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Monday, March 20, 2017

The Black Dot

John 4:5-42, Lent 3A
            There is a story about a professor who one day entered his classroom and announced to the class that there would be a surprise quiz. The students put their things away, and sat at their desks, anxiously waiting for the test to begin.
            The professor walked through the classroom, placing a paper face down on each student’s desk. When he was finished, he told the class they could turn their paper over and begin. So, they did.
            The students turned their papers over, but then they sat there, stupefied. There was nothing on the paper except a dot. A big, black dot sat squarely in the center of the paper, and that was all; there were no words, no questions.
            Seeing the students’ expressions of confusion, the professor told them, “I want you to write down what you see.” Still confused, the students nonetheless got to work.
            At the end of class, the professor began going through the papers, one by one, reading the answers aloud. Without exception, the students had written about the dot. They wrote about how big it was, how black it was, how round it was, how it was positioned in the middle of the paper.
            The professor looked up after he had read the last response.
            “I’m not going to grade you on this,” he began, “I just wanted to give you something to think about. You all wrote about the same thing – the dot. No one wrote anything about the white part of the paper.
            Everyone focused on the black dot – and the same thing happens in our lives. We have the white paper to observe and enjoy, but we always focus on the dark spots. Our life is a gift given to us by God, with love and care, and we always have reasons to celebrate – nature renewing itself each day, our friends around us, the job that provides our livelihood, the miracles we see each day…”
            However we insist on focusing only on the darks spots – and he listed some of those and then concluded by urging them to look around, to look more deeply, to see the white paper, the life we have, the good in other people, the gift of life we have received from God.
            This story reminds me of how we often view the Gospel story we heard this morning.
            The Gospel of John is known for its deep layers of theology, imagery and symbolism, and today in this very long text John that tells the story of Jesus, a Samaritan woman, water, and Word.
            It’s a story we’ve heard before, and I’ll bet that in most of those hearings, the story about Jesus and what Jesus is doing might have been all but lost because of the focus on the black dot. We get lost in the part of the story where Jesus tells the woman that he knows who she is. He knows she has had five husbands and is now living with a man who is not her husband. Immediately we see the black dot.
            Yet it is very likely that we have misinterpreted the woman’s situation all these years. For while we are all too often ready to point out her sin, to describe the black dot we see, a close look at this text reveals that Jesus never calls her a sinner or tells her to repent or calls her out on her way of life. Jesus simply sees her. He sees her as a person, marvelously made by God. He sees her as a person with all her gifts and challenges. He lets her know he sees her. Her. A Samaritan. A woman who is oppressed, invisible to others. But Jesus see her, and knows her, and opens the kingdom door for her. And she walks right through the door.
            His disciples simply cannot believe what they’ve seen. Jesus is talking a woman, and not just any woman, a Samaritan (not that unusual since they are in Sychar, in Samaria!) He has allowed himself to be served water by her! (Jesus has broken several Jewish purity laws here).
            Furthermore, the fact that she is at the well in the heat of midday suggests that she is some sort of outcast. After all, the women in the community would normally come to the well when it is cooler and when they can take that opportunity to connect with one another, talk, perhaps gossip together.  But here she is, alone.
            It would be interesting to read this story with the one we read last week. It would be interesting to observe Nicodemus and this woman side by side. Nicodemus came to see Jesus in the night. This woman at the well encounters Jesus in light of the noonday sun.
Nicodemus was a man of good reputation and standing; a Pharisee – a leader in the Temple. This woman has no status, is an outsider both in her context and in the realm of Judaism.
Jesus talking to such a man would not have been a big deal. It might even have been encouraged. (Maybe it would raise his status and credibility). Jesus talking to this woman shocked his own disciples.
            During that nighttime visit, Nicodemus had a lot of questions, and Jesus answers him, but when he goes away, we really aren’t sure what believed about Jesus. Though he pops up a couple more times in the gospel, and seems sympathetic to Jesus, we never really get a handle on what Nicodemus thinks or believes about Jesus.
            On the other hand, this woman first says to Jesus, “I know you are a prophet.” And after speaking with Jesus just a little while longer, she is amazed and rushes off to tell everyone she knows about this amazing man and what he can do! She sees in Jesus the promised Messiah.
            Who would you rather talk to? Who would you rather be like? Nicodemus, or this woman who never receives a name, who rejoices simply because Jesus has seen her, and has told her about the living water – the water that he offers, that will lead to eternal life! Amazing grace!
Amazing water! Jesus offers this woman the water that she has been thirsting for without ever knowing it. And then she believes! And she shares her experience with everyone she knows.
