This sermon was preached on March 19, 2017, at First Presbyterian Church Santa Barbara. You can view a film in an earlier post with another version of a sermon also based on parallel readings of John 4 and Genesis 34 preached at Hesston Mennonite Church.
This past Christmas, my brother gave our youngest the Oregon Trail Board Game. People my age will remember the Oregon Trail computer game many of us played in elementary school. The board game is based on this original game and uses the same digital images on the cards. So, over winter break, we sat down as a family to play. At one point, one of the kids turns over a card and reads it – You died of dysentery. “What?? I died?! But I have medical cards and food cards. How can I just die? This game is weird.”
The concept of dying in a game, without a battle of power or wills, is foreign to many kids in this generation of gaming. We tried to explain, it’s the Oregon Trail. People died along the way. Yes, even without fighting anyone, and no matter how many reserves they had stored up. And then another kid said, “I want to play it again. I want to figure out how to not die.”
Do – overs. Not only is it hard to grasp the possibility death can come occur, it’s also hard for kids today to grasp how life does not always have instantaneous do-overs. Because so much of their life does. You die in a game. Play it again. Do it over. Make a different ending. Because instantaneous do-overs are so abundant in games, it can be hard for many young people to manage well the jolts of real life consequences – consequences that may take a great deal of time to mend.
Today we’re talking about real life do-overs – the kind Jesus is calling us to participate in. We’re talking about taking the time to do things differently, to deliberately change harmful patterns in our lives, and to make a different ending. We’re talking about how we can become born again, in real life. In order to take a good look what it means to become born again, we’re going to recall what Jesus said to Nicodemus in our passage last week, and consider today’s John 4 passage in relation to a passage John wrote it in comparison to – Genesis 34.
Let’s get into it.
Last week, we heard about Nicodemus, a revered scholar of Jewish law. Nicodemus approaches Jesus in the middle of the night and makes a profound statement of faith: “We know you are a teacher from God.” He’s troubled in the middle of the night, troubled in his heart and seeking guidance – maybe over his own personal experiences or anxieties about someone he loves. I wonder if he may be hoping for his own kind of do-over.
Do you ever seek Jesus out in the middle of night, like Nicodemus? Hoping for something radically to change? In trainings I lead, I often ask people, what kinds of things keep you up in night, seeking Jesus? Often, people will say: Finances. Kids. Loved ones addicted to drugs or alcohol. The mounting stresses young people are facing today. Gambling. Pornography. Worrying about work or losing a job. Worrying about their health or the health of their loved one.
These, sometimes, also are the same kinds of things that keep us avoiding people in the day, steering clear of the crowds, like the Samaritan woman who comes right after Nicodemus. Sometimes it feels much easier to just carry the burdens alone. Jesus says to Nicodemus, the answer you’re seeking is becoming born again. And Nicodemus, like many of us, can’t understand it at first. The disciples, too, don’t fully understand it. And, in John 4, Jesus proceeds to show the disciples what he means.
Today, we find the Samaritan woman deliberately approaching the well at a time when she is sure not to meet anyone else. Everyone else would have avoided the heat of the day, and come early in the morning or will be around later in the afternoon.
So, imagine her surprise . . . maybe even fear . . . when she suddenly finds Jesus there.
She could have felt alarmed for a few reasons. She’s alone. Having been with at least six partners in her past, she’s familiar with how she may be treated well and also how she may not be treated well. Also, she no doubt will be familiar with the lore of the well. She would know about fairytale-like marriages transpiring around wells, stories passed down through the generations about her ancestors Isaac and Rebecca and Jacob and Rachel meeting at wells and marrying. She also would have been familiar with a very tragic meeting that happened near this very well.
She would have known how one day, her ancestor, Jacob purchased this land at the end of Genesis 33. And how, right away, in the first verse of Genesis 34, Jacob’s only daughter Dinah cannot wait to go out and meet the other women of the land. Up until Jacob purchases the land, their familiar are nomadic, moving from place to place. Amid this lifestyle, and as Jacob’s only daughter, among twelve brothers, it’s as if she’s been waiting her whole life for this moment to venture out to meet the women of the land, maybe even make some new friends. What will they be like? Will they like her? Will she like them?
Do you remember what it feels like to go to a new place, the high expectation and anxiety of that? A new home, a new school, a new job, a new church? What will they be like? Will they like me? Will I like them?
Sadly, we never find out. Because on that first day, near this very well, when Dinah ventures out, just as the Samaritan woman meets a stranger, Dinah also meets a stranger. Only, instead of meeting Jesus, or her very own prince charming, Dinah met another kind of prince. Shechem. Shechem is a man who gets what he wants. And on that day, he wanted Dinah. So, he took her – the passage says, he seized her and lay with her by force. Then, he went to his father and demanded, “Get me this girl as a wife.”
So, as the Samaritan woman in our passage today is approaching the well, expecting to be alone, avoiding the crowds, and finds Jesus there instead – a strange man – she will be aware of what has gone on before, both the good and the bad.
Jesus initiates with a demand: “Get me a drink.”
She responds by immediately guarding herself, reminding Jesus they are to remain separated. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” We’re not supposed to interact, remember?
And here’s where the do-over starts to occur. Jesus begins to demonstrate with his words and actions how this encounter is going to be unlike any she’s had before, or any in her family history. They are going to make a new way together. Right here, right now, unlike past situations or what the cultural messages around her tell her, this woman is not threatened, she’s not neglected, and she will not be exploited here. Instead Jesus introduces himself and invites her to, safely, be honest about her own life story. And this may be the first time anyone has ever bore witness to her life experience with her.
