This Sunday's sermon was given by Associate Pastor Mary Etta Mest and can be read by clicking here.
Text: John 4: 13-15, 42
A traveler stops his car at a small restaurant along a desolate highway; no one else is there, it must be past the time when all the locals stop for their morning coffee and donuts. The waitress, seeing how exhausted he is, comes over and asks, “What would you like to drink, coffee –regular or decaf, with sugar, cream; or tea – hot or iced; or soda – Coke, Pepsi, 7-up or root beer?”
Those choices at that out-of-the-way stop remind the weary, thirsty traveler that today’s drinks are no longer simple decisions between water, coffee, or tea, and now each one comes in varieties of flavors. There are drinks to meet every person’s preference, but everyone knows when it comes to quenching thirst, the best choice is just plain water.
And so, before the traveler announces his choice, the waitress automatically puts some ice in a glass, fills it with water and places it on the counter in front of him. As he drinks, the two begin to talk, which is what often happens, a quenched thirst invites conversation.
Push that scene back into today’s Gospel setting and the counter becomes a well, the weary traveler becomes Jesus, and the waitress becomes a Samaritan woman at the time of noon… with two changes; Jesus must ask for a drink, and their conversation is filled with tension and false impressions.
The tension is Jesus is a Jew speaking to a woman (a taboo for a Jewish man who only speaks to his wife in the privacy of the home) and worse than that, the woman is a Samaritan, an arch-enemy of Jews and vice-a-versa.
Yet, Jesus asks her to draw Him a drink from the well, and, as can happen, He starts the conversation about well water versus spring water as He says,
'Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again,
but those who drink of the water that I will give them
will never be thirsty.
The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water
gushing up to eternal life.’
Jesus knows, even as He drinks to satisfy His physical thirst, she has a much deeper thirst that the well’s water cannot quench. It’s obvious in her coming to draw at high noon to avoid the villagers who fill their jugs in the early morning. She wants to escape their shunning her, gossiping about her, twisting her life into a sordid, scandalous story, when it is really a story of one tragedy after another – that many preachers continue to turn into a sermon to pronounce judgment on those who are “that kind of woman!”
I must confess, in years past, that is how I labeled her as I misread her having had five husbands and not married to the one with whom she is living. (vs. 18) “Had five husbands” – that means she has been widowed FIVE times, and without a roof over her head, food on her table, clothing to cover her body, might she have had to let
herself be taken in at a price!
Is it as a servant or an arrangement the man will not legalize? We aren’t told. (Reference: David Lose, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN) All we do know is that her plight has her drinking from the bitter cup of tragedy,
which only Jesus sees and knows all the wells in the world cannot quench the thirst of her mind and soul. She knows it too, as she begs,
“Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty,
or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
And Jesus answers, “I am he, the one to whom you are speaking - “living water.”
He is offering her the drink beyond all drinks. Her plea is carried forward in people, usually young adults, who come to our church office asking to do volunteer service to work off hours for a DUI arrest. My heart aches for them. Most are victims of drugs and alcohol taken to self-medicate mental agony or a personal crisis and ongoing failures in finding work.
It is obvious what they need is to drink from the spring Jesus freely offers, and the joy is to see how many find their way to that spring when our parking lot is filled on Friday nights as people come to the AA and ALANON meetings,and extend the story of the Samaritan woman who “left her water jar and went back to the city” where she shouted, “Come and see!” Her invitation to them becomes their own celebration, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.’
Jesus Christ, God coming in the garb of our humanness to be living water, not well water. Well water is still, in the language of the Gospel story, “well” also means “see” (to look into), water that serves as a mirror, mirroring the face –and the inner life that hides beyond that image, and so, even its coolness and whatever we now add to flavor it, giving us almost too many choices, only entertains and satisfies our taste buds for a moment.
There is the need to come again and again, and still have an unquenched, unmet inner thirst of mind and soul.
God in Christ offers Himself as “living water” like a spring whose flow doesn’t sit and stagnate and become a breeding pool for whatever will be harmful to body, mind, and soul.
