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Posts Tagged ‘new life’

“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 to the empty tomb of resurrection where we will shout or joyous hallelujahs.

Now, you may not feel you are sojourners after all we haven’t physically traveled away from Irondequoit 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 this morning when you left your homes to come here to worship and in doing so you have continued your sojourning, your pilgrimage to deepen your inward spiritual journey. Even our sanctuary, like many other sanctuaries, 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 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 we could make one here if we 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, in our time 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 safe 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 an 8.9 earthquake and all the other 350 earthquakes, the tornadoes in Kansas, or 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 and 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 behind 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 CE 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, so 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 we can enter inside of it for 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 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 need to let go of some of the stuff filling up and cluttering our lives. I must say this is very much on my mind because my wife and I are using this Lent to begin a 46-day decluttering project. Each day we give away something we own whether a bowl, a teapot, or some clothing we don’t wear any longer and don’t need any longer.  So, each day we must decide which of our possessions to let go.

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 need to willingly take the lid off of our resistance to change and the new thing God is calling us to embrace, so we can be open to what God is offering to pour into us.

Certainly, that might have been part of Nicodemus’ problem that night when he couldn’t comprehend what Jesus was saying to him. “You mean I have to born a second time? How is that even possible?”

“No, Nicodemus, I said be born from above. Above! By water and the Spirit, Nicodemus. By God’s actions.” Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a ruling elder in the Sanhedrin, had a quite a bit of emptying out to do before he could finally be open to receive what God was offering him and all of humanity through Jesus, the Word of life. Nicodemus would have to let go of a lifetime of theology and learning about who God is and what God does and how God’s love is made manifest in the world. Not to mention a lifetime of learning what it means to be faithful to God because his spiritual life and physical life was cluttered up with well over 485 purity rules that dominated the way he lived every moment of his life and that dominated how he understood, who was right with God and who wasn’t, and who was his neighbor and who wasn’t.

While we look at Nicodemus and his need to empty out the clutter of his life, so he could be open to receiving what Jesus was trying to pour into him, we need to begin asking ourselves what clutter do we need to let go before we are open to receiving the future God is offering us?  What do we, as communities of faith, need to empty out to be ready to receive what God is offering us?  Are there ways things got done in the past, which are no longer working? Are we ready to welcome and receive new persons to become part of this community regardless of how old they are, how experienced in the Christian faith they are?  Are we ready to receive the persons’ gifts and abilities by valuing them intrinsically without comparing them to other people?

Answering these questions isn’t an academic exercise or simply a rhetorical device for a sermon because what God is offering is a new life. Not just an extension of the  same old life, but one that will be transformative for each person’s life, for this entire congregation’s life, for this 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. 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 can only 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 in the willingness to trust God alone in a journey away from the status quo, away from the predictable toward the mystery that we like Nicodemus will only comprehend in the light of hindsight after we taste the providential fruits of grace, which have been with us every step of the way. As the psalmist assures, 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.

Pray with me this prayer of Richard Chichester, “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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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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Amos and the story of the Samaritan remind us to ask the question, “What kind of community are we?” The prophet Amos tells Israel of the Northern Kingdom that God is measuring their faithfulness to God and the covenant of God’s way against their unfaithfulness in the same way a builder uses a plumb line to measure a building’s vertical line and its ability to stand if its vertical line is true or the likelihood of it to fall down because it does not have a true vertical line, instead it is crooked.

The prophet tells the people God’s judgment is coming because they have failed to be the people God created and anointed them to be. Their community is highly stratified with the poor being bought and sold like commodities and are oppressed and crushed by those with wealth and power, that the merchants cheat their customers by using dishonest weights, the people worship idols of their own making or the gods of other people, the leaders-kings, priests, and the imperial prophets-have failed the people time and time again with the priests and the imperial prophets telling the king and the people what they want to hear as opposed to speaking God’s word of the covenant. The Northern Kingdom has become just like all the other kingdoms around it instead of being the distinctive people of God.