Contrast this Samaritan woman’s reaction to Nicodemus’ – he who argues with Jesus over the literal interpretation of what it means to be born again, who comes to Jesus in secret and leaves in secret.
            This woman rejoices because Jesus has seen her and told her about living water…amazing water. My friends, Jesus gives us the same water in our baptism. Through the gift at the font or in the river, or in a baptistry, we each have received the gift of eternal life for the living of today and for the work of tomorrow.
            The woman in today’s story is vulnerable. She is thirsty for life. We know that her life has been a struggle. Women of that time were totally dependent on the men in their lives. If they were widowed or divorced – and we remember that men were allowed to write a certificate of divorce with very little reason, their best chance of survival for themselves and for any children they had was to be married again.
            Yet Jesus simply sees her as one in need. Jesus sees more than the black dot. Jesus sees her as a person, and so he spoke with her. He offered her something of incomparable worth. She exists for him, has value and worth, and significance – Jesus treats her with respect.  He shows her compassion she barely know how to accept. And her grateful response is to share her story about her encounter with Jesus with other people she knows and who know her! Come! See! She tells them.
            Numbers have significance in the Gospel of John, and so here is this story by the numbers:
·         Jesus speak seven times to the woman.
o   Seven is a number signifying completion in ancient Judaism.
o   The seventh time he speaks to her, Jesus declares his divinity, thus assuring her that he can truly accomplish what he offers her – living water, eternal life, compassion and identity – “I am he,” Jesus states, referring to the Messiah. “The one who is speaking to you.”
·         The woman speaks six times to Jesus. Six is still incomplete.
·         The seventh time she speaks is to her people.
·         What makes her story complete is that she shares it; she tells others of the marvelous experience and promise she received from Jesus.
            What does this story have to do with us today?
            Jesus presents a full picture and experience for life for us, offers us living water, transforms our lives by his seeing us and knowing us, loving us, and granting us grace. Knowing this, believing in Jesus, coming together to worship him and praise him and form community in his name, as important and wonderful as that is, doesn’t complete God’s intention for us; our discipleship is incomplete if that is as far as our story with Jesus goes.  
            Like the woman at the well,  what brings our story full circle, and moves it toward its fullness is our sharing it. Our faith moves toward completeness only when we carry it out of this place and in our excitement and joy tell others about Jesus, and the wonderful gift of faith he has given us.
            “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He has told me everything I have ever done.” They came to Jesus because of the woman. They heard Jesus’ words because of her testimony. They believed in Jesus because following her testimony and her invitation, they came and heard for themselves the word of God, and they came to believe that Jesus is truly the Savior of the world.
            It is not a stretch to go from the story of the woman at the well to the baptismal font. We all share in the living water through our baptism. As you come forward today, remember your baptism and know that God sees you in all your vulnerability and all your beauty, black dot and white or colored paper together, and loves you: Loves you so much that God gave Jesus for you. For me. For all of us, to go out into the world fed and restored so that we can tell the story, might join in the harvest, might gather fruit for eternal life, inviting others to come to know Jesus too.
May it be so.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Dusty Roads and Foreheads

Ash Wednesday 2017 (March  Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
            In a few moments, we will be receiving ashes upon our foreheads. Just before that happens, before we are each marked with the ashen cross, together we’ll confess to God and to one another that indeed, we have sinned and it is nobody’s fault but our own.
            We’re going to confess that to be honest about it, we know that we sin by the things we hold in our hearts – those feelings of jealousy and rage, of revenge and hatred, of thinking too highly of ourselves, and too little of our neighbors and those we encounter and engage in our lives. No doubt about it. Our hearts can and do get us into trouble.
            But then we’ll confess that we also sin by the things we have said – and if we think our hearts can be problematic, just think about our words! The words we’ve used, sharpened through vocabulary and tone, have all too often been intentionally formed and flung at others, to insult, humiliate, or make a person feel less than they deserve, especially when you consider that they, too, are fashioned after and in the image of God. Words are the tools we have often used to deceive others and ourselves, steering neatly away from the truth for our own benefit.
            Then, of course, we’re going to confess that it’s not just our thoughts and words, but also our actions that do us in – both the things done and the things we haven’t done – especially the things God told us to do that we’ve either ignored or failed at – like love one another and treat one another as we ourselves wish to be treated.
            Because, the truth is, all of these ways in which we sin; these thoughts, words and deeds, create a chasm between ourselves and God, and between ourselves and other people. We confess that this is a chasm only God can breach, break down and destroy. Without the forgiveness and grace of God this chasm leads us, ultimately, to death. Sin destroys the peaceful existence of God’s creation; it is antithetical to life, and we cannot, on our own, escape the ramifications of our brokenness and our addiction to sin.
