Tuesday, March 22, 2011

At the Well

John 4: 5-42, page 94
So he 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 in 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 he 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.”
There are circumstances where I love running into people I know. I love to run into people when I have on a freshly pressed shirt that Sara has helped me match to some clean slacks. I love to run into people out at restaurants downtown because there’s really something wonderful about our downtown. And I love to run into people when Lily, Sara, and I are walking home from church on Sunday afternoons because that is one of the happiest moments of my week – we are all happy to be walking together, the sermon I’ve been preparing for all week has been preached, and Lily is always doing the cutest things – stopping to touch flowers, giving Sara and me rocks, or trying to balance on the curb.
On the other hand, there are plenty of times when I would rather not run into anyone who I know. I don’t like to be seen when it’s 10 in the morning and I still haven’t changed out of my pajamas. I’d hate for someone to catch me in the drive-though at McDonalds. And there are plenty of times when Lily isn’t doing the world’s cutest things – when she is combing her hair with peanut butter, throwing her lunch on the floor, or crying hard and stretching out her legs so that she gives the impression she’s being kidnapped by me.
There are times when we are proud to be seen, when we are proud to be introduced to someone new, and for people to know who we are; and there are other times when we would rather not be seen, when we would rather hide.
That’s one reason I’m thankful Wal-Mart is open 24 hours a day – you don’t want to be checking out next to anyone you know when, “hoping to stop gas before it starts”, you’ve run out for a box of Beano melt-a-ways.
The unfortunate truth however, is that some live their whole lives that way. They would always rather not be seen, they would always rather not be known, and they would hate for you to ever see them with their family as their family is not something that they are proud of.
So they are thankful too that Wal-Mart is open 24 hours a day because they would rather not face the judgmental gaze of those of us who normally shop during daylight hours, they are thankful for the drive-through because it grants them anonymity when ordering more for lunch than most would find acceptable, and they keep to themselves mostly because they are afraid of what you might say if you met their mother, their father, their children, or their husband.
Wal-Mart is open 24 hours a day, which is nice for people who believe they have something to be ashamed of, who believe that they are different from most people, who believe that they will be judged.
We don’t know their whole story, but our scripture lesson for today tells one that isn’t so different. For fear of what they would say, for fear of how they would stare, for fear of their judgment, this woman goes to the well, not when the rest of her village goes, at the beginning of the day in the cool of morning, but when the rest of her village takes refuge from the heat, at midday.
She has good reason to go to the well at that time – for her, facing judgment from the other women wasn’t just a possibility, surely it was all but guaranteed. There may have been one or two kind if patronizing glances, but for a woman with five husbands there was the inevitable harshness of the majority’s gaze.
It’s sad to think about her. No one to talk with there at the well. No one to share her bucket and no one to share her load. She must have been so envious of the others – not only did they start their day with fresh water, but they started their day with laughter at whose husband snored the loudest, whose child grew the fastest, and whose mother-in-law meddled the most.
His voice must have shocked her. As his voice shocks us all.
Shocks us all with his request of us, as though we had something so worthy it deserved to touch his lips.
Shocks us all that he speaks to us as though we were equal, as though speaking to the King of Kings were something we did every day.
And shocks us all that, in a world where we have been afraid to be seen, too afraid to show up for fear of what they will say and how they will look, he has sought us out as though we were something worth searching for.
But this is just how he is.
Your gifts bring him such joy.
Your words always reach his ears as he is always listening, even when your prayers are but groans too deep for words.
And he does search for you, even when the whole world is telling you that you must earn your worth, you must gain their respect, you must fight to be seen – in a world of value and worth meted out on a unforgiving scale – he seeks you out because in his eyes you are like a coin lost in the dark of night – for you he lights his lamp, sweeps the house, and searches the floor until he finds it – in his eyes you are like a lost sheep, and for you he would leave 99 in open country to go after you until you are found – in his eyes, while the world around you looks down their nose, he sees you for who you truly are, worthy, beloved, child of God.
Once he found her, she left her water jar and went to tell the whole city.
What will you do?

