Further Up and Further In

The Sunday of the Resurrection
Year A (John 20:1-18)
Preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church (Evanston, IL)

We hear the story every year. Each year we read the story from a different gospel, but the plot line remains essentially stable as it pertains to that first Easter morning: the tomb is empty, Jesus has conquered death, Christ is Risen, Alleluia! Alleluia! He is risen indeed, Alleluia! To be sure some of the details vary – in every gospel, women arrive at the empty tomb first; but only in John’s gospel does Mary Magdalene arrive there alone. Matthew’s gospel tells of a great earthquake which rolls the stone away from the tomb’s entrance – in the gospels of Mark and Luke, like John’s account we heard this morning, the stone has already been rolled away – no fanfare, just the gaping entry to the empty tomb. And so, the details vary -but again, the basic plot remains the same. So, if it’s not for the story, why are you here? Why am I here? What are we doing on this Easter morning that is so different from what we did last year or the year before that or the year before that or the very first time you or I ever experienced an Easter morning?

In C.S. Lewis’ delightful children’s series, The Chronicles of Narnia, one of the characters – Mr. Tumnus explains that all the faithful followers of Aslan – a great lion who, in the stories, represents the God-head or at least Jesus Christ – all the faithful followers get to go “futher up and further in” to Narnia – Aslan’s Kingdom. The phrase “further up and further in” captured my imagination this week as I reflected on John’s account of that very first Easter morning.

Mary arrives at the tomb and sees that the stone has been rolled away. Immediately, she turns around and runs to tell Peter and the beloved disciple what she has seen – and her interpretation of the situation: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Someone has stolen the body! This is an understandable interpretation, isn’t it? Matthew’s gospel goes so far as to place guards outside the tomb in order to prevent the body from being stolen – an act which the chief priests and Pharisees believed was not beyond the antics of Jesus’ disciples who would stop at nothing to trick the people into thinking Jesus had risen from the dead. But here, of course, we have Mary Magdalene, a disciple, distraught over what she presumes to be the stolen body of her Lord.

After telling the two disciples, they all run back to the tomb and this time they enter further up and further in as the beloved disciple bends over to look into the darkness of the empty tomb. He is able to make out the shape of the linens which had been used to wrap Jesus’ body. Simon Peter goes even further as he enters the tomb to see not only the linen wrappings but the cloth which had been on Jesus’ head, rolled up in a place by itself. The beloved disciple follows him in and the gospel tells us, “he saw and believed.” Some scholars have suggested that what he believed was the account that Mary shared – that someone had stolen the body. He has now seen it for himself and believes she is telling the truth. But, this interpretation is anachronistic because it assumes a use of the word “believe” that simply had not yet occurred. You may recall my mentioning this a few weeks ago – the better translation of “I believe” being something like, “I set my heart on” or “I give my allegiance to”. To believe is a heart word, a loyalty word, not a rational thought word. And it simply makes no sense that the beloved disciple would be setting his heart or giving his allegiance to the notion that Jesus’ body has been stolen. No, the disciples have come to believe that Jesus has conquered death. No mention of the resurrection at this point; simply that Jesus has overcome death and the grave. Further up and further in.

The two disciples, we are told, return to their homes and Mary remains behind at the tomb, weeping. She stays behind and has an experience that will take her further up and further in to the truth of the empty tomb – she encounters the risen Christ. He calls her name and she knows his voice. Does this remind you of another Scripture passage from John’s gospel? It should: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish”[1]. Jesus has indeed overcome death and the grave, he has, in fact, been raised from the dead – now the resurrection is the story!. And now Mary is able to leave the tomb and return to the disciples with the first report of the Good News: “I have seen the Lord.”

We hear the story every year. The plot never changes: the tomb is empty, Jesus has conquered death, Christ is Risen, Alleluia! Alleluia! He is risen indeed, Alleluia! And so, if we already know the story, what are we doing on this Easter morning that we haven’t done before? Perhaps we are here because each time we hear the story of the empty tomb and the resurrection we are invited and encouraged to go further up and further in for ourselves.

