Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Finding a Way Out of the Wilderness

Following is the sermon I preached on Sunday. It is based on the story of the Woman at the Well found in John 4 as well as the 105th Psalm.

I talked with my twelve-year-old niece, Kayla, on the phone last week. Kayla is about to start middle school, and on last Monday she went to her new school to enroll. It was her first visit to the school, and everything seemed very big. The day we spoke had been quite an overwhelming day for Kayla.

Kayla and her mother moved to Denver last summer. The move was a major shift for Kayla, taking her out of a class of fifteen students in a small, country school house to a larger, suburban elementary school. While Kayla flourished in the larger elementary school, the middle school Kayla will attend this fall is huge. It has big hallways, big classrooms, a big gym, and a big cafeteria. Kayla will no longer be part of a small, quaint community.

When we spoke on the phone last Monday, I could hear the sounds of fear and insecurity in her voice. She told me a little about her school, and I could ascertain that everything was just too big and too daunting. I responded to Kayla by telling her that we have five weeks to pray. We have five weeks before school starts – five weeks in which to ask God to give Kayla a sense of community, to provide her with a friend in every class, and to fill her life with peace and security. When I told Kayla what I would be praying for these things, she smiled – the kind of smile that one can hear over the phone and said, “Oh, thank you Aunt Donna. Yes, we can pray.”
I wish I could tell Kayla that life will be easier when she is older. I would love to promise Kayla that this time will be the last time that the hallways seem too wide or that the community seems too big and distant. But I cannot promise Kayla these things. For I am reminded often that life can be downright difficult. No matter what age we are, life can seem overwhelming.

Many of you have met Tracy. She started worshipping with us last fall when we were in the sanctuary of Asbury United Methodist Church in the afternoons. She would often sneak in late and sneak out early before getting to the place where she would stay for the entire service. By the time we moved our service to this place, she had become a regular participant in the life of this community. She would walk up the side steps after the service had started to take a seat near the back of the theatre. She often joined us for Front Porch Friday events, bringing lots of food the last time we gathered for the jazz concert at the Smithsonian garden. She has been to the movie night discussions, providing leadership for the discussion on the movie, Crash. And she was here throughout the sermon series, “Why Does the Bible Include That?” attending many of the conversations that followed worship in the trailer. I remember her comment especially on the sermon preached on homosexuality when she shared how the sermon made her feel like she feels as an attorney in the courtroom waiting to hear how the judge was going to rule, thinking she was “winning the argument” one moment and “losing the argument” the next. Tracy was on a spiritual quest to find the truth – crying out to God in some conversations, questioning God during other conversations, and seeking God’s peace and comfort in her life.

Tracy was a brilliant young attorney who was an incredibly competent prosecutor for the District government. She was involved in several social activities from yoga to happy hours, volunteering to book clubs. She faced many of the same issues that we all face when we move to this city and navigate our way through life as a twenty or thirty something. And, I would give anything to tell her today what I told Kayla – that we have time to pray for whatever it is that she was facing. Yet, my opportunity to tell her about God or to pray with her ended sometime last weekend when she discerned that whatever she was facing was just too much – too big – too uncontrollable.

All week long, I have been examining the past. I have been going back over emails I shared with Tracy, trying to find answers. I have been asking myself what more I could have done as her pastor – what stories about Jesus I could have told her. I have been thinking about whether we should ever let anyone sit in alone in worship, even though I know that some people enter this space wanting to remain anonymous. I have been asking what, if anything, could have been done to prevent such a tragic loss. And while I have not received many answers for the questions I have asked, I have found comfort and healing when I opened the pages of scripture.

The Psalm read today is a Psalm that speaks of God’s goodness – an unfailing goodness that is steadfast. The Psalmist calls us to give thanks to the Lord. We are called to sing to the Lord and tell of God’s wonderful works. We are then taken through a brief history lesson, reminding us of God’s faithfulness to the people from generation to generation. Verse 8 tells us how God remembers his covenant forever – a covenant we spoke of last week when we read the story of Noah’s Ark and remembered God’s brand. God created a rainbow to remind God and all of us that no matter how far we travel from God, God will remain with us. No matter how many times we turn our back on God, God will not let go of us. And no matter how disappointed God grows with us, God will never again destroy creation.

