I had the privilege of delivering the sermon yesterday at New Song Episcopal Church in Coralville, Iowa. For those interested, here it is.
Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42
(Full lectionary passages are included below the sermon text along with today’s Collect, which is also referred to in the sermon.)
Do you ever feel hopeless? Helpless? Alone. I do. I think we all do from time to time. I don’t know about you, but I am very bad at exposing my need for help. I feel embarrassed. Ashamed. Worried that either no one will want to help me (because I’m unworthy) or that someone will rejoice in my sorrows (because I deserve them). I have a very unhealthy self-image sometimes.
Some of that comes from how I grew up. Some of that comes from my own personality quirks and issues. Either way, it is an unsustainable way to live.
For me, the most beautiful message in the whole Bible is grace, when God decides not to treat us the way we deserve, but instead with love, with forgiveness, with healing.
There is truth thrown in there. We aren’t allowed to cling to our fantasies that we are perfect. Instead, that truth is so beautifully mingled with kindness and acceptance. When it is God speaking truth to us, we don’t like be are being bashed with the truth, pummeled into submission.
No, we feel like the mist in our minds has been cleared and suddenly we can see things. With this clarity, honest self-evaluation is finally possible and we find ourselves humbled, not squashed or crushed, but no longer proud or defiant either.
It is in this moment when grace comes in and makes us feel loved.
It isn’t the guilt-ridden sort of thing many of us have experienced in life: “Yeah, you are really screwed up, but I guess I’ll love you anyway.” That makes us feel worse. Maybe we attempt to do penance and fail at that, too.
God’s grace simply reveals reality to us and, as we accept it, we are embraced with love. This is what we see when people say things like, “Here, let me help you up” and “I’m really happy to see you today” when we are in the middle of feeling alone or unworthy.
What happens when people don’t see us?
We have four passages today. Each has a slightly different perspective. Let’s see if they can help us answer that question.
In Exodus, God is using Moses to lead the people of Israel through the desert. They run out of water. The people react with anger. I’ve done that.
“Moses, you said…”
The people didn’t feel like their needs were being taken care of. In fairness to them, they didn’t have any water, so they had an urgent need and no visible means of meeting it. They didn’t ask God for help, they didn’t have faith in God. They got mad at Moses, who was the one they trusted to lead them into the desert and they blamed him. Moses asked God for help and God came through.
Today’s Psalm is primarily a song of praise, of thanksgiving. It extols the virtues of God as a King, a provider, and a protector. Then, in the middle of that exclamation, the incident from Exodus is mentioned.
It says things that I am really uncomfortable with. I’m okay with the honesty of “do not harden your hearts like they did.” That is factual. But, the idea that for forty years God detested that generation and then swore in his wrath that they would never enter God’s rest.” Ouch.
I don’t like the idea of a God like that. A God that is vindictive. A God that rejects people. Part of me fears this is how God is, because it is how God was always depicted to me growing up.
Part of me hopes this is more of a poetic expression that was written long after the fact and filled with hyperbolic exaggeration for effect, kind of like people used to tell stories about The Big Bad Wolf and Hansel and Gretel to keep young kids from wandering off in the woods.
The truth is, I don’t know. I’m uncomfortable.
Paul seems to go to the opposite extreme in the Epistle to the Romans. Here grace is preeminent. I read this and I have echoes in my mind of Martin Luther. Grace. Faith. While we were yet weak, Christ died for the ungodly. This is beautiful.
I remember Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast.”
Then I look back at Romans and see Paul boasting. But he is boasting in sufferings. This is something else I do not understand.
I mean, I understand his words and his real point, but I don’t like suffering. I don’t like to tell people I am suffering. I’m certainly not going to boast about suffering.
Suddenly, I get it. It is that last line of the first paragraph. “…because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
He’s not boasting about the actual suffering. He is boasting about the beauty of feeling accepted and loved in the middle of his suffering. It is this love that Paul feels that gives him hope. The grace in the realization that without Paul deserving it, Christ chose to sacrifice himself so that Paul could be reconciled to God.
I like it when people do nice things for me, especially when I know I don’t deserve it. It makes me uncomfortable, but it also makes me want to be a better person. It makes me want to spread undeserved kindness and unrequested love.
Three passages and I still don’t have an answer to the question “What happens when people don’t see us?”
Maybe that is where today’s Gospel comes in.
Jesus walks into a Samaritan city and sits by a well and talks to a woman. Already he has broken several social mores. Jews hated Samaritans. They would avoid their land and towns. They wouldn’t drink their water. Male Jews would avoid women and generally wouldn’t talk to them—any women, especially a Samaritan. Something is up.
Jesus asks the woman for water. They start talking. Jesus tells her about “living water” and she becomes intrigued. She asks him to give her some of this “living water.”
Jesus tells her all about herself.
She replies, “Sir, I see you are a prophet.”
He tells her the truth about herself, but continues to accept her and speak with her.
She runs into town and brings everyone back to meet Jesus.
The idea of the incarnation is amazing to me. The idea of God becoming flesh and dwelling among us, growing up as fully human, finding a way to understand us and relate to us as we are and then speak to us from within that understanding. This story exemplifies that.
What happens when people don’t see us?
I still don’t know. But, what I do know is that Jesus saw those who would move through the society of his day unseen by the religious leaders of his time. He saw, he approached, and he engaged.
That is when the woman asked him for the living water.
That is when you and I are able to ask for help—after we see and know that there is someone willing and able to give it.
What happens when people don’t see us? I don’t know. But I know that you and I have been seen by Christ. That through faith, we too can receive from God the same love and grace that we share together with our family here at New Song. I know that you and I are able to go out and see people and share what we have received with them.
Jesus asked for water from the hands of a woman in the land of the stranger; may he teach us to name our need, to love our neighbor, and to worship in spirit and truth.
Lord of the wellspring, source of life and truth: Jesus asked for water from the hands of a woman in the land of the stranger; may he teach us to name our need, to love our neighbor and to worship you in spirit and in truth, through Jesus Christ, who shows us who we are.
(Prayers for an Inclusive Church by Steven Shakespeare)
(All scripture passages are quoted from the Revised Standard Version translation of the Bible, copyright © National Council of Churches of Christ in America.)
The OT: Exodus 17:1-7
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. 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?” 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?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 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. 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. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
The Psalm: Psalm 95
Come, let us sing to the LORD; *
let us shout for joy to the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving *
and raise a loud shout to him with psalms.
For the LORD is a great God, *
and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are the caverns of the earth, *
and the heights of the hills are his also.
The sea is his, for he made it, *
and his hands have molded the dry land.
Come, let us bow down, and bend the knee, *
and kneel before the LORD our Maker.
For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand. *
Oh, that today you would hearken to his voice!
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 and said, *
“This people are wayward in their hearts;
they do not know my ways.”
So I swore in my wrath, *
“They shall not enter into my rest.”
The Epistle: Romans 5:1-11
Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person– though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
The Gospel: John 4:5-42
Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “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.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “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.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, `I have no husband'; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.
Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, `Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, `One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “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.”