Sermon – March 19, 2017

Third Sunday in Lent
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
John Kiess

Readings: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42

In his celebrated commencement address to the graduates of Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace begins with a story. “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the heck is water?’”[1]

For Wallace, the story captures an essential but easily overlooked truth: “that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.”[2] How could a fish not know it swims in water? How could it not know that everything it does, from its feeding to its swimming and schooling, depends upon the existence of this fundamental element, which is everywhere it goes, hiding in plain sight? So it appears with us. As Wallace sees it, we tend to be so caught up in the daily routines of our workaday world—hitting the alarm clock, taking a shower, making the coffee, dropping the kids off at school, sitting in traffic, sending emails, grabbing lunch, going to meetings, sitting in more traffic, making dinner, putting the kids to bed, and then falling asleep ourselves—that we too miss the water, the stuff that makes it all possible, the stuff that gives it meaning. What’s worse, our daily routines have the effect of taking on their own water-like quality, forming the ostensible bedrock of our lives, so that we end up mistaking the routines for the real thing. Our alienation is thus twofold: we are unconscious of the fact that a thousand little choices have combined to form a new normal, an unmovable set of self-bestowed givens, and this has made us all the more unconscious of those deeper realities that undergird and support our routinized lives—realities which, like water for the fish, are hiding in plain sight, obvious to the outside observer, but invisible to us.

What is that water? What is that deeper substrate of reality upon which we all depend, to which our daily routines point, and our restless hearts attest, but which we cannot perceive because those routines prevent us from seeing them? And how do we interrupt our established routines, our conventional ways of thinking, long enough for such a question to even occur to us? For Wallace, getting to this question is half the achievement, for it means we have sensed, if just for a fleeting moment, that there is more out there than just our routines, and this recognition is already evidence of our awareness of the existence of the water.

You may have noticed that water is all over this morning’s readings. It’s there in Exodus, where Moses makes water gush from a rock in the desert, satisfying a tired and thirsty people (17:6). It’s there in Psalm 95, where the memory of this miracle is recalled as a reminder of Israel’s tendency to forget too easily who has provided for their needs (95:8-9). And it is quite literally at the center of the Gospel lesson, which takes place at a well in Samaria.

Let’s review the details. Jesus is on his way to Galilee and decides to take a shortcut through Samaria, the homeland of the Samarians, with whom Jews do not ordinarily interact. We’ll come back to this part of the story later. Jesus stops at Jacob’s well, and a Samaritan woman comes to draw water. It appears the woman has grown accustomed to her daily jaunt to the well; indeed, one gets the sense that she has come thousands of times before and this has become a permanent, if reluctant, feature of her life. Later we find out that the primary appeal of the water that Jesus has to offer is that she would no longer have to come to the well (4:15), suggesting that part of what she seeks is a release from this routine, from the necessity of having to come at all. At the beginning of the story, however, she is unaware that there is any alternative. Like us, her routine is her reality.

Jesus is depicted as an interruption of her routine. He interrupts her routine in three ways. First, he is a man sitting by a well where only women typically come. Witness the astonishment of the disciples later in the story when they find him speaking with her (4:27). Second, he is a Jew, and Jews aren’t supposed to be hanging out with Samaritans. Third, he asks her for water. On a normal day, she comes to the well, draws water, and goes home in peace. She is not accustomed to strange men asking for water from her jar.

These interruptions prompt a question: “How is it you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (4:9). Notice how the question further serves to destabilize the routine. This man and woman are no longer quietly going about their business; they are talking to each other. They are engaged in a dialogue. They are conscious. Jesus responds by saying she has asked the wrong thing. If she knew who he was, she would have asked him for living water. To which she responds, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” (4:12). It sounds a little like the fish’s question, doesn’t it? And here we have arrived at the crucial moment, where her routine has been interrupted just enough for her to be able to glimpse beyond the daily drudgery and see that there might be something else. What do you mean living water? Is that something you can get here? Is that something you need a bucket for? I haven’t heard of that before. Tell me more. So Jesus explains, “Everyone who drinks of this water [from the well] 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” (4:14). Strikingly, the woman appears to equate this water with a kind of physical water, the kind that would mean release from physical thirst and the need to continue her daily routine. The appeal, as mentioned before, is that she will not have to keep coming back to draw water. The appeal is that she might be released from the weight of her routine.