The Psalmist tells us of God’s journey with the Israelites. The Israelites were led into bondage in Egypt and remained there for forty years. God did not let go of them, however. Instead, God led them out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. The Israelites complained about food, and God gave them bread from heaven. God instructed them to take just enough food for the day, and the Israelites instead stored up as much manna as they could. Still, God keeps providing for them. The Israelites continue their journey and seemingly forget all that God has done. God has not let them down once. Still, the Israelites question why God would lead them only to let them die of thirst. God then strikes a rock and water gushes forth. God provides for the people at every step of the way. God is with the Israelites when they are being obedient, and God is with the Israelites when they doubt God. God is with the Israelites when they are being patient, and God is with them when they are begging for easy answers and quick solutions. God’s faithfulness to the Israelites is a testimony to how relentless God is in his pursuit of us. God longs to be near to us, and for us to respond to God’s love and mercy. God’s goodness is unfailing despite our actions. God is mindful of his covenant forever!

In our lesson from John, Jesus is on his way home. He is journeying from Judea to Galilee when he stops for a rest near a well in Samaria. It is the middle of the day, and the temperature is similar to what we have been experiencing in Washington this week. It is hot and muggy, and Jesus is exhausted. He sits down at the well for a rest.

All of the other women come early in the morning when the sun is just starting to rise. The other women come in the morning with their children – but not this woman. This woman comes when no one else is around. She comes by herself at a time when she knows she will not see anyone. Her desire is to sneak into the city center, fill her jar with water and return home as quickly as possible. Her desire is to sneak in and sneak out without having to encounter the scorn of the other women, the looks of judgment from the people who know all about her. She wants to avoid the looks of disgust – the displeasure of those who know that she has been married not once or twice but five different times. She comes at a time when she can most easily forget it all and lay the past aside. But today is a different day. Today she encounters Jesus at the side of the well.
Jesus asks her for a drink. The woman is shocked that the man is speaking to her. After all, Jesus is a Jew and the woman is a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans have not spoken with each other since the writing of 2 Kings when we are told that the Samaritans are the people who continued to make their own gods instead of trusting God. This Jew is different, however. He speaks to the Samaritan woman, and he asks her for a drink. He then tells her all about herself saying, “I know all about you. I know everything you have done. I know the mistakes and the heartaches of your past – the five husbands you have had. I know your loneliness, your regret, your emptiness and your sadness. Still, I have come seeking you. I have come to be in relationship with you. I have come to you with something you need.”

Jesus then explains how the water from the well can satisfy the woman only for a while. The bottles and the pills can kill her pain for a night. The avoidance of others can help her to forget the pain that comes with the scorn of others in the neighborhood. But what Jesus has cannot be found anywhere else – not in the self-help section of Barnes and Noble, not in the intimacy of a steamy romance, not in a great night at the bar, or an evening out with best friends. What Jesus has to offer is life – refreshing, eternal, pure, amazing life – life in which grace runs rampant, filling our soul long before we can even respond to it. It is a life in which we have a constant companion – one who knows all about us and loves us in spite of it all. It is a life in which we can live freely and fully for all eternity.

In verse 10, Jesus says, “’If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink.’” Jesus says that if you knew who was right in front of your face, then you would not be accepting the defeat this world has given you but you would instead accept this gift – the gift of the one sitting here asking you for a drink. “If you knew the gift of God” right in front of your face, woman of Samaria, then you would ask him for so much more. You would ask him for life – a life in which the mockery of others does not really matter. You would ask him for a drink of his water – water that quenches our thirst for satisfaction and inclusion, enabling us to see that the pain of this life is only temporary. You would bathe yourself in his grace, grace that not only forgives you of everything you have done in the past but forgets all about it.

The woman does not get it. The woman at the well thinks Jesus’ water can prevent her from having to come to the well day in and day out. This is not the power of Jesus’ water, however. Jesus does not promise that the pain or the challenges of life will all go away. What Jesus promises is that he will be with us through the pain, the sorrow, the loss and the disappointment. He promises to give us life.

