In Trust and Hope, Lent 5(A) – April 2, 2017

[RCL] Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45

 These long readings from John’s Gospel during Lent have a depth and a power to them that can reach to the very core of our lives. Today we hear about death and new life, about the end of some things, and, perhaps, the beginning of others. Death is always a topic close to home, one that seems to get closer every year. On the eve of Palm Sunday and Holy Week, it’s particularly immediate.

So it makes good sense to hear Ezekiel preach to the valley of dry bones, and to listen to Jesus command, “Lazarus, come out”—and to wonder what all that means, and whether it matters.

We Christians have some very distinctive, and some very special, things to say about death—about both real, physical death and about the other deaths, the little deaths, the endings and changes and losses that we seem constantly to be experiencing. In fact, we say much the same thing about both types of death. What that is can be found in both Ezekiel and John.

The valley of dry bones Ezekiel is looking at and talking to is Israel. The great nation God had raised up to be a blessing for all the world is gone. There are a handful of exiles in Babylon with a few memories, fewer hopes, and a lot of hate for the people they’re blaming for their problems. And there are a few folks left in Judah that the Babylonians figured weren’t worth the effort to haul off. That was it. Israel was dead. Never in the history of mankind had, or has, a nation (or a faith) so defeated and so scattered ever been rebuilt. Ezekiel knew that, the Babylonians knew that, everybody knew that. Death ruled Israel when Ezekiel preached, and death ruled supreme.

So with Lazarus. Lazarus, like Israel, was dead. Really dead. Graveyard dead. In fact, Lazarus was dead past three days and the rabbis taught that after that long, all that was left was corruption. Maybe Jesus could have helped if he’d arrived earlier, but not now. Death ruled over Lazarus.

So, Ezekiel looked over the valley of dry bones, and Jesus looked at the stone in front of the cave where his friend’s body lay. When we Christians are at our best, we look at death with the eyes of Ezekiel, and of Jesus; and we see what they saw.

They first thing they saw was the reality, the force, the sheer power of death. Ezekiel was struck mute (a rare event!)—and ended up babbling about how dry the bones were. And Jesus was shaken; he was deeply troubled; he wept. There is nothing lighthearted or glib here. Death is the final word creation has to say to us. It’s a really big deal.

At its worst, Christianity has tried to deny this, and has been ashamed of the tears of Jesus. At its worst, Christianity has said that our faith means that death isn’t all that important, that it really doesn’t matter, and that grief, the real life-shattering, gut-tearing grief that hurts so terribly, that this is somehow not fully Christian.

We’ve taught this to our shame, and we have been wrong. Death is very real and it’s very powerful, and if we don’t say this first, then we’re not telling the truth. The tears of Jesus sanctify every tear, and his deeply troubled spirit makes holy our own grief, pain and fear in the face of death.

There is nothing in this world stronger or more final than death, and there is nothing in this world that can rebuild what death tears down.

When Ezekiel looked at those dry bones, and when Jesus stood at Lazarus’ tomb, they didn’t see death naturally blossoming into new life—they didn’t see butterflies coming out of cocoons, or bunnies popping out of eggs. If Ezekiel had kept his mouth shut those bones would have stayed dry. If Jesus had not called, Lazarus would have stayed in that tomb. There is nothing natural about anything stronger than death.

All of this is the first thing Ezekiel and Jesus saw; and it’s the first thing we see. Death is real and it is powerful and it hurts and it destroys. They saw that. And they saw something more.

What Ezekiel saw, and what Jesus saw, was that God was Lord, Lord even over the dead. God was Lord even over a dead Israel—and so God, and God alone, could call Israel back, and give it new life, and new direction. The wonderful part of this story is not that some dry bones could move—the wonderful part is that the spirit of the Lord would not be stopped, and that even death could not destroy the purposes of God.

So with Lazarus. The real point to this story is not that Lazarus come back. Before too long, Lazarus died again, and Jesus wasn’t there, and Lazarus stayed dead. So that’s not much of a point. The real point is that Jesus is Lord of the living and the dead. The real point is that the voice of Jesus carries—it carries even through the walls of the grave, and his word is the clearest word, and the strongest word, and the last word. That’s the good news, that’s what we Christians see that the world does not see.

We see that the word of God, and the purposes of God, and the love of God cannot be stopped, and will not be stopped. Not even by the strongest, and the worst, that the world has to offer.

At the same time, notice that these stories give us absolutely no information about the mystery of death itself. Nor do they promise that everything will be all right as we count such things.

Lazarus doesn’t become a celebrity and go on some first-century Oprah tour talking about tunnels and bright lights and four days worth of even-nearer-than- near-death experiences. There’s none of that.

What’s more, John’s Gospel tells us that Lazarus’ life got quite a bit messier—less pleasant and more complicated—after this miracle. He really didn’t live happily ever after, not as we count such things.

And Israel never again became what it used to be or what it wanted to be. The dry bones formed into something very different, something less powerful, and less successful, but truer to its mission, than Israel had wanted, and hoped and prayed for. The promise of new life is not a promise that we are in charge and that we will get what we want. The promise is better than that.

The promise is that God, in Jesus Christ, is Lord even of the dead, even of death itself. And that what he says, goes. That’s what we Christians see. Alas, we can see no farther—we can see no more. But we can see that far. We want details, we want guarantees, and we want some power and some control in all of this. We want to know what it’s like. But we don’t get any of that, not in the face of physical death, not in the midst of the other deaths, the little deaths.

Instead, in the face of all the deaths that make up our lives, we are told first that death is stronger than we are and that we have no knowledge about and no power over death. And then we are told that Jesus is Lord, Lord of all—Lord of life and of death.

So we must choose. Whatever deaths are before us, we must choose.

We must choose to despair or to trust; to give up or to go on; to abandon hope, or to let go in faith. That choice is not made for us, but it is offered to us. And that choice can be terribly hard. More than at any other time, the reality of death—death in whatever form—is a call to trust.

We see what the world sees, and yet we see more. We see that the dry bones, even our dry bones, can live once more. And we see that the word of Jesus has power. “Come out” the Lord calls. “Come out” into different life, into new life. “Come out” into life unknown and unexplained. “Come out” in trust and in hope.


Written by The Rev. James Liggett, who has recently retired as Rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma.

Download the sermon for Lent 5A.

Light! Lent 4(A) – March 26, 2017

[RCL] 1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

The gospels need to be approached as a sort of unfolding – the unfolding of who Jesus is and what that can mean about who we are called to be. So perhaps it helps to think of a time-lapse video of a flower opening, one petal at a time until the entire flower is open and we can see every detail down to the tiniest specks of pollen on the stamen and anthers. The difference being that the gospels begin by saying just who Jesus is.

John’s gospel begins with the most astonishing claim: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

There are all kinds of things that can be said about this story of The Man Who Was Born Blind: things about sin, about blindness both literal and metaphorical, about miracles, about how societies divide themselves, the barriers we erect for those not just like us and so on. He is an outcast. He is forced by societal norms to live on the margins of society.

