“…so that you may discern what is good…” | August 27

Texts: Exodus 1:8-14; Romans 12:1-8

After our Twelve Hymns series, and last week’s anniversary celebration, we are finally back on the lectionary.  The lectionary provides us with a set of readings from scripture each week.  We join Protestant and Catholics in reflecting on the same readings.  We won’t stick with the lectionary every week starting now, but it’s a home base.

Romans 12 and the opening story of Exodus are two of today’s readings.  We’re bringing our own angle.  Today marks the beginning of our First Fruits pledging process, when all of us are invited to consider how we contribute financially to the mission of this congregation.  So we’re calling this Stewardship Sunday.  If the word “Stewardship” doesn’t work for you, we could call it “Jesus-talked-a-whole-lot-about-economics-and-money-and-we-should-too-so-it’s-more-about-a-way-of-life-than-a-single-Sunday Sunday.”

Romans 12:2 “Do not be conformed to the pattern of 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 pleasing and whole.”

There are some passages in the Bible where you almost have to be a cultural anthropologist to understand what’s going on.  Research the setting, parse the language, scan the context for clues.  This isn’t one of those passages.  What Paul wrote to the Romans a couple thousand years ago could have been written directly to us today.

Richard Rohr has offered an updated translation for what shows up here as “world.”  He suggests plugging in the word “system” to get at what the various New Testament writers mean when they talk in this way.

So with that gloss, here’s how these words read: “Do not be conformed to the system, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and pleasing, and whole.”

From an economic angle, it ought to take very little convincing to acknowledge we are deeply embedded in a system that affects just about every aspect of our lives.  It is global in reach and personal in its effects.  The economic system of which we are a part has done amazing things like put clothes in our closets and a smart phone in the pocket of those clothes.  In the last 25 years it has, according to the World Bank, lifted 1.3 billion people out of extreme poverty.  That’s pretty remarkable.  It has no doubt enlarged the pie from which we all feast.  It’s also responsible for mountain top removal, displacement of entire people groups, and massive wealth disparity.

We know this.  We try to be aware that we vote every day with the dollars we spend.

Wendell Berry is one of the harshest critics of our economic system.  He urges anyone who will listen to think of it as the “little economy.”  The Great Economy is the “all-encompassing and integrated system” of the natural world.  To use a theological term – The Great Economy is Creation.  The little economy is utterly dependent on the Great Economy.  He writes that the problem is the system we’ve created “does not see itself as the little economy.  It sees itself as the only economy…The industrial economy is based on invasion and pillage of the Great Economy” (Quoted in The Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics, by Ched Myers, p. 17).

For more of a takedown on the industrial economic system, see just about anything Wendell Berry has written.

For a pre-industrial take down, try the book of Exodus.

After Genesis lays out the Great Economy of Creation, characterized by goodness and abundance, Exodus follows it up with a narrative about the brokenness of the little economy.

Exodus begins by listing the children of Jacob, also named Israel.  They are three generations removed from Abraham and Sarah, and have settled in the land of Egypt.  Egypt had served as a place of refuge for them.  Thanks to the foresight and shrewd management of their brother Joseph, who had risen to power as Pharaoh’s right hand man, Egypt had stores of food during an extended famine.  When all the neighboring lands ran out, people flocked to Egypt to care for their families – to eat, and stay alive.  The Israelites among them.  They are invited by Joseph to stay in Egypt, which they do.  But that generation dies off, and a new Pharaoh comes to power who did not know Joseph.

In the words of Exodus, the Israelites “were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong; so that the land was filled with them.”  The new Pharaoh sees in these migrants and foreigners both a threat and an opportunity.  He creates a public works jobs program, otherwise known as forced labor, otherwise known as slavery.  The Israelites build entire cities for Pharaoh.  Exodus names two of them: Pithom and Rameses.  Entire cities.  When they keep multiplying and the demographic shift continues, the Egyptians treat them even harsher.  Eventually the Israelites not only have to make bricks for the construction projects, they have to go out and find their own straw to put in the bricks.  This is life in Pharaoh’s economy.

Exodus, and much of the biblical narrative, is told from the perspective of those on the underside of the system.  Those who make it tick but receive very little of the benefits.

When Pharaoh’s officials put out their glowing quarterly reports that brick production is up, and the costs of inputs are down, the Israelites aren’t buying it as gospel.  They were the inputs.

Last week’s sermon talked some about the importance of origin stories.  Like the foundational goodness of creation, Genesis 1.  Like Jesus offering bread and wine as his own body and life-blood to his followers.  Life this congregation choosing from the very beginning to affiliate with two historically separate Mennonite groups and be a living bridge.  Like this Exodus story, which serves as an origins story for the people of Israel.  It is this memory of having been enslaved, of having been delivered from slavery, and given their own agency in how they relate to each other as neighbors, that is to inform how they go about their lives, with economics being front and center.

The ten commandments, and much of the Torah, present an alternative economics to the ways of Pharaoh.  We see practices such as Sabbath-keeping, when humans, animals, and even land is given regular rest, freed from the never ending demands of labor, to be restored.  The practice of Jubilee was a redistribution of land and wealth every 50 years.  We also get the practices of First Fruits and the Tithe.  The people were to bring the first and best of the harvest and present them before the Lord.  A First Fruits offering.  The purpose of the first fruits offering was not to have it go up in smoke, as if to feed a hungry deity.  Instead, as Deuteronomy 26 instructs: “You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God.  Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

First fruits were to be enjoyed, and shared, with those who didn’t have land of their own, Levites and “resident aliens.”  The same with the yearly tithe.  Tithe simply means tenth.  Ten percent of one’s annual income, usually in the form of a physical harvest, was to be dedicated and shared.  And, as Deuteronomy 14 says, “Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe, tenth, of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance (land) with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns (those who don’t have the means of production), may come and eat their fill so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.”

The memory of having been resident aliens in Egypt, enslaved and robbed of the fruits of their labor, prompts the creation of an alternative economics in which there is enough for everyone.  First Fruits, and the tithe, the tenth, are a big part of this program.  Who says the Hebrew Bible isn’t filled with grace and mercy?

According to the book of Acts, chapters 2 and 4, a sub-group of the early church took these practices even further, letting go all together of percentages of income, holding everything in common, selling land and houses whenever anyone was in need and distributing the proceeds.  Selling off all your assets doesn’t sound like a good long term budget strategy, but it met a present need and shaped a community.

When Paul writes to those little groups of believers in Rome, he follows up “Do not be conformed to the system” with “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”  One of the most powerful ways “the system” works on us is that it limits our imaginations.  We are unable to even picture how it might be different, how it could be another way.  It takes soul work, the renewing of our minds, to begin to see and then enact an economics of abundance and generosity and enough-ness.

“Be transformed by the renewing of your minds…so that you may be able to discern what is the will of God, what is good, what is pleasing, what is whole.”

The work of keeping the little economy in service to the Great Economy, involves the renewing of our minds, and ultimately involves the continual act of discernment…. “so that you may be able to discern…what is good.”  As is often the case, the “you” here is plural.  Discernment is a collective act.

What’s this going to look like?  How can we be in the system but not of the system?   Or, as Mary Oliver poses the question “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” (The Summer Day)

This is the point where I needed to change the ending – yesterday – in order to acknowledge what’s in front of us today.  Originally, I was going to try to walk that razor’s edge of not sounding too sales pitchy, but still swing this back to our First Fruits pledge process for supporting the mission of this congregation, which of course includes paying our electric bills and giving money to Central District Conference, etc.  Pete and Metz will have a bit more to say about First Fruits when I’m done.

What I didn’t anticipate earlier in the week is that we would have a very specific practice in front of us today for which we need to be discerning what is good.  It has everything to do with stewardship, although less about money and more about stewardship of this building and our time and energy.  It also has quite a bit to do with that Exodus story, especially the treatment of migrants.  And the system.

