Sunday, December 13, 2015

an incarnation story (spoiler alert. Jesus gets born)

picture from:

Hey Y’all — spoiler alert. Jesus gets born. And we’re gonna talk about it two weeks early. Sorrynotsorry. 

But it seems like a cruel joke to make the Eeyore of the church staff preach on the “Joy” day. We need Tigger, or Buddy the Elf,


 or intern-Rich, or that porcupine eating the pumpkin on YouTube, or basically anyone else. The Advent season is flying by and I’m still in October, wandering around looking for my lost tail…

So, instead, I’m just going to tell you a story.

Once upon a time there was a land, broad and wide, gorgeous and plentiful, where an emperor created a most powerful system of haves and have-nots, so much so, that 1% of the world’s population owned more than half of the world’s wealth.  This 1% controlled the land, the seas, and all of the resources the earth provided. And with this wealth, they began buy power. First, through rivers and rainforests, farmland and mountains. Through coal and oil, diamonds and corn. And then through credit default swaps and high frequency trading and attractive websites. And as they amassed so much wealth, they needed people to retrieve it, to maintain it, to count it, and to offer themselves to it. And the people believed that if they worked hard enough, they, too, might become as powerful as they. 

And in those days, there came a decree from the emperor that every person should be counted, for they wanted to see what they would buy, how many taxes they’d have to pay, how many times they’d click on that link from the dying princess in Ethiopia who wants to give them all of her amassed wealth. And so all went to Facebook and Google and instagram and pinterest, and even the grandparents opened their juno accounts and clicked.  And the ads came. Switch your cell phone plan and save. Update your insurance plan with our new low rates. Win Christmas with this flashy electronic gadget. Free shipping on chinchilla fur lined black leather pants when you spend $100 on fingerless gloves and argyle toe socks. 

And so they clicked. And they were counted. And they felt hollow and empty unless they clicked, like they didn’t count for much anymore. They stopped reading books for fun. They forgot how to grill a really good steak. They felt awkward with eye contact. They couldn’t remember when to plant the tulips. They squinted under fluorescent lights and breathed stale conditioned air. They looked at all the pictures they clicked and they suddenly felt fat, and lazy, ugly and old. They began to think that the clicks were the only way that they could get any of it back.

And the emperors of power, maybe they had a bright orange combover,

or maybe they kept their financial accounts in Switzerland or the Caribbean, maybe they were mostly old white men, began to line the pockets of the civil servants with cash, with land, with sweatshops in India, with mediterranean cruises, with bought elections, with chinchilla fur lined leather pants.

But once, a long time ago, there was a young couple, getting ready for a baby, getting ready for a marriage, getting ready to start a life together, who travelled the eighty miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem, to be registered, to be counted. Mary left her Target nursery registry and her Honda Odyssey, her “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” she left the safest mahogany crib with properly spaced bars and without bumpers or blankets or teddy bears so as to prevent SIDS. She left her pump and her comfortable pajamas and her lanolin cream all behind.

And so, nine months pregnant, poor Mary waddled through the desert, trying to do as she was told, trying to do what is expected of her by the powers, trying to please the emperor in her own small way, trying to be counted, trying to click all the right links, trying to meet expectations and get an A+ in this mother-of-god-thing, trying not to make Joseph stop every fifteen minutes so she could pee.

And in that tiny town, it is said that Mary gave birth to her child. Without the retracting hospital bed or ice chips from a plastic pitcher. Without chocolate pudding or that apple juice in those tiny little cups. No lanacane spray. No warm shower or heart monitors. Without a doula or a push present. Without an iv or a petocin drip. Without an epidural. Without those cute little onesies she’d ordered from that Etsy shop. She didn’t have a car seat or a college savings account. She didn’t have waldorf inspired toys or one of those black and white mobiles to hang above the baby to stimulate brain activity. Without a room or a bed or even a chair to rest. 

She had a kind of basement barn,
ANCIENT HOUSES,HOUSING,TENTS:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE: Model of interior of a four-roomed house
a lower level where folks would keep their animals and tools and lists of things that must be done before the end of the week or before the in-laws come or before the rainy season. With the sound of people stomping above her, dust from the rafters falling with each heavy step, she looked around. And saw what she had.

She had her two hands. And a lot of pain. And moans. And swaying. And blood. And this barn for the hired hands and the beasts of burden. She had sweat and a terrified husband. She had a promise from an angel that she now wonders was all just a first trimester morning sickness delusion.

And so she did what she had to do. She crouched down in the straw and felt for his head. The soft fontanel and birth waters and blood. And she pushed again. And then she caught her baby. 

Alone and terrified and anonymous in a strange town, a tiny speck of dust amidst the swirling universes, she caught her baby. And she breathed. And she smelled his head. And she rubbed his back until she heard him cry. And then she put him against her chest and showed him his food and thought, this is enough. It’s enough. I don’t have a crib or a video monitor or even a proper blanket. I have a manger, a trough where the animals are fed, and some strips of cloth, and exhaustion. And it is enough. It is enough.