Yet, the most fundamental purpose of the story as it works in John’s gospel is to illuminate, if you will, the essence of who Jesus is. The revelation comes from his own mouth: “I Am the light of the world.” John has already told us this “in the beginning.” And we need always to remind ourselves that whenever Jesus utters the words, “I Am,” we are meant to recall that sacred moment of self revelation at the Burning Bush when Moses is being given a task and asks, “Who shall I say sent me?” The voice from the bush replies, “I Am who I Am…you shall say…I Am sent me to you.”(Ex 3:14)

The very first word God utters in creation is, “Light!” Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” This story sheds light on just what that means. And what it means is justice for all people and the need to respect the dignity of every human being.

In Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, the protagonist is Jean Valjean – who is forever called by his prison number, 24601. A person reduced to a number. The stage version of the story depicts prisoner 24601 as a complex character. Is he just a thief, plain and simple? Is he a victim of an unfair system of justice? Is he a compassionate businessman and mayor? A benevolent step-father? A valiant revolutionary of the Paris Uprising of 1832? A compassionate liberator of his most persistent enemy, Inspector Javert? Or, in his own words, is he “no better and no worse than any other man”?

Just as Hugo attempts to shed light on the complexities of post-Revolutionary France, so the Jesus in John seeks to shed light on all sorts and conditions of humankind – and the artificial and often arbitrary ways in which we treat others – especially others who are not at all like ourselves.

The Man Born Blind is a figure not unlike 24601. That is, like prisoner 24601, the man is cast into a lifetime of darkness – he must be a beggar on the streets. What he says carries no weight.

Even Jesus’ own disciples believe The Man is Blind because of his own or his parents’ sin. Note that the man does not seek to be healed. He is so marginalized that he does not even have a name. Jesus states that he is the light of the world, and as long as he is in the world there is work to do. After Jesus restores the man’s sight, he seeks to shed light on what real sin exists in the world.

For the man is not a victim of his own sin or that of his parents. Rather he is the victim of an entrenched system of fear that declares some people unclean. We watch and we listen as all those people and societal institutions expected to support the Man Born Blind just step away – they recoil, even though now he can see! His parents disown him. The Pharisees chastise him. The neighbors pretend he is not the same man. All those societal systems meant to be a support just collapse, until in a most astonishing moment, the Man Born Blind becomes not only his own advocate, but he defends Jesus against all criticism as now he is lecturing the Pharisees, the doctors of the law of Moses.

He whose being has had no standing whatsoever in the community when the story begins is now the one who is exhorting them, the arbiters of society and religion to “see” -to see the Light of the World – The Word that was with God and is God. Egads, he seems to say, this can be no other than the will and the work of God!

Leave it to people to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time. The miracle is not that the man can see. The scandal is not that the Sabbath has been broken. The miracle in one part is the fact that Jesus is the Light of the World that can turn the darkness of blindness and the darkness rejection and persecution of the world into light.

But more than that, this story is meant to demonstrate that we can be people of that light. We can turn darkness into light. Just as Jesus changed the life of the Samaritan woman (John 4) by giving her dignity, by giving her purpose, by giving her a new identity, by asking her to do something for him – give him a drink – so the Man Born Blind is given a new lease on life.

Anyone, the neighbors, his parents, the Pharisees, whomever, could have granted The Man Born Blind more purpose in life, made him a more integral part of the community, rather than writing him off as an outcast. Jesus is the one who says, “There is something you can do for me.” The woman becomes the first evangelist. The Man Born Blind becomes a vocal advocate for God and a defender of Jesus The Light of the World! He now dares to step beyond the barriers the others created for him.

There is something you can do for Jesus. Whatever it is, it will heal you and heal the world.

If the Samaritan Woman at the Well, The Man Born Blind and 24601 can do God’s work so effectively, what are we being called to do? What barriers are we willing to break down so that people like the woman, the man and 24601 can be granted personhood? How can we become advocates for inclusion rather than exclusion?

Looking at the world in which we live, there is not much time given to us to ask such questions. Lent means to be such a time. Once Easter arrives, though, it is time to follow the examples of The Man Born Blind and the Samaritan Woman. We too can be people of the Light, of Jesus the Light of the World.


Written by The Rev. Kirk Kubicek, who was ordained in the Diocese of Chicago in 1983, and has served as a parish priest in the dioceses of Chicago, Connecticut and Maryland. After nearly 18 years as rector of St. Peter’s in Ellicott City, MD, Kubicek spent six years as Chaplain and teacher at St. Timothy’s School for Girls, an Episcopal and international boarding and day-school in Stevenson, MD. In the mid-1980’s he was trained to work as a Stewardship Consultant through the Office of Stewardship at the Episcopal Church Center and helped lead retreats for the Ministry of Money, a ministry of the Church of the Saviour, Washington, DC. Recently retired from full-time parish ministry, Kubicek serves as an interim and provides supply work throughout the Diocese of Maryland. He is a also a drummer in various rock and jazz bands, currently playing with On The Bus, a Grateful Dead tribute band centered in the greater DC Metro region. He plays guitar and writes music to supplement worship and preaching events. Some of these songs can be seen on youtube at His sermons are archived at Feel free to contact Kubicek at

Download the sermon for Lent 4(A).

Trust in God’s Love, Lent 3(A) – March 19, 2017

[RCL] Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42

What follows is largely based on the teachings of esteemed New Testament scholar John Knox, who wrote extensively about the context of today’s Epistle.

Before examining the Romans passage, however, let us focus on the very familiar story in today’s Gospel – the encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well. How did we come to know this story since no newspaper, video recordings, or the like existed in the first century? A clue comes at the end of the passage: “Many Samaritans from that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony.”

Like these Samaritans, we know all we can know about the earthly Jesus because people like the disciples and the woman at the well told others about their face to face involvement with the one we call Christ. Those whom they told also told others who told others, and so on down the centuries until the story came to us. The passing of the Good News from one generation to another links us to the Jesus of history.

We can also understand this reality in reverse time – in the sacramental connection we all have with the early church through the laying on of hands by bishops who confirmed or received us. Those bishops became bishops when their predecessor bishops laid hands upon their heads as did every bishop’s predecessor, all the way back to the time of the earliest Christian community.

So, we are linked to Jesus and the early church through word and sacrament carried across 2,000 years of actions. But there is more to this connection with Christ – more of a fundamentally personal nature, as St. Paul illustrates. We cannot know Jesus the way the disciples and woman at the well did. We can, however, know and experience the risen Christ as Paul experienced him. He never met Jesus in the flesh, yet he is the primary teacher of the fact that we can know Christ just as certainly as the disciples, but in a non-physical way. Knowing the risen Christ through the passed-down story of Jesus is most effective if we, too, come to know Christ as alive within us and among us.

Today’s portion of the Epistle helps us understand this – as Paul begins by stating, “Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Peace in this context means a lack of enmity or an absence of conflict – that is, peace is unity with God that we gain through “our Lord Jesus Christ.” The peace/unity with God that we experience in and from Christ is found in following Christ as Paul did and as must all who could not know the human Jesus.