What we need to discern over the next few days is whether we are willing, with this very short notice, to provide significant support for a Columbus immigrant woman, who is in the final stages of the deportation process.  The meeting after worship will go into more details about her story, and what kind of commitment is being requested of us, but I want to tie this into our worship and reflection on Exodus and Romans and stewardship simply by saying this is real stuff.  Stories like Exodus, of people crossing borders to do what’s best for their families, and getting mistreated, and getting caught up in a system that does great harm, are still lived realities.  There are still communities seeking another way: like ancient Israel, and the early church, and the 16th century Anabaptists, and communities of goodwill all over the world today.

I’m grateful for how this congregation has done good discernment work in the past, and I trust that the Spirit is with us as we prayerfully discern this week how to respond to this situation, and, however we respond, how to increase our solidarity with local immigrants.

I’ll end with the first two verses of Romans chapter 12:  “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 reasonable act of worship.  Do not be conformed to the system, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and pleasing and whole.”

 

 

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Fierce love | Mother’s Day | 8 May 2016

Text: Exodus 1:8-22

 

A week and a half ago Geneva Reed-Veal spoke at the Library of Congress.  She was addressing the newly formed Congressional Caucus on black women and girls.  Her speech lasted about four and a half minutes.  She began: “I don’t have a big long statement to read. What I’m going to say to you is that I’m here representing the mothers who are not heard, I am here representing the mothers who have lost children as we go on about our daily lives.”

Geneva Reed-Veal is the mother of Sandra Bland, the 28 year woman stopped by a police man in July of last year for a failure to signal a lane change.  Bland had verbally challenged the cop for pulling her over, the confrontation escalated, and he arrested her.  She was found hanged in a jail cell three days later.  The official cause of her death was ruled a suicide.

Sandra Bland’s story made national news, but in her talk Geneva Reed-Veal asked for a show of hands for who could name the other six women who died in custody in jail in the US that same month, July 2015.  Nobody raised their hands.  I couldn’t have either.

Reed-Veal’s response: “That is a problem. You all are among the walking dead, and I am so glad that I have come out from among you. I heard about Trayvon, I heard about all the shootings, and it did not bother me until it hit my daughter. I was walking dead just like you until Sandra Bland died in a jail cell in Texas.”

On this Mother’s Day, Sandra Bland’s mother has declared that I, and probably most of us here, are “walking dead.”  Alive, but unaware.

This winter and spring I’ve been part of a Sunday school class that’s been studying the first half of the biblical book of Exodus.  I chose today’s reading having been inspired from the lively discussions in that class.

Exodus tells the story of the children of Jacob, who is also named Israel.  Exodus picks up where Genesis leaves off, with the Israelites as new arrivals in Egypt.  Jacob and his wives and all their children and grandchildren have moved together to join Joseph, the son Jacob thought was dead, but who had risen to prominence in Egypt and invites his whole extended family to join him.

Exodus begins with a generational turnover, including the Pharaoh who was favorable to the foreigner Joseph.  Exodus famously states, “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”

The Israelites prosper in Egypt.  They have big families.  This new Pharaoh senses the demographics of his empire shifting under his feet.  He is fearful that these foreigners will become too powerful.  He has a plan.  He sets taskmasters over the Israelites, conscripting them into forced labor.  When they keep growing in numbers, the taskmasters become more ruthless, the labor harsher.  But Pharaoh knows this won’t be enough.  In order to achieve his goal, he must strike at the heart of the problem.

Pharaoh must disrupt motherhood.

It’s a brutal plan.  He calls in the Hebrew midwives and gives them a simple command.  When you deliver the babies of the Hebrews, the Israelites, let the girls live, but kill all the boys.  In a patriarchal world, the death of future male heads of household equated to the death of a nation.  In the time of Jesus, a similar, more geographically focused, command went out from Herod, when he heard that the Jewish Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem.

These midwives become key early characters in the story of Exodus, and they are the first people in this new story to be named.  Not even the king of Egypt gets named, Pharaoh being just a title meaning “the big house,” similar to how might use “the white house.”  But the midwives have names.

One was named Shiphrah and the other was named Puah.  And there’s only two of them, so they must have been really busy, because these Hebrews are having a bunch of babies.

Shiphrah and Puah suddenly hold within their power the fate of an entire people.  They are not themselves mothers, at least not yet, but they are, in a sense, guardians of motherhood.

Along with being Mother’s Day, today is Easter 7 on the liturgical calendar, the last Sunday of the Easter season.  Which means we’re still talking about conversions.  Geneva Reed-Veal voiced her own conversion at the Library of Congress, challenging others to wake up with her.  I wonder at what point Shiphrah and Puah had their conversion, making the decision that they would honor the motherhood of the Hebrews over the commands of Pharaoh.  I’ve read that their refusal to kill the Hebrew boys is the first recorded act of civil disobedience.  If you know of an older reference, I’d love to hear it.  They are the matriarchs of conscience objectors everywhere.

I wonder what kind of conversions motherhood provides.  And when I say, “I wonder what kind of conversions motherhood provides,” I mean that I actually do wonder, since I am not, never have been, and never will be a mother.  One comparison I can make in my own experience was expressed well by Bono, the lead singer of U2.  He once said that he used to think that fatherhood would mellow him out, but instead it made him even more fired up about the injustices in the world.

One of the things I find especially appealing about the story of the Hebrew midwives is how seamlessly they go between the gentleness and warmth of welcoming children into the world, and the more confrontational conversation with the powerful Pharaoh – from the small dwellings to ‘the Big House.’  I love how the simple deed of holding and protecting a child is celebrated as act of rebellion against the ways of Pharaoh, and thus, an act of faithfulness to God.  Had Pharaoh any wits about him he would have been just as suspicious of those baby girls as he was of those baby boys.  Nothing brings down an empire like independently minded women who have problems with authority.

Yesterday we had a funeral for Anita Chapman.  You’ll notice signs of her presence still here this morning.  After Anita’s parents died, they entrusted their daughter to the care of this congregation.  In many ways, this congregation became like a mother and a father to Anita.  And I suggest those decades of motherhood led to a gentle conversion of Columbus Mennonite.

I shared this yesterday, but want to repeat it here to make connections with today’s worship.

As I was looking through a collection of documents we have in the office, I came across an article from the November 10, 1992 edition of The Mennonite magazine.  It was written by CMCer Nancy Franke, describing the relationship that the congregation had with Anita.  Toward the end of the article it said this: “She has lost both parents, experienced repeated staff turnover and seen close church friends leave.  So she looks for assurance that there will always be someone there for her at church.  The congregation is not capable of providing the kind of professional support and daily guidance that Anita needs, but its members provide a solid anchor of love to which she can cling.  The congregation is often tested and still learning in this regard, but its members are fulfilling the trust her parents placed in them.”

“Tested, and still learning” sounds something like a mantra of motherhood, what conversion looks like on a daily basis.

On one of my first Sundays here as pastor, about three years ago, Anita stood up and asked that her song be sung.  As the congregation started right in, without further prompting and without script, I felt a sense of being welcomed onto holy ground.  More than simply a case of someone making a request, it was clear to me, still a newcomer in this space, that this Anita’s way of expressing herself, borrowing the voices of the congregation to amplify her own voice.  And it was also the congregation’s way of affirming and amplifying the gift that Anita was to the community.  It was a beautiful thing to walk into, and witness.

These relationships change us, and convert us toward love.  Sometimes that love looks like holding and protecting a child, or walking alongside a person with special needs, and sometimes it looks like advocating in the public sphere for those you love.

I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight that tomorrow evening is one of the primary ways our congregation does the latter, advocates in the public sphere for those we love, those we are choosing to be in solidarity with.  Jon Lucas already gave an invitation to the BREAD Nehemiah Action, but let me just add that this is our way of joining together in the spirit of Shiphrah and Puah with people of faith across Franklin County.  I can guarantee there will be mothers there who are living the same reality as Geneva Reed-Veal.  As a congregation that has chosen to focus on Black Lives Matter and make the journey toward antiracism, BREAD really is one of the key ways that we do concrete advocacy work in our community.  And tomorrow’s Nehemiah Action is the big BREAD event of the year, when Shiphrah and Puah go round up all their friends and have a big shindig at the Ohio State fairgrounds.  We would love to have 100 of us Mighty Mennos show up.  Consider it an extended opportunity to celebrate and honor Mother’s Day.