It’s important to pause here and point out how hard it is for many women, and men, too, to make this significant shift the woman is making here, to not feel like she is in danger. There are so many messages and real experiences to suggest we should constantly be on guard and hyper-vigilant. It can be hard to even imagine what it might be like to live safely.
This message of threat is so pervasive in our culture, that this past year, in her presidential lecture called “Revolutionary Love,” delivered at the American Academy of Religion, renowned theologian Serene Jones ended by quoting Tony Morrison’s profound dream. Hear Morrison’s words:
I want to imagine not the threat of freedom or its tentative panting fragility, but the concrete thrill of borderlessness – a kind of out of doors safety where "a sleepless woman could always rise from her bed, wrap a shawl around her shoulders and sit on the steps in the moonlight. And if she felt like it she could walk out the yard and on down the road. No lamp and no fear. A hiss-crackle from the side of the road would never scare her because what ever it was that made that sound, it wasn't something creeping up on her. Nothing for miles around thought she was prey. She could stroll as slowly as she liked, thinking of food preparations, of family things, or lift her eyes to stars and think of war or nothing at all. Lampless and without fear she could make her way . . . The woman could decide to go back to her bed then, refreshed and ready to sleep, or she might stay her direction and walk further down the road--on out, beyond, because nothing around or beyond considered her prey.
Too many women, and children, and men, throughout history and throughout our Bible, find it hard to believe in and hope for Morrison’s dream of preylessness. In fact, until Jesus makes it abundantly clear, I don’t think it ever enters the Samaritan woman’s mind that she might not be prey that day. Prey for gossip of the neighbors. Prey for mistreatment and abuse from family and strangers. And potential prey for this stranger at the well.
And, as I said before, this fear is not baseless. It’s in her family history. And she’s aware how sometimes, when things go terribly wrong, there’s no one there to help. For example, in the case of Dinah, when her father Jacob found out what happened, he did not seek her out or help her – even if he may have wanted to. Instead, he froze. On one hand, some of us may be shocked by Jacob’s response – how could a father do nothing in response to his daughter being assaulted? On the other hand, many of us know the many reasons some parents do not help. Shame. Guilt. Denial. Feeling unequipped. In Jacob’s case, it may also have been exhaustion. He had just come through a gauntlet of encounters. He may not have had anything left to give.
At the time, Dinah’s brothers – like the disciples in John 4 – were away. When they return, they are astonished and indignant to hear what had happened to Dinah. But they, too, do not seek her out. Instead, they immediately plot revenge. A revenge that they carry out – murdering all the men of the city, pillaging their homes, and taking the women and children captive.
In John 4, when the twelve disciples return, they too, like Dinah’s brothers, are astonished to find Jesus alone with a woman of ill-repute. What does she want, they wonder. And why is he speaking to her? But, radically differently, than Dinah’s twelve brothers, the twelve disciples hold their tongues. They’re thinking it, but they don’t act on it. They respectfully follow Jesus’ lead. In Genesis 34, Jacob is too overwhelmed to lead. So, his sons recklessly take charge. Very differently, throughout John 4, Jesus speaks directly with the Samaritan woman. Besides making clear she’s in no danger, he also invites her to be honest about her life story. And this experience is transformational for her. It enlivens her and inspires her to reconnect with her community.
What if we’ve gotten this whole becoming-born-again-thing wrong? What if becoming born again and being a witness for Christ has less to do with telling people about Jesus, tallying up new believers, and getting more points in heaven? What if, instead, it has a lot more to do with bearing witness to the truth of our neighbor’s life experience? What if it’s in that exchange of honesty among neighbors . . . the kind of honesty that doesn’t fix things necessarily, doesn’t change the circumstances or change what’s happened, but instead cares that it did happen, values the person, and appreciations that somewhere in that exchange the other person can discover a new sense of agency and a desire to reconnect. What if that is part of what it means to become born again?
Science suggests that’s exactly what Jesus was doing there. Science tells us that in loving homes, through healthy marriages, among best friendships, and through great mentor relationships – we “feel felt”. We feel a connection between what we have personally experienced and what’s going on around us. A bridge of lovingkindness is made in those interactions that in caring ways acknowledge our life experiences. They literally get our agency hormones – like serotonin – going, and literally counteract our fight or flight hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol. Just as we see happening in John 4, as the woman leaves her jug of water and returns to town.
Unlike what happens with Dinah in Genesis 34. No one speaks with Dinah. No one invites her to tell the truth of what has happened to her, or what her perspective is. And, as the author Anita Diamant famously points out in her popular book, The Red Tent, Dinah’s experience could possibly have been that it wasn’t all bad. But we will never know, because no one ever bore witness to Dinah’s experience with her. Instead, she loses everything. And, as one of my doctoral thesis advisors pointed out – we, the readers of the Bible, are left to be her witnesses.
Consider, who Dinah was at the beginning of this, on that morning she set out to make friends . . . and who she is at the end. What kind of woman is she now? How does she interact now, with the women of the land, held captive in her new home?
Science tells us today that when we experience horrific events, those experiences change the chemistry of our bodies, and even change the behavior of our genes. Those changes can stay with us and we can pass them down through our families. Those changes – like the ones Dinah, her family, and their captives experienced – can be inherited.
