Reformation Freedom

Yesterday, we commemorated the Reformation in worship at St. Paul’s. Reformation Sunday is one of the days in the church calendar that is assigned the same readings every year. So, even though I haven’t been doing this too long, I already feel like I’m running out of things to say about John 8. I tried to focus on just one part of it–what does it mean to be captive (a slave) to sin? And how does Jesus set us free from that?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Have you ever been offered something you had no idea you needed? Something, in fact, that you thought you most certainly did not need? It’s happened to me more than once, but the most memorable, and probably funniest, time for me was when I was in third grade. My teacher sent a note home to let my parents know I needed glasses.

I was devasted and more than a little bit offended. I could see just fine! How was he to know what I could and couldn’t see anyway? I maintained this stubborn conviction that I had no need of glasses at all until the moment I walked out of the optometrists wearing them for the first time. And suddenly, everything was clear. I had thought I could see fine, but only because I had no idea what I was missing. Trees had leaves! Like, leaves that you could see individually!

A week before, I was positive that I had no trouble seeing at all. And I would argue endlessly with anyone who would suggest otherwise. It was only after the fact that I realized, I did, in fact, need help.

When people point out help that we don’t think we need, it’s a natural reaction to become defensive, offended, or upset. Jesus says to his followers: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

“What do you mean?” they ask, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. Why are you telling us ‘You will be made free?’” We shouldn’t miss the irony here, that these people are descendants of Abraham, and therefore their ancestors have been enslaved by the Egyptians, by the Babylonians, and now they are living under Roman occupation.

But in offering them freedom, Jesus has implied that freedom is something they don’t already have. That they are the opposite of free right now. No wonder they were upset. Imagine if Jesus walked into our sanctuary this morning and said to us, “If you continue in my word, you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” We are Americans, Jesus. We are free, who are you to tell us that we’re not?

But we, and they, have missed the point. Jesus isn’t talking about political freedom, as he explains. He’s talking about freedom from sin. Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin, he says. I’m honestly not sure if that is more or less offensive than what they originally assumed he meant.

Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin—pair that with our reading from Romans, where Paul writes: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and we are left to assume that all of us are slaves to sin. In fact, in a prayer of confession that we often use, we say the words: we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. We say the very thing that Jesus says, and that Paul reiterates: we are slaves to sin.

But what does it mean to be captive to sin? To think about that question, I want to look at what happens just before Jesus says this in the Gospel of John. When we read these lessons in church, we always have just a short snippet of a much larger narrative. And we have to, or else we’d be here for hours each week. But sometimes it’s helpful to see what’s going on around the piece that we read. Because Jesus didn’t just start talking about freedom from sin out of the blue.

Jesus had been teaching his disciples, and the other Jews who believed in him, when the scribes and Pharisees who didn’t believe in him brought a woman before him. “Teacher,” they said, “this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. The law says we are to stone such women. What do you say?”

It’s admitted that this is a test. They want to catch Jesus making a mistake, so that they might bring a charge against him. Jesus bends over and writes in the dirt. We’re never told what he writes. But he straightens up and says: “Let anyone who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And one by one, they leave, until it is just the woman and Jesus. “Where are they?” Jesus asks her, “has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she replies.

Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.  Being captive to sin means that we’re stuck in this vicious circle where we know there’s something wrong, but we can’t do anything about it. Sin becomes a power over us, and we are unable to do the right or just thing. Instead, we try to justify ourselves.

Like the Pharisees and scribes, we can feel the weight of our sin—of our inadequacies or our vulnerability—and we try to cover it up by pointing the finger at others, by blaming, by making excuses, by working harder, by never taking a day off.  We try to cover it up by putting our trust in our ability to at least not be as awful as everyone else.

That way doesn’t lead to freedom, Jesus says, but there is a way that does. When we are able to accept that we are, in fact, in need of help, the way forward is there. Stop trying to free yourself from what binds you—for it is God who will make you free. It is God who calls us daughters and sons and gives us a place in the household. We are justified by God’s grace as a gift. We are set free from sin—from needing to prove ourselves, from seeking glory, from hurting one another—not by anything we have done, but because of God’s righteousness. And that freedom is found in relationship. Relationship with Jesus, relationship with God. A place in God’s household forever, not as slaves, but as children.

Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation over 500 years ago, on October 31, 1517. We still mark that event today in our church, not to celebrate the history or to remind ourselves what happened. We still commemorate the Reformation because we still need to hear its truths today. Luther and the Reformers sought to invite Christians into a new vision of the possibility of genuine relationship with God, of the promise of forgiveness predicated not upon what we have done but upon what Christ has done.

We are justified by God’s grace as gift, Paul wrote in the first century. We still need to hear that unbelievable promise today: God’s love is not something we can earn, because we already have it. “The truth will set you free,” says Jesus. Free from the need to prove ourselves. Free from the need to earn our place in the household. Free from the guilt and shame that we feel when we don’t measure up. Free to experience God’s love—with no strings attached—and to let that love permeate every part of lives. Free from living the cycles of sin and free to live God’s way of righteousness.

If you continue in my word, you will be my disciples; you will know the truth and the truth will set you free. May the truth of God’s unconditional, unearned love and grace set us free this day, and every day. Amen.

Wrestling with God

What is prayer? How do we pray? One of my professors once described prayer as “buzzing God’s ear with God’s promises.” Reminding God of the things that God promised to do: establish justice and mercy, peace and wholeness. There’s a couple examples of prayer in our readings for Sunday: Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow, and Jacob’s wrestling match with God. What about you? Is this an apt description of your prayer life, or do you have another metaphor to share?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

When I was in Target recently, I noticed a young boy shopping with his mom. He was maybe eight or nine years old. And he was jogging next to the cart she was pushing, carrying a baseball bat. He was trying to convince his mom to let him put the bat in the cart. “No,” she said, “that’s not what we’re shopping for today.” As I turned down another aisle, I could hear him begin to explain his reasons for needing this particular baseball bat.

I saw them later again in another section of the store. The bat wasn’t in the cart yet, but his mom also hadn’t made him put it back. “Please,” he said, “please.” He said he would do chores to pay for. He said it was just what he needed to improve his game. He said he wouldn’t ask for anything else ever again. He said it was on sale; this was a great price. I honestly didn’t know whether to admire him or to be annoyed on his mom’s behalf. The last time I saw them was in the parking lot. Feeling very nosy, but needing to know, I peeked in their cart. And lo and behold, there it was! He got the bat. His persistence had paid off.

