Monday, May 26, 2008

Covenant - May 25, 2008

Hebrews 10:32-39

Goooood Morning Covenant Church!

What a good day …
A good day to celebrate …
60 years of faith, hope and love …
60 years of grace, mercy and peace …
60 Christmas Seasons and
60 Easters …

Baptisms, weddings and funerals …
Mountaintops and valleys; tears and turmoil; joy and laughter …
Tuna casseroles and heaping bowls of potato salad …
Groups Alive and bowling teams …
Mission teams and youth trips …
Sunday School and Preschool …
Vacation Bible School and Church Camp …
Sermons and Bible studies …
Preachers and teachers!
60 years wherein Covenant Presbyterian Church has lived the gospel, searching and seeking … taking some pretty courageous stands along the way … an open and welcoming congregation …
We’ve come a long way in our journey … lives transformed by the gospel … salt given to the earth, light for the world …

We’ve learned a lot … and speaking of learning,

At Jim and Susan’s 50th wedding anniversary, Jim was asked to give a brief account of the benefits of a long marriage.
“Tell us, Jim, just what is it you’ve learned from all those wonderful years with your wife?”
Jim responded, “Well, I’ve learned that marriage is the best teacher of all. It teaches you loyalty, forbearance, meekness, self-restraint, forgiveness — and a great many other qualities you wouldn’t have needed if you’d stayed single.”

To be a part of the church is sort of like being married:
We have to learn a few things about getting along and working together … making plans together, showing up and being there … figuring out how to love one another … constantly learning what it means to follow Jesus.

Our reading from Hebrews says it well … it’s not always easy!

The Christian life is a strange amalgam, a topsy-turvy wonderland in which everything seems slightly unusual, a little off-kilter …

We live with an eye on Christ … and we live in the world … a juggling act … trying to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world … one day, seeing clearly … the next, it’s all fogged in.

But we make it … we believe and we love … we help one another … we’re God’s people by grace, and by grace, we’re Covenant on the Corner!

So don’t give up your confidence, says the writer to the Hebrews …
Stay the course, remain faithful … you’re gonna make it.

We’ve come a long way …
And having come this far …
Where do we go from here?

It’s a very different question today than 60 years ago.

60 years ago …

A powerful Protestant culture.
A culture that encouraged church attendance.
After the Depression and WW 2, everyone was looking for stability - a new home; a better world.
People moved out of the cities, built the suburbs.
Created and joined the YMCA, neighborhood associations, civic clubs and fraternal organizations; PTAs and book clubs; bowling leagues and card clubs …
They joined churches …
Millions of Americans signed on – churches sprung up on thousands of corners all across the nation …
Methodist and Baptist, Episcopal and Lutheran, Congregational and Presbyterian … an unprecedented building boom for mainline Protestant congregations … two and three Sunday services; bulging Sunday Schools … ramped up programs …

Part of our celebration today is remembering what it was like … we were young and eager … new jobs, new homes, new schools, new families …
And a new church called Covenant!
Covenant on the Corner.

It wasn’t your grandfather’s church; you were not the church of 1900 or 1925, you were the church for 1950 … you created a new church for the WW 2 generation.
You dug the foundations and raised the walls; you nailed the shingles and laid the carpet … you built the church with sweat and tears; you prayed and you studied; you sang the LORD's song in a wonderful new world.

So let’s celebrate; we’ve come a long way … but let’s be careful.

Memory plays tricks on us …

In the golden glow of memory, the past looks better than it was … the Golden Age and the good old days - and we can get a little nostalgic:

¸ Nostalgia is like a grammar lesson: you find the present tense, but the past perfect!
¸ If you're yearning for the good old days, just turn off the air conditioning.
¸ People seem to get nostalgic about a lot of things they weren't so crazy about the first time around.
¸ It's never safe to be nostalgic about something until you're absolutely certain there's no chance of it coming back.

Aslan says to Lucy in the film, Prince Caspian, “Nothing happens the same way twice.”

Lot’s wife looked back and turned into a pillar of salt.
The Hebrews yearned for the safety of Egypt and failed to take the Promised Land.
The leaders of Jerusalem longed for the restoration of a by-gone glory and killed Jesus when He pointed to the future.

A friend of mine said, “We Presbyterians had the Fifties all figured out, and if the Fifties ever come back, we’re ready for ‘em.”

I knew a man who said a hundred times a day, “My daddy used to say …”
And no doubt his daddy was a bright man.
But I said to myself, “When is Jim going to say what he thinks? Will Jim ever get beyond his father’s world?”

