Third Sunday in Lent by Suzy Jeffreys

March 15, 2020

Lessons:

Exodus 17:1-7

Romans 5:1-11

John 4:5-42

Psalm 95

The Samaritan woman can see someone at the well as she approaches…a man, she realizes, as she gets closer. The text doesn’t say, but given the time of day it’s not unlikely that they would have been the only two people at the well. Most would’ve already done their water fetching in the early, cooler hours of the day. Why is she there? Based on what we “learn” about her life later in the passage – that she has had multiple husbands – she may be a scorned woman on the margins of society. It’s not necessary to extrapolate from this that she would have been seen as a loose woman or even a prostitute, because in first century Palestine a woman couldn’t initiate divorce, so her five former husbands must either divorced her or died, leaving her possibly with no stability or support in a deeply patriarchal society. And here sits another man, and not just any man, a Jew. Why is she there?

Jesus can see someone approaching the well as he sits, resting his aching dusty feet. It’s a woman, he realizes, as she gets closer. He knows he’s in Samaria so the fact that she’s a Samaritan woman doesn’t surprise him the way his Jewishness surprises her. We know why Jesus is at the well, because the text does say. He’s tired and thirsty, and he’s alone because his disciples have gone to find food. But why is he at this well? In the two verses that come before today’s reading, John tells us that, “[Jesus] left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had go through Samaria.” Judea, in the southern kingdom, inhabited historically by Jews, with the capital city and center of worship in Jerusalem. Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, where worship centered on Mt. Gerizim. And Galilee, up here. So of course Jesus had to go through Samaria to get there. And yet, the animosity between Jews and Samaritans  in this time was so deep, so imbedded – for centuries’ worth of reasons that can be summarized as, “They worship God wrong” – that most Jews would say, “I’m going to Galilee but of course I have to go around Samaria, over the Jordan, through the Decapolis and back over the Jordan into Galilee finally. You know how it is.” But Jesus, a Jew, had to go through Samaria. So why is he really there?

Why are they there, together?

They are there for a conversation.

Last week’s Gospel reading was also about a conversation, between Jesus and Nicodemus, and when we have back-to-back stories with a similar setup – a one-on-one conversation between Jesus and another person – there’s an opportunity to ask what we can learn, not just from today’s story but from comparing it to last week’s. There are two things in today’s story that I want to highlight.

First, the questions. Nicodemus opened his conversation with Jesus with a statement. The Samaritan woman opens with a very cut-to-the-chase question: how are you talking to me? And the questions continue, from the minor – how do you plan to get water without a bucket? – to the major – should we worship in Jerusalem (remember, where the Jews worshipped) or Mt. Gerizim (where the Samaritans thought worship should be centered)? And finally to the most incredulous question of all, the one she asks not of Jesus but of her fellow villagers – “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” She is curious and persistent; she wants to know. In addition to the contrast with Nicodemus’s statements, there’s a contrast with the disciples who, when they return with food, are, reasonably, shocked to see him speaking with a Samaritan woman but who keep their mouths shut, who don’t ask the question that John tells us is running through their heads – “Why are you talking to her?” Imagine what they might have learned from Jesus about crossing boundaries, about the inclusivity of the good news, had they asked. But their lack of curiosity kept them from knowing more about Jesus and more about God in this moment.

The second distinction in this conversation is their vulnerability. Jesus is naturally vulnerable – he needs water, something the woman can get for him. As a woman alone with a man, the Samaritan woman is culturally vulnerable. In order to make his point about living water, Jesus needs her questions; he’s vulnerable to how she interacts with him. And, as her eyes are opened to the living water Jesus offers, she shows her vulnerability in how deeply she needs it, saying, “give me this water.” As Jeanne told us last week, Nicodemus is also in a vulnerable position coming to Jesus. He’s well-respected, in a position of influence among the Jews, and Jesus is a radical. But rather than embrace this vulnerability, he diminishes it by coming to Jesus under cover of darkness. This is such human behavior, it’s so relatable. Feeling vulnerable, we hide in order not to be exposed, not to be truly known.

And yet, when the moment of greatest vulnerability comes – when Jesus tells the woman that he knows about her husbands – she doesn’t flee, she doesn’t accuse Jesus of being wrong, she doesn’t defend herself. She has been exposed, and yet because Jesus too has been vulnerable, and because she has practiced vulnerability already in this conversation and had it rewarded with more conversation, she gets the gift of knowing and being known.