Even if you can’t attend tomorrow, let me end with this plea, to mothers, and anyone who considers themselves a midwife of the new creation, helping to birth love and justice into the world.  We need your fierce love.  What you are doing is God’s work.  I need women to call me out when I blindly use power in a way that disempowers rather than empowers others.  Even that phrase “call me out” isn’t sufficient.  At the racial justice event at First Unitarian Universalism in April the female organizer of the event, a First UU pastor, encouraged us drop the phrase “calling someone out” and change it to “calling someone in.”  Even harsh words of rebuke can be an invitation into a new way of relating together, rather than an excommunication.

Mothers, midwives, we need you to call us in to a new way of relating together.  Deliver us from the walking dead.  Teach us what you know.  You are images of our Mothering God, who calls her children toward her wide embrace.

You…and your cattle | Lent 3 | 8 March 2015

Texts: Exodus 20:8-11; John 2: 13-22

If you ever want to see an aurochs, you’ll have to go to a museum.  When you do, you’ll be looking at a set of assembled bones.

If you’re extremely fortunate, or have some amazing connections, you could witness depictions of the aurochs on the cave walls of Lascaux, France, a gift from ancient artists, accidently discovered 75 years ago by four teenage boys, preserved for almost 20,000 years.

LascauxBull

But hardly anyone’s allowed in there anymore, too much humidity and light.  A more likely opportunity would be to watch the stunning documentary from Werner Herzog, “Cave of forgotten dreams,” which gives rare video footage of these kinds of paintings.

The aurochs once had a range across Europe and Asia and North Africa, that stretched from the western most parts of present day Portugal and Spain to the East coast of China and the Koreas.  At some point, the story of the aurochs and story of the human intersected and merged.  Aurochs became a reliable source of meat for hunters, a source of inspiration for artists.  About 8-10,000 years ago, in at least two separate locations, India and the Near East, people began selecting the traits of aurochs that they found most useful, forming an even tighter bond of interdependence with this creature.

The aurochs is the ancestor of domesticated cattle – minor and intentional changes over generations resulting in the different breeds of cows we have now.  Open your refrigerator and you’ll likely encounter many products for which you can thank the aurochs.  That gallon of milk.  All that cheese without which none of our children would have survived toddlerhood.  Yogurt, butter, cream, sour cream, and, of course, beef.  And, in the freezer, ice cream.  Thank you aurochs.  Even if you’re a vegan, the ghost of the aurochs still looms large all around you.  Drive a few miles outside the metro area and you’ll soon be surrounded by corn fields, about half of the harvest each year going to feed those milder and more economically productive descendants of the aurochs.

The last wild aurochs, a female, died in Poland in 1627, not so long ago.  Those minor and intentional changes over generations impacted the world enough that it became a place where more and more space has been made for domesticated cattle, even as there was less and less space for the aurochs.  I learned this week that there is a stone monument by the forest in Poland where that last aurochs grazed and chewed her cud.

Aurochs Monument

By the time of the Hebrew slaves’ exodus from Egypt, humans and cattle had been living interdependently for millennia.  Key to the Hebrews’ exodus was the giving of the Torah at Mt Sinai – the heart of which we know as the Ten Commandments.  All of the Ten Commandments are included in the lectionary reading for today, but we read only one.  The Sabbath commandment.  It’s one of two commandments that mention cattle.  The other being “Do not covet what belongs to your neighbor.”  One could argue that a reference to cattle is just below the surface in a third commandment, “Do not make for yourself an idol.”  As soon as Moses comes down from the mountain the Israelites have already broken that one, melting their jewelry and forming a golden calf.  Of all the things to worship besides the Creator Spirit, I suppose this is a decent candidate, with human life having become so dependent on cattle for sustenance.  No cattle, no civilization, at least not in that part of the world.  All hail the mighty cow.

The Sabbath Commandment begins: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.”  It’s a commandment that calls for a regularly observed practice of work stoppage.  Every seven days, you must stop working.  And not only you, the commandment continues, “You – your son and your daughter, your male and female servants, and your cattle, and the alien resident, the immigrant, who resides in your towns.”  That’s where the title of the sermon comes from, by the way.  “You…and your cattle.”

How interesting that the Sabbath commandment is extended to how the community relates with its livestock.  As the son of a former dairy farmer, I’m aware that milking dairy cows is one of the things from which a modern farmer can’t take a Sabbath.  You could take a break yourself and send out your child or your hired hand, but the cows have got to be milked, twice a day, every day, seven days a week, year round.  I’ve been told this is one of the reasons I’m the son of a former dairy farmer.

The Ten Commandments are recorded two different times in the Torah, in Exodus 20 and in Deuteronomy 5.  They are almost identical, as it seems they should be, but the Sabbath commandment is the one with the biggest difference.  The difference comes not in the commandment itself, but the reason for the commandment which directly follows.  In Exodus 20 it says, “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.”  In Deuteronomy 5 it says, “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.”

The Sabbath is so important that the people are given not one but two theological foundations for why it must be kept: Creation, and Exodus.  God creates the world in six days, and we create the world for six days a week, and so on the seventh we rest to remember that we are not god.  You were slaves in Egypt, and now you have been freed, you and your cattle, and so you rest on the Sabbath to remember that you are no longer a slave.  There is no Sabbath in Egypt.  You make bricks and more bricks every day, seven days a week, and the cattle pull the pallets they’re stacked on.

We exercise god-like power over our environment, shaping raw materials, generations of animals, the whole landscape, around our interests.  We are prone to enslaving others and sometimes ourselves, to achieve our intentions.  The Sabbath exists to remind us that we are not god, and that we are not slaves.

Two weeks ago I was at a luncheon with some other Columbus clergy where the speaker happened to be our own Yvonne Zimmerman who talked about how we relate with the world through the Economy, with a big “E”.  It was hosted at the Weiner Jewish Student Center by OSU and during the discussion time one of the hosts from the Center spoke up and talked about the importance of Sabbath practice in how Jews relate to the economy.  When you practice a Sabbath, he said, the days leading up to it are spent preparing for Sabbath.   And the days after it are informed and illuminated by Sabbath.  So that rather than simply being a day to catch your breath so you can re-enter the world to be an even more productive component of the economy, the Sabbath becomes the purpose around which the rest of life is organized.  And it filters its way into relationships and workplaces and the inner life of prayer.

What would an inner economy of the soul, centered around Sabbath, look like?  What would an external economy of goods and services, centered around Sabbath, look like?

In Jesus’ time, a major intersection of the inner and outer economy took place in the Jerusalem temple.  It was a holy place of prayer and devotion, and it was also a place of economic exchange.  The Torah called for animal sacrifices, and because the temple drew in people from different parts of the world, there was a necessary currency exchange in place to purchase the required animals on site since that was easier than everyone bringing their own animals from far away.  It was a hub of activity and, because of all the animals involved in the process, it was also a stable, and a slaughterhouse.  The priest received the animal, did the official holy work, but the whole thing didn’t just go up in smoke.  After the ritual the priest brought the roast beef back for the family to eat in gratitude.  So the temple area was also a restaurant.  It was not a quiet place to be, and it did not, in all places, smell like flowers and incense.

For those of us who emphasize the nonviolence of Jesus, the story of his clearing out the temple can feel jarring.  Nobody gets hurt, as far as we can tell, and no animals were harmed in the clearing of this temple, but still…..    John’s version is especially intense, including details not present in Matthew, Mark, or Luke.   John is the only gospel to mention Jesus making a whip of chords, and is the only one to mention the presence of sheep and cattle.  The others just mention the smaller and gentler doves.  John’s version also, surprisingly, takes place at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, while the other gospels record this as happening during the last week of Jesus’ life, the act that pushes the authorities over the edge and leads to Jesus’ death.  Although it’s probably more likely this happened at the end of Jesus’ life, we might think of John’s telling the same way a film plays with the order of chronological events in order to shape the way the story unfolds.  Rather than building momentum for the end, John cranks up the heat right away and lets us know we’re in for quite a ride.