Perhaps you are like Mary first arriving at the tomb convinced that the body has been stolen, that some great deception is at hand. It’s not what you want to believe, but you somehow cannot help yourself. The evidence for anything more is just not there for you. Or perhaps you are like the beloved disciple just stooping down to look into the tomb to see for yourself and, finding only the linens, you are ready to accept that Jesus has somehow conquered death but until you have a clearer understanding of how that happened you can go no farther. Further up and further in. Or maybe you are like Mary who stood outside the empty tomb weeping and you too have heard Jesus call your name and you have encountered the risen Christ. Further up and further in. Perhaps you are so enlivened by the power and the truth and the glory of the resurrection that you cannot help but announce it to your friends, to your neighbors, to your classmates, your co-workers, and strangers you meet on the street – Christ is Risen, Alleluia! Alleluia! The Lord is Risen Indeed, Alleluia! Alleluia! Further up and further in!

Mr. Tumnus the Faun from Lewis’ Narnia says, “The further up and the further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside . . . . like an onion except that as you continue to go in and in, each circle is larger than the last”[2].

Further up and further into the story that never changes, further up and further into the story that is forever changing us. Christ is risen, Alleluia! Alleluia! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia! Alleluia!

[1] John 10:27-28.
[2] C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle, (Harper Collins, 1994), p. 207.


Dinner's Ready; Wash Your Feet!

Sermon Preached on Maundy Thursday
at St. Mark's Episcopal Church (Evanston, IL)
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

“Dinner’s ready! Wash your hands!” This was the familiar call to supper in my childhood home. The call was typically followed by the three of us – my brother, my sister, and me – pushing and shoving our way to the faucet and the soap in the bathroom and then scrambling to the dinner table. I’m guessing Emily Post would not have been impressed by this chaotic scene! Nonetheless, it was ritual and it was home.

On Maundy Thursday as we gather to remember the last family supper which Jesus shared with his disciples, we hear a similar call, but with a twist – “Dinner’s ready! Wash your feet!” But the chaotic scene of my childhood home is likely not to be repeated here. For most of us, there will be some reluctance. The mad dash to the basin of water will likely be missing from our ritual. And, in all fairness, we should be a bit uncomfortable by this unusual call to supper. In the first place, most of us – let’s be honest – have pretty dirty feet. Alright, I’ll speak only for my own feet: crammed inside of socks and shoes all day, my feet can get pretty smelly. But even beyond the feet themselves – even the cleanest of feet with neatly painted toenails - there is something else that causes some discomfort, some embarrassment at this unusual call. Allowing another person to touch our feet is a fairly intimate act. I’m thinking, for example, of that other story in John’s gospel in which Mary takes “a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume”[1]. Allowing someone to care for our feet with tenderness and love requires a certain willing vulnerability.

In the reading from John’s gospel, the awkwardness of the foot washing moment is made clear by the exchange Jesus has with Peter. The reading provides us with an image of Jesus going from place to place around the table with his basin of water and a towel, washing the feet of each disciple. But when he gets to Peter, Peter declares, “Lord, you will never wash my feet!”[2] Now, from a purely cultural point of view, Peter is right to be shocked. After all, it was not uncommon to be a guest in someone’s home and to have your feet washed. But the one doing the washing would never be the host; instead, it would be the servant. So, Peter’s disgust that Jesus, his Lord, would stoop to such an unclean task reserved for the most common of folk is not at all surprising – perhaps more surprising is that the other disciples have not reacted similarly.

So tonight’s call, “Dinner’s ready, wash your feet!” makes most of us uncomfortable. At St. Mark’s we try to soften the discomfort a bit by encouraging you to at least permit us to wash your hands, to experience at least a bit of what that Last Supper ritual might have been like for those disciples. But, I wonder if some of the discomfort is precisely the point. Jesus tells Peter that the reason he is washing their feet is to set an example for them of how they ought to care for one another – by washing one another’s feet. By humbling themselves, by emptying themselves of all pride or arrogance, of all preconceived notions of power and might, by washing one another’s feet, by going to the most unclean places, the disciples then, you and me now, love as Jesus commanded us to love.

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”[3].
If we experience the foot-washing as a metaphor for reaching out into the unclean places in our world, of touching the untouchables, of loving the unlovable, then perhaps our discomfort takes on new meaning. The Rev. Glyn “Lorraine Ruppe-Melnyk - former Rector of St. Francis in the Fields in Malvern, Pennsylvania – wrote a reflection on the Stations of the Cross. Melnyk begins her meditation on the Sixth Station (Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus) with these imagined words of Jesus:

“While others stand mute with tear-stained faces,
                       or turn away in disgust or distain [sic.],

She finds the strength to step into my path;

             and using her veil to clean my face;

                        offers what comfort she can.

How many bloody faces has she cleaned?

             How many wounded broken bodies has she nursed?