And it was a kind of quiet joy.

And striving to do and be and click all the things for all the powers didn’t seem so important anymore. Comparing ourselves to magazine photos and other’s savings accounts and fancy cars and parents who keep up with their blogs and their exercise and their date nights, begins to fade away.

God became flesh through a young girl in a basement barn covered in straw and droppings and the wet exhales of sheep and donkeys. And it was enough. 

The fleshy power of the incarnation started the avalanche that someday, someday, will cancel out all the oppressive structures and negative self talk, and sense of failure and self doubts. All the need to amass more stuff, more accolades, more zeroes on our paychecks.

All the small things. All the small, inconsequential, fleshy, grounding, boring things of this world, suddenly had the smell of a new born’s head, a stroke of incarnation, the hint of a God become human, the kind of power that principalities and corporations and governments and terrorist groups will never have. 
The power of the incarnation. The power of enough.

And with that enough, Mary is more powerful than Caesar Augustus and Octavius and Donald Trump and the Koch brothers and the whole Walmart corporation and even the new Dow/Dupont. 

So powerful, in fact, that this fleshy, contracting, sweating, bloody birth began to pull a thread from the tangled sweater of corrupt power structures, so that with every cup of tea and quiet moment and trip to the park and sincere apology and trashy romance novel and potluck and smelly dog fart and mud pie and truce between enemies and up-cycle Etsy shop and roadside lemonade stand, there is enough. Enough for this moment. Enough for right now. Enough to participate in the destruction of the power systems. Enough to see God in all of it. Enough to count. 

The incarnation of enough. Ooof. I want so bad for it to be enough.

Jesus Christ. A tiny baby covered in amniotic fluid, landing, thump, on a dirt floor covered in straw. Laid in a manger. In a barn. Below folks who are upstairs on the internet or switching the laundry or writing the dissertation or drinking the fifth or watching Wheel of Fortune, clicking, clicking, trying to count. Being counted. Not realizing that enough is so close, so near, so ready to be welcomed in to the world. 

It’s a quiet kind of joy that doesn’t seem so far away anymore. 

The power of the incarnation.

The power of the incarnation is the power to infuse every inch of our lives with the spirit of God. The power to upend every oppressive social and economic and political structure just by showing up, just by looking around, by refusing to buy what they are selling. By living in to the present moment, just as God has given to us, right here, right now. It is enough.

Thanks be to God.

Friday, December 11, 2015

A (Therapist's) Commission

This is the charge I have for all of us. Well, ok. I stole it from my therapist. But hey, I've got to get something out of my copay, right? (Seriously, y'all, this woman is worth every penny. I'd give her a kidney if she needed it. But not both kidneys, because, you know, mental health.)

Put down our garden hoses.

Let me explain. 

We run around this world as if it were on fire. We race to appointments, we check the facebooks, we pay the bills and do what we’re told. We are busy, doing doing doing. We are busy trying to live up to expectations and pass tests and prove ourselves — even in the name of ministry, even — maybe even most often — with the excuse that we are doing this because we are serving God. 

We go to the meetings and we neglect our spirits. We attend the functions and we miss out on family dinner. We skip just one sabbath because we had that emergency at the beginning of the week and we didn’t get a good enough sermon done. 

We sacrifice our mental health for a deadline. We give up ourselves in the name of pleasing others. Of meeting expectations. 

We try to prove to others — and to ourselves — that we’re good enough for the job, for the friendship, for the marriage, for the parenting. 

Therapist says it’s as if we are in the middle of a forest fire. And we have this garden hose. And we’re trying to put down the forest fire with a garden hose. And it never really gets us anywhere. It’s not really effective, putting a fire out with a garden hose. But it keeps the fire off of us just enough to make us think that we’re doing what we’re supposed to do. That we’re meeting expectations and earning good marks and pleasing others. And we think that that is what God calls us to. 

But I think that God calls us to let it burn. 

To let the seed die so that new life can grow.

I think God wants us to drop the garden hose and just let it burn. Burn down our unhealthy expectations, our feelings as though we don’t measure up, even our need for security. Let it burn. 

There are these pine cones, from the Lodge Pole Pines. And these cones hold their seeds so tightly that they cannot let them go unless they are under extreme heat. Not a hazy, humid Pittsburgh summer heat, but a scalding, raging forest fire heat. 
They need the fire. They need the heat, so new life can grow.

So, Us, let the seed fall to the ground and die. Let the forest burn. Put down the garden hose. Let it burn. So new life can grow. 

Model how to do that for your people.
People, model how to do that for each other.

Because Jesus doesn’t call us to become another Christian Organization. Jesus doesn’t need another nonprofit or another church run just like a fortune 500 company. 
Jesus wants something completely different. Completely alien to the corporate models and quarterly projections and grade point averages. Jesus wants way more from us than a couple of hours on a Sunday morning. Even more from us than doing all the things that the world tells us to do, but in the name of Jesus. 
Jesus doesn’t call us to be “christ flavored.” 
Jesus calls us to radical transformation, the kind of transformation that requires a seed to die in order for new life to grow. The kind of transformation that requires that we do the hard work of putting down the garden hose. Radical transformation requires that we drop the hose and wait for new life to grow. 