She is known to Jesus. He knows about her husbands, yes, and about her current living situation, yes. And at the risk of being flip or even sacrilegious, Jesus knowing that is sort of like a “cool Jesus trick.” But it’s how he responds to knowing this about her that really shows us and shows her who she truly is. She is known to Jesus as one deserving of this living water. I’m so glad last week when Jeanne read John 3:16 during her sermon that she didn’t stop there but kept going through John 3:17: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Jesus’ knowledge of this woman leads not to condemnation but to the offer of eternal life, living water, Godself.

And then Jesus is also known to the woman. There’s a Greek phrase ego eimi, and while it’s typically translated “I am” its meaning is something more like, “I always have been, am and always will be.” Capital I, capital A, capital M. John, as the Gospel writer most explicit about Jesus’ divinity, has Jesus speaking this phrase 24 times in his Gospel, considerably more than any other Gospel. And the very first time it appears in John is here when Jesus responds to her saying “I know that Messiah is coming,” by saying, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” This way of saying “that’s me,” (ego eimi) would be familiar from the Torah – for example, Moses encounter with God in the burning bush – and the writings of the prophets like Isaiah. Knowing now what she does, she leaves her water, the reason she came there in the first place, to share this knowledge.

As Jeanne mentioned last week, John loves a metaphor. And there may not be a better metaphor for the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ – the knitting together of spiritual and earthly – than the simple act of communication. Sitting face to face with another human, over a well in the hot sun, in a hallway at work, in the dark, over dinner. Talking gives embodiment to our thoughts and feelings and instincts. It takes all of those things, none of which are tangible, all of which are spiritual, and turns them into words that another person can hear and share in and by which we are known. When the woman leaves the well, without her water jar, she has not had her physical thirst quenched. When the chapter ends, Jesus has not eaten the food the disciples brought back. Perhaps John is telling us that they have been filled by these encounters.

A final word that needs to be said in a sermon about how conversation makes us known to each other, in the midst of a global pandemic, which we now know requires us to stay apart, to keep our bodies away from each other. I’d like to suggest two things. When you do have occasion to safely talk with someone ask questions and be vulnerable. Are you feeling worried? Lonely? What are you missing, and how are you staying connected? Get to the good stuff; let deep conversation become as second-nature as singing happy birthday twice while washing your hands. Stay known to each other. And second, talk to God, pray, meditate, write, whatever that looks like for you. Become known to God and yourself as one deserving of living water.

 

Third Sunday in Lent by Suzy Jeffreys

March 24, 2019

Lessons:

Exodus 3:1-15

1 Corinthians 10:1-13

Luke 13:1-9

Psalm 63:1-8

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

When I told my husband that I was going to talk about darkness this morning, he said, “You’re not going to make it one of those interactive sermons where you ask everyone to close their eyes, are you?” He’s not a big fan of audience – or congregation – participation, if you couldn’t guess. If you’re like him, rest easy. I am not. But I am going to say something that as a young person going to church I would’ve loved to hear a preacher say – feel free to close your eyes during this sermon. As I was preparing for today, sitting on our couch at home in the evening, I found myself frequently looking out our front window at the darkening night sky as I considered how we talk about darkness, how we behave when we come upon it and what we might be missing when we behave that way.

In our western, technologically-developed, white-dominated society, when we say darkness, we often, almost always, are speaking of something negative. We talk about dark moods, being afraid of the dark, people who are the “black sheep” of their family. And like no one else in the history of our world, we push the literal darkness out of our lives. We yell to our kids to “come inside, it’s getting dark.” Even after we close our eyes, we leave nightlights on to show us the way, our electronics blink in the corner of our rooms, in my room the humidifier and the baby monitor both shine bright. If I got to the kitchen for a drink of water, the microwave and oven clocks provide all the illumination I need. That is the absolute totality with which we, in our society, have shunned darkness, because we believe about darkness being inherently scary or evil.

So if that’s a baseline for how we talk about darkness, it’s no wonder how we typically behave when we encounter it. We run, we turn our backs, we lock the doors, we pull the covers over our heads, we ask our parents to reassure us that everything will be ok. I don’t know if this is just me, but man can I literally let my own thoughts about darkness, not even the darkness itself, terrify me. I’ll be going to bed, slowly turning out lights as I head toward the bedroom where my husband is already asleep, and my feet will start to move quicker, my heart rate goes up, my gut just tells me to move through the darkness quickly and get to my bed, to my little reading light.