How is it that she, alone among so many,

             overcomes her dread and fear

                        learning to touch the untouchable,

                        to love the unloved,

                        and to defy the tyranny of caste, class and

Melnyk includes the following prayer-response for the gathered congregation:

“Can it be true, Jesus, that when I touch another,

              I touch you?

Do you really abide in the poor and broken --

              the sick and the dying?

How hard it is to understand

             that I serve at your altar in hospice and soup

             as surely as in cathedral, chapel and choir!

Teach me how to use my hands to heal,

            my heart to love, my body to serve.

Reveal my fear and disgust for what they are;

            that in being healed,

                          I will no longer fear healing others.”[3]

Reveal my fear and disgust for what they are; that in being healed, I will no longer fear healing others. My brothers and sisters in Christ, dinner’s ready; come let your feet or hands be washed. Allow yourself this vulnerability in this place at this time so that looking into the vulnerable face of another, vulnerable as you are now, you might see Jesus, might recognize the Christ, and might love as Jesus first loved you.

[1] John 12:3.
[2] John 13:8.
[3] John 13:34-35.
[4] Full text of The Rev. Glyn Lorraine Ruppe-Melnyk’s Stations of the Cross can be found online, accessed 18 April 2011.


A Breath of New Life

Sermon Preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church April 10, 2011 - Lent 5A (Ezekiel 37:1-14)

Do any of you remember the 1998 movie, “Patch Adams”? The film, starring Robin Williams as Patch, is based on the book Gesundheit! Written by the real-life Patch Adams (born Hunter Doherty Adams), founder and director of the D.C.-based Gesundheit! Institute, a not-for-profit health care organization that provides holistic medical care – medical care which includes such methods of healing as wearing a big red clown nose (called by the Gesunheit! Institute the “red badge of courage”) and incorporating performing arts, arts and crafts, agriculture, nature, education, recreation and social service into patient care.

In the movie, the Gesundheit Institute has been founded, patients are being healed by Patch’s unorthodox methods. And then comes a powerful scene which takes place shortly after Patch’s girlfriend is murdered. Patch goes out to the West Virginia countryside and is standing at the edge of a cliff looking straight down into a beautiful, green valley. And there, he has a conversation with God:


The very laughter which has been the source of healing for so many of his patients, becomes the sign of a healing process begun in him. A process that he could be fully open to only at this moment of deep despair.

The prophet-priest Ezekiel, received his call to prophecy sometime early in the 6th century BCE and the events referenced in the book of Ezekiel span just over 2 decades including prophecies both before and after the fall of Jerusalem. While the Temple did not fall until 587, the first deportation of Israelites to Babylon occurred in 597. Ezekiel was likely among those first deportees. The life of the early deportees was not as bad as you and I might imagine. Many of the Jews in Babylon were skilled workers who were paid in oil and barley by the Babylonians for much-needed labor. In addition, there is evidence to suggest that they were able to build houses for themselves – Ezekiel even had a private house – to plant gardens, to raise families, and to at least some extent, practice their religion in community – ". . . albeit far from their beloved Temple.[2] Despite the relative comforts of life in exile, Ezekiel knew that the fate which would befall his beloved Jerusalem would be great indeed and so, it is not surprising that his early prophecies (those found in chapters 4 through 24) - those prophecies which warned Judah and Jerusalem of the impending destruction if they did not repent and turn back to God. But, perhaps because things weren't so bad or perhaps because they simply didn't want to believe that such an atrocity could happen to them, they turned a deaf ear on Ezekiel. In a single verse in chapter 12, God tells Ezekiel, “Mortal, you are living in the midst of a rebellious house, who have eyes to see but do not see, who have ears to hear but do not hear.”[3] But Ezekiel persisted in his message of doom and gloom and in his exhortation to repent and return to the faith. But the day of doom did, indeed, arrive and with it the fall of Jerusalem, including its beloved Temple. And the final group of exiles arrived in Babylon.

And with their arrival, Ezekiel’s message and tone changed dramatically. As Bernhard Anderson described it, “when nationalistic feelings ran high, [Ezekiel’s] task had been to shatter illusions with hard-hitting words of doom; now in the new situation, when the people were reduced to utter despair and remorse (33:1-11), his message was one of assurance.”[4] It is this new context of utter desolation and a communal loss of hope in the future and in the promise of God, that today’s reading of the valley of the dry bones takes place.

