March 15, 2020
First Sermon at First Lutheran
Rev. Joshua Graber
Grace and peace in the name of God our loving creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
Well, this is not the first sermon at First that I expected. What a strange first week to be with you, but I am grateful to be here even if it not what I expected.
Being a pastor in a pandemic will take some getting used to and being church in a pandemic will take patience and a different type of participation from all of you. My hope is that somehow God will use this experience to grow our trust, our self-understanding and our sense of call as we navigate this wilderness together.
God puts some interesting text in front of us on this day, as God has a tendency to do. We with Moses ask, “Is God with us or not?” And when we put Scripture in front of us and invite the Holy Spirit into our reading, God always reveals a Word for today, even in the strangest and most unexpected of circumstances.
How will the story of Moses speak to us today? How will the beautiful summary of the gospel message in Romans 5 speak to us? How will the story of the woman at the well speak to us?
Maybe these texts already have spoken to you as you read them this morning, either on your own or in a group. Maybe the length of our gospel story made you feel you were wandering in the wilderness as you read it aloud, but it is such a rich story with so much to tell.
The Exodus story tells us of the Israelites wandering in the Wilderness of Sin. It’s interesting to hear that location and not see it as a metaphor revealing a hidden meaning. After all we all spend time wandering in a wilderness of sin, but this location is a real place between Egypt and the Promised Land—between their old home and the life they are used to and a new home God is guiding them to.
As the Israelites get farther away from the safety of what they know, they begin to doubt their journey and their destination. This story is repeated throughout the Bible. It’s a pattern and a rhythm of the stories. God does amazing things for us humans and yet somehow we always seem to forget what God has done and begin to doubt in God’s power and love for us. It was true for his people then and it’s true for us now. We still wander and stray. We forget. We need to hear the stories! It’s why we gather in worship to remember what God has done for us and this world and to remind each other of what it means. That’s the witness of discipleship. There are times in the life of churches where we forget the power of witness, where it seems like we are dried up. Where we thirst for the living water.
As is sometimes the case when the people forget, they complain and quarrel. In this story they are thirsty for water and go after the leader Moses, so that he tells God that “they are almost ready to stone me!” The people see only scarcity and God wants to remind them of the abundance of the promises that have been given. So God led Moses to be a witness of reminding and remembering the amazing things God can do. God tells Moses to go out into the wilderness with some of the elders and his staff and to trust that God will show him a place where water flows, under the surface of the rock. And Moses goes out in faith.
Can you imagine what would happen if Moses did as commanded and God did not come through? Moses was put on the spot to be a reminder, a witness to trust in God. Moses is directed to a place where he strikes the rock with his staff and living water flows for the people to drink. Now some people see this a miraculous and surely it is, but in the desert water does flow under the surface of rock and it is hidden inside plants and underground. You just need to know where to look. The people in the wilderness forgot to be curious and forgot to trust and so God reminds them once again that the promises that were given are not empty, and are not just telling us what we want to hear. Under the surface they are full of living water. Not living water that sits in one place, but rather water that flows and is active and healthier to drink.
Here is a story that reminds us to trust in God on our journeys, even when it feels hopeless and bleak, and we get unsure of our destination. God is with us and God will show us the way and give us what we need to get there.
This is the story of faith that every Christian echoes in their lives and it is the story of faith of congregations that sometimes forget they are being led somewhere or want to return to the past normalcy. I’m reminded of how the Lion Aslan is described in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. The characters want to know if Aslan is “safe” as a first concern. And the response they get is “He isn’t safe, but he is good!”
We live at a time of heightened awareness of safety and a desire to keep ourselves healthy and our families safe.… And then we had the coronavirus show up! More and more we may find ourselves looking under the surface where we didn’t before and seeing fears and germs waiting to get us!
We do need to be safe. At the food pantry devotions on Friday, we all had masks and gloves on, and we let the guests know that we were not doing that because we were afraid of them or their germs but because we wanted to keep them safe. I read this story and we talked about the importance of water and all the things we use it for and how we are grateful for the abundance of quality, clean water in our cities. God can lead us to water—and give us what we need—but we are the ones that still need to wash our hands! People may have bought up all the sanitizer in the stores but scientists say the best way to get rid of germs is to wash our hands for 20 seconds. “20 seconds? That sounds like forever!”, the people in the wilderness complain!