It is just at this point that Jesus appears to change the subject, asking her to go get her husband. The woman says, “I have no husband,” and behind this statement lie a thousand unstated truths. Yes, she currently has no husband, but she knows she has had a few husbands before—five to be precise—and that she is currently living with another man (4:17-18). She knows she has not married this man, and we may be within our rights to assume that she hasn’t married him because none of the previous five marriages have worked out. She knows this, but she does not know Jesus knows this. And so she thinks her secret is safe, the secret that constitutes a large part of what has defined her existence. For her routine has not only been characterized by the daily drudgery of trips to the well, but a larger, deeper, more unsatisfying routine of trying to find companionship, acceptance, and satisfaction in these various relationships, none of which has worked out. That’s what she is really thirsting for. That’s what her daily trips to the well symbolize. That’s the cycle that has become second nature, the water she swims in, and she would rather not anyone know about it, because if she shared it, she would have to acknowledge it herself, and that is more frightening than simply learning to live with it, which she has managed to do up until now.

But Jesus knows. And his knowledge enables her to finally be honest with herself. She is finally able to break from her routine way of thinking about her life. That is what an encounter with Jesus does. It wakes us from the quiet compromises we have made with ourselves, those daily decisions to live with something that we know does not satisfy us, instead of stopping and following the pangs of our restless hearts for something that might truly satisfy. Jesus wakes us to consciousness. He does not promise us release from routine—and indeed much of his life is an affirmation of the beauty of the everyday—but he does promise us release from the futile task of trying to find our ultimate satisfaction, our ultimate home, in the unconscious habits that our routines can lock us into. Jesus interrupts us long enough to enable us to be honest with ourselves, and then ask, “What water have I convinced myself to swim in? And what is the nature of the water for which I have been created to swim, the water that has been there all along, hiding in plain sight, as the ground of my existence, the substance of my longings, the object of my deepest hopes?” Jesus gives us the freedom to ask that question.

And what is the fruit of asking that question? For the Samaritan woman, freedom from another set of assumptions: that Jews and Samaritans must live and worship separately. The remainder of the dialogue between Jesus and the woman (4:19-26) turns to some of the specific details that separate these two communities: Jews believe God is to be worshipped in Jerusalem, while Samaritans believe God is to be worshiped on Mount Gerizim. That is the ordinary assumption that informs their routines and what has led them to accept their separate existences. Jesus informs her that true worship doesn’t happen in Jerusalem or a mountain, but “in spirit and truth” (4:23). When we glimpse the true reality of the water in which we swim, the one in whom we live, move, and have our being, we see that God is not limited to a specific geography, but is the ground of all geography, the ground of our existence, the air we breathe. And one implication of this is that the dividing walls of our routinized existence, those boundaries that we have learned to uncritically accept and unconsciously let determine the scope our interactions with others, have fallen down in Christ Jesus. We have been summoned to inhabit a new reality, to enjoy a new food and drink, a new harvest, the fruit of which is life together, an expanded community defined not by mutual suspicion but peace and reconciliation.

That is Paul’s message in the reading from Romans. Paul directs our attention not just to the ground of our created existence, but to the one who has justified and saved us. He does so in order that we might fully grasp the real context of our lives. It is not that we will be justified, but that “we are justified” (5:1). It is not that we will be reconciled, but that we “have been reconciled” (5:11). And this is what enables us to endure present sufferings, and the routinized divisions that remain, with the confident hope that suffering produces endurance, and endurance character, and character hope: a hope for the fulfillment of all these things—the glory of community in God and with one another—which will not be disappointed (5:4-5). And what is it to realize this but to realize that this is the true reality undergirding our existence. This is what lies beneath our routines, and in our routines. This is our source and our end. This is what our restless hearts are restless for. This is water. Amen.

  1. David Foster Wallace, 2005 Commencement Address delivered at Kenyon College, reprinted as This is Water (New York: Little , Brown and Company 2009), 4.
  2. Wallace, This is Water, 8.

Sermon – March 5, 2017

Sermon – March 5, 2017
Jeremy Funk

Sometimes I struggle to relate to Jesus in our gospel lesson today. Most obviously I struggle to relate to him because, of course Jesus will pass these three tests: he’s God and I’m not. Given his close relationship with God, Jesus will certainly refuse to turn stones into bread even though he’s starving. Because of his connection with the divine, Jesus will surely say no to the fame that would follow from leaping off the temple and being rescued by angels. And finally, because he’s intimately tied to God, Jesus will definitely turn down the world’s power and take divine power instead, exercising a little self-discipline now for big gratification later.

