Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

At the Well

Sermon from 3-23-14

Grace and peace to you from God the Father and from our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Rob Bell’s latest book, What We Talk About When We Talk about God, is one of my most favorite books I’ve read so far. I think I’ve read it about three or four times now, including re-reading to lead our last week’s women’s book group. And I think I can say that we had a very good discussion.

However, I have one beef with Rob Bell’s book. On the surface this may seem a minor thing, easy to overlook, except it speaks directly to the story you just heard us read oh so dramatically just a few moments ago. Bell lists by example some of the many times Jesus went to the margins to encounter people who were despised, ignored, and outcast. One person he lists is a “thirsty, loose Samaritan women he wasn’t supposed to talk with.” It’s easy to think, what’s the big deal, Pastor Lydia? Isn’t what he says true? So please bear with me, because we just might find that Sesame Street was right, of these things just doesn’t belong.

Was she a woman? Well, yes, she was a woman at a time where it as not acceptable for respectable men to talk with respectable women unless accompanied by their respectable husband, brother, or other male relative. And yet, Jesus still talks to her.

Was she a Samaritan? Yes, and this is “strike two” against her, since Jews did not interact with Samaritans if they could help it. There was a long history of bad blood between the two groups. The Jews considered the Samaritans to be a kind of inferior, a watered-down version of themselves, because Samaritans intermarried with other groups of people, and they also had worship practices that were very different from that of the Jews. This woman belonged to this group. And yet, Jesus strikes up a conversation.

Was this woman thirsty? She almost certainly was. This was way before running water, which now we turn on without even thinking, whenever we wish a tall glass of cold water. If you wanted a glass of water at that time, or wanted to wash your clothes or your dishes or yourself, you had to carry a big jar of all the way out to the community well. And if you’ve ever gone camping or done gardening, you know that even just a little water can start to get very heavy, very heavy.

But was this woman “loose”? Or was she actually more of a loser in her own culture and society? This woman lived before no-fault divorce. She lived before women could vote, or have jobs outside the home, or control their own bank accounts, or have much say over their own lives. We can never really know what happened to her, but there are other possibilities besides being a serial bride - she could have been widowed five times and now considered cursed. She could have been unable to have children and have been cast off by each husband. Perhaps she lived with the sixth man because, by then, no one else would take her in and take care of her, under any circumstances.

In any case, she was judged by the other people in her community, so much so that she would prefer to carry her heavy water jar in the heat of the day – alone - rather than face the whispers and stares of the other women. But she is still being whispered about and stared at, two thousand years later, by preachers and theologians and writers who continue to hang the label of “loose” on this woman like a scarlet letter.

When this woman came to the well that day, she was not just physically thirsty, but emotionally and spiritually as well. Her relationships have failed her; her culture has failed her; and we may have failed her. She might have even wondered if God had failed her too. Her world had become a lonely wilderness, a harsh desert of shame. So the last thing she expected that day was to have a conversation with the savior of the world.
To Jesus, this woman is not her past. To Jesus, she is not defined by what she has or hasn’t done; she is not defined by who she’s with; she is not defined by gender or race or creed. To Jesus, she is a thirsty person in need of living water.

To Jesus, we are not defined by our past, or by what we’ve done or haven’t done, or by who we’re with or our race or gender or if we believe the “right” way. To Jesus, we are a thirsty people in need of living water.
Where we find her story in Rob Bell’s book is a chapter called “For.” Not the number four, but the preposition “for” - as in, to be in support of or on the side of or being concerned for the well-being of someone else. In this instance, Bell is making the case that God is for us. Through Jesus, God shows this woman that God is for her, that God has not forgotten her. Through Jesus, God also shows US that God is for US too, and has not forgotten us, either.

In this chapter, Bell writes: “The good news insists that God doesn’t wait for us to get ourselves polished, shined, proper, and without blemish – God comes to us and meets us and blesses us while we are still in the middle of the mess we’ve created. The good news isn’t us getting it together so that we can have God’s favor; the good news is us finding God exactly in the moment of our greatest not-togetherness.”

Jesus didn’t offer this woman living water once she’d gotten her life straightened out into something more socially acceptable. He offered her living water at her moment of greatest need.

