Dead Water, and a Better Choice: Sermon for September 17, 2017

Today we kick off church school, which means that our elementary students are looking at a new story. They usually do this the first Sunday of every month. Allan tells the story in worship and then they go downstairs and learn more through hands-on learning and play.

One of the ways we try to connect with what they are doing is that on the days they start a new story, I preach about it up here. That way families might be able to talk about it more, and understand it together. So, today we are doing that, and we’re looking at the story of the Woman at the Well, and Living Water.

Back when I lived in Vermont, I took up fly fishing. It looked like this amazing, relaxing experience in nature, and I thought, “How hard can it be?” So I bought all the equipment, and I went to the nearby forest and found a stream, and I cast my line. It was going to be just like “A River Runs Through It”.

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It was not like “A River Runs Through It”.

Except it wasn’t. Even when I did manage to land the line in the water, I never caught anything. I tried all these different places, every river or lake I could imagine, all with no luck. Finally I went back to the store that sold me the fly rod, and I talked to the manager who was also a fishing guide. I asked him what I was doing wrong. I told him all the places I had tried, and how I hadn’t even seen a single fish, let alone caught one.

Finally he nodded his head and said: “You’re fishing in dead water”. He explained that “dead water” is water that is either too polluted, too unexposed to sunlight, or too cut off from any healthy sources. The places I’ve been fishing all fit the bill. It wasn’t until I learned to stay away from dead water that I fish.

Dead water is a lot easier to define than something that sounds like it should be its polar opposite: Living Water. We talk about Living Water in the church a lot, and it’s sort of insider language. Dead water is pretty literal – what is dead cannot support life. But Living Water is a metaphor, and that means it’s a little tougher to pin down.

Today’s Scripture is about two things: living water, and a woman who met Jesus. To understand this story you first need to know something about the times. In Jesus day, the Jewish and Samaritan people didn’t associate with one another. In fact, the Samaritans were looked down upon. It would have been pretty unheard of for a good Jewish person to approach a Samaritan for anything, especially a Jewish man and a Samaritan woman.

And yet, that’s exactly what happens here. Jesus is traveling from Judea to Galilee, and he has to go through Samaria. He is thirsty, and so he stops at a well where a woman is drawing water out and he asks her, “Can I have a drink?”

And she knows how odd this is. She says to him, “Why are you, a Jewish man, asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?”

Jesus says to her, “If you knew who I was, you’d be asking me for Living Water.”

At first the Samaritan woman is as baffled by this Living Water stuff as you and I might be. She says, “Um, you don’t have a bucket, and this is a really deep well…so, how are you going to get me water.”

But Jesus tells her, “The water in this well? You’ll drink it and be thirsty again soon. But the water I’m offering to you? It’s eternal life, and you’ll never be thirsty again.”

Living Water is what Jesus offered to her, and it’s what he offers to us even today. It’s the promise of spiritual life. The living water Jesus offers quenches our thirst for something greater than ourselves, and it sustains us, helping us to follow him. It’s not the kind of water we can get from a well or a tap. It’s water that only God can give us.

And in this story, the amazing thing is that Jesus doesn’t just offer it to those who are like him. It would be easy for him to say, “You know this is just for people like me,” but he doesn’t. He crosses a line that most wouldn’t cross in order to reach this Samaritan woman.

I think that Jesus was modeling something for us there. If Jesus is willing to cross lines in order to make connections, wouldn’t it make sense that maybe we are supposed to do the same thing? Maybe in our own lives we are being asked to dare to venture past the things that divide us, and meet others where they are.

That’s true for churches too. It’s worth remembering that Jesus doesn’t hang back in his own land, but he goes into a new one, and he seeks this woman out. That’s a good reminder that Living Water is not something that we hoard and keep to ourselves. We share it with others.

That’s why we do a lot of the work of welcoming that we try to do in this church. It’s why we are talking about how we can welcome immigrants and refugees. It’s why the rainbow flag is out front. It’s why we welcome in people who maybe have never stepped into church before in their lives, and we tell them they belong here just as much as we do.

