You only need to wash your feet

GOSPEL: John 13:1-17 

[He] 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” (Read the whole passage)

We are taking our next step into our Lenten sojourn. Last week, we ventured out into the wilderness, not the traditional wilderness of temptation, but the wilderness of grief, confusion, and death as we heard in the story of Lazarus.

Today, the Narrative Lectionary skips us forward again, this time past the end of Lent into Holy Week itself. The washing of the disciples feet is a Maundy Thursday story. A story that begins the Triduum, the Great Three Days of the church that take us to Easter and resurrection.

Still today, we aren’t there yet. We are still just setting out on our Lenten journey, only having begun it last week. And so this story of foot washing becomes something different. Rather than the beginning of a bigger story, it is a moment between Jesus and the disciples that tells us something all on its own.

When I was in high-school as a cello player, I was recruited to play in the orchestra in a large scale production called Love According to John. It was an annual passion play/musical that had been running for decades. Sitting in the orchestra pit was one of the best spots to be able to see the actors just above us on stage.

And one particular scene still lives freshly in my memory nearly 20 years later.

It is this moment of foot washing. As Jesus washes the feet of the other disciples, the actors playing them, would put confused looks on their faces, but would dutifully play along with their master.

Yet Peter was different – to see Peter with my eyes and hear his voice, rather than reading them on a page… Peter always was reactive and brash, frustrated and clearly insecure. Almost as if he didn’t really know what was happening until Jesus was about to pour water over his feet.

And to watch Peter’s body go from withdrawing in one moment to offering his whole self up in the next, you could see that Peter’s problem was in interior one, a problem deep within himself.

Peter is longing for control… Peter cannot help himself. The same Peter who wanted to build a house for Jesus on the mount of transfiguration, yet who rebuked Jesus for speaking about dying. The same Peter who jumped from the boat to follow Jesus, yet who wanted Jesus to put a cap on the number of times he needed to forgive. The same Peter who hopped out of the boat to walk on water, yet sank when he saw that we has walking on water.

The same Peter who said he was willing to die with Jesus, yet denied evening knowing him just a few hours later.

This Peter is grasping for control, grasping for power and security, for the smallest sense that the world around him isn’t careening chaotically about him.

Peter wants to be the one who will dictate to Jesus how this whole faith relationship is going to work. First Peter will not let his master and teacher wash him… and then if he must be washed, Peter will be the most washed, every inch of him.

Peter can’t help himself, Peter tries to control Jesus every chance he gets.

Sound familiar?

We have a similar habit of trying to control things in our world. We long for security and and power, safety and predictability too. We don’t like that Jesus seems to be constantly changing his mind, doing things differently, and operating outside of our acceptable parameters.

Control and being in control is something that we naturally long for as human beings. We try to control the world around us, whether it is at home, work or church. We don’t like it when things don’t go as we expect, and just like Peter who is stopped in his tracks by his teacher, we can lash out when things come at us unexpectedly.

We often try to control Jesus. As Christians we have been guilty of withholding Jesus from people that we think are the wrong people and then in the next breath telling others that they need more Jesus. The church has controlled access by selling indulgences that granted a little bit of God to those with money… a practice that sparked Martin Luther and the reformation. And more recently, prosperity televangelists have tried to sell Jesus, with tracts or little green cloths or miracles… dolling out Jesus as if he was a Home Shopping Network product.

And of course most recently, many churches hold on to control, wanting Jesus to bring in more people and more resources, as if the point of the gospel was to bring butts and wallets into the pews, rather than forgiveness, life and salvation into people’s lives.

Like Peter, we flail about searching for control, even in the face of Jesus offering himself to us.

The season of Lent is the season in which the church remembers baptism. Those who are preparing to be baptized complete their preparation in this seasons while awaiting baptism at great vigil of Easter. Those are already baptized often take the opportunity to remember our baptismal identity.

And if there is anything the church does that reminds us that control is an illusion it is baptism. In baptism, God claims us, names us, and gives us new life. God does all this, and there is nothing we do to earn any of it.

So as Peter stands there before Jesus, protesting his feet being washed at all, and then asking for is whole self to be washed… we cannot help but imagine ourselves standing (or being held as babies) before the font.

When Peter finally submits, Jesus takes his disciple’s feet, one at a time, and washes the mud and dust from feet that have travelled far. He washes them clean, and dries them with a towel.