What are we to glean from today’s gospel? The church can surely learn valuable lessons from it. For one, we don’t live on bread alone but also on God, so in its mission to show God to the world the church must address not only the world’s physical needs but also the world’s spiritual needs. For another, the church must not to be seduced by the worldly fame and power on offer from the devil but must proclaim a different kingdom, the one Jesus humbly announced. All this is good and true. But this story and this Jesus still leave me turning my wheels, reflecting mostly on what not to do, on what temptations not to fall prey to. So this story can have the same effect on me as reading the Ten Commandments without context: thou shalt not do this or that or the other thing. Okay then, what shall we do instead?

I suggest that our gospel lesson offers three habits of mind for us to cultivate, habits that Jesus modeled and underscored for us in the wilderness. The first mental habit is to live into the reality that all food and all life come from God. Food and life are gift and provision. The second habit of mind is to live into the reality that God, that goodness, is everywhere; grace is here, even if we struggle to notice where or how. The third habit of mind is to remember and rehearse for yourself your experiences of being buoyed, cared for, tended to, set free, and saved. God is in the business of saving and setting free, and as we continue to seek God, it’s wise for us to hold on to the truth that God is still in the saving business, especially in small ways and in our little lives.

We can see that Jesus holds out for us these habits of mind if we briefly examine the Scripture passages he quotes to the devil during his ordeal. They all come from the book of Deuteronomy. In the three original passages Moses is speaking to the Israelites. Sometimes Moses addresses an audience about to enter the promised land. So he will recall for them the time their ancestors wandered in the wilderness. Other times though, even with many of them gone, Moses addresses his original band of freed slaves, the folks of the wilderness generation themselves. So during his own wilderness experience, it’s not a surprise that Jesus fastens onto these passages from Deuteronomy.

The first habit of mind Jesus holds out for us is to live into the reality that all food and all life come from God. Food and life are provision and gift. The devil says to the famished Jesus, since you’re the Son of God, you can feed yourself many times over. Just turn these stones here into loaves of bread.

But Jesus recalls what Moses said to the Israelites: “Remember,” said Moses, “the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep God’s commandments. God humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

In humility Jesus speaks a word the Israelites had to learn: food is a gift from God. Certainly the manna Israel ate was a divine gift. But so is all food. We humans can’t make food out of thin air. So even if Jesus had turned the stones into bread at the devil’s bidding, that bread still would have come from God. Fixing, sharing, and eating food, which we will do today during our potluck meal, does not show our self-sufficiency but only our dependence on a bountiful God.

The second habit of mind Jesus holds out for us is to live into the reality that God, goodness, is everywhere. Grace is here even if we struggle to notice where and how.

The devil corners Jesus in a precarious place at the Jerusalem temple. Jesus is in a bad way, without an escape.

Since you’re the Son of God, the devil says, you can get out of here unscathed. Just throw yourself down. You’ve made God your refuge and your home, even more than the psalmist did who wrote that God will send his angels to catch one whom God loves. I can guarantee you that your feet won’t even touch the ground.

But Jesus recalls what Moses said to the Israelites: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.” In Hebrew massah is a word that means “test.” Massah is a place in the wilderness where the Israelites were thirsty. They begged God for water. It would be easy to excuse those people: they were in a desperate place and simply not their best selves. But the sin of those Israelites was that they tested God: they conditioned their faith that God was with them on whether God would give them water. They wanted faith on their own terms, not God’s. Eventually God did provide for them. Moses struck a rock and water flowed. At Massah God said to Moses, “I will be standing there in front of you, on the rock.” Said God to a fearful people, you may be in a bad way and without an escape, but even here I am with you, even in this precarious, wilderness place.

Again, Jesus humbly speaks a word the Israelites had to learn: God, goodness, is everywhere, even if we struggle to notice where or how. Our Lord, the one who speaks this word to us, will end up in a very bad way, on an executioner’s cross. But we know that goodness will find him there and beyond. That’s why once again this year we began our Lenten journey this past Wednesday. In our own little lives we may struggle to notice where God’s goodness is, or how it’s coming through. But, like Jesus, we don’t necessarily need to take a leap of faith. Maybe all we need to do is take the next step. Because we belong to God and follow the path of his Son, our faith does not rest on any bargain we’ve made with God, or on any test we’ve put to him. Our faith rests on the God who is with us and who loves us, step by step by step. May we begin to notice the grace and goodness that are everywhere. Grace is here in our small gathering and smiling greetings, in our sharing of Christ’s body and blood, in MacKenzie and Austin’s play, in the gift of newborn babies, in our shelter and sharing for children and families. Goodness is here. God is with us.