In light of our reading for today, it makes me wonder—is this what prayer is supposed to be like? Today we read the parable of the persistent widow from the gospel of Luke. This poor widow just wants justice. The judge is a bad man. He doesn’t fear God or respect people—something he openly admits. He gives the widow justice in the end, but only because she kept bothering him. Pestering him. Nagging him.

This is not an easy parable to interpret. Is God like the judge? How can that be? The judge is not a good person, at all. The judge can’t represent God, because we know that God is good. So, God is not the judge, but we can learn from the story of the judge, says Jesus. If even an unjust judge will grant justice eventually, imagine what our good and gracious God will do for us!

Pray and don’t give up is a good message. I can get on board with that being the main point of the parable, but even there we run into problems. There are times in my life when I have prayed faithfully and persistently for things that I just didn’t get. I bet it is the same for you. Why is that? Jesus seems to say here that God will swiftly answer prayers, if we are persistent. And yet we don’t see that played out in our lives.

Sometimes, especially in hindsight, it’s easy to see why God doesn’t give us all the things we pray for. I’ve certainly prayed for ill-advised things from time to time. When I’ve been really hurting and angry, I’ve wanted God to hurt the people who hurt me. Just a couple of strategically placed lightning bolts. God hasn’t said yes to those sorts of prayers for me. Something I’m thankful for after the fact.

But what about the prayers for things that are reasonable? What about hungry people who are just praying for something to eat? What about sick people desperately praying for a cure? What about people like the widow crying out for justice? We know that God is on the side of justice. Why can’t those prayers be answered, and answered quickly? The difficult, but honest, truth is: I don’t know.

I don’t know why, sometimes, even though we’re praying for good and just things, there just seems to be no response from God. And our readings today don’t offer any answers to the question of unanswered prayer. They do, though, offer us another perspective on prayer. Our reading starts, “Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.” It’s not a parable about why some prayers are answered and some aren’t. It’s a parable about persisting in prayer, even when we might want to lose heart.

And in that case, it is paired perfectly with our first reading from Genesis. Jacob wrestling with a man, that sometime in the course of the night, he realizes is God. Jacob is in a tough spot here. He knows that his brother Esau—whose birthright he stole—has an army and might be ready to move against him. He’s scared, he’s defenseless, and out of the middle of nowhere, this man comes and starts to wrestle with him.

They strive together all night. Neither can prevail against the other. When morning is beginning to break, the figure strikes Jacob on the hip, putting it out of joint. But still Jacob will not let go. Realizing who he has been wrestling with, he demands a blessing. What is your name, the Lord asks? Jacob—which means supplanter, he responds. It’s a name he’s had since birth, since he came out of the womb grasping his twin’s heel. From now on, the Lord says, you shall be called Israel, for you have striven with God and prevailed. Israel—he who strives with God. Jacob leaves this encounter with a new name, a blessing, and a limp.

What does perseverance in prayer look like? Refusing to let go of God. Fighting with God to demand a blessing. Being willing to be changed, even to be damaged, in this exchange with the Almighty, and coming out on the other side limping, but blessed.

What these readings seem to say to me about prayer is that God delights in those who dare to strive with God. To contend with God. To wrestle with God. Wrestling with God, clawing and grabbing and grappling for some hold, it’s not a bad thing. Wrestling is the opposite of apathy. It’s the opposite of resignation. To fight with God is to stay close, to keep our arms wrapped around the one who alone can bless us. Fighting with God means we refuse to walk away.

Prayer is not passive—prayer is a no-holds-barred wrestling match. And when we are discouraged in prayer, when we lose heart (and it’s honest to admit we will sometimes feel that way), we will sometimes feel like the widow, begging for justice and not getting the answers we want. When we feel that way, the message is clear: persevere. We might not get the answer we want, we might end up limping and hurting, but when God is our wrestling partner, we will come out on the other side blessed. Amen.


I’m Grateful

Gratitude is having a bit of moment lately. There have been several studies about the benefits of gratitude. Here’s an article from Psychology Today that talks about seven proven benefits of gratitude. I think talking about gratitude is especially important in society today, when having more or better is seemingly prized above all else. But as Christians, we don’t talk about gratitude in the general sense. We think about gratitude as a response to all that God has done for us. In our Gospel lesson from Luke, the Samaritan leper is able to express his gratitude to God in person and finds himself the recipient of another blessing. What are you grateful for?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“I’m grateful.” If you ask our bishop, Pat Davenport, how she’s doing, that’s the response you’re likely going to get. “I’m grateful.” The first couple of times I heard it in answer to my casual, “How are you?”, I was surprised. I was expecting to hear “good,” “fine,” maybe even “great” or perhaps “tired.” But not “grateful.”

Even now, expecting to get this answer from her, I’m still often surprised. I serve on our synod council, the governing board of the synod, and I know that there are many reasons why our bishop might not be grateful at any given time. A lot of her time is spent dealing with bureaucracy, upset churches and pastors, legal matters. As the first black woman bishop in our church, she deals with a lot of institutionalized racism and is constantly being asked to speak and address various issues. She could easily say, “I’m tired…I’m frustrated…I’m busy.” But instead, she chooses to say, “I’m grateful.” Each and every time.

I don’t doubt that gratitude is something she is truly feeling in the moment, but in saying, “I’m grateful,” she is also choosing her words with care. She is making a point, to the person asking the question, and to herself. There are dozens of emotions we might feel at any moment. Bishop Davenport chooses to give voice to her gratitude. She chooses to practice being grateful.

When we practice gratitude in life’s ordinary, everyday moments, we are more likely to turn to gratitude when we’re thrown a curve ball. What made the one leper turn back after being healed? Were not all of them grateful? I have to imagine that this tenth leper had practiced gratitude, had cultivated gratitude, in his life.

Luke’s gospel says that Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee when he came upon these lepers. If you take a look at a first century map of the Middle East, you’ll see that there is no region between Samaria and Galilee. The two are neighboring regions. But they had a contentious history with each other. A history of exile and pain, of religious fighting and long-bred hatred for each other. And Jesus is in no-man’s land. The space in between, the space that is neither one nor the other.

And it’s in this in between space that he comes upon these ten lepers. They keep their distance, because they do not want to infect anyone else with their disease. What is called leprosy in the Bible could actually refer to any number of skin diseases, some of them not contagious at all, and others very much so. The people didn’t understand what caused the diseases or how they spread, so lepers were cast out from their homes and villages to keep others safe. And in this group of lepers we surprisingly find both Galileans and a Samaritan. Their differences are overcome by their shared status as outsiders.