We do it because we were all once the woman at the well, and someone crossed the lines to offer us a kind of water that we didn’t even know existed.

So that’s the first part of the story, how Jesus crossed the lines, but the second part is this: how she then crossed lines of her own. Now, in the Bible, unfortunately, women often go without names. This is no exception. In the Bible this woman is just called “the Samaritan woman” or “the woman at the well”.

But in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, this woman was later given a name. It was “Photine” or “Photina” which means “light”. There are legends about her that are worth telling here too. It is said that Photina was immediately converted, which means she realized something was incredible about Jesus. She began to preach right after she met him, which is pretty extraordinary for a woman.

There are stories about her later life too. As she grew in the faith, she shared the same Living Water that had been shared with her with many others. There’s even a story that she converted the daughter of Emperor Nero. In another story, he calls her in, trying to intimidate him, and she just laughs at him. Can you imagine that? A lowly Samaritan woman laughing at the Emperor of Rome.

It’s hard to believe, but Photina had something that the Emperor never did. She had the Living Water that gave her a life he couldn’t imagine. Her life had been changed because of her encounter with Jesus and there was nothing he could take from her, not even her life, that could change that. Legend tells us that Nero did just that, and she was martyred for the faith. And today Photina, the humble Samaritan woman, is remembered by our Catholic and Orthodox siblings as a saint of the church.

She was an unlikely saint. She was just a woman drawing some water up out of a well. But Christ saw her, and recognized her for who she would be. The same is true for you, and me, and for everyone else. Christ sees in us, and in others, what the world sometimes does not. Christ sees our truest and best selves, and he offers us Living Water to sustain us.

That’s a reminder that Christianity is not a faith for the self-assured who have everything they need. This is not a faith for those who have everything together. Jesus didn’t find someone just like him, or someone who had the right degree of social respectability. Instead, he went to the well, where humble and underestimated Samaritan women gathered, and he gave them the most priceless gift that he had to give. And in return, she gave him all that she had.

pexels-photo-289586I started off talking about dead water, and fish, and places where life cannot be sustained because there is no connection. And, even though it’s a metaphor, maybe Living Water is indeed the exact opposite of dead water. In Living Water we are not isolated. We are not left at the well day after day. We are instead invited into connection with Christ, and with one another.

The more we isolate, as people, as a church, as a community, the more we risk cutting ourselves off from the sources of life. But the more we dare to cross the lines, and reach out, the more we find the opposite of death: we find life. Where there is Living Water there is connection and community, with God, and with one another. This Living Water is what will sustain us, this Living Water is what will help us to grow in every way possible, and this Living Water is what will strengthen us to be the people God always knew we could be.

Questioning Advent: Day 20 – Uprooted Trees and the Ground of Being

IMG_1965Every day or so I stop by the Christmas tree we have up in the sanctuary and check the water levels in the tree stand. And almost every time I end up filling a pitcher with water and filling the empty stand. Others haven been doing this too. The other day a parishioner remarked, “That tree sure does drink a lot.”

This is a particularly thirsty tree. I have no idea how many gallons of water that tree has soaked up right before since we cut it down right before the first Sunday of Advent.

But, if you think about it, that’s pretty remarkable. Even though that tree has been cut down, removed from the snowy field it stood in for years, and brought to the relatively warm church sanctuary where it now resides, it still instinctively knows how to sustain itself. Even though it is rootless, it still draws knows how to live.

Sometimes it can feel like we are rootless too. We can get so far away from what is important, and what sustains us, that we might feel like we’ve just been uprooted and dragged off to another place. We might feel as disconnected from what sustains us as an indoor Christmas tree.

Sure, occasionally we might get a taste of the living waters again. We might get just enough to help us to stay alive. And in that moment we will know to drink. But, in the end, if we stay unrooted, will we ever really thrive?

