Saturday, April 25, 2015

"Living Waters, Healing Waters"

            This Sunday, April 26th, my congregation will celebrate “Earth Sunday.”  The theme for our celebration is “Living Waters, Healing Waters.”  Part of our focus during the service will concern the importance of being good stewards of the water and other natural resources that God has entrusted to our care.  We will also focus on the pivotal role that water plays within the Christian faith. 

            I have chosen John 4:  7-15 as the foundational scripture for my proclamation during this service.  This scripture tells the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.  Regular readers of this blog may recall that I recently preached on this text.  (See my June 28, 2014 post, entitled “Beyond the Safe Walls of the Church.”)  In that previous sermon, I focused on the relationship between Jesus and the un-named woman from Samaria.  By contrast, I intend to focus this week on what Jesus says about water.

            As the story unfolds, Jesus and his disciples have stopped at a village well to rest from a long journey they are making from Judea to Galilee.  It is the middle of the day, as Jesus waits by the well for the rest of the disciples who have gone to buy food in the market.  Jesus is hot and thirsty.  As he waits for the disciples, a Samaritan woman comes to the well to draw water for her household.  Jesus asks the Samaritan woman to give him a drink of water from her bucket.

            It is important to understand that there was great animosity and social strife between Jews and Samaritans at that time.  Although both groups have the same sacred texts and share a common faith, they disagree bitterly over how to interpret those texts and live out that faith.  Their most important point of contention concerns the correct location of their “holy of holies” sacred site.  For the Samaritans, the correct location is Mt. Gerizim; for the Jews, it is the Temple in Jerusalem.  The social tension between the two groups had escalated to such a heighth that Jews had no contact with anything Samaritan due to a fear of ritual contamination.

            Jesus’ request for water perplexes the Samaritan woman because drinking from her container would mean ritually contaminating himself.  So, she asks Jesus, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”

            Jesus’ reply is unexpected and unconventional:  “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 

            Now, the term, “living water,” can have two possible meanings in Aramaic.  First, it can refer to running water, such as water running in a brook or gurgling up from a spring.  Second, it can refer to life-giving water.  Of course, Jesus is using the second meaning of life-giving water, but the Samaritan woman misunderstands, thinking that he is referring to the first definition of running water, and she is flabbergasted.

            She responds, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep.  Where do you get that living water?”  Given the context and her interpretation of “living water,” we can appreciate how astounding Jesus’ claim appears to her.  Afterall, here is a man without rope or bucket, who just a moment ago was asking for help in getting a drink from the well.  Now, suddenly, he is claiming to have superhuman access to running water.  This conversation is not coherent.

            Jesus clarifies:  “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.  The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

            It’s at this point that we realize Jesus is using “living water” as a metaphor for the loving grace which flows down upon us through his life, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection.  Living water is an especially poignant metaphor.  Adequate water is absolutely essential for biological survival and flourishing.  Water is the signature resource that astronomers and astrobiologists focus on in their search for extraterrestrial life because it is hard to conceive of life existing without water.

            Water is also pivotal in Christian faith:

Ø  In the Creation Story contained in Genesis 1, God begins by moving over the face of the waters.

Ø  At a water well, Jacob met his future wife, Rachel, and helped water her sheep.

Ø  When the Hebrew people escape from their slave-bondage in Egypt, God parts the waters of the Red Sea to provide an avenue of escape from the pursuing Egyptian army.

Ø  Jesus sought out John the Baptist to be baptized by water; when he emerged from the baptismal waters of the River Jordan, a voice from heaven identified him as, “…my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Ø  As we’ve seen already, Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well and asks for a drink.

Ø  On the night in which he was betrayed, Jesus used water to wash the disciples’ feet, teaching us to serve one another.

In the Christian tradition, water heals and water is sacred.  In the Sacrament of Baptism, we use water as the physical substance which points beyond itself to that inward, spiritual grace which God offers to us from the deep reservoirs of God’s limitless love.  With the tactile substance of water, we welcome persons into the family of Christ, while also anointing them for ministry as Christian disciples.  At Baptism, water also offers healing.  Just as physical water is very effective for physical cleaning, so also Baptismal waters point to the spiritual cleansing, forgiveness, and healing that Jesus offers to those who truly repent from their sins and shortcomings.

Yet, much of our planet’s water is dirty and polluted.  Even more distressing, social scientists warn that our planet is facing a water shortage challenge in the near future, if appropriate conservation measures are not taken soon.  We have grossly mismanaged our water resources.

As the only earthly organisms created in the image of God, we have been charged with stewardship of God’s good Creation.  This is both a privilege and a responsibility.  Water, along with all of the Earth’s other natural resources, do not belong to humans.  Instead, they belong to God, the Creator, who has entrusted humans with the responsibilities of stewardship and careful management for a relatively short time.

Come and join us this Sunday, April 26th, as we celebrate Earth Sunday and recommit ourselves to the task of stewardship of water and all of the natural resources which ultimately belong to God the Creator.  Our church is located at the corner of Main and Dawson Streets in Meriden, Kansas.  Our classic worship starts at 10 am. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

"Seized by Terror and Amazement"

             As an ordained pastor for over 30 years, it seems to me that on Easter Sunday, there are always two separate congregations attending Easter Worship.  The two congregations intermingle and worship together.   Frequently, there are members of the same family, sitting together on the same pew, yet, they belong to separate congregations.  These two congregations are:

1.      The “true believers.”  This group is firmly convinced of the Resurrection and they harbor no doubts that through faith in Jesus they will have eternal life with God.

