“At the Well;” John 4:5-30, 39-42; March 23, 2014, FPC Jesup

“At the Well”
John 4:5-30, 39-42
March 23, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide20I think the modern Christian Church owes the woman at the well an apology. Jesus said she had five husbands, and that the man she is with now is not her husband. For this reason it is cast as a moral tale, the story of Jesus converting this woman from a life of sin to one of repentance. We’ve been told that here is a woman of ill repute, a woman of brazen sexual immorality that flaunts her indiscretions in the public square. People think that if she had five husbands and the one she is with now is not her husband, that it would surely be some moral failing on her part.

Slide21I do believe there is a transformation that takes part in our text, but not necessarily the conversion of a repentant sinner. What if, instead, it is a story of Jesus inviting this woman out of a life of earthly bondage into a life of divine freedom?

Slide22What if we considered this story from a different perspective: that of a first century Samaritan woman. No one sets out in life wanting to have five husbands. It was not an easy time to be a woman. Women were treated like property. Marriage was more of a business contract than anything having to do with love. A woman alone was impossibly vulnerable.

Slide23She likely entered each marriage with little knowledge of with whom she was about to be spending her life. As friends and relatives around her also entered into marriage contracts she probably witnessed some loving marriages, some not so loving, and was hopeful for the marriage that was arranged for her.

Slide24Maybe she was unable to conceive and was cast aside for her infertility. There could’ve been violence and the relationship covenant broken by her father’s desire for her protection. Maybe she was blessed by a happy marriage, and maybe they were separated by death.

Slide25Perhaps with the death of one husband, she was made to marry his brother according to law. This might have been what Jesus meant by the one she is with now. That she might be with someone that she did not choose, who also did not choose her, throw together by law and sorrow-filled circumstance of a deep mutual grief. She might be seen as a drain on resources, a financial burden to bear.

Some have suggested that the one she is now with, who is not a husband to her, could be because of his unkindness and possibly even abuse towards her; a “husband” who does not give her any respect or deference. One whom by law and social contract she is incapable of leaving by her own will.

Slide26Regardless of specific circumstances, a woman with five husbands would have sorrow upon sorrow compounded in her life. With each separation, each loss she was shuttled from home to home like property, shrouded in the dark cloud of lost hope. No doubt she felt tremendously disempowered by her circumstances.

I want you to hear something that you might have never heard before, that I have come to discover in this text: it is very, very, very likely that it was not this woman’s fault. She did not anticipate or invite this life of uncertainty and disappointment.

Slide27And here, into this place of disenfranchisement and sorrow, she meets a different sort of man. She meets Jesus. She recognizes almost instantly that he must be a prophet because he sees her for all that she is. Aside from the fact that Jesus provides an account of the number of husbands she has had, it is astounding that Jesus is even talking to her at all. She is a Samaritan woman, after all. The very water she could offer from that well would have been seen as unclean to an Israelite person of that time simply because she was the one giving it. Yet none of that stops Jesus from speaking with her.

Slide28He sees her. She is not treated simply as property or as the other to be ignored. Jesus sees her many, many sorrows.

What would it be like for Jesus to truly see you? Not to point out your faults, but to point out all the things that have brought you down in this life; all the things from which you need rest, and freedom.

Slide29A common Lenten practice is to take on a spiritual practice, a way of connecting with God. I addressed many of these last year through my Lenten series of spiritual practices.

One of those spiritual practice is fasting, limiting something in order to create space for a closer experience of God. Another is practicing Sabbath, engaging in purposeful rest one day a week. Slide30I have been engaging in a different sort of fast this Lent, avoiding both internet and television on Fridays as a means of reclaiming a sense of Sabbath in my life. You see, Fridays are supposed to be my days off, but all too often they end up being sermon-writing time at the end of a busy week. If you remember the Ten Commandments, honoring the Sabbath and keeping it holy was not just a suggestion, but a requirement. By avoiding the internet and television I am purposefully seeking to be just a bit out of touch with the world, so I can be better in touch with God, and God’s purpose for my life. For one day a week, I need to be free from the feeling of needing to be on top of every communication and news story.

Slide31Where in your life do you need rest and freedom? How can you seek to reclaim the life giving freedom that Christ offers?

