Come To the Water

Come To the Water

We find several references to water this week. The chapter opens with the baptism of Jesus. Later on we have the wedding an Cana, where the water is turned into wine. When Jesus tells Nicodemus that one must be born again, he says that “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.” Finally comes the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. It was this last story that actually caught me at first.

When I read that story, I’m drawn to other encounters at wells from the Old Testament. Jacob met Rachel at a well as he fled from his brother Esau. Moses met his wife Zipporah by a well as he fled from Egypt. Both stories which would have been familiar to the people of Jesus day. Both stories tell of an encounter that changed the course of the lives of those involved. And this story is no exception. The Samaritan woman was an outsider to the Jews, both because of her birth as a Samaritan, and because she had been with so many men. Yet Jesus speaks with her at the well, and then offers himself AS a well – a well of living water which will flow eternally.

Jesus asks her for water, even though he then tells her that she should be asking him for water. That actually takes me back to the first story – the baptism of Jesus by John. When Jesus first approaches John, John is reluctant to baptize him, feeling unworthy. But Jesus urges him to do it anyway, saying “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” In this act, I see a living out of Jesus title as the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed one. The kings of the Old Testament were anointed with oil by prophets. Jesus is anointed with water by a new prophet, and the Spirit of God descends upon him as a result.

I think that this image of anointing with water can be continued into understanding Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus. When Jesus says “born of water and Spirit,” I think he’s inviting everyone to join with him in being an anointed one of God. Children of God. Even the outsiders, like the Samaritan woman, are included in that invitation.

The title of this post comes from a song that I liked from the ’70s. It alternately goes by the titles “Come To the Water” and “For Those Tears I Died.” It speaks an invitation from Jesus to come to him, and ask, and your thirst and pain will be assuaged. This version isn’t my favorite (to “countrified” for my taste) but it DOES show the lyrics.


Born Again Again

Born Again Again

Here’s a good sermon on Nicodemus that fits this week’s chapter.

Glass Overflowing

A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church on March 17, 2014

John 3:1-17

Gen 12:1-4a

Nicodemus might be the first Presbyterian.

He’s a good guy. He loves Jesus, he just doesn’t want to be too public about his faith, in case he might offend someone. He wants to be a good person and serve his church, but he is busy. Between soccer carpools for his kids and caring for his elderly parents, when is he supposed to have time to live out his faith? Can’t he follow Jesus without any of the inconveniences of radical discipleship?

He comes to Jesus with a claim about who he thinks Jesus is.
“Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

It is not a bold claim. It is measured. He sees Jesus as…

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Assignment … Chapter 23

assignment_icon This week we’ll be reading the story of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  That’s Chapter 23: Jesus Ministry Begins.  For those reading along in your own Bible, the reference is: Matthew 3-411Mark 1-3Luke 8John 1-4. Look for this week’s reflection/s on Monday Morning.  In the meantime, make comments or ask questions here.  Or on the facebook group page, or on Twitter using the hashtag #apcthestory


Open Act 2: the Birth of Jesus

Open Act 2: the Birth of Jesus

What do you say about a story so familiar? Where do you start when nearly every phrase of this chapter has been the text for Christmas sermons, or written in fancy script on Christmas cards, or memorized by a third grader for the congregational Christmas pageant … or for those who prefer another pop-culture reference … the phrases recited by Linus in “A Charlie Brown Christmas?”

I could use this as an opportunity to discuss the Christmas myths … talk about what’s historically accurate and what isn’t, share the Greek and Roman influences on our stories, illumine the three very different gospel accounts of the birth narrative and how we’ve merged the details into one seamless script. We could discuss the character of Mary and her reaction to the presence of Gabriel, or her honor of being the “handmaiden of The Lord” in the midst of the shame of an unwed pregnancy. We could look into the character of Joseph and how he discerns his dreams and lives in a more than righteous, more than “decently and in order”, but a loving, risky and compassionate way.

We could come at the story from the point of view of the shepherds, or the magi, fleshing out the meaning of the story for the peasants or the people of other lands. We could focus on the baby, born amidst the animals, wrapped in rags, and resting in a feed sty. Or the not-yet-bar-mitzvahed tween who, after having been a refugee in Egypt, seeks to learn about his own people’s heritage and faith in the temple, instead of being on the road again with his parents, brothers and sisters, and the whole caravan.

