She & I AM

sermon on John 4:3-29,39-42

Here’s a little project a few of us already got to work on in Bible study. This Bible reading is regularly seen as a contrast or paired story with the one we heard last week of Nicodemus. So if you can recall last week’s reading (and listened today), we could make a chart comparing the differences of the two:20180204_1152161.jpg

That list helps us to see the place of this woman.

Now, we recall that Nicodemus was displaced from the center: he didn’t have an advantage in understanding Jesus or receiving blessing from him. Nevertheless, we end up feeling that Nicodemus was the insider, and this unnamed Samaritan woman the absolute outsider. Such a system that would label the man more directly the insider maintains a damaging patriarchy that makes presumptions to exclude this woman.

We continue to live into a better world with the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements against sexual abuse by powerful male perpetrators, as these continue to change the systems and change the perspective of many people, especially those who were too apt to distrust a woman’s accusations, to sweep harmful behavior under a rug, to favor predators over the innocent.

But those rotten stereotypes have often figured into this story, too. Nicodemus becomes an honestly seeking good guy, while the Samaritan woman must be the bad girl. We have too many terms for a woman who has been through five husbands and now is living with someone else, and all of those terms are singularly disparaging to the woman and ignorant of the man.

It echoes the story of the woman caught in adultery later in the Gospel of John. That story won’t be in the Narrative Lectionary this year, and isn’t in our other Sunday Bible readings, either. Yet we know this story about a woman who is about to be put to death until Jesus says, “Let one without sin cast the first stone.” The story illustrates that none of us is perfect (while still feeling like that woman is less perfect). But what is much too rarely noticed is why it’s only a woman there. How did they catch her in adultery but not catch the man she was with?! It’s a story that is based in treating the woman as the worse or even sole offender.

So it’s worth the pause today to notice that Jesus never talks with this woman about sin or forgiveness. He doesn’t accuse or address moral behavior. Instead of presuming she has bad character, we could think about those five husbands plus one in other ways. It could be that all five have died.  Her interest in connecting with Jesus may not be because she has a guilty conscience. Her difficulty could be mortality, and not morality. And maybe rather than shacking up and living in sin with her current boyfriend, her brother or a brother-in-law might have been willing to take care of her in a society where being a single woman was almost a death sentence.

For that matter, we need to remember that even if the issue was serial divorce, in that culture divorce couldn’t be initiated by the woman. So it would have been that five husbands had all dismissed her, put her out on the street, left her at risk. Again, rather than seeing this Samaritan woman as the sinful perpetrator, we very likely should understand her to be the victim of the injustice.

Jesus reaches out to her.

And he reaches out in a phenomenal way. This passage portrays what Paul said in his letter to the Galatians, that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are…heirs according to the promise” (3:28-29). All of the dividing walls, the barriers, the thoughts that would exclude this woman, that would denigrate her, that would keep her out, that would say she didn’t have as good of place as Nicodemus or any man or any insider or anybody, all of that is simply undone by Jesus, who offers her himself.

Even more, phenomenally, Jesus offers himself to her more than any other: her conversation with Jesus is the longest recorded dialogue anybody gets to have with him in the Bible.

If the quantity of the conversation still doesn’t seem phenomenal, well…I have to admit I can’t keep up with this woman’s theological acumen and her faithful pondering, her persistence and arrival at astonishing belief. She may not have been seeking him, but she can keep up.

For starters, if I met someone who “told me everything I’ve ever done,” I’d be reluctant to continue the conversation. I’m more private and don’t want anybody to know me that well. And I sure as shootin’ wouldn’t go tell the whole town to come meet the guy who knows everything about me. I’d want to keep that guy pretty tightly under wraps.

For this telling and inviting to Jesus, Nicodemus never gets anywhere near serving as an evangelist like this. Even though he pops up twice more in the story, neither time does he convey anything remotely this faithful. Once, Nicodemus’s colleagues ask if anyone believes in Jesus, and the most he will reply is that Jesus should get a fair trial. He shows up again after the crucifixion with 100 pounds of embalming oils, clearly not looking for the resurrection, but evidently wanting to be sure Jesus gets good and buried, stays good and dead.