While Amos speaks a word of judgment and justice, the story of the Samaritan stopping to help the critically wounded man on the side road running from Jerusalem to Jericho is told to a gathered group of Judeans, some of whom are testing Jesus to see if he is orthodox enough to included in the community’s tradition. The story comes as a response to the lawyer, who began testing Jesus. The lawyer has asked, “who is my neighbor?” Jesus answers by telling the story.

Typically, we would focus only on the Samaritan story as an example to be compassionate to strangers in need without delving more deeply into the story and its significance for a people trying to comprehend what it means to be God’s people who “Love the Lord with all heart, mind, soul and strength and Love my neighbor as myself” while ignoring or somehow toning down the prophet Amos’ words and God’s justice, however the events of this past week and the steady, highly polarized drumbeat of stereotyping, blaming and violence demands we dive more deeply into both.

Certainly, both readings challenge us to describe the community we live within and the community we want to be. The Amos readings reminds us about the way God desires to order human life as a community of inclusion with  each person treated with equality without regard to their position or status in society and treated with the same restorative justice, that each person in the community stay connected to the resources of food, vocation and a home, so all have a share in the abundance of the community’s life, and that those who are the most vulnerable-children, the elderly, and the resident migrant- be kept safe and free from oppression and abuse while being treated with neighbor love as are all persons in the community. This is a community valuing integrity and the truth and faithfulness in all relationships between people and between people and God. It is a community where Sabbath rest is valued for all persons, animals and machinery as much for the need for re-creation and healing of a person’s body and the mind as for the recognition that endless work is unhealthy and destructive to each person and animal and machinery and will destroy the community. It is a community living together with each having all they need for life without falling into the trap of envy and coveting what their neighbor has. Indeed, it is a community where such envy is unnecessary because no one has more than their neighbor. It is a community where leaders focus on the well-being of the entire community without regard for reward or their own agenda. It is a community that articulates gratitude for the blessings received from God as the recognition that life is a gift from God and that they did not create themselves. Amos further reminds us that if we ignore God’s way of community we will be like the crooked building that loses its ability to stand. We will crumble and fall into complete destruction.

Just as Amos is a critique of the status quo of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, so too is the story of the Samaritan a critique of Judah in the first century because they too live in a highly stratified society with power and wealth exercised for the benefit of the few while leaving the poor and the marginalized of the community to fend for themselves, then the scribes, priests and Pharisees condemn them for not being quite good enough to be part of the community. It is a society that does not tolerate critique and sees critique as threat and rebellion with the only response by the state to destroy those who question and offer alternatives to the status quo. Into the midst of this society, Jesus comes teaching God’s desire for a community of loving God with hearts, minds, and strength and neighbor love that is inclusive and seeks ways to bring persons back into the community from the margins without hierarchy and which seeks an abundant life for all persons. The Samaritan story challenges us to ask whether we are content to walk past those neighbors needing compassion,  we are willing to stop and provide all the resources needed for the neighbor to regain health and well-being, or are we willing to receive the help we will need by persons we, too often, regard as inferior to ourselves.

Both Amos and the Samaritan story challenge us to ask what kind of community do we want to be? We are challenged to question and critique the prevailing cultural perspectives of Anglo-Saxon privilege and dominance, laissez-faire or mercantilist economic policies that privilege the wealthy at the expense of the poor, philosophies of ideological or religious intolerance in the name of purity and homogeneity, all the ways the community is divided into discrete demographic sectors that are viewed monolithically, and the drive to maintain or gain political power and control using whatever means will provide the outcomes desired. We are, also, challenged to name the issues or problems needing to be solved without making people the issue because if people are the issue or the problem the only solution is to separate ourselves from those people, which is not a solution that will achieve peace nor a solution God desires for humanity and creation. Finally, we are challenged to become the community God desires and creates us to be, a community where each person is equal and connected to each other in the dance of life that is the very image of the Triune God.

 

 

 

 

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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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