And these ten lepers call out to Jesus for mercy. And much like Elisha in the first reading, Jesus does no fancy hand-waving or calling on God’s name. He simply tells them to go and show themselves to the priests. That’s what you did when you thought you were healed of leprosy. The priests could confirm that you were healed, and you could come back to be part of the community again.

And so, they go to see the priests. And on the way, they are miraculously healed. It’s not just a healing of their bodies. This is a restoration of their identities. Jesus has enabled their return to all that makes us fully human—family, community, companionship, and intimacy. He releases them to feel again—to embrace and to be embraced, to worship in community, to reclaim all the social and spiritual ties their disease has stolen from them. Jesus found them in a no-man’s land and invited ten exiles home.

And that’s when our lepers take two different paths. One of them, seeing that he was healed, turns back to give praise to God and acknowledge Jesus. The other nine—well, we don’t actually know what they do. The story doesn’t tell us. Presumably, they do exactly what Jesus told them to do and continue on to the priests. They, too, are healed. All ten are healed; all ten are restored to their community and receive a miraculous blessing. The nine haven’t done anything wrong. They did what Jesus told them to, and they received their healing.

But the one turned back. And this one was a Samaritan. This one not only saw that he was healed but returned to give thanks. To give voice to the feeling of gratitude that surely all ten felt. And Jesus blesses him a second time, saying: “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” Your faith has made you well. It could also be translated: your faith has healed you. Your faith has made you whole. Or even, your faith has saved you.

Giving thanks gives this Samaritan leper a second blessing: a wellness that runs beyond the physical. He acknowledges what has happened to him, and in turn sees himself blessed again. He’s not any more physically healed than he was before he returned to Jesus, but his ability to give voice to his gratitude has opened the door to a new way of being.

Awareness of what God is doing in our lives opens us up to the blessings that are right there. Being grateful, acknowledging the ways God has blessed us—it doesn’t cause us to get good things. Just as the lepers were healed whether or not they were thankful, so too we receive God’s blessings day after day whether we thankful or not. God is generous. God wills wholeness. No matter who is broken, God’s mission is healing.

Gratitude, though, opens us up to a second blessing. It’s a blessing of perspective. A blessing of realizing just what God is up to in our lives. A blessing of abundance and grace. A blessing that can change our outlook, improve our relationships, and actually make us physically healthier. No wonder Jesus told the grateful leper: your faith has made you well.

Gratitude isn’t about sticking our heads in the sand and pretending that everything is wonderful. There’s plenty in our world that we shouldn’t be grateful for. Gratitude isn’t about ignoring very real problems in our own lives and in the world. But it is about not letting them be the controlling forces in our lives. Instead we let God’s abundance and love control how we respond to things. We let that shape our perspective and rule how we deal with the rest.

So this week, let’s try to practice gratitude. It’s going to be my goal to start and end each day by thinking of just three things I am grateful to God for. I invite you to join me in that. When we give voice to ways God has loved us and cared for us each day, we might just see ourselves a doubly-blessed. How am I today? I’m grateful. Amen.

Size Doesn’t Matter

Have you ever wanted more faith? Faith that would take away your doubts or fears or second-thoughts? Faith that would make you capable of what you needed to do? If so, you’re in good company. The disciples in our gospel are feeling just that way. See what Jesus has to say to them, and what he says to us this day.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

The disciples said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” Increase our faith! Have you ever felt like the disciples in this reading? I know I have. Something happens in your life, or in the world, and you just don’t know how you’re going to handle it. You’re scared, or anxious, you have doubts. And it seems that if only you could have more faith, you might be alright.

The disciples aren’t in an easy spot right here. At this point in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem. He is on a dedicated journey that will take him to his own death. The disciples might not know exactly what lies ahead, but they have the sense at least that it won’t easy. Jesus has told them after all, that being his disciple means doing hard things. It might even require their lives.

And just before our reading started, he shared more about what it means to be his follower. He said to them, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”

And that’s where our reading picks up and the apostles cry out, “Increase our faith!” Increase our faith indeed. They earnestly want to be able to do these things that Jesus says, to forgive, to lift one another up, but they fear that their faith is not up to the task. They worry they don’t have enough faith to see them through. I can’t say I blame them—it’s quite the task.

And, as I said, I think we can understand how they feel. When tossed about by life’s storms, dealing with sickness or grief, with mental illness or addiction, with seemingly impossible political and social ills, we too want to cry out, “increase our faith!” If only I had more faith, then I wouldn’t doubt so much. If only I had more faith, then I would know what to do. If only I had more faith, then…

Jesus’ response to this earnest and desperate plea at first seems terribly dismissive. “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” He seems to say that they lack even that infinitesimal about of faith.

But what if he’s saying something else entirely? What if instead of dismissing their plea, he’s telling them it’s an unnecessary one? What if faith isn’t something that you can have more or less of in the first place? What do we mean when we talk about faith? What exactly are we asking when we beg God to give us more faith?

The disciples, and us sometimes, have commoditized faith. We’ve turned it into something that we can have, that we can store up and accumulate. But faith doesn’t work like that. As Jesus says, it’s not the size of one’s faith that’s important. Because maybe faith can’t even be measured in size terms at all. The disciples ask for their faith to be increased. You’re asking the wrong question, says Jesus. You don’t need more faith, he says. Even if you have this much faith (his thumb and forefinger pinching together) it is enough! Even a tiny seed of faith holds tree-like potential. And you have it within you! God has given you faith that is sufficient, even when it might not always seem like it.

Your faith—your faith—has the ability to do amazing things. Even when it feels small. Even when it feels like you need more. Even in the face of great challenges and hardships. Because faith is about trusting in God. And there’s no more or less of that. There’s just trust.

And then Jesus gives an example of what this faith looks like in our lives. There’s this parable about the master and his slave. And it’s good to say that this parable probably makes us uncomfortable. To hear Jesus talking so casually about slavery. But slavery then isn’t the same as what in America think of with our history of chattel slavery based on race. In Jesus’ time, people found themselves as slaves often for a set period of years. It wasn’t based on race, and it wasn’t something that could be passed down to your children.

To hear Jesus use analogies of masters and slaves wouldn’t be surprising, it would just been a helpful analogy at the time. While it’s good for us to acknowledge how this analogy falls short in our time, we can also see what he originally meant. So, what does faith look like in this parable? It isn’t big or flashy. There’s certainly no trees jumping into the sea. Faith is simply doing the task that’s been given to you right now. When one task is done, another will take its place.