            Finally, we will pray for God’s mercy; we will pray for God’s forgiveness; but today, when we are done, we will not hear the words of forgiveness. Not yet. Those words will come later. While you and I know that through baptism God has granted us the forgiveness of sin and the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ, we also need to linger in the knowledge of the depth of our need for God.
            Today we hear the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Through this ritual of faith those same words are spoken to young and old alike; they are spoken as the cross is traced with a sooty fingertip upon the brow of the nursing babe, and on the unsteady-on-his-feet elder. These words have been and will be spoken millions of times throughout the world today. They’ll be spoken to people of every ethnicity, on every continent, in perhaps hundreds of languages; they’ll be spoken in churches and on street corners, in nursing homes and hospitals, in the morning, in the evening and at lunchbreak.
            These words will be repeated over and over again, as they have been for centuries, and they will remind us that we will not be around forever. We will all one day, return to dust. And there will be nothing at all to distinguish your dust from my dust.
            In the beginning God, gathered up the dust of the cosmos and formed the earth and the planets, the stars, and all moons. Then, God gathered the dust of the earth and with it, God formed human beings. There is something both humbling and equalizing in this knowledge. We all get the same cross. We each hear the same words. Every one of us is reminded, as good as God made us, for we are, indeed, marvelously made, we are also each made of the same dust, and we will all reach the same end one day – we will return to dusty dust. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “don’t get too attached to your incarnation for it is made of perishable stuff.”
            In this season of Lent, we confront our mortality. We confront our sinfulness and our need for repentance and forgiveness. Ash Wednesday invites us to search ourselves and to know our failure to follow Christ’s command to love, to share our compassion and bounty with the poor, to love justice, show mercy, and walk humbly with God.
            The gift of this season of Lent is that it helps us reset our priorities. Lent isn’t about facing our iniquity so that we can feel bad. It isn’t about guilt-tripping. Lent isn’t about the poverty of our flesh and our person so much as it is about the holiness of the ashes which we will each bear when we walk out of this place and into the world and into our everyday routines and lives, with the sure knowledge that while we were formed of dust and shall return to dust, the entire scope and sphere of the cycle of life represented by that image is guided by God.
            Taylor reminds us that in our beginnings it was God who breathed on the ashes with which we are made. It is God who brought these ashes to life.  “We are certainly dust and to dust we shall return, but in the meantime our bodies are sources of deep revelation for us. They are how we come to know both great pain and great pleasure. They help us to recognize ourselves in one another. They are how God gets to us, at the most intimate and universal level of all.” 
            “The ashes we bear today are not curses but blessings, announcing God’s undying love of dust no matter what kind of shape it is in,” Taylor says.
            While we might embrace that notion, and I encourage you to see ashes as both reminder and blessing today, there is this other thing that nags at us. It is the conflict we experience as we read the gospel text. We’ve come here today to be marked with these sooty ashen cross-shaped smudges, marking us as penitential Christians, yet this text seems to discourage any outward signs of piety and devotion. We hear this conflict between the ritual, and text. Ashes are visible – if they should be worn in secret, should we wipe them off before we go out the door, before we are seen in public, before they bear witness to what we have been about in this place today?
            More and more these days, as church affiliation has fallen out of vogue, we Lutherans are feeling increasingly vindicated in keeping our faith a very private thing. Isn’t Jesus just confirming this as the way we should live, when he says to pray, give alms and fast “in secret?”
            Let me put our minds to rest. Jesus does not forbid fasting and piety in public but warns against making theater out of it so that you might be praised for your faithfulness by your friends and neighbors. Insincere repentance does nobody any good. Jesus is concerned about the motivation behind our praying, fasting, and almsgiving, activities that Jesus encourages to build up our spiritual lives so that, coming to fully understand how dependent on God we truly are, we can then to reconciled to him.
            Friends, repentance is not something to be constrained or conformed to, but lives through the joy and freedom of a cross that doesn’t allow death to have the final word. In baptism we have received the assurance that the only death we have ever had to fear is behind us. The baptismal font is the means that conveys this grace: it is as if the ashes of our repentance are washed away by God in the waters of baptism, when we are inextricably joined to God and to others who have received that same washing.
            The reconciliation that takes place through the waters of baptism is a reality for us every day, as we live into the grace that only God can give. As we walk through our Lenten journey this season, we are invited to embrace the font as the symbol of our hope and our life, a reality in which we are made new each day.