So, Us - in whatever we do, may we do it because it is going to change our hearts, may we do it because it is leading us, and each other to radical transformation.

That is the story of Christ on the Cross.
That is the story of Christ on the third day.

That is the story of all of us, if we seek God, if we let it burn.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Midnight Cat Rodeos and Toddlers on the Beach

credit - Jenny Lawson for this image and for all the things at The Bloggers - seriously ya'll, she might be my new jam.

John 7:37-52

37 On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, 38and let the one who believes in me drink. As* the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart* shall flow rivers of living water.” ’ 39Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit,* because Jesus was not yet glorified.
40 When they heard these words, some in the crowd said, ‘This is really the prophet.’ 41Others said, ‘This is the Messiah.’* But some asked, ‘Surely the Messiah* does not come from Galilee, does he? 42Has not the scripture said that the Messiah* is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?’ 43So there was a division in the crowd because of him. 44Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him.
45 Then the temple police went back to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked them, ‘Why did you not arrest him?’ 46The police answered, ‘Never has anyone spoken like this!’ 47Then the Pharisees replied, ‘Surely you have not been deceived too, have you? 48Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him? 49But this crowd, which does not know the law—they are accursed.’ 50Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus* before, and who was one of them, asked, 51‘Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?’ 52They replied, ‘Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.’ 

It’s the end of all the things. That time of year when everything recedes back into the ground, and the sun stops shining, and you go to work in the dark and come home from work in the dark. Winter is coming, and the geese are flying south, and yesterday we celebrated the macabre of Halloween and dead and creepy things, and the Day of the Dead, and Reformation Day and the end of the theocracy of the Roman Catholic Church. And in our reading today, Jesus sneaks in to Jerusalem to celebrate the Festival of Booths - that holiday that celebrates the end of things, the harvest, the temporality of life, and to commemorate the constant moving transience of the Israelites wandering in the desert after the Exodus. 

It’s that time when the leaves give one last beautiful shout into the sky until they fall to the ground and turn to wet muck on our sidewalks. It’s when we give our hour of daylight back to the time gods and accept that it will be pitch black at four-thirty in the afternoon. When we pull out all those Decemberist albums praising summer only to find that Colin Meloy is done with the summer songs. Pull out the antidepressants and the sun lamps and the vitamin D supplements, it’s time to batten down the hatches against the noonday demon and the cold and the end of things.  

And when, way back at the staff meeting a few months ago, Jeff started planning out the Fall worship calendar, and said that Nov. 1st is the day we talk about John 7 and the doubting and the weird rivers and the living waters, everyone looked over at me. Surely, Jenn is the one who should preach about doubts and questioning and a guy named Nicodemus who is such a perfectionist at the law that he wants to out-lawyer the Pharisee lawyers, just in case, just maybe, this Jesus guy is who they’re saying he is. “Guys,” he says, “I mean, maybe we should look in to this Jesus guy, just in case he is who he says he is. We don’t need to commit. We don’t need to make a downpayment or sign a buyer’s agreement. Let’s just examine the facts and test this guy out, an insurance policy you know, just to be sure, just to hedge our bets a bit.”

And doubting is my jam. 

I like to say that this is the way God made me. It’s not my fault. It’s like when I was in high school and I’d leave my clothes all over the floor or my souring leftover Carnation Instant Breakfast in the cupholder of my baby-blue Ford Escort for weeks on end and my parents would say, “What is wrong with you?” And I’d say, “I don’t know. It’s not my fault. You made me…”  

And boy has this been a year of doubt. I’d get an A+ in Advanced Placement Doubt for both the Spring and the Fall Semesters this year. And I even took doubting summer school just to show off how very good I am at this doubting thing. To be honest, I’m kind of proud of the doubt mantle I wear. Proud of the doubt-scars I carry across my psyche. Proud of my limp from wrestling with God. And I’m rockin’ along with this John chapter 7 and all the doubting and the almost-arresting and the questions about Jesus and how he can be doing any of these things because he’s from Galilee, and that’s a trash heap of a place, and the Messiah doesn’t come from Galilee, because the books and the prophesies and the laws say he’s got to be from Bethlethem. 

          Until. Until I can’t doubt anymore. Until I’m done with the doubting. Done with the trying. Done with the wrestling and the questioning and the hoping - just in case some of this might be true. I don’t want to hedge my bets anymore. I’m tired. And worn out. And all I can see is absurdity. 

This has been a pretty shitty year. but not in a way that anyone can see. It’s like a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese got you all excited about the cheesy goodness inside and then…nothing. The incandescent cheese powder that looked so delicious and promising and orange has made you its bitch. Joke’s on you, kid.  It’s like everyone asking you how you’re feeling when you’re past the sickness of the first trimester and you’re finally willing to tell everyone you’re pregnant. Gee. That care package of Slim Jims, Sour Patch Kids and Saltines could have come a few weeks earlier when I was worshipping the porcelain god and falling asleep during the Walking Dead, ya know? But now that I’m all “glowing” and showing and feeling a little less green, now I get the support? 

