Monday, July 27, 2015

John #5 – The Tale of Two Disciples: The Encounter at Noon – John 4:5-42

It was a hot and dusty day. Jesus and his disciples were on the road again and, as usual, Jesus walked with a purpose; he knew where he was going.  He was headed to Jerusalem, but this time he had decided to travel right through the heart of Samaria.  The disciples I suspect were probably unhappy and uncomfortable with this trip.

There are, after all, other ways to get to Jerusalem without going through Samaria, but Jesus had specifically chosen this route, and here they were near the town of Sychar, right near the Samaritan holy place: Mount Gerizim.

It was not easy traveling through Samaria, not only was the terrain rough and mountainous but there was such bitter hatred and animosity between Judeans, like Jesus and the disciples, and Samaritans.  The conflict went back several hundred years.  Samaritans were Hebrews as well, descendants from 10 of the tribes of Israel.  Judeans were descendants from the other two of those tribes. Their principal conflict centered around the question of Where is God to be found?

For the Judeans the answer was clearly in the Temple in Jerusalem.  For the Samaritans the answer was on the holy mountain: Mt. Gerizim.  And because of this disagreement they were bitterly divided, considered each other heretics and refused to have anything to do with each other.

But here was Jesus and the disciples – deep in Samaria and it was midday – noon – the hottest time of the day.  Jesus stops to rest besides “Jacob’s Well” and his traveling companions go into town to acquire a few provisions.

Then something strange occurs – a woman approaches to draw water; a Samaritan woman.  Why is this strange?  Because it is noon.  Usually the women came to the well to draw water early in the morning and at sundown, when it was a little cooler.  So why was this woman coming at this uncomfortable time to do the back-breaking work of drawing water, filling her jug and then carrying it back to town?  We don’t know for certain, but it does suggest that perhaps she was an outcast from her own society.

So if you can picture the scene – Jesus is sitting there, perhaps under a Palm tree.  He watches this Samaritan woman approach the well.  And Jesus can tell right away that not only this woman is a Samaritan (who Judeans like Jesus avoided and had nothing to do with) but she was also an outcast from her own community.  I imagine Jesus watching her as she approaches and does her work, and I expect for her part the woman probably tried to ignore Jesus – that is until he stunned her by speaking.

Let’s pause in the narrative for a moment to consider some of the issues raised by this story so far.  It was not long before that this (chapter 3 to be exact) that Jesus had his nighttime encounter with the Pharisee Nicodemus, and the contrast between these two could not be more profound:
Jesus met N at night / Jesus met the SW at noon
N is very much an insider / SW is an outsider in every way
N is a man (in a man’s world) / SW is a woman
N is educated / SW is uneducated, but does know her own tradition
N tried, but in the end he just cannot understand what Jesus is trying to say / The SW however does come to understanding and embraces Jesus’ teaching.

This story is, 1st of all, about insider/outsider – before a word is spoken we, the readers know that the insider – N – will not be able to see and understand.  The darkness of the night of his own preconceptions and expectations will blind him to the incredible encounter with the incarnate Word of God in Jesus.  And he will leave Jesus still in the dark.  By contrast the Woman who begins this encounter as an outsider in every way will see the brightness of God’s love reflected in Jesus and will embrace this gift.  She will believe, which we learned last week means that she will enter into a relationship with God through Jesus and she will ultimately return to her community and invite others to come and see! – To enter into a relationship with God in Christ.

These two chapters – these two stories confront and challenge us to look at ourselves: are we inside or outside?  Can we see?  Do we believe, that is, are we in a relationship with God through Jesus?  And does this relationship lead us to share this gift of God’s incredible love with others?  Ultimately, that is after all what it means to believe – it means to live a life of love!

But let’s return to the story.  It is at this point that we need to address a very common and popular interpretation that has tended to affect the way this passage is understood.  In verses 16 through 18 Jesus asks the woman to go and fetch her husband.  She replies that she has no husband and Jesus affirms that, adding that he knows she has had five husbands and that she is living with a man who is not her husband.  Many preachers and commentators down through the years have interpreted this to reflect badly on the moral character of this woman – and thus distracted by this non-issue end up missing the point of the story. 