And what is normally a perfunctory act that happens between house slave and guest, becomes an intimate moment between teacher and student, between beloved friends.

And perhaps just for that moment Peter got it.

The washing of the his feet is not about control.

It is an act of Love.

Jesus washes Peter’s feet and the feet of disciples not to demonstrate who is in control, but to show them that he loves them.

Jesus washes our feet in Holy Waters not to demonstrate who is in control, but because he loves us.

The tension of our Lenten journey is this one.

In our wilderness journey, we struggle with things like being in control, with power, with fear and insecurity. And the wilderness of this journey reveals them to us, even as the rest of the year we can keep things under the surface.

And yet, as they are revealed, Jesus bends down with water and towel, and washes these things from us.

And Jesus shows us love.
Love that holds us,
love that forgives us,
love that renews us,
love that gives us life.

And as we are washed by Jesus’ hands, by Jesus’ body, we become part of the Body of Christ, forever grafted on to a body that isn’t about control, but about love.

For Jesus, it has never been about control, it is about bringing the kingdom near, about showing us God in flesh, by coming close to us.

Close enough to wash our feet,
close enough to reach out to us in the wilderness,
close enough that we might forget our fear for just a moment,
close enough to show us love.

Today, Peter’s story is a lenten story. Just as our own baptisms are Lenten stories.

Stories that reveal our flaws, and faults, our failings and insecurities.

But also stories that reveal Jesus’ love.
Jesus’ love for Peter.
Jesus love for us.

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Into the Lenten Wilderness

John 11:1-45

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”(Read the whole passage)

Last week we witnessed a Transfiguration moment, the Blind man having his sight restored. It was like the revelation on the mountaintop, eyes were opened to see the world, and see God, in a new way.

But by Wednesday, the euphoria of transfiguration was over. And we descended to the ashes, to the signs of decay and death around us, the evidence that sin and suffering still hold much sway in our world.

And now we begin Lent.

Lent always begins with wilderness. Usually we hear the story of Jesus’ temptation. After Jesus’ baptism, the spirit takes Jesus into the wilderness in order to be tempted. This begins Jesus’ ministry in Matthew, Mark and Luke. But as we explore John this year, through the narrative lectionary, we hear a story that normally comes at the end of Lent, a story that foreshadows Holy Week, a story of death and resurrection.

But with all of Lent still laying before us, there is still a long way until we are ready for Holy Week. We are just entering the wilderness.

So we hear this familiar story of Lazarus with different ears.

The wilderness experiences throughout this story are varied and different, yet they are all about the experience of being vulnerable and exposed. The wilderness is a place where safety and comfort is taken away, it is a place of wandering, a place of isolation.

The wilderness begins with news of Lazarus illness. He is in a wilderness that we all know, the wilderness of suffering. Suffering which leads to death. We have all seen this story before, whether it is a friend or family member. A life threatening illness strikes, yet there is hope for a cure. But the treatments don’t work, the prayers seem to be unheard and death is inevitable. A common wilderness experience.

Mary and Martha are helpless care givers for their brother, and his death brings them into a wilderness of grief. Martha’s a frantic and searching grief, Mary’s an overwhelming and debilitating grief.

Martha meets Jesus on road, she wants answers, she wants to point the finger, she is lashing out. Her grief is a wild and untamed wilderness experience, a roller coaster of emotion.

Mary also meets Jesus on the road, but her grief is different. She collapses at Jesus feet. She is crushed and falling, falling deeper and deeper into despair.

The disciples are also in a wilderness of sorts… they are lost and confused about Jesus’ actions. They have seen Jesus heal and care for strangers, yet here he is delaying to care for a beloved friend.

And finally Jesus, just like the stories of his temptation, is also in the wilderness. This time the temptation is again there, the temptation to rush in and save the day, to use his power to avoid all the pain and suffering of his friends and disciples.

As we enter in Lent, this year bouncing from vignette to vignette, hearing these examples of different wilderness journeys, we can recognize ourselves. We have been there too, we have all been tossed out into the wilderness in just the same ways.

We have been in the wilderness of grief and loss. We have been there in the midst of broken relationships, in the midst of addiction, in the midst of job loss or difficult times making ends meet. We have been through wildernesses of illness and disease.

And we all know that our world and society creates wildernesses of suffering and isolation because of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, class, and whatever other arbitrary divisions and categories for people we create.