This involves a restoring of the oneness that we, by virtue of our God-created nature, can have. It is a unity of God with us and us with all people, a unity of person and person, community and community – rightful relationships in God’s over-arching presence.

Of course, nothing is clearer than the fact that human beings consistently live out of peace, in conflict with God and one another. Though we turn from God again and again and sin against one another, still we have access to ultimate unity with God. Paul explained how this unity/peace comes about. Most importantly, he makes it clear that the process cannot be initiated by us – it begins only with God, with God loving us despite our unworthiness, despite our failure to love as God loves us, despite discord and conflict with other people. Despite all this, God forgives us and loves us unconditionally. Paul said it simply: “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Enmity with God is cast aside by God’s forgiving action, which allows Christians to accept what God offers and live into what our Catechism defines as the “Mission of the Church” – which is “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”

For Paul and the early church, the key to understanding God’s love and forgiveness was revealed by Jesus’ death on the cross. The proof of God’s love is Christ’s complete obedience to God despite the sinful acts that led to his death. Dying on the cross, Jesus forgives his enemies. This self-less death overpowers us and leads us to accept God’s love and forgiveness. Believers see pure love in his death and cannot resist its compelling power to follow in his way. We realize that Jesus makes us the most precious of creatures, even worth dying for.

God initiates the peace and unity and asks only our trust in his love and repentance from rebelling against his love – asks only that we accept the love, turn from our sin, and reform our lives, as a result. We don’t deserve the love and forgiveness, we cannot earn God’s love and forgiveness, but accepting it, we are freed by such faith. God provides the love; we provide repentance and renewal, becoming unified with God and others.

Dr. Knox observes that Paul and other theologians have throughout the centuries struggled to explain how Christ’s death accomplished this peace and reconciliation. All attempts to do so, in fact, have proved unsuccessful or, at best, are incomplete. However, he asserts, what is much more important is that Paul and the early church knew, above all, that God’s decisive action in history lay in Jesus’ death on the cross – that this action was absolutely essential to understanding the reality of God, God’s forgiveness, and the possibility of new life through accepting God’s love.

For Christians, Jesus’ death forms the singular focus on what God was doing through his life, death, resurrection, and the birth of the church. From the earliest days, the cross came to stand for everything distinctively Christian. It symbolizes both human sin and God’s all-giving love. It symbolizes both human sinfulness and human freedom from spiritual death, reconciling us to God, reuniting us with God and one another.

We are inheritors of the primitive church’s experience of the new reality of Christ-still-alive and of new life in the Spirit that was viewed through the lens of the cross. And now in our day, we, too, can experience in the life of the church the new community of love, no less than did Paul and the first Christians.

What we call the body of Christ, a living, flesh-and-blood reality, enables us to know Christ as a personal experience and not just a handed-down story. We are the continuation of the early community of believers within which everything about Christ happened. In this “dynamic community created around a living and present Lord . . . love is revealed, the Spirit is given, and faith and hope are found.”

While it is in and through the church that the risen Christ is known, no body of Christian believers acts in the full image of the loving God, divided and conflicted as we are. And yet the church is our only link with the historic community that emerged from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is the only expression of Christ that we have, and even in its incompleteness, we, in our time, carry forward the new life of the Spirit of God.

We carry forward, too, the earliest expression of love based on Christ’s death in the communal meal that we call the Eucharist. From the earliest days of the church, the bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ, have marked our central act of worship and given substance as a way to keep Christ alive in the midst of the worshipping community. We continue to gather at a common rail, drink from a shared cup, and commune in the deepest relationship of love with Christ and one another. This has always been for Christians THE occasion of re-calling Jesus to our presence and empowering us to unite with him and one another. Through the church and through this sacrament, we continue to express the reality that Christ was and is alive and will continue to be alive among his followers.

Dr. Knox summarizes it well. “We remember him whom we know. We know him whom we remember.” And so, we can join St. Paul in saying, “We even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”



The following books by John Knox (1900-1990) are especially significant in dealing with the themes approached in this sermon: Life in Christ Jesus: reflections on Romans 5-8; Chapters in a Life of Paul; Jesus: Lord and Christ; and The Church and the Reality of Christ.

Written by The Rev. Ken Kesselus. Kesselus is a retired priest living with his wife Toni in his native home of Bastrop, Texas, where he serves as the mayor and writes history book and a column in the local newspaper. He is a former member of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church and author John E. Hines:Granite on Fire.

Download the sermon for Lent 3(A).

Digging Into Our Certainty, Lent 2(A) – March 12, 2017

[RCL] Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17 

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Martin Luther called John 3:16 “the Gospel in a nutshell.”

Without a doubt, this is the most famous verse in the New Testament. And yet, as most preachers know all too well, the more popular a Biblical text is, the harder it is to preach! Such is the case here.

The popularity of John 3:16 has, in a sense, robbed it of its power. Far from the “heart of the Gospel,” it now seems like nothing more than Christianity’s catchphrase—the logo of the Christian brand.

John 3:16 pops up on tee shirts, on bumper stickers, on billboards, on Facebook, and (most annoying of all) on those little pamphlets that get wedged into the screen door on Saturday mornings! It’s the equivalent of the community choir singing Handel’s “Messiah” at Christmas: much-appreciated, well-loved, but just a bit taxing to hear recited over and over and over again in exactly the same way time after time after time.

But there’s another, more dangerous side to John 3:16 that cannot be overlooked.

Regardless of what we make of this text’s familiarity, the truth of the matter is that John 3:16 has been used time and time again in Christian history to hurt, divide, and demean people. For some, the requirement that we “be born again” is code for “you have to look, sound, and act like us.”

The Gospel becomes a prooftext by which we determine if other people’s salvation is as certain as ours is. From this vantage point, the text loses its transformative power altogether and becomes a weapon to re-enforce a particular worldview.

As is the case with the whole of Scripture, when we read John 3:16 apart from its larger context, we run the risk of missing the point. John 3:16 isn’t a theological maxim in and of itself; rather, it is part of a much richer conversation between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus.

Nicodemus, says John’s Gospel, was a leader among the Jews. In public, Nicodemus’s loyalties were clearly devoted to the Jewish establishment. But in private, Nicodemus had his doubts. And so, he visits Jesus under the cover of nightfall.

“Rabbi,” Nicodemus says, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

To put it another way, Nicodemus saw that Jesus was clearly mediating the presence of God, and Nicodemus wanted that kind of experience, too.

Then, as Jesus so often does, he says something that utterly astounds everyone: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.”

In other words, glimpsing the Kingdom of God isn’t a matter of praying a certain way or believing a certain way or following a certain set of liturgical customs; it’s about a complete rebirth of our entire existence!

On hearing this, Nicodemus asks an honest albeit naïve question that sounds funny to our 21st century ears: “How can an old man like me go back into my mother’s womb and be born again?”

Nicodemus makes what is perhaps the most common mistake when it comes to reading and interpreting Scripture: confusing something meant as metaphor with something meant to be literally true.

Like all of us, Nicodemus had already been born once into both a physical and a spiritual context: He was born into a Pharisaic Jewish home, with all the customs and traditions of the day.

