Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Movie Meme

I found this over at DCup's place (you really should go there, by the way. Smart woman. Exquisite politics. Real life.). I'm self-tagging.

Here are the meme rules:
1) Here are 15 quotes from my favorite movies
2) See if you can name the films from whence they were lifted.
3) No googling or IMDBing; I'm trusting you on this.
4) I'll post the film names as they’re correctly identified.

1. "We're happy, aren't we? Terribly happy? Our marriage is a success, isn't it? A great success?"

Anonymous got it! Rebecca!

2. "Wait... No! I mean, can't we just, like, kick this old school? Like, I have the baby, put it in a basket and send it your way, like, Moses and the reeds?"

Bronislava got it! Juno!

3. "You're maudlin and full of self-pity. You're magnificent!"

sermon-borrower got it! All About Eve!

4. "What kind of people sit in a restaurant and don't say one word to each other?"
"Married people?"

5. "But the worst are the fundamentalist preachers. Third grade con men telling the poor suckers that watch them that they speak with Jesus, and to please send in money. Money, money, money! If Jesus came back and saw what's going on in his name, he'd never stop throwing up."

The Pagan Sphynx got it! Hannah and Her Sisters!

6. "Allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster."

Wyldth1ng got it! Shakespeare in Love!

7. "God was showing off when he made you. "

KnittinPreacher got it! Keeping the Faith!

8. "What does the lily mean?"
"The lily means... the lily means, 'I dare you to love me.'"

9. "If you don't fall in with us, nothing holds together."
"I'm not going back. I'm fighting this thing."

10. "Would you shut up? I'm atoning!"

11. "You talk of feeling idle and useless. Imagine how that is compounded when one has no hope, no choice of any occupation whatsoever."
"Our circumstances are therefore precisely the same."
"Except that you will inherit your fortune. We cannot even earn ours."

Diane got it! It's Sense and Sensibility!

12. "Listen, I'm a big supporter of fixing potholes and erecting swing sets and building shelters. I am *more* than happy to pay those taxes. I'm just not such a big fan of the percentage that the government uses for national defense, corporate bailouts, and campaign discretionary funds. So, I didn't pay those taxes. I think I sent a letter to that effect with my return."
"Would it be the letter that begins 'Dear Imperialist Swine'?"

sermon-borrower got it! Stranger Than Fiction!

13. "You wanted to tussle. We tussled."

sermon-borrower got it! Out of Sight!

14. "When was the last time you were decently kissed? I mean, really, honestly good and kissed?"

15. "...the story can resume. The one I had been planning on that evening walk. I can become again the man who once crossed the surrey park at dusk, in my best suit, swaggering on the promise of life. The man who, with the clarity of passion, made love to you in the library. The story can resume."

KnittinPreacher got it! Atonement!

Post your educated guesses in the comments!

Risen In Deed: A Sermon on John 20:19-31

“Risen In Deed”
John 20:19-31
March 30, 2008—2nd Sunday in Easter

Titus Flavius Domitianus, better known as Domitian, was a Roman emperor of the Flavian dynasty. He ruled for about fifteen years, from September to September, during the years 81 to 96 CE (“common era”). Whereas his father Vespasian came to power as a result of his military prowess, and his brother Titus won distinction as commander of the Praetorian Guard, Domitian is best remembered in the company of emperors such as Caligula and Nero: for his extreme cruelty and paranoia. He stripped all decision-making powers from the Roman Senate, preferring to rule autocratically and without checks and balances. He was so despised that the Senate, upon his death, issued a damnatio memoriae, or a curse upon his memory, in which all official records of him, including sculptures and paintings, were destroyed.

Why bring up Domitian just now? The gospel of John was written during the reign of Domitian… most scholars date it to the nineties. A piece of supporting evidence is a quirk of Domitian’s that is memorialized in today’s passage from that gospel. He chose to sign all official documents with the words dominus et deus, and required those addressing him to do the same. Therefore, when face to face with the Emperor Domitian, his subjects were required to address him, “My lord and my god.” [i]

Our passage begins on the same day as we left off last week: the day of the resurrection. And the news of the appearance of the risen Jesus has, apparently, been spread among Jesus’ friends and followers. And, you know, they are not throwing a party. Far from it. They are closeted away, hiding, in fear of their lives. The doors are locked. Perhaps Mary’s testimony has been greeted with skepticism, the ravings of a woman deranged by grief. And, after all, at that time, a woman was not permitted to be a sole witness for legal proceedings. Her testimony always had to be corroborated by someone else. None of the disciples, evidently, has quite enough confidence in that story to venture boldly into the world to share the good news. So there they are, locked in, fearing for their lives, and in walks Jesus. Or, in materializes Jesus… we don’t exactly know how he gets in, John doesn’t give us the specifics. John gives us the big picture: Jesus’ friends are terrified. Somehow, Jesus comes in. Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” And Jesus shows everyone the physical, tangible evidence that, indeed, it is he. Risen, with the marks of crucifixion still upon him.

This passage is mostly noted for the story of Thomas, but I’d like to spend some time on the first part as well: the commission Jesus gives his friends. This takes the form of three separate actions. First, Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Second, Jesus breathes on them, and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” And third, Jesus says something to his disciples that both they and we might not be anticipating. We might expect Jesus, at this point, to explain what has happened… Why the crucifixion, why now? Or we might expect him to explain just how it is he was able to come back from the dead. Or the disciples might have wondered whether Jesus was capable of keeping them safe from everyone who wanted to kill them at that moment. But Jesus doesn’t give any of this information, or answer any of these questions… at least, not on the record, John’s record. But Jesus does something rather extraordinary: he gives the disciples a job, the job of forgiving sins.

Probably the best known passage in John’s gospel is about forgiving sins. John 3:16 occurs right in the middle of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, when the gospel writer simply can’t stand the tension any more and decides, right there, to give away the game, to interrupt the narrative with some theology, to go ahead and tell the whole point of John’s gospel, in a nutshell: “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.” That is the money verse, so to speak, the one on all the homemade signs at the football games. Less well known is the verse that comes right after it, verse 17, and it’s a verse which, if you are a memorizing kind of a person, I would commend to you to memorize along with verse 16. Here it is: “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.” It’s a clarification of verse 16: God’s intention is that the entire world be saved. God’s intention is forgiveness.

And now, here, in our chapter, Jesus’ intention for his followers is forgiveness. Those of you who were able to attend our Maundy Thursday service will remember that there were seven readers, and after each reading, not only was a candle extinguished, but the reader actually left the room. The feeling we had, as a worshipping congregation, was that we were witnesses to the disciples abandoning Jesus one by one. If the gospel of John were an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, or a Bruce Willis movie, Jesus’ appearance among those who abandoned him would take on a distinctly different flavor. The action hero shows up, scarred, bruised and battered, but triumphant, and proceeds to make mincemeat—physical or emotional—of those who let him down. Not Jesus. Jesus doesn’t rub salt in the wound of anyone’s shame for how they let him down. Jesus doesn’t even say to Simon Peter, the one who denied him, “I told you so.” Jesus comes, instead, breathing the Holy Spirit and forgiveness, and reminding his friends that that’s their job now, too.

