Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Five Questions We Ask in the Dark, Part 3: Is There Enough?

Sermon for March 19, 2017
Exodus 17:1-7; John 4:5-42

Here we are in week 3 of this sermon series on “Five Questions We Ask in the Dark.”  Last Sunday, we considered God’s very existence: Is God really there?  In the midst of our sleepless nights, that question rises fairly easily, I think, especially when what we hear in response to our prayers is, literally and figuratively, crickets in the dark.  Today, we come to another insomnia-inducing question: Is there enough?  Does God give us enough? 
In the prayer Jesus taught us, he tried to guide us toward humble expectations about enough: “Give us this day our daily bread.”  That’s what we ask in the Lord’s Prayer.  The Biblical text is actually something closer to, “Give us today our bread for tomorrow” (Matthew 6:11, NRSV).  I think offering that prayer is a good way to form our hearts, as well as to set our expectations.  When I say that line in my own prayers, I often follow it up like this: “Give us this day our daily bread.  Help me to see that all I have comes from you and that what you give me is sufficient, and abundant, and extraordinarily generous.”
I tack on that line about daily bread being enough because I’m a lot like the people of Israel wandering in the wilderness, as we heard in the reading from Exodus today.  In the section just before today’s reading, we hear about the people complaining against their leaders, Moses and Aaron, for failing to provide food in the desert. God hears the people’s fear as well as their hunger, and God provides manna – quite literally their “bread for tomorrow” and nothing more.  Each morning, the people find it on the ground and collect it.  And no matter how much or how little each one gathers, they all have the same amount in their baskets, and it lasts only one day before it breeds worms and turns foul.  So they couldn’t store it up.  They had to trust that God would send their “bread for tomorrow” … tomorrow.
Now, no sooner had God solved the food problem than the people found a new focus for their fear about having enough – water, which is a reasonable worry in the desert.  They find no water where Moses tells them to camp, so the people quarrel with Moses and with God: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt?  To kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (Exodus 17:3).  The irony is that, as they’re eating the bread of angels, they’re afraid God won’t set the table with a cool drink of water, too.  So God tells Moses to “strike the rock at Horeb,” also known as Mt. Sinai – the place where God called Moses from the burning bush and where God will give Moses the Law later in the story.  “Strike the rock,” God says, “and water will come out of it” (17:6) – what people of the day called “living water,” the best kind of water, water flowing clear in a stream rather than sitting green and murky in a cistern.  “I will be standing there with you,” God tells Moses.  “You can trust me not just for your daily bread but for the water of life, too.”
So here’s perhaps more of a window than you want into the questions I ask in the dark.  I am right there with the people of Israel in the wilderness, my prayers too often degenerating into, “Lord, what have you done for me lately?”  It’s why that add-on to the Lord’s Prayer about daily bread matters to me – because it’s so easy to become fearful about having enough.
My fears about enough don’t usually swirl around money or things.  I have different afflictions.  My fears about enough usually involve the Church – both St. Andrew’s and the Church with a capital C.  Will the Church be around in 30 years?  For most of us here, most of the time, we’d say, “Sure, of course it will.”  But this is a challenging time for mainline Christian denominations.  In the Episcopal Church, we’ve seen Sunday attendance drop by 26 percent in the past 10 years, and it’s currently decreasing by about 3.5 percent per year.1  With our tiny total Episcopal population of 1.8 million, we don’t have folks to spare.  In these tough times, St. Andrew’s membership is holding steady, but our attendance dipped slightly last year.  Now, we are addressing the scarcity we fear: We’re searching for a new assistant rector to lead ministry with younger adults and families, both people within the congregation and people we want to bring into it.  We’re seeking to draw more people into St. Andrew’s orbit through traditional church programs and services and through points of connection like community classes, neighborhood events, receptions, kids’ programs, and pastoral presence with people around us.  That’s all good.  But, to build the beloved community Jesus wants the Church to be, we need to connect with people more effectively and invite them into this family – which is why we now have a full-time engagement coordinator on staff, Mike McKinne.  But, of course, one staff member can’t do that work alone.  So it raises the really big question about “enough” in the Church: Do we have enough willing hearts?  Do we have enough people willing to connect with others, willing to invite them into something and walk alongside them to help them find a home here?  Does our parish family have enough of a culture of evangelism?  We can think up evangelistic programs; we can offer (and we have offered) different styles of worship; but by itself, that’s not enough.  A culture of invitation, a culture of connection, a culture of evangelism – that has to be here, too.