Today, though, I’m struck by the expectation of a people … It’s like we’re at the performance of a Broadway musical. Act 1 came to a close. We were in the lobby (or the rest room) for the last 15 minutes eavesdropping on other show-goers’ comments about the lighting, the acting, the singing, the story. Some of us strayed outside the realm of the theater for a bit … We returned text messages, answered an email or two, listened to voicemail, or updated our Facebook status. We may have had a glass of wine, or an overpriced handful of mixed nuts. But now we are ready … ready for the lights to dim, and the spotlight to illumine the conductor of the pit orchestra. It’s time. Act 1 was good, really good … But we expect something more in Act 2 … Something more delightful, more tear-jerking, more profound. We sit attentively, listening, and the music starts …

As the music starts, we hear the allusions to the first 21 chapters of the story. This act begins with words that are reminiscent of creation itself, “in the beginning …” Hear it? “In the beginning was The Word.” … “Let there be light.” … “The light shines over the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” And then the narration of Moses and the Law: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” Remember? Moses met God on the mountain and in the tabernacle, but he was the only one to see God face to face.

We meet the young girl, Mary, who upon learning she is to be mother of Christ, asks “how is that to be?” It’s not quite the snarky laughter of Sarah who claimed to be too old to be pregnant, but the sweet naïveté of a child claiming she is too young. And then, while she’s “sent away” to her aunt’s home in another city, Mary sings the song of Hannah.

Joseph is the father of Jesus, the son of Jacob … Sound familiar? And he, too, is a dreamer. God speaks to him, gives him direction through his dreams. The dreams lead the holy family to Egypt … not as slaves, but as refugees.

The angels appear in the night sky to shepherds … Shepherds like Joseph’s brothers, like Esau and Jacob, like King David … And the magi come from far off lands to bring homage to the boy-king, just like people came from far and wide to Joseph in Egypt during the famine a couple thousand years earlier.

Herod is out to kill any young king, so he gives an order that all young boys will be killed … Do you remember how Moses was saved from infanticide? And the lover of musicals will hear the Egyptian motif played softly by the strings beneath the poetry of Act 2, scene 1 …

Clearly the birth of Jesus isn’t the beginning of the story. It is the opening of Act 2. And, just like an overture to the second act of a musical will include reprises of the melodies and allusions to the plot points of the first act, this chapter is filled with memories of what had come before — now in a new light. What’s coming in this act? We sit on the edge of our seats knowing and hoping Act 2 is not just more of the same, now we listen with awe and anticipation for the climax of the story. We’re not disappointed. Chapter 22 a not just another king story, it’s not just another prophet story or priest story … it’s the Messianic story, that not only points to the words of God in the Law and the writings, but reveals The Word of God in the flesh.

Building a Bridge

Building a Bridge

I had a real hard time coming up with something to write this week. After all, this stuff is all so familiar. Even people who don’t know anything else about the church know the Christmas story. What new could I add? As has been my pattern in the past when I got stuck like this, I went back and read the full text of the biblical narrative, not just the reduced version we have in “The Story.” Even that didn’t help at first, until I talked it through with Wendy. It was in my conversation with her that I realized that what had stood out was something seemingly boring and mundane – the genealogy of Jesus, through Joseph, as presented in Matthew 1.

Many of the names presented in that list have figured prominently in our studies of the Old Testament. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, on down to David and beyond. But the names that stuck with me weren’t the kings or the patriarchs. They were the women. Tamar, who played the prostitute to conceive by Judah; Rahab, the outsider prostitute from Jericho who protected the spies; and Ruth, the Moabite who came back with Naomi during the time of the Judges. All of these women were outsiders in one way or another. Yet they are the only women named in Jesus’ family tree. (Bathsheba is named indirectly as well, and, while an insider by birth, she certainly has some “outsiderness” associated with her story)

In general, throughout the Old Testament, we’ve seen a message of exclusion of outsiders — the goal has been the purity of the people, not the inclusion of others. In the coming of Jesus, we see a shift. It’s most clearly illustrated in what is known as the “Nunc Dimittis,” Latin for “Now Let,” which is the beginning of Simeon’s prayer on encountering the baby Jesus:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou has prepared before the face of all people;
A light to lighten the Gentiles,
and the glory of thy people Israel

(I normally quote from the NRSV, but this passage is so well known to me in this form from musical settings, I just had to use King James)

The section that I marked in bold is the key phrase. Jesus is coming not just for “the glory of thy people” but also as a “light to lighten the Gentiles.” Jesus is joining those two worlds. Not necessarily making them all the same, but joining them in their differences.