I once called upon a lovely lady just this side of 90 – when I got there, she was planting a tree in her front yard.
“You’re planting a tree,” I said; “What kind of a tree?”
“It’s an oak,” she said, and then added, “I won’t be here to see it, but my great grandchildren will see it. I’m planting it for them.”

I made a vow years ago to never say to a young pastor, “When I was your age ...”

Rather, ask the young pastor what she’s reading, what he’s planning … the latest strategy, the latest ideas.

In 1948, we built a church for the 20th century.
In 2008, we’re building a church for the 21st century.

It’s no longer a Protestant world … our neighbors are likely to be Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist … New Age, Wikan, or who knows what.
In the last 25 years, we’ve seen the rise of the Megachurch and now the Emergent Church.

Fundamentalist Christianity took to TV like a duck to water.
The Christian Right rose to new heights, while mainline churches lost millions of members and closed thousands of churches …
A huge shift … a paradigm shift … everything has changed.

Columnist David Crumm writes:

We haven’t seen times like these in 500 years … since the invention of the printing press and all the revolutions that brought Europe out of the Middle Ages into the Modern World.

It’s a different world:

Computers and Blackberries … iPod and iPhone … BlueTooth and wi-fy … instant messaging and YouTube … the news delivered by John Stewart and Steven Colbert … the European Union and the rise of China … spiraling oil prices, Global Warming and Middle East tensions … the Big Three now Toyota, Honda and Mercedes … it’s enough to make your head spin.

But it’s not bad … though I sometimes fret, I remind myself: every age is the age of discovery … and God is still God.

“I’m doing a new thing,” says God.

God is always doing something new.
The whirlwind God … the God of the still small voice … the God of Sinai and the God of Calvary … the God of Exodus and the God of Easter … the God of Creation and the God of the New Creation.
The God of the Covenant, and the God of the New Covenant!

When I lived in Detroit, there was always a shut-down time in late summer when the auto plants re-tooled for the new models …

Mainline Protestantism is retooling right now …
So are the Megachurches - after 25 years of ascendancy, the Megachurch movement is experiencing both decline and reassessment: what worked once no longer works.
We live in a time when things change rapidly …
Adaptation, modification, experiment.
I like it … it keeps us fresh, keeps us on our toes, keeps us moving along, keeps us young, keeps us interested and keeps us interesting.

No time for nostalgia.
No time to be the wives of Lot.
No time for liberals to yearn for the ferment of the Sixties;
Or conservatives to yearn for the glory of the Nineties …
That Avocado-green refrigerator was a winner, so was the orange shag carpet … your collection of 45s and 33 1/3 rpm records … and how about those 8-track tapes and the Heath Kit hi-fi system we built.

It was all good, but that was then.

Now is the time to retool … now is the time for a new covenant.

The Lutheran Church of Norway recently cut its ties to the state after 500 years … the Bishop of Oslo said, “It’s of another era.”

I like that.
It’s gracious …
It’s wise.
It’s the truth.

Some things are of another era.
A new day calls for new strategies.
New ways of being the church.

We’re the church of Jesus Christ, here and now.
Covenant on the Corner of 80th and Sepulveda.
Reformed and always reforming.
On the move and moving into the future!
The 21st Century.

Put your hand to the plow and don’t look back …
Turn a new page.
Find new ways.
Adapt and adopt.

Be brave … as God would have us …

Be kinder than necessary, because everyone you meet is fighting some kind of a battle.
Live simply …
Love generously …
Care deeply …
Speak kindly …

Live with intention.
Walk to the edge.
Play with abandon.
Dance as if no one were looking.

Do not, therefore, abandon that confidence of yours; it brings a great reward.

Happy 60th dear Covenant … and here’s to another sixty years! Amen and Amen!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

God with Us - May 18, 2008 - Jeff Siker

Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a Matthew 28:16-20

The scripture lessons for today from Genesis 1 and Matthew 28 tell us a simple yet radical truth that we constantly need to hear again and again. This truth, this message is not complicated, it’s just that we don’t quite know what to do with it. This message is the very heart of the entire story of Israel and the gospel story of Jesus. Indeed, it is at the core of our own identity and journey of faith. When I reveal to you this not-so-secret truth, my hunch is that you’ll shrug a bit and think… yeah, and? So let’s see. You ready? Ok, here goes – the central message of the entire Bible can be summed up in one simple sentence: God is with us. Let me repeat that: God is with us. We know this in our heads, and perhaps we even feel it in our hearts, but if we pause and reflect on the magnitude of this simple message, I would suggest that this is an overwhelming realization. So let me put it another way: the Creator of the universe who created each and every one of us in God’s own image, this very Creator wants to be in relationship with us, each and every one. Or perhaps better put, this Creator not only wants to be in relationship with us, this Creator in fact is in relationship with us. Indeed, God is with us.