Besides the eventual outcome, where this woman manages to help bring her whole town to Jesus—meaning not only that he transcended the barrier to make her no longer an outsider but she also brought others in—besides that, simply her tenacity in trying to understand is phenomenal.

Starting with Jesus asking for a drink, she already presses against the pious cultural conventions and wonders about the systems of exclusion, Jewish man versus Samaritan woman.

Then he goes on to talk about living water. Now, that term could simply apply to running water. It could mean that Jesus knows where there’s a good stream, or a drinking fountain. She observes that he has no bucket, which may seem a bit facile, sort of a no-brainer, but it signals to me that she’s trying to track the conversation, to get ahold of this life that he’s offering. Nicodemus by this point had thrown up his hands and simply asked, “How can these things be?” and given up on engaging Jesus, deciding this life was too obscure.

Yet for the woman, somehow she’s able to keep chasing it down so that she can throw a question back at Jesus, again about being labeled an outsider, a question about what counts as appropriate worship, about whether it needs to be in the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus speaks on behalf of his Jewish heritage (again reminding us that, though the Gospel of John tries to parse the relationship of followers of Jesus to their Jewish heritage, the Gospel is not and should not be read as anti-Jewish).

Still, Jesus goes on to locate worship not as bound to a certain location, but in himself, not a place but a person. Not a building from which we can be kept out but a person who brings you in. Worship isn’t about where we go but who finds us. This is what we heard in the cleansing of the temple story, and also what we heard last fall in the burning bush, where God revealed Godself as I AM, God’s identity as I AM.

Here for the first time in the Gospel of John, Jesus also declares I AM. We’ll get more through Lent as he shapes our understanding: I AM the bread from heaven, I AM the light of the world, I AM the vine and you are the branches, I AM the way, the truth, and the life, I AM the good shepherd, the gate, I AM the resurrection and the life. Here it is unqualified, nothing more than the straight full identity: I AM. This is the God that Jesus is revealing.

This week I’m noticing that I AM can never allow God to be turned into an object, cannot objectify God or make God other. It’s nonsense to turn I AM around to “You are” or even “You are I AM.” It makes no sense. This identity won’t work in those ways. Neither for othering I AM can you talk about I AM as a description. You can’t go back and tell others “Hey, I met I AM.” Jesus can only self-reveal. And we can only repeat, Jesus said, “I AM.”

That first person identification also means in some way that God is the subject of all verbs. I AM will not even allow us to serve or worship as if we were in control, because you can’t serve I AM. It doesn’t make sense to worship I AM (unless you’re very egotistical). I don’t think this is only playing linguistic games with this name; in this case language is highlighting a God who is always the root, the core, the source, our fundamental basis, apart from whom no one and nothing exists, and in which we all must dwell. And none can be separate from that. It is impossible to leave outsiders. Apart from I AM there is no being. So we must be joined in I AM.

If you’re wondering about all of this, if you’re a little perplexed…well, I’m with you. Like a bush that burns without burning up, it’s inexplicable. I probably don’t explain it well because I can’t quite grasp it myself. I can’t map out what we do about Jesus as God and God in Jesus, and how we fit into God’s identity. So I may be the young white male. I may be the trained professional. I may be the insider to these sorts of questions.

But this Samaritan woman certainly did better than I do. I keep looking for words, turning it over, trying to define, feeling confused. She pursued the question, then she went to testify: come and meet the one. Whatever it was, she recognized that she was no longer an outsider, could not be, that there was nothing that left her out, neither any possible sin, nor injustice, nothing of how society had treated her could finally marginalize her. She was found by existence and life itself. She was brought to the center, and so she pointed others, too, to their true identity with I AM.

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sermon for World Communion Sunday & the burning bush

(Exodus 2:23-3:15, 4:10-17)

 

There’s so much that could be said about these Narrative Lectionary stories, and today you have the benefit of having two preachers unloading on you, so you should get to hear plenty over the next 45 minutes or so. Just to be clear: that’s a joke. Some of you were already squirming, so I’d better get on with it.

My initial point is that it’s good you have two pastors. Sonja and I wanted to give you a chance to hear different perspectives amid this passage. Moses asked “who is God?” and the answer was “I AM!” revealing God’s identity as “I AM WHO I AM” or “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE,” something of both personal integrity and also all being. We’re going to explore this weird name for a few minutes, pondering who this I AM is, what it means to have I AM as your God.

