This Sunday, I had the pleasure of worshiping with the people of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Seattle. Here is my sermon.
Exodus 17:1-7 (“He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?'”)
Romans 5:1-11 (“God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”)
John 4:5-42 (Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well)
“Is the Lord among us or not?” It’s a great question. The Israelites asked it in the dessert, and we ask it all the time. We find the world unsatisfactory, so it’s good to ask, even when we find ourselves annoyed, disappointed, or angry. “Is the Lord among us, or not?” This, first, because it is a simple psychological truth, which somehow escapes a great many Christian preachers. If you are in a relationship and you don’t voice your concerns it will be an unhealthy relationship. It may not last very long. So, if we want a relationship with God, we must start with honesty about our thoughts and emotions. “God, are you with us, or not?” We are unlikely to get an answer if we do not ask. Thus, there is a long and glorious tradition of obnoxious prophets questioning God: Moses is the prime example, but I might also mention Job, David, Jeremiah, and Peter. The alternative is to passive-aggressively say nothing and then suddenly blurt out how un-happy we are that God is silent and somehow un-God-like. That doesn’t end well. Read Jonah. Or read the tale of Exodus. The Israelites in the wilderness don’t converse with God, they whine to Moses and Aaron and their subordinates. “Testing God” is the opposite of a question. It’s when you think you know the answer and say God got it wrong. So, we start with the question. “Is the Lord among us or not?” Anytime you want to ask it, do. Pray. If you can’t think how to frame it, read the psalms for a while, or Job, or Lamentations, or Isaiah, or Julian of Norwich, or Teresa of Avila, or Madeline L’Engle, or Simone Weil, or Kiekegaard, Bonhoeffer, and King. The Christian tradition is rife with people questioning God. This is, after all, one of the benefits of a living, embodied, personal, human God. You can talk to him. If you’re not asking questions, you're doing it wrong. Don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise. Now, we come to the answer. I can tell you what I think – of course I will – but let me suggest that it will never be fully satisfying until you’ve heard it from God. Whether I am right or wrong, your relationship with God is yours. Go home and ask God what God thinks. It is meet and right and your bounden duty so to do. “Is the Lord among us or not?” Yes. The Lord is among us, but never in quite the way we expect. We’re a little insecure about this – one reason that Anglicans, and Christians historically, go around saying it all the time. The Lord be with you. (And also with you.) It’s not just about wishing someone well; it is a declarative statement. The Lord God IS with you. And it holds up as you go back in time. I’m very fond of the Elizabethan English: “The Lord be with you. And with thy spirit.” God is as close as your very breath. And even farther back, it would be Dominus tecum. Et cum spiritu tuo. God is with us in our breathing, and in our living, and in our doing God’s will, and, as I talked about last week, in our faith, hope, and love. With that in mind, let us turn to the rather long gospel reading – the Samaritan woman. For context, it helps to know that Samaritans and the Judeans did not get along. The tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, living in the northern parts of Canaan, still worshipped God at Mount Gerizim, near Sychar, while the other tribes thought you had to travel to Mount Zion, to Jerusalem. Thus, we had the kingdom of Israel in the north and the kingdom of Judah in the south. Although they were one political entity at the time of Jesus, the religious tensions were palpable. It also helps to know that women, particularly unmarried women, did not talk to strange men, a condition still common, if lamentable, in much of the world. The more times I read the story, the more I can’t help but see it as banter, almost flirting, between two strangers at a well – the very well, as it happens, where Jacob flirted with Rachel. For all the high theology in John’s gospel, he tells us very personal stories about Jesus as a son and as a friend. I think we miss something if we try to make this an impersonal, cold interaction. As always, I encourage you to read it for yourself, but at least once, read it as though you were reading Shakespeare. It makes a difference. I will call the woman Photini, the Greek Orthodox name for her. Jesus comes to the well and asks Photini for a drink of water. She pauses and says, “How is it that you ask this of me? I don’t know you.” And Jesus replies, “If you knew who I was, you’d be asking me for a drink.” “And how would you get it? Are you so great you don’t need a bucket?” Jesus says, “This water is nothing. It’s temporary. The water I can give you will quench your thirst forever.” “Right… Okay, I’ll take your water, it would save me having to come here all the time.” She calls his bluff – but Jesus delivers. He says, “Go get your husband.” “I have no husband.” “That’s right. You have no husband, but you’ve had five, and the man you’re living with is not your husband. Things have gotten somewhat serious here, so Photini gets serious. “I see you speak for God, well this place used to be good enough for God, but you Jews say we can only talk to God in Jerusalem.” And Jesus answers with similar seriousness. “The time has passed for worshipping God on a mountain. “Now we worship with our very breath and with truth.” “I know the Messiah is coming.” “That would be me.” It is a serious conversation, and it is a very familiar conversation. It is a conversation all about trust and communication and questions. Photini models for us what it means to have a real, intimate, conversation with God – to question and to listen for the answers. She also models the right response. She evangelizes – once again with a tinge of humor. “This can’t be the Messiah, can it? Come and see.” And it comes at the beginning of John’s gospel, when he is telling us what it means to spread the good news, through the Disciples and Nicodemus, but also with wine and healing. We are told that many Samaritans believed because of her testimony. It’s worth remembering Photini, the Samaritan woman, and God’s willingness, to speak to us all directly. Last week, I spoke about Abraham, who was reckoned as righteous, almost in spite of himself. His salvation came about through his faith – his personal relationship with God – and through God’s grace – that free gift of love, light, and life by which God recreates the world. Last week, I said, don't worry about your salvation, don’t worry about yourself at all. Christianity is about God working God’s purpose out. This week, I want to say this. There is a way to think about you. Think about your relationship with God, and think about how that relationship overflows into your relationships with others. Think about what it means to share your very self with God, to ask for what nourishes you, and for the ability to nourish others. Think about what it means to listen, to hear God speaking in unexpected places through unexpected people, in unexpected ways. The water that satisfies is the Spirit of God, and the spirit is light and life. It is breath and truth. I do not mean this in some abstract way, but concretely. God is in the light and in our ability to see. God is in our fleshy particularity, and in our ability to eat and grow. What we do at this table is a sanctification of the sharing and eating and growing we do every day of our lives. God is also in your breath and in your breathing, never farther, nor less significant, than the oxygen, which powers you. God is truth – real honest conversations, deep questions, and the longing for answers that always calls us into a deeper understanding of God and one another. Come and see. Be amazed. Be delighted. Be unashamed to share the water of life, in faith, hope, and love. What has been given to you, in Christ Jesus, was meant to be given away.