Sinners, Outcasts, and the Poor

John 4.3-10

But he had to go back through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritan.) Jesus answered her, “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 the living water.”

kathleen-mcguffin-rivers-of-living-water-at-arts-alive

 

If you want to know about Jesus, this is the story to read. We can read about his remarkable birth in a manger in Bethlehem, we can read about him feeding the multitudes by the sea, we can even read about him turning water into wine, but this little episode by the well is quintessential Jesus.

At the time, Jews avoided Samaritans. If they had to travel from the northern area of Galilee to the southern area of Jerusalem, most Jews would go hours or days out of their way to avoid passing through the region of Samaria that separated the two. Like Apartheid in South Africa or segregation in the United States, the people were separated in all things. This kind of negative and polarized relationship between the groups of people had gone on for centuries to the point where, even though they had many things in common, they believed the divide was irreparable.

And yet Jesus shows up in this Samaritan city, and under the heat of the sun at noon, he goes to the well to rest. While resting, a Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said, “Give me a drink.”

In this simple moment, a lot is going on. To begin, the unnamed woman coming to the well at the hottest part of the day is strange. Most women would have gone to the well early in the morning when it was still cool outside. The well was the area for local gossip and fellowship; it was a site for the community. And she came to the well all alone. We learn later in the scripture that she had gone from one man to another, and was now living with a man who was not her husband. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture why she was separated from the other Samaritan woman, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture how lonely she must have felt, and it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture what the people in the village would have called her: “sinner.”

The woman could not believe that this Jewish man was speaking to her, a Samaritan woman. And Jesus responds by saying, “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 the living water.

Jesus loves sinners. Here in this little story by the well we confront Jesus’ love for the marginalized, and his belief in the inherent worth of all people. When we imagine the depth of her thirst for acceptance, and the relief of the living water offered to her without cost, it compels us to ask: Do we see all people as children of God? Or do we see them as society sees them – sinners, outcasts, and poor?

Water bucket being raised from a well

There is a church in Virginia that is located right across the street from a major university. For years they have explored numerous ways to get “the young people to come to church” but they have continued to decline. They thought that by offering lectures on the importance of abstinence, or the effects of excessive drinking, or how to be political and faithful, droves of the coming generations would fill the pews on Sunday mornings.

Next to the church is a row of college housing that becomes loud and filled with debauchery on the weekends. Even though the church parking lot has numerous signs saying: “Church Parking Only” certain members were known for driving by on Saturday evenings with the explicit purpose of calling the tow company to have the party goers’ cars removed.

On one particular Friday evening, while one of the committees was meeting in the social hall, a loud and sinful party was happening right across the parking lot. The members, though tasked with discussing something like the new color for the parlor, focused their time and effort on how to fix the problem next door. They finally decided to march across the parking lot and demand that the college students stop their partying and remove their cars from the parking lot.

As they knocked and knocked on the doors the sound of their knuckles disappeared into the thundering boom of the bass and they decided they had had enough and they called the police.

With satisfied smiles across their faces, the committee stood proudly in the parking lot while tow trucks removed the vehicles, and while the police escorted those who were too young to be legally drinking in handcuffs to their cruisers.

And they still wonder why no young people attend church.

Notice: in the episode with Jesus by the well he does not say to the woman, “I know you’re a sinner, and you need to be punished for your sins.” He does not call the religious authorities for her transgressions against the law. And he does not stand by with a smug look on his face when he confronts her sinful past. Instead he says, “I can offer you living water.”

There is another church in Virginia that is located right across the street from another major university. Like the first church they struggled to get the college age population to attend their church, they struggled with the sinful behavior that was happening so close, and they wondered how they could be Jesus for these young people. One night, after a steady stream of weeks when empty beers cans were found every Sunday morning on the lawn, the pastor and a group of leaders gathered in the church to pray for the community and prayerfully discern how to move forward. They contemplated calling the police, they weighed the outcome of going over to the house and knocking on the door, but an older woman suggested that they go to the Greek life council and ask how they could help.

When the president of one of the fraternities heard their question, he laughed in response and said jokingly, “If you want to help us… we could use some food and a place to hang out in the middle of the night after a party.” Without missing a beat the same older woman from the church said, “Okay. What time?”