But this second birth that Jesus is talking about comes not from below—with all the physical and visceral mechanisms of childbirth—but from above.

So how do we do that?

More than saying the right prayers or professing the right statement of faith, being born from above is about a way of life. It’s about living so that those around you will see you and know about Jesus.

For Nicodemus, being born from above happened slowly. The Gospel of John tells us that he came to Jesus under the cover of nightfall. He wasn’t quite sure he believed just yet. He didn’t want anyone to recognize him.

Then, after he leaves Jesus, he returns to his position among the Jewish establishment. His conversion doesn’t happen with a bolt of lightning or sudden blindness; it doesn’t draw the same kind of attention that the Apostle Paul’s conversion does; and there’s no incredible dream that converts or upends Nicodemus’s life like the dreams of Saint Peter or Saint John the Divine.

But deep down, and ever so slightly, something begins to turn.

Nicodemus’s rebirth happens over the course of a long journey, which began under the cover of darkness when he took a chance on Jesus. He was an uncertain, fly-by-night, wanna-be disciple.

And the truth is, with the exception of one brief mention in John chapter 7, we never hear from Nicodemus again—that is, until the end of John’s Gospel. And it is here that Nicodemus’s birth from above is laid bare.

As Jesus hangs crucified, after all of the other disciples had fled for fear of persecution, there stands Nicodemus at the foot of the cross, armed with myrrh and aloes and the other provisions for Jewish burial, ready to bear the broken and lifeless body of the crucified Lord to its grave.

Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

We can never fully know what Nicodemus was thinking as he departed Jesus’ company after hearing these words. But we can be sure that something within him began to turn. And then, little by little, his heart was broken open and he was born anew, finding his way through darkness and doubt, to the cross.

In his poem, “From the Place Where We Are Right,” the great German-born Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai put it this way:

From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the Spring.

The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.

But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.[1]

In the midst of this Lenten journey, may we allow our doubts and questions to dig into our certainty. May we be broken open by a love that evades even our wildest imagining until, at last, we come to the foot of the cross.


Written by The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly. Jolly is the rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He studied at Transylvania University (BA, American Studies) and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology (MDiv & Certificate in Anglican Studies). His published work includes essays on Christian social engagement, theology in the public square, and preaching, appearing most recently in the Journal of Appalachian Studies and the Anglican Theological Review. He is the editor of Modern Metanoia, a preaching resource authored by Millennials, and enjoys exploring the nearby Appalachian foothills with his wife Elizabeth.

[1] Yehuda Amichai, “The Place Where We Are Right” in The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, edited & translated from Hebrew by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell (University of California Press, 1996).

Download the sermon for Lent 2(A).

Engaging Lent, Lent 1(A) – March 5, 2017

[RCL] Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

 As Lent means Spring in Old English it for sure favors the later Lent timeline of this year; it is always strange when the season begins during the heart of winter.

For well over a millennium Lent has traditionally been a time of fasting. Communities would fast in various ways, abstaining from food or certain kinds of food, abstaining from various kinds of recreation and utterances. People would dress differently, engage differently and find many other ways to make their lives more austere. All of this resulted in a fast that aided in spiritual preparation and also made the great Feast of Easter so much more exciting.

While Lenten practice is often less vigorous than it was centuries ago the spirit of this fast remains, this is a time when many churches forgo cake at coffee hour, where some do not have coffee hour at all and many individuals take time to abstain from treats, to abstain from social media, to abstain from television or from other kinds of entertainment, to abstain from anything that can feel like a guilty pleasure.

This is not limited to the Christian community either, the movie 40 days and 40 nights and other pieces of pop culture capture people engaging in Lenten fasts who are not Christian and throughout social media it’s easy to see just how many are hopping on the fasting bandwagon. It’s great. It is an example of our Christian tradition enriching lives well beyond our churches and yet, if this is the only depth to which people and communities of faith engage with it, there is a major opportunity lost.

The first lesson for today features an invitation to abstinence. Adam and is given very clear instructions not to eat of the fruit of good and evil. All is well until the Devil tempts them and they eat of the fruit and suffer the consequences. While frolicking in paradise, presumably enjoying immortality, enjoying the felt physical presence of God and getting to eat from an abundance of delicious fruits may not seem like a fast, it really was.

In the midst of abundance the sense that there was something that was not for them was too difficult for them to bear. The rule around the tree of good and evil was an opportunity for Adam and Eve to deny their desire so that they could remain in right relationship with God. When they didn’t, they suffered the consequences. This lesson makes sense on the first Sunday of Lent as we are reminded of just how blessed we are and how discipline in some things can increase our joy in all things and keep us closer to God. Adam and Eve offer a cautionary tale for us as temptation creeps in.

The Gospel passage for today affirms this message and adds to it in important ways. Jesus, coined the ‘second Adam’ in years to come by the Apostle Paul, is lead by the Spirit into a time of extreme fasting and temptation. While Adam and Eve had to avoid one delicious fruit in the midst of paradise, Jesus braved an austere wilderness and consumed nothing. It is here that Jesus is offered three distinct temptations. In the first, Jesus is tempted to assuage his hunger by using his power to turn the stones into bread. The mere mention of bread was probably difficult for him to handle given how hungry he was. Jesus says no, citing that it is not by bread alone that one lives, but by the word of God.

In the second temptation Jesus is taken to the pinnacle of the Temple and invited to throw himself down in order that the angels may save him. Now this might seem like an easier one to resist at first until it is taken into account just how isolated Jesus must have felt from everyone and especially his heavenly company after an eternity with them. Just how wonderful it would have felt to experience their embrace and a reminder of his place in the midst of this difficult time for him. Jesus again says no, refusing to put God to the test.

Finally, Jesus is shown all the kingdoms of the world, which are offered to him in exchange for worship. Jesus, on the precipice of embarking on his ministry and building his movement could have much more easily taught and influenced the world from this place but instead said no again, affirming the need to worship God and only God.

Unlike Adam, Jesus resists temptation, passes the test, and goes onto live a ministry that changed the world and brings life to many. The message, in contrast to Adam, is clear: spiritual discipline is good, so is abstinence, may Lent be a time to practice both and be right with God.

That is true, and yet, if we pay closer attention we can learn so much more about how we might live a Holy Lent and for what reasons.

Looking again at the first temptation we see Jesus deny a desire of the flesh, but for what reason? Jesus does this to strengthen his focus on God. While avoiding cookies might be good for physical health it is not the path to everyone strengthening their focus on God. As we consider what we might give up let us think about what may actually give us the opportunity to focus more on God. Perhaps the offering is time in prayer.

In the second one Jesus denied the opportunity to be reminded just how much he mattered. Jesus was in the midst of horrible isolation and often times, isolation can lead people to manipulation of those around them in order to feel reminded of their connection and importance in community. How often do we find ways to test and manipulate those we love to fill the need for connection and mattering?  To put it another way, what are the things that we do when we aren’t feeling appreciated, or connected, or valued? It would be good to consider these things and consider how we can embrace community and seek connection in healthier ways.