His story is earlier, louder, smellier, and more aggressive than any other account.

I’m guessing we’re thankful we didn’t have to pass cattle and currency exchanges on our way into worship, but before we count ourselves religiously advanced, we might consider that we’ve simply removed our stables and slaughterhouses away from the realm of the sacred.  These things still happen, just mostly out of sight, and now without a sense of it being a holy process.  Now the priests in the slaughterhouses get paid only slightly more than minimum wage.  And without much drama or involvement on our part, the meat ends up in our refrigerators, right next to the cheese.

The temple was supposed to be the coming together of the sacred and the common – the place where heaven and earth met.  It was to be a witness that all of life is holy, even the smelly and bloody parts, a cause for gratitude and humility before the Holy One.  There was nothing overtly out of line with what was happening in the temple as John describes it.  It was going according to design.  But Jesus perceived that it had lost this sense of the holy.  The house of prayer had been reduced to a marketplace.  Buying and selling and praying and praising need not be mutually exclusive activities, they can dwell together in a beautiful harmony, but they can also become separated. Perhaps slowly, even imperceptibly, over time, generation by generation, the temple had become an entirely different species from its original aspirations.  And so Jesus raises his whip of chords and makes a scene in the temple; the humans watching, jarred and bewildered; the cattle celebrating their exodus, running loose in the streets of Jerusalem.

In a world where the temple is no more, and the official sacrifices have ceased, I wonder where are the places – the businesses, the schools, the homes, the souls, where there is the coming together of the holy and the common.  I wonder who will be the priests who remind us that the meal, and the animals and vegetables and minerals that make it possible, are sacred, to be received with awe and thanksgiving.  I wonder how there might be no divide between our prayers and our purchases.

I wonder if we, who do not cross paths with cattle on a daily basis but are just as, if not more dependent on them as any ancient Hebrew, will ever find a way to observe Sabbath with the animals.  To remember that we are not god.  And we are not slaves.  And neither are they.

I wonder if the artists in the caves were praying with each stroke of their instrument as the image of the aurochs took shape on the stone in front of them.  If those caves were just as much their temple.  I wonder what they would think if they knew that their prayers would outlive even the aurochs, rediscovered in an age whose landscape they would barely recognize.

Lent 3 | New perceptions in familiar places: Water

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Texts: Exodus 17:1-7, John 4:3-26

 

A month ago Dan H. sent me an email asking if I was aware that this weekend, March 22, yesterday, was United Nations World Water Day. I wasn’t, and replied back that it is a happy coincidence that the readings for this week also include water as a central theme: water from the rock in the desert for the Israelites, water from the Samaritan well for Jesus, and living water from Jesus for a Samaritan woman and villagers.

The genre of sermon can be characterized as the proclamation of gospel, good news, but the news from World Water Day is mostly bad, or, at least, cautionary. The combination of population growth (seven billion and counting), increased global development, and climate change, is putting major strains on finite water supplies. The United Nations estimates that about 1 in 10 people do not have access to an improved source of drinking water. If there are 160 people here, that means 16 of you are out of luck.

This year’s focus for World Water Day is the connections between water and energy. Key messages they are promoting are 1) Water requires energy and energy requires water, 2) Supplies are limited and demand is increasing, 3) Saving energy is saving water and saving water is saving energy, 4) The “bottom billion” urgently needs access to both water and sanitation services and, 5) Improving water and energy efficiency is imperative as are coordinated, coherent and concerted policies.

Dan noted that “few people (in this area) appreciate water because we are in a humid climate and water is under-priced.”

One of the good news water happenings locally is the dam removal along the Olentangy River which will return it to a more natural condition, increasing the variety of plant and animal life, and improving water quality.

Life is utterly dependent on water. Our bodies are mostly water. We are water, walking. We are water, needing water; water talking about water. We are water become conscious of itself.

Sing HWB 495 O let all who thirst, v. 1

 

Lent began in the wilderness, is designed as an extended wilderness journey, and in Exodus 17 we are explicitly back in the desert wilderness with the Israelites. They are fresh off their deliverance from slavery in Egypt, newly free people, and are now facing the stark realities of survival on their own. In order to get out of Egypt, they faced the problem of too much water, a whole Sea of it, blocking their path and giving them no escape from the pursuing Egyptian army. They tell Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?” But Yahweh created a way where there was no way, and parted the waters for the Israelites to walk through on dry land.

Too much water quickly gives way to too little water. And so the people now say, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” They’re snarky, but they have a point. It’s a desert. They are now a desert people, and life sustaining systems are scarce. Freedom is looking to be more treacherous and deadly than slavery.

When Jews remember the deliverance from Egypt they teach that each new generation must make its own journey out of Egypt. It is an archetypal journey that we all must make. For those of us not in actual chains of slavery, it’s an opportunity to recognize the other things that enslave us and keep us from becoming the people and communities we have the potential to be. Addictions, bitterness, chronic worry, lies that we tell ourselves, these too enslave us.

A number of Jewish interpreters have pointed out that the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, contains the word which means narrow, or tight. Deliverance from Egypt, from Mitzrayim, the rabbis have taught, means deliverance from the narrow place, the place that limits and squeezes the life out of us.

As the Israelites illustrate time and time again, it is often easier to remain in the narrow place. It’s a place we have grown comfortable with, a place where we know we can at least survive, even though we are painfully aware that we can never thrive there. But it feels safe, familiar, and deliverance from the narrow place means that we are all of a sudden in an unknown world, unsure where the next drink of water will come from.

In Exodus 17 Yahweh tells Moses to take with him a group of elders, and go ahead of the people. “I will be standing there in front of you on the rock of Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses does this, and water flows out of the rock and all the people and animals drink. Strangely, even though Yahweh says, “I will be standing there” by the rock, there is never any mention that the Divine presence shows up at the rock. Unless, of course, water itself is what God looks like when God takes on physical form. The people are leaving the narrow place, and the Divine presence shows up to sustain them. Here I am, standing in front of you. I am water. Drink and be satisfied.

Sing HWB 495 O let all who thirst, v. 3

 

In John 4 Jesus is on a journey of his own. He has been in Judea around Jerusalem and is on his way back up north to his home region of Galilee. In between Judea and Galilee is Samaria, and although they had a common ancestry, there was bitter rivalry between Jews and Samaritans stretching back hundreds of years. They had rivaling interpretations of Torah and rival temples which they each claimed to be the true temple of God. There were sporadic violent clashes between Jews and Samaritans, and they generally avoided and shunned each other. Many Jews when traveling from Judea to Galilee would simply go around, crossing over on the east side of the Jordan River.

So when John says that Jesus “had to go through Samaria” it’s not so much a geographical necessity as it is a necessity of his mission. Jesus is walking into enemy territory. It might be kind of like saying that Brutus was in Ontario and was on his way back to Columbus, but he had to go through Ann Arbor. Kind of…

When Jesus stops by a well in Samaria we are told that he is tired, and he is thirsty. It’s one of the few times we find Jesus in a position of need. He’s at a well and doesn’t have anything to draw water with. He’s looking for water, but he’s also looking for a Samaritan. Jesus once told a parable about a man in much worse shape than he would have been who was assisted by a Samaritan passing by that way. A “Good Samaritan” was of course an oxymoron for the folks Jesus had told the parable to. It makes you wonder if this experience by the well in Samaria might have given him the idea for the parable. A Samaritan had helped him quench his thirst.

From the looks of it, Jesus has not timed his journey well because it’s noon, and the women of the village would have come to draw water in the cool of the day, morning and evening. Just a little earlier Jesus had talked with Nicodemus who had come alone, at night, most likely to avoid being detected. Now Jesus talks with a nameless Samaritan woman whom comes alone at noon, perhaps also avoiding others.