That’s why Moses’ encounter with the burning bush in this morning’s reading is so unusual to me. Now a story about a burning bush in what may have been the middle of the day may seem an odd reading to provoke a conversation about darkness…but I’m going to use the definition of darkness that Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor gives in her book Learning to Walk in the Dark. She writes, “darkness is shorthand for anything that scares me – that I want no part of – either because I am sure that I do not have the resources to survive it or because I do not want to find out.” And there’s no doubt that fire is one of those things that invokes fear, whether it’s opening the oven to flames to just smelling smoke somewhere it shouldn’t be to the absolutely devastating and terrifying impact on life and livelihood we saw in the California wildfires last year…and in the Gorge the summer before. Fire is a force that, rightly, makes us turn and run. It is a powerful darkness.

So we might expect Moses to behave the way we humans typically do when we encounter something terrifying…turn and run, possibly even leaving behind our flock that our father-in-law had entrusted to us. In the grips of fear, we take flight and put as much distance between us and the darkness as we can. But Moses didn’t do this.

First, we hear that “the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed,” which suggests that the fire maybe didn’t look like a typical brush fire. No, this blaze is described as being different, as not consuming the thing that it was burning. That gives us the sense that something strange, something unknown, something maybe to fear, was present. And yet Moses’s response is “I must turn aside and look at this.” While he would go on to have many more direct encounters with God, this was Moses’ first. It’s not like this was a common occurrence for him, God showing up in dazzling form. It’s not like Moses knew what to expect, or that he could assume from past experience of God’s presence that he ought to investigate. We get the sense from the reading that Moses was compelled and curious, and it’s at this point – when the Lord sees that he’s turned aside to approach the burning bush, that God then speaks to Moses, calls his name. And then Moses is afraid and he hides his face.

There is a lovely children’s book by the author Lemony Snicket called The Dark that I read to our kids about a young boy named Laszlo who we’re told at the start is afraid of the dark, the dark that lives in the same house as Laszlo, in the closet, behind the shower curtain, in the basement and, at night, across all the windows and doors of the house. Every morning Laszlo opens the basement door, stands at the top of steps and says “Hi” down the stairs to the dark, hoping that by visiting the dark in its room, the dark won’t come to his room. And then one night the dark says “Hi” back and tells Laszlo it wants to show him something. So Laszlo follows the dark around the house, finally down into the basement, where the dark shows him a chest of drawers full of lightbulbs. Laszlo says thank you, and, as Lemony Snicket writes, “The dark kept on living with Laszlo, but it never bothered him again.”

Who of us, if we heard something in the dark – the dark itself – asking us to follow it to show us something, would go along? Who of us, if while out walking alone saw a bush consumed by a strange blaze would get closer to investigate? And if we chose not to, who of us might miss the voice of God? Might miss hearing God call our name? Might miss being given a gift to help us understand and see our darkness. Might not see the “the way out” that Paul writes to the Corinthians about in his first letter to them that we heard from this morning.

There’s a lot in that passage we heard from 1 Corinthians. First, Paul is reminding the Corinthians of their heritage in the Israelites who were led into the wilderness by God through Moses, a journey that began with Moses encountering God in the burning bush. Second, Paul is reminding the Corinthians of the destruction and death that befell thousands of those Israelites, their ancestors, because of their turn toward evil. Why bring this all up? Why remind the Corinthians of these terrifying ends that many Israelites met at the very hand of God? Because, as he says in the final sentences of the reading from this morning, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.” He is reminding the Corinthians that despite the centuries they have on the Israelites, they have not somehow succeeded in separating themselves from the darkness of temptation, whether through special knowledge or spiritual awakening or even proximity to Jesus Christ. They are still confronted by darkness too. And then Paul writes – in one of the most perplexing statements in his writing – and there are many – “God is faithful, and God will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing God will also provide a way out so that you may be able to endure it.” That verse has always sent my brain into spirals.

Paul says God will not test you beyond your strength. What would it look like to be tested beyond your strength? When my mom died in 2012 after seven months with brain cancer, I was not enduring. I felt tested way beyond my strength, and so I did two things – I drank a fair bit of wine and I slept a lot. All I could do for months was avoid the darkness of her death, and alcohol and sleep facilitated that avoidance.

