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.”

Amen.

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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).

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).

Wilderness stories, 3 Lent (A) – 2011

March 27, 2011

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

The lectionary readings begin with our ancestors being led by Moses through the wilderness, on the journey from slavery in Egypt toward an unknown Promised Land. Memories of the long wilderness period in ancient Israel’s life are prominent throughout the Hebrew scriptures. There are many times when, as at the end of today’s psalm, Psalm 95, our ancestors seem ashamed of their behavior amid the hardships and difficulties. The psalm-singer in Psalm 95 imagines God’s voice speaking to the people:

“Harden not your hearts, as your forebears did in the wilderness,
at Meribah, and on that day at Massah,
when they tempted me.
They put me to the test,
though they had seen my works.
Forty years long I detested that generation.”

Various stories depict our ancestors as a motley crew of refugees traveling with no visible resources whatsoever. It was a time of great danger and high anxiety. They came close to losing their trust in Moses, their leader, but above all they could not sustain their trust in the God to whom Moses’ words and their own lives bore witness.

We are in the midst of Lent. Wilderness stories present a compelling picture of ourselves as well as a plausible record of our ancestors’ experiences with God. Perhaps Ash Wednesday raised our consciousness about the failures of our lives and the absence of sustainable spirituality in our daily tasks. By now, however, Ash Wednesday is behind us, and our repentances have probably dried up and worn thin. The business of re-examining our capacity to trust God in the bad times as well as the good has become gritty, like sand in our shoes, as we walk the Lenten journey.

Is God reliable, in fact? Can we trust in this God to provide for our needs in times when we have no resources for living? Quite often the deep questions of our faith and trust in God are urgently and powerfully connected to questions about material realities – the things we need for life – especially when basic necessities fail us for one reason or another. In the case of our ancestors in the wilderness, where oases were few and wells were missing altogether, their urgent need was for water, the stuff of life. God had provided water in the desert for them once before, in an earlier chapter of Exodus, and now they needed water again. As always, they grumbled and became quarrelsome. What was the matter with Moses and God that they could not or would not repeat the trick with the water? And in this quarrelsome fashion, the traveling refugees articulated the big question of our own so-much-milder Lenten journeys: “Is the Lord with us or not?” They did not want a God who could not deliver the real, life-giving goods. And neither, of course, do we.

God answered the depth of their anxieties, saying to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people. … I will be in front of you on the rock of Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it.”

Yes, God was among them. God heard them and answered their needs just as decisively as he had heard their cries from Egypt in the beginning of this Exodus story. When God provided the water of life, the faith question was also answered. The rocks of the wilderness were transformed into a source of life for them.

Yes, this God was reliable. Subsequent generations saw this episode on the Exodus journey as a sign of God’s endless, patient faithfulness in the face of ancient Israel’s anxieties and desperation. The event was also, and honestly, remembered negatively, as in the previously quoted verses of Psalm 95. Like our ancestors, when we are rendered anxious and desperate by crises – fire, flood, famine, joblessness, homelessness, lack of money, the terrors of war – we test God by asking him to respond to our concrete, specific needs. Like them, we need a somewhat sturdier trust. Part of the Good News about this God is that he provides what is needed without our anxious grumbling, without our desperate angry shouting. In the infinite outpouring of his generosity, God gives to all his creation what is needed for its life, without any coercion on our part. Our hungers, wants and needs, and whether they get met, are not the measure of this God’s reliable generosity.

The New Testament stories of Jesus are all framed in such a way that this amazing, tried-and-true, reliable generosity of God is seen in all Jesus’ activities and in the way Jesus lived and died. In today’s gospel reading from John 4, the conversation between Jesus and the nameless woman at the well is an artful picture of this basic claim: only God – and for us, therefore, only Jesus, his Son – provides the stuff of life. The God who speaks to this woman of Samaria at the well in the heat of the day, is the God who turned the wild, barren desert into livable land for our dusty ancestors’ journey, with manna from heaven to eat and water from rocks to drink.

John the gospel-maker has used the material reality of water in this story as a metaphor. The narrative starts with the solid, old, deep well outside the city of Sychar in Samaria. The well is named for long-dead Jacob, and it has been the source of water for the woman’s ancestors just as it is for Jesus and herself. Jesus swiftly moves to conversation about the God who is the source of all gifts, water, and life itself. In the conversation, water is not simply something to drink, it is a sign that the gift of God is the quality of life on earth, “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

Then the narrative moves to focus on the woman. One might say that she has had a difficult and rocky life, but the good news is that out of the failures and inadequate resources of her life, God/Jesus can make something new, quenching her thirst for something better. The narrative also moves through this woman’s own history to the larger historical context. Jerusalem and Samaria had failed quite miserably to overcome their mutual estrangement and to heal the wounds of their histories. It had become as inconceivable for Samaritans to worship with Jerusalem Jews as it was for Jesus to be talking to a woman in public. John has drawn a picture of two people who, practically speaking, could not have shared a common life, divided as they were by any number of things: history, sin, gender, and geography.

But the outrageous good news is, of course, that with this God among us as source, support, and provider of life beyond our wildest imaginings, the stories and metaphors of scripture can become the aspects and qualities of our lives as individuals, as communities, as society. In the light of that good news, Lent continues to be a time for noticing how our faith and trust play out in our lives. It is a time to let go of our failures and trust God in Jesus to bring new life for everyone with dried-up relationships and messed-up histories. And Lent continues to be an urgent time for rethinking our relationship to the world we live in. The deep wellspring of water, providing John with such a rich metaphor for our connection to God and each other, is in our time a powerful icon for the destructibility of our planet and how our silent complicity and consent to such destruction puts God’s loving generosity to the test.

 

— The Rev. Angela V. Askew is now retired, but still lives in Brooklyn, New York.