One theologian puts it this way:

... The church is not in the morals business. The world is in the morals business, quite rightfully; and it has done a fine job of it, all things considered. The history of the world's moral codes is a monument to the labors of many philosophers, and it is a monument of striking unity and beauty. As C.S. Lewis said, anyone who thinks the moral codes of mankind are all different should be locked up in a library and be made to read three days' worth of them. He would be bored silly by the sheer sameness. What the world cannot get right, however, is the forgiveness business – and that, of course, is the church's real job. [The church] is in the world to deal with the Sin which the world can't turn off or escape from. [The church] is not in the business of telling the world what's right and wrong so that it can do good and avoid evil. [It] is in the business of offering, to a world which knows all about that tiresome subject, forgiveness for its chronic unwillingness to take its own advice. But the minute [The church] even hints that morals, and not forgiveness, is the name of [the] game, [it] instantly corrupts the Gospel and runs headlong into blatant nonsense. [ii]

Jesus gives his followers a commission, a job to do, and that job is forgiveness, reconciliation. And lest we think that job is too hard, that we’re not up to the task, he also gives us the power of the Holy Spirit to help us out. We are, or should be, in the forgiveness business. How would that rearrange our priorities, I wonder, if we took that commission seriously? That we go into the world to tell the good news of God’s readiness to forgive everyone? How would that affect our budget, and our programs, and everything we understand about being church together?

In the wake of Apartheid in South Africa, the people established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, on the understanding that if people could be encouraged to take responsibility for their actions in a context where the goal was reconciliation and not revenge, then reconciliation could be accomplished. This commission had its basis in traditional African rituals of reconciliation. One of them, the “Fast to Feast” ritual, is shaped like this.

• The community encourages the [warring, fighting] parties to start the process.
• Both [parties involved in the conflict] tell their story with neutral parties listening, along with witnesses from the community.
• Umqombothi (a traditional maize beer) is brewed, an animal is slaughtered, and the community is invited to partake in the eating and drinking.
• The elders of the community/congregation drink first and the children last. The feast is accompanied by music and dancing. [iii]

In this traditional African context, reconciliation is understood a way of life, with the whole community invested in a positive outcome. All parties get to have their say, but at the same time, all parties must agree to be reconciled, even if that means that no one “wins.” If there is no reconciliation, there is no feast. But if there is reconciliation… the entire community experiences the joy of it. We are called to be agents of forgiveness and reconciliation. What would it look like, in our context, if the whole community were to dedicate itself to reconciliation this wholeheartedly?

Back to Thomas. Thomas missed that first communal encounter with the risen Jesus; he wasn’t there. I wonder where he was? Just to get a little insight into Thomas’ character, we can go back a few chapters in the gospel of John. When Jesus’ friend Lazarus was near death, his disciples warned him that to return anywhere near Jerusalem was to put his life in jeopardy. One disciple said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16). That disciple was Thomas. Why wasn’t Thomas present with the other disciples on the evening of that resurrection day, when the others were all bunkered down, locked in, and hidden away? Maybe, Thomas was the only one brave enough to venture outside, for example, to go out for food for the rest of them. Maybe Thomas was out doing his own investigation into Mary’s claims, despite the threats on everyone’s lives. Maybe Thomas’ name ought to be paired with the adjective “Brave.”

Brave Thomas missed that first encounter with the risen Jesus, and he said to his friends, essentially, “When I have seen what you have seen, I will believe as you believe.” That’s all. And when Jesus comes a second time, a week later, he speaks to Thomas, saying something that would better be translated, “Do not be uncertain, but certain,” or, “Do not be untrusting, but trusting.” Thomas, in turn, greets Jesus with an affirmation of faith, “My Lord and My God.” It is the most powerful affirmation made by anyone in John’s gospel. It’s aimed squarely at Domitian, the tyrant who dares to sign his name “lord and god.” This affirmation shows the courage of the one who makes it, over and against the claims of the world, over and against the claims of empire. In the face of powers and principalities that want people like him dead unless they give full tribute, Brave Thomas proclaims, “My Lord and my God.”

This story shows us two of the hallmarks of Christian community: first, our willingness to place our full confidence and trust in Jesus over and above outside authorities, including our friends, including the authority of the state; and second, our primary identity as a community called to be agents of forgiveness. These two come together in Jesus’ commandment of love, given that same Maundy Thursday: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). The Christian community is the resurrection community—risen “in deed,” not simply in words—when we embrace these facets of our identity, when we become a community of faith and reconciliation and love. Thanks be to God. Amen.


[i] Wikipedia, from Suetonius, “Lives of the Twelve Caesars.”
[ii] Robert Farrar Capon, Hunting the Divine Fox: Images and Mystery in the Christian Faith (Seabury Press, 1974), 132-133.
[iii] Cas Wepener, “From Fast to Feast: Insights into the Process of Reconciliation from South Africa,” in Reformed Worship, Issue #72, copyright 2006,

Friday, March 28, 2008

Madame Pillar

One of the first people I met at New Church is someone I think of as Madame Pillar. Actually, she's someone I often think of as "Scary Pillar." She is old, deeply intelligent, opinionated, cranky, fervently, devoutly Reformed, and more than a little nostalgic for an experience of church that is not likely to be repeated in her lifetime.

When I arrived I went to visit her immediately, for two reasons. First, she had been ill, hospitalized shortly before I arrived, and I knew her to be at home recovering. But, less nobly on my behalf, her reputation had preceded her. She was known for her opinions on the prior pastor's poor record of visitation. I figured, a stop by couldn't hurt.

I found a tall woman, probably of formerly regal bearing, but now depleted with an illness of many months, the origins of which were still hazy for her doctors. They'd operated, in hopes of relieving her symptoms, but even when I saw her she had her doubts about the efficacy of the surgery.

She proceeded to give me a rather lengthy lecture on the pitiful state of the church in our presbytery, on the pitiful attributes of my predecessor, and on what she perceived to be the needs of New Church, right now. At a certain point she took a breath and said, "I suppose I sound bitter." At which point a friend, sitting quietly until that moment, piped up, "You do, T! You do!" I ventured a guess. "I think what I'm hearing is someone who loves her church passionately, and who wants to see it survive and thrive for future generations." Her eyes swam with tears. From that moment on, she has loved me.