I’ve often fixated in those verses on the idea of God “providing a way out” and asked what that looks like. But I think maybe it’s the “ability to endure” that is the way out. In the Greek the word translated as “ability to endure” has the connotation of “to carry on under,” which is to say to be burdened by, to feel the weight of the burden, the weight of the darkness, of the temptation. For me and the death of my mom, it was finally feeling the weight of the darkness – picturing my mom ill, recounting conversations we’d had in her final months, thinking about my own immortality – that was the way out. The way out was to go further in.

There is a risk here in romanticizing darkness. In terms of literal darkness, the places on our planet that are best lit are not the ones that are most populous only but the ones that are most populated by the wealthy. Many people on our planet do not have or have been denied access to electricity, and therefore to the ability to light the darkness, and in many places and many ways this contributes to poor health, to oppression by those with resources and power, and to individual harm. In addition, we risk ignoring that there are privileges in whiteness, in seeing and in mental health that allow some of us to simply to explore the dark areas of our lives and the world when it’s most convenient for us. I think we combat this by practicing darkness in the way we do the spiritual practice of prayer or meditation: by saying yes to exploring dark things when they become known to us, not just when we choose. By making attention to darkness an everyday part of our lives. By believing and amplifying the voices of those whose skin color, whose mental health, whose life circumstances, mean that they experience darkness regularly and without warning or without their choosing.

Lent means, literally, springtime. The sun is out, at least it was, the days are longer. But our rebirth in Lent must necessarily come out of the darkness of winter. There are wonderful opportunities in Lent still to explore both darkness and rebirth, to accept that God may inhabit the darkness in our lives and to go to God there. I wish I could say that when I went deeper into that darkness of losing a parent, I discovered a loving and kind God of comfort. I didn’t. I discovered that I believe fewer things about God than I once did, but that the ones I still believe I do so more deeply and fiercely than ever. Was that worth it? No. I would rather have my mom alive. But I can say that to the God I know now, the God I would not have met had I not gone into the darkness.

 

 

Third Sunday in Lent by The Rev. Martin Elfert

March 4, 2018

Lessons:

Exodus 20:1-17

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

John 2:13-22

Psalm 19

One of my theological heroes, the Franciscan priest and author and activist, Richard Rohr, has said that in all of his years of attending church he has never ever heard a sermon on the Tenth Commandment:[1]

You shall not covet.

You shall not covet your neighbour’s ox or donkey or sports car or lawn mower or flat screen TV. You shall not wish you were dating your neighbour’s spouse (let’s broaden the lens a little here from scripture, and not assume a heterosexual male perspective). You shall not covet someone else’s stuff or someone else’s life.

If Rohr is right about never encountering Commandment Ten as a sermon topic (and anecdotally, his experience is consistent with my own: I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sermon on this subject myself) then: how come? How come those of us who have the privilege to preach are ignoring or dodging God’s prohibition on covetousness?

Well, maybe preachers recognise that covetousness is an almost universal phenomenon and we are nervous about a subject that is likely to touch a nerve in, well, everyone. Covetousness certainly has been and remains a part of my own life. During those times in the theatre business when I was underemployed, I coveted the career opportunities that some of my peers had. During high school, when I was telling a story about how everyone but me had a girlfriend, I coveted the romance that some of my classmates had found. And to this day, I kind of covet the effortlessness with which some folks appear to navigate social situations; I don’t share the common fear of public speaking – standing here is pretty natural for me –but I find cocktail parties mildly terrifying.

Now to be clear, there is nothing wrong with wanting any of the things that I just named: it is good and fine to want to gainfully and steadily employed, to want romance in your life, to want to navigate social encounters with a degree of ease. What distinguishes covetousness from a dream or an aspiration is that covetousness assumes a perspective on the world based around scarcity and resentment. It assumes that, if I am to have the things that I want then you need to not have them. I need to take them from you. If I am going to win, you have to lose.

