Sunday, March 23, 2014

Living Water and Hearts of Stone

I think we all know the importance of water.  Water is the most basic of human necessities, we are lucky that where we live water is easily accessible, in our daily life we do not necessarily have to worry about having enough water to drink.  But we are also in the middle of a drought here and we know the importance of the water we use. 
Water is the most basic symbol for life.  In last week’s Gospel Jesus told the Pharisee Nicodemus that “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”  Nicodemus does not understand this, but this week we hear more about water both in the Old Testament reading and the Gospel.  In Exodus the Israelites are lost in the Wilderness and are starting to regret their freedom as they get more and more thirsty.  God tells Moses to go to a certain stone and strike it with his staff and out pours a spring of water.  In the Gospel Jesus speaks to a woman at Jacob’s well and tells her about a water that will quench her thirst forever.
The idea that Jesus speaks to a woman at a well may not sound all that shocking to us, but the early Christians would have been amazed by this story. Jews and Samaritans did not talk to each other. As far as Jews were concerned Samaritans were heretics, and were considered unclean. And Samaritans thought the same thing of the Jews. And what was worse, this particular Samaritan was a woman. Women had no place in public life, they were not allowed to worship with men and in general Jewish men did not have much contact with women in public, particularly if the woman was a stranger and a Samaritan.  Now of course we know that Jesus did not think much of these social rules. 
But this particular woman was also an outsider from her own community. John makes a point of saying that it was about noon when Jesus stopped by the well. Women usually went to the well together in the morning. It gave them the opportunity to socialize and gossip as they did their chores. But this woman went to the well alone in the middle of the day. As Jesus talks to her he reveals to her that he knows why she is an outcast, she has had several husbands over the course of her life and she was living with another man who wasn't her husband. 
So when Jesus turned to this woman and asked her to give him a drink of water he broke every social expectation about how a Jewish Man and a Samaritan woman were supposed to interact with each other.  So Imagine her surprise when this Jewish stranger looked up and asked her for water. She knew that by accepting water from her, Jesus would be breaking Jewish laws of purity. So she asked him “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”  But Jesus is not fazed by her reaction and says that if she had asked, he would give her living water.  Like Nicodemus Last week, the Samaritan woman does not understand at first what Jesus is talking about.  She thinks he is talking about normal, everyday water, but we know that the water that Jesus offers her is different, like the new birth Jesus tells Nicodemus about, the living water that Jesus offers to this woman is Spiritual in nature.  When Jesus offers the Samaritan woman water that will quench her thirst forever, she does not really understand, but she knows this living water is something she wants.  But Jesus does not seem to give her anything, nor does he try to explain to her what he means by living water. Instead Jesus suddenly seems to change the subject, and instead of giving her water he asks her to go get her Husband.  What was Jesus doing?  He tells her about living water, but when she asks for some he starts to talk to her about her personal life.   

We all have emotional barriers around our hearts that we build up to protect ourselves from pain, but the problem with barriers is that they tend not to be too discriminating about what they let in and out.  We turn our hearts to stone so that we do not get hurt, but then what good is a heart of stone?  So when Jesus asks this woman to go and get her husband, he struck a blow right to the heart of the woman.  The fact that she was living with a man who was not her husband was the very reason she was an outcast within her society.  What did she think was going on when she admitted to Jesus that she didn’t have a husband?  Did she think she was about to be scorned and rejected by yet another person? 
But Jesus does not reject her.  He starts to tell her exactly what she is hiding, without any judgment he reveals to her that he knows the source of the pain and shame that she is trying to protect herself from.  Jesus let her know that he truly saw her, with all of her faults, and he did not reject her.
And suddenly her heart was broken open.  Like Moses in the Old Testament, Jesus struck the rock that was this woman’s heart and out flowed a spring of water.  Step by step Jesus takes down the Samaritan woman’s defenses. 
By telling the woman about herself, Jesus showed her who he was. By confirming her true identity, he revealed his own identity to her. But she was still not quite ready to believe. The Samaritans worshipped on Mount Gerazim and that was where they believed the Messiah would appear, but she also knew that the Jews thought the Messiah would appear in the Temple in Jerusalem. If this Jewish man who seemed to know her so well was truly the Messiah, how could he also be the Messiah for the Samaritans? But Jesus calms her fears and tells her that soon it will not matter where you worship. “I know the Messiah is coming,” she says, “when he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” And in response to that Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
In that instant her life truly did change. The man she was speaking to was not just a rebellious Jewish man who wanted a drink of water. This was the person they all had been waiting for.  And the living spring of water flowed inside of her.  She was suddenly not a lonely outcast, but an evangelist.  With this new life-giving spring flowing inside of her she was fearless, armed with the knowledge that she was known and loved, she was suddenly compelled to share that love with everyone.  It didn’t matter that this was the very society that had made her hate herself, she had a spring of life giving love inside of her that had to be shared.
So she ran into her village saying, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” Jesus told her everything she had ever done, and showed her that she was loved.  The same living spring can be found in each of us if we let our hearts be broken open by our faith in God’s love.  We do not need to fear droughts or the inaccessibility of Christ’s living water.  It is in us and while our bodies still need physical water, God’s love for us is our true strength, our true courage, our true refreshment.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A very SHORT sermon for Ash Wednesday