Finally, Jesus denied personal power so he could continue to embrace power with God. While power with God does not offer the same pride benefit and certainly made Jesus’ life and ministry more difficult it ultimately saved our world. In this we come to understand how embracing power with, as opposed to power over, can ultimately enrich our lives and ministries.

And so, given all this, our call is to live a Holy Lent, beyond fasting and abstinence, to embracing the truths that will set ourselves and our churches free to live out the fullness of God’s mission.

May we all seek to find the abstinences that will strengthen our focus on God and find ways to meet the hunger needs of others.

May we all seek community this Lent and give of our time to give community to those who are particularly isolated.

Finally, let us all consider how we might empower each other and have power and influence together in order to create positive outcomes for the world.

It is this kind of Lent that will truly live into the Spirit of Spring; regardless of what the weather might be doing. It is this kind of Lent that will take us towards an Easter Season full of resurrection and new life. May all the church, with God’s help, engage in Lent this way.


Written by The Rev. Edwin Johnson, a self-described “smiling, dancing, fitness-obsessed Jesus-Freak who is taken by the way that God continues to manifest in the world.” Johnson serves as the Priest-In-Charge of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Dorchester, MA. In addition to a fulfilling ministry and family life Johnson also teaches and performs latin dance and trains for competitive weightlifting.

Download the sermon for Lent 1(A)

Walk through Holy Week with Jesus, Palm Sunday (A) – 2014

April 13, 2014

Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 26:14- 27:66 or Matthew 27:11-54

What does it feel like to have less than a week to live?

That’s the situation in which Jesus finds himself when he makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

The crowds don’t know what’s coming. The disciples have been given hints and even outright declarations from Jesus that the Son of Man will be betrayed into the hands of sinners and killed, but like all of us who know our loved ones will die someday, we shy away from actually imagining what it will be like or admitting that it could happen at any moment. To the disciples and the crowds, this is a moment of incredible potential and excitement. They have seen the miracles Jesus is capable of, who knows what that power might do if they could convince him to turn it against Rome? And his making such a bold entry into the heart of the Romans’ stolen power surely bodes well for that project.

What a lonely moment this must be for Jesus, to be surrounded by screaming fans but burdened by the knowledge of how brief their acclaim will be. This is the point of no return for Jesus. By entering Jerusalem on a colt with the crowds laying down their cloaks before him and shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David!” he has triggered one prophetic tripwire too many. The Roman rulers and the Jewish religious authorities can no longer pretend that he is insignificant, that he is a fad, that he is not dangerous. Jesus is deliberately provoking the crisis that will end with him nailed to a cross.

And our immersion in these scriptures today in worship, moving from the palm procession to the Passion, deliberately provokes a crisis within ourselves. The crowd abruptly transitions in less than a week from adulation and joyful allegiance to Jesus to rage-filled demands for him to be crucified. The disciples move from proudly marching at his side through the streets of Jerusalem to slinking away in stomach-clenching fear, insisting they don’t know who he is. While taking our place among the crowds on Good Friday shouting for Jesus to be crucified feels awkward and painful, the disciples’ experience of simply not affirming that we know him, of finding that our fear prevents us from being present with another’s pain, feels all too familiar.

Holy Week, which begins today, is our opportunity to immerse ourselves in this move from the false joy of Palm Sunday, a joy that is centered around expectations of power and reward, through the pain of finding that our faith is often so weak when Jesus needs us the most, finally to the deep and profound joy of the day of Resurrection, the day of forgiveness and new life. We have the opportunity to walk with Jesus in real time as the hourglass runs out, as he struggles with the knowledge that he has less than a week to live.

And it is a struggle. In the gospel for Monday in Holy Week, Jesus has his last meal at the home of his dear friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Jesus and Lazarus never got to say goodbye to each other when Lazarus was dying. Jesus heard that he was sick, but stayed away. They’re back in the same situation again. One of them is about to die, but this time Jesus doesn’t stay away. Maybe he wanted to do more than say goodbye. Maybe Jesus needed to see Lazarus alive, talking and eating and laughing. Maybe his human side needed to reaffirm the evidence of his own eyes that someone can die and come back to life.

At their dinner together, Mary anoints his feet with costly ointment, and Judas berates her for not using her money to help the poor. Jesus’ defense of her reveals how heavily his approaching death is on his mind. “Leave her alone. She bought [the ointment] so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

On Tuesday of Holy Week, Jesus’ struggle with his approaching death continues. John’s gospel tells us that Jesus says, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.” We can feel the conflict in Jesus’ soul, his divine conviction of what he has to do, warring with his human fear.

The gospel for Wednesday in Holy Week takes the spiritual crisis to the next level. For the first time, Jesus addresses not just death but betrayal. The gospel tells us, “At supper with his friends, Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, ‘Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.’” The reason betrayal hurts so much is because it has to come from someone you know and love. A stranger cannot betray you. Someone who hates you and always has, cannot betray you. And the only thing worse than being betrayed is being the betrayer ourselves, finding out that we are not the people we thought we were.

By Friday morning we have lost complete control of the situation. Having slid into the role of betrayer in a haze of confusion and fear, we suddenly find ourselves stumbling along with the crowds toward Golgotha hoping we are not recognized by anyone as one of Jesus’ followers. There is a numb sense of disbelief as we watch him being nailed to the cross. As every minute passes, we are certain that this is the moment Jesus will unleash the power within him, the power we have seen again and again heal people from illnesses, allow him to walk on water, feed 5,000 with a few loaves and fish. Each second we’re sure now, now is when he will stop this cruel drama, come down from the cross and save himself.

But nothing happens. Jesus simply lets his life bleed away, one agonizing moment at a time, growing weaker and weaker until he seems to prove that he’s given up on himself and on God the Father. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he cries. This is the moment that we think the other disciples who hid away during the crucifixion absolutely had the right idea. Staring up at him on the cross, we realize that Jesus is actually going to die right in front of us. He cries out, takes his last breath, and the unthinkable moment comes to pass.

The gospel says, “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” At that moment our souls are torn in two. At the moment the living love between God the Father and the incarnate Jesus Christ is torn in two. At that moment the disciples’ hope for the defeat of Rome and the rule of Jesus on earth is torn in two.

This is the terrible risk that we take, by committing to walk with Jesus through Holy Week, that our hearts will be torn in two by this experience.

But Jesus’ life and our emotional equilibrium are not the only things destroyed on Good Friday. The barrier between God and humanity is torn in two. The record of our sin is torn in two. The reign of death is torn in two. And finally the shroud of our grief and fear is torn in two by the joy of the resurrection. If we are willing not to skip from Palm Sunday to Easter Day, not to avoid the darkness that stains these upcoming days, but to enter into it with Jesus and stand in solidarity with him, the healing that we experience with his resurrection is twice as deep.

Today we make a choice. We can choose to be present with Jesus as his disciples throughout this week, confronting the ways in which we betray him, loving him as we see him struggle for the courage to endure his death, or we can hide away, unwilling to let our composure be torn in two with the temple curtain.

The only tools we need are the scriptures and open hearts to make this journey with Jesus.