I think of His offer whenever I pass a small pond by the side of Swamp Pike across from Limerick Garden of Memories. In the summer it turns green and becomes a breeding site for mosquitoes and no one cleans it up.
That pool serves as a constant reminder to keep the spring of worship and teaching and preaching open for the flow of Jesus’ life to turn us into people who become like those Samaritan villagers, confessing, ‘we believe…we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.’
For, remember, when the woman saw her reflection mirrored in the water in the well, she also saw Jesus standing beside her; the same Jesus who stands beside us today offering Himself to us and all the villagers of the world to savor the drink beyond all drinks, and confess with the poet: (H.W. Farringtom)
I know not how that Bethlehem’s Babe could in the Godhead be;
I only know that Manger Child has brought God’s life to me.
I know not how that Calvary’s cross a world from sin could free;
I only know its matchless love has brought God’s love to me.
Text: John 3: 5-7, 16-17
We’ve just heard what is probably the best known verse in the Bible: John 3:16…
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him
may not perish but may have eternal life. '
When hearing or saying those words, we might put an equal sign between “believe” and “eternal life,” as though, quoting from the Apostle Paul, “to confess with your lips and believe in your heart” (Romans 10:9) will earn the reward of “eternal life.”
That’s why Nicodemus, a rich and prominent lawyer and a member of the Jew’s Supreme Court called the Sanhedrin, sought out Jesus under the cover of night. He didn’t want his colleagues to see him talking with Him.
It could threaten his reputation and position. But he wanted to hear what Jesus had to say he had to learn, to know to think, to believe – (as a Jew) in order to “walk in the way of the Lord,” with the “way” being the Hebrew Law, or, as we Christians say, “have eternal life.”
Jesus’ response was,
‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.
What is born of the flesh is flesh,
and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.
Do not be astonished that I said to you, “
You must be born from above.”
Nicodemus immediately put his mind to work on what he thought he was hearing Jesus say, “You must be born again.” You must do the work of thinking, accepting, believing that the One you have sought is God in human flesh, and believing that, you will earn the grade of eternal life with God.
We might insert our own name, or anyone else’s name;
“YOU” _______must do the work to earn eternal life.
And what if we or a loved one doesn’t have a date to give, like a grade to show or a diploma to display, to document a time when a personal confession was made? What if we or someone one else fears flunking and doesn’t even try, or decides to play hooky, because there are other, more exciting things to do?
What then; is the answer “perish?” or in harsher words, “Damned! Condemned to hell’s fire?”
There are times, when, as a pastor conducting a funeral service, someone will come up and say, “I’m really worried. I don’t think he/she was saved.” Implying the deceased never made a public confession of Jesus as Lord and Savior, or, as some say, “never got saved.” It is then that we need to hear what Jesus said:
‘Do not be astonished that I said to you,
“You must be born from above.”
“Born from above,” not “born again.” Not our work but God’s labor that is like natural birth.
As a teenager, I worked summers and weekends in a hospital’s maternity department where my aunt, the supervisor, gave me on-the-job training to work as a practical nurse, usually in the 12-bed ward. One day the staff in the labor room was shorthanded and I was asked to oversee a patient while the doctor and nurse ate a quick supper, and they would be as close as a phone call.
Well, the baby everyone thought would arrive several hours later, didn’t wait. I called, wheeled the soon-to-be-mother into the labor room, praying as I did, and raised a silent “Amen,” as the staff arrived. It was a vivid reminder that being born into life as a child of God is as Jesus said, “from above,” an action of God beyond our timing or control. which Jesus stamped with the “Amen” of John 3: 17
‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world
to condemn the world,
but in order that the world might be saved through him.’
And then Jesus turned John 3:16 and 17 (let’s not forget to add that “Amen” verse) into the sight of Good Friday’s cross with His arms out stretched to embrace the entire world in what Nicodemus first heard:
'No one can enter the kingdom of God
without being born of water and Spirit.'