And it isn’t just individuals who wander in the wilderness.

This week an entire nation is once again wandering in a wilderness of gun violence, after 17 people were killed in a Florida high school.

And of course, many churches find themselves in wildernesses of decline, wondering about the future, wondering how to keep on with fewer resources and few people to carry the load.

With all these wilderness experiences around us, it may seems strange to practice one as the church… to create one that begins Ash Wednesday and ends on Good Friday.

Yet, we rehearse this Lenten wilderness journey year after year because avoiding the realities of life will not help… we can only pretend everything is okay for so long.

Rather, as the body of Christ, we practice going through the wildness year after year so that we learn how to navigate them when we encounter them in life. We practice so that we know how to make it through. We practice so that we can see the other side…

But even then, there is a deeper message that the Lenten wilderness gives us…

In the wilderness, God finds and gathers us.

As Jesus waits to go to his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus, he does so knowing that his purpose is not to heal people and make them feel better. Jesus has come to announcing the Kingdom of God coming near… and that rushing to make any suffering just go away does not really deal with the true issues of our world.

And so when Jesus finally goes to Bethany, he brings his confused disciples with him. He brings them so that they see that aren’t just wandering around with a gifted healer. Jesus has called them to follow a deeper purpose… to take up their crosses and find new life.

On the way, Jesus stops to collect Martha. He promises her even in her frantic grief that he is the resurrection and the life.

And then he collects Mary, and with her, he simply weeps, he comes along side her in her despair to let her know that she is not alone.

And finally, he comes to Lazarus. Lazarus who has entered into the last wilderness waiting for us all… the wilderness of death.

And here standing in front of the tomb, is not the end of wilderness, not the escape. But rather the farthest out, most vulnerable, most isolating moment of any wilderness journey.

Jesus has gathered Mary, Martha, Lazarus and his disciples as the moment when all hope is lost, when nothing makes sense, when safety, security and healing cannot be imagine.

Surely, the disciples couldn’t have been more confused than when Jesus commands the stone to be rolled away.

Surely, Mary couldn’t have been born the thought of seeing the body of her dead brother once again.

Surely, Martha couldn’t be expected to believe that Jesus was the resurrection and the life in this moment.

Surely, Lazarus couldn’t have been anything but dead, since it had been four days.

Surely, Jesus couldn’t have waited this long to heal Lazarus.

“Lazarus, come out!” Jesus commands.

Who but Jesus could know that the wilderness leads to this place?

It is not the escape or exit from a wilderness journey. Rather, this moment, this Lenten moment at the tomb is the revelation that all the things we think give us safety and security, the things that may protect us and prevent us harm are all but illusory.

We practice Lent year after year because the wilderness is life. It is where we always are.

And it is where Jesus gathers us up. Lost and alone and vulnerable to a world of sin and suffering, Jesus comes and gathers us up.

Jesus comes and gathers up and brings us to the cross and to the grave, to the very places where sin, suffering and death seem to have won and Jesus declares their power over. Jesus declares that the Kingdom of God has come near to us, here and now.

Because in the face of confusion, suffering, grief and death, in the face of human sin, brokenness, failures and faults, in the face of more mass shootings and the inexorable power of decline…. what else is there but to be gathered around Word, Water, Bread and Wine.

When there is nothing else for us,

Jesus gathers us around Wilderness words like, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

Jesus gathers us around water that washes our dead bodies, heals us of our suffering, and unbinds from our sin.

Jesus gathers us around a table of bread and wine, a table that sits next to an empty tomb and has room for all.

Jesus gathers in the wilderness because the wilderness is where we are, and so the wilderness is where God will give live to the world.

The wilderness is where God gathers us around new life.

How can there be anything but death in the ashes?

Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you… (Read the whole passage)

Just a few days ago we along with Jesus and the disciples as they came across a Blind Man. Jesus spoke words reminiscent of creation, “I am the light of the world.” And then reached down into the mud, touched the eyes of the blind man. And then after washing in the pool of Siloam, the Blind Man’s eyes were opened.

The light streamed in. The world was revealed to him in a brand new way.

He could see.

It was a story of Transfiguration. A mountain top revelation.

But that was then.

Because here is the thing about shining a light… it reveal things that we might not want to see.