Like Jesus, our fear, our sin, our grief and our illusions about ourselves have less than a week to live. Let’s spend that week with Jesus.


— The Rev. Whitney Rice is priest-in-charge of the shared ministry of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Shelbyville, Ind., and St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Franklin, Ind., in the Diocese of Indianapolis.

The waiting is the hardest part, 5 Lent (A) – 2014

April 6, 2014

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45

Friends, we are almost there. We have been on this Lenten road since Ash Wednesday: about 28 of our 40 days. We are in the home stretch. As Tom Petty so wisely put it, “the waiting is the hardest part.”

Throughout this Lenten season we have been reading long stretches from the Gospel According to John. This gospel is usually set apart as being very distinct from the so-called synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. In many ways, the Gospel of John is not so much a biography of Jesus as it is a lyrical and theological meditation on Jesus Christ and his reconciling work.

There are several hallmarks of the Gospel of John. One is that the writer of John used a recurring motif in the way that Jesus spoke about who he was and what he was up to. The motif that is repeated is that Jesus and the Father are one, and whomever follows what Jesus says will also participate in this unity.

In this way, the Gospel of John reads much like how a Bach fugue sounds, it visits the same theme, over and over, upside and right-side, inside and out; always the same message: The Father and Jesus are one, and those who listen to Jesus are included in that close relationship. It’s a heady mix of pronouns and swirling associations, but the message is clear throughout John’s gospel: God has claimed us as his people through Jesus Christ. Period.

Another hallmark of John’s gospel is the fact that it contains no miracles. Miraculous things happen in the gospel, of course, but the writer does not call them miracles; instead, the word “signs” is used. In John’s gospel, Jesus’ signs are used to great narrative effect. Every time that Jesus gives a teaching, he then certifies the teaching with a sign. The signs take up the first half of the gospel of John, and today’s sign, the raising of Lazarus, is the seventh and final sign.

Seven is, of course, a tremendously important number in the Bible – the number of holiness, the number of completeness. Not so technically, the eighth sign in John’s gospel is the Resurrection of Jesus. Eight, of course becomes a sacred number for Christians; eight being the eighth day of creation, whereby we are made new creations in Christ at baptism. This is why many baptismal fonts are octagonal. But here, today, we have the final and most perfect sign that Jesus performs: the resurrection of Lazarus.

Finally, a hallmark of the Gospel According to John is that he does not really use the terms “Kingdom of God” or “Kingdom of Heaven.” Those terms are used frequently in the other gospels, but for John, he is saying something different: The Kingdom of God is not so much established by Jesus, the Kingdom of God is Jesus.

Such is the content and context of the Gospel of John. So what can it mean then that we have this story of Jesus being asked to come heal his sick friend, and yet he delays going? Jesus even says that the sickness that Lazarus has does not lead to death. But it does.

Can you imagine the anxiety of Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters? Here they have been traveling with, working with, and likely funding Jesus and his ministry. They have witnessed wonders beyond description. Now their brother Lazarus, who is a dear friend of Jesus, is ill. Let us pause for a moment and remember that in the first century, in Palestine, illness was quit serious, there were no antibiotics, and illness, more often than not, preceded death. This was serious, and they knew that Jesus had it within him to heal Lazarus. Can you imagine their supreme disappointment when Jesus says that he will wait to visit Lazarus? “Wait?!” the sisters may have shouted, “He will die!”

And Lazarus does die. It’s heartbreaking; he dies. We need to really get our hearts and minds around this fact. Mary and Martha are living in a pre-Resurrection world. Death is death, the absolute end of all things.

When Jesus does finally come to Lazarus, the sisters and the village are in full mourning. Martha greets Jesus when he comes, not with words of welcome but words of accusation: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” One wonders what was going through her mind. Was she ready to stop following Jesus? Was she in that empty space in her spirit where grief besets us? Grief is grief, even for those who walk with Jesus. Why did Jesus not act? Where was he?

At this point, we are met with what is, in the King James Version, the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept,” or as translated in the New Revised Standard Version, “Jesus began to weep.”

It’s an important point. Weeping comes from deep empathy and grief. Twice in this passage we are told that Jesus is deeply moved, or disturbed in his spirit. Jesus is not some all-seeing, distant, stoic God. Our God is a feeling, empathizing God. Jesus acts out of this empathy, out of this “co-feeling,” which is the literal translation of “empathy.”

But something else happened. It doesn’t appear to have caused Jesus to raise Lazarus, but it is certainly a part of the story, and we ought not to ignore it. You see, all this talk of miraculous raisings and Jesus’ empathy has overshadowed an important point of this story: Mary and Martha begged Jesus to heal their brother, and they are let down by him. When Lazarus does in fact die, they mourn and appear to be even angry with Jesus for not acting. And it is right there in that hard, desolate place of loss and grief that Jesus speaks life. “Lazarus, come out!” Even here, we see that death having the last word is not in God’s plan.

Certainly each of us has had those moments of wondering where God was in a time of trial or loss. “Why did God let her die?” “Where was God when I needed him?” All of us have wondered at God’s apparent departure. But sometimes, in that area of wondering, Jesus shows up, even after the death and loss. And his arrival is prompted by our raw grief.

The truth of the matter is that being as close as we are to our own experiences, we lack the proper perspective to see God in the midst of things, even in loss. To be sure, we may not recognize God’s empathic presence with us, but we can trust, somehow, that he is present.

But it is the waiting for Jesus that is the lesson from Mary and Martha today. Even though all hope is lost – Lazarus has died – they still wait; for what, they do not know. And it is in the midst of this waiting that God moves. It is in waiting past the point of hope that God sometimes moves.

Be patient with God. His understanding of the timing of things is different from yours. Even when all is lost, hold on for a while longer and allow God to act on your heart in his own good time.

Here, near the end of Lent, is as good a time as any to be reminded that God moves in God’s time. Maybe, since we all lack it, God will grant us the grace to be patient with him, and allow him to surprise us with life and resurrection.

Happy waiting.


— Josh Bowron is the senior assistant to the rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte, N.C. He lives in Charlotte with his wife and their three wild and woolly children.

Washing in the life-giving water, 4 Lent (A) – 2014

 March 30, 2014

1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

Lent draws the faithful – sometimes kicking and screaming – to a period of spiritual preparation and renewal in anticipation of the coming jubilance of Eastertide. Throughout the history of the church, candidates for Holy Baptism would often engage in rigorous study, prayer and fasting during Lent. It was also the time when those who had committed “notorious sins” and were separated from the church would reconcile with God and one another in order to be restored to communion in time for Easter. Lent was, and remains, a time in which all Christians are called to reorient themselves from the distractions of sin, apathy and mundaneness, and return to the life-giving will of God.

