Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Inconvenient Justification

First Presbyterian of Lafayette, Louisiana
March 27, 2011 – Lent: 3A
Exodus 17:1-7
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

How many of you played the game, Four Square, as a child?  Four Square has been around for a long time and is a favorite on many campgrounds and schoolyards.  The basic idea is a box divided into four squares.  The fourth square is for the King or Queen of the game, and this is the person who starts the game by serving a playground ball into someone else's square.  In some circles, the King or Queen can even make new rules at the beginning of a round of play.  As the ball comes to you, you have to hit it – flat handed – into someone else's square without letting it bounce more than once in your own.  If you mess up, you go to square one while other players advance.

There is a new kind of Four Square that the kids are playing today from their phones.  It involves a social networking tool where people can let others know where they are, make comments about the quality of goods and services, and basically try to look cool.  Here's how it works - imagine for a moment a young woman at a coffee shop.  She checks in on Foursquare and sees that she is not the only one who is using cool technology to tell everyone and no one at the same time about the details of her life.  She recognizes the icon of a young man who just walked in and sat in a booth nearby.  His status update says, "Anyone want to buy me a cup of coffee? LOL."  So, she sends him a text message, "Sure.  I'll buy."  He replies, "If you knew who I was – you would ask me for a drink!"

Wow.  That's awkward, isn't it?  If that really happened, most people would even think it was a little creepy.  But it really happened.  The woman at the well was so needy – and so used to seeking fulfillment in places that could never offer it – that even the boundary of social taboo that could have taken her life away was not a concern to her.  I wonder how many of us know how it feels to be that thirsty?

One summer I was in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, leading adventure trips for Camp Glenkirk.  On this particular trip I had a group of 9 and 10 year olds.  It was a light hike with a little elevation, a few switchbacks, and a swimming hole at one end.  We stopped for water breaks along the way, and I even lugged a watermelon on my back for our snack!  One of the kids did not drink his water, did not swim, and refused the watermelon.  As he collapsed from exhaustion we called for an ambulance to meet us at the trailhead and carried him as quickly as we could back down the mountain.

When I talked to him later, he just did not remember being all that thirsty.  Sometimes we do not even recognize how thirsty we are.  Of course there are other times when we become like the Israelites.  It is easy to condemn them.  With all they have been through, shouldn't they – of all people – expect that God would be true to God's promises? 

Yet, how often are we right there with them?  When the medical diagnosis comes back a little different than we want… when the child or grandchild looses a job, gets hurt, gets divorced, or gets hooked on something… when there is a miscarriage… when the bills simply won't get paid… these are times and places that make us cry out to God, "If you plan on doing anything, now would be just GREAT!"

Notice that with the Israelites, God moves right past the complaints.  God does not even address the question of God's presence or Moses' leadership.  God simply provides.  God uses the same staff that poisoned the water of the Egyptians to offer life-giving water to the Israelites.  God does it corporately, publicly, demonstratively, and definitively.

It's hard not to confuse God's providence for the Israelites with our individual desires.  It's easy to over simplify and say that God waits for us to cry out and then provides.  But that assumes that God is not with us until the need is crucial.  Paul reminds us that God most certainly is with us, and possibly even more so (if such a thing could be) when we are suffering.  We can even boast in our limitations because that is a place to say, "Look!  Look what God is doing!"  There is nothing easy about a life of faith.  In fact, I believe, that faith can make life even more difficult.  That is not because God needs it to be that way.  It is because we do.

We want life to be simple, answers to be final, and mysteries to be interesting but not perplexing.  We want to know how long it will take us to get to Canaan, when the next rest stop will be, and why did Moses take us into this valley when there is one right up the Euphrates (my cousin told me about it) that would have gotten us there much faster?

We want to be able to trust in our own limited resources as if they were unlimited.  We want Jesus to be available, but we do not want him in our business.  The interesting thing about all of this is that Jesus is thirsty.  Jesus is not thirsty in the way that we are thirsty – although he probably was in the story.  Jesus is thirsty because he has a need to meet with us in our place of need.

Now we can debate the immutable quality of God if we want to, but that is not the point.  God created us to be in community with God.  God has a need.  God has a desire.  God has decided to make just – to justify – even our imperfect lives.  God has decided to make justice happen even through our imperfect actions.

That's what the Easter Baskets are all about.  [Our 100 member congregation put together 300 Easter Baskets for needy children.  They were commissioned in worship.]  You could make the argument that these baskets are just affirming culture.  You could make the argument that these baskets are just a band aide for the gaping wounds of society.  You could be right – you would also be very wrong if you thought that was all there is to it.

You know what I think?  I think these baskets are the answer to a question.  J.J. Heller is a Christian artist with a song on the radio called "Love Me."  She says it like this:

He cries in the corner where nobody sees
He's the kid with the story no one would believe
He prays every night, "Dear God won't you please...
Could you send someone here who will love me?"

Who will love me for me
Not for what I have done or what I will become
Who will love me for me
'Cause nobody has shown me what love
What love really means.

Jesus meets the woman at the well, and she is a Samaritan.  He looks into her soul and shows her what love really means.  How else can she respond but to run screaming, "Come and see this man who has told me about everything I have ever done!"  And there is something more, something she is leaving unsaid – "and loves me anyway!"

So here we are at the watering hole.  Here we are as the Body of Christ, and we are thirsty.  We are thirsty for the opportunity to meet others in their place of need.  We are thirsty for righteousness, and we hunger for justice.  And because the problems of the world are too big for us to fathom, we pick one thing to do well.  We make baskets. We collect peanut butter.  We make food bags.  We deliver meals.  We pray.  We do all of these things and more because we do one thing.  We recognize ourselves as the woman at the well.

Maybe we have flirted with Jesus in the past.  Maybe we have called him a prophet or even the Messiah – the Christ.  We use his name in worship all the time.  But the question remains – how will we respond to the grace we have been given today?  How will we run from this place, telling everyone, "Come and see!  There is someone who knows all there is to know about me and about you, and we are loved no matter what"?

In order to do this, the first thing I have to do is to find a Samaritan – an outcast, someone who is outside of the covenant.  Next is to recognize that I am a Samaritan in my own way.  Then, and only then, can my words and my actions become filled with the living waters of Christ.  Then, and only then, do the words of scripture become the story of my life.

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman's testimony, "He told me everything I have ever done."… And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, "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 has come to make all things new.  Jesus is coming to make all things new.  Salvation has come.  Salvation is coming – through me, through you, and through the Samaritan next door – in Jesus' name.  Amen.
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