Everything looks great from the mountain top, everything looks great when there has been only the dark ness for so long.

But it isn’t long until, when we go down into the valley, when we get up close to the difficult and challenging places of the world… that we begin to see the flaws and faults.

The scratch and chips and cracks reveal themselves.

And the perfect beautiful world that we could see from the mountain top, the brilliant colours streaming through to eyes that had so long been dark, the vibrant wold that seems to be so full of good… becomes tainted.

The longer we look the more something seems off. The more see, the more truth is revealed.

The world is good but it is also bad. There is goodness and righteousness out there. But there is also evil and suffering.

And then, after we have been looking long enough, after we come close to the reality of the world too many times, after we have been hurt, and burned, and sinned against… we realize that most of what we are seeing is the bad stuff, the hard stuff, the tragic stuff.

And that is when we see them.

And what is when we see the ashes.

The ashes of a scorched world.

The ashes of broken relationships, broken promises, broken people.

The ashes show us death.

And then we find ourselves searching. Searching for the incredible light we once saw. Searching for the bright and vibrant colours. Searching to see like we did from the mountaintop.

So we end up here.

And when we keep showing up here, week after week, year after year… we begin to see some mountain tops. The Angels singing to shepherds, the magi coming searching after the star, and of course a transfiguration on the mountaintop.

And then somehow, inexplicably, we end up here.

We end up here, on the night of ashes.

The night that reminds of all the things we don’t want to remember.

Sin and suffering and death.

How can we ever see the light again on this night?

How can we find life in the scorched earth of this world?

How there be anything but death?

How can there be anything but death in the ashes?

And so we come and confess our sin. We hope for mercy.

It is here, on this night of death and ashes that God says,

“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

We are not the ones who find the light.

“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return”

We are not the ones who bring life to scorched and ash filled world.

“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

We cannot conquer death.

Christ does.

Christ is the light. Christ brings life from the ashes. Christ conquers death.

You see, God does something on this night that is not found in the light or on the mountaintop.

God finds us in the ashes.

In the very thing thing, the dark, mucky, staining residue of death…. God finds us.

Remember that you are dust.

Because in the very substance of suffering, sin and death… God finds us in order to something that we could have never imaged, something that our eyes would never let us see.

In the ashes of lenten sin and repentance and wilderness.

In the ashes of our demand for a warlord messiah.

In the ashes of our cries for crucified blood.

In the ashes of cross.

God finds us… God finds us with forgiveness for sin.

God finds us… with Messiah who brings peace.

God finds us… with a God willing to die on a cross.

God finds us… in an empty grave.

We come here tonight, looking for light, looking for the mountaintop, looking for goodness and hope in the midst our darkness.

And we find ashes.

Ashes that remind us that we are dead. Dead people walking.

And yet, in the ashes of death… in the dark, grimy, lifeless ashes…

God finds us

And God re-members.

God re-members us to life.

Could decline be a good thing for Christianity?

You might have figured this out already, but I write a fair bit about the decline of Christianity in North American. And by decline I mean the aging and shrinking membership of churches as people drift away from church membership and attendance.

I talk about it, preach about it, and I blog about it here.

I have been a pastor for nearly a decade, but I am still just young enough to be considered a millennial. Millennials, of course, being the generation much lamented as the ones who stopped going to church (here is a secret: it was our parents who started the exodus).

As churches and denominations experience the effects of decline, both in terms of fewer members and smaller budgets, there has been a lot of hand-wringing and lamenting and finger-pointing and worrying. There has been conflict about who is to blame, experts are brought in to teach churches how to “bring people back.”

Often the habit of those still committed to upholding congregations and denominations is to try to diagnose the reasons that people have stopped coming and churches are shrinking. The Lord’s Prayer no longer being said in public schools, Sunday shopping, sports on Sundays, etc… As if just changing one of those things send people back into church in droves. We long for the magic bullet fix that will turn the church back into what we remember it being… something that was never as great in actuality as it was in memory.

Decline is very scary for churches today. It is the thing that makes us wonder where all the young people went, that makes us tired and want to pass on responsibilities to someone else, it can quite frankly make us feel depressed every time we walk into big mostly empty sanctuaries with just a few bodies dotting the pews for worship.

Yet, I wonder if we have ever considered whether or not decline is actually a bad thing for us.

Could the decline of Christianity in North America even be a good thing?

