March 23, 2014
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
The season of Lent; the season of nearly whole chapters in the Gospel of John. We need to hear whole stories, snippets will not do. We need to enter into the story and see what sounds familiar.
Jesus is working the other side of the street. He has crossed to “the wrong side of the tracks.” He is speaking past all the barriers that good and nice and pleasant people dare not approach: speaking to a woman unrelated to him and a Samaritan at that. The woman knows this is strange: “How do you come to ask me for water?”
After Jesus describes water far sweeter than that drawn from this ancestral well, when he speaks of living water, she questions if he is greater than Jacob, the common ancestor of Jews and Samaritans, who had dug this well. Jesus does not answer directly:
Drink this well water now, and you will get thirsty again,
but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give will never thirst;
the water that I shall give will become a spring of water inside
the one who drinks, welling up to eternal life.
And when she asks for this water, Jesus reveals that he knows all about her. Some have argued that she is perhaps a prostitute, or at least a woman of shady morals. Over time in order to show the greatness of God’s grace, the people Jesus encounters have become worse and worse, to the point of several women who become witnesses and apostles are labeled prostitutes: Mary Magdalene, this Samaritan woman, the woman with the alabaster jar.
David Lose points out that there is no mention of sin here; there is no call to repentance. What if, instead of suggestions of immorality, we took the story as heartbreaking? How painful would it be for her to have been married five times and either abandoned or widowed? How difficult would it be if she was dependant on someone and so had to live in a house not her own?
The wideness of inclusion is no less real; the grace that calls her to a life-giving faith is no less powerful than a word of forgiveness.
And if the church is to be inclusive of those across the tracks, on the other side of the street, with difficult histories and messy lives, and pain and fear and despair – and I surely believe we should be – then there is but one source for that calling to inclusivity: That God has loved each of us, warts and all, knowing the difficulty of our pasts, seeing full well the messiness of our lives, feeling our pain and our fear and our despair. And. Loving. Us.
If we are going to be welcoming, it cannot come from fear of church budgets, worries over membership rolls, desperation for Sunday School teachers. Our welcome comes from the one who knows us thoroughly and loves us completely, without reservation, and offers us living water.
I offered a thought experiment I had this week with those who gathered for our Thursday noon Communion service and Soup lunch. I had read that Fred Phelps, founding pastor of Westboro Baptist Church, the one that has been protesting funerals and holding up signs with hurtful and hateful epithets, was near death. I had not yet heard that he had passed away.
The question was: Would I do Phelps’s funeral? I wrestled with this question. I had my usual snarky answers, and you can probably guess some of those.
The church he led hurts people I love, disrespects people I respect, uses God’s name in ways I find abominable. They protest in verbally and emotionally violent ways, and if anyone tries to deny their First Amendment rights or is provoked to the point of actually hitting them, they sue and use the money won in the lawsuits to fund more protests.
In the face of what I believe to be hateful and sinful and damaging theology and actions, I confess I have had hateful and sinful thoughts and harbored desires to do some damage.
Strangely though the radical anger and hatred of Phelps and his congregation made allies of so many people who looked at their protests and said, “If that is what that means, I want no part of it.”
I was also reminded of the words of Anne Lamott:
You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.
A judgment I have used for Westboro Baptist Church many times. But what if I ask this of my own heart? I am not excusing their actions or agreeing with what they have done and said and written or condoning their view of God. But can I imagine the God I worship loving Fred Phelps enough for me to do his funeral? Finally, I must say, yes I can. Would I do his funeral? Yes I would. (I say that with all the courage and conviction of one who knows he will never be asked…)
Not because of who he was, or what his church was; not because I agree with him; not because I want to imagine that I am somehow holier (even if I do want to imagine that); not to try and get the last word in.
I would do his funeral because I believe that it is not about me or him: It is about God: the God who is bigger than me and bigger than Fred Phelps. The God we see in Jesus, whom we proclaim and acknowledge as the Christ. The one who crossed boundaries no one else would cross for the sake of a love that can be found no other way.
That is the Jesus that I believe loves us, welcomes us, heals us, reconciles us, and then, filled with his love, sends us out, even across the street, to the other side of the tracks, to do the same.
Thanks be to God. Amen.