Neither of them should have been there at the well, and, by convention, a man did not speak publicly with an unrelated female, much less a Jewish man to a Samaritan woman. It’s a conversation that shouldn’t have happened, but it ends up being the longest recorded conversation Jesus has with another person.

Unlike Nicodemus, who seems to get more and more puzzled with each thing Jesus says, this woman seems to be more and more intrigued and drawn in as the conversation goes on. Jesus is bold to initiate the whole thing, and she meets him with an equal amount of boldness. They step toward each other.

He asks for a drink. She asks him what in the world he’s doing talking with her. He suggests that if she is open to the conversation that they could each have something to give to each other. He has some water of his own to give. She sees no bucket, knows the well is deep, but wants to know what kind of water this Jewish man could be talking about. He says that his water is alive, gushing. “Drink what I’ve got and you’re good for life.” Jesus is water, walking. “Sounds good,” she says, “I need me some of that.”

It’s at this point that the conversation gets real personal and we learn a little more about why this woman may have been coming to the well alone. Jesus asks her to go get her husband. She has no husband, but has been married five different times. Some commentators have used this fact to emphasize that this must have been an especially troubling and even sinful woman, but we don’t know that from this story, and Jesus has no words of judgment against her. Why so many marriages? Had some of her husbands died? With the man having so much legal power to divorce for whatever reason, had she been divorced multiple times for petty things? Had any of these relationships been abusive? Does she have a disability of some sort? We don’t know, and it’s not important enough for John to tell us. It would, no doubt, have been a good topic of gossip during the morning and evening congregating around the well. Did you hear? Again? What’s wrong with her?

What we can gather, and all we need to know, is that this is a socially isolated woman who has borne her share of sorrow and stigma. She’s in a narrow place.

Sing HWB 495 O let all who thirst, v. 2

 

The anonymous Samaritan woman of John’s gospel is remembered in the Eastern Orthodox tradition as St. Photina. In John she steps closer and closer to Jesus and welcomes the spiritual water of life that he offers. She becomes a gusher for God, a gusher for good. Beyond the verses we read, she goes back to her city and brings other Samaritans to see Jesus, who themselves have a similar experience. Beyond John’s gospel, tradition holds that she continued to preach the good news wherever she went, and many people came to believe through her preaching. She was eventually martyred, killed, at the hands of the Roman emperor Nero, but not before converting Nero’s daughter, Domnina, who had been charged with watching over her while she was in custody. Her official status is Equal-to-the-Apostles. Photina means luminous one, or enlightened one, like a photon. Nicodemus, a public leader, had a lot to lose if he followed Jesus, and needed a long time to come around. The anonymous Samaritan woman had very little to lose, and came to the well in the blazing sun of noon day, was filled with living water, and became St. Luminous.

In our Protestant imagination this is a piece of history, informative and perhaps inspiring. In the Orthodox and Catholic imagination, St. Luminous continues to pray for us, the living; continues to gush life and light for all of us detained in Mitzrayim, the narrowness of our ways. I imagine she would also be praying on this World Water weekend, for all creatures of God to have the simple dignity of clean and healthy water. Let all who thirst, come to the water. Let this also be our prayer. And let our prayer become enacted in our lives.

Sing HWB 495 O let all who thirst, All verses from the beginning

The Ten Commandments: The countours of freedom – 6/17/12

Several years ago comedian Stephen Colbert was interviewing a US congressman in what Colbert said was the 24th in his 434 part series of looking at each of the congressional districts, and representatives, in the country.  At the end of this conversation Colbert noted that the congressman had co-sponsored a bill to have the Ten Commandments displayed in the House of Representatives and the Senate.  After the congressman described why he thought the Ten Commandments are an important, essential, moral compass for the nation, Colbert asked him: “What are the Ten Commandments?”  Congressman: “What are all of them?  You want me to name them all?”  Colbert, nodding: “Yes, please,” holding up all ten of his fingers to start checking them off.  Congressman, turning slightly red: “Mmmm.  Don’t murder.  Don’t lie.  Don’t steal.  Ummmm.  I can’t name them all.”  Colbert, after several seconds of pausing for effect, then reaching out to shake his hand: “Congressman, thanks for taking time away from keeping the Sabbath day holy to talk to me.”  Apparently the interview was happening on a Sunday.

It is funny and painful to watch, a combination that very few do better than Stephen Colbert.  It also illustrates something about general attitudes toward the Ten Commandments.  We have a broad sense that these are an important set of moral statements, but much less clarity on what they actually mean, or, perhaps, what they actually are.  Even something as straightforward as one of the statements the congressman could remember is less than perfectly clear.  “Don’t murder.”  The King James Version has classically translated this “Thou shalt not kill.”  As much as peace minded folks would like to use this as an injunction against all killing, including capital punishment and warfare, the Hebrews had a number of words for killing, and this one seems to refer just to the shedding of innocent blood, with a different word being used for the killing of warfare.  One could always argue that we must expand “innocent blood” to include everyone created in the image of God, in all circumstances, but that only emphasizes that the command itself needs further interpretation.

To complicate matters, surprisingly, there is not even agreement on what the Ten Commandments are.  Jews, Roman Catholics, and those of the Reformed traditions each have their own different ways of numbering the commandments.  For example, the Reformed count “You shall have no other gods before me” and “You shall not make for yourself an idol” as two separate commandments, while Catholics, Lutherans, and Jews count them as one.  To make up for this, Catholics and Lutherans split up the commandment to not covet into two separate commandments about different things not to covet.  Jews keep the “Do not covet” statements as a single commandment, but include another to get ten, a point that we’ll get back to in a bit and helps shape what this is all about.

What is agreed upon is that there are ten of these things.  After the incident with the golden calf in which Moses becomes the first person to literally break the law, by throwing down and shattering the stone tablets in disgust, Deuteronomy 10:4 states:  “Then God wrote on the tablets the same words as before, the ten commandments that the Lord had spoken to you on the mountain out of the fire on the day of the assembly.”  So there you go.  There’s ten.  But, to add one more twist in our perception of what these things are, the three times this phrase is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, “the ten commandments,” the actual word used is not “commandments,” but “words” The Ten Words that the Lord has spoken.  This points back to that Hebrew understanding of the word of God that was at the forefront last week in Genesis 1, the Divine creative utterance which forms reality.  Each of the Ten Words is itself a series of words that does just this.  By voicing these Ten Words to the people of Israel, God is creating a new human community, speaking it into being.

When Keith compiled and gave me this list of the CMF 12 Scriptures that were discerned during the Sunday school hour I was curious about some of the discussion that happened and why certain scriptures were chosen.  One of Keith’s observations was that the choice of the Ten Commandments was a popular one among the children who participated.  It does not necessarily represent an adult choice of a scripture that falls into the top 12, but, if we include children, it qualifies as one of the finalists.  Keith also commented, and I had to agree, that he thought this was kind of cool, that the younger ones among us have their voices register in the outcome of the process.  And, they do have a point on this one.  The Ten Commandments are one of the few passages in the Hebrew Scriptures that appear twice, once in Exodus, chapter 20, and again in Deuteronomy, chapter five.  Apparently the younger people learned something from their parents and their teachers, that when something gets repeated, it means you’re supposed to pay attention.

This choice by young people also brings up another point.  We tend of think of this as legal material, embedded in the Torah with its various laws and regulations, commandments, decrees, and sets of social guidelines for the people of Israel.  Biblical scholar Dennis Olson puts a different spin on this.  In a book about Deuteronomy, he suggests that the Ten Commandments, introduced toward the beginning, in chapter five, provide an outline for the following chapters 6-28.  In other words, the following chapters of Deuteronomy serve as commentary and expansions of each of the Ten Commandments, in the order they are given, such that the Ten Commandments serve somewhat as chapter titles for the material that follows.  And Olson makes this observation: “These expansions and interpretations…suggest that Deuteronomy understands the law and commandments primarily in the context not of a courtroom but of a classroom…Deuteronomy is more a catechetical book than a law book.  Elders, teachers, and parents are to use the book more than lawyers and judges.  Deuteronomy is primarily aimed at a new generation in need of growth and maturity.”  (Deuteronomy and the Death of Moses, p. 44)

I find this to be a refreshing way of thinking about the Ten Commandments and it seems to say that our kids get this intuitively, and that a few of our congressman don’t quite get it.  It is How to Be Human 101. Like other lists and collections in the Bible – the Beattitudes of Jesus in Matthew, the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians, the armor of God in Ephesians – these are meant to be basic teaching tools for spiritual and character formation about what it means to be a human being.