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Tempter Came

Matthew 4: 1-11, page 3
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
Lent has begun, and those of us who have decided on something to give up join with Christ in 40 days and 40 nights of fasting. But after reading this lesson it’s clear that me giving up sweet tea hardly compares to what Jesus went through. Our lesson begins, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
This is the beginning of his ministry. Having just been baptized by John in the river his work has now begun, but maybe you are like me wondering why Jesus didn’t get to start with something easier.
Face to face with Satan is no easy start to a ministry, but with Jesus everything its relative. With Jesus, considering the cross and everything else he went through, maybe this was the easier thing to start with; at least it was clear, he seems to know that he was being tempted by Satan and not Satan in disguise.
I was looking through the Wednesday paper on my way to Robin Munger’s recipe for catfish stew when the headline on 7A stopped me in my tracks, “Columbia area zip codes turn up cash for residents.” I kept reading and as it turns out “Valuable uncut sheets of never circulated $2 bills are actually being released to the first 7,112 callers who find their zip code on the distribution list below and beat the 48 hour deadline to get Vault Sacks full of real money.” All I have to do is call and I could win Vault Sacks full of money! I thought to myself. Why wasn’t this on the front page? I scanned the page for the phone number I needed to call only to find the words, “Paid Advertisement” in small print at the very top – that was the only thing that gave it away.
If it would have looked like an advertisement I never would have paid any attention, but because it looked like news I was caught off guard.
I think that’s how it is with the devil, if he’s dressed in red with horns and a pointy tail you know to stay away, but if temptation comes from a friend it can catch you off guard.
It still doesn’t sound like a walk in the park, but it’s one thing for Jesus to fight the temptation to turn those rocks into bread with Satan tempting him to, but feeding himself pales in comparison to feeding crowds.
Crowds surrounded him and the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into villages and buy food for themselves” (Matt 14: 13-21). Whereas he could have sent them all away and provided for himself and his friends, instead, taking loaves and two fish he looked up to heaven and blessed and broke the loaves and the crowd was fed.
Then Christ faced a great temptation when the tempter took him to the pinnacle of the temple and called him to prove himself by showing that God would save him.
But the greater temptation to save himself must have come when Jesus told his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering and be killed. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it Lord! This must never happen to you” (Matt 16: 21-23).
If he couldn’t stand up to Satan how would he stand up to his friend Peter – they both wanted him to choose self-preservation, but Christ knew he had not come to save himself.
Again when the devil offered him power –when Satan took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me” – if Jesus had not possessed the power to say no then, he never would have been able to answer the disciples when they came to him and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18: 1-5).
Jesus was tempted in the desert to commit idolatry – to give ultimate significance to what is passing – to give hunger the kind of authority that directs destiny, to give self-preservation importance above all else, and to make power the chief concern in his life when power doesn’t last forever.
He was faced with the temptation to fall right at the beginning of his ministry, and when temptation came again in the words of his own friends, he had the power to resist.
We are not Jesus and we don’t face the devil himself out there in the desert, but we will face temptation, and if we haven’t first learned to deal with temptation ourselves, if we haven’t first learned what temptations threaten to take us off course, when temptation doesn’t come from a pointy-tailed devil but from the mouth of the familiar, the friend, even the beloved, we may not have the power to resist.
Christ is given the opportunity to strengthen his ability to fight temptation there in the desert where the enemy is clear and so he is able to fight temptation when even Peter threatens to lead him off course.
When temptation comes to you, if you haven’t already prepared yourself, known yourself well enough to know what might cause you to stumble, where will you go, what will you do?
This time of Lent calls us all to awareness, to think before you do, to know yourself well enough to know what temptation waits so that like Christ, when the danger of temptation comes when you are least expecting it you will be able to hold onto faith until temptation passes.
Hold onto faith, temptation will pass; hold onto faith.

Monday, March 7, 2011

It is good for us to be here

Matthew 17: 1-9, page 18

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.
Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus alone.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”
Peter made that statement just after seeing, what I’m going to assume was, up to this point in his life, the most incredible thing he had ever seen – and I say it is good for us to be here today as this is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen.
It’s not every 30 year old preacher who gets to preach at a church’s 200th anniversary to a standing room only crowd – and to tell you the truth I think that I feel something like Collin Firth must have felt as he accepted the Oscar for best actor last Sunday saying, “I have a feeling my career just peaked.”
It is good to be here – it is good for us to be here – because not many churches make it this far. It’s something we’ve got to really soak in, enjoy, remember. And it’s not just the anniversary that is worth celebrating. In addition to having something worth celebrating, we’re surrounded by people worth celebrating – we’ve got relationships worth celebrating.
Here today are folks who haven’t been to church in a long time, folks we haven’t seen in a long time who have made a difference to us, who inspired us to believe, who strengthened us in the faith.
It’s days like today that we don’t want to ever end – so while it sounded funny coming out of Peter’s mouth, “Lord it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah,” on a day like today we can all understand why he wanted to build those dwellings up on the mount of transfiguration – he didn’t want the moment to end.
A poem published in the Herald this past week by Joyce Sutphen of Minnesota sums this feeling up well. “The Aunts,” inspired by her own aunts, I assume, are the kind of people who couldn’t let a visit with one another come to an end:

I like it when they get together
and talk in voices that sound
like apple trees and grape vines,

and some of them wear hats
and go to Arizona in the winter,
and they all like to play cards.