God is good and gives us what we need. In the desert the water was there, and in our new world of social isolation I pray that we can all see abundance in a world where we may have seen scarcity.
While we are worried about what lurks under the surface of the world around us, God continues to remind us of the good surprises around us too. That there is always hope under the surface when you stop to remember and remind each other of the promises. When you stop long enough to see it! And that is the blessing under the surface of this time when the world seems to have stopped. We have time to remember and remind each other of what is most important. The essentials…food, water, shelter, love. And it’s a chance for you as a community to tell me your stories of the abundance of this community and to see it all around you.
In our gospel lesson we hear the story of Jesus stopping to rest at Jacob’s Well. And he finds something under the surface of great value.
He and the disciples have chosen to take a short cut most Jews don’t through the region of Samaria. To imagine Samaritan and Jewish relationships is to imagine a relationship between two peoples that have had a civil war which led to a continued separation. We think we have divisions in the United States, but the relationship between Jews and Samaritans was deeply broken and then reinforced by conflict and a belief that the other group were the false carriers of the Jewish line. Jews saw Samaritans as inferior, because they intermarried with conquerors, but Samaritans saw Jews as inferior and false as well.
And it is here that the disciples maybe nervous about being in this place and how they would be treated go off in search of food. They probably assume that Jesus needs a specific type of food, something kosher by their standards in a foreign land. But Jesus does not go with them. He stays behind at the well. And when a woman comes to the well he breaks all convention and greets her, asking her for a cup of water. She recognizes in the request that he is breaking the rules, both because she is a woman and a Samaritan. Now she has a choice to engage him or follow the rules and shut down the interaction.
On the surface, if others saw this it would have become an issue, but it is noon, a time when no one is at the well. You recognize through that that this woman does not want to meet other people and has chosen to go to the well at a time when others won’t be there. She is socially isolating!
And so she engages.
On the surface this is an interaction that shouldn’t have happened.
On the surface it made both of them unclean in the eyes of their community, but Jesus and this woman engage in a conversation that shows Jesus sees more under the surface than the eyes of the world. She comes to the well out of necessity. This trip may remind her of shame as she hauls her bucket to the well. She needs water to live and is hanging on to the life she is in.
Jesus tells her he knows her deeply. That she has had five husbands and is living with someone who is not her husband. This is not to shame her though the world may shame her for this or devalue her.
The rest of that world would dismiss a woman like her but Jesus sees the value in her. He offers her the living water. He offers her himself.
All the requirements of the surface life she has been in fall away, as she is no longer defined by those labels, but by the good that he is and that he offers. She leaves the bucket behind and becomes the first public witness of Jesus. Where the disciples seem lost and Jewish leaders scared and confused, Jesus’ identity is seen by those we least expect. The Samaritan woman becomes a bold witness and an example of discipleship and why we go into the world, seeing people with the eyes of the kingdom, where God is always inviting new people in and surprising us with grace. What would it take for us to have her excitement and courage to share about her relationship with Jesus publicly—even with people who she previously feared would judge her for who she was and what she did. She springs for with living water and a proclamation that is authoritative. It’s her story and she knows it is the most important thing she has. It changes her life and transforms the world around her, as is the nature of water.
The living water of Christ is in us and in the neighbors we meet and greet even at a time of social isolation. We can still reach out and see people deeply and know their stories. We can help them see their abundance and value.
Let’s look out for each other in the days ahead. Don’t let fear get in the way of hearing someone’s story but wash your hands and listen. Show kindness and share love where people may expect judgment. Tell the truth, tell good stories and believe in the promises of God that somehow all of this is reconciled in Christ Jesus. God is at work in this world. He gives water to the thirsty to help us see all the good under the surface and witness to all that is to come. Amen.
May the peace that passes all understanding keep your heart and mind in Christ Jesus.