Researchers are working today with children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of genocide, holocaust, and slavery survivors, discovering the far-reaching physiological and psychological affects of trauma. And it’s in this important work, they are also finding remarkable signs of hope and healing.
Last week, film actress Jennifer Garner testified about the importance of community programs that support impoverished children. She described what it’s like to go into a home here in the Central Valley, where the trauma of poverty has been passed down through generations, and how silence is what greets you in the home. No adult conversation. No children laughing or babbling. Not even any crying. No reading books. No playing. The fatigue from seemingly insurmountable stress, Garner says, “dulls the senses, saps hope, and destroys the will.”
What’s fascinating, though, she points out, it’s within our reach to change that. It’s through loving our neighbors, through caring interaction, like Jesus demonstrates, that seemingly miraculous development occurs. Right here, the kingdom of God at hand. Garner describes how a facilitator taught the mother of the house how to play with her child, for the first time. As the mother rolls a ball to her child who just a few moments before had been unresponsive, and begins talking with her child, the child’s eyes lit up and the child begins babbling. At one point, the mother tells Garner how no one had ever read her a book in her whole life. Not a parent, not a grandparent, not a school teacher, or a Sunday school teacher. No one. How does someone who has never experience care, offer care?
Garner urged Congress this week – and I would say, this word is for all us – “Give those children one responsive, responsible adult, and you can actually protect them from [severe stress]. That’s how resilient a child’s brain is. It takes so little – and it does so much.”
In fact, that’s exactly what the studies of how trauma gets passed down through generations are showing. It’s only when we gather around, when we make the effort, when we offer care, that we participate in the Holy Spirit creating opportunities for more care to happen. In John 4, the Samaritan woman feels so inspired by the care she’s received – mainly, having experienced a safe person with whom to be honest about the truth of her life – she immediately wants to reconnect with her community and to connect them with the source of this newfound goodness.
While she goes, Jesus turns to his disciples, and says to them, “the fields are ripe for harvesting.” Traditionally, Bible scholars have understood this moment as disconnected from the context of the rest of the chapter. But what if it’s a kind of do-over? Maybe what Jacob could have said to his sons, if he had been in a healthier place. Harvesting has everything to do with the fruit of the Holy Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and temperance. It is attending to what is in front of us. What if Jesus was never only saying, go tell them about me – but, instead, go bear witness to your neighbor’s life story in my name, in a safe way, full of the Holy Spirit? And in doing so, may you both witness the radical work of the Holy Spirit bringing about new life among us.
This sermon originally was preached in 2014.
It is a pleasure to worship with you. Today, we’re exploring a famous passage – one you likely have heard at one time or another, whether you are a Christian or not. It’s not only quoted often, but also has been depicted in various paintings throughout history. It reveals a beautiful, counter-cultural image, where Jesus welcomes children. Children, especially in Jesus’ day, ordinarily were ignored or disregarded in public settings. Most often, people quote this passage out of context apart from its surrounding scenes. When this passage is taken out of context, hearers miss a significant point Jesus is making. While the issues at stake in the Bible have not changed, we may be more apt to receive the fullness of the passage these days as we are paying more and more attention to child development amid a turbulent world.
Let us hear God’s Word for us today, in Matthew 19:13-15.
Then little children were being brought to Jesus in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; but Jesus said, 'Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.' And he laid his hands on them and went on his way.
This is the word of the Lord.
If you have not read the chapter of Matthew 19 in one sitting, I encourage you to do it. In fact, an excellent study sometime is to read the entire book of Matthew and consider how each chapter or section relates to the one before and the one after. Matthew very much is written as a contextual book, where each part feeds into the next and draws on the one before it. Matthew also writes to help hearers connect significant points related to prophetic images expressed in the Hebrew Bible.
Unfortunately, too often, we take this passage and lift it out of its context, almost like a hallmark card of playful puppies, to ooh and ahh over what we imagine is a much more sweet and cuddly statement than more likely was intended. In fact, preachers have avoided the context so often that most people are completely unaware that Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me,” before a crowd that was just arguing over topics of complex social and household relationships.
Do you recall, being a child, what it felt like to hear adults have tense conversations? What did it feel like in your body? Did your stomach clench? Did your head ache? Did you worry or feel scared?
The children in Matthew 19 suddenly find themselves amid a very public argument. Jesus and his disciples are in Judea. Some of the religious leaders begin taunting Jesus, hoping to catch him in the act of discarding the law or heresy. They bring up the challenging topic of divorce. And Jesus replies: When a man and woman marry, they become one flesh. No longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate. They taunt him again, reminding him how Moses allowed for divorce. Was Jesus discarding Moses’ teachings? He reminds them how the people had hardened their hearts and begged Moses for leniency. He says the only exception for divorce is when either have been emotionally or physically unfaithful to the other.
Then, Jesus ups the ante. Do they really want to have a conversation about sexuality and romantic relations? Well, then, let’s have the conversation. How about the experiences of eunichs, Jesus asks. Surely, he says, you’ve noticed how not everyone is able to marry because some are born eunichs, some choose to be eunichs, and some are forced to be eunichs by other people. The religious leaders fall silent. This was not the conversation they wanted to have.
It’s at this point that caregivers begin bringing children to Jesus. Perhaps you can resonate with this inclination for refuge when the adult conversation has become so intense. As a child, did you ever seek an adult out for support when conversations heightened, maybe even when adults began fighting with each other? Have you ever had a child seek you out for refuge in those times of great tension?
