The Power of Water

According to unicef, everyday, nearly 1,000 children die from the lack of clean drinking water.  One thousand children. Every. Single. Day.  That’s a child dying every minute and half.  That’s roughly the population of Tampa, Florida dying every year, due to something as correctable as the lack of clean drinking water.  The human body is 60% water.  The surface of the earth 71% covered by water.  We’ve all seen the videos of why one should never attempt to drive through standing water.

We are well aware of the need for access to clean water in our lives, but I’m guessing that many of us take that access for granted.  I know that I often do.  I’ve never lived in a drought plagued place like California, north Alabama, or Sub-Saharan Africa.  When I turn on the tap, cold, clean water comes out.  It wasn’t until the Student Body President at VTS in 2004-05 mentioned it that I had ever even considered that on a daily basis I have the privilege of using clean drinking water to take a shower.

Two of our lessons for Lent 3 would remind us to not take water for granted.  They are both stories of the power of water, not to sweep away a car in a flood, but to culturally and, more importantly, as a source of life, a gift from God.  At Christ Church this week, we will hear these lessons in the context of a homily from Steve Young, not that one, the Executive Director of Living Waters for the World, Steve Young.  He will share with us the work that his team, of which Christ Church will soon be included, is doing to bring access to clean water to the remotest of places.

Their foundational text is the story of Jesus meeting the woman at Jacob’s Well.  In that story we hear not only that even Jesus needed water, but the power of the well socially, as this woman who had been married several times and was now living with a man who was not her husband, was forced to wait until the heat of midday to draw water.  Jesus turns that hurt right-side up, meeting here there, at noon, and engaging her in conversation.  He turns the concrete reality of water into a spiritual thirst for living water, and shows her and her whole town that thirst is not merely a physical desire, but it is at the core of who we are as created beings.

I’m struck by the power of water today, and I give thanks that I so rarely have to think about my own access to it even as I grieve that so many don’t have access to clean water to drink, let alone to spend 10-15 minutes showing in.

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Jesus was Tired

It is hard for me to believe, but it has been more than two years since the candidates for the 4th Bishop of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast took part in the walkabout portion of the discernment process.  Over the course of several days, the candidates traveled around the diocese attending a series of large gatherings in which they were invited to answer questions, many canned, so that we might be able to get to know them a little better.   The folks from St. Paul’s in Foley attended the event in Daphne, which was the fifth and final event in a rugged week for these candidates.  I remember being glad that I was able to attend this final walkabout meeting because I wanted to see how my future bishop might behave at the end of a long week.  “I need a bishop who can take my call at 5pm on a Friday when I’ve just learned the treasurer has been embezzling money,” I told one person.  It was a bit of an exaggeration, but the truth is that the ministry of a bishop means long hours, lots of personal interaction, and the ability to be “on” at the drop of a hat.  All four candidates seemed to handle the situation pretty well, and I left feeling like we would be in good hands with any of them at the helm.

When preaching on Sunday’s Gospel lesson, most preachers will focus on the narrative of Jesus and the woman at the well – with good reason – but this morning, still fighting through the haze of last night’s nighttime cold medicine caplet,  I’m struck by the context that John spells out for his readers.  “Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.”  Jesus was tired out by his journey.  Not only does this detail do the hard work of humanizing Jesus, a noble task in John’s lofty and cosmic Gospel, but it also gives us a lens through which we see the rest of the story.  When Jesus rather curtly demands a drink from the woman at the well, we are more apt, I think, to brush it off because he was tired.  And maybe we read the story of this deep encounter between Jesus and the woman with more awe because of how spot on Jesus seems to be, even in the midst of his exhaustion.

starbucks-jesus

Just as I needed a bishop who could do the hard work of ministry when s/he was tired, so too I appreciate the Messiah who, though worn out by the journey, is still ready to show love and compassion.  It is dangerous to moralize Jesus’ behavior since we can never actually be like Jesus, but I think this detail is a helpful reminder to all of us who represent Christ in the world that even when we feel like we need to hide away for a while, even when we are tired and ready for a break, even when we would rather do anything else but be around God’s beloved and hurting people, we are called to love, to show compassion, and to share the Good News of Jesus Christ both by our words and through our actions.

