serves the other. He is the president who dies for the other. He is the leader who is ridiculed, scorned, and mocked. Most insufferable, most repugnant of all, is the fact that he is a powerless sovereign, president, leader. Dying on his cross-throne, Jesus is thrice taunted for the fact that he does not save himself. “You a savior?” they jeer. “Then save yourself.” Soldiers with their sour wine chide, “Aren’t you a real king? Save yourself.” Even a criminal scolds: “I thought you were supposed to be a Messiah. Prove it.”

Jesus is so thoroughly unlike any notion we have of kings, presidents or leaders because he disavows armies, offers himself without self-defense, does not seek power or to rule over people by domination and intimidation, and he refuses to use or condone force and violence, even against his enemies. Indeed, his word from the cross to those who oppose him, reject him, mock him, and crucify him is simply, “Forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.” Christ is the king who appears weak in the face of the powerful and accepts the humiliation of being whipped and spat upon as well as the humiliating death on a cross. Christ is the leader who is utterly innocent and yet completely accepts the appearances of utter guilt.

One of the criminals crucified with him embraced this startling truth—and he was saved. “We deserve it after all.” He said, “We are only paying the price for what we’ve done, but this man has done nothing wrong.”  Later, when the same criminal asks, “Jesus, remember me,” Jesus responds, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” In his response to the criminal Jesus reveals himself to be the king who is full of mercy and uses his power to save others.  Which is what he did throughout his life whether feeding five thousand people in the wilderness or raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus uses his power to save others. He doesn’t use it to save himself.

The kingship or presidential presence of Christ is not about power, certainly not the political or juridical power to “save yourself and us” from the ignominy of crucifixion. But, ironically, his power to save is revealed as he tells the criminal, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” All of this makes Christ’s kingship an abomination for any earthly royal or political power aspiration, since it is an assault upon the desires of every tribe or nation that ever craved ascendancy or empire. Which ought to give us pause because we live at a time when many nations and people are seeking ascendancy or at least hegemony, when power and wealth are the basis for celebration throughout the world, and when saving ourselves at all costs is acceptable, using whatever means are available, even if it destroys the lives of others.

René Girard, professor of language and culture at Stanford University, is a rare contemporary thinker who confronts the implications of Christian faith. In his book Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, Girard shows how Christ dismantles the triangle of desire, violence, and retribution. He writes that, “In Christ there is no envy, greed, no lust for power, and no vengeance. Christ is the only sovereign to embody such principles.”

Girard continues by saying, “It can be shown, I believe, that there is not a single action or word attributed to Jesus –even those that seem harshest at first sight-that is not consistent with the rule of [God’s] Kingdom. It is absolute fidelity to his own preaching that condemns Jesus. There is no cause for his death other than the love of one’s neighbor lived to the very end.  He goes on to say that when we acknowledge Christ as God and king we accept his reversal of everything that dominates humanity.

We accept the challenges and the inconvenience of being a follower of Christ, walking down the same stony path he trod, being willing to lose our lives, giving up being centered in ourselves and picking up the cross leading to the fullness of joy and the deep peace of God’s love for us and all humanity as we too love our neighbor to the very end. Amen.

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                Whenever I read the account of Pentecost in Acts of the Apostles different images are awakened within my imagination. Sometimes it is the shaking house where they are worshiping reminding me of the California church in rural Sonoma County where I experienced God shaking me at five years old to wonder about life and what happens after life. Sometimes it is the apostles streaming into the streets speaking in all of the languages of the people gathered in Jerusalem reminding me both of the elementary classrooms of Berkeley I attended with children representing the whole of the community including the blind and the deaf and those walking in wheelchairs and the great diversity of peoples throughout the world and the great living diversity of creation, interrelated in a connectivity we are just beginning to comprehend in all of their degrees of separation that is simply another word for the pathways of being connected to other lives throughout space, throughout time. Sometimes it is the jeering crowd misunderstanding what God was doing in their midst and immediately moving toward judging as drunk those who were streaming from a house with a great gust of God’s wind propelling them outward reminding me how easily we speak before thinking, how easily we judge others in ways that demean, disrespect, destroy, declare as unworthy other persons, how easily we dismiss what we do not understand, how easily we fail to stop and wonder and ponder about what is happening because we strive for certainty even if it is certainty based on the foundation of ignorance, limited perspective, fear and how easily we label others, so we won’t have to face our own limitations of understanding and comprehending, our own fears and our own ignorance like my high school guidance counselor and teacher who told me I’d never amount to anything.

              Yet, as I ponder the day of Pentecost it is God’s fire of passion circling over the apostles driving them to act, to witness, to meet their neighbors where they were in the city street I am considering today. How do we experience God’s fire of passion driving us out of our houses of prayer and our homes to meet people where they are? How is God’s fire of passion driving us out of our comfort zones to speak loudly in the public square, to take the risk of likely being judged by the voices of ignorance, fear, and limited perspective. How are we experiencing God’s fire of passion moving us out beyond ourselves to ignite change within our communities, change for health, for well being, for abundance for all, for wholeness and completeness, for shalom?  But, then I wonder if we are experiencing God’s fire of passion at all as we settle for what is doable without much effort, what is practical, what is possible in the cynical world of limiting actions by those considered well meaning, but misinformed about reality. Are we even expecting or hoping for God’s fire of passion to encircle us, to fill us, to move us outward or do we simply want the illusion of passion, the contentment of attending to the symptoms of injustice without really accomplishing health, well being, wholeness, without accomplishing shalom?

           These Pentecost questions are calling me, invading my imagination, driving me to seek answers and I hope they do the same for others on this year’s day of Pentecost and throughout the season of Pentecost, the season of God’s fire of passion.

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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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