“Participating in resurrection”

DSCN0097(Christian Courier column, Feb. 22, 2016)

I worship at Bradenton CRC when wintering in Florida. By my standards, it’s a megachurch. Let me tell you how they do Christmas. The huge stage showcases six tastefully-decorated Christmas trees. A gorgeous tablescape displays a massive Advent candelabra and dozens of white poinsettias. Sumptuous wreaths hang on either side of a screen scrolling through a tapestry of seasonal images — like an animated scene with evening snow falling gently on a rustic stable and palm trees. Perhaps not meteorologically faithful to Bethlehem (or Florida), but lovely.

The visually lush interior invites wonder. Now add in musical gifts of professional depth and skill every week. As twinkling lights dapple her instrument, a violinist plays a heavenly version of “What Child is This?” The choir presents a layered and nuanced hymn, “Christ Has Come.” A soloist sings a simple and unaffected “The Lord’s Prayer.” Best of all, on the organ, the “Hallelujah Chorus” as a postlude. I can’t leave the sanctuary. I sit until the last note dies away, transfixed by the organist’s virtuosity.

The music director introduces various parts of the liturgy in synchronized flow with the pastor. No pauses … the service just rolls. The pastor is preaching through John 17, a series about why Christ came to earth. He’s comfortable, adept at using the remote control to seamlessly add or subtract slides in conjunction with his sermon. I like what I’m learning. He says, for example, that the invitation for the disciples to call God “Father” is a new and radical addition to traditional Jewish prayer; in the Old Testament, God was addressed as Father of the nation, but never as an individual’s personal Father. It’s a detail I’ve not heard before.

He’s already preached the same sermon at the 8:30 AM service. Services are arranged this way to accommodate us — the snowbirds. Bradenton CRC deserves praise for its hospitality. The influx of winter visitors could be viewed as an annoying disruption to normal church routines. Instead, we are warmly welcomed by way of friendly greeters, name tags and volunteers who direct traffic flow. The bulletin is clearly designed to assist newcomers. Brochures introduce ways in which snowbirds can become involved in church activities.

Sacrifice of praise

This past year, though, I was home for Christmas, worshipping in my own church. Although the scale of pageantry is not as grand as that of Bradenton CRC, there was plenty to appreciate. Vibrant and celebratory Advent banners, lovingly stitched by one of our own. A luxe Advent candle set, a gift from church members. Evocative powerpoint images carefully selected by a volunteer. Special music provided by those with musical talent. A candlelight service organized by the youth group. The exuberance of Sunday School kids ringing their jingle bells on Christmas morning.

There’s really nothing like worshipping at home. When you have insider knowledge of all that goes on behind-the-scenes to create meaningful worship, you begin to understand that rather odd phrase, a “sacrifice of praise.” The sound guy has managed to wedge in a Thursday evening rehearsal with the praise team while juggling holiday overtime shifts. I’m still having Sunday morning breakfast when some anonymous farmer in his John Deere tractor is clearing the parking lot of snow. The flautist is already there too, warming up, while the custodian is hurriedly throwing salt on the sidewalks.

In an essay entitled “Ambition: Lilies that Fester” author and pastor Eugene Peterson credits another author, Wendell Berry, for schooling him in the priceless value of the homegrown: “… the more local life is, the more intense, more colourful, more rich because it has limits. These limits, instead of being interpreted as limitations to be broken through, are treasured as boundaries to respect.” However small the farm, insists Berry, or however humble the parish, Peterson concurs, it’s a place of inestimable worth.

As I worship in my familiar pew, closer to the front than the back, on the west side of the sanctuary, I tuck Peterson’s conclusion, inspired by Berry, close to my heart, a ringing endorsement, not only of my Wyoming church and Bradenton CRC, but of every faithful Christian fellowship: “The congregation is topsoil – seething with energy and organisms that have incredible capacities for assimilating death and participating in resurrection. The only biblical stance is awe, fear of the Lord. When I see what is before me, really before me, I take off my shoes before the burning bush of congregationalism.”

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Meadowview Talk – August 31, 2014

Our Scripture reading this morning is from the Gospel of John. The story of the Samaritan Woman … John 4: 1-42.