Please note – at no time does Jesus condemn this woman and neither does he ever offer her forgiveness.  Why?  Because she has nothing to be forgiven for.  The fact that she has had 5 husbands would not have been her choice or her fault.  Women in 1st century Palestine had no choice over those kinds of things.  She was a victim.  She was either widowed or divorced – which would have all been done TO her - without her input or assent.  If anything she deserves our compassion.  This story is not a story about morality – it is a story of identity and relationship.

At the center of this encounter is a question that the woman asks about worship.  She asks – where is God to be found?  On Mount Gerizim in Samaria or in Jerusalem?  This question lay at the heart of the Gospel of John – where do we find God?  Jesus takes the question seriously and gives her an answer that I am sure she was not expecting: “neither place” he tells her, “you must worship God in spirit and in truth.” 

In other words – open your heart, God’s dwelling is not in any particular place – God lives with and among God’s people.  People just like you.  Even though you may be excluded by the society, you are not excluded by God – God is open to all who open their hearts. 

In John 1:14 we read: and the Word was made flesh and dwelt / tented among us.  God is no longer remote. God is available through the Son.  And if that was not enough Jesus finishes off this section with an important and central confession: I AM – Jesus says.  (The phrase that appears in the NRSV translation – “I am he” is incorrect – there is no “he” in the Greek.  It is just “I AM.”)  This of course is the name of God, and unlike the Pharisees the woman doesn’t flinch.  She accepts and believes – that is she enters into a relationship with Jesus, and it changes her life and her way of being in relationship with others.

Ultimately this passage is about identity and belief.  Who is Jesus?  Jesus is the Messiah – Jesus is the Word made flesh – Jesus is the I AM come into the world.  And to whom does Jesus come?  To all who have open hearts – to all who believe.  You don’t have to be a certain class or ethnicity or believe the right dogmas or be perfect or be male or from a particular culture or race – God so loved the world… – God is open to all who follow and believe in Jesus the Christ. 

This Samaritan woman represents the outsiders of the world to whom the Son has been sent to love.  And her faith and action mark her as one who is a child of the light and who has been given the gift of relationship with God in Christ now.  Like her we too are called to open our hearts and allow our belief to be reflected in the way we live our lives.  Like her we too are called to be in a relationship with God which calls upon us to witness, to share this gift of God’s love to all whom we encounter and to invite them into relationship – to invite them to Come and See.

I can imagine that at the end of the story Jesus watched as the woman rushed back to her village, leaving her water jar behind – leaving the brokenness and hurt and exclusion behind; as she went to tell and invite.  In the same way Jesus is gazing at us – Jesus is offering us the gift of Living Water – Jesus is inviting us into this relationship of love!  Jesus is inviting us to – Live a Life of Love!

Saturday, July 25, 2015

John #4 – A Tale of 2 Disciples: The Visitor at Midnight – John 3:1-21

… Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness…

The escape from Egypt had been so dramatic and exciting.  Moses driving this disorganized group of former slaves towards the Red Sea – in front of them, leading the way – a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night…
And then, on the edge of the shore – Moses lifts his staff and parts the sea… and the people cross on dry land…
Then the waters return, drowning the Egyptians while Moses’ sister Mirium (or Mary) sings, dances and leads a celebration.
But then the wandering begins.  40 years of wandering in the desert – no food – no water – harsh conditions.  “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food." The people cry.  
The atmosphere is poisonous; the relationships are becoming poisoned; the people are poisoning themselves with their complete selfishness - self-centeredness. 
Like the serpent in the garden who suggests to Eve that she and Adam could become their own gods if they want – the wandering former slaves, one day to become Israel, are also consumed with themselves, even as the serpents slither around them.
“Look up” Says Moses – What do you see?  The serpent impaled and lifted up on a staff – the power of the serpent destroyed –
“Look up” Says Jesus to Nicodemus and “What do you see?”
Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up… 
Look up, people of God what do you see?  The power of human self-centeredness impaled on a cross – the power of death and evil, which seems so powerful, totally and completely impotent…
Look up, people of God, what do you see? Grace upon Grace… The overwhelming and abundant grace and love of God showering down upon us...