 

I AM who responds

The first theme about this God is that it is I AM who responds. We may think of this as a call story, of God calling and commissioning Moses, even as Moses argued knowing he was unqualified, still he repeated that phrase of acceptance we hear a lot in these weeks, “Here I am.” Sonja is going to say more, but with calling we should notice it’s first responding. The reading starts thick with this: God heard their groaning, God remembered, God took notice. Before God is I AM who calls, I AM responds. Our work is always preceded by God’s initiative and compassion.

That is critical because these people who were groaning and crying out apparently weren’t even expecting God to be listening. They likely felt very left out, living in the wrong place at the wrong time, without help, without hope, without God. Their entire existence of slavery in Egypt, of a vile, oppressive leader taking and killing their children, of deadly workloads and frustrations, that must all have seemed like desperate separation from God. And yet God heard. I AM responded.

God listens. God hears. God cares. Suffering and sorrow may feel so isolating, but they cannot cut you off from this I AM God who is striving to respond to you always. Your existence can’t be apart from I AM. Let’s keep listening for what it means to have a responsive God, the I AM who is centered on you and your needs.

 

I AM who accompanies

From Sonja’s focus on calling and equipping, I want to add a word about location. That the God I AM didn’t go to be directly amid the hurting people seems disappointing, but I can’t really give a reason for why that would be. Instead God shows up with a burning bush. Maybe it’s just storytelling flourish to have God show up in the vegetation.

From that place, consider this place. You may say there’s nothing so phenomenal here as shrubbery bursting into flame. To counter that, I’m going to remove my shoes to offer you a sensual cue. See, really the thing in the story wasn’t the bush itself. That was a sensual cue, also, to highlight God speaking, this I AM who responds and calls. That’s why we gather here, why we come to this place together, because we expect a word from God. We expect these messages and listen for words that tell us we are cared for and loved, that suffering is not what God intends for our lives or our world, listen for where we’re invited to contribute, where we’re called and sent to offer God’s care to our relatives and neighbors and people in need. That doesn’t mean God is only here. Rather, we come for the reminder that God is with us always everywhere.

In may seem less miraculous, but I’m amused that instead of a burning bush, God shows up today with a frozen loaf of gluten free bread, another sensual cue, directing us to the vital matter of God speaking to us. With bread at this table, God says “Here I Am, for you.” This is the word of presence, of joining with your life, of hearing your longing, of uniting you into the task, filling you with what (or who) you need to bear that presence for others.

This God is I AM who accompanies. In Exodus, God went with Moses, eventually leading the people as a pillar of cloud and fire. More for this name of God, I AM, is that Jesus claims this terminology in the Gospel of John, where we’re headed later in this Narrative Lectionary year. In his walking-, talking-, caring-, serving-, eating-, dying-, rising-self is the embodiment of the God I AM for you.

“I AM the bread of life,” is one of these ways Jesus identifies himself. He is the God who accompanies, literally breaks bread with you, abides with you for the journey, who knows and nourishes your life and will never leave you, through death and beyond.

We gather here to hear again that word of promise, here on ground made holy by the realization that your God is I AM who accompanies you.

 

 

Responding God I AM, we are standing on holy ground. Gathered together, we pray for all who are having Burning Bush Moments, For those struggling to believe that it’s actually You speaking, For those who, like Moses, think our insecurities or inadequacies disqualify us from your call, For those who receive callings that will require courage and sacrifice
We pray with expectant hearts…

 

Your call comes to us in words spoken here, through slow mouths and with lowly bread, with sounds of music and in quiet of prayer. Your presence is also with us amid bushes and trees that burn with autumn colors. You are with us in the wilderness and on mountains. And your voice finds us especially in the midst of hurt. When we’re fearing loss, you show up to fortify us with yourself, I AM. We pray with expectant hearts…

 

Equip us to do your will of justice and love. We pray for all leaders to hear the groans of the oppressed and respond with compassion and care. With you, we hear cries of those lives too long left in pain. We hear those suffering from natural disasters. We hear those facing war and poverty.  We hear those in our midst and on our hearts, including Ellen Lindgren in the hospital, Jean Oliversen at the death of her twin sister Jan Kelly, Jess Kaehny at the death of her grandfather,  Mary Margaret Nack,  Mara Bakken in her move to Paris, Emily Kuhn in Honduras, Don Falkos’ brother, Dennis, Thomas Wildman, Fred Loichinger, Ellen Roberts and Leigh, Phill Bloedow, recovering from shoulder surgery, Corkey Custer’s brother Mike, Nancy Greenwald and her mother Anita, Robin and Kathy Alexander, and Margaret Helming. We pray with expectant hearts…

We ask your blessing on these quilts, on the hands who made them this year, and blessings on all who will receive them through Lutheran World Relief.