No Longer Outcast – a sermon

You can listen to my sermon on the Saint Paul’s Website, or read on.

I’m always amazed at how easily the past can sneak up on me and send me spinning into an existential crisis.  It happened again this week over a pair of shoes.  I grew up the son of blue collar parents in the one of the richest school districts in Pennsylvania.  Now that I’m grown, it is a source of pride for me, but I didn’t have the same perspective back in 1986.  When I was a first grader at Bucher Elementary School there was only one shoe that you had to have to fit in on the playground: a pair of high-top Chuck Taylor All-Stars.  My parents, frugal as they were, wouldn’t spend the money to buy a pair of real Chuck’s, so I wore the K-Mart equivalent, and was teased by spoiled brat rich kids whose parents bought them Chuck’s in every color under the sun. (As you can tell, there are no hard feelings about this.)

Fast forward almost 30 years, and The 7 Experiment has us re-thinking the way we buy things.  Cassie brought up the idea of buying the girls TOMS Shoes this time around.  Now, TOMS are not cheap, but they are comfortable, environmentally friendly, and for every pair you buy, TOMS donates a pair to a child in need.  To top it off, they may not be as cool as a pair of high-top Chuck Taylor’s but they are pretty cool.  Instantly, a simple shoe buying conversation set off a battle within me between my inner cheapskate, my inner humanitarian, and six year-old Steve who wants my girls to have brand name stuff.  The first two I can handle, but the reappearance of six year-old Steve surprised me.  It probably shouldn’t have.  Being created in the image of God means that we were created to be in community and so the feeling of being an outcast is one of those things that stings most about being a human.  Whether it is about the shoes you wear or the color of your hair, the zip code you live in or the fact that your marriage fell apart, whatever the reason, every person, at one point or another in their lives has felt like an outcast, and it hurts.  Sometimes, the old feelings sneak up on you when you least expect it, and for a tormented few, the pain is so deep that “outcast” becomes their identity.

In this morning’s Gospel lesson, we hear the story of Jesus meeting a woman whose name we don’t know, but her identity is “outcast.”  Fresh off his encounter with the insider’s insider, Nicodemus the Pharisee, who sought out Jesus in the royal city of Jerusalem, Jesus had caught wind that the Pharisees were after him and so he decided to return to the Galilean countryside.  The expedient path would take them through Samaria, but Jews rarely took this route.  Instead, they would opt to go several days out of their way by heading east to Jericho, skirting along the Jordan valley and then entering Galilee from the southeast.  They did this for two reasons.  First, it was not uncommon for Samaritan thugs to attack Jewish pilgrims along the road, and second, “the first-century Jews regarded [Samaritans] as the worst kind of outcasts.”[1]  They were ethnically outcast as unclean half-bloods who had been left behind during the Babylonian Exile and inter-married with non-Jews.  The Samaritans were also religiously outcast because they dared to suggest that God did not reside in the Temple in Jerusalem, but rather in their Temple on Mount Gerizim.  Generally speaking, it was best for proper Jews to avoid the region of Samaria all together.