They will always be the ones
who say “It is time to go now,”
even as we linger at the door,

or stand by the waiting cars, they
remember someone—an uncle we
never knew—and sigh, all

of them together, like wind
in the oak trees behind the farm
where they grew up—a place

I remember—especially
the hen house and the soft
clucking that filled the sunlit yard.

This is a day worth savoring, the kind of day we don’t want to end so we will be prolonging our goodbyes, standing in doorways or waiting by cars.
David Lock, longtime member here, was telling me about another many of you may know well, Paul Fulton, who used to say, “The good Lord only made so many good days, and this must be one of them.”
We celebrate the past today – we celebrate the legacy of those who, through hard work, dedication, and faith in God gave us what we now enjoy – but we also look around realizing that many of them are no longer here with us.
And while we celebrate the past today we also look towards the future, not knowing what it might hold.
Our passage in Matthew begins with, “six days later.” It’s six days later from Christ foretelling his death – in chapter 16 we read that “from that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed.”
So Peter wants to build three dwellings up on the mount of transfiguration because he knows exactly what awaits them down in the valley, once they come down from the mountain.
Those of us who can identify with Peter and his fear hear in the words that decorate the face of our church, “Celebrating the past, embracing the future,” a statement of profound faith as embracing the future is no simple thing.
It’s an amazing thing, a day like today – we celebrate the faithful of the past – but for us to join their ranks we must learn to deal with the uncertainty of the future.
Bob Duncan told me about one such faithful person. I was given a great gift last week by Bob, our county’s own historian and member of this church – he took the time to give me a tour of the surrounding area, and during that tour he told me stories, some of which I am quite confident might just be true. One of our first stops was Lasting Hope Presbyterian Church. The church began not too long after ours with a woman named Nancy Lockridge who lived up that way and desperately prayed for a minister to come out to Carter’s Creek to reform the heathen who surrounded her. A minister did come, and knowing well the character of the people there he gathered up everybody, stood up on a stump with a gun holstered to his belt and a Bible in his hand, and announced, “I’m either here to preach or to fight, you pick.” He preached, and the more he preached the more people changed, and before anybody knew it Nancy Lockridge’s prayers, her hopes that things would get better, had turned into a fine country church that the people named Lasting Hope.
Bob pulled the truck up to the top of the hill and he said, “This is it.” This is where the church used to be. Today all that’s left is the cemetery.
Our world is changing, the future is uncertain, and as we celebrate the past, 200 years of worship, Sunday School, baptisms, music that lifts the soul, the breaking of bread and drinking of the cup, it is all too easy to be afraid for fear that this is as good as it’s going to get.
This fear is nothing new.
“When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
To be touched by Jesus is no simple thing. He touched the blind and they were given sight, the hemorrhaging woman reached out to just touch the hem of his garment and she was made well – and he touched the disciples as they came face to face with the future and found themselves petrified by it. But when he touched them, like a blind man, for the first time they could see, like a hemorrhaging woman, for the first time they had reason to hope, for beyond the valley is a mountain top far greater than any they could have ever imagined.
This is our hope, our lasting hope, that beyond this day, down through the valley whatever it holds, whether great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, even suffering unto death, on the third day he rose. And by this testimony I assure you that beyond this great day is one so great you may not even be able to imagine it – for he walked through the valley of the shadow of death that like him you might also rise.
It is so easy to give up, to look back without going forward, to assume that the best days are long gone – but our lasting hope is that there is no mountain top higher than that which is yet to come.
As people of such hope we cannot look out unto the future without embracing it – for whatever glory days we remember today we see an even brighter tomorrow.
While we remember Sunday school rooms full of kids, we hear the laughter of well over twenty children filling up our brand new nursery and we know that still greater days are to come.
We look back on days when this sanctuary was full of loved ones and today, by the testimony of this packed sanctuary, we may be bold enough to believe that by our 300th, our 400th, our 500th still there will be singing to fill this room, still there will be faithful gathered here.
Let us hear those words from Christ himself, “Get up and do not be afraid,” for there is work to be done, we have the gospel to proclaim, and we have a future to embrace.
Thanks be to God.