We ask your commissioning care for the service trip for Habitat for Humanity in Jackson, WI, this week and pray for Mary Maxwell; Jean Einerson and Ann Ward; Rita and Rich Olson; Mary and John Rowe; Julie and Tom Walsh; JoAnne and Ken Streit.

We pray for these members of our congregation this week: James Hamre, Margaret Helming and Joe Powell, Jim and Jan Eastman, Kim and John Eighmy, Jean Einerson and Ann War.
God of our ancestors, God who joins us into a mystical communion of saints, God who is with us in every bite of nourishment to accompany us, God of all nations and peoples of this world together:  We pray with expectant hearts…

 

 

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Rejoicing amid the Darkness

Sermon for 3rd Sun. of Advent  14Dec14
1Thes5:16-24; John1:6-8,19-28; Isaiah61:1-4,8-11; Psalm126
Two words to start our 2nd reading which may seem like an impossibility. Two words from 1st Thessalonians: “Rejoice. Always.” So we should check it out, see if the Bible off-base.

With that, two things that have been on my mind to get us going. I read an interview this week of Eve Ensler, a feminist writer and activist. She says she witnesses in society both rage and joy, and for change “there’s no moving forward without joy.” That also makes me think of the new movie Interstellar. The plot is that earth is no longer sustaining humans; huge monoculture crops are failing and people will starve, so they’re looking for a new home planet in outer space. A line from the poet Dylan Thomas becomes a refrain in the movie: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” So, joy and rage.

Well, rage seems plenty easy and obvious. We’ve got frustrations and grumpiness and upset and complaining, frankly, down pat. It takes no genius to notice life isn’t as it should be and to be angry about it. It may be the place of women in society. It may be the persistent racism of police forces. It may be waste and greed. It may be against criminals or immigrants or Muslims or Israelis or political parties or football coaches.
Rage we’ve got. Raging and yelling ad nauseum against growing darkness is prevalent in our media, in our culture, in our lives. But we also know that the rage focusing on the dying light doesn’t get us where we want to be.

The movie Interstellar was a disappointment to me that way. It was beautiful in the cosmic universe, in pressing our understanding of physics and Einstein’s theories of what happens near black holes and all that. But it was devoid of life, of light, of joy. The humans rage, raged a lot. They raged about leaving earth. They raged that their farming practices weren’t working. They raged that relationships with siblings and with parents and with coworkers weren’t what they should be. They raged about sickness and death. They raged about time being too short and lives too fragile. They raged at what we don’t know, that our human brains cannot comprehend it all.

Interstellar-Movie

They raged, and failed to rejoice, to find the good of life, to see value in our planet besides as a place for endless acres of corn. It was blind even to see other creatures with us—no dogs or flowers or woodpeckers. It raged against dying light, but it failed to find much joy in the face of the darkness.

I bring all that up precisely because that is what we are able to do here. That is what our faith is. Rejoicing amid the darkness is why we are here, where it is proclaimed that darkness has been overcome, where with God’s Word even dried leaves will become evergreen.

To comprehend that faith, we should pause. See, when it says, “Rejoice always” that has potential to sound stupid. It can be a ridiculous notion. We simply can’t be happy all the time. Rejoice always? People hunger, so we rejoice? We’re at a funeral, and rejoice? We don’t know our purpose and feel like life is pointless, and we’re supposed to rejoice about it? We’re busy and stressed, and holidays can’t fulfill our expectations, and there’s too much injustice, and our whole world is falling apart, so we rejoice and throw a whoop-de-do party? We know there are times we won’t much feel very merry.