The creation story from Genesis 1 describes in quite some detail precisely the ways in which God is with us. Lest we take how God is with us for granted, listen to a litany of what Genesis 1 recounts. God is with us in the light all around us. We can’t see it or touch it, but there it is, and God envelopes us in this light. God is with us in the darkness. Again, we can’t see it or touch it, but God is present to us in this darkness, in night. God is with us in the creation of the sky, the clouds, and the stars beyond. Billions of light-years away, and yet even there God is with us. God is with us in the waters – so fundamental to our existence. We drink a glass of water without giving a thought, and yet there God is with us.

God is with us in the earth, the dry land upon which we walk and move. Once again, we do not think so much about the land, though in this era of global warming and rising sea levels we are starting to think about it more! Let’s try something – stand up if you are able to. Look down at your feet. Think about that land of carpet under your feet. Think about the foundation of this very building and the earth under it. God created that. We stand upon it because in it God is with us.

And then, of course, we are overwhelmed yet again when we reflect upon all that the earth brings forth – plants and trees of all kinds, flowers that delight our eyes in the light that God has created, the sweet smell of honeysuckle or jasmine that brings its own simple joy. Yet another way God is with us. And the tastes of these plants – the utter surprise of a red or yellow beet (Judy’s favorite vegetable), the earthiness of a potato, how our breath is taken away by the taste of a ripe heirloom tomato, the sweetness of a honeydew melon, the tartness of a grapefruit, the creaminess of an avocado. God is with us in each bite, as each swallow nourishes our bodies. How incredible that God has so coordinated this world that the first things of creation – light, water, earth – in turn all give life to these plants. “And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.”

As if all of this weren’t enough, God goes on to create the fish and the birds, and then all the animals of the land, “living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind. … and God saw that it was good.” Yet again we are overwhelmed. Words, songs, paintings, sculptures – none of it can but begin to describe and capture the amazement we feel as we experience God’s presence in each of these living creatures. Is it any wonder that the movie The March of the Penguins so captured our hearts, or that – if you’re like me – you can turn on virtually any nature show on TV and watch it with childlike curiosity at these creatures all around us. I remember seeing a show on crows; it was amazing to see how clever they were. It was downright astonishing to see them rolling down hills covered with snow, and then as if they had sleds they went back to the top of the hill and rolled down all over again. God is with us in all of these critters. When I take our dogs Gus and Hendrix for walks in the morning I occasionally come upon a parent out for a walk with a small child in a stroller. The child’s wonder and attention is immediately caught. “It’s a dog! A dog!” The brave ones will even reach out to touch and pet. The older ones might ask why our dog Gus only has three legs. (He lost a leg to cancer about a year and a half ago.) But what a marvel these creatures are! And what joy and craziness they bring to our lives. God is with us in all these animals, large and small.

When I was a kid I developed a fascination that I still have for spiders. They are just really cool little critters. Spinning webs, eight eyes, all manner of ways of catching prey. Judy’s not so thrilled with them as I am, but I find them incredible. I’ve sat and watched spiders weave their webs. When I was young I confess that I would occasionally undo one of the anchoring strands of the web to see what the spider would do. I imagine now that the spider cursed me out and sent up its own little prayer to God about this thoughtless human, and couldn’t God do something about this injustice.

And then, finally, God created humankind in God’s own image – male and female, equal in God’s eyes and God’s hopes. How incredible that God created us not as individuals meant to live in isolation, but that God was determined that we be with other people. God created us to be in community with one another. Friends, family, business partners, lovers, even committees. God is with us in and through each other. I think that’s most often how we feel God’s presence, through the people around us. And since we were created in the image of the Creator, we also have the capacity to create communities – which is what we do here each Sunday. We create a community of people who gather to worship and to bear witness to the love and care of our Creator. And God is with us here as we worship.

It is God’s final act of creation that is perhaps the most amazing. On the seventh day God finished creation by resting. Now the original Shabbat, of course, was not Sunday but Saturday. And we are told in the Genesis account that God rested on the seventh day. By making the Sabbath holy God created rest, rejuvenation, recreation. In this rest God creates the space and time for us to be with one another and with all of creation. God is especially with us on this day we set apart to check in with God as a community of faith. It matters not whether we observe the original Shabbat, as in Judaism, or Sunday (the first day of the week) in remembrance of the resurrection within our Christian faith. The Sabbath day is all about resurrection as God restores and creates us anew in the Sabbath rest.