Beyond that, we have some of the “well known players” in our Christmas pageant: the shepherds, and the magi. Both groups bridging that gap between “insider” and “outsider” in their own ways. The shepherds were, we assume, Jews. Insiders of the people of God. But, as shepherds, they would have been scorned and avoided. Surely as “outsider” as an insider can be. Yet these are the people the angels speak to, announcing the birth of the Messiah. Then, there are the magi. They are also referred to as “kings from the East.” Surely outsiders. Yet they were wealthy men, met with honor by Herod, the king of the Jews. They were the ones who saw that star heralding the birth of new king, not the priests.

So what does all of that mean?

My own feeling is that, just as we are called to be followers of Jesus, we are called to be that bridge between those on the inside, and those on the outside. To be a “light to lighten the Gentiles.” To live our lives such that we can be a guiding light to others.

Assignment … Chapter 22

assignment_icon This week we’ll be reading the story of the birth of Jesus.  That’s Chapter 22: The Birth of the King.  For those reading along in your own Bible, the reference is: Matthew 1-2Luke 1-2John 1. Look for this week’s reflection/s on Monday Morning.  In the meantime, make comments or ask questions here.  Or on the facebook group page, or on Twitter using the hashtag #apcthestory.

Crying in Church?

Crying in Church?

“There are tissues in the pews now.” That’s what one elder said was the biggest change our congregation had been through during the previous couple of years.  We had been doing some work as a church in “turn-around;” in attempting to shift from a declining congregation to a growing congregation, we made changes.  “Before we didn’t need tissues in the pews,” she said, “now we do.”  You see, we knew that turnaround would only happen as part of a spiritual awakening.  We encouraged authenticity in worship, we preached from the heart and not just the head, we shared music and art and drama that expressed our real faith … and now, it wasn’t an unusual thing to see people cry in worship.

Sometimes, when we are confronted with the presence of the Holy Spirit in worship, we cry.   It can happen when we are prayed for, when we take communion, when we sing an especially inspirational hymn, when we share in a time of mourning or a time of joy.  I believe crying is a side effect of the softening of our hearts … and it’s necessary to “understand” and internalize both the limitations of our humanness the fullness of the grace of God.

Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law. (Nehemiah 8:9 NIV)

The people tried their best.  They were holding on to a remnant of faith and tradition and identity as the people of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  They had an inkling of what God expected of them, but they didn’t understand.  When Ezra, the religious scholar and priest, returned to Jerusalem, he found good people, but people who were not “pure” in their following of the Law.  They did not understand the Law.  And so, after they banded together as a people and rebuilt the temple, after they stepped out in courage to rebuild a safe place … then … only then, Ezra and Nehemiah call them together to read the Word of God.

They don’t come in with words of judgement, they tell them they are sinners, or that they are falling short of God’s demands, or that God will bring havoc on them.  No, Ezra and Nehemiah work to build community first, to create a safe place, and they invite the people to hear the Word, to take it in and let it speak to them.  When the Word is understood, though, the people weep. They know they have not been 100% faithful. For the people of Jerusalem, it was about the purity of the people and their eclecticism of other gods and other cultures.  If there is one thing that’s clear throughout the first testament, it’s that God is the one and only god.  Nothing should spoil that.

1743688_700622096626597_1908591635_nWe try our best, but we still fall short.  Maybe we didn’t know.  Or we understood it in a different way.  Perhaps, we didn’t realize we were causing our children (or our parents) such heartache.  We never thought about how our words or our actions were being heard by people of color.  We prefer not to think about how we participate in a culture of violence or poverty.  We never understood our consumerism or wealth as worshipping other gods.  We never meant to exclude people from our congregation, we just wanted to preach the truth.

When we are confronted with the Truth, though, we are also comforted by the God of Grace … a God who never gives up on us.  That’s the word Nehemiah has for the people … no need to mourn, no need to weep, no need to sit in shame, guilt, or self-pity, no need to fear.  Let’s just get to work and do what we can to change it.

Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10 NIV)

Repentance … turning around … changing.  It’s what the Word of God is constantly calling us to.  And in the process we are loved, we are claimed, we are comforted, we are given safe passage, we are “home”.  Our strength for change is in knowing that we are God’s people. This is the Day the Lord Has Made.

May our churches provide a safe place to hear the Word of God, that we may need tissues in the pews … so our hearts are softened, we understand God’s word for our lives, and we are changed … and go out in joy and feasting and generosity.