Building Faith Beyond Buckets and Bickering
- Author: Tim Feiertag is a Master of Divinity student at Pacific Lutheran Theological School.
- Updated: 10/20/2008
- Copyright: Tim Feiertag
Tim Feiertag writes a compelling sermon that connects the issues that are facing the congregation with a story shared by Jesus. The sermon not only focuses on stewardship but also on the mission of being Christians within the world and seeing how God will use us to help those around us even during difficult times.
Building Faith Beyond Buckets and Bickering
Exodus 17:1-7 & John 4:5-42
In the gospel reading this week, we get to listen in on another conversation of Jesus. This one is a most unlikely conversation, and in many ways is in complete contrast to last week's story of Nicodemus. To refresh your memories or to recap for those who weren't here last week, Nicodemus was a leader among the religious authorities and he recognized Jesus as a teacher sent by God, but still he visited Jesus at night. As our bishop pointed out in his sermon, Nicodemus doesn't seem to understand the metaphorical language that Jesus uses. After asking a couple of questions, Nicodemus' side of the conversation is done, but Jesus keeps on preaching. We're left to wonder if Nicodemus ever really understood Jesus. John doesn't tell us the end of that story.
In this week's story, all kinds of barriers are crossed. In broad daylight, Jesus engages an unnamed Samaritan woman in conversation. Even the woman expresses astonishment at Jesus' boldness--"How is it that you are asking a drink of me?", a woman in a culture that observes a strict separation of the sexes. A Samaritan--those distant cousins of the Jews, despised for their faulty religious beliefs and inferior worship practices. This pairing seems like a huge mismatch before even a word is spoken.
And the conversation doesn't seem to get off to a very good start--Jesus asks for a drink. She gasps at his violation of cultural taboos. Jesus begins to tell her about living water. She points out his lack of a bucket. You see, Nicodemus got hung up on the realities of the womb, asking "can someone be born a second time?" This woman seems to be hung up on the realities of the well--"how are you going to produce this water without a bucket?"
But she doesn't give up by falling into silence. Instead, she stays engaged with Jesus by bringing up their common forefather Jacob. Is Jesus saying he is greater than the ancestor who dug this well? Jesus speaks of the physical need for water and the spiritual need for life. The woman responds positively, but still she seems to be focused on the physical and isn't in synch with Jesus on the metaphoric--"Give me THAT kind of water so I can quit lugging jars to and from this well!"
And here, Jesus is the one who doesn't give up on the conversation. Instead, he gives her an opening to talk about her own life. "Go call your husband." "I have no husband," she says. And Jesus lets her know that he knows who she is. There is nothing in John's telling of this story to indicate that Jesus is accusing or indicting her. By hearing her own story in Jesus' words, she was invited into a deeper relationship with Jesus. She has the boldness to speak right to the heart of the conflict separating Samaritans and Jews--is it right to worship on Mount Gerizim or must we worship on Mount Zion? Jesus' answer shows that this either/or thinking is too small. "God seeks worship from all those who worship in spirit and truth, not from those on one mountain or another." In the vision that Jesus brings, worship will no longer divide; the Spirit of God will unite all in worship. God, through Jesus, is seeking out those who will be a part of this new vision.
In this conversation, we can see the woman growing in her relationship with Jesus. She first referred to him as a Jew, emphasizing the cultural distance between them. Then, she calls him "sir," emphasizing the power and gender distance between them. After Jesus told her about her relationship status, she calls him a prophet. And here at the end of the conversation, she doesn't come right out and say "Are you perhaps more than simply a prophet? Could you be the Messiah, the promised one?" Instead, she simply states her hope for the coming of the Messiah, who will proclaim all things to us. She has given Jesus, the one who told her who SHE is, an invitation to tell her who HE really is. And he does--"I am he, the Messiah."
It's a great story, isn't it? But if we leave it at that--just a story--we can shut this giant pulpit Bible and be done with it. We can remain safely untouched by these words. Instead, let's enter into this story, and let the story become alive in us.
So, where are you in this story? Thinking about your own life, when have you been this Samaritan woman; when has someone crossed a boundary to engage with you? How did this boundary crossing open you up to a deeper faith, to an experience of God's love? When have you been this Samaritan woman; when have you had a thirst, a deep longing, that someone else was able to identify in you? When have you been this Samaritan woman; when have you felt completely understood by another? And how did that experience change you? [Take answers from the congregation.]
For some of you, it is easy to picture yourself as that Samaritan woman. But let's look at this story again. Even though we are right in the midst of Lent, we are still an Easter people. As a post-resurrection people, we have been called together to BE the Body of Christ. So, it is not too presumptuous of us to imagine ourselves in Jesus' place in this story. When have YOU been the one who crossed a barrier? How have you been able to sit with someone, listening for their story, hearing their longings, and reflecting back to them who they are? How has sharing your own vision, your own hopes, your own needs, invited another into a deeper faith? [Take answers from the congregation.]