One outstretched arm as a sign for “being born of water;” the other as “being born of Spirit,” with a capital “S,”
the embrace the early church leaders struggled to find a way for new Christians to accept as a gift and not what they worked to earn. What they did was to develop an order for Baptism that was really a funeral service. (Reference: “Body and Soul” M. Craig Barnes, P. 82)
As each person descended into the water, the charge was given to give up the old life of sin and vices; as a sign of submission they took off their old clothes. Then they were submerged or water was poured over them as the words were spoken,
“Buried with him in baptism.”
When they stood and left the water, they heard,
“Risen to walk with new life in Christ.”
As the leader declared how God’s Spirit clothes us with the new life of Christ, they put on new clothing. Today’s Orthodox Churches continue this ritual when baptizing infants, and from the first centuries on whole household were baptized, infants through adults…the sign that parents and the whole church family through their examples and prayers, influence a child to grow into the Baptismal vows, and as we do here, take them in the “yes” of Confirmation…
...Which takes me back to what may be said at a funeral. “I’m really worried. I don’t think he/she was saved.” with the implied fear being, “He/she will be damned, sent to an eternity in hell’s fire!” and maybe a fear we have for our own future.
I think of the Baptismal font where parents and a church vow to be a nurturing influence and never stop giving the newly baptized infant to God in prayer, praying for him or her, even to the grave, prayers that silence the worry, “Was he/she saved?” For through prayer the way is open to Jesus, with arms outstretched to take everyone in,
those who have had a dramatic experience of being accepted by God, those who can only say, “I want my life to be a thank-you to God,” and those we fear will not be welcomed, because the life they lived seems to be a rejection of God’s call in Christ. Look to the cross and hear God saying, “Come in! Come in to My embrace!” that is greater than all our sin and can even overpower rejection with welcoming love.
It’s the warranty Jesus attached to our life; read the words printed in today’s Gospel. AMEN.
Text: Genesis 3: 6-7a, 9; Matthew 4: 1, 11
A missionary friend of ours whose name some of you have heard mentioned in past years, Rev. Anna Dederer, told a story about a custom in Micronesia where she served as both pastor and nurse. When the tribal chief died, they dug a hole large enough to bury him and all his possessions. Anna told the story at our dinner table with a twinkle in her eyes, and said in her German-English:
“Ach, vhat a big hole it would take for you!”
and we all laughed. It is a joke into which your name might also be inserted, going back to the original couple named Adam and Eve. They had a garden home filled with everything any human might need or want.
But the trouble was, the more they had, the more they wanted, and so, as their desire is described:
'… when the woman saw that the tree was good for food,
and that it was a delight to the eyes,
and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise,
she took of its fruit and ate;
and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her,
and he ate. '
Note: The man didn’t resist or question the woman’s offer; she gave and he took, and together they BOTH ate.
And when they did, … the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked… The more they had, the more there was to put in the hole that would be dug for them when they died. All “stuff” that has no lasting value, things that when people who have them, see what they have, like Adam and Eve, know that they are naked.
The truth repeated and perpetuated by one generation after another up to us. A man drives his top-of-the-line car between a winter home in Florida and a summer home in the New England hills and in between, jets to Europe to ski or the Caribbean to swim and snorkel,but then he develops a circulatory problem that becomes a recurring crisis sending him to the hospital and then to rehab and a new schedule for his life that confines him to his room.
He looks at his car, his bank account and investments, and knows they cannot buy him health or friends. From a distant past, when he still took time to go to church and devoted a few minutes each day to read his Bible, he remembers Jesus’ story about a man with many barns who hears God say,
“You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.
And these things…whose will they be?” (Luke 12:20)
He knows and he feels the nakedness of Adam and Eve. The Old Testament lesson heard on this First Sunday in Lent may be playing itself out in the lives of many who are hearing it. Ads and Apps, billboards and slick brochures tempt us to want the life they are promoting, like the Garden of Eden tree with fruit that “was a delight to the eye.”
