How to Drink of Living Water

I’m just going to cut right to the chase on this text: Jesus is undermining us and our priorities yet again, because he loves us too much to let us continue in our self-protective delusions.

Every time I think I’ve got him figured out, he knocks me over once again with his subversive and all-encompassing love.

The woman at the well is one of John’s most beloved stories.

We have a woman who is trapped in an unenviable social situation, the origins of which we do not clearly understand.

She has to come to well to draw water in the heat of the day rather than the cool of the early morning. This is a clue that she is ostracized from the company of the other women in town, respectable women, who would come as a group to draw water at dawn.

Why is she not respectable? We don’t know, but more than likely it is a result of gender-based shame imputed to her.

She may be penalized for exercising sexual autonomy, i.e. being a “loose woman.”

Or she may have been passed around from husband to husband to finally a man who doesn’t even bother to marry her because she is barren, unable to have children, the other major source of shame for women in her society.

Even without knowing her story and its shades of disgrace in the eyes of her culture, the gospel says the disciples are shocked to find Jesus talking with a woman, any woman.

Regardless of what she has been through, and we understand that it cannot have been pleasant, she has enough pluck in her to enter into conversation with an unaccompanied adult male whom she quickly discovers is a Jew.

This reality alone would have further diminished her already precarious position in society.

But there is a spark of curiosity in her that responds to Jesus and answers the invitation to go deeper with him.

She is thirsty for more than what she can find at the bottom of that well, and so she asks.

In fact, she more than asks, she requests, demands, even: “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

How often do we share our need with Jesus so un-self-consciously?

And here is what fascinates me. The woman asks Jesus for the Living Water, and what does he give her?

One would expect him to give her comfort, understanding, affection, healing, assurance of salvation.

But he gives her none of these.

She asks Jesus for the Living Water, and he gives her truth. Continue reading

What Are You Resisting?

One of the most helpful spiritual questions I was ever asked is this: “What are you resisting?”

I can’t remember where I first read or heard that question, Pema Chodron maybe? Something Buddhist, I’m sure.

But it has remained in my life as one of the most fruitful seeds of prayer in the midst of pain or anxiety I’ve ever found.

What is it that I’m resisting?

The question has the power to stop me in my tracks in real time, in the very moment of my being angry at the world.

And asking the question also asks a second, implicit question: and why are you resisting it?

The subsequent questions ask themselves.

Is it worth resisting?

What would happen if you let this go?

Is what you’re resisting truly a threat to you, or simply an inconvenience, a discomfort, an irritant?

I’m usually awakened at that point to how easily and completely I’ve given myself over to the traditional three corrupting influences of “the world, the flesh, and the devil,” and by that I mean my selfish desires, my loud body and its preferences, and my cranky, needy ego.

I’m usually resentful of a phone call I need to make or a meeting I have to attend, unable to accept that I really will feel better if I eat well and exercise, or mad at my perception that someone is treating me dismissively or condescendingly.

What am I resisting? Trivial, trivial things.

And in the process I am resisting the glimpses of God that God is always ready to reveal to me in the midst of my trivial circumstances, if I would only open to them.

What are you resisting? Continue reading

Springtime in the Desert

Let’s stop for a moment and think about our stereotypes of Lent. What words come to mind for you?

“Dull, dreary, and sad,” some might say.

“Long and boring,” others might say.

“Sin and death and the day of vengeance of our God!” others might crow triumphantly.

I had one parishioner at a former church, a 3-year-old, who told me solemnly on Ash Wednesday, “I don’t like Lent because it makes me sneeze.” As good a characterization as any, I suppose.

Would it surprise you to know that the origin of the word “Lent” is the Old English word for “springtime”?

Yes, we do talk about sin and mortality in Lent, and there is an appropriate solemnity for doing that.

But if you think that’s the whole story of Lent, you’re missing out.

Lent is springtime in the desert.

And we are given an amazing opportunity each year to take part in it.

Let’s think about that strange juxtaposition of terms: springtime in the desert.

Both parts matter. It’s not just springtime—new life and blooming flowers and singing birds.

And it’s not just the desert—emptiness and challenge and wandering in search of sustenance.

It’s springtime in the desert.

What does that mean for us in our spiritual lives? Continue reading

Ash Wednesday: Singing the Song of Our Enemy

The terrible war in Bosnia and Herzegovina ended in December 1995.

The fighting between Serbs and Croats had set itself up along ethnic and religious lines and so deepened the divisions between the warring factions that it seemed impossible to imagine them going forward in any type of peace, much less healing and reconciliation.