Depression is a bitch like that. Like non-stop morning sickness that never gives you a baby at the end, only a bag of cheese powder you can get for $10.24 a pound on Amazon. 

It just points out how all this is a whole bunch of nothing. It’s all absurd and pointless and bullshit. Absurd, like how I got rear ended on the parkway in front of the Squirrel Hill Tunnel by a guy texting and with no insurance - I mean, how cliche is that? Absurd like how they gave me a Christmas cup at the Starbucks yesterday. Absurd like how brain surgeons have somehow lost the status of most brilliant beings on earth. And how, even in spite of that, Donald Trump is still contending for Republican nominee. How there are still planes falling from the sky, and record breaking hurricanes, and pilgrims getting trampled on their hajj to Mecca, and there are earthquakes that make people sleep outside in Pakistan and Afghanistan and no one seems to know about it. Absurd. Like how we’re going to enter in to a ground war in Syria

And there’s that picture of that little three year old boy washed up on the beach. The one that went viral a month or so ago and lit a fire that began to highlight the despair of all these Syrians so desperate to leave their war-torn homes that they’ll use their life savings and risk a treacherous boat ride to get to Europe. Horrible. Absurd. 

It’s absurd. This isn’t anything. All this. A whole bunch of nothing. Let’s just eat our cheese powder straight out of the bag while we watch Lost on Netflix.

          I tell all this to my shrink one day as evidence that I’m winning at the Atheist thing. Yes. Finally. Some assurance. There is no God. Finally some proof and some reason to stop treading water in the deep shark infested pool of doubt. Some reason to quit the questioning and just go bowling and buy lottery tickets and get a perm and shop at Spencer Gifts. Do they still have Spencer gifts? Do you remember Spencer Gifts? Where you could buy plastic poop and troll doll t-shirts and bubble wand necklaces? No? Well. There you go. Yet another reason not to believe.

So I’m sitting in a big overstuffed chair across from my shrink on the couch with a serenity prayer afghan hanging above her head and I'm telling her why, this time, this time, I’ve done it. I’ve finally let go. I’m done with this God charade. Done with the trying and the hoping and the wanting all this Jesus stuff to be true, because I went on Facebook and right there on my newsfeed, without me even having to look for it, right there in front of my eyes, proof, definitive proof that God is no god. A picture of a little boy. Face down in the sand. Yes! Atheist Jenn:1 Deluded, naive, hopeful Jenn: 0. Drop the mic. strut off stage. This “Christian” is out.

But I am the worst atheist. A total failure. Because even when I get The. Best. Evidence. that there is no God, or, if there is, that God is a total bastard, or if God’s not a total bastard, then God’s just impotent and irrelevant. But it just figures. Even when I see a picture of a dead toddler washed up on the beach, I still find a way to fail at this atheist thing. Or maybe God finds a way of throwing me back in to the shark-filled deep end of the doubting pool. I don’t know. It’s God’s fault. God made me this way.

          There was this despair I thought I could avoid if I just simply refused to believe in God. If I could just embrace the absurdity. That this is all absurdity. This isn’t anything. This. Any of this. All of this.

So of course, Therapist leans in and she says, “tell me a little bit more about that, Jenn.” 

And I tried. But I couldn’t quite get to it. 

I circled and circled around it. But I couldn’t get at it. It was this untouchable absurd tragedy that was so far away, and yet so awful.

Sufjan Stevens has this deliciously sad album out about the death of his estranged mother who left him when he was just four years old. And in the depths of all my new medications and the therapists and the psychiatrists and the PCP and the logging of every moment of my day to avoid an emergency trip to Western Psych, I’d listen to this CD on repeat. And everyone was freaked out that I was listening to this horrifically sad music while I was in the depths of my own dead. But what they didn’t understand was that I could handle sad. Sad is real. Sad is something. Sad is a thing

         But what I couldn’t handle was this faraway untouchable absurdity of despair that we can’t reach, we can’t touch, we can’t connect to. I couldn’t get to the horrors of the toddler on the beach, only to a fake kind of hopeless apathy, and a fear that that could be my kid with the velcro sneakers and the superman t-shirt. 
Makes me understand why folks, some Pharisees and keepers of the law and temple police and Biblical literalists might want some laws, some textbooks, some clear guidelines on how to live life - some cut and dry, black and white, fundamentalist, Phariseen thinking. 