Likewise, Jesus doesn’t wait to give us living water once we’ve gotten our lives all in order, because, frankly, that’s never going to happen. None of us have it all together, at least not for much longer than about 30 seconds. We’re too weighed down by the past, or too overwhelmed by the present, or too afraid of the future. There is no way that any of us can carry the deep well of burdens in our little water jar, at least not without falling over, over and over again. And we would rather suffer alone than face the humiliation of someone else seeing us in our weak moments.

But what if Jesus is FOR us? What if Jesus meets us right there, at the deep well of our s troubles, and offers to us something way better than anything our little bucket could ever hope to hold? What if Jesus turned us into bubblers?

Now, what’s a bubbler? It’s what people from Wisconsin call drinking fountains, like the ones we have over by the bathrooms. When I’m in an unfamiliar building and want a drink of water, without thinking I might ask for a bubbler. And that’s kind of what living water does. It bubbles up in you, sometimes quietly, sometimes suddenly with gusto, and almost always spilling out onto your shirt and out onto the people around you. This is the joy that Jesus gives us, that he called us as his beloved children and followers, and send us out into the world to splash other people.

And that’s exactly what happened to this abandoned and outcast Samaritan woman. She leaves her water jar at the well in her haste to tell others about this man who just might, maybe be the Messiah, the savior of the world. She became an evangelist, a preacher for her community, sharing her encounter with Jesus. In fact, she converted her whole town! All because she left her jar at the well and splashed the entire town with living water.

Because once we’ve tasted of the living waters, we just can’t keep it to ourselves. It’s time for you to become a bubbler, too. That’s right – I have a task for you to do! Try to tell one person this week about where Jesus has met you at the well and gave you the living water. It can be someone you know well, or it can be someone you don’t know. You can even use this sermon as an excuse, and say “One of my pastors told me to!” Call a friend, write a letter, write a blog, tweet it - It doesn’t matter how you do it, or when, or where, or to whom – they just might listen, and they just might also come to know Jesus, giver of living water, savior of the world. AMEN.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Come and Die

Lent Reflection 3-12-14

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer, Amen.

I recently infiltrated a Bible study event hosted by the South East Pennsylvania Synod. And by infiltrated I mean I heard about it from a pastor friend in that synod and dutifully sent in my registration indicating my lunch preference. But the reason I went is because one of my seminary professors would be speaking, Dr. David Lose, professor, author, theologian, and blogger, and I guess you might go as far as to say I’m a bit of a groupie.

Everything he said that day I had heard before in his classes and lectures, but being on this side of ordination, actually being a pastor, I heard his words with new ears. I felt like I “got” what he was saying in a way that I hadn’t before.

This story that we have begun retelling tonight is a story that you also have probably heard before, maybe even many times. But right now, at this moment, during this season of Lent, you are in a different place than you were the last time you heard it. And though Jesus words don’t change from year to year, the meaning we find in them grows and changes, like a living thing.

One thing that never changes about Jesus is his funny way of bringing out both the best and worst in the people around him. For those who have experienced the healing and restoring power of Jesus, this man is someone we try, however haltingly, to imitate. For those who have a stake in the status quo, who want so badly to hold on to the darkness that is so familiar, Jesus must be rejected, even destroyed. In these old familiar stories, it’s pretty easy to identify who’s who. But this becomes much harder as we living in the middle of our own story. And sometimes, we are both kinds of people at the same time.

 Our story begins this night at a party, which is as good a place as any for some drama, I guess. This gathering too is infiltrated by an unexpected guest – a “Jesus groupie” if you will. We don’t know who this woman is or where she came from – we only know that she is driven by one purpose, and one purpose only, to give Jesus a beautiful gift – a jar full of very expensive perfume, likely the most valuable thing she owned. This woman was the only one who did not abandon Jesus that night. Hers was the last kind act that Jesus experienced on that long night of suffering. She is the first of many faithful women who remained by Jesus’ side during his passion. And because of that, Jesus praises her, even though history does not even remember her name.

But on this night, up is down, and down is up. Just after the woman gives her costly gift, Judas sells his loyalty to Jesus at the cost of thirty pieces of silver. Judas, who was an invited guest to Jesus’ inner circle, is the one who betrays Jesus, while the nameless party-crashing woman is the one who gives Jesus comfort on the eve of his suffering. Jesus is again revealing both the very best and the very worst in us.