Come January 6th our church Christmas tree is going to go to some mulch pile or wood chipper. As beautiful as it is, the tree wouldn’t last much longer than that, even if we kept pouring in pitchers full of water. And that makes sense. Eventually what isn’t rooted and grounded in what can give it new life just won’t last.

You and I, we aren’t Christmas trees. We know that. But sometimes it might feel as though we have grown as spiritually dry as a cut pine tree in January. We might long for the places where we used to be planted. We may wish we could just go back to that place we remember and grow again.

The good news, of course, is that we can. Unlike that tree that’s never going back in the ground, the “ground of being”, as Paul Tillich used to call it, is ready to welcome us back. God is ready for us to be replanted and to put down our roots once again. And God is waiting for us to drink up the living water that God wants to give to us.

In the Christmas season, we often find ourselves spiritually connected in ways that we aren’t all year. By a few months later that feeling is often gone. But it doesn’t have to be. This year, stay connected. That feeling you get on Christmas Eve, surrounded by glowing candles in a darkened church, it doesn’t have to come just once a year. Plant yourself in rich soil, and you can be nourished in every season.

Question: What are the ways that you feel rooted in God during the Christmas season, and how can you stay rooted that way all year?

Prayer: God of all creation, even when we are far away from you, we still thirst for your living water. This year, help us to find our roots in you, and in others. Connect us in community. Strengthen us as your body. And help us to find joy and new life all the year long. Amen.

“Water from a Rock”

Exodus 17:1-7
17:1 From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.

17:2 The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?”

17:3 But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”

17:4 So Moses cried out to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”

17:5 The LORD said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.

17:6 I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.

17:7 He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”