Madame Pillar is still not well. I saw her last night and was aghast at her weight. She has dropped 30 lbs since my arrival, and had dropped 40 prior to that. She is not well, and the medical establishment has all but thrown up its hands.

Prayers, please, for this saint of the church, and for all who find themselves aging, failing, struggling.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

It's Out There

Sitting in my driveway, like a pretty, pretty spaceship.

My new car, for which I am in hock up to my eyeballs and beyond.

It's pretty, and it will help us kill the planet more slowly.

Why does it scare me?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Three at Dawn: A Sermon on John 20:1-18

A beautiful morning at church, with many smiling faces, much beautiful music (including our bell choir and a brass quintet, and our adult and youth choirs)... this is basically a day that takes care of itself in many ways. That said, I struggled with the sermon.

I seem to write dark Easter sermons. I have looked back on all mine, and I consistently start with death, darkness, despair. (This may have something to do with the life changes in the years since I was ordained.) A dear friend said, last Easter, "Just get out of the way of the texts," (Jane R, this was said by our mutual beloved acquaintance!).

I hope I have been able to do that.

Christ is risen! Or, as another friend says, "Hallelujah anyhow!"

“Three at Dawn”
John 20:1-18
Easter Sunday
March 23, 2008

She went to the tomb before dawn, while it was still dark. She hurried, head down, through the shadowy, deserted streets of the gleaming city. The Roman legions were still billeted in their garrisons for the night, whether sleeping soundly or sleeping off their drink. The Jews were quiet after the great Passover celebrations. Only she, Mary, stirred, hurrying, rushing to the tomb where Jesus lay, lifeless. She had to be there, to… to what? To mourn? As if she weren’t already mourning with every intake of breath, with every moment spent at some mundane task, or on her bed, or by the fire! Did she hurry to bring spices to anoint the body? It was true; she had a small bundle of them beneath her cloak, but she knew that Jesus’ shadowy followers, Nicodemus and Joseph—those who spent all their time with Jesus hidden, by dark of night—she knew they had done their part with myrrh and aloes… a vast quantity, rumor had it. At last, she admitted it to herself. Here was the truth. She simply wished to be near him. She wished to be as near to his body as possible at the moment when his soul finally abandoned it, and returned, she supposed, to his Father. According to their traditions, the soul did not leave the body at the moment of death, but hovered nearby for three days, in a state of confusion and grief. She imagined the lonely soul, at last winging its way free. She wanted to be nearby. She wanted to be a witness to the final flight of the one who had saved her life.

Sleepless in a house on the outskirts of the city was another follower of Jesus. On a bed, weeping, was the one Jesus loved… a young man, still traumatized by the sights and sounds of that cruel death. A man not too old to wish for his mother at such a moment, and then, to remember the strange way in which Jesus had anticipated even this, even in the throes of his own agony: here is your mother. It was an invitation to responsibility, perhaps, caring for this woman left without husband or son in her old age. It was an invitation to manhood to one who had wandered happily with Jesus and his followers as if on a great adventure, a holiday, and who abruptly was brought face to face with things no man under twenty believes deep down inside: that death is real and possible, that everything joyous and carefree can vanish in the span of a single heartbeat. The one called the beloved disciple pressed his face into a blanket and wept. He wanted things to be the way they were. He wanted to be back in the presence of the one who had all the answers, the one he trusted, the one he loved like an older brother… if your older brother’s eyes had looked into the very heart of God.

On another bed, in another house, his eyes open and staring into the darkness, was Simon Peter. Simon, of the relentless questions. Lord, to whom can we go? Lord, are you going to wash my feet? Lord, where are you going? Lord, why can’t I follow you? And then, the horrible, unbelievable answer to his own questions as he had cowered by the fire, denying, distancing, even doubting… best to admit it, at least to himself… doubting the whole enterprise, once it had all unraveled on the long, dread-filled night of the arrest. He stared into the darkness, and wondered how it was possible now to live, knowing himself as he now did. Knowing the cowardice, knowing the full extent of the Empire-sponsored brutality that was all too willing to seek out men such as he, knowing the full extent of the impulse to save his own worthless hide at all costs… at the cost of Jesus, the only one who had ever seemed worth following, the only one seemingly not annoyed by his endless questions, but amused. Jesus, the only one he had ever so completely failed. He wanted only to sleep. And sleep would not come.

Mary Magdalene wanted to be a witness. But now, she was a witness to something else entirely. She arrived at the place, her heart pounding with exertion or with anxiety, prepared to sit a while by the great stone that sealed the entrance, the enormous stone that could only be moved by the strength of several men, and men trained to it at that. The stone, that sealed in her beloved, her Lord, her Rabbi, dead, these three days. She came in the dark, before dawn, to sit by the stone that confirmed the finality of it, the terrible, unspeakable loss. And she found it had been removed, taken away. She found it, not as she had expected. And she ran from the place.

She ran to the houses where Jesus’ friends lay, sleepless, and she pounded on the doors. The men roused themselves, grateful to have something to do other than weep or stare blankly into the night. Peter, dry-eyed and haunted, and the one who Jesus loved, weeping but curious, stepped out into the darkness, and they ran. It was a curious kind of footrace. Who would win? The one of a thousand questions? Or the one who had always rested, assured, in Jesus’ answers? Youth usually wins a footrace, and so it was that day. The one Jesus loved arrived first, and leaned, panting outside the entrance to the tomb, terrified to go in. A few seconds later, full of questions, looking for evidence, Simon Peter swept by him, and took command of the space. The younger man followed. No Jesus. No body. Just linen wrappings, incomprehensible, but the beginning of a hint, somewhere at the edges of their consciousness, that something had happened. Something they could not name, something to fear, perhaps, or perhaps to rejoice in. Perhaps. But something had happened. They looked at one another and they knew.

Arriving at the place for the second time, Mary watched as the men ran back to convey the partial, incomplete news to the other sleepy disciples. The dawn began to edge its way into the sky, hinting at first with purple clouds followed by an expanse of grey. With the dawn came her tears, at last. She struggled to compose herself, dimly aware of a gardener poking around in the shadows. But she wept. She had failed to witness the flight of Jesus’ soul, and now he was gone… only God knew where. Gone into the hands of grave robbers, perhaps. Gone at the bidding of Pilate, more likely… he was despicable enough to loot the tomb of their beloved Jesus. She stood weeping for a moment, and then stooped to peer inside, into the place of death.

There she saw two men, sitting, nonchalant, as if this were the normal and expected place for them to be. They were clothed in an unnatural shade of white, a color that took on a glow impossible in the gloom. She wondered, later, at her own lack of concern or curiosity about them, about how she simply interrogated them, found them unhelpful, and stood again. Turning her back to the tomb, she found the gardener now standing just in front of her, composed, his hands still full of the rich soil. And just a moment… the length of a heartbeat… the sound of her own name, Mary, on his mouth. His voice. The voice of her beloved, her Lord, her Rabbi. Alive. Impossibly, alive.