This morning I’d like to delve into the story of the woman at the well and explore what it meant for Jesus to announce himself as the Living Water and Messiah to a Samaritan woman and what that might mean for us today.

It’s a radical, unbelievable act when Jesus asks the Samaritan woman for water. In the context of Jewish tradition, he should not have even asked a Samaritan man for water. Speaking to a Samaritan woman was even worse! Moreover, he initiates this conversation with a Samaritan woman who has a sexually compromised past. The note in my NIV Bible says that Jews held that a woman might be divorced twice, or, at the most, three times. To the Jews, this woman, having had five husbands, was “exceedingly immoral.” And apparently she had not even bothered to marry her current and sixth “husband.”

John writes that the disciples were surprised, flabbergasted, when they discover Jesus talking to a Samaritan woman. John himself seems astonished when he adds this editorial comment — not one of them asked “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?” Obviously there was something about this interaction that permitted no interference or interruption from the disciples.

There is a comical side to this dialogue that escaped me until I was much older. This is one brassy lady. There is nothing submissive in her demeanor. For some reason, I was always given to understand that she was shy, a guilty outcast. I suppose this idea was based on the fact that she was alone and that the noon hour was not the usual time for community women to draw water from the well.

That may be true. It’s likely she was shunned by the women of her village, but I hear no shyness or hesitation in her words. When Jesus asks her for water, her answer is simple and direct. “You are a Jew, I am a Samaritan woman.”  As if to say, “Are you kidding me?” When Jesus responds that if she knew who he was, she would ask him for living water, her retort has a definite sarcastic ring. “Uh, you don’t have a pail, mister. Who do you think you are, anyway? Jacob?”

Jesus persists and claims that the water he gives will well up to eternal life. The Samaritan woman, no slouch, instantly sees a chance here to reduce her workload. “Great! Give me some of that, so that I don’t have to keep coming here every day. I’ve got better things to do.” When Jesus invites her to get her husband, she’s forthright: “I have no husband.”

What follows next is astounding. When Jesus proves that he knows all about her life, the woman drops the sarcasm, and jumps into a serious theological discussion with him about worship! She points out how the Samaritan tradition names Mount Gerizim as the proper place for worship and how the Jews have chosen Jerusalem as the holy place. Jesus tells her that salvation (the Messiah) comes from the Jews, and he points out that the Samaritan religion lacks substance, having only the first five books of the Bible as a guide for their knowledge about God. He predicts, though, that the time is coming when “true worshipers will worship in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” 

In response, the Samaritan woman makes a surprising statement. “I know that the Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” The NIV footnote says that she might have been trying to end the dialogue, hinting that she and this stranger should part ways. But that is not how the text reads to me. It sounds like a confession of faith to me. It sounds like hope. And I think my interpretation of her words is supported by what happens next. Jesus affirms her faith and hope. He reveals himself to her. He announces for the very FIRST time that he is, in fact, the Messiah. He makes this proclamation to an immoral Samaritan woman. That’s a triple! Then he knocks it right out of the ballpark by inviting her to be the first evangelist. She accepts and goes to her town and tells people about Jesus, a whole group of villagers, not just her husband, and many “believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” Her testimony is heard and believed. In a patriarchal first century culture where women were not permitted to be witnesses in court because they were not considered reliable. Her “going and telling” receives the Lord’s blessing. Moreover, Jesus remains in that town for two more days, ministering to the Samaritans, reinforcing her efforts.

An intriguing component to this story is the parallel conversation Jesus has with his disciples. Jesus talks about living water with the woman, and then, while still at the well, brings up the identical issue with his disciples, substituting the metaphor of water with that of food. He says, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” The disciples take him literally, they misunderstand, much like the Samaritan woman also did, and they talk amongst themselves wondering what they’ve missed. “Could someone have brought him food?”

In an impassioned plea that carries a note of rebuke, Jesus says, “I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus the saying, ‘One sows and another reaps,’ is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.”