During the Holocaust in the concentration camps at Auschwitz, a trial took place. It was not the trial of prisoners by Nazis. It was very different. It was a trial conducted by Jewish rabbis in the barracks, and the defendant was God.
The rabbis argued about whether God had abandoned the Jewish people. They argued about how a benevolent God could allow such bad things to happen to them. And in the end, the rabbis, good, religious men, found God guilty.
One of the biggest questions of faith is “Why does God let bad things happen to good people?” Theologians have asked it for hundreds of years. Philosophers have pondered on it. And you and I have wondered too. Where is God when something bad happens?
I’m not going to give you a definitive answer this morning. Because, I don’t know. There are, in any given week, dozens of situations that I see and wonder why God is doing more to help. I used to feel bad about that. I used to think that I was disrespecting God. But wondering where God is and looking for answers is not the same as disrespecting God. If anything, it’s a form of taking God more seriously.
That was a little of what was happening in the passage. The Israelites are out in the wilderness. They have left slavery in Egypt and are journeying to a promised land. But Moses has led them far from home and they are thirsty. They begin to question him asking, “why did we even leave. And Moses calls to God and says, “They are almost ready to stone me.” The people begin to ask, “Is the Lord among us or not.”
We do it too when bad things happen. That is when we often find ourselves taking God more seriously. Seriously enough to ask where God is.
If you have been watching the news you have seen the pictures from Japan. You have seen the absolute devastation. You have seen destruction and loss of life and pain that will haunt the country for years. And maybe, at some level, you have asked, “Where is God.”
I’ve always rejected the idea that God does things to punish us. God does not going around using earthquakes to bring us in line. God does not cause tsunamis to prove God’s might. God does not will us to suffer in order to gain our love
But it’s easy to see how some churches have used what happened in Japan as a way of making people be fearful. Repent or else, we are told. Change your ways or you are next. And the underlying message, spoken or not, is this: those affected had it coming.
But God is not a God who hurts us. Rather, God is right there with us when bad things happen. And God is there in the aftermath.
When the people in the wilderness cried out loud enough, and when Moses went to God for help, he was given an unlikely answer: Strike the rock and water will spring forth. God tells Moses, “Your people will no longer go thirsty in my presence. I will save you.”
I believe it’s true that God hears our cries. And I believe that God does provide for us when we ask. But sometimes it takes longer than we might hope. And sometimes we have to go on a journey we wouldn’t wish to go on.
A close friend of mine, who has given me permission to tell this story, was sexually assaulted ten years ago. She was a very faithful person. And she was extremely proactive about her recovery. She saw a therapist. She went to a trauma recovery group. She even went to trauma yoga. She did everything right.
She managed to deal with the trauma of what was done to her, and to keep her faith. In fact, it was her faith that pulled her through it. But recently she told me that she was having a bit of a hard time. Trauma recovery is difficult and there are many layers and something you thought was done with has a way of coming back a little sometimes. And this time, it was hard for her to find God. No matter where she looked, God seemed far away. She’s one of the most faithful people I know, and I knew this must be devastating for her.
I think about Moses, taking a journey on faith. And I think about her, taking her own journey. I think about what it was like for Moses to lead the people out of slavery in Egypt. And I think about what it was like for her to say “I will not be defined by what happened to me anymore. I will be defined by surviving it.”
That was a hard journey to take. Many never take it. Many are happier living in the Egypt that they know rather than the promised land that they don’t. But she wasn’t, and she set out across the desert, and she is heading to the promised land. But right now she’s standing at the rock, just like Moses, asking God where God is. And God is telling her, “strike the rock. There’s living water in there for you. Strike the rock and know I’m here.”
I know she is going to get through this dark night alive. And she is going to be better on the other side. And the promised land that she reaches is going to be better than anything she could have imagined. But there’s no short cut across the desert when you’re looking for the promised land. There’s only the hard, hard journey and the doubt.
I look at Japan. They are not suffering because of their own actions. Just like the Jewish people at Auschwitz did nothing to deserve being there. Just like my friend did nothing to deserve being assaulted. They are suffering because sometimes, for whatever reason, bad things happen to good people.
But I know this: there is a promised land. It looks different for all of us. For the Jewish people in the camps it was freedom from persecution. For my friend it is to sleep without nightmares. And for the Japanese it is to rebuild homes and lives.
There is living water waiting to be struck from the rock. But we don’t know what it is going to look like. And sometimes, we may not know it yet, we are called to be the water that comes forth.
I read a story recently about a chef in California named Bruno. He had emigrated to this country and started out as a dishwasher. He worked hard and ended up opening his own restaurant. When he had more than enough, he began to donate financially to the Boys and Girls Club.
One day his mother came from Italy and wanted to see where his donations went. He took her to the Club and saw a boy eating a small bag of potato chips. He asks him if it was a snack, and the boy said “no”. It was his dinner. His mother overheard.
Now, I know something about Italian mothers, having one myself. And so, when his mother heard that and told him that he had to come back and feed them pasta, he had no choice. And for years now, he has been coming back and feeding dozens of meals a night to children who might otherwise not eat. When the economy went bad he lost a lot of his business. But he couldn’t leave the children without food. And so he refinanced his house, and kept right on serving.
There is water if you just strike the rock. And sometimes we can be the water that comes forth. We can be the strong shoulder to cry on. We can be the one who speaks out against hatred and oppression. We can be the one who sends help when our brothers and sisters can’t do anything else to help themselves. We can be the ones who be water to the thirsty in all sorts of ways
In just a few moments we will be taking up a special collection for Japan. Our proceeds will go to Church World Service, an ecumenical organization with a proven reputation for responding to disasters like this. They will make sure that your donations will get to the people who need them the most. They will make sure that water will spring from the rock.
And as for us, there will be a day when we are promised a new land. And if we dare to go, we will find at sometimes find ourselves in the wilderness. Dry and dusty and wondering where God is now. And we will have just enough faith that we will know what to do. And we will strike the rock. And somehow, God will give us water. We may not know what that water will look like now, but it will there. And we will not be allowed to go thirsty any longer. May it ever be true for us. May it ever be true for all God’s people. Amen.