The passage begins in the middle of a valley, a valley full of dry bones, dry bones which can only symbolize the ultimate victory of death. And it is here in this valley of despair, in this valley cluttered with the permanence of death that God’s healing and restorative work begins anew. In a verse reminiscent of the verse in Genesis chapter 2 in which God formed the first human by breathing the breath of life into his nostrils, God here says to Ezekiel, “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.”[5] And in what Dr. Ralph Klein describes as “theophany sounds” – “a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. . . there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. . . and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”[6] And God said to Ezekiel, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel.”[7] This vision can be no clearer: there is no situation that is beyond the reach of God - not exile, not the destruction of the Temple, not the destruction of the entire city of Jerusalem, not even death itself. God hears the prayers of the forgotten ones. God hears our prayers from the most lifeless places and God breathes new life into them and into us.

1) “Challenging God,” Patch Adams (Universal Studios, 1998) available online at WingClips, LLC, accessed April 6, 2011.
2) Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, 4th edition, (Prentice-Hall, 1986), p. 432.
3) Ezekiel 12:2.
4) Anderson, p. 442.
5) Ezekiel 37:5b.
6) Ralph W. Klein, Ezekiel: The Prophet and His Message. (University of South Carolina Press, 1988), p. 148.
7) Ezekiel 37:7-10.
8) Ezekiel 37:11.


The Heart of the Matter

Sermon Preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church
April 3, 2011
Year A - Lent 4 - John 9:1-41

Vicki Garvey, our Canon for Christian Formation in the Diocese described our Lenten journey through the lectionary as a giant sandwich. The bread is made up of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness – a story we hear on the first Sunday in Lent - and the Passion – the story we will hear read on the Sunday which launches us into Holy Week. But, in between, these slices of bread, we have the meat – stories of folks who are seeking something and who, in their seeking, are ultimately found by Jesus. So, two Sundays ago, we had the story of Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews who comes to Jesus because he is struggling to understand how it is that Jesus is able to perform signs and wonders. And last Sunday, we heard the story of the Samaritan woman at the well – a woman that Jesus comes to for water, to quench his thirst. But through the story, the tables are turned and it is she who receives the gift of life-giving water. Today, we have the third layer in the Lenten sandwich – the story of the man born blind.

Now, at the risk of confusing things a bit, I’d like to suggest that today’s layer is a sandwich within a sandwich. And this time the bread is Jesus. Jesus appears in today’s story only briefly – once at the beginning of the story and once at the end. In the beginning, Jesus “spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.’” Jesus does not appear again until the very end of the story when he approaches the man born blind for a second time and asks him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” Jesus is the bread of the story: Go, Wash, Believe.
Yesterday, at our cathedral, lay people and clergy from throughout the Diocese gathered together for the Chrism Mass. Prior to the service, Bishop Lee spoke to us about the meaning of the word Christian and its use as both a noun and an adjective. We were reminded that through baptism, Christ claims us as Christ’s own. It does not matter how we try to mess up that relationship, it does not matter if we try to turn away, run away, hide from, or otherwise avoid it, because once Christ has claimed us, we are his, a Christian. That’s the relationship. The noun-ness of our being in Christ. In baptism, we are made a Christian.

But, in baptism, we also enter a process, a way of life. This new way of life begins with a creed – the Apotles’ Creed. The word Creed is typically rendered into English as “I believe.” And so our creeds contain statements of faith that begin with either “I believe” or “we believe.” The problem with this language for most of us Westerners, however, is that our understanding and use of the word “believe” is typically all tangled up in our heads with another word - “think.” But, in fact, the Latin root of the word creed – credo – is a heart word, a loyalty word. Marcus Borg makes this point in his book The Heart of Christianity. He writes:
“credo does not mean ‘I hereby agree to the literal-factual truth of the following statements.’ Rather, its Latin roots combine to mean ‘I give my heart to’ . . . ‘I commit my loyalty to,’ ‘I commit my allegiance to.’ Thus, when we say credo at the beginning of the creed, we are saying, ‘I give my heart to God.’ And who is that?” Borg continues, “Who is the God to whom we commit our loyalty and allegiance? The rest of the creed tells the story of the one to whom we give our hearts: God as the maker of heaven and earth, God as known in Jesus, God as present in the Spirit.”[1]
And so, in baptism, we begin with the creed. I give my heart to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And what about the rest of the baptismal covenant? According to Bishop Lee that is the “so what” of the matter. If you say, “I believe” or “I give my heart to” God, then so what? Then, will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being? We answer, in baptism, “I will, with God’s help.” And, that is the process, the way of life, the “so what” of setting our hearts on God, the heart of being Christian [the adjective].
The bread of today’s story is Jesus: Go, Wash, Believe. But the meat of the story is our response to that experience of new life – the “so what?” of the encounter. The disciples cast their encounter with the blind man in terms of what they understood to be true: one is born blind, lame, sick, etc. because of the sins of one’s ancestors ( “I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me.”)[2] The faithful, law-abiding Pharisees cast their experience of the man born blind in terms of what they understood to be true: working (that is, healing) on the Sabbath is a sin (“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God.”)[3] And the fearing parents cast their encounter with their son – yes, their own son – in terms of their fear of the Jews “for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.”[4] But the man who went to the pool of Siloam and washed casts his experience in the only terms he can – his changed reality, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”[5]

