Monday, October 24, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "A Dislocated World"

John 4:1-15

Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was making more disciples and baptizing more than John (2 although Jesus’ disciples were baptizing, not Jesus himself). 3 Therefore, he left Judea and went back to Galilee.

4 Jesus had to go through Samaria. 5 He came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, which was near the land Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there. Jesus was tired from his journey, so he sat down at the well. It was about noon. 

7 A Samaritan woman came to the well to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me some water to drink.” 8 His disciples had gone into the city to buy him some food. 9 The Samaritan woman asked, “Why do you, a Jewish man, ask for something to drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” (Jews and Samaritans didn’t associate with each other.) 

10 Jesus responded, “If you recognized God’s gift and who is saying to you, ‘Give me some water to drink,’ you would be asking him and he would give you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you don’t have a bucket and the well is deep. Where would you get this living water? 12 You aren’t greater than our father Jacob, are you? He gave this well to us, and he drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.”

13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks from the water that I will give will never be thirsty again. The water that I give will become in those who drink it a spring of water that bubbles up into eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will never be thirsty and will never need to come here to draw water!” (Common English Bible)

“The Wounded Healer: Finding Strength in Our Scars,” Week Two

The awkward stares away to avoid eye contact—you know them, right? A custodian or janitor comes through, doing their work cleaning whatever space you’re in, and you self-consciously shuffle out of their way and silently let them go about their job.

Do you say hello to the person? Ask them how their day is going? Or maybe raise a several thousand dollars for them to be able visit their family in South Sudan whom they have not seen in 45 years?

At a place like Georgetown University, tuition, room, and board cost…wait for it…over $65,000/year, there is what one student called “this space, like ice, separating us.” That student, Febin Bellamy, had transferred to Georgetown from community college, and he felt himself increasingly empathizing with the Georgetown support staff, so he started a little social media venture that he called Unsung Heroes in order to tell the stories of those staff members, and I’ll let the Washington Post pick it up from here:

Students learned that the guy who cleans the business school windows (Oneil) Batchelor, left a place of little opportunity in Jamaica 20 years ago and dreams of opening his own jerk-chicken joint someday.

They learned that one of the cooks at the Leo O’Donovan Dining Hall, Jose Manzanares, saw family members killed in El Salvador’s civil war and escaped when he was a teenager.

They realized that every time Memuna Tackie, the woman vacuuming the carpet at the stately Riggs Library, asked a question about an English word, they were helping the immigrant from Ghana study for her citizenship test.

The guy who runs the cash register at the dining hall? Umberto “Suru” Ripai hasn’t seen his family in what is now South Sudan for 45 years.…

Batchelor really is a gifted cook. Students who read about him encouraged him to hold fundraisers serving his now-famous-on-campus chicken. They raised $2,500, got him catering gigs, and helped him put up his own web page: Oneil’s Famous Jerk…

That cafeteria cashier at Leo’s? The same students who once silently handed their meal cards to Ripai just raised more than $5,500 on a GoFundMe page for him to go to South Sudan.

The Georgetown students went from ignoring their school’s staff to honoring them for who they were, and that is no small metamorphosis. When it comes to people who are not like us, we tend to take one of three tacks: we denigrate who they are because they are different, we want them to be the same as us in a co-option of Paul’s “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek” sentiment, or we actually respect and honor who they are. Guess which option Jesus ends up going with here in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4?

This is a new sermon series that will take us up to the church season of Advent, which is the time we prepare for Christmas. Before we arrive at the land of egg nog and gingerbread, though, we have one more series to undertake together, and it is based on a formative book which I first read in its entirety when I arrived here and a colleague and friend of this congregation, Marvin Eckfeldt, gave to me: The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen, a Dutch priest and theologian who passed away about twenty years ago, but not before leaving behind him a rich vein of theological and pastoral literature. Though relatively brief as far as theological treatises go, The Wounded Healer is arguably Nouwen’s magnum opus: accessible, lucid, poignant, and passionate in its fundamental premise that only by understanding our own wounds and scars can we as Christians and as ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ then, in turn, heal others of their own wounds and scars.