In these moments, children often pull at their caregiver’s leg, crawl up into their laps, and suck their thumb or rub fabric between their figures – waiting for their quickened heart rates and shallow breathing to settle again. Something’s not right, they intuitively sense, but being close to a loved one will help make it better.
Jesus was safe. Jesus was trustworthy and reliable. Jesus cared about them. He was the best place for them to turn to in a time of heated emotions and big evocative conversation. When we read today’s passage in the context of the whole chapter we are invited to observe how children and their guardians seek after Jesus in tenuous times and how Jesus welcomes children who seek him when adults nearby disregard them and mindlessly argue.
Understandably, most people do not want to discuss divorce or the many complications related to sexual lifestyles when also talking about children – it’s easier and sometimes feels better to separate those out, perhaps especially in church.
In stead, most people like to talk about how “children are so resilient.” How they seem to rally, when the adults around them are still falling apart. Maybe people say that because they wish it were so, even when its not. Mostly, though, I think people say that because it seems that way. Children easily go on playing or focusing on normal aspects of life – their school routines, their friends, playing, eating, sleeping. Maybe you’ve observed children seeming resilient, too, or been on the receiving end of someone telling you how resilient your kids seem after a particularly hard time in your life.
Personally, I don’t agree. Working as a pastoral therapist and having been deployed to numerous disaster sites, I don’t believe children are resilient – at least, if you mean by that unaffected or having little lasting impacts.
Instead, I think children postpone dealing with what has happened until they have more development tools at their disposal and review past events later. I don’t think this is a particularly conscious effort, just what tends to happen developmentally. After all, if we didn’t postpone processing pain in our childhoods, why else would so many of us be in therapy as adults?
We do children no good if we only try to keep them from pain in our world, and we try to separate out or shelter childhood entirely from real pain in the world. In fact, some children develop significant disorders when they are constantly lied to and told what happened in life wasn’t real. Rather, most important for children and young people facing hardships is to have trustworthy and reliable adults in their life who encourage safety amid turbulence. Mr. Rogers famously said that when scary things happened in the community, instead of shielding him from them, his mom would point to the helpers who were there too. She made a point of showing him how and when relief occurs amid the trouble in the world. You are on a fool’s errand if you try to keep children from the truth. Mostly because, children already know. They may not know verbally, yet, but eventually children grow to have the verbal skills to articulate what they sensed early on. For example, children know what a divorced family feels like. They know it evokes all sorts feelings, ranging from relief to heartache, depending on the child and the family. Also, children know what a family riddled with domestic violence, or substance or sexual abuse, feels like. Children know when there are family secrets, even if they don’t know exactly what the secrets are. They can feel the gaps in conversations or the ways parents avoid certain topics. Children also know what it feels like when revered leaders in the community publically argue. They might not be able to explain what exactly is going on, but they can feel the immense tension in the air.
Like the children in our passage today, seeking Jesus out, children today can sense when something is not right – when the conversation is pitching toward harm.
See, a key in our passage today, is not simply that Jesus welcomes children. I know, in an era when children were largely overlooked or ignored, simply that Jesus welcomes them can seem like a huge thing in and of it self.
Amid the complexities of life, one way we help children best is by doing what Jesus did. Being a safe, trustworthy adult who responds to children in their moments of need. Sometimes, children don’t need anything more than a warm smile, a safe hug, or a shoulder to cry on. All of these non-verbal responses acknowledge and value them, and emphasize how even amid adversity there can be safety and goodness. It doesn’t fix the problems, but allowing them to draw near assures them they are cared for even when problems arise.
Countless social science studies have proven, when a child has even just one trustworthy adult in their life who they interact with on a regular basis – it doesn’t even need to be an adult in their own home… it can be an adult at church, at school, or in their neighborhood – that regular interaction of being seen, acknowledged, and valued, can provide them with enough stability to overcome great adversities in their life.
I believe, as Christians, Jesus calls us to be trustworthy agents of good in the world.
I am reminded of a response the famous author, G. K. Chesterton, once had for a mother who wrote him to say she was concerned that fairytales introduced children to gruesome ideas about the world. To paraphrase Chesterton: Fairytales don’t teach children that dragons exist. Children are well aware dragons exist. Fairytales teach children the dragons in their lives can be defeated.
While we should not go around introducing children to horrors in the world, we also need not pretend terrible things do not happen. Rather than denying dangers in the world, instead, we should spend more of our time – as Jesus models for us in our passage today – offering refuge to children when they become worried or uncertain.
We live in a world with great adversity. Whether it's great tragedy and trauma, or the common challenge of developing loving relationships in our own homes, you don’t have to look far to find it. Every day, we have the opportunity to follow Jesus in welcoming children and young people who seek safety and trustworthiness when the dragons in life – and the dragons in our homes – emerge. Rather than "moving on" from these experiences or, worse, pretending they don't exist, instead may we live as people on the watch, ever ready, for ways to affirm real goodness and real helpfulness in our homes and in the world, pointing these out to the children of our community, with joy and fervency.
I originally preached this sermon, titled "Filled and Overflowing," based on John 11, in 2014.
In our passage today, we find the famous biblical sisters – Mary and Martha. They are in a troubled state. Their brother, Lazarus, has died and they know – Jesus could have saved him. But Jesus didn’t come when they summoned him. Jesus, at that time, was keeping clear of Jerusalem. Officials had been on the look out, threatening to arrest or stone him.
When Jesus finally does arrive, he immediately meets both grieving sisters.