Faith isn’t always moving mountains or performing miracles. Often, our lives call us to things that seem mundane, ordinary, even boring. But done in faith, there is no such thing as an ordinary task. It was Mother Teresa who said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” We can do small things with great faith, too.

Having faith doesn’t mean that our lives will be simpler or easier. Having faith doesn’t mean we won’t have doubts. Having faith doesn’t mean that we won’t have trials or temptations. Having faith doesn’t mean we won’t wonder what God is doing in our lives or in the world. Having faith doesn’t mean we won’t have pain or suffering in our lives. Having faith means trusting that we are not alone in any of these things. Faith means trusting that God will see us through.

Increase our faith! The disciples begged Jesus. They had one thing very right: God gives us faith. Faith is something that comes to us, not because we tried really hard or did the right things. Faith comes to us as a gift from God. God gives us faith, and God has given us more than we need. No matter how big or small your faith feels—faith from God, faith in God, even in tiny amounts, has the ability to do amazing and wonderful things. If your faith is only the size of a mustard seed—it is enough to make a huge difference. Amen.


A Great Chasm

Last week, when we had the Parable of the Shrewd Manager, I mentioned to a few people that the readings don’t get any easier in the coming weeks. This week’s parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is difficult for us to hear, but it isn’t as difficult to understand. In fact, it’s rather straight forward. The question isn’t “what does this parable mean?”, but rather, “what will we take from it?”

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

The scene is laid out in stark contrasts. On one side of the stage, we have the rich man. You can imagine him, in his dining room, perhaps attended to by his servants. On the other side of the stage is Lazarus, in no room at all, just sitting by the side of the road. The rich man’s table holds a magnificent feast. Rich foods and wines, more than could possibly be eaten in one meal. Lazarus has no food at all, though his stomach bulges with signs of starvation. The rich man is dressed in fine silks and linens, dyed in expensive and ostentatious colors. Lazarus has only rags that do nothing to protect him from the wind and cold. The rich man sits in the midst of every comfort imaginable. Lazarus is left with only the dogs’ meager care and sympathy.

But then the scene changes, although the contrasts do not. Now poor Lazarus is the one who sits being comforted, being cared for, cradled in the bosom of Abraham. The rich man, though, is in agony. Tormented by his circumstances. He cannot stand it, and he calls out for help. From his position, he can see where Lazarus sits in comfort, as Lazarus could once see his fine meals. He begs Father Abraham to send Lazarus to him, to quench his thirst and provide some relief. But he is told that the chasm that divides him from Lazarus is fixed, and it cannot be crossed.

This chasm, this great divide, between the rich man and Lazarus, it’s not a new thing. It’s not something that was put in place after their deaths. In fact, it was always there. It reminds me of a scene in A Christmas Carol, when Ebeneezer Scrooge is shown his future, the fate that awaits him. He has been a miserly man all his adult life, selfish and greedy. And the Ghost of Christmas Future shows him a vision of himself in misery, bound up in shackles.

At this point, Scrooge has already had his eyes opened to his sins, and has begun to think differently about his life, and he realizes: “these are the chains I forged in life.” It is his own actions which have left him chained and tormented.

If there is a chasm between the rich man and Lazarus, it is one that the rich man created during his life. He distanced himself from poor Lazarus. He literally had to step over this man sitting at this gate to get out of his house and go about his business, but he didn’t really see him. He allowed himself to be closed off from the pain and suffering of others, so much so that he ignored Lazarus, and he ignored his daily opportunity to make a difference for Lazarus. And that distance is his sin. We don’t hear that the rich man had done anything particularly wrong. It doesn’t say that he is responsible for Lazarus’ position. He didn’t personally cause this man to be poor and suffering. But he doesn’t help him either.

His indifference continued even after death. He still sees Lazarus as someone beneath him—someone to be ordered around, someone to serve him and his needs. He doesn’t even talk to Lazarus—he just talks about him to Father Abraham. And even then, only to ask that Lazarus be sent to alleviate his suffering. Something he never did for Lazarus in life.

He refused to see Lazarus for what he truly was, which was someone made in God’s image, a child of Abraham. A fellow human being created and loved by God. When Archer is baptized this morning, we will hear once again that we are all God’s children, we are all made in God’s image and created as holy and blessed things. When we look away from our fellow human beings, when we ignore their plight and step around them, we are stepping around the presence of God in our lives.

Who is it that we do not see? Who are we stepping around? Perhaps it is the person dealing with homelessness that we encounter on our commute. The nameless faces we see on the news or in the papers of war victims, of refugees and asylum seekers. The neighbor that we know is all alone and struggles to care for themselves. The children going to school hungry and returning home to empty cupboards. The animals being driven from their habitats by climate change. The need is all around us. And often, like the rich man, we look away. In the face of so much need and pain, we can be overwhelmed. Looking away, choosing not to see, is our defense mechanism. It’s easier, sometimes, than facing the pain we don’t know how to fix.

The story of Lazarus and the rich man doesn’t end on a very uplifting note. The rich man, as troublesome a character as he is, wants to help his brothers avoid his fate. And Abraham says that “even if a man comes back from the dead, they will not listen.” And that is where it ends. But, for the community for whom Luke originally wrote, and for us, we hear those words said with a little wink and a nod. “Even if someone comes back from the dead.”

Well someone did come back from the dead. Jesus did. We know the resurrected Lord Jesus. We are the ones who have the law and the prophets and have seen God’s compassion embodied in the life and ministry of Jesus. We are the ones who gather each week to celebrate his victory over the grave, forgiveness of sin, and the possibility of living in light of God’s grace, mercy and abundance.

Jesus invites us to take hold of the life that really is life. Life not marked by indifference and selfishness but marked by community and love. Seeing one another—really seeing each other–and seeking to ease each other’s burdens and pains. Life that is marked by riches…not in material ways…but richness of spirit, generous and ready to share. Jesus invites us to take hold of this life that really is life.

Jesus crossed the great chasm and embraced our humanity to open the way for us to grasp that true life. In his death and resurrection, we experience the truth that God never turns away from our need. Instead, God draws ever closer, taking our pain upon God’s own self, that we might be made whole in that mercy and grace. And we called to draw ever closer to each other, in brokenness and compassion, in love and in hope. That we might be part of the life that God intends for us, and for the whole world. Amen.