We often imagine, describe and speak about decline in unhelpful ways. We buy into the notion that more is always better. We think of churches like companies who if they aren’t growing, taking in more people and more revenue, are dying.

But churches aren’t companies trying to survive in a downturned market. Churches are more like living creatures. And when living creatures only take in more and more and more it is not healthy. In fact, we know that never-ending growth for a living creature will lead to death.

Instead, living creatures need moderation and balance. When we have too much of something we need to cut back in order to be healthy.

The decline that we have been experiencing lately just might be God putting us on a diet. God is calling us to cut back, in order to be healthy, in order that we might live.

Just step back for moment and consider all that the things that need to be true about the church if decline is truly bad and limitless growth is good.

It means that the Gospel is nothing more than a numbers game, a tool to increase attendance and revenue.

It means that the Kingdom of God is retreating from the world as we shrink, and that God can only do as much as we are able to provide the money and people to do.

It means that real ministry is about attraction, sales, and consumerism because the goal is to get more people through the doors, rather than sending more disciples out.

It means that if we could reverse the decline we lament, the church would become a virus growing until everything is consumed by it, all people and all resources.

If these things are not true, is it possible that decline might be a good thing? 

If decline is a call to give up the excess, the things that don’t help us live but weigh us down… what is it that we are being called to give up?

The churches in the area I serve in are dealing with this question in concrete ways by working towards 5 congregations being served by 1.5 pastors.

But to get there we had to sort out the difference between important things and essentials. There are a lot of important things that we had to let go of. We had to let go of the hurts and failures of the past, the much beloved traditions and expectations that feel so central to our identity as churches. We had to sacrifice comfort and security for the sake of ministry, and for the sake of our brothers and sisters in faith.

And in coming to what was essential, we had to ask what were the things that God called us to do that made us church… things that we had to do no matter how big or small, rich or poor we are. Surprise, surprise, it turned out the be the same stuff that Martin Luther and the reformers said was essential to being church. The same stuff that Jesus commanded us to do – Word and Sacrament ministry. And while we would not be able to do a lot of the important things that churches are used to doing (programs, events, committees, traditions, expectations), we discovered that we could make sure that everyone had the essentials.

As we have taken the first steps towards a paired down focus on the essentials, on Word and Sacrament ministry, it has been surprising how good it is for us. It is like eating healthy food and doing exercises for a church, focusing on the stuff that we need to keep doing in order to still be Church.

And we are still figuring out what to do with this new smaller, leaner Body (of Christ) it clear that a lot of churches and denominations in North America just might benefit from decline as much be hurt by it. 

No, we will not be the churches we once were. Not everyone will come back, not every fall supper, craft sale, dinner theatre production, scout troupe, curling bonspiel can be resurrection. Maybe not even every Sunday School or women’s group or men’s breakfast. We cannot go backwards, we cannot return to what we once were.

Because it was unsustainable. Memories of full churches with lots going on, and more people and finances than we knew what to do with could be described in others ways. Full and growing can also mean bloated and gaining weight. Filled to the brim can also mean burdened.

God just may be calling us to let go and cut back on the stuff that no longer works, stuff that we struggled to find volunteers for, that we tire ourselves trying to maintain, that we wish there were others to take over for us.

God just may be telling us to stop. 

To stop relying on social pressure or favourable shopping hours to bring people to church, but instead let the Holy Spirit call people to faith.

To stop seeing church membership as an act of citizenship, but instead a practice of faith.

To stop focusing our energy and time on maintaining budgets, facilities, membership roles, committees, programs and local traditions, but instead let the disciplines of Word and Sacrament ministry govern our communities. To let the rhythms and patterns of the liturgy and church year show us where to spend our time and energy.

To stop trying to do everything for all people, but instead refocus ourselves on the Gospel – the story of Christ’s saving death and resurrection.

The longer church declines and more we try to go backwards… the clearer it becomes that God is getting us ready for the future. But first God is shedding us of our old selves, cutting back on the things that once worked for us, but now weigh us down and keep us from moving forward.

Decline isn’t a bad thing. It is a diet, a diet so that the church can be healthy again. 