Today we gather together to begin the season of Lent.  Soon we will be receiving ashes on our foreheads.  The ashes are a visible recognition of our own mortality and our own need for repentance.  Lent is a journey, hopefully a journey of spiritual reflection and change.  But repentance is not the same as guilt or shame.  It is easy to feel shameful or guilty, they require nothing new from us.  Repentance is a change of heart and mind.  As we move into the season of Lent we are looking for that change within ourselves.  Today we are offered the space to admit our own vulnerability without shame. 
On the surface the imposition of ashes can seem to be in contradiction to today’s Gospel message.  Jesus warns against public displays of piety and charity.  He even says, “When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face.”  Three times Jesus warns against being like the hypocrites, he warns his listeners against praying and fasting and giving alms for the wrong reasons.  And it is for that very reason that we have this particular Gospel every Ash Wednesday.  How we spend Lent can easily become a point of pride for us.  It is easy for our Lenten disciplines to become a sort of competition, or 40 day endurance race.  The ashes can quickly become a point of pride or even embarrassment.  I used to tell people what I was giving up for Lent and then spend 40 days complaining about how hard it was.  But I was missing the point, and I had failed to listen to Jesus’ warnings.  

All of what Jesus says in today’s Gospel can be summed up in his final statement “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also.”  What exactly do we treasure?  I believe this is a harder question than we like to admit.  We know what we are supposed to treasure, we know that we are supposed to say that things like money, recognition and power are all things that we don’t want.  Even if they are the very things that we choose to pursue, we know we are never supposed to admit that those are the things that we truly treasure.  We can even fool ourselves about our desires and priorities.  The truth is, to really admit, even to ourselves, where our heart is would be to expose it, make it vulnerable to criticism and pain.   So maybe one of the best things we can do during this season of lent is determine exactly what are treasures really are.  Where do we keep our hearts?  

And why does it matter?  We give our hearts away to so many things that by the time we get to God, what is left?  We seem to rely on everything but God to love us.  In our constant search for wholeness we give our love away to things like our careers, our wealth, our possessions, our hobbies.  We look to fulfillment through food, or diets, through self-improvement programs or spiritual fads.  We distract ourselves with Facebook or television.  None of these things are, in themselves bad, but bit by bit we give our hearts to all of these meaningless and temporary things that we wind up having almost nothing left to give to God or to each other.   

And so, thank God once a year we gather to speak the truth of how we piece out our hearts, how we sin and fall short, how we rely on every single other thing to love us – everything but God.  We gather here today to be reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return.  We have broken our hearts into a million little pieces, and now we gather here to begin the journey of gathering those pieces up again so that we can return them to their maker.  We are created and given life by God’s divine love.  And it is that divine love that will restore our broken hearts to wholeness if we let it.  Of course, we do not need the season of Lent to do this, but it helps.  Whenever we gather up the pieces of our hearts and offer them to God for healing - that is repentance.  That is what Lent is about – returning to the only place where we can find wholeness, the divine Love of God.