We are told that Jesus observed Shabbat, that he went to synagogue, that he read the sacred scriptures and proclaimed God’s word to God’s people. Jesus also bore witness to God’s presence with us when he called together a new community of disciples, a community that we embody today. Jesus too saw God with us in all of creation -- the birds of the air, a donkey. Remember his appeal to the lilies of the field that neither toil nor spin, but that are more beautifully adorned than even Solomon in all of his glory. Jesus shows us how God’s creation itself teaches us about life and about God’s constant presence with us, God’s constant care for us.

The final words of Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew remind us once again of this most central lesson that we need not only to understand with our mind, but that we need to absorb into our hearts and souls, into our very being. As the crucified and risen Jesus commissions his disciples and sends them forth, as he sends us forth, he tells them: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” “I am with you always.” This phrase hearkens back to the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, to the birth story of Jesus. Recall what the angel of the Lord said to Joseph as he was planning to divorce this pregnant Mary, “’Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from the sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet [Isaiah], ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us.’” Jesus is God’s Emmanuel, God’s very presence with us. Just as God was with the people of Israel even as they wandered through the desert for forty years, so in Christ is God with us in our sojourn – ahead of us leading the way, beside us taking our hand, behind us giving us a swift kick in the rear when we need it, saying “get off your butts and let’s go!” (I’m sure that’s in the Bible somewhere.)

Jesus believed and trusted in the God who is with us each step of the way. Even in the midst of rejection, even at the fleeing of the disciples, and even as he cried out on the cross “Eli, eli, lama sabachthani? – My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” – even in this quotation from the beginning of Psalm 22 while on the cross, Jesus believed and trusted in the God who is with us. For by invoking the beginning of the Psalm, a prayer for help in great distress, Jesus also invokes the end of the Psalm, which proclaims with confidence: “I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you… for he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.” The cry from the cross is not a cry of utter abandonment, but a cry that even in the agony of the cross Jesus trusted in the God who is with us, the God who brings all or creation to existence out of nothing, the God who brings life to death. It is with this confidence that Jesus sends out his disciples, sends us out, with the reminder that God is with us always. Emmanuel.

So that is the good news ever before us. But… (you knew there would be a “but”)… this good news comes to us with an implicit question. God is with us, but the question is… are we with God? For in truth, to know in our hearts that God is with us means that we are willing to be searched out and found by God. It means that we respond to God’s grace and God’s love. As God is with us, do we seek to be with God? Do we trust in God’s redeeming presence in our midst? Do we accept God’s acceptance of us in faith? Do we know that we are God’s people and that we are created in God’s very image? Do we look at our neighbor and see God? Do we feel a windy breeze cooling our face on a hot day and know that God is there? When you had breakfast this morning, did you know that God was there? When you go to sleep tonight and wake up tomorrow, do you know that God will be there? Emmanuel. God is with us.

Emmanuel, the Creator of the universe, the God beyond all, this God is with us in the most intimate way, breathing life and love into our hearts and souls and minds every moment. How amazing it is that this God, this Lord, this savior, this redeemer is with us, even to the close of the age.

Amen and amen.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Come and See - May 11, 2008

By Lee Gardner and Leslie Evans

LEE: Thank you Bill for your recognition of the mothers in our congregation. We respect their wisdom and mentoring abilities as we develop our church community. In the village in Nicaragua which Leslie and I visited earlier this year, we found this same respect for mothers in their village. With many of the men off to Costa Rica or Honduras to obtain employment, the women of Nueva Vida are called upon to provide the leadership of their community.

As our text from the Gospel of John indicates, Jesus extended an invitation to take a journey unlike any other. Andrew, Peter, Philip, and Nathanael, accepted an invitation to “come and see”… to see and be transformed…. at the beginning of the journey, they saw the Christ, and followed his invitation. This morning, Leslie and I would like to share with you the highpoints of our “Come and See” journey to Nicaragua as part of a mission initiative of our presbytery.
In 2005, our Presbytery received an invitation from CEPAD, an organization in Managua, Nicaragua. The invitation was to “come and see.” Come and see what God is doing in Nicaragua. CEPAD is a Christian non-profit, non-partisan association of different protestant denominations, Christian institutions, and pastoral committees that confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and desire to live out the gospel through service to others through empowerment. _CEPAD brings together churches or groups of churches in North America and churches, pastoral committees, organizations, and communities in Nicaragua and facilitates covenant partnerships between them.