A Franciscan priest began a revolutionary project in early 1996.

He recruited singers from across the country, people who were gifted in music, not necessarily professionals, but just people who were known in their towns and communities for their voices.

He brought them all together, Muslims and Christians, Serbs and Croats, some literally fresh off the battlefield, and asked them to begin singing together.

But not just any songs.

He asked them to sing the most traditional and well-known and deeply rooted religious songs of the Bosnian people, both Christian songs and Muslim songs.

He asked them to sing the songs of their enemies. Continue reading

We, The Body of Christ, Hate Our Bodies. Maybe We Could Stop?

Do you hate your body?

I know I hate mine, and my best guess is you hate yours.

And that is a tragedy.

We are members of an incarnational faith.

We celebrate and stake our very souls on God coming to Earth in a human body, and then giving that body to us, in life and in death.

We consume the Body and Blood of Christ every Sunday.

We call our collective self the Body of Christ.

And yet we hate our own bodies.

We hate our very incarnation, call it ugly and feel shame at its appearance and functioning or lack thereof.

What is wrong with this picture? Continue reading

The Tyranny of Niceness

Today we’re going to talk about the difference between being nice and being good.

I’m here to tell you today that God is good, but God does not particularly care about being nice.

Jesus in the gospels is radiant with goodness, but he is not always nice.

And the surprising thing is that while we too are called to be good, we need to get in touch with the reality that this may sometimes call us to sacrifice being nice.

Why does that thought strike fear into our hearts?

And why is the church the place of ultimate niceness?

I’m going to make the case to you that our Christian community suffers from a toxic epidemic of niceness that limits our ability to be in true, deep, committed relationship with one another.

We need to find a way to break through our niceness façade and actually love one another with integrity and depth.

And if we practice this discipline in our Christian community, we are much more likely to be able to fulfill Jesus’ command to love our enemies.

Let’s start from scratch. Why is being nice the strongest moral imperative at church?

Well, niceness is a sort of social lubricant.

Being polite and pleasant with one another is certainly a lovely thing, and I’m not advocating that we go out and be blunt and rude at every opportunity.

At church, we encounter really deep, important things, in scripture and theology and doctrine, and also in our lives.

We talk about ethics and social responsibility and war and poverty.

And we get married and entrust our children to baptism and have our funerals.

What happens in church is quite literally life and death, and we are scrupulously nice in order to ease and smooth over the emotional intensity of that reality.

But the problem with the tyranny of niceness is that it papers over real problems. Continue reading

Jesus Sets Us Up

In our gospel text from Matthew today we have some of what are called the “hard sayings” of Jesus.

These are words and statements that feel uncomfortably harsh to us.

Jesus says things like, “If you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire,” and, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”

That seems pretty extreme. That doesn’t feel much like the loving Savior we have come to know and trust.

And it is critical that we reevaluate these statements and try to understand what Jesus is saying to us, because if we don’t, we are liable to play into the narrative of a dominating, vengeful and hateful God that people have feared for generations.

The knowledge of God’s love is always easy to crush with the false rumor of God’s wrath.

Many people over the centuries have either lived consumed by anxiety when faced with a seemingly furious God incapable of love and generosity, or used the wrathful false God to beat other people into submission.

Here we might actually find Jesus’ words quite helpful, reminding us that negative actions are always driven by negative thoughts.

And attributing our origin and care to a hateful, unfree God thirsty to murder his only Son to satisfy an inflexible “justice” seems rather unlikely to nurture gentleness and compassion in ourselves.

Remember that many of the Bible’s statements about God’s wrath, vengeance and hatred say much more about the human authors than God’s actual character.

The nature of God in the Bible developed as humanity’s level of consciousness developed.

In the early days, surrounded by war and carried off into slavery, the first Biblical writers could not conceive of a non-violent God.

Many people today struggle to accept the abject humility and poverty of the God who gave Godself entirely to be hated and killed by God’s own creatures.

It’s more comfortable to project our own fear and anger onto God, because then we can imagine that God’s fear and anger are taken out on the people we dislike the most.

But Jesus is saying himself in our text today that our outer actions of breaking relationship only reflect a deeper, untended brokenness within, and that is where we need to journey if we seek true spiritual transformation.

There is a case to be made that Jesus is actually doing something quite tricky here. Continue reading

Trump: The American Shadow Concretized

Two weeks into the wild ride of having Donald Trump as our president, and a lot of us are worried.