In her book, Home By Another Way, Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of a woman who has experienced one heartache after another. The woman feels like her life is falling apart, and she checks into a convent for a silent retreat, hoping that God will be revealed to her in a powerful way on the retreat, providing her with strength and healing to carry on.

Upon her arrival at the convent, the woman encounters a nun in the elevator. The nun asks the woman, “What brings you to us, my dear?” And the woman responds, “My mother has just died, I think my father may be an alcoholic, my marriage is falling apart, and I feel like I am going crazy.” The nun responds, “God must love you very much,” and then gets off the elevator.
Barbara Brown Taylor tells in her book how she does not understand what the nun is saying, how the nun’s response of “God must love you very much” is very puzzling. Taylor writes, “I am still not sure what that nun was trying to tell the woman in the elevator, but I think it had to do with everything that the woman was about to find out – that in the very midst of her losses, with pieces of the sky still falling all around her, she was about to be more eligible than she had ever been to discover the power of Christ that is made perfect in weakness.”[1]

I know enough about Jesus to conclude that wherever there are places of pain, Jesus is there. Whenever we are experiencing pain or doubt, disbelief or denial, Jesus places himself in positions where we are sure to encounter him. Jesus shows up, enabling us to see him when we are trying to avoid everyone and everything else.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, life is not easy. While we may have wanted to find our life partner at the age of 22, some of us are still single. While we may have wanted a marriage to last a lifetime, some of us experienced the pain of a bitter divorce or were widowed much too soon. Many of us wonder how we are going to make ends meet financially. We have high risk mortgages on houses that are not worth what we paid for them two years ago. We live in small spaces with rents that keep rising. We are in debt and cannot seem to get out of it. We struggle to find balance between work and play, exercise and habits of healthy living. We yearn to be known for who we really are while wondering if people will still like us if they learn everything about us. We are tired of being passed over for every job that we have applied for. We long for real community. We pretend that we have it all together when deep inside we want to curl up in a ball, and pray that we don’t have to come out until all of the problems or dilemmas have been solved. We just want it to go away, but the “it” does not go away.

And so we keep going to the well, getting whatever bit of water we can to keep us going for one more day. We reach out for a one night stand that makes us feel wanted, a bottle of booze that takes away the pain, a new outfit that makes us feel attractive, a higher paying job that helps us feel successful, and a new mask that enables us to hide who we really are from others. All of these aids help for a moment. They get us through another day, pushing the pain aside for a moment or an evening – but they do not cure or heal the pain. These bottles of water we pour into our body are not life-giving water.

At some point last weekend, Tracy chose a permanent solution for very temporary problems. At some point last weekend, she could only see the darkness around her, and she gave in to that darkness, putting an end to it once and for all. I would give anything if I could talk with Tracy today. I would give anything to have the opportunity to go and tell her again about Jesus’ love, guidance and companionship. I would give anything to sit with her in worship, to pray with her during communion, but I can’t.

What I can do, however, is to offer the gift to all of us who are here today. It is a gift that God sent to us some 2000 years ago, and his name is Jesus. And Jesus still comes to us when we are trying to avoid life. He still comes to us when we think that no one really knows us or cares about us. He comes to us when we are trying to simply survive on another day’s worth of water, and he offers us water that gushes forth from the springs of life. He comes to us, offering us grace and forgiveness despite how many mistakes we have made. He offers us his presence – a presence that does not put an end to the problems of this world, but a presence that remains with us always, holding our hands, helping us navigate the rough terrain, and giving us everything we need to make it through the wilderness and into the Promised Land. His light shines, and no matter how dark the world may appear, the darkness has never overcome this light.

While we may not always recognize him, the gift is here. Christ, the one who knows everything about us and still loves us, is here – longing to be in relationship with us – longing to care for our every need. May we have the courage to accept this gift, allowing his light to shine. May we come forward and drink one more time.

God must really love us. Amen.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Perfect in Weakness” in Home By Another Way, Cambridge: Cowley, 1999, 168 – 173, 173.

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