Abbie and I have just come back from a week at the Abbey of Gethsemani, where the monks have committed to a life of stability, work, and contemplation.  This is the same place where I began my Sabbatical last summer and I remember sharing with you after returning from there that my first few days that I was there I found myself feeling sorry for these monks.  Here I was, able to read and sleep – and leave – at my leisure, choosing to join or not join the monks during any of their seven daily prayer times.  But they were trapped.  They had surrendered their freedoms through their monastic vows.  It took me a couple days to accept the potential freedom of their calling that they could experience at Gethsemani, perfectly captured in those words of the young Thomas Merton as he was first entering the order, calling the place “the four walls of my new freedom.”

This brings us back to the Jewish understanding of these Ten Words, that elusive tenth commandment, which for them is the first on the list.  Exodus 20 begins this way: “God spoke all these words, saying: I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage: You shall have no other gods before me.”  In the Jewish mind, two of the ten words have already been given at this point.  The first Word, which we typically don’t include, because it’s not a commandment at all is this: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.”

The first Word is a statement of freedom and grace.  Of deliverance from bondage.  Recalling an act of God which brought an enslaved people out of slavery, to form a completely new community, based not on Pharoah’s economy of domination, but based on an economy of generosity, abundance, and the gift of enough.  Framed in this way, the other nine words offer graceful insights into how to be free.

What the ten commandments offer, as an invitation and as a warning, is a way to remain free from the slaveries of our own choosing.  “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”  The whole point, is radical freedom.  And yet, there is an awareness here, that after having been delivered from Egypt, from whatever bondage we have been a part of, we easily enter back into voluntary bondage.  We can become enslaved by allowing something like money or status to control our lives – you shall have no other gods, but God.  We can become enslaved to busyness and productivity and quantifiable measurable results.  Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.  Cease from work and allow all those around you even your animals, to cease from work.  Because in Egypt, you had no rest, but you’re not in Egypt anymore.

Do not commit adultery.  This is a bit of an aside, but connected with the temptations of status – not the evils of status, but the temptations of status.  Something I just learned recently is that when your status goes up in society – you get a promotion, you get elected to office, you get placed in a position that is seen as having a higher status than the one you were in before – the testosterone level in your body literally increases.  This is a hormone connected with sex drive for men and for women.  And tests are showing that status promotion elevates testosterone levels, apparently pretty much across the board for men, and for about 50% of women.  This is a biological fact that we are inheriting from the evolutionary past and, whatever good it may have served us back in the day, it can be a cause of struggle now.  This is not something they tell you when they shake your hand for the promotion.  Well done, and by the way, for a while you’re going to be thinking about sex more often and you may find it more challenging to stay within your commitments to your spouse.  Congratulations.

With the first commandment, the first Word, as an invitation to freedom, the following nine commandments are illustrations of the contours of that freedom, reminders that freedom always occurs within the bonds of community, within a network of relationships.  And so these obligations and commandments teach us how to be free within these relationships.  Freedom that only serves the small self, the personal ego, rather than the larger self – the community and the planetary network of life – can end up being a return to slavery: The taking of innocent life – do not murder.  Taking what does not belong to us: Do not steal.  Even being overly consumed with desire for what does not belong to us: Do not covet.

It’s been said that you can’t break the commandments.  You can only be broken over them.  To break a commandment is to become less free.  The commandments have no punishments listed after them and in a sense carry their own natural consequences.  Because we are relational beings, the path to freedom goes through the commandments, which have to do with right relationship.  And, if we become broken over one of the commandments, the process of reconciliation and forgiveness is what helps restore us back to right relationship, which becomes such a major theme of the biblical story and the teachings of Jesus.  They are bookended with grace – at the beginning, and what comes after.

As most parents discover rather quickly, a list of “Thou shalt nots” is not all that effective or inspiring for children.  Rather than giving our children a moral code with strict punishments, we seek to help guide them on a path that will enable them to obtain the fullness of their unique personhood.  We want them to be free.  And we ourselves, beloved children of God every one, are learning what it means to be free, to come into the fullness of our humanity, to be in loving relationship with others in a way that allows all of us to flourish.  Because we have been delivered from Egypt, we have tasted the sweetness of the promised land, and it is good.

 

A Meeting Place – 3/27/11 – John 4, Exodus 17

Beyond our ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’
doesn’t make sense any more.

Jelaluddin Rumi

The poet dreams of a place, a field, where souls can meet and encounter each other as they really are, beyond moral evaluation or other forms of category.

“Beyond our ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field.  I’ll meet you there.”  In this field, this meeting place, ideas, language, even the sense that we are completely separate human beings, “each other,” things that we previously experienced as most true, make less sense.  There has been a meeting of souls, and in the process, each has become more human.

We can imagine that Rumi’s field is scattered in small patches around the world in those places that lend themselves especially well to meeting.  When two people, or a group of people, join together – to reminisce, to celebrate, to get to know one another, to talk about whatever might be on their minds.  Two friends who haven’t seen each other in a long time agree to meet together at a favorite restaurant and have a leisurely evening of good food and talk.  A family gathers around a Christmas tree to sing carols and exchange gifts.  Spouses light candles in the bedroom for a time of soft conversation and lovemaking.  A congregation gathers in a sanctuary to join their hearts together in worship and contemplation of God. 

Most of our meeting places involve much more mundane and practical purposes.  A committee meets around a table to plan the work for the upcoming months.  A team meets on the court to practice for the next game.  Colleagues meet in the office to review progress on their current project.

And some meeting places are simply places where people happen to cross paths.  Playgrounds where children play and parents who don’t know each other make small talk.  Parks and walking paths where brief exchanges happen between strangers.

In ancient Palestine, like in many rural villages around the world today, a well could serve any one of these purposes.  Women would come out in the cool of the day, early morning or later evening, taking an empty jar, and make the walk, to fetch the water that would enable them to provide their family with water not only for drinking, but water also for cooking, cleaning, and bathing.  We’re used to the convenience of running water, available at the temperature of our desire with the turn of a handle.  But this isn’t running water.  It’s more like walking water, and it was the woman’s job to do the walking. 

The morning walk to and from the well would have been a meeting time for the women.  The task made more enjoyable with the company of others.  This first chore, before the day’s other countless chores.  A chance to converse about children, ask about how family members are doing, gossip, commiserate, laugh.  An evening walk would be another time to meet.  A break in the action from home duties and a time once again to gather and share in this common task.  To meet one another.  The well was a meeting place, serving a practical and social function. 

There are stories in the Old Testament of wells being places where a romance begins, or, at least, where marriage arrangements have their beginning.  Abraham sent his servant away to find a wife for his son Isaac, and the servant meets up with a woman at a well who offers to draw water for all of his camels – not a small task after the long journey.  This act of hospitality and kindness is a sign to the servant that this woman, Rebekah, is the right woman for Isaac, and they are soon betrothed.  Isaac and Rebekah’s son, Jacob, also meets his wife, Rachel, at a well, only this time it is Jacob who does the feeding of the animals.  When he travels to visit his uncle Laban and sees Rachel, a shepherdess, coming to a well with her sheep, he takes it upon himself to roll the large stone from the top of the well and water the sheep himself.  Rachel, who is Laban’s daughter, eventually becomes his wife.   Generations later, after Jacob’s descendants are living in slavery in Egypt, a young man named Moses, fleeing from that land after killing an Egyptian for mistreating a slave, comes to a well in the land of Midian.  The priest of Midean had seven daughters who were going to the well at that time and were harassed by local shepherds.  Moses wards off the shepherds and helps the young women water their flocks.  The sisters report this to their father who invites Moses to stay with him.  Moses is soon betrothed to one of their priest’s daughters, Zipporah. 