Not THE Transfiguration Story, but A Transfiguration Story

John 9:1-41 *

 6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. (read the whole passage)

Today is Transfiguration Sunday. Transfiguration Sunday is a day that swings us from the revelation of Epiphany to Lent and preparation. We go up the mountain to find God revealed to us on the mountain top and Jesus carries us down into the valley of Lent. Transfiguration is a moment that allows us to glimpse the way ahead before the journey begins, to see out into the valley of Lent, to landmark Holy Week as our next destination, and remind ourselves that Easter is just over the next hill – even if that hill is Golgatha.

Now today, we didn’t actually hear the familiar transfiguration story. The one where Jesus takes Peter, James and John up the mountain, and then is transformed into dazzling white. Elijah and Moses show up, and Peter wants to build an altar. But then God’s intervenes, just like at Jesus’ baptism, and tells everyone gathered that Jesus is God’s beloved son. And then Jesus is back to normal, tells everyone to keep quiet about what they saw and they all head back down the mountain.

So instead of Transfiguration, we heard a story about Jesus encountering a Blind Man and restoring his sight. A story that follows the stories of Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman that we heard in the past couple weeks.

Yet, this story of the Blind man might not be THE Transfiguration story, but you could say it is A story of Transfiguration.

As Jesus and his disciples are walking along, they encounter a blind man, and in order to make a point, Jesus heals blind man’s sight. And then Jesus moves on.

The blind man however, begins an extended encounter with the incredulous community around him. At first people don’t even recognize him, they just cannot wrap their brains around this changed man. Still, once they accept it is the man, they have trouble accepting that this change in him in a good thing. They put him on trial, they want to know who has done this thing that has upset their whole community. They want to know how a sinner like him can now see.

Still not being satisfied with the blind man’s answers, they ask his parents. But they are no help.

So they ask the man who had been blind once again, this time the Pharisees and community leaders are beginning to sound enraged. They simply cannot allows this kind of thing to mess with their community. Everyone has their place, this man was a blind beggar… who will do that now?

The blind man, sensing their rage, pokes fun at his community, asking them if they want to follow Jesus. That’s the last straw and the community drives him out.

The community just cannot see how this sinner among them was healed by some wandering preacher, who were a dime a dozen in those days. They cannot see through the flesh of Jesus, to what just might be a sign of God’s presence among them.

The community is blind.

Blind to God’s presence among them, blind to possibility that God could be close and doing something new.

We get what those people around the blind man feel. We have been there too. It is just as hard for us to dig through the fleshiness we see around us. Like them we can find it so hard to believe that God could be doing things with us.

We look around our community, at each other, at the people we have known for years and years, and those who are new among us… and we just cannot imagine that God could be found in us.

And we look around at this place, these walls and pews, this structure and building where it can feel so mundane and familiar… and we just cannot imagine, we just cannot see God here.

And we look at ourselves. Our own flaws and imperfections, our failings and limits, and we feel so human, so anything but God’s children… and we just cannot imagine, we just cannot see God near and close to us.

And so we can be just like that community around the Blind Man, unable, unwilling to imagine that God could do something among us.

We are blind just as they are. We are blind because we see what we see… which seems to be the absence of God in our very mundane surroundings.

But because the Blind Man doesn’t see what we see, what his community sees just might be why he experiences God.

The blind man is just doing what he always does, beginning at the side of the road, living off the charity and good will of those passing by.

Yet when Jesus and his disciples pass by, the Blind Man does not see what his community sees – another wandering preacher coming to town. Rather the Blind Man hears a voice say,

“I am the light of the world.”

And then the blind man feels hands on his face. Hands and mud. And then follows the simple command,

“Go and was in the pool of Siloam.”

So the Blind Man goes and washes…. and light floods in. The light floods into his eyes and he can now see.

But still, all that he knows of the one who healed him are a voice speaking light into the world. Hands fashioning something new out of the mud, and the command to go and be washed.

The Blind Man’s experience of Jesus follows a story that every Jew would know well, one that we know well. The story of the creation. The story a of voice who said,

“Let there be light.” and “I am the Light of the world.”

The story of hands that shaped the Adam, the first human out of the mud of the earth.

The story of the creator who commanded the creation to live in the good world that God had made.

The Blind Man’s experience was a divine one, the Blind Man had heard God’s voice and felt God’s hands.

But his community could only see another mundane human being, another preacher coming to live off the hospitality of the community.

So sent away because of the story he had to tell and the new life he had been given, Jesus finds the Blind Man again.