In February of 2006, Leslie and ten others from our presbytery spent a week with CEPAD learning about the economic, social, and religious aspects of life in Nicaragua. They saw churches, factories, co-ops, and schools, and had a 3-day home stay visit with families in the rural village called Nueva Vida. After prayer, discussion, and reflection, our presbytery affirmed that the presbytery should take the next step toward becoming partners with a community in Nicaragua.

In January of 2008, thirteen representatives of churches in our presbytery (including Leslie and myself) continued the “come and see” journey to Nicaragua. CEPAD took us to Nueva Vida, to become reacquainted with them, and together with them, see if we would be a good fit for partnership.


LEE: The partnership into which we are being invited is referred to as a “covenant partnership”. A covenant partnership is not a one-time mission excursion – where we go in, build something, and leave. A covenant partnership is based upon love – love of God – love of one another. A covenant partnership is mutual – gifts are given and received by both partners. It is based upon building relationship first; it is based upon spending time together, observing and participating. A covenant partnership is to accept and embody as fully as possible the values and customs of our partner. It is not speed dating --- it is a courtship. Before a hammer is lifted or a dollar is donated, we are to develop a relationship – we are to know one another as brothers and sisters.

LESLIE WILL NOW SHARE A PERSONAL EXPERIENCE from our visit to the village of Nueva Vida… LESLIE…

LEE: Thus, a covenant partnership is very different from the familiar mission project of seeing a need in the world, going in and building, fixing, or feeding, and moving on. There will always be times to immediately address a need – to alleviate horrible suffering – like the special offering today that Mikal has quite appropriately organized to help the people of Burma. A covenant partnership is different. It calls us to a mutual relationship of exchanging gifts, a relation of mutuality that will be transforming of both partners. Peter, Andrew, Philip and Nathanel had no idea they were stepping into a journey not of tasks, but of transformation. A covenant partnership asks us to step into a journey of transformation.


LEE: When the 13 of us met to take this trip, all of us knew at least one other person in the group. By the time we returned home, we knew each other quite well! We had eaten together, snored together, shared toilet paper and hand sanitizers, prayed together, laughed and cried together. We were transformed by the gifts and graces of each other. As we sought to build relationship with our Nicaraguan hosts, we built relationship with each other. We came from 8 LA area churches: Immanuel, Covenant, Brentwood, Culver City, United University, Church of Peace, Bethesda, and West Hollywood. 8 women; 5 men. This partnership is an endeavor not of one individual, nor of one church, but of the whole presbytery. As we strengthen our relationship with brothers and sisters in Nicaragua, we will strengthen the relationship among each other and among the churches in our presbytery.

To conclude, let me briefly describe how I personally was transformed by this “Come and See” journey. When I first thought about going on this mission trip, I thought to myself, "Oh, this is just another plea for money to support an overseas mission project to build something." But as I was exposed to the development planning and purposes of this journey, I learned that this journey would re-define my understanding of "Missionary Work". It was truly a “life changing” event for me. I came back eager to take on the new responsibilities of being an elder in our church, participating more actively in our adult Christian education programs, and dedicated to listening better.

I would invite you to pick up in the narthex a copy of our trip pictures, our trip group diary, and a fact sheet regarding CEPAD.

Let us now join in Hymn #525 as our response to the issues raised to think about this morning.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

What's Going On?

I've had some time off ... two weeks ago, Youth Sunday; last week, a very good friend of mine from Michigan; tomorrow, May 11, Mission Sunday - a message given by two of our missioners on their trip to Nicaragua with a group from the Presbytery of the Pacific, and finally, next week, I'll be in Hawaii for a Presbytery meeting (tough assignment), and another fine guest will fill our pulpit, a professor from LMU.

I'll be back in the saddle starting in June. It's been good taking some time off from preaching - gave me a chance to make plans for several new series and do some extended reading.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Her Eyes, Her Voice - May 4, 2008

John 4

For the past few weeks I’ve been living in the world imagined in the John’s gospel, the story of the woman at the well. This morning I propose to return from that world with a missionary report about my initial findings from the land of Samaria, the town of Sychar and the well just outside town.

Before, I do, listen to this story, listen for voices of Jesus, the woman and the narrator in [John 4: 4-29].

I considered showing an old fashioned slide show of my trip to the world imagined in this narrative; a series of slides for example, of first impressions upon entering this world; pictures of the woman’s neighborhood, the characters on her street, the people who live next door.

