Worthless

Jeremiah 2.4-13

Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. Thus says the Lord: What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves? They did not say, “Where is the Lord who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and puts, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that no one passes through, where no one lives?” I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination. The priests did not say, “Where is the Lord?” Those who handle the law did not know me; the rulers transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal, and went after things that do not profit. Therefore once more I accuse you, says the Lord, and I accuse your children’s children. Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look, send to Cedar and examine with care; see if there has ever been such a thing. Has a nation changed it gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord, for my people have committed to evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out sisters for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.

One year my elementary school got the bright idea for a new program to help keep the tomfoolery down in the cafeteria. We were, as most kids are, fine in the classroom, but the minute we were allowed to mingle with friends in other classes, everything went crazy. 

So the teachers would yell, and separate certain students from others, but it never really worked. And then the front office got an epiphany… The three flowers.

One day, in the middle of every table, stood a small little vase and inside each vase were three fake flowers. The idea was that if the table became too rambunctious, a teacher or administrator would come over and remove one flower – the first warning. And, if sort of worked, the fear of losing the other two would inevitably lead most of us to quiet down and focus on our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But then someone would put their hand over the armpit and start making the sounds of flatulence, or someone would purposely spill milk out of their nose and then flower number two would disappear.

For most that was enough. With two flowers missing a table would eat in miserable silence waiting for the lunch period to end.

We knew the punishments for losing all three flowers: There was the possibility of extra homework, the loss of recess, and the most dreaded of all, a phone call to our parents.

So having lost two flowers, we would get our acts together and instantly mature right on the spot.

Except for one day. Because on that particular day, having already lost two flowers, one of my best friends stuck his spoon into his chocolate pudding, and rather than bringing it to his mouth, he started to arc it back with his other hands and he shot the brown blob across the table directly at the girls.

Time suspended for a moment as the entire table watched the pudding reject the laws of physics and fly in slow motion until it landed directly in the middle of the forehead of the prettiest girl in our class.

And immediately, our table and the tables around us erupted in cacophonous laughter until the cafeteria lady, as we called her, slowly sauntered over and withdrew our final remaining flower.

Our hearts sank knowing that the worst thing in the world had just taken place and our imaginations began to run wild with whatever punishment was coming our way. The cafeteria lady quickly wrote down all of our names on a piece of paper, and then she handed it to me. She said, “Lunch is about to end, and when it does, you are to take this to the office, the principal will be calling each of your parents to tell them what you did today.”

The remaining minutes were agonizing and we refused to look each other in the eyes, and when I picked up my tray to deposit my trash the lunch lady came over a final time and said, “And don’t get any funny ideas like throwing away the piece of paper before you go to the office.”

Why did she plant such a seed of mischief in mind? I will never know. 

But that’s exactly what I did.

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No wants likes getting in trouble. It’s not the trouble we mind, but its getting caught that makes all the difference. If we can avoid it, we do everything we can to avoid indictment. And then we read a scripture like the one from Jeremiah and we squirm in our pews. We squirm, precisely because it makes us uncomfortable. 

Jeremiah’s condemnation resonates with us in ways we’d care not to admit. Each of us, in our own time, can take a good hard look in the mirror and catch glimpses of our own waywardness, or lifestyle choices, or foolish decisions and know that the word from the Lord is true. 

We do the things we know we shouldn’t, and we avoid doing the things we know we should do.

Or, to put it like Isaiah puts it: People who pursue worthless things become worthless themselves.

Ouch.

The people of God during the time of Jeremiah were a people of foolish wastefulness. They had been given everything they needed: plentiful land to eat its fruits. But for them it was never enough. And, to make matters worse, it wasn’t just the people, it was the priests too. They all went off in search of the illusive “more” and they came back empty handed.

The desire in the hearts and minds and souls and bodies was so blinding that they had forgotten who they were and the story of God’s deliverance.

Which is why Jeremiah speaks of their water and their cracked cisterns. The people of Jerusalem are dying of thirst, both literally and spiritually. The faithlessness of God’s people had delivered the Babylonians to their door steps and their aid and supplies had been cut off. The cisterns scattered throughout the city are literally drying out leading to cracks and the water has stopped.

But it’s more than just the literal water that’s missing. Jeremiah has eyes to see and a word from the Lord to preach that they have lost the living water of God. Not because it dried up and disappeared, but because the people made their own cisterns and bottled their own understanding of enough instead of relying on God.

The people have lost their story. They have forgotten that God, their God, had delivered them from captivity in Egypt to the new and beautiful Promised Land, God had been faithful to the covenant struck with Abraham, but the people had listened to another song, they had followed their own thoughts and desires, and now, they are accused.