The Wounded Healer is a four-chapter book with a prologue, and we have five weeks in all, so we will be able to spend a week on each section, beginning with the book’s prologue, which we talked about last week, and then in chapter one, “Ministry to a Dislocated World,” in which Nouwen writes in part:

Is there a third way, a Christian way?...For the mystic as well as the revolutionary, life means breaking through the veil covering our human existence and following the vision that has become manifest to us. Whatever we call this vision—“The Holy,” The Spirit,” or “Father”—we still believe that conversion and revolution alike derive their power from a source beyond the limitations of our own createdness. For a Christian, Jesus is the man in whom it has indeed become manifest that revolution and conversion cannot be separated in man’s search for experiential transcendence. His appearance in our midst has made it undeniably clear that changing the human heart and changing human society are not separate tasks, but are as interconnected as the two beams of the cross.

“Life means breaking through the veil covering our human existence.” That goes hand-in-hand with understanding that changing the heart and changing society are indeed not separate tasks, because these all end up combined in this story in John 4.

First, a bit of background, some of which John provides but that is worth building upon: Judeans and Samaritans were at odds because over 900 years before Jesus, the unified kingdom of Solomon was torn into two, with Solomon’s former chief slaver Jeroboam ruling over the northern kingdom of Israel while Solomon’s son and heir Rehoboam ruled over the southern kingdom of Judah, which included Jerusalem and, by extension, the temple.

Because Jeroboam did not have a temple around which to center religion, he created two golden calves (where have we heard this story before?), said, basically, “Here, O Israel, are your gods,” (where have we heard this story before?), and despite being condemned by one of God’s prophets for having done so, in so doing he ended up putting down the roots for the religious division between the Samaritans—the people of Samaria, which was a part of the northern kingdom of Israel—and the Judeans.

Okay, fast forward back to this story in John 4. That is why John says that Judeans and Samaritans do not play well with each other. But there are other factors to consider here: first, this woman is alone, there is nobody else at the well besides her and Jesus. And believe it or not, John tells us why: it was about noon.

Now, I’ve been in Israel during the summer, I’ve been down in the dirt, digging through mounds of sand and rock uncovering archaeological artifacts (amazingly, it’s nothing at all like Indiana Jones). And it is brutally, oppressively hot. And water is heavy. Carrying more than several gallons of it requires some muscles. That is why the usual time to go to wells to draw water would be first thing in the morning, not at high noon.

This is John telling us—without spelling it out for us—that this woman is a complete, utter pariah. Later on in this story, we find out why: because she has had five husbands. Now, no Larry King or, dare I say, Donald Trump was this woman—first, women could not even file for divorce under Mosaic law, only men could, which was why Jesus taught against divorce in the first place—it was such a straightforward thing for unscrupulous husbands to exploit in bad faith. What this piece of news means is that this woman has had five husbands either divorce her or die on her. That might make someone the target of too much gossip today too. So you can imagine why she might not want to subject herself to it then, either.

But Jesus does not care about any of that—that she’s a Samaritan, that she’s a woman, that she’s a woman who has been married five times. He asks her for a drink. Because water is water, regardless of whether it is given to you by a good friend or from someone you’ve been conditioned to despise.

Jesus could easily have chosen that latter course of action—and His disciples, upon their return, are perhaps surprised that he did not. That is the first way we tend to respond to people different from us that I mentioned—that we take those differences and use them to demonize that person. Jesus does no such thing; He asks her for water and engages her in conversation.

Nor does Jesus take the second tack of simply pretending that there are not those differences between the two of them. This is a particularly subtle and insidious trap that we fall into in which we expect someone who is different to fully assimilate into our culture, including here at church, where we try to fit someone in as a cog in the machine we already have up and going rather than asking them to help us build something new and potentially glorious.

No, Jesus recognizes her for who she is, and in speaking to her as He would to a man, or to a Judean, He affirms her fundamental value as a child of God. And in changing her heart, Jesus, true to the words of Nouwen, ends up changing society: this anonymous Samaritan woman will go on to return to her town and, despite her dehumanized status at home, John reports that a great many Samaritans believed her words and, by extension, believed Jesus as well.

Jesus strode into a dislocated world, and He began to right it, with the help of the words of a cast-off, cast aside woman whose name has been lost to the shortsightedness of historical sexism in which the names of such women counted scarcely for naught.

But honor her we must, just as the students at Georgetown honored the people around them who had previously been nameless, who looked different and talked different and lived different but who, precisely because of those differences that were not demonized and that were not swept under the rug but that were on full display for God and everyone to see, produced richer lives all around—the staff, the students, all of them.

And indeed, such transformational change is so intertwined with our own calling as Christians that, like the crossbeams of the cross Nouwen writes of, we cannot separate the two. Nor should we ever.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
October 23, 2016

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