The story of the Samaritan woman is just one house down from Nicodemus. In John’s world the Samaritan woman lives next door to Nicodemus. Nicodemus in chapter three and the Samaritan woman in chapter four. When you look at these two neighbors they have some things in common that capture the attention. Water, for example and the Spirit. And, Jesus has a conversation with a single person out in the middle of nowhere. Chapter three, Nicodemus. Chapter four: Samaritan woman. Practically next door neighbors.

I just wanted to note their proximity . . . and that they live in very different homes.

Nicodemus is a Pharisee with a respected heritage. The Samaritan woman – how do you describe five marriages? – she’s had a difficult past!

Nicodemus tells us that he has seen signs and knows that Jesus “is from God.” When the Samaritan woman meets Jesus she is meeting a perfect stranger.

Nicodemus takes the initiative to find Jesus, but under the cover of night. The Samaritan woman is approached by Jesus under the bright sun of high noon.

Nicodemus is orthodox religion. The Samaritan woman is a despised heresy.

Nicodemus’ has an impeccable academic pedigree. She is a Samaritan outcast.

He is Nicodemus; that’s his name. She is an unnamed Samaritan woman.

In other words: the Samaritan woman and Nicodemus are moving in opposite directions which makes the endings so surprising.

In his story Nicodemus is very visible at the outset. He comes asking questions, making observations, expressing opinions, looking for conversation. But, by the story’s end Nicodemus has disappeared, vanished, faded into the shadows of the night. Like Edmund in Narnia. The four children: Edmund, Peter, Susan, and Lucy, in the Beaver’s home. After substantial conversation Mr. Beaver asks, “Where is Edmund?” “Where did Edmund go?” Why, he slipped away in the midst of the conversation, backed into shadows, faded into the wall paper, out of sight, like Nicodemus. Look for Nicodemus at the end of chapter three and he’s not there. You won’t find him. He’s left. He’s gone. He slipped away.

But watch the Samaritan woman at the end of her story. She leaves her water pot, walks into town, strikes up conversation with the towns’ folk. Very visible. Very verbal. A witness for Jesus.

Very different endings, Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman. I report this only because, given the neighborhood and my own expectations, it is such a surprise. I didn’t expect it.

That’s my first series of slides: the neighborhood, the contrasts and the surprising endings.

The second series of slides feature the well. The well by itself. The woman by the well. Jesus at the well. Jesus and the woman in conversation at the well.

Once inside the World Imagined in John’s gospel I discovered another surprise. I brought with me and put on a pair of “Jewish glasses,” to help me see from a Jewish point of view. I didn’t wear them long. I soon discovered I didn’t even need my reading glasses. All I needed was my memory of the Old Testament tales of people at wells.

What got me started was hearing Jesus say to the woman at the Well, “Give me a drink,” which reminded me of the story of Isaac and Rebekah. Remember? Abraham sends his servant out to find a wife for his son, Isaac. The servant soon finds himself at a well and he prays, “O God of heaven, may it happen that when I approach a maiden and request, ‘Give me a drink’ that the person who replies, ‘Yes my Lord, and may I give drink to your camels, as well,’ may this be the person you have appointed to be Isaac’s wife.” No sooner do the words out of his mouth he is standing before young Rebekah and says, “Give me a drink,” and she replies, “yes my Lord and may I give drink to your camels as well.” Isaac and Rebekah at the well.

Do you remember the story of Jacob and Rachel? They meet at the well. Jacob strolls up to the mouth of the well, rolls away the boulder covering the opening to the well, kisses his future wife. Jacob and Rachel at the well. You might have thought that already, knowing this is Jacob’s Well.

Now our minds are off and running. Remember how Moses met Zipporah? At the well!

Like an Old Testament highlight reel starring the Patriarchs and Moses. Woman at the well. Man approaches her asking for water. What do you expect? A marriage proposal!
Isaac and Rebekah.
Jacob and Rachel.
Moses and Zipporah.
And now, Jesus approaches the Samaritan woman asking for a drink.

What? Are we to take this literally?

Nicodemus would have, “Born Again? Do you mean enter my mother’s womb a second time and be born?”
Disciples would have, “Master, take some food.” “I have food of which you do not know.” “Who brought him bread?”

Paul is easier to hear. He says, “The Church is the bride of Christ.” Jesus is looking for a church. He comes looking for persons to believe and follow and be his witnesses. And what is so astonishing, is that this is precisely what the woman does. She says to the town folk, “Come see a man who has told me everything I have done.” A Witness. An evangelist for Christ.