And not just them, but their children’s children!

Over and over again throughout the Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments, Israel knows itself as the people delivered by God. And still today, we are a people delivered by God from the tyranny of another sort, not from a Pharaoh in a far away land, but from the reign of sin and death. And its because we know the story of what God did that we can live fully and faithfully today.

We are the stories we tell.

It’s true. Just think about what’s important to you or to your family. Whatever the thing is, there’s probably a story that helps bring the object to light. Narratives shape the world around us and give us the means by which we can understand who we are and, in the church, whose we are.

And even though we know that we’re the stories we tell, more often than not we act like we are the things we possess. We value ourselves on the clothes we wear, the car we drive, the home we own. And all of those things are worthless. They can blow away with the wind. 

Is there a shirt that can make us happy?

Is there a car that can fix our marriage?

What good is a perfect house when you run out of water?

So Jeremiah lambasts the people of God, and even us all these centuries later. Why have you forgotten what God did for you? Why are you rushing after things that cannot bring you life? Why have you dug your own cisterns when God is the one with the living water?

And here’s the deal: Jeremiah, bless his heart, we can see what he’s going for. He’s not simply trying to make the people feel bad about themselves, he says what he says so that they can change. The prophet wants everyone to tune their hearts back to God’s frequency. 

But it’s not going to work.

Literally, it doesn’t, things just get worse for the nation Israel as she refuses to listen and continues to dig her own cisterns.

But it was never going to work out anyway.

The more prophets prophesy about the need to change, the more preachers preach about the need to change, the more things largely stay the same.

No one goes to an AA meeting because their spouse nags them to go. No child jumps at the opportunity to do their homework because their parents yelled at them to do so. 

Just think about the last time someone tried to fix you… Did it work?

Just think about the last time you listened to a sermon that told you all the things you needed to do to fix your life… Did you and did it work?

Thats the kicker about preaching – people don’t change because we tell them to repent, nor do we change because someone told us to. 

It’s infuriating, but we all have to come to our solutions on our own. Sure, we can do our due diligence and show people the door, but we can’t push anyone through it. But even that is a long shot in terms of transformation.

We like to talk about how the world is changing, how we can barely keep up with it all, and part of the reason it feels like the world is spinning out of control is because we all stay the same. We are creatures of habit and when we find a routine that seems to work we stick with it, even if the routine is a denial of God’s living water provided to us for nothing.

We’ve got the crooked and broken notion that we’ve got to dig our own wells to get what God has already given to us.

What Jeremiah points at in his indictment, the thing we almost always miss, is that this is exactly the thing he was criticizing. It’s not just that God’s people needed to be better, though it wouldn’t have hurt, the problem was they were so convinced that they could do everything they needed on their own when they couldn’t do much of anything. 

We are all works in progress – that’s absolutely the truth. And yet, this incessant desire to change others usually makes things worse.

Should we stop trying? Of course not. The point isn’t to give up, but to realize that we all need help outside of ourselves and even outside of the people closest to us. We need a savior. We need living water that will never ever run dry. We need the bread and the cup. 

We can’t do all of this on our own.

So thanks be to God, who through Jesus Christ has made us his own. Amen.

Devotional – Psalm 31.5

Devotional:

Psalm 31.5

Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.

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It is such a blessing to work for a church with a preschool because I get to interact with children who are beginning to learn about God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This takes place weekly during chapel time in the sanctuary as I help to share stories from the bible with the kids, and it also takes place on special occasions like when we celebrate communion together and when we talk about the waters of baptism. Our preschool represents a great diversity of families and religious convictions (including a few kids whose mother or father is the pastor of a different church) so I have to make sure that whenever we talk about scripture I’m not doing it in such a way that it will undermine what a child has been taught at his/her home church.

Over the last few years we’ve had two brothers attend the preschool whose mother is the pastor of another United Methodist Church in town. Pastor Sarah and I are very close and I’ve greatly enjoyed talking with her boys about the bible because they know it so well (though it has made chapel time sessions a challenge since they are forever answering the questions before the other kids get a chance). Her boys, Charlie and Jed, are what I hope my son, Elijah, will be like as he grows up.

Months ago I was having a conversation with Sarah at a clergy event when she shared with me that her boys were not baptized as infants and that they had recently decided to commit their lives to Jesus AND that they wanted me to participate in their baptisms. To be asked by another clergy person to take part in her children’s baptism is quite unlike anything I’ve ever been blessed to do in my life.

