Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Many of you have noticed there’s something different about Lent this year. We have Cabernet Sauvignon. There is Cabernet at communion. Cabernet goes down well paired with heavy food, but it leaves something to be desired as a stand-alone drink. I’m not sure what the worship team was thinking, but for me, Lenten cabernet makes me wonder. Is this what my prayers taste like in God’s mouth when mixed with the bitterness of my own selfishness and sin?
Today’s gospel offers a wonderful reminder of the abundant and refreshing gift of grace poured out for us in baptism like living water in a thirsty world. Yet sadly, it also reflects the timeless sin repeated again and again by all the world’s religions: God with us begins to mean God is not with you. The purity of God’s grace becomes embittered. This is not the living water that is our birthright.
In nature, water that does not flow soon becomes stagnant and unhealthy to drink. Religion that does not open our hands, hearts and fisted minds to welcome the stranger as we would welcome Christ is no longer healthy religion.
Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well was shocking in part because it transgressed time honored religious lines. Like it says in today’s gospel, “Judeans, of course, do not associate with Samaritans.” (John 4:9b) Samaritans were of Jewish ancestry mixed with other races and practiced an unorthodox religion. Once again Jesus exhibits his tendency to fraternize with all the wrong people.
Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus will tell a famous parable about a Good Samaritan of extraordinary kindness (Luke 10:25-37). He will single out a Samaritan among a group of ten lepers for having faith in giving thanks to God for being healed (Luke 17:11-19). He will rebuke the disciples for wanting to send hell fire to destroy a Samaritan village (Luke 9:52-56). Today Jesus travels through Samaria (already odd because he did not detour around it as was the custom) and surprises both the disciples and a Samaritan women (breaking another taboo about gender) by talking to her directly, engaging her in a conversation about deep spiritual matters (John 4:4-42).
It’s not just the Samaritans who find favor with Jesus, of course. The Syrophoenicians living north of Israel were also considered outsiders and pagans. But when a Syrophoenician woman, desperate for her daughter to be healed, appealed to Jesus he also praised her for her great faith (Mark 7:24-30; Matthew 15:22-28). Jesus welcomed tax collectors, and sinners and ate with them.
While affirming God’s special relationship with Israel, Jesus demonstrates God’s grace toward and inclusion of people of all backgrounds. Historically, we Christians make a mistake when we see Jesus as a wall and not a bridge to fellowship with other communities of faith. It’s the miracle of Canna in reverse. We turn living water into bitter wine.
As Christians and Disciples of Christ, that’s why we bear a special burden to oppose anti-Semitism and cannot ignore its recent rise. Although we may never know the motives of the terrorist who phoned in a bomb threat Tuesday, March 7th to Emanuel Congregation and Day School, we can safely assume it had something to do with a tragically misinformed Christian theology. The bitter death-dealing wine of religious terrorism is not in keeping with the spirit the God we know, whether it is perpetrated in name of Christ, Muhammad, or Moses.
It was good to see so many of you Friday night for Shabbat at Emanuel Congregation –and so many from our diverse faith communities in Edgewater—to stand with our brothers and sisters of faith in solidarity against hate. The spirit of God’s grace and hospitality was poured out on us there like living water.
The focus of our Lenten devotions this week was the Apostles Creed, were we read that all people are created in the image of God. Rozella Haydée White wrote, “Believing that God created all makes a difference in how we interact with each other and with creation. We begin to see that everything and everyone is sacred, reflecting the beauty, depth, and breadth of God. Sometimes this reality is easier for me to grasp than another one—that I too am not only created by God but actually created in God’s image. This truth can be daunting because I struggle with my own worth and enoughness. To believe that a bit of the divine resides in me means that the totality of my existence has the capacity to reflect the love, compassion, and humility that define the very character of God.” (Free Indeed, Devotions for Lent 2017, p. 27)
As author and poet Madeleine L’Engle wrote in Walking on Water, “There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation.”
We were talking about the political strains in our country, our state, and our city when one of my pastoral colleagues this week loudly announced she was giving up despair for Lent. After talking with Jesus, the woman at the well left her water jar and went into the city bearing living water she shared freely with anyone she met (John 4:28). Five gallons of water weigh more than forty pounds. This nameless woman in our gospel has pretty much everything stacked against her: she is a Samaritan in this Jewish story, a woman in a male-dominated world, has lived a challenging and probably tragic life, and is very likely dependent on others. And yet after her encounter with Jesus she leaves her water jar behind to live a new and different life and to share with others what God has done for her.” (David Lose)
She leaves the weight of her past at the well. She exchanged stigma and hopelessness for joy. She gave up despair for Lent. She preached good news to thirsty people in the city and a new community in Christ was born.
We, who are thirsty for God, find living water here in our baptism. The old bitterness is flushed away. Here, Christ comes among us in word and meal. Never forget we have good news of great joy to share. In sharing it we are repairing the world in some small way, we become a living sanctuary of hope and grace and this task has only become more urgent in these days.
On Friday night, our hope and joy was rekindled as we sang and prayed led by our friends at Emanuel Congregation. On page 124 of the Jewish prayer book I noticed one in particular that could be a re-statement of our own mission and a way for the living water of the gospel to flow freely among us, through us, and from us:
May the door of this synagogue be wide enough
to receive all who hunger for love, all who are lonely for friendship.
May it welcome all who have cares to unburden,
thanks to express, hopes to nurture.
May the door of this synagogue be narrow enough
to shut out pettiness and pride, envy and enmity.
May its threshold be no stumbling block
to young or straying feet.
May it be too high to admit complacency,
selfishness and harshness.
May this synagogue be, for all who enter,
the doorway to a richer and more meaningful life.
(Mishkan T’Filah: A Reform Siddur, p. 124)