The Lost Ones

Yesterday’s Gospel reading was some of Jesus’ best known parables: the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. When we’re so familiar with Bible passages, it can be interesting to try and think about them from a different perspective. In this case: who is really lost in this stories?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Did you know the Lutheran church has a calendar of commemorations? I don’t call it a saints’ calendar, per se, because it commemorates lots of people, from your typical “saints” to musicians, to social workers. Sometimes, if their day falls on a Sunday, they are mentioned in our prayers.

Tomorrow is the feast day of Cyprian of Carthage. Most of us have probably never heard of Cyprian. He was born in Africa, along the Mediterranean Coast around the year 200. He eventually became bishop of the region. While he was the bishop, the church underwent a period of intense persecution. People were required to make sacrifices to the emperor of Rome, and carry a certificate proving that they’d done so. Many Christians were tortured and executed because they would not obey this law. But just as many simply made the sacrifices and got their certificates.

When the persecution ended, these Christians wanted to come back to the churches they had denounced. And that’s where Cyprian gets famous. Those who had suffered through the persecution thought that what they called the “lapsed” Christians didn’t deserve to get back into the church. They definitely didn’t deserve to be welcomed back to the communion table.

As bishop, the situation ended up on Cyprian’s desk. And he insisted that the lapsed be admitted back into the church. They may have sinned, but where else should sinners go? The question at stake was this: is the church a museum to enshrine saints, or a hospital for sinners?

Who gets to be included? Where it the line drawn? It’s the same question that prompts Jesus to tell these parables in the gospel reading. Jesus’ ministry, his teaching, his healing, is attracting people from all different walks of life. The Pharisees and the scribes are interested in what Jesus is saying. So are the tax collectors and sinners. Gathered around Jesus, we find a strange group—people who wouldn’t normally be in the same company. Pharisees and scribes were good, religious, upstanding people. They were the regular church goers of first century Judaism. The people who followed the laws and tried their best to live the right way. Descriptions many would apply to those of us gathered here today.

And alongside these good, upstanding people are those whose conduct flies in the face of social norms and rules. Those who can’t even be bothered to pretend to follow the rules and laws. Prostitutes. Tax collectors. Rebels. Jesus’ message of God’s kingdom has attracted them, too. They’ve come near to listen to the rabbi teach, to hear about God’s righteousness and justice which brings new life and sets people free. And Jesus is willing to break bread with them. He welcomes them to the table.

And the Pharisees and scribes can’t fathom why Jesus would be acting this way. Sharing a meal with someone meant being associated with them. Jesus is willing to be associated with tax collectors and sinners. Although Jesus has also shared meals with Pharisees, they don’t want to be associated with “those people.”

Who gets to be part of the group? –I don’t want to be part of any group that they’re in.– This isn’t just a problem for Jesus’ time or for Cyprian’s time. It’s a human problem. How do we draw boundaries around who is in and who is out? Who is included in our gathering today? And who is excluded, either by intention or through ignorance? We still draw lines, not just in church, but everywhere, by race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, education, economic class, political affiliation. Many of us have experienced exclusion for some reason in our lives, just as we have perhaps been those doing the excluding at times.

And in response to this kind of thinking, this boundary-drawing, Jesus tells these two parables about lost things. God is like a shepherd, Jesus says, who does everything he can to find one lost sheep, leaving the ninety-nine for the sake of the one. God is like a woman who sweeps her house and a desperate search for one coin. And when that one small coin is found, she rejoices. God is a God of lost things. Sheep, coins, and people. The ones that, for whatever reason, find themselves cut off from the rest of the group. God has a heart for these things, for these people, and seeks them out. Seeks us out.

And who is lost in this story? Who needs to be found? The tax collectors and sinners are already eating with Jesus. They’ve found him already, drawn by the new life he brings. The ones who are truly lost, the people who need repentance in our story, are the Pharisees and scribes. The ones who believe they’re in charge of who’s in and who’s out. The ones who would seek to put up barriers to other people accessing God.

Sin can be defined as anything that separates us from God and from our neighbor. In this case, that’s exactly what the Pharisees and scribes are doing. They want to be separated from their neighbors, and in doing so, they are separating themselves from God. Whenever we try to put up barriers to other people, to draw lines and make distinctions, the only thing we accomplish is to block our own relationship with God. Because in Jesus we find that God is a God of outsiders, of outcasts, of lost things.

A God who seeks after those who have been excluded, cast aside, and turned away. But also, a God who seeks after those cut themselves off through hatred or fear. A God who wants to reconcile all people to Godself. Because the party is not complete unless everyone is there. When we are able to come together, and to see each other not as sinners or righteous, not as rich or poor, not as insiders or outsiders, but when we see with Jesus’ eyes, there is rejoicing in the presence of God’s angels.

And God will continue to seek after every one of us until that is a reality. Because that is what the kingdom of God looks like: a group of unlikely companions, gathered around a table together. We get a glimpse of it every Sunday morning, when we gather together around this table, and share God’s meal. A glimpse of the kingdom where the lost are found, where every last person matters, where distinctions fall away. And all of heaven rejoices.

We take that glimpse with us as we leave this place, making it a little bit more real every day, until it is no longer just a glimpse, but truly, God’s kingdom come. Amen.

The Fine Print

When’s the last time you read the fine print for something? Just now, setting up this blog, I got a pop-up that said, “Our website and dashboards use cookies. By continuing you agree to their use. Learn more by clicking here.” Well, instead of “clicking here” I just clicked the button that said “Got it!” and moved on with my day. I don’t really know what I agreed to. Our Gospel lesson today focuses on Jesus’ frustration with people doing this very thing–but with discipleship. Just signing up, without paying attention to what it actually entails. Read the sermon and think about it with me for a minute or two: how does being a disciple make your life different than if you weren’t?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Customers at a British coffee shop were offered a special discount one morning. All they had to do to activate it was to sign their name on the back of their cup. But, once they signed, they were told that in addition to their discount, they had also activated their coffee club membership. They were now contractually obligated to buy coffee at this shop once a week. They couldn’t believe it; they were livid. But the manager simply pointed out to them the small print on the cup they had signed. The terms and conditions of the discount were all right there. Not one of them had actually read what they were signing.

The good news is this was all a hoax. The people were being filmed for a practical joke show. The bad news is it’s a hoax I would have easily fallen for. It seems like I’m always being asked to sign something, to agree to something. Every time you want to use a new website or app, you have to agree to their terms and conditions. When you want to enter the raffle for cheap Hamilton tickets, terms and conditions apply. If you’re like me, you just check the box that says “accept” without really reading the fine print of what you’re agreeing to. If I was offered discounted coffee—I’m not sure I would have asked too many questions about the terms before signing up.