This way of faith development sounds awfully familiar to me. It sounds a lot like the woman was invited to converse with Jesus, was welcomed into that conversation, and was deepened in her faith as a result. Invite, welcome, deepen. Where have I heard THAT before? Do we agree that this is the basic ministry to which this community has been called--to invite, welcome, and deepen?
Lately, we've been talking about the legacy of this community. We've used the metaphor of the nurse log to describe how this place is nurturing shoots for the future. For those who haven't been with us for those discussions, can someone briefly explain what a nurse log is and how it works? [Take answer.] And how do you see this theme of invite, welcome, and deepen--this way of building faith through relationships and conversations--playing out in the shoots that this community is nurturing? I see it in our relational culture, through our community organizing practice of one-on-one conversations and through what happens at Enterbeing.
Although the circumstances are quite different, it is possible to read this theme of invite, welcome, and deepen into the Old Testament lesson that Lois read for us. The people of Israel were invited out of slavery in Egypt. In the verses immediately preceding this passage in Exodus, the Israelites were welcomed in the wilderness through God's provisions of quails to eat in the evening and manna to eat in the morning. But the process of invite, welcome, and deepen isn't always a smooth one.
Trouble starts brewing for the Israelites when they camp at Rephidim, a place that had no water. I have to say, I can't blame the Israelites. If Moses had led me into the desert, I'd be wanting ready access to water too. So, despite all that they have seen and all that they've been through thus far--the plagues against the Egyptians, the parting of the Red Sea, the quails and manna feeding them each day--the Israelites' response to the crisis is to start bickering. "Moses, why don't we have any water?" And Moses' response seems to be to bicker right back. "What are you bothering me for?" Even when Moses takes the crisis before God, he still seems to be bickering. "God, what am I supposed to do with this unruly people?"
In all this bickering, the people seem to have lost their vision. Their conversation with God had halted. They didn't notice that God was still with them, giving them all they needed. But God breaks through their bickering. God tells Moses to grab his staff--not just any staff, but the staff that he brought with him from Egypt, the staff he used to strike the Nile. Their past continues to be important. The solution to their present crisis comes through that past. But they aren't returning to that past. Instead, God sends them ahead to Horeb. And God promises to be there with them. "I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb." Moses and the people trust this promise, they believe the vision, and the water flows.
And what about us, this Redeemer/Vernon/Enterbeing community? After comparing ourselves to the Samaritan woman and to Jesus, do we dare compare ourselves to the Israelites? Can we own this cautionary tale as our story as well?
Here in rainy Portland, our problem is certainly not a lack of water. But as we plan for the future of this place, we have been known to speak about scarcity. It is surprisingly easy to become focused on what we lack--we don't have enough children and young adults; we don't have permission from the city to sell the property; we don't enough money. I'm not downplaying any of these problems. They are real. The people of Israel really did need water in the desert. As Lois shared with us so eloquently last week, Redeemer really is in a cash flow crisis; the checking account really has run dry.
The problem isn't identifying a lack, a deficiency or a need. Our problem can arise in how we respond. As we examine our own lives in light of the experience of the Israelites in the desert, the question before us seems to be will we let the needs which we face blot out our vision? Will we listen for where God is in the midst of our need? Will we trust that God has already given us all that we need to respond to the present crisis?
We agreed that God has called us to a ministry of inviting, welcoming, and deepening. You say you don't have enough children? How about a whole basement full of them? How about an elementary school full of them? Would that be enough children for us? Perhaps our rock full of blessing isn't in Horeb. Perhaps we need only look in our basement or across the street. God has blessed us with an abundance of children. Now, we have the opportunity to respond. How do we invite, welcome, and deepen the faith of the kids around us? As we engage one another--and God--in this conversation, we will discover God deepening our faith.
The same MUST be true for the current financial difficulties that this congregation is in. Can we trust that God has blessed us as a community with everything we need? Perhaps our rock full of blessing isn't in Horeb. Perhaps we need only look at our own financial resources. You may not be holding the staff that struck the Nile, but you may be holding the pen that writes a check, or you may be holding the purse that contains a wallet with cash.
Or perhaps you are holding a stack of IOU's and a billfold full of heartache. Does that mean God loves you less, that you have no part of this vision? By no means! Your needs are real, AND you have been called to be a part of this community. We will listen with you to find out how God has blessed you and what vision God has given you. You have a role to play here as well.
We have been blessed with the vision of a community that breaks all sorts of barriers, reaching out into the Northeast neighborhoods and beyond, a community where people are invited out of their isolation, invited to acknowledge their hunger and thirst. We have been blessed with a vision of a community where people are welcomed to share their story and welcomed to find their place in God's story. We have been blessed with a vision of a community where faith is deepened, where having been known by God and by each other, we have experienced the love of God.
Now, we have the opportunity to respond to this vision, first in song. Then as guests at Christ's table. Then, to find those rocks full of blessing and to share those blessings with others. Thanks be to God!