Our lives brim with experiences, but a few shape us and define who we are. So if we are to be seekers after God, the final habit of mind Jesus holds out for us is that we remember and rehearse for ourselves our experiences of being saved—of being set free, of being buoyed or borne up, of being tended to or cared for. We are wise never to forget these times because God has been at work in them.

The devil reveals to Jesus a panorama of the entire known world, its grandest buildings, the halls of its loftiest power. I’ll give you all this, the devil says, if you pledge allegiance to me. But Jesus recalls what Moses said to the Israelites: “When the Lord your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors . . . and when you have eaten your fill, take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear.”

What Moses wanted to guard against was that the Israelites would forget the God who had freed them from slavery. Forgetfulness was a possibility because in Israelite culture, different geographic areas were ruled by different gods. Moses wanted the Israelites to remember that their loyalty belonged to the God who had freed them, not to the god who presided over their new home.

By Jesus’s time, he and his people trusted that only one God exists. Jesus and his people worshiped God because their Israelite ancestors had been freed from slavery in Egypt and had been buoyed and borne up, tended to and cared for, through loyalty and disloyalty to this God, through exile from Israel and return to the land. So again, Jesus speaks in humility a word the Israelites and their descendants had to learn: God has saved us, buoyed and borne us up, tended and cared for us. And God is still in the business of setting free and of saving. No other story, no other power, matters as much as this one.

On Ash Wednesday we began to live again the saving story of our faith. It centers on the work of God in freeing from death our Lord Jesus and all who follow him. I can tell many stories of God’s freedom and faithfulness in my life: they start with my somehow surviving a premature birth; then being raised in a safe and caring family; discovering education, vocation, and a loving marriage; and all the while journeying on in friendship with a loving God. I know that everyone in this room can tell individual stories of God’s faithfulness. And the story of this congregation is itself one rescue and salvation. Our congregation should have dispersed. Our building should have been closed. But here we are, buoyed and borne up, tended to and cared for by our saving God. Amen.

Sermon – February 26, 2017

Last Sunday after the Epiphany
The Transfiguration
Rev. Jane Mayrer
February 26, 2017

“I will make three dwellings here ….” (Matt. 17:4)

Tell us, O Lord, what we need to hear, and show us what we need to do to be followers of Jesus. Amen.

Today we hear about the ultimate “mountain top” experience of Jesus’ direct encounter with God. We have the story from the perspective of the three disciples who were with Jesus when it happened: Peter, James, and John. I’ve wondered what Jesus himself was up to – if he knew what was going to happen – when he set out for the mountain. As with much in the earthly life of Jesus, that’s something we’ll never know. So, we see this mysterious event through the eyes of Peter – Peter, the one disciple who had some glimmer of understanding of who Jesus really was.

A week before this trek up the mountain, Jesus had asked his disciples what people were saying about him, and who people thought he was. Then he asked the disciples, “And who do you think I am?” Well, that caught them by surprise. Peter had blurted out, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” That was the right answer. But when Jesus began to explain that the Messiah was going to endure great suffering before being killed by the religious leaders, Peter was having none of it. “That must never happen to you!” he insisted. Peter seemed to have missed entirely what Jesus said would follow after his death – that he would be raised three days later. So, Jesus took Peter and the other two up a high mountain, by themselves.

The Gospel account does not offer details. Neither the mountain nor its location is named. But some of the details were filled in for me when I was on pilgrimage in Israel in January. We visited Mt. Tabor, which tradition claims is the site of Jesus’ transfiguration. Mt. Tabor qualifies as a “high mountain.” It rises 1,886 feet above the flat Galilean plain. As our van traveled up and up, around one switchback curve after another, I wondered how Jesus and his companions got to the top. Did they walk? Did they, like us, hire local transportation from the village at the foot of the mountain, a donkey, before they started up? I had an image of Peter, James, and John, known at times to complain, asking “Why are you taking us way up here?” and “Are we there yet?” perhaps because that’s what I was thinking. My guess is that if they were on foot, all of their energy went to taking the next step and no one was doing much talking.