And now the three who came to the tomb were no longer in the darkness, but dawn had come. Now, one had been called by name. One had been commissioned to run and take the good news back to the others, who still waited, wondering. Energy had been given for the task. And where there had been three, broken and broken-hearted people, there was a community once more. That is what resurrection does.

This is how resurrection happens. It begins in the darkness, when things can’t get any worse. When the one who saved us, who gave our life meaning, is gone. When the dreams and beliefs of childhood shatter and disappear, and we are left not knowing how to go on. When we know the absolute worst about ourselves, and can’t imagine living with that knowledge. It is in that darkness that resurrection occurs, the rising that is impossible when we rely on our own power and wit and wisdom and sense of self-worth. In that darkness comes the moment we feel ready, at last, to admit: we cannot do it ourselves. We cannot recover from this loss, or this betrayal, or this wound, or this death. We need help. We need God. We need a savior.

Resurrection came to Mary, who had followed as faithfully as she was able. And so it comes to us, those of us who follow faithfully, those of us who believe ourselves saved but long to be awakened to it again. We follow along on this Christian journey. We try to stay close to God, to Jesus. And on that journey, we are witnesses over and over to resurrection—in moments of forgiveness, in joyful celebrations, in the return to our midst of those we thought we had lost. We are witnesses to God’s power over death. Resurrection comes to us.

Resurrection came to the disciple whom Jesus loved, someone who had taken at face value all Jesus had ever said and done. Someone who had been loved by Jesus uncritically, unquestioningly, and who had returned that love eagerly. And it comes to those of us who are children of the church, who grow up in the Christian faith and never know any other way of life. Something happens to help us to deepen and grow, and we learn all over again what it is to be in the living, powerful presence of Jesus. Resurrection comes to us.

Resurrection came to Simon Peter, the questioner, the one who denied Jesus, and had given up all claims to righteousness. And resurrection comes to those of us who question, who aren’t sure, who go through our dry spells and our periods of resistance and the times when we just don’t want to show our faces. Resurrection comes to us as we take another chance on faith, as we honor our questions and realize that God gave us our inquisitive, scientific hearts and minds, and as we realize that it is on just such people as we that God built this church. Resurrection comes to us.

Resurrection comes. Jesus speaks our name. He gives us energy for the task at hand. He sends us out to tell others the good news… that there is life after all these deaths, losses and betrayals—new, full, abundant life, not just in some far-off heaven, but right here and right now. He gathers us into community—the community of the faithful, the loving, the questioning, the stumbling, the givers, the receivers, the men, women and children of all ages. Jesus gathers all of us into this resurrection community. It starts in the darkness. It ends with hands stretched across a table, reaching out for one another, listening to one another, breaking bread together, lifting our voices in glorious song, sending out his healing into the world. Resurrection comes. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Fabulosity, Thy Name is High School

So, did I mention that Petra was FABULOUS in Cabaret? Behold, Petra and her buddy J., who came to be known among castmates as "the sexy old couple." Awwwwwww!

She made we weep. Her performance was restrained and playful, until act two when she is defending her decision to break it off with her Jewish fiancé. She unleashed a torrent of passion that had everybody weeping, not just me.

My girl.

The local paper carried an item on Saturday, saying, in effect, "If you missed this play, you missed some of the best local theater this season, amateur or professional." I agree.

Proud Mama.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Adventures in Driving

So, it was a grey Saturday morning. I was dropping Petra off for her voice lesson, one town over from my church. I was driving my car, a car that looked like this:

(Only, a little saltier.)

I was stopped at a light, about five cars back, thinking about the cool couple I was about to meet, for the second time, to talk about their April wedding. I noticed, to my left, a police officer-- a woman! Always interested in noticing the women out doing all kinds of jobs. She was giving a ticket to a driver, another woman (alas).

Having nothing else to do until the light turned green, I glanced in my rear view mirror. I saw, hurtling towards me, about 10 feet behind me, and not slowing down, a big old sedan, driven by a big young guy.

There was nothing to do. I ducked. Hands over head. Waited for the impact.

It came. It was hard. Now my car looks just a little bit like this:

(Only, as I said, a little saltier.)


Because, I got nothin' else to do this week except talk to the fine people at Great Big Friendly Insurance Company, that's why!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Empty: A Sermon on Philippians 2:5-11

Matthew 21:1-11, Philippians 2:5-11
March 16, 2008

In our reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, you have just heard the words of a hymn, an ancient hymn of the earliest people to call themselves Christians. There is an old saying, usually quoted in Latin: Lex orandi, lex credendi: As we pray, so we believe. I think that should be amended to read: As we pray and we sing, so we believe. You and I, we have learned what we know of God in very large part from the hymns that have shaped us. “Jesus loves me, this I know; for the bible tells me so.” “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!” “On Christ the solid rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand.” We sing these words, and they form the very foundations of our faith. This has been true of believers from the beginning. The ancient church sang the words to this hymn, and so they believed. They sang: let us be like Christ. He was really something. But he allowed himself to be nothing. He was God come down to earth. He could have been so full of himself. But instead he was empty. Let us be like him.

Why should anyone want to be empty? Now that I mention it, why should anyone want to listen to a sermon whose title is “Empty”? There is a reason why the sermon title was not put on the sign this week. To most people, driving by and wondering what’s going on in that big stone church this weekend, “Empty” probably wouldn’t sound so good.

Empty is the disappointment of a beautifully wrapped package under the tree that turns out to have absolutely nothing inside it.

Empty is the internal greyness described in these lyrics by singer/ songwriter Ani DiFranco:

The sky is grey
The sand is grey
And the ocean is grey
And I feel right at home
In this stunning monochrome
Alone in my way…

Empty is the disillusionment of the journalist John Krakauer, reflecting on his experience at the summit of Mount Everest on an expedition in which eight people died: He writes,

Straddling the top of the world, one foot in Tibet and the other in Nepal… I understood on some dim, detached level that it was a spectacular sight. I'd been fantasizing about this moment, and the release of emotion that would accompany it, for many months. But now that I was finally here, standing on the summit of Mount Everest, I just couldn't summon the energy to care.

And those experiences of emptiness are the complaints of the relatively well-off, those of us who are comfortable enough to be afforded the privilege of inner turmoil. From the point of view of the other 90% of the world’s inhabitants…

Empty is the painful, gnawing stomach of a child whose parents don’t have the ability to provide him with a nourishing meal.

Empty is the fractured mind of a detainee at Guantanamo after six years of solitary confinement.