If we have them, we will become “wise” with the wisdom of the world that tells us things will give us status found at certain rendezvous places, be they drinking holes or high-priced restaurants, educational institutions, sports clubs, spas, exotic get-away vacations, or stores that dress us in designer label clothing. All things that, when we have them, we have nothing beyond them; things that will eventually knock us down to the heritage of Adam and Eve’s line: they knew that they were naked.
The ongoing temptation of Adam and Eve, perhaps going on in your life and mine for which we are programmed by the world in which we live. In the Gospel that is always read on the first Sunday in Lent, the scene changes from a garden to a wilderness of rocks and sand, wild animals on the prey, scorching heat by day and bone-chilling cold at night, a place where Jesus withdrew from the world of water and food to fast and pray and sort through the options as to how He could best serve God and all God’s people.
In those forty days – the Hebrew way of saying “a long time,” His mind was dulled, his stamina drained, and His stomach ached for food. The perfect setup for being enticed with the world’s quick fix of instant satisfaction and gratification; become a miracle worker, an entertainer, a power-wielding idol. All of whom have their day and cease to be; and, like Adam and Eve, find themselves at life’s end stripped down to nakedness. Yet, those options are enticing, especially when famished with both emotional stress and physical hungry.
Years ago one of our young people was in a serious auto accident that required stitches in his jaw and face and limited him to sipping liquids through a straw for weeks. There he lay in a hospital bed watching a TV commercial for pizza with gooey cheese piled high and a variety of toppings. His hunger had him craving for a pizza like the one pictured on TV, and so, the first thing he did when he came home was to struggle to work pieces into his mouth between the stitches.
Like that TV ad, the world programs us to resort to feed our hunger with weight gaining foods and to do the same for the hungry around us. Give them boxes of food, box after box, ignoring the adage: hand a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime.
Or the quick fix solution for stress-filled conflicts: react with the knock-down power play of force, out-bomb, out-burn; retaliate rather than negotiate. Intimidate people into submission rather than serving them with compassion.
The temptations Jesus rejected with Scripture that gave Him the strength to stand up to a knock-down world.
The God-intended choice affirmed with the picturesque line that ends the story: angels came and waited on him.
“Come in! Come in!” shout both the Garden and the wilderness stories, calling us to immerse ourselves in both scenes, to be tempted as were Adam and Eve and as was Jesus.
Then, let the seeking God Who questions, “Where are you?” see us leaving our life of things to give our full allegiance to the Voice of the Creator Who has called us into being; and let Jesus set the example, to use Scripture as He used it, and commit to following Him and receive from Him the strength to stand up to a knock-down world made strong with a question and answer that was written 450 years ago but remains timely…into our day:
“What is your only comfort in life and in death?
That I belong, body and soul, in life and in death, not to
myself, but to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
I belong; YOU belong, not to the world, but to Jesus Christ!
Our standup answer to a knock-down world!”
Text: Isaiah 53: 5; 2 Corinthians 5:21
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin,
so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
My mother was raised by her German-born grandmother who followed the family tradition. Every Sunday she took my mother to the Lutheran parish in Philadelphia while her father stayed home and prepared a full-course meal for the family to eat when they returned from church. As a young child my mother watched the adults go forward after the sermon and prayers, kneel at the chancel rail, and receive Holy Communion; the sight that made a lasting impression on her was seeing the men, who were as gruff and stubborn as her father, except thatthey came to church where, when receiving the bread and cup, they wept.
That sight stayed with her for the rest of her life and became a legacy passed on to me…to ponder what it was that made those restrained, emotionally reserved, stern, and some bad-tempered men weep.
It was when I first heard a choir sing Handel’s Messiah:
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
that the answer became real and personal when seeing the bread of Holy Communion raised and the words are heard, “He took break, and when He had broken it…” Bread broken, not just any bread, but that unleavened bread prepared as it had been from the very first Passover… a napkin folded in half and then in quarters for three unleavened cakes to be placed between the folds, and, in the course of the meal, the second one was taken out, lifted up, and broken…
with that being the only sound…
until, in Jesus’ hands, the silence was interrupted with the words,
“This is My Body broken for you.”
