Sermon for Lent 3, March 19, 2017
Based on John 4:1-41
Lutheran Church of the Cross
We pastors can sometimes be very hard to understand. God knows all too well the times I’ve failed in the pulpit. I‘ve always loved the story of the Scottish pastor of whom it was said that he was invisible on six days of the week, and incomprehensible on the 7th.
Today’s sermon is light on theology. It’s story. In particular how I tried to avoid standing where I’m standing.
I will not inflict on you a poem that has 183 lines in it, but the beginning of one of the most famous spiritual poems of all times begins this way:
|I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days;|
|I fled Him, down the arches of the years;|
|I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways|
|Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears|
|I hid from Him,|
The Poem is called The Hound of Heaven, and was written at the end of the 19th century by Francis Thompson (1859-1907). One of our church members said he thought of this poem when I shared thoughts from a poem that begins “Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back, guilty of dust and sin.” I said at the time that was my story.
So I shall share a little of my story in this sermon, in hopes that it will stir up something in you—so you feel more free to reflect on and tell of your story of God in your life. I remember reading a book by a Catholic priest who said there was a 5th gospel that we should all know. And I shook my head, saying, there were just four gospels. But he was serious and pointed out that we all have as story or two to tell about God in our lives.
Certainly there was a woman in Samaria who had a dramatic encounter with Jesus. Our Readers Theater play touched a number of the details in this rather long and most interesting story from John’s gospel. We should begin with the fact that no Jew in good standing or in their right mind would have walked through the land of the Samaritans to get north to the Sea of Galilee, but that’s exactly what Jesus did.
For 500 years the Jews in Jerusalem saw their Samaritan neighbors just to the north as pagans, who didn’t worship God correctly. What Jesus did was cross the border, and his disciples who followed, had to be thinking, what was Jesus thinking? And this woman who came to the well knew immediately that he was a Jewish man. How? Ethnicity was defined then, and often now, by the clothes worn.
What about her coming at noon to draw water? My favorite Biblical scholar said that in the Middle East women always come as chattering group of women early in the day, the coolest part of the day, to draw the water. This woman came alone at the hottest time of day. She was excluded from their fellowship. And we learn from Jesus she has a shady unstable marriage history which includes living at the moment with a man who isn’t her husband.
Jesus comes into a defiled land, and encounters a shunned woman. What does he do? He asks to drink from her bucket—from a Jewish point of view—a defiled bucket. And Jesus with his need—his thirst—places himself at her mercy. This is a very human Jesus. Tired, weary and thirsty. And he talked to her about an eternal kind of water from which no one would ever thirst. And all this raises one question for us: what is it that we thirst for in our lives?
I remember when I was a child one of the persistent questions was always “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It wasn’t “What kind of person do you want to be?” It always had to do with being in a certain job or profession. Around the time I was in high school I was suppose to know how to answer that question. And I just didn’t know.
But I went off to summer camp on the eve of my 17th birthday and before my senior year in High School, and there at camp I fell in love with a girl I dated in my senior year. And on a Thursday night, in the candle-lit service of Evening Prayer, in the campus chapel on our knees one of the priests asked us to quietly open ourselves to whatever it was that God wanted us to know. I remember the hard wooden kneeler but it didn’t hurt. I remember the flickering candle lights and the shadows of that chapel. And I felt God said “You should be a pastor.” And for weeks I never told anyone about it. I was scared.
Eventually it came out, and when I went to college I thought I’d study religion and go to seminary upon graduation. That lasted one week. I soon became an ordinary college student. Just one week is all it took. I decided to give up on a religion major, to study sociology, and become God knows what. Then early in my junior year, was it depression, or what I don’t know. But I was so confused and mixed up and one night I knocked on the door of the campus chaplain. He’d never seen me before. That night, over coffee and cookies, I had tears, and shared parts of my story. He simply accepted me as I was, just like Jesus accepted that woman at the well, as she was. It was communion with coffee and cookies.
A year later he saw me on the campus. Told me he remembered my story from the youth camp and what I thought I heard in that chapel. He said there was a Rockefeller Scholarship for young men to test their vocation at a year of seminary—totally paid for. Feeling obligated to the chaplain, but not especially drawn to seminary, I filled out the application. I was neither disappointed nor surprised when I didn’t get accepted.
In March of our senior year Caroline and I were married on March 28th. A month later on an April afternoon the phone rang. It was the Dean of Bexley Hall, an Episcopal Seminary. Dean Thorpe said he had my application from the Rockefeller Foundation, and right then he offered me a year of room, board, and free tuition to come to his seminary. To go there to test my vocation. You might be tempted to say that the rest is history, but not so. I came in the back door, so to speak, on the whole ordination process, but 50 years ago this June I graduated and two weeks later was ordained a deacon.
After being ordained for two years, however, I went back to graduate school to become a sociology professor. I did some part-time church work, but intended to stay in academia. Three years later, though, at a clergy conference —something dangerous in these church conferences—I was walking down a dusty road with a fellow, and older priest, who asked me to come to work full-time at his church in Omaha. And this time my “Yes” stuck.
Oh, yes my soul drew back more than once. It wasn’t that I was trying to hide, but I didn’t feel worthy. What I had to know is that the Lord never comes to us because we’re some how worthy of God’s love, or have measured up. I didn’t. That woman at the well didn’t measure up. Anytime we think that’s the way to God we ought to be ready to find ourselves lost. Yet even there, even when we’re lost, the persistent God will seek us ought saying, Let go of your pride. Give up thinking your way to me. Give up trying to earn my love.
Just accept my grace and love in your lost-ness. Bring your tears to that table where you’ll find coffee and cookies and unconditional love. And when you do, you have a gospel story to tell. May Jesus tell that story in all of our lives.