Empty is the shock of self-awareness when you find yourself in a crowd yelling, “Crucify him!” when only days earlier you were in a crowd singing a hymn: “Hosanna to the Son of David.”

What on earth would possess the early Christians to sing a hymn of praise to the emptying, the emptiness of Christ?

Paul uses this hymn in his letter to the Philippians, and he places it in the middle of a passage in which he is giving advice on ethical behavior… how to live, how to be. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” he says, and then goes on to describe the self-emptying of Christ.

But I would like for us to go back, to the part just before Paul inserts the hymn. Here Paul is still telling the Philippians how to live; he says,

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus… Philippians 2:1-5

… and then our passage begins. We usually associate emptiness with greyness, hunger or feelings of disillusionment. But the self-emptying of Christ has something to do, instead, with encouragement, consolation, sharing, compassion, sympathy and joy. In fact, in our passage, the emptying is what leads to exaltation, glory, every tongue, living and dead, praising God. What is this emptiness, this self-emptying of Jesus Christ, that we should be aspiring to?

The hymn tells us, first, that Christ had equality with God… as John puts it, “the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). And, who among us wouldn’t like a little taste of that power? Remember Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty? After things go badly for him at work, Bruce tells his girlfriend that God has abandoned him—in fact, that God is doing a lousy job at being God. So, in the way movies can make these things happen, God calls Bruce in for a meeting and says, “Fine. I need a vacation. You be God. We’ll see how you do.” And of course, Bruce spends his first week with divine powers making himself the greatest lover in history, giving victory to the local hockey team, and exacting revenge on his colleagues. Who wouldn’t want to wield a little of that power? Who doesn’t want to belong to the Emperor’s club? Who wouldn’t want to exploit that sweet situation?

Here is what Jesus Christ does. Though he is one with God, he refuses to exploit that power. Instead, he empties himself, taking the form of a slave rather than the form of God. Jesus Christ submits himself to the laws of nature and the laws of human beings. He identifies himself completely with the human condition, even becoming susceptible to death. That in itself is remarkable, but the manner of his death is even more shocking: death on a cross. Death by crucifixion was the punishment the Roman Empire reserved for rebels and disobedient slaves—those the authorities most wanted to check and humiliate because their crimes were against the very fabric of the social order as well as the power of the Empire itself. We almost can’t appreciate how horrifying these words, and this truth—death on a cross—would have been to those early followers of Jesus, and those ancient believers. The only modern parallel that comes to mind is that photograph I know you’ve all seen: the image of a man standing on a box, wires attached to his fingers, a blanket with a hole cut in it for his only clothing, and a hood obscuring his face: a detainee at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The shock most of us felt on seeing that picture several years ago begins to approach the shock of early Christians seeing their savior on a cross. It goes completely against our understanding of what and who God is.

But it is precisely who God is. Self-emptying—becoming human, subject to the authorities, subject to death—this is not what Jesus Christ does in spite of being one with God. This is what Christ does because he is one with God.

This is our encouragement in Christ: that ours is a God who suffers the devastation of flood and hurricane and tornado. This is the consolation from love: that ours is a God who suffers torture with those who are tortured. This is the sharing in the Spirit: that ours is a God who knows the full range of human suffering and human depravity, and who does not leave us alone in it. Christ emptied himself, which turns out to be the greatest expression of the fullness of God’s love for us.

Be of the same mind; have the same love. So Paul counsels us. What an overwhelming, impossible task: to have the same mind and love as Christ! All we can do is to try, one difficult moment at a time, to follow the Lord who has shown us how it is done. All we can do is to try to emulate the self-emptying love of Christ one action at a time: serving this meal, mentoring that student, sheltering this traveler, restraining that tongue. All we can do is to start where we are: with these relationships, this family, this church, this workplace, this community. All we can do is to try to let this hymn take root in our hearts. Hear again the song of praise of the ancient church:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:5-11


Friday, March 14, 2008

The Emperor's Club

I am weary of the all-Spitzer-all-the-time news here, but I do want to say just one thing.

What really bothers me is the whole "Emperor's Club" thing... the name... what it implies.

It implies that once a man gets to a certain level of power, he can buy anything he wants, and he has a right to do that.

It implies that this is a closed society, open only to those with large enough checkbooks and the egos to go with them.

It implies that this is all about power, power, power.

And you know what? This is the political system we have fashioned for ourselves, with the laughable notion that money=free speech. It most certainly does not. We create a system whereby people can only "serve" (I choke on the word in this context) if they have the money and connections to get themselves elected. Then that money and those connections do a number on the psyche and millions of people have to live with the fallout (though none so painfully as one particular woman and three girls).

Or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe he's just a sex addict. Get him a 12-step group and a higher power.

I'm rambling now. Go read something really worthwhile, two posts from March 13, one for fun (of the schadefreude variety) and one for thought. They are here, at the residence of the Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

The Dead Man: A Sermon on John 11:1-45

“The Dead Man”
John 11:1-45
March 9, 2008
The Fifth Sunday in Lent

“Jesus began to weep.” Let’s start there. In the middle of this long narrative, which marks the turning point in John’s gospel, Jesus begins to weep. Following a long and hard theological discussion with a dear friend, confronted with the weeping figure of another dear friend, Jesus begins to weep. As he turns to face the tomb, which holds the four-day-dead body of someone he loves, Jesus begins to weep.

As we near the end of our journey through Lent, we turn our faces to the cross. And so does Jesus. There is no doubt, there is no question, that this is the moment that seals it. Jesus can make extravagant claims about himself, such as “I am the living water,” and “I am the light of the world.” Jesus can even perform miraculous signs, turning water into wine, healing the blind, casting out demons. But today’s turn of events is what propels Jesus towards Jerusalem. Today’s sign, the bringing of life out of death, is what ensures that Jesus himself will face death, and soon.

In John’s gospel, no detail is insignificant. “Now a certain man was ill,” we are told, “Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.” The narrator presumes we already know who Mary and Martha are; they are well-known among the disciples, more well-known even than their brother, Lazarus. “Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill.” This is a curious detail for the narrator to set out: the anointing hasn’t happened yet. It takes place in the next chapter. But the narrator supposes we have heard all about this anointing. Mary’s pouring of costly perfume on the feet of Jesus is a story that has a life of its own; everyone has heard this story. “So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”

Throughout the gospel of John, there are references to someone known as the “beloved disciple.” Much ink has been spilled by scholars over the burning question of who this might be. Traditionally, it was believed to be the disciple John, from whom the gospel takes its name. There are those who have staked their careers on this being a reference to Mary Magdalene. But it’s interesting to read the message the sisters send to Jesus in light of this question: “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” Is Lazarus the beloved disciple? But I think that might be a sermon for another day.