The action bringing into sight what the prophet had said and some remembered after Good Friday:
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
Bread broken for the broken by the One Who let Himself be broken on the cross! Why those men wept the tears of joy-filled disbelief that they were receiving the bread of Christ’s life; He was giving them the cleansing gift of His presence!
The gifts: the broken in body and mind and spirit receive with an understanding others may find hard to imagine, as did Samuel Wells, vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Field in London, (1) who went to visit a friend he had not seen in two years. It broke his heart to look at him. He had been an accomplished musician who taught school and challenged at risk students to write poetry. He climbed mountains, painted, baked, and even knitted, and his piercing brown eyes focused as though you were the only person in the world to whom he gave his full attention.
That was until ten years ago when a post-viral fatigue began to rob him of energy and eventually confined him to a room where he struggled to get out a word. During the visit he managed to say, “Maybe we could do some bread and wine. Eucharist.”
Samuel Wells went to the kitchen where all he could find was a crust of bread and vermouth and began the service. “Suddenly,” he said, “every word mattered.” “The Lord be with you.” Who had stayed with him these ten wilderness years?” Then the confession with the vicar holding back the words, “What had he done to deserve this?”
Samuel Wells said, “It got harder. It was time for intercession. He wasn’t helping me. I had to lead it all myself, and again he wanted
to shout, “How long, O Lord, How long will you keep this beloved man in prison?” But he said, Faithful God, you have given friends: never let us be alone. Beckoning God, you have given us story: Make our future bigger than our past. Embracing God, you have given us yourself: suffuse our lives with love beyond our imagining.”
As he raised and broke the bread, he prayed, “Heartbreaking God, in Christ you have had your body broken; make this broken body a blessing to your people.”
When he came to the prayer of the Great thanksgiving, he confessed to discovering that his friend whose life had been broken by an imprisoning illness, could give thanks for a broken God who was with him in his brokenness, and the bread and cup were a taste of the promise of the day when God will make all things new and that day will begin with great banquet. Bread broken for the broken…moving gruff, reserved, stern, and some bad-tempered German men to weep when kneeling and taking the bread, because it was a taste of Christ’s life; He was giving them the cleansing gift of His presence!
Bread broken for the broken…moving Samuel Wells’ paralyzed friend to receive the bread with thanksgiving, because it was a taste of a promised future when he and all creation would be fully restored to wholeness and he would raise his voice in praise. Bread broken for the broken…for you and for me who in faith confess:
Bread of the world, in mercy broken,
Wine of the soul, in mercy shed,
By Whom the words of life were spoken,
And in Whose death our sins are dead.
Look on the heart by sorrow broken,
Look on the tears by sinners shed;
And be Thy feast to us the token,
That by Thy grace our souls are fed. (Reginald Heber NCH#346)
(1) Quoted from Christian Century, “Faith Matters” by Samuel Wells, Jan. 8, 2014
Text: Exodus 24:16-17; 2 Peter 1:16; Matthew 17:1-5, 8
Some Christians believe we should take a Bible (Show an old Bible with loose pages. Take the Old Testament section and lay it aside. Hold up what’s left.) and cut away, in this case lift out, the whole Old Testament, because Christians have no need for it.
The problem is the writers who have given us the New Testament lived in a time when all they had was the first five books of the Old Testament called the Torah, writings of several of the Hebrew prophets, and a book of prayers and hymns called the Psalms. That was the Bible Jesus knew and the Bible at the time of the writer of the Gospel according to Matthew, who intended to have first-century Jews living in Jerusalem pair the Old Testament scene in Exodus with the New Testament story that gives this Sunday its name: “The Transfiguration of Our Lord” or simply “Transfiguration Sunday.”
So, we’d better put the Bible back together (Place one section on top of the other.) in order to compare one scene with the other. In the first Moses leaves the people behind to go up the mountain where God gives him the Ten Commandments to take back down. The glow of the radiance of being in God’s company clings to him as he returns holding the two tablets of stone.
