Bread of Life


Sunday’s Gospel lesson exposes a comedy of errors on behalf of those who are trying to believe that Jesus is the Son of God.  It would be easy to look down our noses at “those foolish Jews,” and ignore the reality that, if we are honest, every Christian struggles to follow Jesus in a similar way.  Rather than reading the story with a chuckle and thinking, “Gee, I’m glad I’m not like those people,” it might behoove us to look at the narrative arc of the story and see that maybe, just maybe, we have something to learn from a crowd of people who, while struggle with faith, have traversed the Galilean Sea several times in search of Jesus and his disciples.

The story picks up sometime after the Feeding of the 5,000.  Jesus, having realized that the crowd, misunderstanding what he came to do, was about to declare him their king, retreated to the mountains for some time to reflect and pray.  In the meantime, his disciples got into the boat and crossed to the other side of the lake, and Jesus caught up with them by walking across the surface of the water.  As day broke, the crowds realized that this amazing prophet was gone, again, and they set out in search of him.

When they found him, the one they claimed as prophet and king the day before, they call him Rabbi, which means teacher.  He’s slid back a bit in the hierarchy over night.  They’ve come in search of him, Jesus notes, not to worship or believe, but because bread wears off, and they are hungry again.  “What you need,” Jesus says, “is food that will endure, and that comes only from the Son of Man.”  Somewhat confused, the crowds wonder what they must do to earn this bread.  Jesus tells them to believe in the one whom God had sent, and here’s where things get interesting.

The crowd, numbering 5,000 men, not counting women and children, which Jesus had fed with five loaves and two fish just the day before says to him, “OK, well, what kind of sign will you give us to prove that you are the one God has sent into the world?  Moses gave the people bread every day.”  This is the ultimate in “what have you done for me lately,” and it is so human as to be absurd.  This is the reality of most of us who follow Jesus, and everyone who lives on the fringes of faith.  We might know, deep in our heart of hearts, all that God has done for us, but in this moment, do we have faith?  In the moment of hardship, when a diagnosis comes or when the pink slip arrives or when our lives don’t work out the way we think they should, do we look back on all that God has done for us, or do we, as is human nature, look up and say, “I thought you loved me!”

To the crowd, and to us, Jesus is quick to point out all that God has been doing in salvation history – the true bread that has been given to Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Moses and the people of Israel – and the bread that God continues to give in the person of Jesus.  This bread, which the crowds don’t even know they really want, which we often don’t even know we really need, is Jesus who in a bold claim, one of seven “I AM” statements in John, declares himself to be the bread of life.  In the Greek language and in Jesus’ Jewish context this declaration puts Jesus 1) on par with God who is the great “I AM” and 2) as the one who gave life to humanity at Creation.  Zoe, the Greek word used here for life, is the thing that animates, the soul, which was breathed into Adam and Eve at the beginning.  For those who are hungry, Jesus offers the very breath of God as the bread of life.

The Power of “I Am”

What God was asking of Moses at the burning bush was nothing short of a suicide mission.  Go to the Pharaoh of Egypt and tell him to “Let my people go.”  This task would have been difficult enough if Pharaoh was a plantation owner and the Hebrews were a dozen or so slaves, but to ask Pharaoh, the King of all Egypt, to give up more than a million slaves, on whose backs the entire economy of Egypt rested?  You’d have an easier time convincing a sitting American President to deport all the undocumented laborers who ensure our cheap houses and $0.99 heads of lettuce.  As one might guess, Moses is unsure of the possibility of success.  His fear isn’t just of Pharaoh, but of the more than one million Hebrews who only knew the life of slavery.  When they asked, “Under whose authority do you do this?” What was Moses to answer?


Tell them “I Am” sent you.

The name God gave Moses to drop is a peculiar one.  In time, the name of God would become so sacred, that the four letter word I’ve posted above is not to be said aloud in the Jewish tradition.  When a reader comes to this word, which is transliterated at YHWH, they say, “Elohim” instead.  More peculiar than that, the name God gives is a verb.  Not even Kanye and Kim named their children a verb.  And it isn’t just any type of verb, but an imperfect verb, indicating an incomplete or ongoing action.  God wasn’t, God is.

In the course of human history, the imperfect verbiness of God will prove quite helpful.  When Moses and Pharaoh are going back and forth through the course of ten plagues, it is nice for Moses to know that “I am” is with him.  When the people of Israel have their backs on the Red Sea while the Egyptian army barrels down on them, there is some comfort in “I am” standing there too.  Forty years in the wilderness, the walls of Jericho, the Judges, Kings, exiles, and even Roman occupation are made a little more bearable because “I am” continues to be.  Even as Jesus hangs on the cross, seemingly abandoned by everyone he has ever loved, feeling forsaken by the Father himself, “I am” is still there.

This is good news for those of us who continue to walk in the Way of discipleship.  Nobody ever said life was going to be easy.  There will be financial pressures, health issues, family quarrels, natural disasters, and any number of other stresses in life when things might feel lost, when God might seem far away, when hope might be dwindling.  In those moments, whether you believe it or not, “I am” is there, holding you as a hen protects her brood under her wings, for God is an imperfect verb, constantly active, and never ending.  That’s the power of “I am.”

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

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