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And so yesterday afternoon, Sarah’s family and friends gathered together with her boys by a river just outside of Staunton for their baptism. I offered a little homily to reflect on how God has already moved in and through their lives and then it was time to go to the water. The river was moving at a good pace and was so cold that I was worried if the boys slowly walked out into the water they would have high-tailed it in the other direction, so one-by-one I carried Sarah’s sons over the water and together she and I baptized them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

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For what it’s worth: the Spirit got a hold of them real quick and they were both screaming as they came out of the water!

 

Being there are the water’s edge, and then in the middle of the river for the baptism, was one of the holiest experiences I’ve had in a long time. And when I looked at Jed and Charlie, when I saw their utter dedication to what they were about to do (even with the water as cold as it was), and I was reminded of Psalm 31.5: “Into your hand I commit my spirit.” Jed and Charlie made a choice yesterday afternoon to offer their lives to Christ, something that most of us have done whether we made the choice or someone made it for us. And today I am grateful that I was there to participate because their faithfulness has challenged me to be more faithful like them.

If You Knew… – Sermon on John 4.5-15

John 4.5-15
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 Samaritans.) 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 living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I give them will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

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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 living water.”

In the heat of the day, with the sun held straight above, Jesus was resting by a well. He was tired from his recent journey, traveling around Galilee healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and now here he was, sweating under the sun in the middle of Samaria. He had sent his disciples into the local city of Sychar to procure some food and was enjoying some “me-time” by the well when a woman appeared.

Now, you might not know this, but Jesus definitely did; nobody goes to the well at noon. Its too hot out around lunch time when the sun strikes the ground. Most people went either in the cool of the evening of the cool of the morning. At those times the local wells were bustling with women, gossiping about the coming and goings in town, while taking care of retrieving water and washing clothes.

So, at this most bizarre time, a Samaritan woman made her way to the well where Jesus was resting. “Give me a drink” Jesus asked. But the Samaritan woman replied, “Why are you, a Jew, asking me, a woman from Samaria, for something to drink.” You see, at the time Jews did not share anything in common with the Samaritans, let alone using the same cup or even really speaking to one another. Jesus replied, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

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The woman pondered this for a moment and then said, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water. Are you greater than Jacob, who gave us this well, and his sons and animals that drank from it?” Sensing that she was missing the point Jesus tried again to explain, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I give them will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

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Believing that she finally understood what this strange bearded man was saying, the woman said to him, “Sir, give me some of that water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to drink water.”

Sometimes, no matter how much explaining, no matter how many metaphors you use, no matter how many illustrations, people will not get the point. During the heat of the day, that strange time to draw water, Jesus revealed the depth of his ministry to this unnamed woman and she doesn’t get it. Jesus’ words “If you knew…” are perfect for describing the situation. If she knew who she was talking to, if only she knew what living water was, If she knew then she would have understood. But living water is not necessarily an easy thing to grasp.

I love this story. Its filled with so many wonderful details that could each become their own sermons. For instance, I love the fact that Jesus was tired. Many of us are tired within our lives. A tired Christ therefore must understand what its like to feel this way, as no one else ever could, Jesus could perceive the struggle in the woman by the well just like he knows our struggles. In that small, seemingly insignificant detail we discover that Christ is with us, because he is like us. Its Christ’s humanity that brings him down to us, and in his divinity that we are brought to him.

Another detail: The woman approaches Jesus, but he makes the first step that opens this great story: “Give me a drink.” There is no shadow of a doubt that what draws most people to Jesus is not so much what he gives us as what he asks. We are moved and drawn toward Christ because he looks on us to help, offering us a share in this thing called the kingdom of God. So the unnamed woman is reeled in with this simple request.

Another detail: After a short debate about the historical prohibitions about a Jew and Samaritan interacting with one another, Jesus declares and offers his “living-water,” Though he repeats his description numerous times, the woman misunderstands. How often are we presented with an aspect of the Gospel, perhaps for our entire lives, and we still never really understand what its all about?

So, what is the point of the story? Is there one? Are we supposed to walk away from this feeling Christ’s living water gushing up from within us? Are we supposed to offer Christ’s living water to our friends and family?

In many ways, the focus of the narrative rests in the fact that Jesus, as a Jew, is in enemy territory. The most substantial detail is in the fact that he offers the living water to the least likely of persons: female, Samaritan, we discover later that she was a frequent object of the men in town, the focus of gossip, and isolated from everyone else. It was to the least of these that Jesus attempts to reconcile the divided nations of Samaria and Israel.