But then I entered in and therapist went with me. Always go in with your therapist. We entered in to the horror of it. And the deep sadness. And it was as if, for just a tiny millisecond, for enough time for your Life cereal to get soggy, or for my labrador to go back and double check that that was indeed her shit that she just shat, or for a Big Mac to travel the entire expanse of your digestive system, we jumped back into the deep end of the doubting pool and felt what a woman might have felt to lose her child to war, or to a car accident, or to a gun shot from being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong color skin. There was a moment of connection. Of horrible, hopeful sadness. Of not being alone in all this absurdity. Beyond time and space and absurdity and disconnectedness, there was empathy, and connection, and just enough evidence that God is real to get me back to doubting again.

Just last week I started reading a book written by a woman plagued by all the haunts and horrors that is mental illness. And she’s hilarious. And she’s an insomniac. So, sometimes in the middle of the night she takes her taxidermied raccoon sporting jazz hands and a face that smiles, “hey! I may have once been road kill but now I have marbles for eyes and these amazing jazz hands and sawdust for a liver. And life - er well, whatever this is - is awesome! I mean, did I mention the jazz hands?” And she tries to get the raccoon to ride on her cats’ backs 8 second rodeo style so she can get a picture with her brand new dslr. 

This is her patronus against the soul-sucking dementors of despair. A stuffed victim of vehicular homicide posed with jazz hands and an unnaturally overzealous raccoon smile. It’s all so absurd. She writes, “There's something about depression that allows you, or sometimes forces you, to explore depths of emotions most 'normal people' could never conceive of. Imagine having a disease so overwhelming that your mind causes you to want to murder yourself. Imagine having a malignant disorder that no one understands. Imagine having a dangerous affliction that even you can't control or suppress.”

And I wonder if those taxidermied raccoons and tears for a mother and a child whom you’ve never met suffering from a world you could never imagine is the living water. What if that’s it? What if the living water is the stuff of doubts? What if it's this different kind of hilarious absurdity and  the laughter and tears in the midst of it? What if this living water is a thing? A real thing?

And I think the “crowds” get it. Those people wandering around Jerusalem looking for a little hope and putting their chips on the Jesus square at the roulette table. Because they are the toddlers on the beach and the mothers of murdered children and fathers of heroin addicts and those who have come to the end of it all. They are thirsty in this dry land of drought and Syrian civil wars and drowned refugees and power hungry dictators with all the guns and the diamond mines the oil and slave labor to keep it dry forever. They are the ones who mourn every year on Dia de los Muertos and who pull out their sun lamps as the leaves begin to fall, and drag their children to higher ground as their house gets washed away by the hurricane floods. 

They’re the ones who coerce their cats to carry stuffed raccoons on their backs in the middle of the night. Who are looking for some nourishment in a pound of cheese powder and some soggy Life cereal. These crowds who recognize Jesus as the Messiah, as a Prophet, as Jesus, embrace him because he is from Galilee. Not in spite of it. Because maybe he has a raccoon, too. And some cats. And he once had a whole lot of hope for that box of mac and cheese. Maybe he followed his dad around the shop wearing tiny velcro shoes. Maybe he feels like a stranger in a strange land. Maybe he’s found something in the whole lot of nothing that sucks out our souls like a dementor's kiss. 

The crowd gets it because Jesus gets it. They’re the ones who doubt and wrestle and cry and then mourn with a mother they’ve never met over a child lost on the other side of the world. And then suddenly, there’s water. And somehow, they’re drinking, and somehow streams start trickling through your body, and for what is never, ever, long enough, God is real and taxidermied raccoons ride house cats in the middle of the night and we share tears over thousands of miles and it’s all so horrible and so beautiful, and God is real - or maybe might be real — simply because there was a moment with your therapist when time and space didn’t exist and there were just tears — tears you shared with a woman you’d never meet but knew, for just the tiniest of minutes, and that was enough to find life and death and God in the midst of the horror. 

Not bad for a thirty dollar co-pay.

Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Thirst of Christ

John 4:1-42

Jesus and the Woman of Samaria

Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, ‘Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John’— although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water 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.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’
 Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am he,the one who is speaking to you.’
 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ They left the city and were on their way to him.
 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, ‘Rabbi, eat something.’ But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ So the disciples said to one another, ‘Surely no one has brought him something to eat?’ Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, “Four months more, then comes the harvest”? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.” I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour.’
 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. 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 Saviour of the world.’

The UN has decided to mark this day, October 11th, as the International Day of the Girl Child, to emphasize the staggering statistics that almost 39,000 girls become child brides every day. 90% of adolescent pregnancies take place within marriage. And pregnancy and childbirth complications are among the leading causes of death in girls aged 15-19 in developing world countries. Today is a day to think about Marsia, who was married on her ninth birthday. When, after six years of physical and emotional abuse by her 40 year old husband, she accidentally broke his TV, she set herself on fire, preferring suicide rather than face her husband’s wrath. 

Or to think about Bibi who was married to a Taliban fighter at age 13. One night she left her bed in the barn next to the goats and the sheep to visit her mother without her husband’s permission. When he caught up with her, he cut off both of her ears and her nose and left her for dead. 
At 11, Ghulam became one of the every nine girls who are married before the age of 15. And at 16, Maria lives with three other women, who, after experiencing a stillbirth and doing so much damage to her body laboring alone, no longer has control of her bladder. Constantly leaking urine, she has been rejected by her husband and extended family, and tries to survive by selling firewood on the side of the road. 