Even at our best, there’s disappointment. When we try our hardest, we could’ve done more. Our greatest successes are no final achievement, but merely pressure that says you need more. If we think we can find perfect satisfaction by trying to cross all the gifts off our list or have the right family gathering or be the most serene, the season simply cannot bear that burden of seeking contentment in those places. Our striving is bound to include lackluster or dark moments.

So if you don’t like trying to pretend everything is hunky-dory, there’s another way people take the imperative statement to “rejoice always”—as an instruction to stay positive and focus on the bright spots.

Sometimes that is worthwhile. A funeral may be a time not just to mourn loss but to recollect life. A bad diagnosis may allow you to put life in perspective. A flat tire may make you pause and breathe and notice the sky and find some gratitude. You may realize you’re not changing the world or solving all the problems, but you can care for where you are. There may be value in staying positive and looking on the bright side…unless it becomes an excuse to ignore or gloss over hard spots and troubling moments, an idea that all should be blissfully, rose-colored, to pretend the darkness is OK.

We have to realize that is not the fullness of our faith, and is certainly not the heart of what God is trying to say to you. You know, people are liable to call illness or tragedy or problems a message from God. But is God causing death, spreading diseases, popping tires, creating despair just to have a conversation with you? If that’s what it would take, I don’t like that shape of your life. It means that instead of listening when you’re in church you’re guessing after the light, after God, looking for evidence where you’re more likely to find absence or distraction.

The point of what I mean comes from our Gospel reading today. We meet John the Baptist, here known more as John the Testifier. It says he came to testify to the Light. Notice he does that by pointing away from himself. Most of this reading is John saying what he is not. “I am not the Messiah. I am not the Christ. I am not Elijah. I am not a prophet. I am not worthy.” I am not the Light.

This negativity is more remarkable because of who John is. In Matthew and Luke, Jesus says that nobody ever born is greater than John. In this Gospel he is the very first human mentioned. The gospel starts with that beautiful prologue at the very start of creation: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” And then verse 6 says there was a man sent from God, this John the testifier. Since the start of creation, he is the first person named.

So John could say, “You know, I’m kind of a big deal.” He could point to his outstanding references, since most of us don’t get to list Jesus on job applications. He could highlight his achievements, that last week Mark said he’s baptized all the people in Jerusalem and the whole Judean countryside. At the end of his life, he’d be able to say he reprimanded the king, called Herod to repent and live by a better moral standard. He could even say he suffered, was thrown in prison, and beheaded for his sense of justice and resilience in trying to serve God.

Yet John says, I am not. I am not. I am not. Instead, he points away from himself. He testifies to life. He illustrates the Light, says the dawn is increasing. It’s not time to rage at dying he says, but rejoice at coming. He names Jesus. “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” he says in the verse after this reading.

That is what we sing as we gather at this table. Here is the Lamb of God, who becomes for us what we may believe in, who connects us to God. In the darkness or gloominess or even in the hyper-electrified fluorescent twinkly sparkly glow of our days, here is the true Light. What comes into being in him is life. There is “no moving forward without joy,” and Jesus is the certain place for your confidence, on whom your hope may rest secure, who fills you with life and God’s promise, from baptism to this table to tomorrow morning to eternity.

The point, then, is neither optimism nor pessimism. It is not to look on the bright side, nor to disparage your achievements as worthless. It’s not to question your happiness or to ignore the bleakness or hardness of our world. The heart of this is not in pointing at what you have done, nor at what you have failed to do and how terrible things are. It doesn’t need to be all about you, but who is for you.

This is the good news. Through it all, we point to Jesus. I am not, but he is the great I AM. As we heard in passages last Lent, Jesus says I AM the bread of life. I AM the good shepherd. I AM the truth. I AM the vine. I AM your resurrection. I AM the light of the world.

“The true Light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” He doesn’t flee from but comes into the midst of the darkness, making it brighter for all. As you come to receive this Lamb of God, notice those around you, that he is shepherd for them and for all the hurting, scattered flock, for all creation. In him is life.

In him, you know that God has come to be with you, to dwell with you, to sustain and nourish you, to have life squeezed out for you, to give you new life, to renew heaven and earth. In him, even as there’s so much else that disappoints or leaves you with rage, still in Jesus you may confidently hope eternally and even—in spite of it all, or through it all—in him you may rejoice always.

SED_wall_1920x1200Hymn: Creator of the Stars of Night (ELW #245)

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