After hearing the news of his friend’s grave illness, Jesus does something rather puzzling. He does nothing. He delays going to Lazarus’ side for two days, despite the fact that, as the text tells us, he loves both Lazarus and his two sisters. Jesus delays, and he gives a reason for delay that is troubling. He says, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

Well. We have to remember a few things about Jesus in the gospel of John. First, this Jesus sounds very different from Jesus in the other gospels. Jesus in the gospel of John talks a lot about himself, his identity, his relationship to his Father in heaven. Jesus in the other gospels… not so much. In the other gospels, Jesus points decidedly away from himself, and towards God. When people give guesses as to his identity, his purpose, he tends to tell them to hush and keep it to themselves. The Jesus of John’s gospel, though, tells any and all who are in his vicinity about his unique identity as the Son of God, and the ways in which both he and God will be glorified.

Only thing is, this glory comes at a cost. The cost is one dead man, and two sisters who mourn and suffer terrible grief, not only at the loss of their brother, but at the failure of Jesus to act in time to save him. Their reaction to Jesus when he arrives is, “Where were you? We needed you. You were not here.”

If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that there are times when we feel this way about God. When things go terribly, horribly wrong… a marriage fails, a grave illness is diagnosed, someone—maybe a friend, maybe a pastor, maybe a fellow member of the church—disappoints us or hurts us. We wonder, where is God in all this? At a particularly tough time in my life I remembered something I read once about Saint Teresa of Avila, the medieval mystic. One day, the story goes, she was riding along on her donkey, when the creature stumbled and Teresa fell off into the mud. Looking up to the heavens, she shook her fist at God, saying “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them!”

We struggle to make sense of loss and disappointment. Sometimes we are not able to make sense of it for a very long time. We grieve our losses. And why shouldn’t that be the case? Isn’t grief about love, after all? Don’t you and I want to be the kind of people who grieve? Don’t we want to be the kind of people who weep at the tombs of our loved ones and our disappointed hopes? Doesn’t that honor the love we’ve felt? Isn’t it natural for us to wonder why? Even, sometimes, to say to God, “You didn’t get here in time”?

There is our time, of course, and there is God’s time. It becomes clear as John’s story unfolds that Jesus is operating very much on God’s time. It becomes clear that the story of the death of Lazarus, painful as it is for his sisters, even for Jesus, is a part of God’s story, and Jesus’ story. It becomes clear that so much more is at stake than this dead man, who was loved by his sisters and by Jesus.

And so we come to Jesus at the tomb, weeping. And this story, which is so very much about Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, the Anointed One of God, pivots on this moment of Jesus’ deep, deep humanity. I think in order to understand what we mean when we say “Jesus is the Son of God,” we need to understand that this takes place, first of all, at the level of his humanity. I suspect most of us are comfortable with one Jesus or the other: the human or the divine. We can’t get our minds around this notion of “fully human and fully divine,” hinted at in the gospels and codified by the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE (“common era”). To say that Jesus is fully divine, that he is of the same substance as God is to say something that most people in the world today are not prepared to accept.

But that seems to be where this story is beckoning us. Christian scholars have struggled with this from the moment Arius was pronounced a heretic. C. S. Lewis, who gave us The Chronicles of Narnia, had his own, typically acerbic response. In his series of radio talks that later became the book Mere Christianity, he says the following about Jesus:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: "I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept his claim to be God." That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a good moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic-on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg-or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great moral teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

Lewis, with the mind of a lawyer, stakes his claim on this theological position, and brooks no nonsense about it. For some of us, this kind of logic is highly persuasive: it works, it’s helpful. For others, it is hard, perhaps it even alienates us. For some of us, it may be more helpful to take our cues from Martha, the sister of the dead man.

Martha challenges Jesus. When Jesus arrives, her first words ring out as an accusation against him. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” You’re late, Martha says, but then she adds, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”

Once again, we find Jesus taking part in a long theological conversation. It culminates with Jesus, once again, making a claim about himself, one so extravagant, it pushes hard against the boundaries of our reason. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he says. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Do you believe this? Imagine being in Martha’s shoes. She is talking with her good friend, an intimate, one of her own circle. And suddenly she is confronted with a statement that must have seemed fairly bizarre. “I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this?” Do we believe this? What do we believe? Do we believe that Jesus had—has—the power to change our experience of life and death forever? Do we believe that faith in Jesus means that we don’t have to be afraid of death ever again, and that the quality of our lives might be transformed into something called ‘eternal life’? Do we believe this?

Martha answers Jesus, but not in the way we might expect. Martha does not say, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the resurrection and the life,” etc. etc. Martha does not make an affirmation of faith in a particular point of theology or orthodoxy. Instead, she says, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” Instead of saying, “I believe what you say to be true,” Martha says, “I believe in you. I trust in you. I may not know what you’re about, here, letting my brother die, but somehow I still trust you.”

When Martha says, “Yes, Lord, I believe,” she is really saying, “Yes Lord, I give my heart to you. I trust you completely.” I trust you, God, even though my marriage fell apart. I trust you, Jesus, even though I have this tumor that keeps growing. I trust you, Holy Spirit, even though I don’t know how I’m going to pay the rent this month. I give you my heart, God, you who are beyond my comprehension, because I believe you hold me in love through all of it.

In this story, the dead man is raised… it must be pointed out, to die again another day. The death rate for human beings continues to hold steady at 100%. In one sense, the raising of Lazarus is beside the point in this story. But trust in Jesus is very much the point. Trust in Jesus, who weeps with us when we are weeping. Trust in Jesus, who faces death and suffering not at some great remove, a god up in the sky, but alongside us, with us, in us. Trust in Jesus, as he turns his face to the cross, and we do too. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Image: Resurrection by Joseph Minton.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

A New Blog on the Block

Friends, I direct your attention to Psalms Modern: a Presbyterian Welcome Devotional, by sharing with you this snippet of a recent post, responding to the Permanent Judicial Commission's recent ruling.

Open Letter to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Date: March 2008
From: Your Candidates and Inquirers for the Ministry of Word and Sacrament who are Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer
Re: Bush vs. Presbytery of Pittsburgh PJC Ruling Regarding Ordination Standards and G-6.0106b

We, your sisters and brothers in Christ, your colleagues in ministry, faithful members of Presbyterian churches are saddened by the recent ruling of the Permanent Judicial Commission (PJC) which singles out the requirement of fidelity in heterosexual marriage and chastity in singleness as an essential tenet of Reformed faith. This ruling contradicts some of the most important work of the Peace Unity and Purity Task Force, which put forward a more gracious and open way for us to live together as the body of Christ in the midst of our differences.

This PJC decision puts a wedge between theology and practice, belief and action, being and doing. It demeans the lives of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer persons by again reducing our lives to sexual acts. It fails to recognize God’s ability to choose whomever God wills to serve the Church. It perpetuates the mythology that sexual orientation is simply a matter of behavior. It says that we are not filled with God’s grace.