In Walter Brueggemann’s words it is “a real encounter with the real divine presence that resists all” attempts to explain it. In the second scene Jesus takes Peter and James and John to be His companions in a night of prayer. Even before they begin that climb, they are in a dark mood, especially Peter. He cannot shake himself free from Jesus’ prediction that He is on His way to suffering and death.
There, in the night’s darkness settling on the mountain, God’s presence shines like a blinding light illuminating Moses and Elijah in the company of Jesus, and casts its rays on the standoff figures, Peter, James, and John: A holy moment Peter wants to literally pin down with three tents, to hold in a permanent man-made place where people can go and be in God’s full presence, which continues into our time as a reported vision prompts building a shrine, believing the vision can be housed in that place where pilgrims may come and experience it.
Peter’s building plan is rejected with an overshadowing cloud concealing the Voice that is heard saying,
“This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
The Law which Moses brought down, chiseled on tablets of stone, and the words from God spoken through the prophets, are all embodied in Jesus.
There, on Sonrise Mountain (S-O-N) all God’s glory is housed in Him, so, “Listen to Him!”
And when they looked up,
they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
Unlike Moses Jesus descends from His Sonrise Mountain shedding the blinding light, in which He was clothed and of which Peter later testified we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty to accompany His disciples and all who follow to this day, into a time , when the light-filled Sundays of Epiphany, reaching the blinding brilliance of the Transfiguration, yield to the darkness that will not be shattered until Easter morning.
A time we call the Season of Lent, the time between Transfiguration and Resurrection; the time to walk with Jesus into the valley, darkened with plots to shatter God’s Law and elevate some to the position of god, while reducing others to being less than human; the valley darkened with frail figures in a refugee camp or shivering in the bone-chilling cold because the shelter is less safe than the street, someone whose illness or joblessness is trapping them in hopelessness.
Lent, the time when the scene in Matthew’s Transfiguration story takes a strange twist as God defers to Jesus:
“Listen to Him!” working His way in His last days in the dark valley - teaching, healing, loving even the unlovable, and befriending those who are shunned because of their sins or others’ false judgment of them.
“Listen to Him!” and let His words and actions become a Lenten discipline to take up and join Jesus in ministering to those we meet in the valley of their darkness.”
This past week I read a story from World War II and the last days in the Nazis death camp at Auschwitz. The prisoners had no food, no water, no clotting, only rags. Their dark fate was to die from dysentery, with no water to wash their bodies in their Hebrew burial tradition. One woman took the water lying in puddles of mud, boiled it and washed the bodies of the dying, giving them in death the dignity that had been taken from them in life. Her ministry in the darkest valley of Auschwitz, to which a Jewish carpenter from Nazareth led His fishermen disciples from Capernaum
to copy Him in doing, as He left His robe of glory on Sonrise Mountain to descend into the darkest valley of humanity, to touch and dignify every human soul with His life, at the cost of taking on the deepest darkness of the cross, which will be washed in the light of the Easter morning when God’s splendor shining through Jesus on Sonrise Mountain will descent to earth to give new meaning to the Voice:
“Listen to Him!” Listen and follow!
On Wednesday we take up the Lenten walk that spans the time between Transfiguration and Resurrection, the between-time to work as Jesus’ disciples in ministry to others’ in their dark valley, and to us in our own.
A young woman followed her dream to have a bakery which meant she had to work day and night to become financially solvent. One evening, she was so exhausted, she wandered off. She had no inclination to enter a church building, but found herself being drawn to Vassar College’s chapel to kneel before the altar and a stained glass window through which the sun was shining, bathing her in light, and suddenly she felt strength beyond herself. (Guideposts, Mar. 2014)
Bathed in the Transfiguration light of Jesus shining on Sonrise Mountain, we take up the Lenten walk into the dark valley to join Him in ministering to others, but first, we let Him minister to us. AMEN.
Rev. Dr. Martha B. Kriebel is Pastor Emerita of Trinity Reformed United Church of Christ in Collegeville, PA