The Gospel of John calls the faithful to do the same. It stands as a powerful and provocative witness to the fact that in Jesus Christ, God has revealed Godself to the world. John’s gospel begins by calling Jesus, simply but profoundly, “the Word.” In that first chapter, John employs powerful theological phrases in reference to Jesus, calling him the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”

The Gospel of John describes Jesus, not simply as a miracle worker or faith healer, but rather a worker of signs, each pointing beyond itself to a larger truth. Here in Chapter 9, Jesus works a sign by healing a man who was blind from birth. As word of what Jesus did begins to spread, the Pharisees puff their chests, saying, “If Jesus really was from God, he would have known that the law prohibits such actions on the Sabbath.” But in questioning the legality of what Jesus did, the Pharisees miss the larger point. They focus on the action itself, and not the larger truth that the action reveals.

The blind man receiving sight isn’t the point of the story – at least, not entirely. The man’s physical traits are only a part of the larger narrative. What is more to the point, however, is what the blind man’s relationship with Jesus teaches us about our own relationship with Jesus. John Chapter 9 is a sign that calls attention, not to the story’s resolution, but to the ways in which we find ourselves caught up in the midst of the story.

The disciples ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” They assumed, as most people did in those days, that suffering was the result of sinfulness. As the disciples’ question meets our ears, we may find ourselves thinking, not of physical blindness, but of other scourges that plague us. We watch helplessly as the news reports yet another school shooting. We weep as we hear of yet another life cut short by bullying. We feel inexplicable anger at the grim prognosis of a young mother stricken with cancer. “What have we done to deserve this?” we wonder. “Is God punishing us?” we ask. Suddenly, we realize that the disciples’ question is familiar because it is one that we have all asked of God ourselves.

And yet Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question – to our question – is unwavering: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.”

Jesus reminds us that the axiom is true, indeed: Sometimes bad things happen to good people. But Jesus goes beyond platitudes: “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Jesus shows the disciples and all of us that, even in the midst of things we cannot understand, God is at work.

And to prove it, Jesus works a sign. He gives the man sight, yes, but he also gives him something much greater. The man couldn’t quite put into words what had happened to him. He didn’t know exactly why it had happened. But he knew the Savior’s voice! And so, when Jesus says to him, “Go, wash,” he does just that. He hears the Savior’s voice, he follows it, and at long last, he sees Jesus. And he cries out, “Lord, I believe!” as he falls down and worships at Jesus’ feet.

This is the story that Jesus invites us into. Who among us has not experienced spiritual blindness in one form or another?

When we put ourselves before others, we are blind.

When we hold grudges and refuse to forgive, we are blind.

When we do what is easy instead of what is right, we are blind.

Blindness affects our communities, as well. Economic, social and political systems turn a blind eye to the poor, the outcast and the marginalized in every corner of the world.

And who among us has not experienced suffering at one point or another? Depression, anxiety, abuse, neglect, broken relationships, illness, lost jobs, fear – the list goes on.

Suffering plagues our communities, too. Natural disasters, mass shootings and national tragedies – none of us is immune.

Of course, there are those who will attempt to lull us into believing that faith not only brings an end to suffering and blindness, but that it also makes our hurts and pains disappear. But the hard truth is that this simply isn’t so. After all, even after the blind man received his sight, he was faced with the rejection of his friends and family. Suffering is painful. Grief is awful – even horrifying at times. But it is an inescapable part of our humanity.

And the powerful and life-giving truth of the gospel is that our suffering and grief will not have the last word. As our souls and bodies desperately cry out for relief, we hear the faint yet clear voice of the risen Christ calling us; reminding us that, through the cross, death and its trappings have been swallowed up in victory. The final word rests, not with suffering and blindness, but with life and peace.

And then we hear the most sublime words imaginable, “Go, wash.” And as the cool and refreshing waters of life wash over us, our eyes and our hearts are opened to behold the living Christ, standing as the chains of death and hell lay broken at his feet. And our voice cries out at last, “Lord! I believe!”


— The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is priest-in-charge of Grace Episcopal Church in Florence, Ky. (Diocese of Lexington). He earned a BA in American Studies from Transylvania University and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. Marshall also serves on the steering committee of Reading Camp, an international non-profit ministry based in the Diocese of Lexington that provides non-traditional summertime learning opportunities to elementary school-aged children who are below grade level in reading.

The big surprise, 3 Lent (A) – 2014

March 23, 2014

Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42

The story we just heard about Jesus talking with a Samaritan woman at the well outside Sychar is a story full of surprises.

The first surprise is that the conversation happens at all. The barriers to it are great. Jesus is a Jew and the woman is a Samaritan. Between Samaritan and Jew there is a wall of separation no less than what in our time separates the Israeli from the Palestinian.

The Jews and Samaritans are related peoples. Both are Hebrews. The Samaritans are from the old northern kingdom of Israel, while the Jews are from the old southern kingdom of Judah. To make a long story short, the Samaritans inter-married with non-Jewish peoples and lost much of their ethnic identity, while the Jews maintained theirs. Each group ended up with their own temple, the Samaritans on Mount Gerizim, the Jews on Mount Zion. And so it is a strange choice Jesus makes to travel through Samaritan territory. That he strikes up a conversation with a Samaritan is even stranger.

There’s something additional that makes this conversation beside the well a surprise. In that place and time, men and women are not to talk to one another in public. It is not considered proper. Especially when the man is, like Jesus, a rabbi, a teacher, someone looked up to as an example of propriety. And thus the disciples, when they return, are astonished that Jesus is speaking with a woman.

Still more must be said about this surprising encounter. The nameless one is a Samaritan, and a woman. She is also someone rejected by her own people. She comes to the well to draw water at noon, and she comes alone. Noon is the hottest time of the day. Morning and evening are times to do the hard work of drawing water from the well and hauling it home. This is work that women do in company with one another. It is a chance for a chat, for some social contact. But this woman goes to the well at a time when she will be alone. She sees herself as a misfit. She avoids others in order not to be hurt yet again by their words, their attitudes, their hard looks.

It is a surprise, therefore, that this conversation ever happens. But the conversation itself contains more than one surprise.

It’s a surprise that Jesus promises living water. Living water is water that flows, that runs, that sparkles. Such water is a welcome change from water in wells or cisterns that may be flat or even stagnant.

Jesus and the woman meet beside an ancient well that’s more than 100 feet deep and seven feet wide. At first the woman presumes that Jesus is talking about some hidden stream he knows that is far better than this well. She wants the equivalent of a faucet in her kitchen, so she won’t have to haul buckets any more, and who can blame her? But what Jesus promises is a source of life in her heart, so that she can truly live. She is confused about what he offers, yet she understands it is something she needs, and needs desperately.

It’s a surprise that Jesus knows the details of this stranger’s life. These details remain unclear to us, but apparently she has had a painful and unhappy time. She’s had five husbands. Did the marriages end through death, or divorce, or desertion? Were they truly marriages, or something else? Why is her current husband not truly her husband? We don’t have answers to these questions, and perhaps we do not need to have them. Yet we recognize that this woman feels alone and exiles herself from her neighbors.

The woman is surprised that Jesus knows the truth about her. She is even more surprised that, knowing the truth, he accepts her. For her, this is an encounter with the holy. The man must be a prophet.

And so we come to another surprise. The woman asks Jesus to resolve the long-standing and divisive question of who is right: Jews or Samaritans? Where is the correct temple: Gerizim or Jerusalem? The surprise comes when Jesus raises the issue to a new level. True worship will no longer depend on location, but will be a matter of spirit and truth.