Our Reformed understanding of Scripture teaches that the way in which we live our lives as responsible, faithful Christians is intimately connected to our faith. Our love, commitment, and indeed our manner of life is an inescapable expression of our faith as we seek to both know God’s will and to live into it. We are filled with the Spirit, a Spirit made manifest in our Christian discipleship and acts of Christian witness: by teaching Sunday School; giving our time, talent and treasure to our congregations; working in soup kitchens; financially supporting ourselves and paying tuition to Presbyterian seminaries; visiting the sick and shut-ins; working for justice; being present with individuals in their last days of life on earth; singing in choirs; tutoring children; yearning to preach the Word and administer the Sacraments; proclaiming the liberating and good news of Jesus Christ, and welcoming and raising new disciples to serve Him...

I recommend it highly. It is of the Spirit. Let the people say, Amen.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Wilkommen... Bienvenue... Welcome!

Petra is about to step on stage (well, about 11 hours from now) in her first major role in a high school production of Cabaret. Mazel Tov my beloved girl! I'm so excited for her.

Her role is a hard one... Fraulein Schneider, the owner of the rooming house in which Sally Bowles lives. She begins a relationships with one of her tenants, Herr Schultz, only to realize that he is Jewish, and that she is not prepared for the complications that brings, as Nazism rises all around them in late '20's Berlin. Petra has worked hard, dug down deep, and is ready to dazzle one and all with "Married" and "So What" and that perennial favorite, "The Pineapple Song."

Early in my marriage my ex and I were living in Boston, in an apartment the size of my thumb on Beacon Hill. We thought that was romantic and so la vie Boheme. One day when rummaging around a shop on Charles Street for a wedding gift, we found a set of glasses with pineapples etched on them. The shop owner explained that the pineapple is a traditional symbol of hospitality. Pineapples mean "Welcome." Charmed, we bought the glasses for our friends, who later reciprocated with a cutting board in the shape of a pineapple. I still use it for really good bread, primarily my own homemade.

I've been doing a Lenten series on "Practices of Faith." This week our focus was on hospitality. I played a clip from "Ugly Betty", a scene from the first season in which Betty's distinctly unglamorous family hosts a very hung-over Daniel, Betty's very rich and very heartbroken boss. Hospitality, said one of our readings, offers us the opportunity for welcoming people who can teach us something we never knew before. When we welcome the stranger, we welcome new tales, new perspectives, and we are all the richer for it. In the case of the stranger in the video clip, he too was immensely enriched by being bathed for a day in a loving family's home, different as it was from what he knew.

We discussed questions such as, Who is really welcome in our church? Do we welcome some for a visit, but not to stay? What can our guests teach us?

My prayer for my church is that we learn how to welcome, truly welcome the stranger. Who knows? We may entertain angels without even knowing it.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Tagged: A Middle Name Meme! And Some Laments

Steve tagged me... thanks Steve!... to do this fun middle name meme. Here are the rules:

1. You have to post the rules before you give your answers.

2. You must list one fact about yourself beginning with each letter of your middle name. (If you don't have a middle name, use your maiden name or your mother's maiden name).

3. At the end of your blog post, you need to tag one person for each letter of your middle name. (Be sure to leave them a comment telling them they've been tagged.)

I've got a short middle name, but let's see what I can come up with:

J is for Jesus, and also Justice. Caution: Presbyterian intricacies to follow. I am currently living with the disappointment of my denomination having, yet again, stuck it royally to GLBT folks. On February 11 the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission ruled that all candidates for ordination must comply with the sexual standards outlined in the highly controversial G-6.0106B, which requires fidelity in marriage (which, of course, is prohibited to GLBT people) and chastity in singleness. I am outraged, along with so many of my friends, many of whom must minister in the shadows due to this wholly unacceptable ruling and many like it throughout the years. In 2006 there was a collective sigh of relief as General Assembly accepted the report of the Peace Unity and Purity Task Force, an authoritative interpretation of our constitution which allowed for ministers, deacons and elders to declare scruples-- i.e., that a particular passage of the Book of Order was contrary to their conscience. Then it was up to the ordaining body to determine whether the item scrupled was an "essential" or a "non-essential." But the haters wouldn't have it, claimed that we were abandoning the gospel and caving to modernity. To which I say: show me the passage where Jesus addresses this. Then see if you can count the passages where Jesus talks about loving and caring for the least, the most despised, where he challenges oppressive purity codes, where he reaches out to welcome in those considered "impure." Jesus. Justice.

A is for Articulate (stole it from More Cows). I think I'm pretty good with words, generally, though the above is a bit wordy and rambly. But I love finding just the words I want, especially in preaching.

N is for Noble. This feels funny (as in, arrogant... hey, maybe A was actually for Arrogant!). But: I try to take the high road. I do. I did it in my divorce. I try to do it in sticky pastoral situations. I tend to feel it is good to be able to look back on these interactions with a minimum of regret. That requires biting the tongue sometimes, not trashing my ex and his choices (actually, he's a pretty good guy, except for the massive life mistake of leaving me), and trying to find the right words to respond to unacceptable invective (sometimes... not so far in New Church).

E is for Extrovert, usually. I thrive in parish ministry, in part because it is an activity which brings me together both with members of the congregation who are excited and motivated to work together on a common goal, and because it brings me together with other clergy, in official and unofficial capacities. I have not been above "using" my children (when they were younger) to make friends for myself and create community. That said, I also have experienced the mid-life correction: I thrive with quiet and alone time more than I used to, I value it to re-charge. But I do love people.

This was fun! I continue in the Magdalene tradition of asking you all to tag yourselves.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

The Thirsty One, A Sermon on John 4:5-42

I know.... I'm a week off. I held over this passage from last week's lectionary, since last week we had the wonderful Youth-led service.

“The Thirsty One:
A Monologue of the Samaritan Woman at the Well”John 4:5-42
March 2, 2008

Do you know what it is to be thirsty? I mean, truly, deeply thirsty—parched. Walking-through-the-desert-in-the-heat-of-the-day thirsty, ill-so-that-your-body-won’t-let-you-keep-the-water-it-craves thirsty. Gathering grains from a field all day without a drink, putting a mud roof on a house… giving birth? Some experiences of thirst are profound. They never leave you. They never left me.