The following weekend, a group of faithful volunteers arrived at the church at midnight and fired up their grills. They cooked hot dogs and hamburgers, set up bean bags in the social hall, and placed signs on the lawn welcoming any college student in, regardless of inebriation, for free food. The first night only a handful of students bravely entered with puzzled looks on their faces in regard to a church that was not condemning them for their behavior, but was just trying to offer food and fellowship. But over the following weeks, more and more people arrived in the social hall every weekend thankful for the love they were experiencing.

And the strangest thing started to happen. On Sundays, when church members arrived for worship, the lawn was free of empty beers can, and though some members came in with bags under their eyes, they were thrilled to discover that many of the students who had sat on the bean bags with hamburgers in their hands the night before were sitting in the pews next to them on Sunday morning.

Who are the Samaritans to us? Our church is not located next to a large university where partying behavior can be experienced through empty beer cans on our front lawn, but there are plenty of people that we want to avoid or ignore. Many of us find that the longer we’re Christian, the more likely it is that all our friends are Christians too. Following Jesus however, means building relationships with people outside the church. We, like Jesus, are called to encounter the Samaritans and show them the love of Christ, whether they ever come to church or not.

Samaritans, therefore, are the people we ignore or avoid. That neighbor who insists on letting his dog use our lawn as a toilet; that coworker who incessantly complains about everything wrong with the business without doing anything about it; that in-law who tells us how to raise our family; that homeless man who sits on the corner of the street asking for money; that college student who plays the music in his car way too loud; that woman who has gone from man to man without finding love.

Where can we find them? We don’t have a well on the front lawn of our church, and frankly it is nearly impossible to discover our Samaritans at church. They, like the college students with churches right across the street, will not come to us; we have to go to them. We can find them in the communal spaces of life: our workplaces, our neighbors, our families. Remember that Jesus did not wait in Galilee for the Samaritans to come to him; he left the comfort and convention of the day and went to meet them where they were.

How can we give them living water? We don’t have to bring a bottle of water to everyone that exists outside of the church to share with them the love of Jesus, but’s that’s not necessarily a bad place to start. That one church found that by offering food and fellowship to their local community of college students they were offering the living water that is the love of Jesus. When we host our community cook-outs on our front lawn we are offering living water to the community through bouncy houses and free food. But finding the Samaritans in our lives, and offering them living water should be a regular occurrence and not just a once a year activity.

We give Samaritans living water by loving them no matter what. Instead of wagging our fingers in judgment against their sins or strange ways, we open our ears and listen to their struggles. Instead of looking down on others and trying to fix their problems, we share with them the crazy truth that we are broken just like them. Instead of ignoring people and leaving them to their own devices, we find them where they are and offer them the living water.

This great and powerful story is a reminder, now and always, that people who are nobodies to us are usually somebodies in the eyes of Jesus. The people we ignore are often the ones Jesus would seek out. The people we would deem sinners are the ones Jesus would spend time with.

We often think of God and Church in these big and sweeping images. We read about God’s overpowering magnificence and we experience God’s presence in majestic churches like this one. So we ask: Can a little thing like a cup of cool water, like a cheeseburger in the middle of the night, like an invitation to worship, offered in love, be the beginning of a salvation journey? The answer is yes; and we will never know what the living water can transform until we meet the Samaritan where they are and offer it in the first place. Amen.

The Story (Chapter 2) – Sermon on Romans 12.1-8

Romans 12.1-8

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourselves more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorted, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Do-not-conform-daily-devotional-by-pocket-fuel-Romans-12

Years ago there was a young man, fresh out of seminary, ready to begin serving his very first church. He had taken all the appropriate classes in school, learned from the right professors, and had been prayed over by the bishop. With eager anticipation he had packed his bags and headed out to begin his first appointment to John Wesley UMC somewhere in Georgia. The young man was so anxious and filled with joy that he could hardly contain himself when he arrived that first day, so before he unpacked any of his belongings, he drove by the new church.

He got in the car and went to the listed address, but he saw no church. When he turned around he drove to the address again and realized why he had missed it the first time; there was one of the oldest and most decrepit looking trees he had ever seen stretching all over the ground with roots exposed and the sign (plus the building) were mostly covered by its long branches. The young pastor sat in his car looking at the tree and he couldn’t believe a church would let something so ugly block the beauty of the building.

Before he knew it, he had gone back to the parsonage to unpack his chainsaw, and promptly cut down the tree that was blocking the church. With sweat on his brow, he took a step back and admired his work: the sign and building were now completely visible from the road, and he thought that perhaps a few extra people might be in church on Sunday morning.