Let us read the word of God for us today.
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
This is the Word of the Lord.
We have met this family, Mary, Martha and Lazarus, in the Bible before, in Luke 10. In that passage, Jesus is visiting; Mary is at his feet, an eager disciple. Martha, busy and worried in the kitchen, comes to Jesus with a demand: Jesus, make her come help me. Jesus responds by saying, “Martha, you are worried about much, but only one thing is needed now. Mary has chosen rightly, and it will not be taken from her.”
I’ll admit, as a former English Literature major in college, it’s hard for me to not be reminded of two other notorious sisters who also epitomize the strident characteristics of Sense and Sensibility. Perhaps, the great author Jane Austen even took some of her cues from Mary and Martha. Martha, the eldest, is a perpetual caregiver, hostess, and likely the family accountant and business leader. She is the one who frets most about the details at hand. Mary is demonstrative and emotive. Whether she kneels before Jesus to wait for his teaching, anoints his feet with her alabaster jar and dries them with her hair, or, in the passage today, is consumed with overwhelming grief, Mary is so full of feeling and impulse she cannot help but express it and cannot be bothered with anyone else’s needs around her.
When I was growing up, there was a popular women’s bible study series that poignantly asked: “Are you a Mary or a Martha?” It referred to the Luke 10 passage. The implication in the study was to discern whether you were a good disciple or, instead, someone who was distracted by details and continued to let matters of hosting and kitchens get in the way of your personal walk with the Lord. Because of this study and sermons with similar interpretations, in my mind, far too many women over the years have worried about whether they truly practice discipleship when they try to attend to household and work details.
Who knows what was in Martha’s heart when she demanded help from Jesus that fateful day? Was she wishing that she too could sit at Jesus’ feet? Was she tired of being in the kitchen? Were her worries and frets well beyond the house that day, and about many other things?
Jesus says to her, one thing is needed. What is that one thing? If it was to be learning at Jesus feet, like Mary, then why didn’t he just say that plainly? The only thing needed now is to be here at my feet listening to my teaching. But that is not what he said. One thing is needed now. I wonder if the one thing was a matter of Martha’s heart at that time. That the one thing needed now is what is in here (in your heart), in relation to Jesus and the life going on around Martha... including recognizing Mary’s needs at that time.
Recently, I heard about another Martha. A Martha who has been a member of her church for decades. She coordinates communion once a month for about 1500 members. One year, she, along with her fellow elders, attended an elder retreat. They prepared for the retreat by doing a spiritual direction study. Then, while on the retreat, each elder shared with each other how the study had gone and something they learned or discovered about themselves. When it came to Martha’s turn, she took a deep breath. And then she began to share.
Before this study, each month I heard from many of you and from deacons about how much it meant to you to serve communion. You told me, sometimes with tears in your eyes, about the ways you felt God’s presence as you shared bread and juice, and how deeply moved you were to be a part of this sacrament. I would hear you, knowing in my heart that I did not feel the same. I worried sometimes about whether I was missing something very important – was I too distracted all these Sunday mornings? But, how could I not be? Someone had to attend to the details. Before this study, I was settled that I may be missing something but I knew of no other way to go about my job. With this study, I realized what was actually happening. Each Saturday before communion, after I double-check the servers for the next morning, I come to church. As volunteers for that week and I prepare the elements, the organist begins to practice. Sometimes, guest musicians or choir soloists are there to practice too. As I fill the cups and cut the bread, with the music all around, I’ve realized that I have always felt the Holy Spirit there with us. I now know, I have felt God all along, in the very preparations, among all the details, God and I have been working together to get ready for the celebration.
This story makes me wonder, if in the past, in Luke, we may have gotten Mary and Martha’s stories wrong. I think today’s passage helps us to see the sisters more fully – less one-dimensional.
While tensions were high before, they appear even higher when we meet the sisters this time around. Their beloved brother Lazarus is very sick and dies. When Jesus finally arrives after the sisters sent for him, the sisters each express the same statement: If you had been here, my brother would not have died. Yet Jesus responds to them differently. Though the sisters’ words are the same, Martha adds a word of faith: "But even now I know God will give you whatever you ask." Mary, on the other hand, is inconsolable in her grief. Her bitterness wells in her, and she defies any of her sister’s attempts at subtly. Instead she publicly attacks Jesus with sobs and accusation. She recklessly calls him out in front of their neighbors, neighbors who they all know stand ready to betray Jesus.
Our English translation puts it nicely, but the Greek here says that Jesus was wells with anger in response to Mary. It's not something we like to talk about or acknowledge. Jesus getting angry with Mary – why would Jesus be angry with Mary? Especially in her time of great grief. Instead, many interpreters prefer to assume Jesus must also be grieving, or feeling great compassion, or becoming angry about death. But the Scripture says, when Jesus saw her weeping and the people who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in his spirit. Mary is the one, after all, who has spent so much time at his feet, who has every reason to trust him, who has every reason to not betray him so publicly and among such dangerous witnesses. She has every reason to not let the storm inside her blind her to all the people and responsibilities around her.
Has grief, or other strong emotions, ever made you blind to the people around you or led you to betray, accidentally or on purpose, someone you love?
How often this kind of betrayal happens between loved ones – between siblings, best friends, or spouses. We know each other so well, we know the buttons, we know just where to send our spiteful daggers. Quicker than we dream, our words or fists fly. We carelessly sentence one another with our own grief or anger.