Jesus and the Samaritan woman meet at the well. Jesus asks her for a drink, in turn, he offers her living water. With all the burdens she carries, Jesus does not need to convince her even for a moment that this is something she needs. Slide32She knows she is thirsty and asks how she may get this water and how she may worship the God who provides it. She meets Jesus and he makes himself known, and in turn she cannot help but overflow with his life-giving message of hope to all she meets. Through her testimony, many come to believe and trust in this God of living water, of freedom, of hope.

Jesus knows those burdens in your life from which you need freedom and rest. May you allow God to transform you through the living water. Amen.

“Abundance” Ephesians 3:14-21 and John 6:1-15; July 29, 2012

“Abundance”
Ephesians 3:14-21 and John 6:1-15
July 29, 2012

My Grandpa Charlie was an excellent cook. Our family’s weekly dinners at my grandparents house were not to be missed, as he approached the creation of each meal with gusto. I remember once, right about the time that the internet was becoming popular, that he spent hours researching horseradish to transform a giant horseradish root into the perfect sauerkraut. Still, I think his real gift came not simply in his ability to make a tasty meal, but in his ability to take any leftovers and completely reinvent them into an equally delicious and creative meal. As a child born in the aftermath of the Great Depression, he was instilled with the values of thrift and conservation. If there was food, there was a meal. And if people were hungry, they weren’t anymore after a meal with him.

So, when our gospel reading tells us that five barley loaves and two fish fed thousands, I picture my grandfather rooting around the refrigerator and cooking up a feast.

Our gospel passage tells us that as Jesus had been traveling with his disciples teaching, preaching, and performing miracles a large crowd had formed around him.  Jesus asks Philip, “Where are we to buy food for all these people?” Then in the text we get a bit of a “tell.” Our passage says, “[Jesus] said this to test [Philip], for he himself knew what he was going to do.”

Jesus knew what he was going to do, but as he was in the business of training his disciples, he wanted to let them think through it first. I can imagine Jesus’ disciples a bit exasperated. They were the original hearers, the ones personally selected to be part of Jesus’ entourage, but in joining Jesus they had given up many of their worldly possessions and powers. They weren’t joining Jesus so that they could be benefactors or underwriters of Jesus’ mission. They joined Him because they were interested in seeing what would happen next with this rabble-rousing religious man. They wanted to be a part of this church that was not tied to rules or the law. And now, Jesus wanted them to come up with some sort of catering plan for thousands of people?

Philip answers, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”

Andrew assesses the situation and he says, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.” Immediately he dismisses the thought say, “But what are they among so many people?”

Andrew was looking pragmatically at the facts. If we have five thousand people and five loaves, each loaf divided into a thousand parts, surely would just be one crumb-filled mess.

I’ve always wanted to have a good picture of what these loaves and fish looked like. Were the loaves small dinner rolls? Or were they giant loaves, the sort to hold a sub sandwich? And the fish, were they something small the boy had caught on his line? Or were they something large he had purchased at the market? Like Andrew, I’d like to think that the concrete facts of the case make a difference.

“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish,” Andrew says.

“Make the people sit down,” replies the Lord. The meal is blessed, served, then eaten, and all are satisfied.

Note that the scripture does not say, every one had a snack or everyone made sure others had what they wanted before they ate. In John 6: 11 it says that everyone ate “as much as they wanted.” And when they were done eating, there was still plenty left over. Verses 12 and 13 tell us, “when they were satisfied, [Jesus] told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ 13So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.

They filled twelve baskets. There was not just enough, there was abundance!

The theme of abundance is echoed throughout the Gospel of John. In the 16th verse of the first chapter we are introduced to Jesus as the Word from whose fullness we have all received grace upon grace. The providence of God in creation and God in incarnation are tied together in one timeless blessing of abundance.

Jesus’ ministry is begun when he turns water into wine. In a noticeable act of providence, this is not just any wine, but high quality wine produced from jars of water filled to the very top. Jesus provided abundantly for this wedding celebration.

As Jesus moves in his ministry to Samaria he meets a woman at the community well in the heat of the day. As they both come to the well seeking water, Jesus tells the woman in John 4:13-14, “Everyone who drinks of this water 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.”