The conversation ends with one more surprise. The woman confesses her faith in the messiah who is to come, and Jesus says he is that messiah. Jesus thus reveals his identity not to his disciples, not to his own people, not to their religious leaders, but to this person who is marginal three times over: She is a Samaritan, a woman and an exile among her own kind. We do not even know her name, yet Jesus entrusts her with his deepest secret, the truth of who he is.

The conversation ends because the disciples come back from their trip to buy food, but the surprises do not end. The woman leaves her water jar there at the well. It is valuable, yet it is heavy, and she wants to be unencumbered as she runs back into the city.

There in Sychar, she tells the people to come and see Jesus. “Come and see the man who told me everything I have ever done! Can he be the Messiah?”

Soon a crowd follows her out to the well. This crowd is so large that Jesus compares it to a field ready to be harvested. These people have accepted the woman’s testimony, and they are coming to Jesus.

It’s a surprise that someone like this bears witness. After all, she is a reject among her own people, a woman with no name, no social standing. Her experience with Jesus is very brief, she has no training, she has not been given a commission. It’s a surprise that people heed her. Yet they do, for there is something attractive, compelling, authentic about her witness.

Here then we have yet another surprise in a surprising story. This unlikely prospect becomes a witness to Jesus, and an effective one.

True, she may be a woman of questionable character, or at least she has had plenty of experience with the rough edges of life.

True, her understanding of Jesus is far from complete.

Yet she bears witness based on her personal experience. She speaks of what she knows.

Her focus is on Jesus, not on herself.

And not only does she point her own people to Jesus, but she shows us how we can witness to him.

If Jesus has spoken to us, accepted us, led us to see ourselves differently, then we can bear witness to others, even as she did.

We don’t need to have our life together in every way. We don’t need to know all there is to know. What we can do is tell others our experience, and leave the results to God.

Whether becoming the center of attention is what we want or what we fear, that is not the issue, that is not the purpose.

We can help people to look, not at us, but over our shoulder at Jesus, who stands close behind us.

Then soon enough they will forget about our witness, and say, along with those people from Sychar, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

God surprises us in many ways, but none is more surprising than our opportunity to witness to Christ based on our own experience.


— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley Publications, 2003).

How can these things be?, 2 Lent (A) – 2014

March 16, 2014

Genesis 12:1-4aPsalm 121Romans 4:1-5, 13-17John 3:1-17

A question that must echo through the centuries is this: Did Nicodemus ever get it? Did this righteous, sober, pious man ever let go of the letter of the law, of seeing and believing only what his eyesight perceived; did he let go of security to plunge into the uncertainty and wonder of mystery?

He was obviously a perceptive man. His first words to Jesus that night show that he understands what his eyes see: The signs of Jesus, known to us as miracles, are proof to Nicodemus that this young rabbi has come from God and acts in the presence of God. “You are a teacher who has come from God,” he says to Jesus, and he continues by admitting that no one can do these signs “apart from the presence of God.” This is a powerful statement, even though a question mark, a “but,” is about to follow. Why doesn’t Jesus accept it as is? What was it that he saw in this pious man that caused him to turn the conversation in another direction?

It is possible that the author omits a great deal; maybe there was quite a bit more said between them before Jesus speaks the words that have been repeated by Christians through countless testimonies, words that have been misused and misunderstood to the exclusion and detriment of many: “to be born again, to be born from above.” How many have gloried in these words, and how many have spoken them in derision in our troubled and divisive time!

Jesus does what he always does. He turns the conversation to what matters and points Nicodemus’ attention to the transforming power of God and to the reality of God’s kingdom.

He sees in Nicodemus the desire to see God’s will, God’s kingdom, this new order that gave the power to Jesus to perform his astounding signs. And Jesus wants Nicodemus to have his heart’s desire; if he would simply let go of what he knows as true, because it is thus written, in order to enter into the Spirit of the One who is not willing to be imprisoned by words.

Nicodemus doesn’t get it. He asks the literal questions: How can the old be born again? How can one reenter the mother’s womb? He is thinking of flesh, not of spirit.

Jesus tries again. He has come to open for us the door to God’s kingdom – to the truth and justice and love of God. He reminds Nicodemus of the baptism of repentance, being born of water; and the baptism of transformation, being born of the Spirit. He gives him the analogy of the wind that is felt but invisible; the origin and destination of the wind is not known. Everything that is real is not perceived by our five senses alone. The effects of God’s Spirit, God’s breath, are all around us and we feel them when we are born of the Spirit.

But Nicodemus again doesn’t get it. “How can these things be?” he asks, and we continue to hear his question phrased in similar ways all around us today.

“How can there be a God?”

“How can you call yourself a Christian when you are not born again?”

“How can you claim that you believe the Bible literally?”

“How can you ignore what the Bible says?”

Together with Nicodemus we cry, “How can these things be?”

We live in an age of astounding technological and scientific advances. We are used to having everything explained. Even religious desire, even the longing for God, we are told by experts, has a biological basis in the brain. Everything depends on the body and on chemical balance or imbalance. We are losing the gift of mystery, the gift of being born of the Spirit.

Everything in today’s remarkable story is surrounded by mystery. This is what has made it so irresistible through the ages. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. Given Jesus’ status as a man who had nowhere to lay his head, the meeting probably took place outside, under the stars, beneath a tree, probably shortly after Jesus had lain down to rest and perhaps to sleep.

A man better dressed than Jesus and his companions arrives in the night. He is probably well known to them by sight. He comes to reassure Jesus that he recognizes in him the gifts of God’s presence because of all the visible signs performed by him in the light of day. And Jesus takes the man and plunges him into mystery. Nicodemus, a man who has spent his whole life studying the Law and the prophets, studying the Scriptures, does not get it. He is too committed to what he has known until this point. This talk of being born of the Spirit, of participating in God’s life through eternity, of death on the cross – these are new concepts and he cries out, “How can these things be?”

In sorrow, Jesus says, “You are a teacher and you do not understand these things?”

To paraphrase: Oh, Nicodemus, if you don’t believe me, the one who has come from the Father, whom are you going to believe? God loves you and all these friends around me, yes, even the whole world. God sent me to testify to this love. All you have to do is trust in this love and be saved from despair.

There is much talk of spirituality in our culture. “I am a spiritual person,” we hear friends tell us, “but I don’t believe in God, and I don’t go to church.” Others say, “I am a spiritual person, but I don’t believe in Jesus as the Son of God.” And many other variations of this same theme, the vogue of vague spirituality.

Yet here is Jesus offering us someone visible and recognizable who embodies the Spirit of God, himself! And unless we take the plunge into the mystery of the incarnation, we, like Nicodemus, don’t understand, and reject him. “How can these things be?”

The answer is that these things are real because Christ is real and present. As Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen, yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things, and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”

This is a question to meditate upon throughout Lent, a daily discipline in the dark of night that can lead us to the light of Easter Sunday.


— Katerina Whitley, an author and retreat leader, lives and writes in Louisville, Ky.