Even in his anger, though, Jesus does not retaliate. In a tremendous act of grace and selflessness, he holds space for Mary – just as she is. He does not lash out, seek revenge, force her to change, exploit her, admonish her, or to come to him with anything other than what she brings.
Even flooded with his own emotion, he attends to what is possible.
He is for. giving.
In this remarkable exchange, the fecundity of life emerges again – amid those fascinating and transformational encounters where the manure of our lives and the Holy Spirit mingle. Where the garlic and sapphires in the mud, clot the bedded axle-tree.
I have come to read this encounter of grace as an incredibly humbling moment for Mary. After bringing her greatest grief and despair to Jesus, Mary gets exactly what she wanted – her brother, alive. And, at the same time, she, her sister, and the gathered crowd are given the explicit instruction to now “let him go.” Also, Jesus continues to abide there, staying with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, even as some of Mary’s companions already have left to go to the authorities. They go to the authorities to betray Jesus, instead of remaining with Mary and with Lazarus!
Let's just take that in for a moment.
It's weird to think, a man comes back from the dead to what seems to be a rather lackluster reception. A bunch of the crowd has already left.
And as for Mary, as much as I am sure she was joyful to have Lazarus alive again, I also don’t imagine her erupting into great cheers as Lazarus walks out of his tomb. It’s hard to cheer with great humility, the kind of humility that comes with getting exactly what you said you wanted in a way that also shows you how selfish you have been. Instead, I imagine her wide-eyed and silent in the face of tremendous love, grace, and blessing. I imagine her eyes and ears opening, the way they do in times of robust maturing. Possibly she discovers, there in those precious moments of resurrection, a new way through her customary avalanche of feelings into an ability to relate beyond herself. Here, in these moments of revelation, she may be recognizing for the first time the real danger Jesus faces, or how Lazarus is his own person with his own life apart from her, or how much Martha does to keep their home and life together going.
Indeed, a miracle occurs when we bring our most honest selves to Jesus; something grows out of the ground where real tears get shed. To paraphrase Anne Lamott, when she spoke at First Presbyterian Church in Santa Barbara in November 2014, these kinds of miracles emerge when we let streaming tears wash us, cleanse us, and water the ground at our feet. We discover newly an ability to love beyond ourselves, to see and hear and companion alongside the people around us. Rather than being filled to the brim with distractions, self-obsession, or flooding emotions. Instead we become filled and overflowing with God’s love, with the fruit of the Holy Spirit, increasing awareness of the needs around us, and the ability to love our neighbors even amid most dire circumstances. We see with fresh eyes the neighbors, even in our own homes, in the beds and kitchens we share; we see our next-door neighbors and colleagues, the people along our paths; we discover a capacity to love the strangers among us. Not with some idealistic sense of niceties, but a love that doesn’t have all the answers, doesn’t know exactly what to do, other than to show up, tell the truth, and to trust that the Holy Spirit shows up there and makes the way for new life. A new life beyond our wildest dreams.
By receiving us just as we are, even in the robustness of our fully selfish states, Jesus hosts the space for a kind of faithfulness that is not just something to do on Sundays or practice only when we feel like it. It is not something we discard when the stakes are highest – when a loved one dies, when the doctor’s diagnosis is unavoidable, when the job is lost, when the inheritance is gone, when a family member thoroughly betrays us . . . or when the gloves come off.
This gritty faithfulness, this love, this discipleship starts here, within our selves, where the internal storms fester and can blind us to the real life around us, to the real people, the real details and needs around us. It continues in the meeting of our bold honesty and God’s enduring love.
It is where we find grace.
This amazing grace that comes when we are unabashed in meeting God, fuels a faithfulness that we can practice in all circumstances, in times of peace and in the times when the stakes are highest.
According to Luke, after Jesus’ own resurrection, he brings his disciples back to Bethany, back to the hometown of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. This is the same ground where Mary fell at Jesus' feet, took her gloves off and called Jesus out – where were you in my grief, when I needed you most?!
On the way to this place, Jesus says to the disciples, “Beginning from Jerusalem, you are witnesses to all of these things. I am sending you the Holy Spirit, the power from on high, to be with you as you go.” And, in Bethany, he raises his hands over them, and blesses them.
I first met Revs. Drs. Laurie Kraus and Bruce Wismer almost ten years ago when they responded to a fatal domestic violence incident at a church I was serving as the Director of Congregational Care. Before meeting them, I only vaguely knew of our denomination's disaster response team as the "hurricane people." Like many pastors, I had little idea that members of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance's National Response Team deployed to many other types of incidents, including "un-natural" or "human-caused" disasters. About a year later, I attended a discernment retreat to explore the possibility of joining the team, which is where I met Rev. Dr. David Holyan. He, too, was discerning joining the team, and he too had survived a human-caused disaster when a man shot several people across the street from his church, in front of the local court house. One of the victims was the husband of his church's director for Christian Education.
Over the years, Kraus, Wismer, Holyan and I have worked together to assess congregational impacts of trauma, identify best practices for emotional and spiritual care of individual and corporate bodies, and highlight effective faith-based and community-based collaborations. We continue to work and volunteer with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, and Bruce also serves as the chair of the board for the Institute for Congregational Trauma and Growth.
Recently, it was an honor to contribute chapters to this joint project, Recovering from Un-Natural Disaster: a guide for pastors and congregations after violence and trauma. You'll find this hand-held guide to be a very practical and accessible resource, with examples of incidents, tips for caring for children, youth, and adults, personal care tips for faith leaders, and templates for planning worship and community response.