In the passage we have read today, the story of the feeding of the five thousand, we hear a familiar narrative. While the four gospels have many similarities, this narrative is the only miracle story that is told in all four gospels. However, continuing the theme of abundance, the Gospel of John is the only one to add the detail of situating this story in the context of Passover. This context would not be lost on those followers with Jewish lineage, as Passover was the time commemorating when God spared the lives of the first born sons of the people of Israel and provided safe passage out of Egypt.  All through their journey to the Promised Land God provided for them with manna. God provided for them abundantly.

Even at the end of the Gospel of John the author seems overwhelmed by the abundance of what is left unsaid by the innumerable actions of Jesus’ ministry. The last verse of the Gospel of John reads, “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

These stories of abundance are not simply something relegated to the history of our faith. As God continues to move in the world, we are made agents of that abundance. In Ephesians 3:18-21 we read Paul’s blessing to the people of Ephesus: “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 20Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever.”

So I have to ask, when was the last time you felt, “filled with the fullness of God,” and “able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine?”

More often than not, our faith is more likely to reflect the pragmatism of Philip and Andrew, than the promise of abundance of Jesus Christ. Sitting here, on the tail end of a recession, it can be hard to imagine we would have anything to give. We are all too aware of the scarcity in our lives. We are afraid of our insufficiency. We are too young, too old, too frail, too busy. We are those loaves, divided over a thousand times, surrounded by crumbs.

Catholic nun and spiritual author, Marcrina Wiederkehr writes of these crumbs in her book, “A Tree Full of Angels.” She writes:

“We stand in the midst of nourishment and we starve. We dwell in the land of plenty, yet we persist in going hungry… we have the capacity to be filled with the utter fullness of God (Eph. 3:16-19). In the light of such possibility, what happens? Why do we drag our hearts? … Why do we straddle the issues? … The reason we live life so dimly and with such divided hearts is that we have never really learned how to be present with quality to God, to self, to others, to experiences and events, to all created things… We are too busy to be present, too blind to see the nourishment and salvation in the crumbs of life, the experiences of each moment.”[1]

There is a provision waiting for us in these crumbs. For when our crumbs are gathered together, there is an abundance. We are “filled with the fullness of God,” and “able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” Why do we wait to serve till it is convenient? Why do we wait to help till it is asked of us?

Artist and author, Jan Richardson wrote a poem inspired by our Gospel narrative, called “Blessing the Fragments”:

Cup your hands together,
and you will see the shape
this blessing wants to take.
Basket, bowl, vessel:
it cannot help but
hold itself open
to welcome
what comes.

This blessing
knows the secret
of the fragments
that find their way
into its keeping,
the wholeness
that may hide
in what has been
left behind,
the persistence of plenty
where there seemed
only lack.

Look into the hollows
of your hands
and ask
what wants to be
gathered there,
what abundance waits
among the scraps
that come to you,
what feast
will offer itself
from the fragments
that remain.

We are to live as those cupped hands, extending ourselves outwards to welcome the feast that is present in the crumbs.

There are some who know how to serve from the crumbs, like my Grandfather’s meals made from left-overs. It is a gift, to be able to see the abundance in the scraps.

I have been blessed to be invited to tables where I know that I am sharing in this sort of abundance. Tea and cookies from an older widow with a fixed income sustain and nourish in a way the greatest feast cannot. Lemonade provided by a woman with physical limitations receiving help with home repairs quenches thirst like the most gourmet beverages cannot.

There is a short but important story about this in scripture. This passage comes to us from Luke 21:1:

“Jesus looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.’”

God’s abundance in our lives is shared not through our ability to give much, but our willingness to give all that we can.

That boy in the crowd had five barley loaves and two fish. We are not told how many meals he was hoping to get from that bread and those fish. We are not told whether the boy was giving out of his own personal abundance or out of scarcity of a life of poverty. We are simply told that he had five loaves and two fish and was willing to offer them to others. Andrew at first dismissed the idea and Philip thought feeding five thousand from such meager resources was an impossibility. But still that boy gave what he had and it was multiplied.

I pray that we would recognize the ways that God has filled our lives with fullness, knowing that God desires to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine. And that we may give to others what we can, even when it seems like mere crumbs.

Amen.


[1] A Tree Full of Angels: Seeing the Holy in the Ordinary, Chapter 3