And it is there that we find a Transfiguration moment. Jesus meets the Blind Man and tells him that he is finally seeing and speaking with the Son of Man, the Messiah.

With that, Jesus bridges the distance between human and divine. Just like Jesus is Transfigured on the mountain top and then changed back, Jesus show the Blind Man that wrapped in flesh, is the God of the creation, the God who spoke life into the darkness, and who is still the light of the world.

The Blind Man, like the disciples on the mountaintop, finally, truly, sees.

And yet, we still struggle like the community who just couldn’t peer under Jesus’ flesh to see the divine.

But Jesus knows that about us. Jesus knows that we have trouble seeing God.

So here in this place, where we are supposed to encounter God, Jesus meets us in ways that don’t require us to see.

Here, Jesus speaks to us. Jesus speaks words like forgiven, healed, renewed, beloved, washed, raised. Jesus speaks to us with the Word of God proclaimed in this place. And just as God spoke in creation, God speaks to us in our ears.

And here Jesus reaches out to us. Jesus washes our eyes in the waters at the font, the waters of gospel promise, the waters of new life. And just as God commanded the Blind Man to wash, God washes the light into our world too.

And here Jesus presses flesh into our flesh. Bread and Wine, the very body and blood of Christ are pressed into our flesh, and brought to our lips. And just as Jesus reached out to touch the Blind Man, God reaches out and comes as close as God can to us.

So when we look around and only see regular, familiar faces, faces that we cannot seem to imagine God in, Jesus sees in us the Body of Christ, God’s hands and feet in the world.

When we look around and only see the walls and pews and hymnbooks of routine and mundane experience, Jesus sees people gathered in God’s house.

When look at ourselves  and only see flawed and imperfect people who cannot seem to get faith right, Jesus sees in you and me people that God has faith in, people who are God’s beloved children.

And just like the Blind Man, there is A Transfiguration story here too, week after week. A Transfiguration story where God is revealed in human flesh, where the light of creation shines on us, where Jesus comes to us in experiences where we do no see, but instead hear, and feel and taste and touch…  in Word, in Water, and in Bread and Wine.

*The congregations I serve are using the Narrative Lectionary in the first three months of 2018

Washing away social convention at Jacob’s well

John 4:1-42  

6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”  (Read the whole passage)

You may remember this story from the season of Lent last year. Nicodemus too, the story we heard last week was also from the season of Lent. And the story of blind man next, also from Lent last year. Yet, as we continue our journey through the Narrative Lectionary this year, we are hearing this stories with different ears. Ears that are listening for revelation rather than preparing for crucifixion. We hear this stories with an eye to how Christ is revealed among us, as God’s son.

So last week as Nicodemus came by night, Jesus told him to be be born again or anew. Today, Jesus offers a Samaritan woman Living Water. Water that will keep her from ever being thirsty again.

The contrast between Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman are striking. It was Nicodemus who sought Jesus in the darkness of night, with questions to ask. But today, it is high noon in the desert and Jesus is the one coming to the woman with questions of his own. The scandal of this scene is lost to us. We only see a thirsty man asking a woman for a drink. But when Jesus approaches this solitary woman to ask for water, he is breaking rules and overstepping his place in the the culture of the day.

For a man to speak to a woman in public was unthinkable. Women belonged to their husbands like property, and for another man to even give the appearance of tampering with that property invited scorn and suspicion. Jesus’ request of this poor woman could have endangered her life should she be accused of adultery. But it is not only the issue of gender that makes this scene scandalous.

For a Jew to interact with a Samaritan was unthinkable. Samaritans were also people of Israel, but they chose to worship differently… not at the temple. This theological difference, meant that for Jews, Samaritans were unclean. For Jesus to be close to a Samaritan, to drink from her bucket, would have meant he would become unclean. But this is not all, there is still more scandal to come.

Unlike the obvious cultural boundaries of gender and religion, Jesus creates a personal scandal. The woman has come to the well at noon. The hottest and least ideal time of day to fetch water. All the other women would have come to the well early in the morning and then again late at night. But this woman, for whatever reason, has chosen to come in the middle of the day, probably in order to be a alone. And it is scandalous for the woman, that Jesus interrupts her quest for solitude.

And so when Jesus meets the woman at the well and asks for a drink, it is all the things, these social conventions, that prevent the woman from hearing what Jesus has to say. Just like Nicodemus last week, this woman isn’t hearing what Jesus is getting at because of all the other noise, all the social conventions, the categories she is put in and identities she had been given by the world around her.

