Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Lessons for the rest of Lent

For the remaining three Sundays of Lent, here are links to earlier posts, which have been visually updated since they were first posted.

Lent 4A Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41 - Things Done In the Dark

Of course, “darkness” is used as a metaphor. Nowadays we don’t often spend much time in the real dark. If we’re out at night there are streetlights or headlights to illumine the way. At home there’s the comfort of light bulbs and the glow of TVs. Even adventurous cave explorers take light with them. Yet darkness is unfortunately not that strange to us. At times it can be dark indeed....

Lent5A Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:1-45 - I Felt the Lord's Power

A modern Ezekiel might be taken to a small town on the prairie, where the local business are dried up and the next generation is exiled to another land. He or she might walk down the streets in certain neighborhoods, looking at foreclosure properties. The prophet might be transported by bus to the furthest corners of our states, where prison fortresses keep some folks’ bones out of sight and far from home. Faced with places and problems like these, we may be too daunted to believe that even God can make a difference. “LORD God, only you can tell [if these bones can live]”...

Lent 6A Passion Sunday Psalm 31:9-16 - I am a broken dish

The Passion, the suffering servant, the Philippians hymn, all describe one who is an outcast. Insults, bullying, gossip, layoffs, illness, divorce, aging, scandal, rejection. There are so many ways to be out, not in. Yet this Sunday, this Holy Week, in fact every Sunday and every week, God directs us again and again to attend to the one who is suffering. In the Passion, we look to Jesus as his life becomes this Psalm.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

He Told Me Everything I Have Ever Done!

Third Sunday in Lent
March 27, 2011
John 4:5-42

She came to the well every day at noon, when the sun was hottest. The other
women in the village had long since gone back to their households, lugging the heavy water that sustained life and health in a dry land – as millions of women still do, daily, in poor and developing nations all over the world. Coming to the well at midday meant that she could avoid the dulling pain of being shunned and frozen out of the cheerful group that would meet each morning at the well, to carry the water in the cool of the day.

Some traditional depictions of this story portray this Samaritan woman, someone who was very much an “other” to the Jews, as a sort of Bible-story version of Zsa Zsa Gabor or Elizabeth Taylor – a “use ‘em and lose ‘em” character with all her many husbands, a “woman of the world.” But more recent – and careful – scholarship, that takes the anthropology and social structures of that time and place into account, gives us a different kind of picture of this woman at the well.

Women were valued for their childbearing abilities. They could not initiate a divorce; but their husbands could. It is much more likely that she was “barren” – that she could not conceive, and so had been dumped by one husband after another when it became evident that she would not be producing any children. Hers must have been a life of one disappointment after another, hopes dashed on all sides. The reason she would come to the well when the other women weren’t there is because they would shun her, not for being a “loose woman” as the traditional interpretations of this story portray it. They shunned her because she was bad luck – a “barren woman” – whose curse of barrenness might rub off, somehow. It wasn’t personal – they were just playing it safe – guarding their own hopes, protecting themselves from their own disappointments.

Then, one hot noonday, there is this man at the well and his surprising talk of “living water” – surprising that he would talk with her at all – and his talk is all about the water of eternal life, of hope and inspiration and encouragement and promise. Words of hope and promise – to one who knew all the bitterness of bitter disappointment. This message of eternal life is not even dependent, as the promise made to Abraham was, on the reproduction of progeny. Jesus tells her: “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.”

What words of comfort and release! When she goes back to the village and tells the people: “He told me everything I have ever done!” it’s not because he has recited to her the diary of her serial monogamies – he’s spoken compassionate and healing words to her about her journey through all that disappointment and beyond, in order to arrive at a new kind of place – the source of living water.

This revelation is so overwhelming that she jumps at the chance to share the good news with the very townspeople who have disappointed her so much. The text takes note that she even forgot to take her water jug home with her!

Some traditions honor this Samaritan woman – nameless in the text – as the “first evangelist” because of her eagerness to share the message of Jesus and his “living water.” In Eastern Orthodox church tradition, she has a name: in Greek: “Saint Photina” as in: “photograph” and “photosynthesis” and in Russian, she is “Saint Svetlana.”

This name gives her an identity. She is a “bringer of light.” She joyfully carried the “living water” of the good news of eternal life in Jesus Christ – the “Light of the World.” May we model ourselves on her grace-filled example.

This reflection was prepared by Lisa Bellan-Boyer.

A reader noted that the woman's refers to "everything I ever did" (v29), not "everything that was done to me." Lisa & Paul Bellan-Boyer collaborated on this elaboration...

People that suffer do not do so passively, even when the suffering is brutal and they have little freedom or agency left.

Being human, people who suffer have responses and reactions that are expressed in behavior: they "do things."

Placing hope in things and people that disappoint, getting depressed and giving up, acting out in anger and frustration; hiding away and becoming protective and secretive, these are all kinds behavior that Jesus might have described to her when they were having their talk at the well. Jesus does not name in the text the "things she's done." It's not the concern of the text and it's not our business. It was her business, and she knew that he knew her. (See John 3:17 and John 8:11 - Jesus is not in the condemnation business so familiar to her and to us.)

There's another little problem for us if we focus on the woman's deeds. She says "He told me everything I ever did," but the text does not seem to include all that detail. We might guess that John's telling is not a verbatim account of a pastoral conversation, and imagine that there is a more detailed interaction behind it. But that is in the realm of imagination.