These seemingly chance meetings at these three different wells end of being the way that the people of Israel not only come into being, through the marriages of the patriarchs and matriarchs, without whom there would be no Israel, but also have significance for the one who helps to deliver them from Egypt to become a free people, through Moses. 

You never know who you’re going to meet around a well.      

Jesus’ longest recorded conversation with another person happens around a well, with a Samaritan woman, although neither of them had much business being at that particular well at that particular time.  As John tells it, Jesus had been in Jerusalem, at the Passover festival, the annual celebration that called on Jewish people to make pilgrimage to the temple, to Jerusalem.  It was during this time that Jesus had been visited by Nicodemus, a Pharisee, who came to him at night to ask him questions about God, about Jesus himself, about new birth.  But the festival was over, and Jesus and his disciples were heading back home to Galilee, up north.  John notes, “Jesus left Judea and started back to Galilee.  But he had to go through Samaria.”  That last part is a peculiar statement.  “He had to go through Samaria.”  It’s true that Samaria was the region between Judea, where Jerusalem was, and Galilee.  Going through Samaria was certainly the most direct route.  But there were other routes to get back to Galilee, taken by some with the express purpose of avoiding Samaria.  It’s kind of like saying, Jesus left downtown Cincinnati, and started to head toward Clifton, but he had to go through Over-the-Rhine.  Sure it’s the most direct route, but there are perfectly good ways to bypass that neighborhood and still get to Clifton. 

To say that Samaritans and Jews had it bad for each other would be an understatement.  Their animosity for each other went back centuries and there are stories from around this time of Jews making raids on Samaritan villages in retaliation for an injury done to one of their own.  In 128 BCE Jewish troops had destroyed a religious shrine on Mt. Gerizim which the Samaritans claimed to be the true place of worship for Israel’s God, as opposed to the Jerusalem temple.  Avoiding Samaria, avoiding any kind of encounter there, was an option.  But, John says, Jesus “had to go through Samaria,” which tips us off that something important is going to happen there.

On his trip, John reports that “Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by (a) well,” which happens to be named Jacob’s well.  You never know who you’re going to meet around a well.

As it turns out, we’re not given a whole lot of details about the person he does end up meeting.  John says, “It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water.”  In Jesus’ previous major encounter, we are at least given the name and position of his conversation partner.  It was Nicodemus, a Pharisee, who came at night.  Now, an anonymous woman, of the enemy people, comes at noon.

It’s a strange time to be coming to draw water.  Noon, the heat of the day.  Precisely when the other women would not have been there.  When there would not have been the opportunity, or the burden? of meeting with others.  No chance to converse, to hear gossip.  Perhaps she being the subject of some of that gossip?  We’re not sure, but we can be pretty sure, since John clues us in on the time of day, that she’s not expecting an encounter, and may very well be avoiding one.  Jesus had to go through Samaria.  This woman felt she had to go to the well, the meeting place, at a time when there would be no one else around to meet. 

Except that Jesus is there, tired out by his journey, and, as she arrives, he asks her for a drink.  He, a Jewish man, asks a Samaritan woman for a drink.  Through social convention, the conversation shouldn’t have happened:  Jew and Samaritan talking peaceably; man and unrelated woman talking publicly.  But it ends up being the longest recorded conversation Jesus has with another human being.   

One detail we’re given about the woman a little ways into the conversation might cause us to try and classify her, make some kind of moral evaluation about her character.  Jesus reveals that he’s aware that she has had five husbands, and that the man she’s living with is not her husband.  But that’s all Jesus says about this.  He doesn’t judge her or tell her to repent, or, as he says in a later situation with a woman caught in the act of adultery, “Go and sin no more.”  We don’t know why she has had five husbands.  Death?  Divorce?  Fault of her husbands, or her own?  We aren’t told, and it doesn’t seem to matter to Jesus.  “Beyond our ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field.  I’ll meet you there.” 

What is it that enables us to become more human?  More ourselves?  More alive to the fullness of life that God has created within us?  The conversation starts with the most basic of human needs, the need for physical water, and turns quickly to an equally basic human need, the need for spiritual life-giving water.  Jesus tells the woman, “the water I give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to life eternal.”  Jesus is offering himself, the only thing we really have to offer others whom we meet.  Here I am.  I am water.  Draw as deeply from me and you are able, and drink.

This story is paired with the Exodus story of the Israelites thirsting for water in the desert.  It’s been over 40 years since Moses met his wife at the well, and now the Israelites come to him, their leader, grumbling, quarreling, begging, for water.  Moses goes to the Lord who asks him to take with him his staff, along with some of the elders of the people.  They are to go to the rock of Horeb.  The Lord says, “I will be standing there in front of you on the rock of Horeb.  Strike the rock, and water will come out of it.  Moses strikes the rock, and the elders are witnesses.  There is no narration of the rock spewing out water.  There is no narration of what might have been meant by the Lord standing in front of the rock.  Water, and Presence, God’s Presence, and life-giving water, are presented almost as the same thing.  The elders are witnesses.  Yes, God has met with us here.  Water is flowing.  God says, Here I am.  I am water.  Drink.

As is perhaps inevitable when a Jew and a Samaritan talk, eventually the topic of the right place for worship arises.  The Samaritan woman says, “’Sir, I see that you are prophet.  Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place of worship is in Jerusalem.’  Jesus says to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship.  God is spirit, and those who worship must worship in spirit and truth.’” 

And so the meeting place, the ultimate meeting place, is suddenly up for grabs.  Unable to be pinpointed on a map. Freed from any particular geography, any particular region, any certain part of the country, part of the city, any certain piece of architecture – a temple, a rock, a well.  The meeting places that matter, those where we encounter one another and stand in awe of God, are available wherever there is Spirit.  Which is to say, anywhere.  This well in Samaria, in the heart of enemy territory, ends up being one of the many places where such a meeting is made available.  The Samaritan woman goes and tells her whole village.  She has been met in her full humanity.  She has been filled with living water.  She has become a witness.

Delighting In The Law – 3/15/09 – Psalm 19, Exodus 20:1-17

There’s a scene in the movie Philadelphia that takes place in a courtroom, where Denzel Washington’s character, Joe, is questioning Tom Hank’s character, Andrew, on the witness stand.  Both Joe and Andrew are lawyers, but in this case Andrew has hired Joe to represent him against his own law firm, as he believes he has been wrongfully fired because he has AIDS.  Throughout the movie we get to know both of these characters and what has brought them to this point of working together.  Andrew is a senior associate of the top law firm in Philadelphia.  He lives with his partner Miguel, had contracted AIDS right at the time the disease was coming to be known, and had not told his law firm that he is gay or that he has AIDS.  Soon after a colleague sees a lesion on Andrew’s forehead, signaling that he may have AIDS, the law firm made claims that Andrew was incompetent in his work and fired him.  Andrew seeks to hire a number of lawyers to represent him in a workplace discrimination case, including Joe Miller, Denzel Washington’s character.  Joe is a self-described homophobe, doesn’t know anything about AIDS, and initially refuses to work for Andrew; but he eventually comes around to approaching Andrew and decides to take on the case.  Throughout the film, as Joe learns more from the life of his client, he becomes more sympathetic to Andrew.   Toward the end of the movie when Andrew is testifying, he and Joe have this exchange:         

 

Joe: Are you a good lawyer?

Andrew: I’m an excellent lawyer.

Joe:  What makes you an excellent lawyer?

Andrew: I love the law.  I know the law.  I excel at practicing it.  It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do.

Joe: What do you love about it?

Andrew:   Well….many things.  But I think the thing I love the most, is that every once in a while, not that often, but occasionally….you get to be part of justice being done.  It’s really quite a thrill when that happens.