Richard Rohr’s guess – and maybe this is a variation on what I just said – is that preachers don’t touch covetousness because we recognise that so much of our society is built around it. To look at the ads at the Oscars or on the bus or on a billboard is to see one monument to coveting after another. Here in the ad is a bunch of young, athletic, beautiful people. And they are having the best time on a beach or at a party while surrounded by their equally young, beautiful, and athletic friends. The message is clear: if you want to be young, beautiful, and athletic, if you want to be happy, if you want to be lovable and loved, you need the goods or the services that the people in this ad have.

Occasionally, Madison Avenue will wink just a tiny bit in one of these ads. I remember a Home Depot spot that kind of mocked the competition between two neighbours, both of whom wanted to have the most beautiful lawn. But the ad didn’t wink too much. It said: even though a lawn war is silly, even though coveting your neighbours grass is demonstrably ridiculous, you should probably still buy our lawn care products.

Better to be safe than sorry.

I have wondered, sometimes, why I find it so demoralising, so draining to walk through Lloyd Center. Maybe what wears me down so much is the unexamined and unnamed religiosity of the place. In that building there are a thousand and one messages that say: this is the place where you will find your freedom. We have the keys to the kingdom here. If you are to find healing, you need this stuff; if you are to find belonging, you need this stuff; if you are to find meaning, you need this stuff.

Most of us have tried entering into the contract that Lloyd Center and places like it offer: we have bought the new necktie or phone or whatever. And for a while it worked: we had a rush of satisfaction and happiness for a few hours or maybe even a few days. But then it wore off and we realised that we needed something else, something more if we were to be happy if we were to fill the hole in our lives. This built-in dissatisfaction is, of course, by design. The consumer model would fall apart pretty fast if you could buy one and only one iPhone and then be happy forever.

I think that I have told you before about my friend Barbara. Barbara is in her nineties, she is one of the people whom I see when I preside at the Eucharist over at Holladay Park Plaza. I look forward to seeing her every month. Much like the recently deceased Charlotte Creswell, Barbara has a palpable joy and palpable faith – a joy and a faith that she has chosen despite some significant suffering in her life. Barbara said to me once:

We have to be careful about what we worship. Because we will worship something.

You and I will worship something.

I spend a good part of my time talking with folks about faith. And pretty often, someone will say to me about one of the things that we say in church:

I don’t know if I can believe that.

And you know what? Good. God invites us to question. God expects us to question. I just wish that we would expand that questioning, so that when we stand in the middle of Lloyd Center and see its promises that our credit cards will allow us to buy love and freedom, we might say to ourselves:

I don’t know if I can believe that.

Scholars who study rabbinical interpretation, who examine the long Jewish history of interpreting scripture, tell us that the Jewish tradition tends to give special attention to the first and last items in a list or a sequence, that these items are set apart or emphasised versus the rest of the list, that they are tied together.[2] Thus, in the Ten Commandments, this final commandment – you shall not covet – is tied to the first commandment – I am the Lord your God… you shall have no other gods before me.

This linking makes a lot of sense to me. Because it seems to me that coveting is all about directing our love and our energy towards something that isn’t God, about having other gods before God. What we find at Lloyd Center – call it capitalism, call it consumerism – in a very real sense, is a religion: it is a promise that you and I will find healing in stuff, that we will find belonging in stuff, that we will find meaning in stuff.

At the far entrance, there is actually a statue within a fountain made out of coins. Could we call that an idol to money? It isn’t too hard to imagine Jesus outside of Lloyd Center. It isn’t too hard to imagine him seeing that idol, picking up his whip of cords, and going berserk.

To let go of covetousness is hard. It is an act of vulnerability and hope. It is a choice to go through the world saying that there is enough, and that I have enough, and that who I am is enough. I need to be something more, I don’t need to get something more in order to be loved by others or by God.

Keeping the commandment to not covet, in other words, isn’t just good for our neighbour, it isn’t just good for creation, it is good for our very souls. Setting aside covetousness allows us to be genuinely happy for other folks’ successes. Keeping the Tenth Commandment, hard though it may be, allows us to follow Jesus’ commandment: to love God, to love our neighbour, and – amazingly, amazingly enough – to love ourselves.

[1] Richard Rohr’s Meditation: Community as Alternative Consciousness. Accessed March 03, 2018. http://campaign.r20.constantcontact.com/render?m=1103098668616&ca=bb8b4e6d-8bc4-4bc3-b3fc-facb2ed56d19.

[2] “Lent 3B.” Girardian Lectionary. Accessed March 03, 2018. http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-b/lent3b/.