For some reason though, on this trip north, John tells us that Jesus “had to go through Samaria.”[2]  At about noon one day, Jesus and his disciples entered the town of Sychar, and Jesus took some time to rest at Jacob’s Well while his disciples went off in search of food and drink.  Meanwhile, there came a woman, a Samaritan woman, to draw water from the well.  While it is true that the Samaritans weren’t particularly nice to the Jews, it is perhaps more true that the Jews were not nice to the Samaritans, so as this woman came to the well, all alone, in the heat of the day so as to avoid the chatter of all the other women in town, her heart must have sank all the way to the tips of her toes as she noticed this man, this Jewish man resting by the well.  Here she was, minding her own business, when all of a sudden, she once again found herself playing the role of outcast of the outcast.  Even among her own people, this woman was an outcast because of a past that may or may not have been her own fault.  She had been married five times and was now living with a man who wasn’t her husband.  In a world where women were nothing more than the property of their husbands, odds are this doesn’t mean she was an adulterer or a serial monogamist, but rather a victim of her own cultural situation.  John doesn’t give us much detail about this woman’s life, other than what Jesus says about her, “you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband,” but in a culture where the point of womanhood was to produce children, preferably boys, and where a man could divorce his wife simply by taking her into the street and saying “I divorce you” three times, it seems reasonable to assume that this woman is barren and has been cast off by at least a few of those five husbands, while perhaps a few others, and probably her most recent husband, could have died.[3]  Certainly, there is talk around town, whether it is out of pity, gossip, disdain or a bit of all three, and so this woman comes to the well in the heat of the day to draw water in the silence of her outcastness.

With her head down, hoping to avoid eye contact with the Jewish man at the well, the woman begins to lower her bucket when Jesus clears his throat and says, “May I have a drink?”  And with that, a relationship is born and a life is changed.  It begins with a simple question, based in the universal need for water, but quickly goes much deeper.  The woman seems just as taken aback by the fact that Jesus would ask her for a drink at all as she is that he didn’t demand it from her.  As the conversation unfolds, the woman’s eyes are slowly opened.  She’s no theological slouch; she knows the history of her tradition and the centuries old arguments between the Samaritans and the Jews.  And, as is the case for most of us who find ourselves in the role of outcast, she is waiting for a better life to come along.  After Jesus had revealed that he knew her pain and suffering, she confesses her hope to him, “I know that [the] Messiah is coming” (who is called [the] Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”  The Greek idea behind what gets translated as “all things” is in a root word that means “expressing the totality of any object.”  Or, as we might say in modern language, “giving the final word.”  When the Messiah came, for this woman and for all of us who have been outcasts, it wasn’t to help us understand String Theory or to explain the process of evolution, but to be for us God’s final Word of salvation, the totality of God’s dream for his creation.  Jesus reveals to the Woman that he is that final word in a simple two word phrase, ego eimi, “I am.”  “I am” is the name that God called himself when Moses asked him for a name at the burning bush.  “I am” is the name so holy that even now, faithful Jews won’t speak it in Hebrew.  “I am” is the identity of the one who came to bring about healing, restoration, and redemption in the world.  “I am” is the first and final word.

Jesus gave the doubly outcast Woman at the Well the final word of hope by engaging her as a human being who is worthy of love and attention.  In this brief encounter, he changed her identity from outcast of the outcast to beloved child who belongs in the Kingdom of God.  He does this over and over again in his ministry. The blind beggar becomes whole when Jesus heals his sight and welcomes him into the Kingdom. The lepers are made clean by the touch of Jesus and are invited into the Kingdom of God. To this day, Jesus continues to heal, restore, make whole, and welcome the outcast and oppressed. It makes no difference if we don’t wear the right shoes or don’t have the right job or don’t have our mental illness under control or still struggle with our addictions or can’t have children or can’t find “the one,” in Christ, our identity is not that of outcast, but rather we are beloved children, invited into God’s Kingdom with open arms, and offered the cool drink of living water and eternal life.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.


[1] Tom Wright, John For Everyone Part I, pg. 38-39

[2] John 4:4

The Pain of Living

As a general rule, I don’t watch the news.  I know this seems to go against my Barthian theology of preaching that has “a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other,” but honestly, who subscribes to newspapers anymore?  Of course, the reality is that this isn’t to say that I don’t know what is going on in the world.  I talk to people, I listen to the radio, I’m on Facebook and Twitter, and I know how to access the CNN.com homepage; I’m aware of current events enough to suggest that I preach with “a Bible in one hand and my smartphone/laptop/iPad in the other.”  I’m also aware of current events enough to know that life is full of pain.  A brief glance at this week’s top stories brings nearly two weeks of waiting to know what became of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370; the domestic violence/murder trial of a man who was for two week’s the world’s sweetheart, Oscar Pistorius; the ongoing violent struggle between Russia, the Ukraine, and Crimea; and the Rolling Stones’ Tour cancellation as their lead singer mourns the suicide death of his girlfriend; just to name a few.