When they got to the top of the mountain, the trip up was suddenly forgotten. Nor did they take in the 365-degree view of the surrounding countryside and marvel at how far they could see into the distance. Instead, their eyes were riveted upon Jesus, because Jesus changed. The Gospel says, “He was transfigured before them.” His face shone like the sun. His clothes became dazzling white. Then, Jesus was talking with two other men who had somehow appeared, whom they somehow knew were Moses and Elijah. And then, while they were trying to take in what they were seeing, or thought they were seeing, a bright cloud covered it all and a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” What exactly happened, we will never know. Later, on the way back down the mountain, Jesus referred to the experience as a vision. But clearly, this was a direct encounter with God, the Holy One, or – as Peter later said – the Majestic Glory, for both Jesus and the disciples.

What do you do if you have a mystical experience like this? Peter’s first impulse was to build three structures. He wanted to hold onto the experience, to keep it and contain it. What do you do in the presence of God, who cannot be held and contained? All three of the disciples fell to the ground, overcome with the awe, that holy fear which seems to be our human response to an encounter with the Holy One. And then Jesus came to them, and touched them, and spoke to them, and told them not to be afraid. When they looked up, everything had returned to normal. There was Jesus, looking like his usual self. Before they could say anything, Jesus told them not to tell anyone what they had seen and heard until “after the Son of Man had been raised from the dead.”

So, what do you do if you have had a holy encounter you cannot explain, or talk about? Most people, faced with mystery, are not content to just accept it and let it be. Instead, they need to make sense of it. So, on their way down the mountain, Peter, James, and John tried to make sense of what they had just witnessed by latching onto something with which they were familiar, namely scripture and what the prophets had said about Elijah and the Messiah. They tried to regain control by engaging Jesus in a theological discussion. Jesus knew what they were doing and why. He was patient with them and answered their questions, knowing it would take them time to understand.

And, in time, Peter and the others did come to understand. The suffering and death that Peter had insisted could not happen, did happen. Jesus was betrayed by one of his own disciples and arrested. At the behest of the religious leaders, he was tortured and then crucified. His dead body was put into a tomb. And then, three days later, the tomb was empty, and Jesus was alive. Peter himself encountered the transfigured, risen Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Transformed by that encounter, Peter went on to preach the good news about Jesus and to witness to the truth of what he had experienced, seen with his own eyes, heard with his own ears, and touched with his own hands.

We are fortunate today to have the accounts left by Peter and all the other witnesses to Jesus’ life and ministry. One way in which we encounter the risen Jesus today is through their experience, written down and passed on to us. We read their stories, we put ourselves in their place, and with our imagination we relive their experience. Yet, through the centuries, followers of Jesus have longed for something more. We have longed for our own “mountain top” experience of the Holy. We have longed for our own transforming encounter with the risen Jesus.

I am one of those seekers. And I have not had that mystical experience, at least not yet. Nor, as far as I am aware, has anyone I know had such an experience. I’ve read about such experiences, though, and I do not doubt the reality of those experiences. St. Paul comes vividly to mind, as do Teresa of Avila, and Hildegard of Bingham, and Julia of Norwich. Any number of people, ancient and contemporary, have written about their spiritual awakening and mystical union with the Holy, either through the prayer practice of meditation, or just because it suddenly happened. But I have come to suspect that a mountain top experience is not the only way in which to meet Jesus and have Jesus transform our lives. After all, most of us will never have that kind of dramatic experience. Instead, I believe that we encounter Jesus on a regular basis in our daily lives, but because we are looking for some other kind of experience, or because we simply are not looking at all, we don’t notice it.

It has taken me a long time to come to this realization. I have resisted the notion that we encounter Christ in other human beings, especially those human beings who are not behaving in a particularly Jesus-like manner. But Jesus told us, plainly, explicitly – whatever you do for others, you also do for me. And the reverse is also true, when you neglect or refuse others, you neglect and refuse me. So, if we want to encounter Jesus, we have to engage with other people. And we must interact with them in the same way that Jesus did. Is the person in front of you hungry? Give him something to eat. Is the person in front of you naked? Give her something to wear. Is the person in front of you sad? Comfort him. Does the person in front of you need forgiveness? Forgive her. Has the person in front of you lost hope? Encourage him. Does the person in front of feel unworthy? Respect her. Does the person in front of you need healing? Lay your hands on him and pray for healing. Does the person in front of you need to be loved? Love her.

I have come to realize that we are not transformed with a sudden zap of holiness received in a mystical encounter with the Holy. Instead, we are transformed gradually, over time, through trial and error, as we try to serve and love Jesus by serving and loving each other.