So, into my late-night fears about “enough” steps an unlikely character: a nameless woman at a well, the woman in today’s Gospel.  She is about as much of a nobody as somebody can be, from a Jewish perspective in Scripture.  First of all, she’s a Samaritan.  The Samaritans and the Jews had been feuding for centuries, feuding the way only siblings can.  The Samaritans were the descendants of the Northern Kingdom of Israel before the Exile, and the Jews were the descendants of the Southern Kingdom of Judah before the Exile.  They worshiped the same God but in slightly different ways and in different places – so of course their brotherhood became deep division.  So, this woman at the well is a Samaritan; and as the Gospel tell us, “Jews [did] not share things in common with Samaritans” (John 4:9).  The second strike against this woman is that she is a person of literally no social standing.  That’s likely the meaning behind the exchange about how she’s had five husbands, and how the man she’s with is not her husband.  From centuries of interpretation biased against women, we may hear that statement as impugning her moral character.  It’s much more likely saying that five past husbands have ditched her, leaving her powerless and alone; and she’s doing the best she can to survive in a society where a woman’s value was measured in terms of being a man’s property. 
But this Samaritan woman at the well engages Jesus in a way no one would have expected.  Like Nicodemus in last week’s Gospel reading, she interrogates Jesus; and he recognizes her inherent value by taking her questions seriously.  As in last week’s reading, Jesus doesn’t give the woman easy answers.  He makes her keep digging, keep plumbing the depths of that well that leads to living water.  Finally, she gets it (unlike the learned Nicodemus last week), and she recognizes Jesus as the Messiah, the one “who will proclaim all things to us” (4:25). 
What we’ve just heard is this woman’s call story.  Think about other stories of Jesus calling disciples, stories that might be more familiar.  Think of Peter, Andrew, James, and John out there on the lake in Matthew’s Gospel, enduring yet another fisherman’s workday, casting and mending their nets.  Jesus comes to them – regular guys in the midst of their regular lives – and he says, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (4:19).  Something similar is happening in this story, but the Samaritan woman at the well doesn’t even need the invitation.  After her interrogation of Jesus, she leaves behind her water jar, a vital possession for a woman in that time and place; and just as surely, she leaves behind her old life, too.  This social outcast, not even anyone’s wife, goes back to the city of Samaria, finds her voice, and says to the people she meets, “Come and see a man who told me everything I’ve ever done!” (4:29).  Come and see the one we’ve been waiting for.  And, remarkably, the people follow her to find the messiah.  Of course, to Jesus, it’s no surprise:  “Look around you,” he says to the disciples, “and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting” (4:35).
In the wee, small hours, I would do well to remember the Samaritan woman – as well as the Lord who gives us living water when we least expect it.  When I find myself worrying about where the church will be next year, or in five years, or in 30; when I find myself worrying that I can never do enough or be enough or meet all the expectations people lay before me; when I worry whether we have enough of what it takes build a culture of evangelism at St. Andrew’s and in the Episcopal Church – in those wee, small hours, I need to remember the Samaritan woman at the well. 
Do we have enough of what it takes to be evangelists?  The answer is, “Yes” – and I can prove it.  Look at the word.  What does that supposedly scary word, “evangelism,” mean?  Does it mean quoting Scripture?  Does it mean telling people that Jesus Christ is your personal Lord and Savior?  Does it mean going door to door to invite people to St. Andrew’s.  Well, yes, maybe eventually … but not necessarily, and certainly not right off the bat.  It would be like kissing someone you just met.  That scary word, evangelism, comes from a Greek word that simply means “good news.”  If you can share good news, you are, by definition, an evangelist.  If you can gossip about something good, you are, by definition, an evangelist. 
And what is that Good News?  You can say it many ways, but here’s the simplest way I can frame it.  For somebody out there, someone you meet or know, the Good News is this: that you take this person seriously enough to have a conversation and offer hope about what matters in his or her life.  And here’s why that’s Good News: Because the fact that you take the person that seriously shows that God does, too.  Especially in our world, where authenticity is rarer than living water in the desert, I would argue that the best news any of us can hear is that we are worth someone’s investment to build a relationship with us, a relationship that points us toward hope. 
At the end of the day, that’s what the Church is for.  The Church is God’s community of relationship-building.  Each of the promises of the baptismal covenant is about relationship.  And when it comes to the project of building relationships, God equips us with an amazing and counter-intuitive capacity for blessing.  If you can build a relationship that points to God’s unlimited love, then you have enough to be an evangelist. 
So, remember today’s Gospel math lesson.  You didn’t know you were coming for a math lesson this morning, but here you go:  How many Episcopalians does it take to speak about love they don’t have to earn?  How many Episcopalians does it take to build a relationship that points toward hope?  How many Episcopalians does it take to gossip good news?  The answer is, one.  One is enough.  One is enough – as long as that one is you. 

1.       The Episcopal Church.  “Episcopal Church Fast Facts Trends 2011-2015.”  Available at: Accessed March 16, 2017.

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