27 March 2011

Last Sermon for a While

I've preached three of the last four Sundays, so I'm looking forward to a bit of a homiletical hiatus. Still, it's been a rewarding month for this preacher-in-training. Here's what I had to say today on John 4:5-42:

Throughout the centuries, readers of today's story from John's gospel have encountered the passage, taken in its many details, marveled at what one expert called this “first full example of [John's] dramatic ability,”1 and emerged from their careful study with one lingering and important question: “Why does it have to be so long?” Of course I kid, but the designers of our lectionary are not ignorant of our attention spans or of the necessary vocal endurance it will take for deacons throughout the church to belt out this hefty portion of the good news today. So let's let the question stand. Couldn't we do justice to the story while shaving off a few verses? Couldn't we, for instance, have heard only the first half? When this passage came up in the church's daily lectionary a week ago, that's exactly how we got it: the encounter with the woman one day, the follow-up with the disciples the next day.

I think if we look closely at what actually happens in this story, the logic of sticking to our full dose will become clear. So, if you can, think back to the beginning. Jesus is fatigued and thirsty after a morning's travel. He asks for a drink of water from a woman he encounters near a well and, after the initial exchange says, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (10). The woman replies, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” (11). Jesus tells her that she's misunderstood him: “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” (13-14). In other words, the woman has underestimated Jesus's person and promise. The living, flowing water is not a physical gift that relieves us of the need for our daily H20; it sounds more like a spiritual gift, like his teaching and his sharing of the Spirit.2 Of course, he and the woman say lots of other things, but let's leave it at this for our gloss of Scene One: the woman and the water.

In the second half of the story, we see Jesus turn his attention to the disciples. As is often the case, they start off scandalized by the company he's chosen to keep, but then they move on to more immediate midday concerns: “Rabbi, eat something,” they say, and he replies, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” Like the woman, they initially miss the point: “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” they say. And as with the woman, Jesus chooses to enlighten them about their misunderstanding: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” So the disciples underestimate him as well. He is sustained not by material food, he says, but by his mission.3 So that's Scene Two: the disciples and the food.

The importance of these parallels, I believe, is that each scene contains a challenge, and these challenges are related. In Scene Two, the challenge is pretty direct and obvious: it's to make Jesus's mission our mission. He says, “I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting” (35). Now, as then, the time is ripe for us to go out and reap what God and other servants have sewn. The time is ripe because the need is great, and without even knowing it we reap God's harvest as we speak a word of hope to a neighbor or engage in an act of solidarity with a stranger.

Scene One, I think, contains a similar challenge, not about mission this time but about devotion. To say it briefly, we have to choose to drink the water, a choice that will affect us every day of our lives. Like staying hydrated on a hot summer day, “being watered” by our Lord takes discipline; it's not a lot of work, but we have to remember to do it. Drinking the water is about letting the risen Christ into our lives or—better yet—about taking time to realize that he is already there inside us. There are lots of ways to do this, of course: perhaps prayer, bible study, or just quiet time with God. That a little effort each day can make a lifetime of difference in our relationship with God is surely a sign that the Spirit is active in our lives and working within us to transform our hearts.

So, I said that the challenges Jesus has in store for us in this passage are related, and this is the point I want to really want to make clear. The way they're related makes a difference, because this is probably the point in the sermon where we all start to feel a little weary. It sounds, I'll admit, suspiciously like I'm trying to add to our to-do lists, maybe not just for Lent but for the rest of our lives. Perhaps, as it does to me, the very prospect exhausts you.

Well, let's take a tip from Bishop Sutton for a moment. I loved the point he made toward the end of his sermon when he was with us back in February. He asked us to notice that Jesus didn't say, “You are the pepper of the earth.” It strikes me that we'll get a better handle on this morning's gospel passage if we think about what else Jesus didn't say. He didn't say, for instance, “I came that you might have another to-do list, and feel guiltier about it.” He didn't say, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will add to them.” No, what he said was that he has innumerable good gifts to offer us: life abundant, rest for the weary, and, today, food and water for our journey, what John Calvin called “the secret energy by which [God] restores life in us.”4 The way our two challenges this morning are related is that Jesus claims they will sustain us.

So maybe the real challenge is simply to hear that good news—“I have food to eat that you do not know about”; “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life”—to hear that good news and believe it. Believe that Jesus's food, which is to do God's will, really can nourish our lives. Believe that Jesus's living water really can quench our spiritual thirst if we but stop and drink. Believe that God alone can sustain us.

This is where I think we can help each other out. Have you ever heard someone talk about a change in their life and seen the incontrovertible signs that this change is bearing fruit for them? Perhaps they light up at the mention of a new outreach project they've been participating in, chronicling it for you not because they want to boast, but because all the joyful details just kind of bubble up. Or perhaps they get very quiet and shy as they admit during a small-group conversation that they've had a profound experience of God, one they think might stick with them for years to come. They can't really make sense of it rationally, but neither can they dismiss it and go on as if nothing had ever happened. Does hearing about those experiences ever stir something in you? Does it start to make Jesus's promises today sound a little less far-fetched?

Let me risk a personal example. I have this inkling that the practice of keeping a journal might be a good idea for me. This is not something I want to do. It sounds exhausting. Seminarians write a lot, much of it under duress, and the thought of adding even just a couple more paragraphs each day was enough to invoke in me something approaching despair. But I had a conversation recently with a friend who has been diligently journaling for years. And when I hear her talk about all that she's learned about herself in those pages, and how much this record of her struggles and her triumphs has meant to her as the years have passed, I start to believe that keeping a journal could be a source of life for me too, a way of deepening my awareness of how God is working within me. I'm starting to believe, and so far I haven't been disappointed. It may not stick, of course, but for now it does feel like the kind of blessing Jesus promises us today.

So how about you? How do you need to be sustained by deepening your life of mission and devotion? How have you been sustained by these things in the past? My prayer for us today is that we ask ourselves these questions—and especially that we ask each other. That Christ can sustain us in this way with his food and his living water is such good news that it can be almost impossible for us to believe. In this third week of Lent, let's try to help each other's unbelief.

1 Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1997): 342.

2 See Raymond E. Brown, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John (i–xii) (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966): 178-180.

3 Anchor, 181.

4 John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005): 149.

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