But it is hard to see at night.  It is hard to make out things in the dark, or to recognize people in the dark.  It is easier to hide in the dark.  So maybe that is why Nicodemus chose to visit Jesus in the night. Our Gospel for today recounts the first of two encounters – this first with a learnĂ©d Pharisee, a man who is very much a part of the power structure – He is part of the in group – he is established – he is knowledgeable – but he comes at night.  And he will remain in the dark.  
The 2nd encounter is found in the next chapter 4  - that encounter by contrast happens in the bright daylight with a foreign Samaritan woman who is definitely on the outside in every way - but she will see what Nicodemus cannot see.  We will look at that story next week!
But Nicodemus comes to Jesus asking how it is that Jesus can do such great signs; how Jesus can talk about love and relationship.  Isn’t our faith about following the rules (he asks) -  you know, making ourselves right with God – doing all the right things – being the right kind of person – having the right background and culture?  Don’t we have to do stuff to keep God from being angry?
No, says Jesus, just like your physical birth – which you had no control over – you have no control over your Spiritual birth – God gives you the gift of being Born Again in the Spirit – of being Born from Above – this is not based on anything you do or say or think or believe – it is an unconditional gift given in love – it is Grace upon Grace.
But we humans like to be in control – we like to think that we can control even our relationship with God – we like to think that we have the power to determine who and how one enters into a relationship with God.  But – says Jesus – it is an unconditional gift of God’s and you have no control – all you can do is accept the gift, accept the calling to love and begin to witness – in other words: to live lives that reflect through words and deeds this incredible gift of unconditional abundant love and grace.
How can these things be?  Nicodemus doesn’t get it.  It doesn’t make sense to him.  It doesn’t make sense to us either, does it?  Because in order for it to make sense we have to give up our need and desire to be in control – we have to give up our self-centeredness.
It all comes down to love – says Jesus: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.   
We all know this verse from memory.  But have we ever stopped to really think about it?  For God so loved the world…  This is the most important part – Jesus sums up our relationship with God in these few words and it all comes down to love.  Not our love for God – but God’s incredible love for us. This is the key!  Can we accept that?  That God loves this creation and the humans that God created so passionately and abundantly that God has entered into our world by becoming en-fleshed, incarnate in Jesus! This is how much God love us – this is how God demonstrates that love.
And not only that, but God’s love is not selective – though we might like it to be – Jesus tells us that God loves the world…. No qualifications here – God’s love extends to everyone, from all cultures and backgrounds and lifestyles and races.  To underscore this next week Jesus will reach out to a hated and despised outsider a poor Samaritan woman – but for now we need to let this sink in:  God loves the world….
So that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
This is where we sometimes get hung up.  We sometimes hear this “so that” as a condition.  And I suppose maybe secretly we breath a sigh of relief – ok, great – I can understand that – so we have to do something after all!
Not so fast – let’s answer this question first:  what exactly is belief?  What is faith?  What does it mean when Jesus says, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life? 
The problem with the way we tend to hear this phrase is that we 21st century post-enlightenment Christians tend to define belief or faith as a mental activity – something we do with our mind.  But we need to remember that in the Bible belief/faith is never a mental activity it is always an action – something we do and a way of living.  And to this understanding John adds an additional dimension.  For John, belief/faith is a way of being in relationship with God and with others – a way of being in relationship that is rooted in God’s love for the world.  In John - to have faith means that we live in ways that reflect the loving relationship and commitment that God has for us, and the action on our part is to allow this love to define how we are in relationship with others. 
Jesus is also saying something else – and it is this: That you cannot say you believe if your lives reflect hate and exclusion; you cannot say you believe in Christ if you spend your time supporting and finding ways of pushing other people away or judging or dismissing others.  To believe means to be in a relationship that is rooted in love of God, through Christ and others.
And this gift of relationship includes Eternal life… which is not some kind of heaven far into the future – but, like the Kingdom of God in Luke and Mark and like the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew – the gift of Eternal life begins NOW – it begins in Baptism – it is nurtured and sustained by the Bread and Wine of Holy Communion, and it is a gift which comes from being in a relationship with God in Christ that is rooted in love.
Jesus tells Nicodemus and us – it is all about love
Look up – and what do you see?
God’s incredible love, God’s overwhelming love which is given to us freely..
But at the same time calls upon us to accept the gift and to love in return…
This is Grace upon Grace