My brothers and sisters in Christ, I am the one who says, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?”[6] I am the one who asks how he received his sight.[7] I am the one who exclaims, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.”[8] I am the one who asks, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?”[9] I am the one who does not believe.[10] I am the one who acknowledges that this is my son and then distances myself out of fear when questioned by the authorities.[11] I am the one who throws him out of the community.[12] And every now and again, I am the one whose eyes are opened, the one who sees and can boldly proclaim the Christ singing,
Amazing grace! how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!

The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.

Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace that brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.[13]
And now we’ve come full circle, reminded once again, that it is through the water of baptism, that Christ lays his claim upon each of us. It does not matter if we try to turn away and deny it, run away from it in fear, hide from it in shame, or otherwise avoid it, because once Christ has claimed us, we are his, a Christian. That’s the relationship. That’s the promise of God.

1. Marcus J. Borg. The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith. Harper, 1989. 39-40.

2.  John 9:2; Deuteronomy 5:9
3.  John 9:16a; Exodus 20:8-10:
4.  John 9:22.
5.  John 9:25.
6.  John 9:8.
7.  John 9:10.
8.  John 9:16a.
9.  John 9:16b.
10.  John 9:18.
11.  John 9:22.
12.  John 9:34.
13.  John Newton, “Amazing Grace,” Lift Every Voice and Sing II: An African American Hymnal. Church Publishing, 1993. 181.

Canon for Lifelong Christian Formation, Vicky Garvey and Bishop Jeffrey Lee's comments were made at the Diocese of Chicago Chrism Mass held at The Cathedral of St. James in Chicago on Saturday, April 2, 2011. 


The History We Carry and The Sermon That Wasn't

Sermon Preached March 27, 2011
St. Mark's Episcopal Church - Evanston
Lent 3A - John 4:5-42
Jews and Samaritans do not get along. Both Luke’s gospel story of the Good Samaritan and today’s gospel reading, the story of the Samaritan Woman at the Well, make this quite clear. What is not necessarily clear on a first reading of these stories is that the animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans goes back centuries – in fact, the hostility goes back to at least the 8th century before Jesus’ birth. At that time, the Israelite people were divided into two kingdoms – a Northern Kingdom with Samaria as its “capitol” and a Southern Kingdom with Jerusalem as its “capitol.” But in 722 BCE, the Assyrian Empire sacked Samaria and took occupation of the Northern Kingdom.[1]

135 years later, in 587, the Babylonian Empire occupied the Southern Kingdom and sent the Israelites into exile. When Babylon itself fell to the Persian Empire, an edict proclaimed liberation to the Jewish exiles in 538 BCE. Their return to Jerusalem was slow at first, but their dedication and devotion to rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem and restoring their lives was a central focus. While the Jews in Jerusalem were beginning this reconstruction, the peoples still living in Samaria offered their assistance. But the Jews back in Jerusalem felt that the Samaritans’ faith had been so corrupted by living side by side with Assyrians for so long that they rejected their offer, fearful that the perceived corruption might spread among their own people. Bernhard Anderson, an Old Testament scholar writes,

“the [Samaritan] hand extended in friendship curled into a fist. . . [and] the Samaritans did everything in their power to stop the building of the Temple, which they regarded as a symbol of revived Jewish nationalism.”[2]
It would take more than two decades for the new Temple to be completed. Although synagogues would begin to emerge throughout the countryside in the post-exilic period, for Jews “there was no real substitute for the Temple.”[3] As the rift between the Samaritans and the Jews continued to grow, the Samaritans eventually built their own temple on Mount Gerizim. And it is here that our story of the conflict between the Jews and the Samaritans comes to a close as, in 128 BCE, John Hyrcanus, the Jewish leader at the time, destroyed the temple at Mount Gerizim.