 

When I watched this movie for the first time a number of years ago I remember this dialogue standing out to me.  The reason it caught my attention, I think, is because without having given it much thought, I had taken on certain biases about law and rules and judgment as carrying mostly negative connotations.  Most of my experience of hearing about law at that point had been through the Protestant Christian lens of law being something that has to do with rigid structures and unnecessary legalism.  Law was old school, and something the Apostle Paul and Martin Luther didn’t much care for.  This was the era of grace and freedom.

So at that time I was especially drawn into this idea that Tom Hank’s character voices: “I love the law” and I love working with the law because occasionally “you get to be a part of justice being one.”  What a thrill. 

If anyone carries any of those same lingering kinds of negative biases about the nature of law, then Psalm 19 will stand out with the same kind of unexpected dissonance. 

Psalm 19, like Psalm 1 and Psalm 119 is a hymn of praise to the God who creates and gives teachings, precepts, commandments.  It is an ode to law.  Within the psalm, the poet waxes eloquent about the wonders and life-giving beauty of torah, God’s ways.  “The law of the Lord is completely perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart…more desirable are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.”  For those who have had the privilege of tasting some of Matt and Jeanne’s Bye’s homespun honey, just imagine some of that sweetness dripping onto your tongue and sliding smoothly into your belly.  The commandments of God are like that, the Psalmist says, only sweeter.  They are better than much fine gold.  Bank on the commandments of God, and you’re sure to get a generous return on your investment, no matter what that state of the market.

Within three verses the Psalmist gives six different synonyms for God’s ways – law, decrees, precepts, commandments, fear of the Lord, ordinances.  Each one is coupled with its own descriptor – perfect, sure, right, clear, pure, true and altogether righteous.  Reading Psalm 19 gives one the sense that the poet is speaking of something they find to be utterly beautiful, impossible to capture with just one metaphor, needing to paint various images in order to communicate the depth and the richness of that which is being praised.  Psalm 119 goes even further.  It is the longest chapter in the Bible, focused specifically on the glories of God’s law, using 176 verses to speak of the soul-feast that torah provides.

Looking at the scriptures this week, and remembering that scene from Philadelphia, made me curious about what the lawyers among us see in the law that they work so closely with every day.  What was it about the practice of law that attracted them in the first place?  What is it that they love about the ways that laws function in society?  Joe Luken and Ed Diller were kind enough to do some reflecting on this and write up brief responses to these questions.     

To the question: “What was it that most attracted you to being a lawyer?”  Joe said, “There has been lots of water under the bridge since those days.  I had witnessed dramatic changes in society before entering law school in 1974.  The extension of civil rights, economic fairness, the many instead of the few making political decisions. The law seemed to be an important part of those changes.  I wanted to be part of the force that was driving those changes.  Sounds pretty naïve but that certainly was the attraction.”

Ed said:    “I always tell new recruits that some lawyers intellectually “love the law and its intricacies.”  I love being a lawyer because it connects me with so many people and a variety of problems.  I get to work with them to accomplish specific results.  During that time I get to know them and get to know a little about their lives and their business, all the while working on elaborate puzzles.  In addition, the type of work I do involves “building for the future” which is right up my alley.  That is why I chose the type of law that I practice.”   

And to the question “What do you most love about the way that laws function in society?”   Joe said:  “It turned out that the law was much bigger than social change, which is good because after the mid-70’s the legal community was not the incubator for social change.  The law is an essential glue for society.  (But not the only one.)  If every person is a book then it is a fascinating library.  It is still the place where people search for redress, (or try to keep others from seeking redress from them.)  Who is right? What is fair? Is there a way to fix this for everyone?  It is interesting.  But I still love it most when, as it sometimes does, it acts to protect people who without it wouldn’t stand a chance.” 

 

Ed said:  Laws function in a variety of ways in society.  Fundamentally, they help us try to order complex relationships, some of which deal with right and justice and many of which simply deal with appropriate ways to order relationships.  In essence, laws provide the basic infrastructure in which people of very different backgrounds, experience, understanding and intentions can work with one another. 

In Exodus 20, the giving of the law, the Ten Commandments, is an occasion of awe and wonder.  Smoke poured off of the mountain that the people were gathered around.  Thunder and lightning crash and earthquakes rumble.  The people are not allowed to get too close to the mountain.  We get the sense that what is happening here is a matter of life and death.  The untamed, wild responses of the natural world help illustrate just what is happening.  The Sinai event, in its own way, is a story of creation.  Sinai marks the creation of a people who are called to emerge out of the chaos of injustice, and live according to the just and right teachings of God. 

Most of the torah, teachings, of the law book were believed to have come from God to Moses, with Moses then sharing the words with the people.  But at the giving of these foundational commandments, the voice of God is heard by everyone.  There’s something direct and fundamental about these teachings that is accessible, perhaps even morally intuitive to all who are willing to listen.

One way of understanding the ten commandments is by looking at how they open and how they end.  The statements that frame everything in between give a sense of what these teachings are all about. 

The opening statement, the headline at the top of the ten commandments press release is one that we often pass over too quickly.  It serves to set the tone for all of the words to follow.

“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.”  The power, the spirit, the energy, that is giving these commandments, is the same power that brought the Israelites out of slavery, out of the house of Egypt.  That act of deliverance, and this act of creation, are made for the purpose of freedom.  It’s been said that it took one night for God to get the Israelites out of Egypt, but it took much longer to get Egypt out of the Israelites.  These commandments are the path by which the Egypt is delivered out of the Israelites.  The dominating, controlling, oppressive ways of the empire, are met with the life-giving ways of the one who delivers people from bondage.

Every commandment that follows, then, is an invitation into freedom.  “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.”  Don’t create false gods, don’t swear falsely, don’t murder.  We’re not used to thinking of observance of a certain kind of code as having to do with freedom.  Our notions of freedom are much more aligned with the idea of the ability to do anything we want to do as individuals.  The freedom to buy what we want to buy.  The freedom to spend our time the way we want to spend our time.  Freedom of choice.  Joe and Ed’s comments, along with this passage, speak of freedom being something that happens in community.  In relationship.  We are commanded to shape our behavior in such a way that brings about good conditions for society.  Paradoxically, binding ourselves to the wellbeing of others, which can involve a limitation to our own personal freedoms, can bring about the greatest amount of freedom for all.

The final word of these commandments is a strange one to have in a law code.  It would be extremely hard to prosecute.  Previous statements talk about actions that should or should not be done.  Don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t swear falsely, don’t commit adultery, remember the Sabbath, honor your parents.  The last commandment has to do with an inner state of being, what we do with our desires.  Don’t direct your desires toward your neighbor’s house, or spouse, or any of their possessions.  Don’t covet.  This is the inner law.

One of the books I come back to continually is The Holy Longing by Ronald Rolheiser.  He talks about how being human means to be charged with desire.  We have all sorts of desires that direct our energies and propel us into the world.  We are charged with the desire to discover the world, the desire to have influence in the world, sexual desire, desire for intimacy, passion to be successful in life, to care for our loved ones.  The question is not whether or not we have desire, but what we do with those desires. How we channel them, how we discipline them and shape them are focus them.  His simple definition of spirituality is what we do with our desires.

The final commandment teaches that misdirected desire is a root of all kinds of problems.  Distorted desire is to covet.  Our desires become scattered and focused on that which is not ours to have.  Rightly directly desire is the love of God.  To love God with all our being is the fulfillment and the aim of the law.  The torah teaches this.  The apostle Paul doesn’t dislike the law, he just emphasizes that the essence of the law is the love of God, which in turn provides us with great freedom. 

Lent is sometimes a season where people choose not to eat sweet things, but these scriptures ask us to consider something we may find counter-intuitive.  By disciplining our lives, by reigning in our frantic desires scattered here and there, and focusing them on love for God, by freely submitting ourselves to the laws that bring freedom, we will taste sweetness.  Sweet like honey.

The delightful obligations, the commands, to follow the right path, are themselves acts of grace, leading us into the way of peace.