The reality of life is that it comes with pain, which, to me, is why faith is so important.  If there is no point to all of this other than to be born, experience life, and die, then the pain doesn’t seem worth it, but if there is a God, whose Kingdom is perfect freedom, then the pain is, at the very least, a motivator toward making this world a better place: a world that more closely resembles the Kingdom.

Which is why, as I say all too often, I love this week’s Collect.  We can’t fix the problems of the world.  Laws won’t keep bad people from doing bad things.  Medical advances can’t keep new ailments from springing forth.  Even good intentions can’t keep us for accidentally hurting the feelings of those we love.  Pain is inevitable, but God is there to remind us that even in the midst of our pain and sadness, we are his beloved children.

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

All Things

I always find it interesting when a theme runs through the various resources that I draw wisdom from each preaching week.  This time around, the focus is on the Woman at the Well; specifically, overcoming the longstanding bad reading of the story that she is a prostitute. Even in the midst of common threads, each author has their own particular take on the topic at hand.  For instance, in one of my lectionary resources this week, the author went on to make note of the fact that this Woman of Samaria that Jesus meets at the well is no theological slouch.  She is aware of some of the theological nuance that created such a strong rift between the Jews and the Samaritans.  More important to the story, however, is that she has set her hope on the Messiah who has been promised.

“I know that the Messiah is coming – the one who is call Christ.  When he come, he will tell to us all things.” – (John 4.25, author’s translation)

The language she uses to describe the Messiah fits ideally within the story as Jesus has just told her more than he could have ever known about her.  What got me was the underlying Greek idea behind what gets translated variously as “all things,” or “everything.”  The Greek root is apas, which means “expressing the totality of any object.”  Or, as we might say in modern parlance, “giving the final word.”  The Messiah comes, not to help us understand String Theory or to explain the process of evolution, but to be for us God’s final Word of salvation, the totality of God’s dream for his creation.

Jesus lives into this role quite nicely in our story for Sunday.  He offers the Woman living water.  He shows her that he knows and cares for her, even though she is a stranger.  He invites her to a life of true worship, a life of the Spirit.  And finally, he reveals his true identity to her with two simple words, “ego eimi,” “I am.”*

Jesus is the Messiah she has been waiting for.  Jesus is the Messiah we have been waiting for.  Jesus is the Messiah who reveals to us God’s final Word, God’s kingdom come.

* As a side note, if anyone can explain to me why this isn’t one of the 7 “I am” statements in John, I’d appreciate it

The Venite and Then Some

Two days this week and two shout-outs to the Daily Office!?!  My Virginia must be showing.  OK, enough seminary jokes.

I absolutely love the first seven verses of Psalm 95.  I love to read them.  I love to sing them.  I especially love to hear them sung by a choir that knows what they are doing.  Known in the Morning Prayer service as the Venite (which roughly translates as “y’all c’mon!”), the opening two-thirds of Psalm 95 are one of the enduring memories of my seminary experience.  They are powerful words when spoken in community.  While each of us comes to worship with a myriad of things on our minds, some filled with joy and thankfulness and others filled with fear and sorrow, we all join together to “shout for joy to the rock of our salvation.”  Together we encourage one another to not merely praise the LORD with our lips, but to “hearken to his voice.”

The rubric on page 82 of the Book of Common Prayer allows for the entirety of Psalm 95 to be read, but given our general aversion to flipping pages (especially all the way to page 724), I’m willing to bet that almost never happens.  In fact, given the content of verses 8-11 of Psalm 95, it probably never happens.  The transition from verse 7 to verse 8 is like a scratching record, it is abrupt and feels disjointed.  Because of its reference to the Exodus lesson, the reason the whole of Psalm 95 is included in this week’s lectionary is obvious, but the reasons verses 8-11 are included in Psalm 95 aren’t.