A few days later, as the young pastor sat in the study of the parsonage preparing his first sermon, the local District Superintendent called: “I hope you haven’t finished unpacking yet,” he said, “because you’re being reappointed.

You see, the church was named John Wesley UMC for a reason. John Wesley himself had planted that tree more than 200 years ago while he was in that community. The gathered people decided to build a church right where the tree had been planted in honor of the man who started a revolution, and that young pastor had chopped it down.

renew-your-mind

Stories are remarkably important. They contain and convey everything about who we were, who we are, and who we can be. Stories held within a community help to shape the ways we interact with one another, and how we obtain the collective memories of the past. We tell stories to make people laugh, to teach lessons, and remember the important elements of life.

Today, we live in a world of competing narratives. Every television station, and every website, are vying for out allegiance and attention. We are consistently bombarded with information attempting to tell us who we are, what we need, and where we are going.

We live during a time when more people recognize the golden arches of McDonald’s than they do the cross of Jesus Christ. We live during a time when people spend more time arguing about where they can see the best fireworks on the Fourth of July than they worry about children in their community who have no food to eat. We live during a time when we would rather store up our treasures on earth, than give our gifts to the church.

Right now the world is telling us what is important, and our ears have a difficult time discerning between the world, and the Lord.

The apostle Paul wrote about the world to the church in Rome and convicted their hearts: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Do not listen to the people who try to define you and limit your abilities. Do not diminish God’s ability to radically transform your life and the world around you. Read your bibles. Pray your prayers. Listen to the wisdom of the past. Open your eyes to the beauty of the future. Do not think you are better than anyone else, but give God thanks for placing you within your community.

We are all different and this is worth celebrating! God’s has blessed each of us with unique gifts worthy of use for the kingdom. Some are made for teaching, or preaching, others have the gift of prayer and presence, others have been blessed with financial resources, and still yet others have been given the gift of patience in discernment. Whatever your gift, use it for the kingdom so that we might bear fruit in the world.

Do not conform to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. When we gather together for worship we are retelling God’s great story so that our lives can be transformed. When we are in this place we reject conformity to the world’s expectations. When we proclaim the Word of God, our minds are being renewed again and again.

A few weekends ago thousands of Methodists throughout Virginia gathered together in Roanoke to discern God’s will for our denomination. We prayed over pertinent matters and voted accordingly, we honored those who had gone on to glory over the last year, and we ordained new pastors for the work of ministry. Annual Conference is a time of celebration, but it also a time of facts.

According to the ways of the world, the church is floundering. People are no longer regularly attending worship, tithing is starting to disappear, and many church buildings are being closed each year. Christianity has lost its status in the political arena, we are becoming biblically illiterate, and young people are largely absent from worship.

At Annual Conference this year we discussed a number of statistics affecting the church, but one really stood out to me:

The average person in a United Methodist Church invites someone to worship once every 38 years.

The world tells us that we are nearly defeated. That we’ve got to start pulling out all the stops to get people into our buildings. We have to be willing to do whatever it takes to get people sitting in the pews. We need to cut down the trees that are blocking the church building from the street. We need to abandon the past in order to embrace the future.

I say thanks be to God that we don’t have to conform to the ways of the world but get to be transformed by the renewing of our minds! While others might shrink and wail in fear regarding those types of statistics, imagine what would happen if we embraced them and saw them as an opportunity for transformation? How would our church start to look if we began creating our own vitality through a life-giving invitation to discover the Lord in community? What would it take to embrace the trees and traditions of church to reclaim the story that has already changed the world?

do-not-conform-redfish-donotconform-margherita-anna-mulas

For those of you with remarkably gifted memories, you will no doubt have noticed that everything we have done in worship today, from the opening greeting to the selection of hymns, from the scripture reading to the words of this sermon, is an almost exact replica of what we did two years ago during my first Sunday at St. John’s.

It brings me nothing but joy to look out from this pulpit and to see how much we have changed in our short time together. Our worship attendance has grown. Our weekly offering has grown. Our commitment to spiritual disciplines has grown. Our willingness to sacrifice for God’s kingdom has grown. Our faith and trust in the Lord has grown. St. John’s, through its prayers and practices, has begun to positively affect those kinds of statistics that frighten the world.

But we can do more.

We can do more because the words of worship today are just as relevant as they were two years ago. With a continued commitment to prayer our church can grow in its vitality. With a consistent connection to the Word our church can grow in its faith. With a calm composure compared to the world our church can grow in effectiveness.