Who is the reaper harvesting the crop for eternal life?  The usual interpretation says the disciples are the reapers. Jesus is addressing them, so that makes sense. But, wait a minute. Could the reaper not also refer to the Samaritan woman? Yes, maybe. The reaper is referred to as “he”, the wages are “his”, so the reference becomes generalized, and the direct line between the reaper and the Samaritan woman is blurred. But, in the very next verse, as soon as Jesus has completed his parallel speech to the disciples about food, the focus immediately returns to the many Samaritans, clearly part of the “harvest,” who have come to believe in Jesus because of the  witness and labor of the Samaritan woman.

There is no competition here. The Samaritan woman and the disciples are planted side by side. Jesus focuses a bright light on their commonality. Their task is the same: to bring the Living Water and the Bread of Life to sinful, broken, thirsty and hungry people. And, finally, to reap the harvest and rejoice and “be glad together.”

Every Sunday, church services like the one we are having right here and now validate the prophecy of Jesus. God the Father has been seeking worshipers, worshipers who will worship in spirit and truth. Worshipers whose praise is not confined to Mount Gerizim or Jerusalem. They’ve been found, and their voices heard. Their skin is white or black, their hair is sparse and grey, or thick and blond, they live in North America or Uganda.

Now a personal worship story that I hope will tie back to the Samaritan woman … bear with me.

When I was in Florida last winter, I made a habit of attending vespers at our park. On a Sunday night, the main hall is set up for a church service with attendance about 100. You walk in and you’re greeted by nicely-dressed seniors with name tags. You put your donation in a basket. You pick up a hymnbook and sit down. On stage is a plain wooden cross.

One Sunday night I was slumped under a weight of sadness. Back home, here in Ontario, my brother-in-law had been rushed to the hospital. His cancer was spreading. I felt guilty, so far away from my family. Despite my mood, I wanted to go to church. I found a seat, but, preoccupied, I didn’t speak to the lady next to me on the right. On my other side were two empty chairs.

Minutes before the service started, a very old, very shaky, very stooped man tried to sit in one of the seats beside me. He moved precariously. No cane or walker. I worried about the possibility of a hard fall on the tile floor. Behind me arms reached out to steady the two chairs and voices were encouraging him, “You’re almost there. You can do it.” It wasn’t clear which of the two empty seats he wanted. He hovered for what seemed like an eternity. Then, ever so slowly, he folded his frame into the chair beside me. I smiled at him and the service began.

The guest pastor was from a church in Michigan. “Please stand for the opening hymn,” he boomed. Not his first time preaching at a 55+ park, I guess. He knew how to speak up! I was hoping the gentleman beside me would stay seated, but no. Shakily, using the chair in front of him as a support, he rose. I held my breath. At last he was up. It took all his concentration to stand. I shared my hymnbook, leaning in so he could read the words.

He sang beautifully. He knew all the words by heart. This old, old man, for whom every movement required supreme effort, was singing ardently about God’s goodness and grace. And suddenly, though I had expected to be too sad to sing at all — suddenly, I was singing with deep joy and peace. I was holding the hymnbook, but he was holding me up.

The sermon was about Sarah’s laughter at the announcement that she was going to have a child in her old age and God’s emphatic rebuke of her laughter: The Lord can do anything. The Lord is powerful. He has a plan and he will accomplish it. Age doesn’t matter. After the message, a ladies’ choir sang a few numbers. Then the  pastor invited us to sing again. My neighbor rose creakily to his feet, his frame pitched so forward that his nose almost touched the page. “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” we sang.

After the service, I told him that it was fun to sing with him. I asked if he needed any assistance as he prepared to leave. He pointed at one of the choir ladies and said, “That’s my wife. She’ll come and get me.”

I walked home uplifted. This elderly gentleman had ministered to me without his even knowing it. And how does this relate to the Samaritan woman? It’s about the Messiah coming “to us, to all of us.” Age doesn’t matter. Whether you are a woman or a man doesn’t matter. Whether you are Jewish or Samaritan or Canadian doesn’t matter. Paul says in Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” What matters is Christ Jesus, the Messiah, the Living Water, the Bread of Life. What matters is the power in the Name of Jesus to redeem us all.

I encourage you to just keep believing and showing you believe. By coming here to church, by reading your Bible, by giving your offerings, by maintaining a cheerful and patient outlook in your daily routines. You might be uplifting someone without even knowing it.