2.      The second group is the “quiet doubters.” Although they would like to belong to the “true believers” congregation, they have doubts that Jesus really was resurrected from the dead.  However, they are silent about their doubts because it might be considered impolite and it would upset others at the Easter Service.

In my faith journey, I have belonged to both congregations—both the “true believers” and the “quiet doubters.”  So, I think that I know how both congregations think and feel, as they gather for worship on Easter Sunday.

Let me focus a bit on the quiet doubters.  For this group, the resurrection is at odds with what we know from science and real life experiences.  For instance, we know that over the first 3 days of death, the physical body begins to decay and some post-mortem bloating may set in.  This raises serious questions about the resurrection of Jesus.  People are not just resurrected from the dead, as the scriptures claim for Jesus of Nazareth.  “Perhaps,” the quiet doubters may say to themselves, “Jesus was not really resurrected.  Perhaps his disciples just made up the resurrection because Jesus was such a special moral leader.”

The level of doubt may range along a continuum from some persons who completely reject the Resurrection as an actual event to others who basically accept the Resurrection, even though they retain a twinge of doubt and uncertainty in the back of their minds.  “Quiet doubters” may attend Easter services for a variety reasons, but they generally refrain from openly sharing their doubts.

As a pastor, who in the past was a “quiet doubter,” I feel it is important to point out to both congregations that there is a “bright red thread,” or common theme, that runs throughout all four gospel accounts of Christ’s Resurrection.   This red thread is so obvious that it is almost impossible to overlook.  Yet, many Easter services ignore or downplay this red thread. This red thread is that in all four gospels there is profound doubt expressed by some of Christ’s followers, concerning the Resurrection:

Ø  In the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus’ disciples meet him on the mountain following his Resurrection, “they worshiped him; but some doubted.” (Matthew 28:17) 

Ø  In Luke, when the women returned from the empty tomb and their encounter with the two men in dazzling white, their words seemed to the disciples to be “an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”

Ø  And, of course, in John we have the story of “doubting Thomas,” who said:  “‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’” (John 20:25) 

Ø  In Mark’s account of the first Easter morning, when the women arrive at the empty tomb and encounter the man in white, they run away from the scene because they are seized by “terror and amazement.”  (Mark 16: 1-8)  In Mark, when the disciples are afraid, it usually indicates that they lack sufficient faith in Jesus Christ.  For instance, when the disciples are crossing the Sea of Galilee during a fierce storm, they become terrified.  Then, Jesus calms the sea, reassuring the disciples and asking them:  “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:  40)

Frequently, we overlook the disciples’ doubt in our rush to shout “Alleluia!” and sing “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.”  We ignore the red thread in our rush to plan Easter egg hunts and scrumptious Easter dinners with our family and friends.  Amid the Easter eggs, jelly beans, ‘peeps,’ chocolate bunnies, and Easter lilies, we always manage the avoid discussion of the disciples’ doubts.  Yet, regardless of which Gospel account you turn to, there is always at least one person who has doubts and is not sure about the resurrection. 

I think that we should pay more attention to the disciples and other followers of Jesus who had doubts about the Resurrection.  As a former “quiet doubter” myself, I have always found it easier to identify with “doubting Thomas” and the others who did not initially accept the reality of the Resurrection.

Yet, in each case, the doubts of Jesus’ followers eventually gave way to assurance of the Resurrection reality.  Through Jesus’ appearances and words, through the mutual support of the community of faith, through the growth and maturation of their faith, Jesus followers become convinced of his resurrection and they ultimately become … people of the Resurrection.

So this brings us to the central question of Easter, regardless of whether we are “true believers” or “quiet doubters.”  This central question is this: 

What does it mean to live as a Resurrection people?

In my message on Sunday, I will suggest that to live as Resurrection people means that we must learn to see with new eyes: 

First, we need to avoid the trap of seeing Jesus’ Resurrection as just another unconnected miracle performed by God.  Instead, we must view the Resurrection as part of the overarching story of God’s Creative work in the universe.  This story begins when God created the universe and judged it to be very good.  However, God’s creative activity is not limited to just the beginning.  God is continually at work creating and redeeming the world.  Ultimately, God promises to transform all of Creation and make it new.  As the New Testament Book of Revelation says:  “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, …[and God said], ‘See, I am making all things new.’”(Revelation 21: 1-2, 5)  In God’s New Creation, the old will be transformed.  Jesus’ Resurrection is the “tipping point,” when God begins to transform this universe into the New Creation described in Revelation.

Secondly, as a Resurrection people we must live towards the future and this New Creation which God has begun through the resurrection of Christ.  In other words, we are not enslaved by the past.  Instead, God intends for us to look forward to the future and Creation’s final redemption.  The celebration of the Lord’s Supper is an example of this forward way of looking and living.  Too often, when the community of faith gathers to celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Communion, we dwell on how the sacrament was first established.  We look to the past and remember how on the night when he was betrayed by Judas and denied by Peter, Jesus gathered with his followers in the Upper Room where he instituted the sacrament.  Although how the Lord’s Supper was established is very important, it is perhaps even more important to remember that the Lord’s Supper points forward to the future New Creation, when Jesus will join with all of his followers and feast and drink at the heavenly banquet in the kingdom of God.  (See Mark 14: 22-25 and Matthew 26: 26-29)

Finally, as Resurrection people, we no longer need to live in fear and dread of death—either the death of our friends or even our own death.  Through the Resurrection, God has provided conclusive proof that death is not the final word.  Rather than being the termination of our existence, death is a transition from this life to New Life with God through Jesus Christ.

Come and celebrate Easter with us this Sunday, April 5th.  Our church is located at the corner of Main and Dawson Streets in Meriden, Kansas.  Our classic worship starts at 10 am. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.