One of my professors loved to tell a story about his roommate from college. They were going to school in South Carolina during the height of the Civil Rights movement when my professor’s friend decided to travel to Washington DC in order to participate in a Civil Rights March. Upon returning back to school, the friend relayed what had happened during the trip:

He described that everything was about as normal as you could imagine. he arrived, met up with the people he needed to, marched where he was supposed to, handed out flyers. By the time it was over he was exhausted while waiting for his plane to bring him home. As he sauntered onto the airplane, he sat down in my seat and, you’ll never believe this, he was sitting next to Martin Luther King Jr.
It was the craziest thing. He had gone all the way to DC and here he was, sitting on an airplane, next to his hero.

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“So,” my professor asked, “what happened?!” Well, he got so nervous, and he was sweating, and fidgeting, and rehearsing what he might say, but there was a small problem: Martin Luther King Jr. was asleep. I mean what was he going to do? Wake up the leader of the Civil Rights movement? So he just waited, sitting there, staring at him, watching him sleep. After the flight had nearly reached its destination, he finally opened his eyes. “Dr. King I don’t know what to say. You are my hero. I just traveled all the way to DC to help march for Civil Rights, you are such an inspiration, I am so impressed with…” “Thank you. God Bless.” he interrupted, seemingly ending the conversation. But the young man was undeterred. “Dr. King you don’t understand, you have changed my life, you have opened my eyes to the many opportunities that are not available to others… “I appreciate your kind words son.” Dr King interrupted again. However he was was not finished, “Dr. King, you don’t understand. My father is a racist. I left home because of him and his prejudice. He offered to pay for my college, but I have cut all ties with him. We have not exchanged a word in years because of his racial bigotry.” At this point Dr. King’s eyes widened, he turned his body to face this young college student and he reached out and grabbed him by the collar, “You have got to love your father. Whether he’s racist or not, loving him is the only thing you can do.” And with that he let go, closed his eyes, and promptly fell back asleep. It was at that moment that my professor’s roommate realized that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. really was a prophet, beyond all expectation and assumption.

Woman at the Well

In the story of the woman at the well, Jesus began to reconcile a very old, and very real division between the Jews and the Samaritans. The whole story is about religious tensions and a church which sought to overcome them in the first few centuries. Though portrayed as a simple interaction between two individuals at a well under the heat of the sun, the narrative has major religious implications for us, even today. Just like with Nicodemus, the conversations points to something great and profound that will change the way that we interact in the world.

The gospel, in all its magnificence, is incarnational in its ability to use everyday realities to convey a deeper sense of the divine.

But here’s the problem: when we confront a text such as this we tend to think of it it in large grandiose terms; Jesus reconciled the Jews and Samaritans. There is no church unfamiliar with ancient and large divisions within people: Catholic and Protestant, Jew and Christian, Faithful and Faithless. But, like the man on the airplane learned, sometimes the reconciliation needs to occur much closer to home. 

When Jesus met the woman at the well, he offered the beginning of a new life to the least likely of candidates. Before him stood an unnamed woman, a Samaritan, a polygamist, a focus of gossip, and a isolated individual. The first reconciliation did not take place at a theological council, or a political rally, but it happened face-to-face.

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I would venture to guess, that in all of our lives we have “a woman at the well.” He or she might not be as obvious as the character in our narrative today, but we all know someone who has been ostracized from the group. Whether its that kid that everyone else makes fun of at school, or that politically opposed neighbor you have living down the street, or maybe its someone within your own family. Its sad considering how easy it is for us to cut ties with people around us as if their hearts and souls were just another commodity for us to examine, purchase, and then throw away.

Martin Luther King Jr. sat on a plane next to a young college student and reminded him that the truest forms of Christian living happen at home, within our own families and friends.

Jesus, our Savior, sat at the well and in the simplest of conversations help to re-establish a woman’s life. With simple questions and the beginning of a friendly relationship he gave her the kind of identity that she had lost in her life. He provided her with one of the greatest gifts the world has ever known: he gave her a sense of worth.

“If you knew” was Jesus’ great rebuttal to her ignorant question. How much of our lives are wasted and could be reignited by that little phrase? If you knew that man who stands on the corner every Tuesday morning has nobody else in the world and needs a friend; If you knew that in your own family there is someone who has lost their identity and needs to rediscover a sense of worth; If you knew that your son or daughter wants to reconnect even if you don’t; If you knew that the stranger asking for a drink was actually Jesus; would you do it?

Jesus calls us to love one another. Not just the people we worship with, not just the people who make us feel comfortable, but the last the least, and the lost. Where is the woman at the well in your life? How will you greet her the next time you meet?
Amen.