Most of the time, though, we are not all-out betraying Jesus as Judas did, but neither are we so eager to be as self-giving like this woman. Most of the time, we fall somewhere in between the two. We skirt around the edges of the path Jesus calls us to, professing our unending loyalty like Peter while at the same time sorrowfully wondering about our own unfaithfulness. We don’t want to betray Jesus, but at the same time, we are reluctant join Peter in his promise: “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you.” We all know how that worked out for Peter, but could any of us truly say we would have acted any different that night?
Human beings are hard-wired for self-preservation. If anything, we are really, really good at avoiding death at all costs. Death, even if it is not a physical death, is frightening, disrupting, and upsetting. It causes fear and pain. And that is exactly where Jesus is headed. That is exactly where Jesus calls us to follow him.

As German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote: “When Christ calls [a person], he bids him come and die.” That’s not a very happy thought. But in a way, that’s what Lent is all about - clearing out all the stuff that we’ve let clutter up our lives, all the things that in the end  aren’t really worth holding on to, but all the same, we are afraid to let go of.

When we follow Jesus’ call, our selfishness and greed are put to death. Our brokenness and separations are put to death. Our fear of the unknown is put to death. The darkness in our hearts is put to death. Even our death is put to death when Jesus calls us sinners to follow him.

Even as Jesus is face to face with his own suffering and death, Jesus gathers twelve very imperfect disciples to share in his last meal. He shares with them bread and wine, his body and blood, knowing full well that in just a few hours they will be scattered like frightened sheep and one will betray him. And yet, Jesus promises them that he will see them again, after he is raised, and he will go before them to Galilee, just as he went before us into death so that we, too, could have a share in death’s defeat.

But before that glorious resurrection dawn is a night as dark as death. Before the celebration of Jesus raised is the remembrance of Jesus betrayed and abandoned, of his body broken and blood poured out for many, for us, his imperfect disciples. During Lent we live inside story, as we are gathered together, sing hymns together, pray together, sit in silence together, waiting together in hope for that coming dawn to shine on us.


        Wordle: Lent homily

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Sermon from Feb. 16th

Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ, amen.

A week ago I got to spend the weekend with a hundred and fifty high school Lutherans and their adults from all over New Jersey. As you might expect, we had plenty of fun and not enough sleep, and I was very blessed to be the chaplain for the event. But as much as I was teaching and preaching and ministering to others that weekend, I was also continually learning from, and being surprised by, and being MINISTERED TO by others.

Here is just one example. It’s a Saturday night tradition at that event to have an open mike night after evening worship, and normally kids sign up to sing their favorite song or play the guitar. But one act surprised us all. It was stand-up, and the youth who was “standing up” was a girl. That’s not a sight you normally see, not even on TV. You might be able to name one or maybe two famous female comediennes, and here was this young woman, taking a risk, standing up in front of her peers, and she was funny.

She began her routine by describing what it was like to ride down to this youth event with her pastor at the wheel. This pastor, like someone you may know, was not originally from New Jersey and was also still coming to terms with the interesting traffic on the turnpike. When being cut off, this youth informed us, the pastor might yell, “son of a… child of God!” … Or when someone would suddenly slow down for no apparent reason, causing her to slam on her brakes, she would say, “God… bless you!”

We “adult-type-people” sitting in the back were practically rolling on the floor laughing. It was nice to know that someone else also felt the same frustration that I did about some of the crazy driving I’ve encountered around here! But at the same time I was laughing, I was also cringing a little bit inside. Because I’ve been there. I’ve been the person being cut off, and I’ve said some pretty unkind things alone in the safety of my vehicle. We all knew what this pastor had wanted to say, and we all knew that at one time or another we all had said those things, or we at least thought them.

In that moment, according to Jesus, when we let our anger get the better of us, and say things we will regret later, we are breaking the fifth commandment, and murdering the personhood of our brother or sister in our minds.

And so we’ve come to the part in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that is not so fun to listen to. After building us up for two weeks after hearing about being blessed if we are poor in spirit or mourning or peacemaking, and after hearing about how we are light and salt for the world, we get to the hard stuff in Jesus’s sermon. The gloves are off, the rubber has hit the road, the other shoe has dropped, and Jesus is done with the appetizers and is ready to get to the main course. And this is a tough meal that is pretty hard to swallow.