For God so loved… you and me… and them and everyone – the world that God GAVE the only son – the one who is God incarnate – the one who is the creative WORD – so that everyone who accepts this gift of love will not perish; so that everyone who accepts this gift of love will not succumb to the poison of the serpents of selfishness – but will experience the gift of Eternal life – that is the gift of relationship with God and with others that begins here and now – today – this moment!

Look up … and see!

Monday, July 20, 2015

John Series #3 - "Grace Upon Grace" - The First Sign - The Wedding at Cana - John 2:1-11

Beginning at the end of June, I started a sermon series on the Gospel of John.  While our lectionary provides a chance to experience the narrative of the Synoptic Gospels, John is inserted here and there and we never have that opportunity.  So I will take the next several months to work through John.  My inspiration and principal guide for this series is Karoline Lewis' new commentary on the Gospel of John which has just been released by Augsburg/Fortress.  I attended a workshop that Dr. Lewis conducted and was so taken with John and inspired and excited that it has led to this series.  I will add that Dr. Lewis has very graciously given me some guidance and advice, which has been of great value to me.  I am very grateful to her for that.  Additionally, I decided that the over-riding theme I would lift up was the theme of "Seeing."  "Seeing in the Dark," "I Have Seen the Lord," "Come and See," "Look Up..." and other references appear throughout the Gospel. I have therefore added the dimension of using a powerpoint slide show to enhance the sermon.  I will not be posting the slides however.  Finally, I am also carefully choosing the hymn/song that comes immediately before and following the sermon in hopes that it will also enhance the experience.  I will post here the text for the spoken part of the sermon.  The visual and musical elements are not easily posted, but if anyone wants additional information simply email me and I am happy to share.  I hope you find this edifying and I commend Dr. Lewis' work to you if you wish to explore more deeply the riches of the Gospel of John.

Sermon #3 - Grace Upon Grace - The First Sign

Can you imagine what life would be like if there were no signs? 
            No exit signs on the highway. 
Or road signs.
 Or street signs.  It would be impossible to get anywhere.
We rely on signs to lead and guide us. 
Without signs or with the wrong signs we would be lost.

With the story of the Wedding at Cana we have now moved into the first part of the Gospel of John that is called “The Book of Signs.” 
This “Book of Signs” encompasses chapters 2 through 11, takes 3 years of Jesus’ ministry and relates 7 signs – including several healings, the feeding miracle, walking on water, giving sight to the man born blind and climaxing in the raising of Lazarus.
This is followed by the “Book of Glory” that relates the Passion and resurrection of Jesus over a time period of 3 days.  This is chapters 13 through 21.
            Chapter 1 is the Prologue and chapter 12 is the transition from the ministry to the Passion.

Now, it is important to note that in John, Jesus doesn’t perform miracles – he performs “Signs.”  As noted at the beginning of this sermon a sign is that which teaches us something, gives us important information, leads and guides us.  The sign is needed or we would be lost.  So then what is this 1st sign of Water into Wine and these subsequent 6 signs in John all about?  To what are they pointing?  Where are they leading us?