And this is the story of the unnamed woman, who had married so young to men so far her elders that as they died, one by one, she was passed on to another man, another elderly husband, until, after her fifth husband died, thought cursed, used and alone, she threw herself upon the mercy of a man who was not her husband. 

Traded by her father for a couple of goats and a few clay pots long ago, now she is a social outcast, cursed as a “black widow” who brings death wherever she goes, she now resorts to fetching her water from the community well at the hottest, quietest, loneliest time of day. No one would be there to question her morals, to lecture her about what she has done to deserve being widowed or abused or rejected five times over. No one would be around to recoil from her stench of urine and STDs, to shake their heads at her barren womb, to think her an idiot for being illiterate, to send her back to the life from which she ran. At noon, though it was stagnant and warm from the hot sun, she could fetch her water in peace. 

But as she nears the well, she sees a man sitting there, just sitting. What could a man want at this time of day? Why isn’t he in the shade with the men puffing pipes and telling stories to while away the hour? Doesn’t he have a wife to feed him his midday meal and prepare his bed for his afternoon rest? And if he doesn’t, what could he want? Certainly more than water. Certainly more than she wanted to give him, especially now that his eyes have met hers. A drink isn’t all this man could want - this Jewish man sitting alone, daring to address a woman, a Samaritan - and someone so despised by society that she had to fetch her water during the heat of the day. As a woman, a Samaritan, a widower/divorcee, she has far more than three strikes, if we’re keeping count. Or maybe this guy sitting here at this well is just an idiot; maybe he has no idea about the filth to whom he speaks. Or maybe he knows exactly who she is, and he wants some too.

“Give me a drink,” he says. 
And she responds, but not with a passivity expected from someone so broken as she has been. “Do you realize who you’re talking to? You probably just made yourself ritually unclean by being within ten feet of me, let alone by talking to me, by asking me for something. Do you know who you’re talking to?”

“Do you?” Jesus simply answers her question with a question. “‘Cause if you did know who I was, you'd be the one doing the asking, you’d be the one who needs something from me - living water, welling up to eternal life. The kind of water that does not demand or abuse or neglect or judge or demands purity to acquire, but the kind that simply requires that you ask for it.”

She forgets her place, she forgets her social status, and speaks to Jesus as if she were equal. “How could I ask you for water? You have no water. You have no way to get water. I know my history. This is Jacob’s well.  He got water from here, and so did his sons and flocks. I may be abandoned and alone and disconnected from everything and everyone, but I have this water, I have this connection, though weak and shredding and distant, to something big, to Jacob, to tradition, to those who are important and have value. It may be a connection to an abusive system and broken community, but it is all I have.”

And Jesus says, “everyone, the flocks, the sons, Jacob himself, and all who came after him, have to keep coming back to this well to get more water, to quench their thirst. I have a kind of water that is not tied to empty traditions or patriarchy or systems of power that oppress the weak. I have water that is for you, that will keep on coming, forever.”

The idea of indoor plumbing sounds amazing to her. “Sir, give me this water so I don’t have to keep coming out into the public to fetch my water. I want to turn a faucet whenever I want and not risk the ridicule of coming to this place during the heat of the day. I get so thirsty. If I could just stay inside, if I could just get water from the kitchen sink, away from everyone else…maybe I’d be ok. Maybe life wouldn’t be so hard.”

“Go get your husband, and we’ll start drafting the designs for your new indoor plumbing.” Jesus says.
“I have no husband.” 
“I know. I know all about you.”
And she braces for the impact, for the slapping and the verbal lashing. She looks for stones in his hands or his pockets. 
But then nothing. No chastising. No belittling. No mocking or ridicule. Not an abusive word or a snicker or a scolding or a secret signal to the mob hiding behind the bushes somewhere to begin their ambush. Not a demand for a sexual favor in exchange for keeping all this ugliness a secret for one more day. 

Who is this guy?

“I am just a guy who needs a drink,” Jesus says. “A drink from you. You think you’re the outcastiest of all the outcasts, but here I AM, The I AM, asking you for a drink.”

And suddenly everything changes - even as the same sun beats down on the same well on the same woman sold into the same marriages again and again until she became too old to be desirable anymore. No, this Jesus is not talking about indoor plumbing. He’s talking about thirst. 

She is thirsty. And Jesus is thirsty. 

Her life is changed, not by a flush toilet or a high efficiency washing machine in her newly finished basement, not by theological proof texts of where we should and shouldn’t worship or through complicated exegesis of the Torah. But through the mutuality of thirst. 

She has come because she needs water. But really, she needs Jesus’ water. And Jesus has come because — dare we be so bold to say it? — he needs her water. They’re both thirsty. And suddenly, connection, community, life. 