My handy-dandy HarperCollins Study Bible goes so far as to say that my beloved verse 7b, “O that today you would harken to his voice” should really be included in the second part.  “A liturgy of praise and admonition. This psalm may have been a temple liturgy consisting of a procession into the sanctuary (vv. 1-5) and prostration before God’s presence (vv. 6-7a), followed by words of admonition (vv. 7b-11), perhaps in preparation for the public reading of the Torah or law of God at the Festival of Booths, or Tabernacles.” (p. 890)

So basically, it is like our Palm Sunday liturgy.  It starts out with shouts of praise and thanksgiving and ends up reminding us of the stubborn foolishness of humanity.  Or, it is like the Exhortation (BCP, pg. 316-17), which is a reminder of God’s great love for us and a call to respond to that love with true repentance and amendment of life.  It is an appropriate reminder, here in the midst of Lent, that while our salvation, like the water that came forth from the rock at Meribah and Massah, is a gift of grace, the life of grace assumes that we will respond to God’s love with thanksgiving and action, that can be so simple as “Come, let us sing to the LORD, let us shout for joy to the Rock of our salvation!”

Food and Water

As usual, I’m in complete agreement with the folks over at Sermon Brainwave on WorkingPreacher.org.  I just don’t understand why, here in the midst of the year of Matthew, the vast majority of our lectionary readings for Lent come from John’s Gospel.  I understand that without this little foray into the final Gospel we’d miss out on the story of Nicodemus, the healing of the man born blind, the raising of Lazarus, or Sunday’s lesson about Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan Woman, but I suppose I don’t understand why we need them all in the same year.  That being said, thanks to the looooong and rambling lection from John’s Gospel, at least the lectionary folks gave us a solid theme for Lent 3, Year A.

Food and Water.  Hunger and Thirst.

In the portion of the Exodus story that we’ll hear read on Sunday, we get the recapitulation of the complaints that the people of Israel had against God and Moses.  It goes unmentioned, but the first struggle the people had after they crossed the Red Sea was thirst.  In the wilderness of Shur, they found bitter water at Marah and “complained against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?'” (15:24).  After the LORD turned the bitter water sweet, the Hebrews moved on to Elim and the wilderness of Sin where they became hungry and “the whole congregation complained against Moses and Aaron… ‘If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread…'” (16:2-3)  The LORD provided manna from heaven, literally giving them their daily bread, as well as enough quail to keep their strength up and they continued to journey through the wilderness of Sin and came to Rephidim where there wasn’t enough water for everyone to rehydrate and again they complained against Moses saying, “Why did yo bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (17:3)  Yet again, the LORD provided water for them to drink by having Moses strike a rock with his staff.

The story of God’s chosen people begins with three stories of hunger and thirst which come to define the human condition, we are hungry and thirsty for the bounty of the LORD’s provision.  This theme replays itself in our rambling story from John.  First, in the exchange between Jesus and the Woman at the Well who go back and forth over water: the water from Jacob’s well that Jesus seeks and the living water of the Spirit that the Woman desires though she doesn’t even know it exists yet.  And again, in the encounter between Jesus and his disciples over Jesus’ hidden food supply.  The disciples are perplexed over Jesus’ “food that they do not know about,” and Jesus explains that his sustenance comes from doing the will of the Father.  Or, to mix gospels, he hungers and thirsts for righteousness.

Hunger and thirst are primal and universal parts of the human condition, and, as such, make perfect teaching elements for the life of faith.  While many may not know it, each of us hungers and thirsts after the Kingdom of God, the restoration of the world as God created it to be.  This week’s lessons remind us that God wants to and will provide living water and daily bread, even in the midst of the wilderness of Sin.