When we retell the story we are transformed by the renewing of our minds. We don’t have worship just to catch up with our friends from the community, checking in on the events of life. Church isn’t just about making sure that we give one hour a week to God. Church is about transformation in our lives and in the lives of others.

When was the last time we invited someone to church? Has it been 38 years? And, as someone put it this week, if we don’t have anyone to invite to church, we are not spending time with the right people.

When was the last time we prayed about the money we give to church? Have we grown content with the same offering each week, or do we really recognize how much God has given to us, and how much more we can give back to God?

When was last time we felt transformed by the renewing of our minds? Are we so consumed by the ways of the world that we no longer trust the Lord?

The stories of scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, help to shape the way we live. They are more than just facts and histories, they are the living Word of God’s actions with God’s people. The stories speak greater truths than any news program or TV bulletin, they convey more than any tweet could ever contain, and they provide transformation for the disciples of Jesus Christ.

If we neglect to embrace the stories for the power they contain, then we are cutting down the great trees of tradition in our midst.

As we embark on our third year together I have some goals for our church, both personal and communal:

1) We grow in faithfulness by giving time everyday to God in prayer. This does not mean that we have to start every morning with our hands twisted together and our heads bowed low, but that at least once a day we take a moment to thank God for our blessings. We can do it before a meal, or in our cars on our way to work. How we pray is not as important as praying in the first place. So, we grow in faithfulness by giving time everyday to God in prayer.

2) We grow in attendance by inviting people to discover the love of God. This does not mean that we need to start knocking on doors and trying to convince people to come to St. John’s, but that we open our eyes to what God has done for us and embrace a culture of sharing that kind of love with others. We can do it by inviting our friends to try worship out with us on Sunday morning, or talking with them about what God has shared with us through this place. So, we grow in attendance by inviting people to discover the love of God.

3) We grow in stability by offering our gifts and talents to the Lord. This does not mean that we need to start a capital campaign or initiate a pledge drive, but that we see our lives as gifts and give back so that others can be blessed as well. We can do it by giving more when the offering plate comes around on Sunday morning, or by offering some of our God given talents for the betterment of this church in the kingdom. So, we grow in stability by offering our gifts and talents to the Lord.

According to the ways of the world the church is in a difficult place. We are told that we don’t have enough time to pray every day, we are reminded of the discomfort that comes with trying to invite others to worship, and we are bombarded with the fear about giving money and gifts back to God. But I’m not worried about any of that, and I’m not worried about anything because my hope is not in me, my hope is not in the ways of the world, but my hope is built on nothing less than Jesus Christ.

Christ is the solid rock upon which this church stands, comforting, nurturing, and sustaining us in all we do.

We can believe in the future of our church, we can share the story of the Lord, we can pray with every fiber of our being, we can invite others to experience God’s love, and we can give with glad and generous hearts because our faith is in almighty God!

The Lord is reminding us today, and everyday, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” Amen.

Devotional – Psalm 25.7

Devotional:

Psalm 25.7

Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord! 

Weekly Devotional Image

When I was in seminary Will Willimon used to talk a lot about how strange it was to serve communion to the parishioners of his church when he truly knew what was going on in their lives. He told a story once about how he was asked by the police to help settle a domestic dispute between some of his parishioners. Apparently the couple would have a big brawl and fight every spring and the police were used to the annual fight and debauchery. Will did his best to bring about a calm solution but he was shocked to discover the couple sitting in the pews the following morning, as if nothing happened.

Since the beginning of the church broken families, miserable relationships, and struggling sinners have gathered at the table and received the body and blood of Christ. What became important for Will was the understanding that he was not the one to judge their pasts, but that Christ “invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin, and seek to live in peace with one another.”

bread-and-wine

Some of the most precious conversations I have on a regular basis are with people who have not been to church in a very long time, or they have never entered a church at all; everything is new, exciting, and mysterious. I remember in particular a Sunday evening during college when a number of my friends, including non-church goers, came to support me when I preached at a local church. They listened carefully to the sermon, struggled to sing along with the songs, but when it was time for communion they sat there stunned. I motioned for them to go up to the front, if they felt comfortable, but they looked at me as if they were unworthy. In their faces I could tell that even though they did not fully grasp the significance of the table, they held a respect for it and were worried that the sins of their youth negated their invitation to receive the body and blood. In my life there have been few moments as wonderful as when I was able to look at my friends and tell them that they were invited, that God loved them no matter what they had done, and that God goodness knows no bounds.