She is sharing thirst with Jesus. 
Sharing thirst with Jesus means sharing with Jesus all of those things that are accessible to you. We encounter Jesus when we hear "I thirst" and then realize our own thirst in ourselves. 
Jesus is accessible to us  - not through perfection or perfect belief or assent to the Nicene Creed or the Westminster Confession - Jesus is accessible to us through our thirst. Through our need. 
Because Jesus thirsts. Because Jesus needs.

Could we bring out the Jesus in each other when we ask each other for what we need? “Hey friend, I’m thirsty, could you give me a drink?” “Sure, Jesus, I mean Jenn, I’m thirsty too.”
Power isn’t going to bring us Jesus. Power isn’t going to stop the wars and the shootings and the broken bodies washing up on the beach. Only weakness. Only thirst. Mutual thirst.

I think about Mother Teresa who felt so deeply separated from God for the last forty years of her life that she often despaired, she often railed against the radio silence that came through on the other side of her prayers. I just assumed that she felt this darkness because she kept looking for Jesus through her service, and although she could never find him, she was this super patient saint who would keep knocking at the door until her knuckles bled. But maybe it wasn’t what she did that kept her going. Maybe it was her thirst. Maybe she was thirsty, so she gave people water. She found Jesus in her thirst, in her mutual thirst with those she served. Just enough Jesus to keep her constantly thirsting for more. Just enough to rail against the darkness. Just enough to know that there is more. 

Maybe nothing was really fixed for this woman at the well. Girls are still getting married too young. Women are still coming to wells during the heat of the day, still being raped as they leave the refugee camps in search of firewood.  There are still outcasts. 
But for this woman at the well, she’s no longer an outcast alone because Jesus was there, Jesus was thirsty with her. And every time she thirsts, every time she goes back to that well, she shares her mutual thirst with the Creator of the Universe. 

This Samaritan woman without a name or a husband leaves her water jar because it is in her thirst, her thirst for Jesus, that she will never thirst again. 
Because we encounter Jesus every time we hear someone say, “I thirst, can I have a drink?” and then realize our own thirst in ourselves. 
Your thirst for Jesus will quench your thirst. I know. It doesn’t make sense and it’s kind of ridiculous, but this is the way of Christ. We don’t get to God through power or stuff or belief or sinlessness, but through lack, weakness, humility, brokenness, because that’s what we have in common with Christ. Because power is made perfect in weakness.

This child bride turned five times widowed social outcast became empowered by her own thirst. Empowered enough to shout to everyone that she’s broken and weak and fragile and thirsty, too. She’s empowered to believe that others are thirsty, too. Empowered to invite those who have shunned her to come to the water, to come to the living water, to come and, by sharing in their mutual thirst, by sharing in the thirst of Christ, to come and drink their fill. 

Jesus comes when we with our perfectionism and our credit card debt and materialism and our crippling depression come together with the tired, the broken, with the child brides with obstetric fistulas and the refugees in rubber dinghies and the addicted and the orphans and the widows and the parents who have lost children and those of us with anxiety disorders and short tempers and even those who think they’ve got it all together with their upwardly mobileness. 
Come together. Come. Not to fix each other.  But to say, “hey, I’m thirsty too. Can I have a drink from you as broken and struggling as you are, as broken and struggling as I am?”

Maybe the next person to ask you for a drink is the face of Christ, thirsting for you. Maybe you’ll find what you’re thirsting for - deep in the thirst of Christ. 

Thanks be to God. Thanks be to Thirst. 

Sunday, August 9, 2015

An Open Letter to Yinz...

Philippians 1:1-14New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Paul and Timothy, servants[a] of Christ Jesus,
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops[b] and deacons:[c]
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart,[d] for all of you share in God’s grace[e] with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
12 I want you to know, beloved,[f] that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard[g]and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; 14 and most of the brothers and sisters,[h] having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word[i] with greater boldness and without fear.

A letter from Jenn, doubter and schemer and starving for Jesus, 
To my best friends of Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community
to you who carry broken hearts like newborn infants, 
to you who drag the mess of your lives like toilet paper attached to your shoes, 
to you who thanked God for waking you up sober for another day, 
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I’m so thankful for you. 
I’m so thankful for this place, for how the scuffs on the floor and the dents in the drywall and the consistently clogging toilets have given me room to breathe, to question, to not be afraid that I might break the fancy china or tarnish the silver candlesticks. 

When I am able to pray, when it feels more than rote and hollow and pointless, when I’m able to pray, I thank God for you, because you share the Gospel. 
You tell the truth. 
You show up. 
You show up, and you keep showing up, with your limps and your broken teeth and your empty college degrees and your tears, and your underemployment. 
And you’re here, bringing the Gospel with you, tucked deep inside your pockets, crumpled from when you left it in the wash, soft and worn and unreadable and present

I don’t know jack shit. I’m lost and confused and in a constant state of existential crisis. I’m in a dingy in the middle of the ocean and I have no idea how to find the north star. I have a pile of perfectly clean laundry still crumpled in its basket, just waiting for my pissed off cat to take her revenge. I still have t-shirts from high school. You can write your name in the dust on my bookshelves. I told my dental hygienist that I floss every night, but she knows as well as I do that I’ve just been cramming for the test for the last three days. 