I have talked with friends, family, fellow clergy—people feel helpless and afraid.

The Muslim ban, “alternative facts,” a litany of cabinet appointments of people who have vowed to destroy the very departments they now head, demonizing and threatening the free press—it seems as though all our fears are being confirmed.

And yet I hear from people who voted for Mr. Trump how glad they are to see him fulfilling his campaign promises. We are divided indeed.

Even with all the positive energy generated by the Women’s March and the upcoming Scientists’ March, there is still a thread of fear running through the optimism—will it make any difference?

President Trump with the heft of a Republican government behind him has a lot of very legal power to do a lot of terrible things.

I would say, “May I be proved wrong!”, but thus far the campaign and the administration are chapter and verse the same poisonous rhetoric of exclusion, division, falsehood and fear.

I think we have a deeper problem. Continue reading

Fish Out of Water

The thing about being a fish is that you don’t know that you’re swimming in water.

The thing about being an American is that you don’t know you’re addicted to success.

For the fish, the water is its whole world.

It does not even register on whatever primitive consciousness the fish may have that it is in this liquid medium, and that there is another whole world of air and space that exists outside of it.

Unfortunately for the fish, he can’t survive outside of the water, so he’s probably better off not knowing about the world of air.

We humans are in a similar situation.

From virtually the day we are born, we are taught to orient ourselves toward success.

As we learn to walk and talk, we receive praise for each new word and each new step.

As we grow up and go to school, we learn how to get the affirmation and attention we need by conforming to the expectations of adults and peers.

And as adults, we climb the career ladder, try to make more money, get a bigger house, take more impressive vacations, get more promotions.

We count each trophy our children earn and tick off each box on their college prep resumes.

There’s nothing wrong with this orientation toward progress per se.

In fact, it helps us accomplish a lot of good things in our lives.

If we didn’t value and strive toward success, we never would have learned to walk and talk and read and get into college or get a job.

We need success to get the basics of life taken care of.

But just like the fish, there is a whole world outside this water of success orientation that we don’t know about. Continue reading

Vocation: I Don’t Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

Today let’s talk about the nature of call.

When people use the word Vocation, you can practically hear the capital “V.”

There is an all-too-persistent notion in the church the vocation is strictly the realm of the ordained clergy.

That is not true! Why do people think that?

For one thing, it’s the legacy of a clericalism that created and reinforced a false specialness in the clergy and placed them above lay people.

I also suspect that for some lay folks, denying they have vocation can be a helpful way to escape discerning it.

When we do think about vocation as applying to all people, another trap we fall into is elevating it into some sweeping destiny that encompasses one’s whole life.

It’s a similar phenomenon to the One True Love™ school of thought in which there is One Perfect Person for you who will Make All Your Dreams Come True and you will live Happily Ever After. (This is a damaging and limiting paradigm for so many reasons, but that’s another sermon.)

So when we elevate vocation into a Sweeping Destiny of answering God’s call in a noble, heroic, world-saving way, a task that will remain constant and unchanging for an entire lifetime, we’re setting ourselves up for a lot of problems.

First of all, it ignores the potential for vocation to change and evolve over time.

What you are called to do at eighteen may not be the same thing you’re called to do at eighty.

In fact, in the vast majority of cases, it probably shouldn’t be or we need to start asking if you have really opened yourself up to growth over the last six decades.

Next, the Sweeping Destiny model of vocation puts a heck of a lot of pressure on the individual to get it right.

You’d better make sure you don’t have a headache or aren’t too caught up in speculating on your favorite TV show’s plot on the day you commit to your Vocation.

What if you get it wrong? What if you choose the wrong path? Will the Earth crash into the sun?

And not only do you have to choose rightly, you have to act perfectly in the execution of the vocation. Because if you fail at doing it, maybe you failed in discerning it, and again, we’re back at the Earth crashing into the sun.

Sometimes we act as though it might.

The consistent problem with this approach to vocation is that it takes us further from freedom and deeper into the prison of our need for security, control, and approval.

The Sweeping Destiny/One True Love approach to vocation can only create people—lay or ordained—ethically trapped on a path that often devolves into a job with tasks.

That does not create transformed people.

In fact, it often creates burned-out, bitter people who are phoning it in at whatever “vocation” seemed so noble and beautiful five or ten or fifty years ago.

(That doesn’t mean that every minute of living out vocation is sunshine and roses or it isn’t real. But when duty devolves into dread, something is wrong.)

So what can we say definitively about vocation? Continue reading

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