It is an incredible thing that God does not judge us by the sins of our youth or the transgressions of our pasts, but remembers us according to God’s steadfast love. As we prepare to take steps into a new week, let us give thanks to the God whose love is beyond all things, to the God who remembers us for who we truly are, to the God whose table is always open.

A Place At The Table – Maundy Thursday Homily on 1 Corinthians 11.23-26

1 Corinthians 11.23-26

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this is remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

BouveretLastSupper

After the worship service ended, a number of us were standing around and enjoying the fellowship when I overheard a grandson talking with his grandfather. The young boy looked puzzled about something when his grandfather finally inquired as to what had happened. “So let me get this straight, when we have communion, everybody is invited?” the boy asked. “Of course” answered the grandfather. “And did the pastor really say that when we do this we are eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood?” The grandfather heisted for a moment but then confirmed the question. The boy stood silently for a moment, when all of the sudden a huge smile broke out on his face and he declared, “being a Christian is awesome!

body-and-blood-mark-jennings

That, my friends, is sound sacramental theology.

How strange is it, when you take a step back, that for the last two thousand years Christians have been regularly gathering around Christ’s table to partake in his body and blood. We are invited up to the altar to consume Christ just as Christ offered himself to the disciples in their last meal together, and as he offered himself on the cross. This really is an awesome thing that we do, because in doing so we remember and act into the life of Christ, committing ourselves to discipleship here and now.

For years I worshipped with a family that could’ve come from a Norman Rockwell painting. They always sat together in church, the kids dutifully listened to the sermons, and they were regarded with respect by nearly everyone in the community. Everything about the family made them seem perfect, particularly when it came to their first born son. Having cerebral palsy meant he was pushed in his chair into the sanctuary every Sunday morning. His parents were responsible for feeding him, clothing him, and changing him. And though he sometimes gathered stares from others in the congregation, to the family, he was just like everyone else.

I used to love seeing them enter church, I loved how they involved all of their children in everything they did, regardless of differences. It wasn’t until years later that I learned why they started attending our church.

They were a military family, and were moved every few years. This meant that whenever they arrived in a new place they had to lay the foundations for new relationships and social connections. After every move they would begin by finding a local church and would start participating in its ministries. They had been attending their church for sometime, creating new bonds with fellow parishioners, when the church had a communion service for the first time in a while. The family, like all the others, gathered in the center aisle and made their way toward the altar. Each child went forward and received the body and blood, but when the father pushed his eldest son forward in his wheel chair the pastor refused to serve the young man communion. “If he cannot understand what this means, I will not serve him,” was the response from the minister. That was enough for the family to never reenter that church ever again.

mixing-chairs-at-dining-table

On Jesus’ final evening with his disciples they gathered in the upper room and shared bread and wine, Jesus’ body and blood. Ironically, this sacramental meal which was intended to celebrate the unity of Christians with their Lord and one another has become the source of such division within the church.

Just imagine for a moment, that final evening the disciples had with one another; they had  come so far together. From their humble beginnings, called from their fishing boats and families in Galilee, these ragtag disciples had followed their Lord all the way to Jerusalem. They were the least likely candidates for the kind of mission that God would accomplish in the world, yet they were the ones called and invited to a new life with Christ. Around that table sat fishermen and  tax collectors, men who had abandoned everything they knew for a life of uncertainty following the light of the world. Even Judas, the one who would betray him in a number of hours was invited to the table and was given the body and the blood.

There is a place at this table for you. 

It does not matter where you’re from, who you are, what you’ve done. It does not matter how strong or weak your faith is. It does not matter whether you understand what happens here or not. Surely the disciples did not understand that first time, or they would not have abandoned their Lord the next day as he mounted the hard wood of the cross. I stand on this side of the table, and not even I completely understand what happens in the Eucharist.

It is truly an awesome thing to share this meal because it is mysterious. Somehow, in gathering together, the Holy Spirit is poured down upon us and these gifts of bread and wine so that they become for us the body and blood of Christ.

But even more mysterious than what happens here at the table, is the fact that people like you and me are invited to it. That regardless of our failures and short-comings, in spite of our desertion of Jesus at different times in our lives, and precisely because of our lack of faith, Jesus meets us here at the table.

I have to agree with my young friend from church; being a Christian is awesome