I remember walking to the well at noon, day after day. You ask, why did I go at noon, and not during the sensible, cool hour after sunrise? After all, that is the custom of the women and girls of my city, Sychar. I had my reasons. I needed my hiding place, and my hiding place was the hour when the sun was high in the sky, when reasonable women were at home persuading their infants to nap until it grew cooler. But I was not a reasonable woman. And I had no infants to persuade. All that awaited me at home was a husband… say, my fifth husband… who had begun to show the same traits as all the others. The gracious charm of courtship giving way to the wary expression of anxiety as month after month my womb did not quicken, and I did not present him with a child in his image. Finally, the anger. The recriminations, like our ancestor Jacob, crying out in fury at his beloved Rachel. “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” (Genesis 30:2) And finally, the silence, the withdrawal, the realization that my womb would never quicken with this man. Then, worst of all, the moment when he again became tender and compassionate, because he had made the decision to divorce me, and knew he would soon be free.

I walked to the well in the heat of the day, because that was my hiding place from my home, and from the sorrowful stares of the other women, too frightened themselves to be very compassionate towards me, shunning me lest my barrenness be, somehow, a contagion. And as I walked, I would grow aware of this thirst… this burning thirst, welling up inside me. So, I would go to the water, to the well, the well of our ancestor Jacob. The water there is fresh and cold. It comes from an underground spring, so we call it “living water.” When I dip my hands into the full bucket… the taste is like nothing else. It enters my body and touches my very bones. And for a moment, I forget my sorrow and my surly husband and my dry, parched womb, and I am quenched. But only for a moment.

Finally, my fifth husband too had divorced me, and I was living on the kindness… a certain kind of kindness… of a man who knew better than to marry me. It was just as well. Another reason to go to the well alone. So that is what I did. Day after day, until the day when everything changed.

I set out that day just as any other. I carried my jar high under the high sun; the coolness of the clay soothed my neck as the sun beat down upon my forehead. As I approached the well, I looked up and saw, to my dismay, I was not alone. There sat a man, right next to the well, on the low rocks on which people rest their jars and buckets. I paused, and briefly considered turning around and going home. But my thirst was greater than my dismay, so I set my face like oven baked clay, and moved to the lip of the well.

I could see by his dress and his appearance that this man was a Jew, which was startling. What was he doing here… alone? I doubted the rowdy young men of the town would be out in the heat, but this Jew must have known this was a Samaritan city, and not safe for him. Was he simple-minded? Was he dangerous? I watched him out of the corner of my eye as I let the bucket down and heard it splash, far below us, in the cool darkness of the well. He gazed directly at me. It was… uncomfortable. I didn’t like his gaze. It felt too penetrating. It felt too personal. I began to become angry at his insolence.

“Give me a drink.” He had spoken to me! I looked around quickly to make sure he wasn’t talking to someone else. Then I spoke to him—I did! I spoke right back to him, saying “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” I can’t describe what I was feeling at that moment… all I know is that I was so very tired: tired of avoiding people, tired of being talked about, tired of feeling the need to explain myself. Tired of men thinking that I was so… ruined they didn’t even have to observe the common courtesies with me!

I was angry, but his response was not. He spoke quietly, his words like cool water, calming me.

“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.”

Suddenly I wasn’t angry any longer, but I was curious. Didn’t this man know what he was talking about? Perhaps he was simple, in need of my help. I felt suddenly moved to compassion for him. Perhaps he was lost.

“Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” I spoke carefully, as one might speak to a child. Then, I grew playful. “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks, drank from it?”

Now it was his turn to speak carefully. “Everyone who drinks of this water—“ he gestured towards Jacob’s well—“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.”

As he spoke, I began to feel… that sensation that comes, on the back of the neck… excitement and fear. What could he mean? But I knew what he meant… that was what was so frightening. As he spoke I saw it all. I saw my every day trip to the well, and my trip back to the house that was my home for now, and I saw the endless hopelessness of it all. I saw into my own future, trips to the well for men who would not be loyal to me until my spine curved and my eyes dimmed, and people threw me coins and bread out of pity. I saw, I knew, exactly what he meant, the daily striving to quench my thirst with something that seemed to hold a sweet promise, but which in reality had a kind of secret salt in it, that only made me thirst all the more.

And what was this he was promising? A spring of water gushing up to eternal life!

I spoke, my voice cracking, on the verge of hot, salty tears. “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

He made a remark about my five husbands. Was it possible? Did he somehow divine this? Or was it that old Jewish barb about the five Samaritan holy places, their belief that we worship five gods? It was impossible to know. But I knew this: the man I was speaking with was no ordinary man, no ordinary Jew. Leave aside the fact of his conversing with me, a woman and a Samaritan. Leave aside his curious comments about living water. There was something in his eyes, something in his voice that made me wonder. Could it be?

Have you ever had a conversation with someone in which they seemed to know you intimately in a heartbeat? One in which you completed one another’s sentences, in which you begin to feel hope rising in your breast, asking yourself… is this the one? That has happened to me so many times… every single time resulting in another marriage, another man… and it always felt like the sensation of too much wine, intoxication. But this time it felt as if my head was clearing, as if I were coming home to myself again after a long, long time away. This time it felt like a rush of cool water in my dry, parched mouth, falling into my bones. Dare I imagine it? Could it be? I spoke, almost in a whisper, the kind of cautious statement one makes while holding the breath.

“I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”

He leaned towards me… too close, for even a married man to lean towards his wife at the market, He looked deep into my eyes, into my soul, and he spoke the words that changed my life forever.

“I am he.”

I stood frozen, a cold wave surging through my body. Around me there erupted a small commotion that didn’t interest me, that I could barely comprehend, as he was surrounded by a dozen men, and more women, the men circling around as if to protect him… from me! They drew near him, and a quiet fell upon them as they regarded the unlikely scene: this man… who was, clearly, their leader… talking to the most unlikely of persons.

I began to back away from the well. I didn’t care about the small crowd, I didn’t even care about my water jar. I felt, for the first time in a long time, refreshed, energized, quenched. I tasted that living water he spoke about, I felt it surging through me, awakening me—only now, I was the jar, I was the vessel. A broken vessel, to be sure. But a vessel he had chosen. And I needed to leave there, to go to find… anyone, everyone I could, to tell them, to tell them about him reading my soul and knowing my life story, and offering me the living water all the same. To tell them about the man who made no distinctions, who did not look at a woman as some other man’s property, but as a person to engage in conversation. To tell them about a man who did not look at Samaritans as despised and unclean, but as fellow seekers… seeking him, waiting for him, this man. The messiah.

So tell me… Do you know what it is to be thirsty? I mean, truly, deeply thirsty—parched… walking-through-the-desert-in-the-heat-of-the-day thirsty, ill-so-that-your-body-won’t-let-you-keep-the-water-it-craves thirsty. The ache of loneliness. Walking through meaningless days, accomplishing your meaningless tasks. Hiding out in plain sight. Letting others define your worth—others who don’t even know you! Do you know the thirst of such an existence, the thirst for something else, something better? Then come. Come with me. Come to the water.