The next slide shows me trying to enter the world imagined in John. I’m standing there ready to check two large, dated, light brown suitcases. I’m trying to carry my baggage into the text with me. But, when security wands the baggage, they find a problem. When they look further they discover that the problem is my assumption with the phrase, “Married 5 times.” I have assumed that this woman is an immoral woman. Married 5 times. Married and divorced, married and divorced, married and divorced, married and divorced, married and divorced and now shacking up with a guy. Immoral woman. A sinner. That’s what I think.

Of course that’s what we think, going in. Neighbor lady tells you, “I’ve been married five times and the man I’m living with is not my husband.” Uh-oh! What do you think? Trouble . . . Red Flag . . . Stay away if you know what’s good for you.

Or, your friend at work confides in you, “My daughter has been married five times . . . and the man she is now living with . . . is not her husband.” What do you say? You say, “I’m so sorry.”
Sorry for who?

“We’re sorry for our friend. To have such a daughter.”

That’s what I assumed before I walked through customs. I assumed she probably cheated on the first husband. Then she remarried and “traded up.” I assumed she had a guy who made $30,000 and found a man who made $60,000. Or her husband was lazy and she found herself a real go-getter. That’s what I assumed.

I argued with Customs. Customs said, “Jesus didn’t rebuke her.”
I said, “He should have.”
Customs said, “Jesus didn’t pursue it.”
I said, “I would have.”

They let me in, anyway. Tagged my bags. Made me kinda mad, having to check my assumptions
But, once I got inside this world I could hear echoes and allusions of conversations from other stories and conversations in Scripture. Jesus talking about a woman married to a man who dies and she marries a brother, who dies, and she marries the next brother, and so on. Seven brothers, seven husbands, seven funerals. That’s the story circulating in this world.

In this world, both Samaritans and Jews lived with the social security system that when a woman is widowed the nearest of kin has responsibility to marry her. This is the story of Ruth. This is the story of Naomi. This is the story of Tamar. And, this is the story of the Woman at the Well.

This woman isn’t immoral, she’s had one tragedy after another and now is forced to live with a man who doesn’t have the common decency to marry her! The law works in the favor of Nicodemus. Oh, yeah. Nicodemus lives off the law. But, the law isn’t helping this woman.
In this world, Jesus does not pursue and John does not explore the woman’s background. The spotlight, for the moment, is on the woman who perceives that Jesus is a prophet and twice tells the townsfolk “This man has told me everything I’ve done. Might he be the Messiah?”

The Missionary report has its limits. Some things a preacher can’t just report – even with a slide show. There are some things you have to experience for yourself. See for yourself. Hear with your own ears and see with your own eyes. Although I hesitate to bring you into Samaria. Tensions are running high. Like traveling into Palestine or Iran, or the Sudan. Not the place you send your youth group on a summer’s mission trip.

But we fly into Samaria, land of tensions. By the time we get through Security, we aren’t standing on a sandy berm, a safe distance away, under a white canopy shading us from the sun, peering through binoculars. No, we’ve flown into Samaria, driven out to Sychar and now we’re walking out to the well where we see two people in conversation. It’s Jesus and the Samaritan Woman. Once we get within earshot, the woman is talking. Listen to what she says [v. 20].
Look at her, she’s facing Jesus. Look at her face.
“She is serious,” you say.

She is and you would be, too. She’s not dodging Jesus’ personal comments. Just the opposite. Jesus has revealed something only a prophet could know. And if, as she says, he is a prophet, why . . . . she has opportunity to ask the one question that burns hottest . . . troubles her most . . . the one question closest to her heart. The hottest topic and greatest controversy, the issue that’s on everyone’s mind. Jesus says, “The hour is coming and is here” when our worship will not be bound by place and people,
not in this mountain,
not in this city,
not in this country,
this building,
We worship God in Spirit and Truth. Pnemma and alethia. Listen to that. Alethia, truth . . . has a certain tone, a resonance.

Listen to the resonance of the word, truth, in John. “The law came through Moses, grace and truth (alethia) were realized through Jesus Christ” (1:17).

Put away your duct tape and rope. You can’t take this language prisoner and transport it across the border and use it for your own devices. Listen to language’s tone and how it performs in the Gospel of John.

Jesus says, “I am the way the truth (alethia) the life” (14:6).
You can’t kidnap the truth. The truth will set you free!