And it’s that kind of behavior—the sign up now, worry about the details later mindset—that has Jesus so fired up in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus has some pretty harsh words for us this morning. If you do not hate your mother and father, brother and sister, even your very life—you cannot be my disciple. Hold on, Jesus, this isn’t what you’re supposed to be saying. Aren’t you the same guy who said that you should love your neighbor as yourself, you should love your enemies? So why would he tell us to hate those closest to us?

There’s a hint of what’s going on right at the beginning of the passage: “Now large crowds were following him.” Jesus, who started with this tiny following of twelve disciples, has started to see the crowds around him grow. And grow. A lot. They’ve heard about Jesus healing and doing miracles and they want to see what all this is about. But what has Jesus upset is he knows they haven’t read the fine print. He doesn’t want followers who don’t know what they’re really signing up for.

Like the builder who makes sure they have everything they need before starting a tower, like the king who calculates all the costs before going to war, Jesus is saying: you need to read the fine print on this discipleship thing, or you’re going to get halfway in and realize you had no idea what you were in for. The crowds don’t understand. They’ve just checked the “terms and conditions” box without reading them and are ready to move on.

But that’s not good enough. Jesus is being upfront with them.  He wants them to know that being his disciple is not going to be an easy thing to do. It’s not for the faint of heart. Jesus knows its hard, so he advises his listeners to stop and count the costs before they sign up. Discipleship isn’t a weekend hobby or a vacation destination. It’s a full soul, full body, full mind endeavor that involves a reordering of our identities and our priorities.

Like the reading from Deuteronomy, discipleship involves a choice about what is most important. Choose what is going to be your priority, Moses tells the people. God and God’s commandments, or idols and false gods. I heard it said once that idols aren’t really bad things. Instead, idols are good things that we misuse and mis-prioritize. Money, careers, good grades, even our families can all become idols when we value them for the wrong reasons and seek to control and possess them.

Becoming my disciple, Jesus says, will mean we reorder those priorities. This discipleship agreement comes with warnings. Because discipleship involves death. It means death to the temptation of false gods. It means death to all that tempts us away from complete reliance upon God. We are to die to all the things that stand between us and complete commitment to Christ. Jesus names them: family, possessions, even life itself. Discipleship is death to the way we used to live. Better to count the cost of following me, Jesus counsels, and know what you’re dying to.

Living as disciples means changing how we do things. In Paul’s letter to Philemon, which we read all of today, he tells Philemon to accept his slave, Onesimus, back. But not as a slave, as a brother. Because they are brothers in Christ. If Philemon listened to Paul and did this—we don’t actually know what happens to him and Onesimus—but if he freed his slave for the sake of their oneness in Christ, can you imagine how the people around him would react? They’d laugh at him, call him stupid and crazy. Anyone who is not willing to be laughed at and shunned is not able to be my disciple.

Being a disciple means letting what we read and hear and say and do in church on Sunday affect how we live our lives the rest of the week. It affects everything: how we do our jobs, how we care for our families, how we spend our money, how we treat everyone we encounter. And be prepared for raised eyebrows and questions.

Count the cost, says Jesus, because the cost of discipleship is nothing short of your whole lives. But if the discipleship contract comes with these warnings, it also comes with amazing promises, too. And they’re not hidden in the fine print. In following Jesus, we find true life. In losing our lives, we find them.

The way of discipleship is the way of life, real life, life that doesn’t deny the reality of death but instead overcomes it with the power of the resurrection. Life that transforms us, that challenges us, that calls us to live in hope and love with one another. And there’s no catch. There’s no fine print. Just a promise. This is the life that God wants for each of us. That God gives to each of us through Jesus. In Christ, our lives are transformed so that we get to experience God’s life.

So yes, read the fine print. Because discipleship isn’t easy. But it’s part of God’s great gift to us: a life of love and redemption, of healing and wholeness, for us and for the world. Without any pesky terms and conditions. Amen.

Such as these…

My favorite part of worship yesterday was communion. Specifically the communion hymn: “Jesus Loves Me.” I couldn’t sing myself, since I was serving communion, but to watch everyone’s faces as they sang this song was wonderful. There were tears in more than a couple of eyes. Our window for the week was Jesus blessing the children. These familiar songs and stories can make us feel very nostalgic–for a lot of us, they are probably some of the first things we learned in church. Nostalgia’s not a bad thing, but in my sermon, I tried to push past it a little to dive deeper into what’s happening in the gospel. Let me know what you think!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

When I was in elementary school, my parents took my brother and me to Hershey Park one summer. And at Hershey Park, at least when we went, the way they measured you for rides is you stood next to these giant candy bars and find which candy bar you’re the same height as. My brother, who is only a year older than me, he was the tallest one—I think a Cookies and Cream bar. Being Cookies and Cream meant that he could go on any ride he wanted to. Now, I’ve always been a little height challenged, and I think I was like a York Peppermint Patty, or something equally embarrassing. This meant that I could not go on all the rides.

This had happened to me before: at Disney World, the boardwalk, even my grandmother wouldn’t let me sit in the front seat of her car when my brother could. Of course, all those things were about safety; the restrictions were there for good reasons. But it didn’t feel that way at the time. It felt so disappointing to not be able to do these things. I couldn’t wait to get bigger, because getting bigger meant being more important. There would be no more kids’ tables, or kids’ meals, no more restrictions on what activities I could and couldn’t do. It seemed like I would matter more when I was grown up.

And I felt that way in a society that values children. In a family where my parents listened to me and cared about my feelings. Jesus’ time wasn’t like that. We hear this story of Jesus welcoming children, and it’s not surprising to us at all. We’ve heard it a lot of times, for sure, but it also fits well with what we know about Jesus. We’ve known that Jesus loves children ever since we learned the song “Jesus Loves Me.” What surprises us is the disciples’ behavior. Why would they be so rude, so mean as to send the children away?

But the people of Jesus’ time would have had the opposite reaction. The disciples’ actions would have made perfect sense, and Jesus’ response would have seemed ridiculous. Children weren’t important then. They were needed, of course, to help with work, to someday take care of their parents, and to inherit. But until that time came, the children themselves weren’t very useful. And, because of high infant mortality rates, they certainly weren’t valuable until they had grown up some.

It’s not surprising the disciples try to send them away. To be seen spending time on children isn’t going to help Jesus’ reputation any. They have nothing to offer Jesus or his followers. The disciples would rather Jesus spend him time advancing their mission, making inroads with the right people. The people who could make a difference. The people who matter.