Order your copy here.
I had the privilege of preaching at Hesston Mennonite Church on Sunday, February 19, 2017. My sermon, "When the Unthinkable Happens . . . A Long Time Ago," is based on biblical interpretation I first produced in 2012 and was part of the Hesston College 2017 Anabaptist Vision and Discipleships Series. A copy of my sermon appears below, along with a worksheet of the parallel literary themes between the two chapters, Genesis 34 and John 4, I developed in 2012.
Parallel Literary Themes in Genesis 34 and John 4
"When the Unthinkable Happens . . . A Long Time Ago"
Good morning! Thank you for having me. It's a gift to be here, and I am very grateful to explore with you the Word God has for us today.
Let's begin with prayer. Please pray with me.
Good and gracious God - Thank you for the gift of this day. Thank you for the gift of this conference weekend, and for your Holy Spirit dwelling with us throughout this weekend. We are grateful for the mercy, wise counsel, and strengthening you offer us, even in our times of greatest doubt and uncertainty. We continue to be buoyed by your lovingkindness and the light you offer in our most bleakest times – a light that casts away all dread and inspires new life. This morning, we especially thank you for continuing to open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts to learning more of how you intend us to love. We lift all of these things up in the name of your son, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Our passage for today occurs in the middle of a famous account when Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well. Jacob's well. A well on the property Jacob purchases at the end of Genesis 33. The woman comes alone to get water, in the middle of the day, which is a strange time. Normally people would get water in the morning or late afternoon. It suggests does not want to meet anyone along the way and she's avoiding community. At one point, Jesus invites her to be honest about her life experience. It may even be the first time anyone has offered her safe space to do that. She becomes inspired. It seems to transform her. She desires to reconnect with her community. It's at this point we find our passage for today.
Hear the Word of the Lord found in the Gospel of John, chapter 4, verses 27-35:
Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a Samaritan woman, but no one said to her, "What do you want?" or to him, "Why are you speaking with her?" Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, "Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?" They left the city and were on their way to him.
This is the Word of the Lord.
When Jesus first is meeting with the woman, the disciples have been in town looking for food. They suddenly burst upon the scene and are scandalized by the questionable encounter of Jesus meeting alone with a strange woman. But they hold their tongues.
Then, after the woman leaves, Jesus says to the disciples, "the fields are ripe for harvest." What does he mean?
For decades, even centuries, countless interpreters of the Bible have understood this moment as a kind of side conversation. As if, Jesus was in the middle of "minsitry" with teh woman, God bless her, needed so much help, and then when she leaves, he can finally get back to that ongoing conversation he and the boys have been having about tallying up some more believers. As if the two conversations have either nothing to do with each other, or, the woman only serves as an example of yet another person in desperate need of the truth she has been missing for so many years.
But what if that's wrong – or, at least, not fully right? What if the woman – a survivor of numerous losses . . . we're told earlier in the chapter, when Jesus invites her to be honest about the truth of her life experience, that she has had five husbands and the man she is with now is not her husband. All of these have been forms of loss, though we don't know how those losses came about . . . what if the woman has had the truth of her life experience with her the whole time. What if, instead, no one has ever bothered to bear witness to the truth of her life, with her, as someone who loves and cares about her?
AND . . . what if this moment is even bigger than just this woman or just her town? What if Jesus is not only meeting her and them with their personal and recent pains? What if he is also addressing pain that have been passed down to them? Put another way, what if you can counter pain that passes through generations by being present to current pain?
I think the woman is disconnected from her community and has experienced a lot of losses, in part, because of what she has inherited.
Christians have long believed that our life experiences have long-lasting effects. When we study God's Word, we remind ourselves how both human sin and God's blessing can extend across many generations. So, then, we might not be surprised when we notice science catching up – especially in recent years – as science is beginning to explain similar phenomena in greater detail than we have known or recognized before.
For example, consider a recent turn of the century, emerging study, called epigenetics. This study explores how the environment – or the nurture part of the nature and nurture balance – influences genetic behavior. The types of genes we inherit cannot change, however, this study explores how the behavior of our genes can change.
So, for instance, you or someone you love or a neighbor might have a genetic predisposition for something – and the environment you or they are in determines whether that something comes to be or not. This is both positive and negative. Good things can come about – you never actually get a disease you may be predisposed for – or, bad things can come about – a skill your predisposed for never fully takes shape or you actually do develop great bouts with depression. Of course, there are all sorts of variations that may occur, as well, among these varying extremes.
The study of epigenetics bolsters what we Christians already know, but still could do with some reminding – that is, the effects of trauma reshape family and community life and those effects can pass through many generations. They shape what conversation topics are allowed or not allowed. What emotions are allowed or not allowed. What activities are allowed or not allowed. They shape both the spoken and the unspoken rules of family and community life. At the same time, and most significantly, the effects of love and care also can reshape family and community life and pass through many generations. The effects of love and care also shape what conversation topics are allowed or not allowed. What emotions are allowed or not allowed. What activities are allowed or not allowed. They shape both the spoken and the unspoken rules of family and community life.
Jesus' care for the woman at the well makes a big difference – not just for her spiritual salvation, but also for her physiological and biological well-being. We miss that, and we miss the significance of what's going on with the disciples here when we don't read this passage in the context that was intended.