The Samaritan woman at the well said to Jesus, “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”[4] And in this simple statement, more than 800 years of history is laid before two people who have never met before.

[NOTE: What follows is not what I preached; however, I promised to post the sermon that wasn't . . . so, here it is]:

You and I cannot hear the tone of voice used by the Samaritan woman so it is unclear whether her words are filled with contempt or bewilderment or just simple confusion. Why would a Jewish man be talking to a Samaritan – let alone a Samaritan woman - let alone asking for a drink of water from her water jar? Why would he offer her water after asking her for water? If he has water, he certainly doesn’t need her help. Whatever the Samaritan woman is feeling and experiencing as this encounter begins is based on assumptions and misconceptions that have lived on in her community and have been passed down through the generations about who the Jews are. And these assumptions and misconceptions keep her from hearing what Jesus is saying, keep her from seeing who Jesus is, and keep her from understanding what Jesus is promising. But the power of God in this story is the miraculous breaking down of these preconceived notions as, bit by bit, Jesus breaks through to her, breaks through her prejudice, to show her that he sees her for who she is and offers not judgment, but eternal life.

The Samaritan woman at the well says to Jesus, “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus replies, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. . . . But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers 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.”[5]

Bernhard Anderson writes, “From the earliest times Israel was bound together, not by human factors such as race, economics, or politics, but by its relationship to Yahweh, the God of the covenant community. Israel was not a nation . . . but a people.”[6] In his response to the woman at the well – and in his response to the disciples when they returned “astonished that he was speaking with a woman” – Jesus seems to be reminding them and us that the Who that we worship and the Relationship that we nurture is the core of our faith. The race, the economics, and the politics are all a part of what make us who we are (Jesus knew the woman at the well); but our worship, at its best, brings us together around a common God, the God of Abraham and Sarah, the God of Moses and Miriam, the God who sent Jesus into the world to meet us at the well, the One who offers us living water and new life.

Earlier this month, nearly 200 delegates attended a church-wide consultation to reflect on the work of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music in response to a resolution of the 2009 General Convention. The Resolution called for “a renewed pastoral response” and “for an open process for the consideration of theological and liturgical resources for the blessing of same gender relationships.”[7] House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson told the deputies in attendance,

“We don’t agree on every single word and every single approach and on all of the theology. Some deputies didn’t agree on C056. They said so then and they say so now and that’s okay. Some of us did agree and we have moved together in a common rhythm. We have learned from each other and it reinforces the fact that we are the holy people of God brought together by God in holy and Christian community.”[8]
Prior to 1976, similar conversations were held about the ordination of women.

In 1967, approximately 50% of the black Episcopalian clergy signed a declaration which, in small part reads,

“We, who are priests of the Episcopal Church, are filled with anguish by an unrighteous and scandalous system that has been allowed to exist within the House of God . . . today, at all levels of the Church’s life – in neighborhood congregations, in diocesan committees and commissions, and in the organization of the national Church there can be seen a subtle and a well-nigh systematic exclusion of laity and clergy who are Negroes from the heart of the Church’s life.”[9]
Several events since then have signaled steps forward in the Church’s understanding of gender and race and the uses of power. These include the 1988 and 1991 General Convention resolutions on racism and accountability, the Pastoral Letter declaring racism a sin, and the election of Barbara Harris, the first woman and an African American to become bishop.

Who we worship and the Relationship that we nurture is the core of our faith. The race, gender, sexual orientation, economics, politics, and past injustices are, indeed, a part of what make us who we are; but our worship, at its best, brings us together around a common God, the God of Abraham and Sarah, the God of Moses and Miriam, the God who sent Jesus into the world to meet us – as we are - at the well, the One who offers us living water and new life. That is the Spirit of God! And “those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”[10]

[1] 2 Kings 17:5-6a.
[2] Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, Fourth Edition. Prentice Hall, 1986. 517.
[3] Anderson, 520.

[4] John 4:20.
[5] John 4:21-24.
[6] Anderson, 209.
[7] Resolution C056. Liturgies for Blessings. As published online. Accessed 26 Mar 2011.
[8] Mary Frances Schjonberg, “Deputies Leave Historic Meeting Eager to Discuss Same-Gender Blessings with Wider Church,” Episcopal News Service. March 21, 2011. Accessed online 26 Mar. 2011.
[9] From “General Convention Special Program” available online, accessed on 26 Mar. 2011.
[10] John 4:24.