The truth isn’t abstract, it is a real live person. The truth isn’t just intellectual, it is personal. The truth isn’t just mental, it is personified in Jesus, embodied in a human being, Jesus. Jesus said, “I am the truth (alethia).” Alethia is always connected to Jesus Christ, in this world.
Which is why Pilate’s rhetorical question near the end of the gospel is so ironic. Pilate, standing before Jesus, “What is truth?” Pilate says. What is truth? You’re looking at him, Pilate!
Truth is robust and nuanced and complicated. But, I can say this with perfect clarity: In this world Truth has everything to do with Jesus, it is personal.

Watch now as the Disciples return to the well. In the foreground, the disciples, absent for the entire dialogue, burst upon the scene, the smell of travel on their clothes, the odor of the market, the aroma of bread. The arriving Disciples break the conversation, end the discussion, measure the woman, and think about food.

But, the woman now is moving away, she leaves her water pot and walks into the background. Look at her. She has such a purpose when she turns, confidence in her walk, determination in her stride. She is moving off and into the background.

And the disciples, unaware of all that has just happened, move in and take over, force the conversation to start over again. Bread? is it literal? No, it’s not and so on.

But, the woman is nearly out of sight now. She is back in Sychar telling the townsfolk that Jesus may well be the Messiah. You can’t see her now, but she’s convinced some and others are coming out to see for themselves, moving in for the final chorus.

This scene is so ironic.
The Samaritan woman leaves her literal water pot to speak of the living water at the very moment the Disciples begin to talk about literal bread.
Ironic that the woman is off preaching while the men busy themselves with Potluck.
Ironic that she evangelizes while the Disciples are being taught that “the fields are white unto harvest.”

But, the bigger irony is that for 2000 years we’ve not seen the woman as Jesus sees her. We dismissed her as a loose woman . . . called her an airhead who changes the topic when the conversation heats up . . . . We said, “She forgot her Water Pot!”

The biggest irony is that Jesus, before our own eyes, treats the Samaritan Woman as a full human being, as a serious conversation partner, as a successful evangelist, as a person capable of seeing the true identity of Jesus and acting more appropriately than anyone else in this neighborhood.

What drives this woman? Listen to her. She says, “Jesus knows everything about me . . . . Might he be the Messiah?”
It’s exactly what got to Nathaniel earlier, “How did you know me?”
As the disciples are maneuvering into position, we stand before Jesus, who knows us, too. He knows our worst fears, our greatest hopes, our saddest moments, our deepest longings.
Jesus looks us, square in the eyes and says, “You’re looking for a church, aren’t you? A community that will help you live and help you die; provide meaning and people to love, for your children and grandchildren. A church loyal to your past and can help you follow me today. Is that what you thirst for?”
We say, “Yes, it is.”

And Jesus says, “And your first choice is Nicodemus, with his influence?”
“You think Pilate would be a catch? You want his insider power?
“You’re hoping for someone with deep pockets to finance the programs you think you need. Is this what you want?”

He is a Prophet and we drop our heads and confess, “Yes, That is our fantasy. That is how we dream. That is the church we think we want.”

He’s caught us. He needn’t say anything more. He’s selected the least likely of all people for his church. A Samaritan in the worst of circumstances; A woman with a torturous past; with so many other attractive options nearby.

Jesus takes the initiative with us as well, and encourages us and walks with us, and points toward Sychar to the first member of the Church in Samaria, the Bride of Christ, the Samaritan woman, Jesus’ witness in the world, whom we can no longer see, who has effectively taken our eyes off her and cast them back on Jesus!

I am reminded of the battles between people. Race relations in this country, the notion of racial purity and ethnic wars in Rwanda and Croatia, the vicious hatred in the Middle East at this very hour, which all have their roots in the same fears that divided Jews and Samaritans.
But, Jesus crosses boundaries, and tears down walls, sets aside old categories, and looks for new possibilities, and encourages us to learn from him to make for ways of peace and unite and stop acting as we’ve been programmed, to fight and divide.

The Samaritan woman sent the townsfolk out to see Jesus for themselves, and they would spend two days with him, learning his ways, learning to follow him. And so, as she was on that day, the Samaritan woman is our preacher today, who sends us to Jesus to stay with him a few days, learn his ways. To learn the ways of this one who taught us to engage people like the Samaritan woman, to care for the marginalized, to give to those least likely to return the favor. That is when we meet Jesus at the Well, when we become the bride of Christ, who is the savior of the world. That is when we begin to worship in Spirit and Truth.

David Fleer
Covenant Presbyterian
Westchester, California
May 4, 2008