Let’s go back to the Prologue for a moment – (the key to the message and proclamation of John is all in the Prologue of chapter 1) – In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and dwelt, tented, lived among us and we have beheld His glory…

This Gospel begins by pointing us back to Genesis and reminding us that not only In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth – but that the creation was fashioned by God, who John calls the Word; and the Word is the one who creates in order to establish relationship. 
And that in Jesus this creative Word has become human, entered into our lives, our world and now lives among us.  Why? Because the Word – God incarnate – God in the flesh – Jesus, passionately desires to be in relationship with the creation – with God’s people. God becomes flesh in order to establish and deepen relationship! 
This relationship is characterized by this verse: From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.  The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.  No one has ever seen God.  It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart who has made him known.”

Grace upon Grace.  This word – “Grace” appears 5 times in the Gospel of John and all 5 times occur here in the Prologue. If the relationship with God is characterized by grace – what exactly is grace?  How do we define and understand grace?  That is what the signs are for.  They define grace – they represent grace – they show us what grace is - they lead us into grace upon grace as they lead us into a relationship with God, the Word – and with others through whom we also experience the Word.

The 1st sign begins with a reluctant Jesus being dragged to a wedding in the village of Cana by his mother.  In John the mother of Jesus observes the two events that overflow the most with grace – this 1st sign and she stands at the foot of the cross. 

"Why is the first sign a wedding?  Weddings are normal events of every day human life.  Jesus introduces the presence of God into the day-to-dayness of being human."1  Weddings are also a celebration of relationship which at the same time serves as a fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, which he heard spoken in our 1st lesson.

Now, unlike weddings we experience today, the primary event in 1st century weddings was the reception, the party tended to go on, and on, and on.  These wedding parties could last a week or more.  As long as the wine was flowing the party continued.  No need to send invitations, everyone was invited so these parties served to solidify the relationships within the community. And the longer the party extended the better and stronger the bonds that were forged.

But at this wedding reception the unthinkable happens – the wine is running out early. The party will be ruined and the relationships will be compromised.  This is a catastrophe!  “The wine is running out?”  Jesus’ mother says to him.  He again reacts with a bit of distain – “So, what do you want me to do about it?”

It is almost as if she is pulling him into his ministry.  But then he calls the servants and instructs them to go to the jars in the back room that are filled with water to be used for purification rituals.  He instructs them to draw out some of this water and take it to the chief steward, or the wedding coordinator, if you will.  They do so and guess what?  It is no longer water – this water has now become wine!

But not just any old wine - Not some cheap, putrid wine.  But this water has become the finest wine available - exquisite and expensive wine.  “Most folks serve the best wine first and then the cheap wine last,” exclaims the steward – “But you have saved the best for last!”

And not only that – In this back room there are 6 jars each holding between 20 and 30 gallons of water.  That is 20 to 30 gallons of the best wine TIMES 6 – around 180 gallons of wine – that is over 1000 bottles of wine.  That is a lot of wine.  That is the best wine in amazing abundance!

That is Grace upon Grace – That is abundant grace – That is grace beyond comprehension.  What does Grace upon Grace look like, smell like, taste like? 
It looks like 1000+ bottles of the absolute best wine that are served in the midst of broken relationship – in the midst of loss and failure! 
It tastes like the most exquisite and expensive wine ever created and is served just at the moment when you expect to receive the cheap and putrid! 
It smells like the most intoxicating sweetness you have ever experienced and comes when the stench of struggle and loss and brokenness are looming large before you. 
And not only that, but it also comes unearned, undeserved, with no string attached, completely unconditional.  No one at that wedding did anything to earn or deserve this gift and there was no charge.  Free and Unconditional!  Just like God’s grace.

And not only that but this sign also contains a promise – the best is saved for when you are most in need; the best is saved for last.  Life – relationship – resurrection – Grace upon Grace – over the top abundant grace is offered and given to all of those whom God loves and with whom God, the Word made flesh, is dwelling.

Grace upon Grace – Super-Abundant Grace!  This sign is for you – this gift is for you – “Come and See” the abundance of God’s love and grace which is for you!
1. From The Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentary on John by Dr. Karoline Lewis, page 36.