I don’t know how to solve racism or police brutality or how to make ISIS just. stop. I don’t know what to do with my kid’s baby teeth, and I don’t know how to help my friend with a broken heart. 
I don’t know where God is or what God is doing when John Stewart retires from The Daily Show and Donald Trump gets to run for president. 

But this is one thing I know. 
You have the Gospel. 
You are the Gospel. 
And God is going to keep writing that Gospel story in your hearts until the day that Jesus comes to gather up our lost teeth and pick up our toys and hem our pants and remind us to wash our hands after using the bathroom.  

Sure. This is a little weird. A little awkward for me to think this about you, let alone say it out loud in a sermon, but I have to believe that you hold me in your hearts too, that maybe you see a little Gospel in me, too. 
‘Cause we’re all here in this place with these wobbly chairs and under these half-lit ceilings to eat some bread, to dip it in some juice, to say “Thanks be to God.” Like the tree that falls in the woods and makes a sound because someone is there to hear it crash to the ground, 
even in my doubt, 
Christ is present, because you’re here to hear all that doubt, 
complete with my source criticism and exegesis and self-deprecation and oversharing and postmodern philosophical angst, and to love me anyway. 

Guys. For reals. You’re just the real thing. 
Keep loving each other. That’s all we really have, anyway.

‘Cause I’m in my own prison these days. A prison made of synapses and fatty brain tissue and uneven serotonin levels. It’s 9:32 on a Saturday night and I’m just now writing this out because I’m nothing but a zombie, wandering around with my bullshit detector on overdrive. I’m hollow and empty and stuck and if I could get out of my own head for just ten minutes, I could stagger around in search of brains.

But if God is the God that Jesus says God is, 
then even zombies can preach the gospel. 
Even from their own prisons. 
Even in the dark. 
Because that’s what the Gospel is: telling the Truth in the dark. 

Even Paul, sitting in his own excrement in an underground prison, so depressed he thinks of taking his own life, even Paul who’s lucky to have stale bread and sour wine lowered down from a tiny manhole dug out of the ceiling, carried down by a friend who risked his life and his freedom to see to Paul’s shackled needs, even Paul could preach the Gospel. Even in a putrid stuffy prison with a trough in the middle where the dead and despairing would flow out into the sewer system.
Even Paul could see that the Gospel cannot be stopped by a prison, by depression, by a zombie apocalypse, by a little gingivitis, by a premature and interminable election season. 
Even Paul, while he in his darkest place, writes his most joyful letter, annoyingly optimistic, as he sits with the lice and the rats and the murderers and the seditious. 

The worst has happened. 
Paul is not free to promote the peace and love of Jesus Christ in broad daylight, and he hasn’t been martyred for the sake of the Gospel to stand out as an example of steadfastness and dedication to the Christian mission. 
He’s in limbo. 
He’s in the dark. 
He’s under the ground. 
He’s alone and has an itch his shackles won’t let him scratch. 
He is neither alive nor dead. He’s in a waiting place, at the mercy of some drunken Roman guards.

Paul is so confident that the Gospel is spreading that even police brutality and drunk driving accidents and the mentally ill with semi-automatic weapons cannot stop it. 

Paul is so confident that the Gospel is spreading that even our imprisonment of our brain chaos and our broken relationships and our insecurities and our eating disorders cannot contain it. 
He’s so confident that two-thousand years from now a doubt-filled preacher with a depressive disorder will stand in front of you all and not puke at the sound of Paul’s saccharin optimism.

So, dear friends, (as remember, I’m writing this too late last night) I’m going to wake up tomorrow morning, I’m going to take a shower and get dressed and try not to tell my kids to hurry up, and I’m going to come and read this letter to you all because I’m too messed up right now to write a proper sermon, and that’ll be a little gospel. Some good news. Some truth in the darkness. 
Frederick Buechner says, “It is possible to think of the Gospel and our preaching of it as, above all and at no matter what risk, a speaking of the truth about the way things are.” 
I’m going to preach to you the way things actually are. 
I’m going to spend these thirteen hundred forty-seven words trying to get to the way things are, not the way my mind happens to see them at this moment. 

Because the Gospel is the truth, not the incessant voices in my head.

Speak your Gospel. Speak it out into the darkness. Tell the truth to the brokenness and the deaths and the bleeding gums. That’s the Gospel. It’s telling the truth in the dark. 

Because Paul’s letter shows us that Jesus is in all the things. Especially the things hidden in the dark, in the dusty corners and the cobwebbed ceilings. In the mental torture and the personal crucifixions, and in the facades we put up for our dentists and our pastors and our Facebook profiles. Speak the truth to the darkness. 

Brothers and Sisters, be made confident in the Lord. By our imprisonments, dare to speak the Word with greater boldness and without fear. 
Tell the truth, even in the dark.