You might say that this is where being light intersects life – after talking about letting our light shine in the world, Jesus here it telling us how that’s done, example by example. And it sounds surprisingly hard. Because Jesus here is asking us, not just to keep the commandments of old, but to exceed them in a way that sounds beyond human ability.

I don’t know about you, but I think that the 10 commandments are just fine, as is. For the most part where we live it’s pretty easy to refrain from murdering someone. In fact, it’s pretty easy to go down the list of commandments and think we are doing ok – yup, respecting my parents, nope, didn’t steal anything today, nope, not coveting my next door neighbor’s house, and thank goodness they don’t have any slaves or oxen I can covet, so – whew- I guess I’m safe on that one.

But Jesus stops us in our self-congratulatory tracks. It’s one thing to do the minimum, to refrain from causing someone physical bodily harm. But if you are angry with your brother or sister, if you insult them and call them names, they are as good as dead to you, and you as good as murdered them in your mind. It’s not enough to simply refrain from cheating on one’s spouse. Every time someone looks at a woman in the media as an object to be desired, as a collection of body parts instead of a whole person, the deed is as good as done.

We don’t normally think of Jesus as talking this way. We would rather think about the Jesus that is all about love and tolerance and all that good stuff. Like, you’re good, I’m good, Jesus is good, we’re all good. Jesus loves me, this I know, so it’s ok if I curse out my neighbor on the road if they cut me off. Or, as I’ve seen one bumper sticker read: Jesus loves you, so I don’t have to. Love then, becomes a blanket over all the bad stuff I do, and makes it ok that I keep doing it. But thinking about love this way is about as effective as roses and chocolate one day a year, and misery the other three hundred and sixty-four.

But what does Jesus have to say about this crazy little thing called love? Another time Jesus says, Love your neighbor as you love yourself. As in, you see your neighbor not as an object to be coveted or as a means to an end to get what you want, but as a human being with thoughts and feelings, with hopes and dreams, with flaws and needs. Love means that we should treat everyone as if they are a beloved child of God. Because that’s what they are: beloved children of God.

So what if Jesus is reinterpreting these commands, which hopefully you remember way back from your confirmation class, not to control every aspect of our lives and make us miserable, but to help us love one another better? Perhaps then instead a list of things to avoid, these commands become the means of living a life that is full of real love and real relationships.

But how can we choose that kind of life? The deck is stacked against us: we live in a throw-away culture, where anything and everything is disposable – cups, plates, clothes, furniture …friendships, marriages, family ties. We are constantly told - if it’s worn out, throw it away. If it’s not useful anymore, throw it away. If there is a newer and better model, throw it away. If it’s inconvenient or too much work to maintain, throw it away. Take that annoying promotional for the show The Millers that is always on TV; the one where, after the son gets a divorce after three years, he “inspires” his parents to split up after 43 years of marriage. If it doesn’t make you happy, throw it away.

God will never throw us away. There is no relationship too fractured to be repaired, no sin too grievous to be forgiven, no night too dark to snuff out the light. Even when we don’t choose life – when instead we choose isolation over connection, fear over acceptance, hate over love, death over life, death does not have the final say. Life has the final say – the life that Jesus not only tells us about but also shows us in every moment of his life on earth. Jesus came to show us that love has the final say.

And we who are following in his footsteps are going to aren’t going to get it right all the time. We will continue to be the angry ones and the ones who cause others to be angry. Sometimes we will be ones doing the cursing in our cars and at other times we’ll be the ones doing the cutting-off on the turnpike. But if we choose to look at those around us through the eyes of Jesus, as beloved children of God, we infuse a healthy and much-needed dose of humanity back into the world. We can participate in the Kingdom of God here on earth. We will be the light of the world. We will be the salt of the earth. We will be servants of the living God, we will be, as Paul wrote, God’s field, and God’s building.

We become a blessing to one another. That same pastor, the one with the standup comedienne youth, came up to me after I had prayed individually over a long line of youth during the healing service, and she came and prayed for me and blessed me. In that moment I remembered that I too was a “daughter of a child of God.” Because all of us need reminding that we are beloved children of God, especially ourselves.  AMEN.