But of course, that is exactly what Jesus is doing. Spending his time with people who matter. Shocking everyone, he says that these children have a place of honor in God’s kingdom. In fact, the kingdom belongs to them! Instead of the children wishing to be more like the grown-up disciples, the disciples ought to wish to be more like the children. Because this is who God’s kingdom is for.

Society said that children aren’t important, or aren’t important yet, and Jesus said they are an example to all of us right now. They are immensely important to God. It’s not just children; Jesus valued those that his society said didn’t matter: children, women, the sick, the imprisoned, the strangers. These are the people who will find their place in the kingdom of God. God is not experienced in power, but in weakness. Entering God’s kingdom is not a way to become first or great, but it’s a way to identify with the least and most needy.

Who is that in our society? In Jesus’ time, it was children, widows, and orphans. Who is it that our culture says doesn’t matter? Who do we overlook? Or who doesn’t have power? Still today, children are vulnerable, dependent on others. Those without jobs or homes. Those who are strangers in our country, immigrants and refugees. Those who are sick, and unable to find or afford care. Those who are differently-abled. It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. To those that we look past or look away from. To those that sometimes, driven by indifference or hatred, we wish would go away.

This story tells us about the radical Kingdom of God, as it is intended to be lived here on earth, as well as in heaven. As Jesus welcomes children to him and declares that the kingdom belongs to them, we learn what this kingdom is like, who it’s for, and what its values are.

It’s a kingdom that values vulnerability instead of strength, mercy instead of power. In God’s kingdom, there is a place for everyone, no matter how insignificant they might be to the rest of the world. This is the kingdom that Jesus came to inaugurate. This is the kingdom that we strive towards.

A place where all are welcomed, and valued, and encouraged. Where none are turned away because they aren’t good enough, or important enough, or from the right place. God’s kingdom is a place where we are able to be our honest selves: vulnerable, needy, broken. We do not have to pretend to be strong if we’re not right now. We do not have to pretend to be happy if we’re not right now. We do not have to pretend we have it all together, if we don’t right now.

This is the kingdom that we are members of. This is the kingdom that we get to be part of building, right here, in this space. The kingdom where all are welcomed. Where you are welcomed, just as you are. And where we are invited to build community centered around the values of God’s kingdom.

Jesus welcomed the children and blessed them. We hear those words and think: how nice and kind Jesus was. How loving. It’s true. But it was a radical love. A love that broke rules and expectations in order to usher in God’s kingdom.

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Jesus loves us, it is true. Let us love like Jesus does. Let our love shock and surprise people. Let our love bring down barriers until all are welcomed and valued. For it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs. Amen.

Swords into Plowshares

I did not imagine–nor hope–that my sermon on Micah vision of getting rid of weapons would be as timely as it was. It had already included a paragraph lamenting the gun violence that we experience every day in America. It was depressingly easy to edit on Sunday morning to address the specific instances of violence that occurred last Saturday. In the face of constant news of mass shootings, it is easy to become hopeless and cynical. But Micah offers us something different: promise. Even as we can see that the promise is not yet fulfilled, we are invited to be people of the promise right now.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

When I first came to St. Paul’s, it was this window that caught my eye. It’s clearly different from the others. The others were all done at the same time, and this one came later. It uses different, darker colored glass and a different style, too. Smaller pieces of glass, almost mosaic like, create the images. This is the only window that doesn’t feature Jesus, either. Instead, we have an unlikely scene for a church: guns and army helmets.

It’s given in memory of Tom Winthrop, a sergeant in the American Expeditionary Forces, who was killed in action in France on September 6, 1918. A little more than two months before the Armistice. He was twenty-four years old. There’s been a lot of focus lately on World War I, in books and film, as we just passed its one hundredth anniversary.

The Great War, it was called then. The War to End All Wars. After the unprecedented devastation wrought in the fields of France, and Belgium, and the Netherlands, no one could imagine that another war would happen. The weapons had become too cruel, the fighting too entrenched. Surely humanity could now see the futility of war, the evilness of war.

The League of Nations was formed. The first worldwide organization committed to maintain world peace. One of its primary goals was preventing wars through collective disarmament. Through turning swords into plowshares. It seemed as if maybe, just maybe, the day was coming when we would not need to study war any more. When nation would no longer lift sword against nation.

But of course, that day didn’t come. The First World War was merely the first world war, to be followed by a second. To be followed by countless other conflicts big and small, which have continued ever since. Violence and hate continue. Weapons continue to exist. Weapons continue to leave devastation and grief in their wake. There were two mass shootings yesterday. Not one, two. Thirty dead and dozens more wounded. It’s become so routine that I’m hardly even shocked or surprised when I hear of a mass shooting anymore.

Micah’s vision, of everyone laying aside their weapons, and sitting under their own fig trees, as beautiful as it sounds, can seem ridiculous in light of what happened yesterday. Of what happens many days. Nice, but never realistic. But this is not just a vision. This is a promise. It is a promise of God’s future. It is a promise that God will bring this about. The prophet Micah isn’t naïve. He was living in the midst of war and death and captivity. And still he spoke of the promised day when weapons of war are turned into agricultural tools. When instruments of death become instruments of life.

It’s a promise for the days to come. It hasn’t happened today, and maybe it won’t happen in our days, but the day will come when God shall judge between the nations. God’s justice is the fertile ground for peace. God judges and arbitrates, and the ending of inequity is ground for the ending of violence. All of the reasons for envy and greed, resentment and fear, will be abolished. And weapons will be rendered irrelevant. There are no longer strong and weak, there are no longer insider and outsiders, for all are gathered together on God’s mountain. That is when peace will come.

All of this will happen, says Micah, because God will make it so. The kingdom is God’s to make. We cannot usher in the kingdom of peace on our own terms or in our own time. But, we can practice peace—within ourselves, among our families, in our neighborhoods, for our world. As people of faith, who have glimpsed God’s light and God’s intention, we get to live this promise right now.

We can look all around and see that the promise might not be complete yet, but that doesn’t stop us from trusting it. So we live as people of peace, now. We live practicing reconciliation now. In the face of violence, and evil, and death, we practice peace, and love, and life.

In reading about this text, I came across a lot of Christmas-related things, probably because Isaiah’s very similar version is an Advent text. And for the first time, I read all of the verses to Henry Wordsworth Longfellow’s “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” He wrote this poem shortly after his son was wounded in the Civil War. The first verse was familiar to me: I head the bells on Christmas Day/ Their old, familiar carols play,/ and wild and sweet/ The words repeat/ of peace on earth, good-will to men!