There are several clues at the beginning of John 4 that first century Christians who had studied the Hebrew Bible more thoroughly would hear as loud bells. We're told that Jesus comes to rest at Jacob's well, property he purchases at the end of Genesis 33. The Samaritan woman also describes being a direct descendent of Jacob and how this well was where Jacob's family and animals go their water. First century hearers would ahve been very familiar with this property and what's gone on their over the years. So would the Samaritan woman. This story, in John 4, is part of a long line of exhausting events.
For example, just before Jacob purchases the land in Genesis 33, he has three significant encounters back to back. First, he finally confronts and reconciles with his father-in-law after both have act in conniving ways toward one another. Then, immediately after, he wrestles with a messenger from God. In the tussle, he receives a blessing, but also a life-long wound in his hip. Then, as if that were not enough, he meets his estranged brother Esau, from whom he once stole a birthright. Jacob is immensely fearful and anxious about this encounter. To his great surprise, though, Esau is nothing but magnanimous with grace and hospitality.
It is after these three tremendous roller-coaster encounters, Jacob finally settles his nomadic family, purchasing land and claiming space for a home for the first time. Jacob has twelve sons and one daughter, Dinah, who also is very hopeful about this new home.
Right away, Dinah goes out to meet the women of the land. Can you imagine what she must have felt like? The only daughter among twelve brothers. Having lived a nomadic life. Has she ever had a friend whose a girl? A peer? How curious she must be? Brimming with possibilities. Perhaps some anxiety too? What will they be like? Will they like her? Will she like them?
Maybe you can recall for yourself a time of venturing out in anticipation . . . when you moved to a new place, or started college, or joined a new church. What will they be like? Will they like me? Will I like them? Will we be friends?
Unfortunately, we'll never know. Dinah never got the chance to find out, because of a very sad thing that happened to her when she met a stranger along the way who hurt her very badly [the Word is shared in this way to make it accessible to young children in the congregation at the time]. Here, in the same property where Jesus meets the Samaritan woman.
Interestingly, when Dinah's encounter with the stranger occurs, Dinah's brothers are out in the fields with their cattle, kind of like how when Jesus meets the Samaritan woman, the disciples are away getting food. Jacob is alone when he finds out what happened to Dinah. He waits for his sons to return before responding. It seems, Dinah is left alone in her time of need. As someone who has studied trauma, I wonder how overwhelmed both Jacob and Dinah are in this moment – the combination of exhausting events, mixed with anticipation, dashed hopes, and overwhelming pain. Is Jacob numb? In shock? Did anyone come to Dinah's aid?
When Dinah's brothers do return, they are immediately reactive. Unlike the disciples in John 4, who hold their tongues despite their own thoughts of astonishment and disgrace, the brothers respond with anger, lies, and deceitfulness. Dinah's brothers end up attacking the men of the town, pillaging anything valuable, and taking the women and children to their camp.
Whatever Dinah may have hoped for has been obliterated. Constant reminders of these wretched acts remain, day after day.
In John 4, Jesus, unlike Jacob, speaks. Jesus not only speaks, he speaks to the woman. Something no one did with Dinah. Jesus invites the Samaritan woman to acknowledge the truth of her life, without judgment or criticism. Within this safety and care, the woman becomes transformed. No longer seeking isolation and being guarded, the woman feels enlivened. She desires to connect with her community.
It's at this point Jesus speaks to the disciples and guides them – unlike Jacob who does not guide his sons. And Jacob, in his own way of being overwhelmed, may not have been able to guide them. But here, in John 4, Jesus says, "My foo dis to do the will of him who sent me . . . look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvest." What if the harvest is not only about spiritual salvation – about becoming a new believer – but what if it is about healing from past and current traumas?
Immediately before John 4, in John 3, Jesus talks about becoming born again and being born of the spirit. In John 4, he talks to the woman about worshipping in spirit and truth. What if the Good News Jesus is revealing to his disciples – to us – is about healing . . . not just spiritual healing, but whole body healing and healing across generations. What if he is modeling how we don't just inherit or pass on trauma and suffering, but also we pass on care and love to the generations to come. What if acknowledging what's happened, being honest and bearing witness to what we've experienced is a significant part of passing on care? That bearing witness matters.
It matters for the Jacob's of the world – the men out there trying to manage it all on their own, without enough Esau's in their lives. It matters for the Dinah's – the women trying to survive without enough of Jesus in their lives. It matters for Dinah's brothers, for the twelves disciples, for the people of the town in Genesis and in the Gospel of John. It matters for us.
Science certainly is suggesting, strongly, that bearing witness does matter. And that bearing witness is not about having the right thing to say or do, but being willing to listen or create safe space for the truth of what the other person has experienced to be expressed. Science says, when someone bears witness for us, we "feel felt" by that caregiver. "Feeling felt" activates our agency hormones. It gets us moving and makes us want to reconnect. It enlivens us. Just like it did for the woman at the well.
In our passage for today, Jesus boldly proclaims to his disciples that the nourishment they and we all are looking for, the nourishment that feeds starving souls and the nourishment and living water the Holy Spirit uses to birth people again, is the nourishment of emotional love and spiritual care after severe loss. The emotional love and spiritual care Jesus models in John 4 is what the Holy Spirit uses to bring about new life after severe losses.
The Bible has been telling us for millennia how to bear witness and love our neighbors – perhaps especially for the neighbors in our own families and in our own towns. And its good for us to be reminded: Our food and living water is to do the will of God. So, look around. And see how the fields are ripe for harvest.
Notes on the Bible, faith, community, and congregational care.