As human beings we are good at finding reasons to build walls, to categorize and judge one another. The arbitrary and abstract social conventions of  religion, gender, or race keep us form hearing one another, they keep us divided, they give us reason to be cut off from the rest of the world.

We put up walls because we think they are going to protect us, walls that we hope will keep us safe, and we build them to keep the bad folks out. But our walls only end up hurting us. They isolate us, the turn us away from our neighbour and from our communities. The walls and boundaries can become oppressive structures, that keep always in the dark, always alone and always wary of others.

From Lutheran and Catholics, to Christians and Muslims and Jews, to conservatives and liberals, men and women, indigenous and non-indigenous, there are all sorts arbitrary reasons why we hold back from each other.

Whether it is the town we grew up in, or the job we work at, or the church we attend, or the hockey team we cheer for… we are just as adept as the Samaritan woman at giving reasons as to why we should’t give a glass of water to people like Jesus, who show up at our wells thirsty for a drink.

As poeple of faith, we know just how powerful those social conventions and inherited identities can be. We live with the the fruits of them every day. We long for our congregations and communities to be full and vibrant as they once were, but we are wary of those who aren’t like us, those who don’t fit in before the arrive, those who don’t know how things work around here. We live with this tension, of wanting our communities of grow again, while clinging to the arbitrary identities and societal rules that give us reasons to stay divided.

When Nicodemus, despite his curiosity, couldn’t get past his identity and the rules that came with it, he asked Jesus how a person who re-enter their mother’s womb and be born again? Jesus’ response is the sermons that contains John 3:16.

Yet when the Samaritan woman does the same, she asks for a literal drink of the spiritual living water than Jesus offers… and perhaps knowing that the sermon lecture didn’t turn out so well last week Jesus does something different.

He doesn’t berate the woman as he does Nicodemus, nor does he preach or pontificate. Instead he cuts through all the noise and conventions that would say talking to this woman is wrong because she is a Samaritan, a woman and alone in the heat of the day.

He cuts through it all and shows the woman that he knows her.

Jesus knows her story, her life, her pain and suffering, her isolation and alienation.

Jesus knows her. She isn’t just a woman, and a samaritan, and someone isolated from her community. She isn’t just abstract social conventions, but a real person.

And Jesus knows her.

Then something changes in the woman.

The abstract and arbitrary social conventions and identities don’t matter anymore. All the reasons that seemed to stand in the way of even talking to Jesus don’t matter anymore.

Jesus becomes more than a man at the well, a jew and an interrupting stranger.

Jesus becomes a real, tangible person standing at the well, water bucket in hand, meeting this woman face to face in the heat of the sun.

And unlike Nicodemus who left Jesus still uncertain and confused about who Jesus is, this woman recognizes just who has offered her living water.

The One who is found in the Living Water of the Life, the Messiah come to save, the Christ who breaks through all the other things that try to define us – the Christ who knows us.

It is here too, at the water that we gather round in this place that Jesus becomes a real tangible person, offering us living water.

And like the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus breaks through all the identities that we bear, arbitrary names that we carry that would make us think we shouldn’t even talk to one another or to God.

In the waters of baptism we are washed of that other noise in our lives. All the identities that separate us, all the social conventions that dictate who we are allowed to interact with, all the things that seem so real and concrete and immovable.

Standing at the font, when flesh and water meet, when the screams of an unimpressed baby or the tears of a moved adult are mixed together with the promises that the Word of God speaks in our midst, all that other stuff is washed away.

And the only identity that matters is the one that Jesus gives us.

Child of God.

And as children of God, we are reminded of our identity every time someone is washed in the waters, we are given the Living Water of Christ.

The Living Water of Christ that connects us rather than divides, the living water that satisfies our thirst, the living water that brings us to new life.

The Living Water that Christ offers us is the water that changes who we are at the core of our being, the sign that we belong to God.

The Living Water that swirls around the font is where God binds us together into one Body with no social conventions between us, with no identities that keep us from knowing each other.

The Living Water of Christ tells us who we are.

And so like woman who is given this Living Water, this woman who Jesus knows, we are given the same. Jesus gives us that waters of life and in our dying and rising to Christ in those waters we – each of us and all of us – are made Children of God.