But the last two verses I had never heard: And in despair I bowed my head;/ “There is no peace on earth,” I said;/ “For hate is strong,/ And mocks the song/ Of peace on earth, good-will to men.” Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:/ “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;/ The Wrong shall fail,/ The Right prevail,/ With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

For hate is strong and mocks the song. Despite the hate that we see around us, the violence and the evil that mock God’s promised future, we still sing God’s song. Trusting in the promise of peace. We can glimpse it even now. Can you see the swords being beaten into plowshares? Can you see the rice paddies of Cambodia, now green and fertile? Dozens of programs are ridding the country of land mines and returning the fields to farms. The number of people killed or injured each year in Cambodia by land mines has fallen from a high of over 4,000 in 1996 to just under 300 in 2016. Can you see the farmers working in the field?

Can you see the women, Christian and Muslim together, all dressed in white? They were lying on their stomachs near the main highway in Monrovia, Liberia, where everyone could see them. It was embarrassing to President Charles Taylor. They protested until he finally agreed to attend peace talks in Ghana. And when the talks stalled, the women traveled to Ghana. Can you see them? They linked arms around the government building until the talks started again. The civil war in Liberia finally came to an end. Can you see the women dancing in the streets?

In days to come, people shall stream to the Lord’s house. In days to come, they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. In days to come nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. In days to come, no one shall be made afraid.

But this day, we walk in the name of our Lord. This day, we practice the promise yet to come. This day, we believe in God’s promised peace, and we live that promise in our lives. It is not easy to sing a song of peace in a world of violence and war. But it is God’s song, and it is our song. Until that day when all are gathered together in peace, we will continue to sing God’s promised future into our present.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds on Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Living Water

Are there Bible stories that you just never tire of hearing? For me, it’s this week’s window, of the woman at the well. There’s so much to dig into here (so much, in fact, that I had people sit for the Gospel reading!). I knew that this reading is coming back up next Lent, so I really tried to pick one thing to focus on: the woman leaving her jar behind. This encounter with Jesus came in the middle of her mundane tasks but was so extraordinary that she completely abandoned what she was doing. What type of event or encounter would it take for me to do that today?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

She left her jar behind. I love that small detail from this long story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman’s encounter at the well. She left her jar behind. Presumably, she needed the water. She had come out to the well in the middle of the day, after all. You usually come to the well in the early morning, or in the evening, when it’s cooler. But she had come at noon. You wouldn’t do that if you didn’t need water. But still, she leaves her jar, as she runs back to her village to share what she had found instead of water at the well.

It’s a wonderful detail in a story where we don’t have as many details as we’d like. We don’t know much about this woman, we don’t even know her name. We’re given a few details from her life, that Jesus recounts to her. She has had five husbands, and currently is not married. That’s all we know.

We wonder, and our imaginations begin to fill in the gaps for us. I’ve often heard this woman judged for her situation. As if she is somehow immoral. This woman has been either widowed or divorced five times over. We assume she bears at least some blame. But that’s our modern minds filling in the gaps of an ancient story. Women in Jesus’ time didn’t decide when they were going to get married. They didn’t have much say in the matter at all. And while they could be divorced, they couldn’t initiate one. If this woman has indeed been divorced five times, it wasn’t something she choose. And the most likely reason for it was that she hadn’t been able to have any children. Her story is much less scandalous than it is deeply sad, and lonely.

We don’t know her whole story, but Jesus does. Jesus knows, without being told, her past, and we can assume he knows more details than are shared. He tells her these things so that she might take him seriously. So that she can see he is indeed a prophet, and more than a prophet. But he doesn’t offer judgment. He doesn’t blame her or anyone else for her circumstances. He simply names the reality.

And I love how their exchange continues from there. In Jesus, this woman has found someone who knows her whole truth—and doesn’t treat her any differently because of it! He engages with her questions, takes her seriously, and reveals his true self in exchange. When she says that she believes in the Messiah, he responds: I am he. Except, in order to translate the Greek smoothly, we’ve added that extra word, “he.” Jesus actually says to her: I am. I am. It is more than a simple statement. It is the name of God. Jesus reveals his whole self to this woman, and he makes good on his promise of living water.

And she leaves her jar behind. She has received living water in the form of Jesus’ truth and acceptance. She leaves her jar behind and goes to share what she has found with the people of her village. But she leaves more than just her jar. She leaves her abandonment behind. She leaves her isolation behind. She leaves her rejection behind. She leaves them behind because she has found living water. She has experienced the salvation that Jesus brings. The new life of relationship with Jesus. She leaves the jar behind and goes to share the good news she has found. There was a lot stacked against her, but nevertheless she leaves it behind to share the story of what God has done.

What jars would you like to leave behind? What jars do you need to leave behind? What is keeping you from living into the future that God has prepared for you and sharing the good news of what God has done? What jars do we need to leave, trading our past tragedies and present challenges for the living water that Jesus offers? Maybe it’s a dead-end job or the difficulty of finding one. Maybe it’s an unfulfilling relationship or no relationship at all. Maybe it’s a past wound or fear about the future. Maybe it’s an illness, or grief, or anxiety, or guilt, or shame. What is it that you struggle with, that holds you back from accepting the living water Jesus offers?

Just as Jesus knew the woman, her whole story, Jesus knows us. God could tell us everything we’ve ever done. The things we’re proud of, the memories that bring us joy and love, and the things that bring us shame, worry, and pain. God knows our whole truths. And God is not deterred by them. God offers us living water. God offers us relationship. God offers us futures not limited by our pasts.

The water of life that Jesus gives can’t erase this woman’s past. It can’t take away the years of feeling shame, or failure, or worry. But it can offer a different future. A future where she is more than abandoned. More than shamed. More than ostracized. God’s well of water never runs dry.

We don’t know much about this woman at all. But we do know she ran to tell her village about Jesus’ truth and power, all the while wondering—could it really be the Messiah? Like the disciples left their nets, she left her jar to share the good news. In the Orthodox Church, tradition has given this woman at the well a name: Photini. It means the enlightened one. And she is celebrated as an Evangelist and Apostle.

She came to the well alone, for the daily task of retrieving water. She left without her jar, forgetting completely what had brought her there in the first place. And she returned with a multitude, to share the life that she had found. Her words invite us, today: Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did. And still gave me the living water of salvation: relationship, belonging, and love. Come and see. Amen.