When she said "he told me everything I ever did," does the text indicate what she meant? Was she referring to his recital of her marital history? Or did she mean that Jesus was the one, the first one, the only one who recognized and spoke to her hope?

She tells us which is important to her. "I know that the Messiah is coming," she says. The Messiah is the one who will reveal everything. Especially who we are, who we really are, who we are called to be. He sees her - and she sees him.

For a very well researched, imaginative, and believable example of the relationship of suffering to behavior, in a woman of the ancient world and from the Bible, see the Anita Diamant novel: The Red Tent, about the life of Dinah, the sister of Joseph, and the women in Jacob's camp.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

You can hear the wind

Second Sunday in Lent
March 20, 2011
John 3:1-17

Poor Nicodemus. It’s not just that as a leader and teacher of the nation, he seems thick and pedestrian. But at a more personal level, he comes seeking something, then seems clueless.

This is the first of three long conversations in the gospel readings for this and the next two Sundays. Each is between Jesus and someone on a journey of faith. Each seems to go further in finding faith in the one before them. And poor Nicodemus has the misfortune to be the first one, the slow one.

Struggling with questions can be important in helping us to faith, in strengthening and defining faith. Yet when we’re resistant or reluctant, or simply in the wrong place to see clearly, we can keep asking questions to help us avoid the real issues.

When you get down to the basics, a life of faith is not that complicated. Matthew, Mark, and Luke say, “Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself.” John says you simply have to be born again. And this is a Spirit-thing, not under our control.

None of us is in charge of our birth. However much struggle and pain is involved (for the one giving birth, for the one being born, for those attending the birth and waiting anxiously), it happens when it happens, and the little one being born, of necessity, must simply “go with the flow,” and ride the contractions through this passage into life.

“The Spirit is like the wind,” Jesus tells us, “it blows where it will.” God’s Spirit works in its own way, like the wind, not something you can see directly. But you can feel the breeze on your skin, or see the trees bow down their heads when the wind is passing by.

Perhaps we might be attentive to those movements of Spirit in our own lives and in those nearby. We might miss it if we look too quickly or too shallowly. But the great wind of God is moving and shaping us and the world in which we live. When we see with the eyes of faith, we’ll notice God at work, because we see that as individuals and as a people we have been moved.

We don’t get to hear Nicodemus’ full story. We don’t know exactly how he resolved his questions. But later in the gospel (John 7:50-51), Nicodemus stands amidst his own community of Pharisees to speak up for Jesus and for just treatment. And later still (John 19:39), he came again to Jesus, this time in broad daylight, bearing precious myrrh and sandalwood to give honor to this Word of God. The wind has been blowing...


Originally written for Lent 2008.

Painting of "Nicodemus Visiting Jesus," by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1899.

Friday, March 11, 2011

God bless you, Danny Stiles

A long-time presence on the New York City and New Jersey airwaves has died.

Danny Stiles had a radio show like no other. Devoted to the popular music of days gone by, he would spin records of
smooth crooners and hot swingers, of jazz men and women, of even some doo-woppers and rockers, of the luminous greats and those whom time had passed by. And always tenderly and lovingly for his audience, his fans, and the musicians who continued to give so much pleasure, at 78 and 33 and 45 revolutions per minute.

We'll miss you, Danny boy, and will always picture you in your Art Deco penthouse studio, high atop a New York City skyscraper.

Wikipedia: Danny Stiles

WNYC article - scroll down for Danny's lovely landscape of legacy left in his legion of listeners' letters.

Prayer for the Pacific Rim

We praise you, God,
    we praise you, for your Name is near;
    people tell of your wonderful deeds.
You say, “I choose the appointed time;
    it is I who judge with equity.
When the earth and all its people quake,
    it is I who hold its pillars firm."
Psalm 75:1-3, NIV

Holy One, watch over the people of Japan and all Pacific lands as they are faced with earthquake and tsunami. Lead those in danger to safety, and lead those in safety to respond with care and generosity. Receive into your heart, O God, the dead and the suffering, and hold firm the pillars of your earth and your people, that we may be assured of your support in this and every time of need. We ask in the name of Jesus, who stood among us, who was brought down to the grave, and who rose again that we might know the fullness of life in your love. Amen.


Thursday, March 10, 2011

They were naked

First Sunday in Lent
March 13, 2011
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, Matthew 4:1-11

Have you ever had one of those dreams where you find yourself in school, or on a busy street, or in the middle of the mall and realize you’re not wearing any clothes?

Put aside for a moment the question of sin, and pay attention to the emotional experience. When they realized they were naked, they knew how exposed, how vulnerable they were.

As naked as an addict who has hit bottom. Naked as a politician whose lies are no longer believed. Naked as an ordinary family whose credit has collapsed, whose home is in foreclosure. As naked as Jesus in the desert, standing before Satan.

The usual line on Lent is sorrow for sin. That is most certainly true. Sin and evil is something we all confront. But when the consequence of sin lands upon us, it is perhaps not so important how we got into the mess.

Many times, in fact, we deceive ourselves or are deceived into believing doing something harmful actually makes sense. Surely the serpent has a point, and it will be a good thing to know the difference between right and wrong. Surely that Bible-quoting presence in the desert is offering a great opportunity. Wouldn’t the world really be better off if we were on top?

Going down that road, there always comes a moment when it falls apart. The craftiness of the snake, the smooth talk of the devil, the new-found knowledge of the man and woman, none of this is any help. “They saw what they had done, and they realized they were naked.”

And our attempts to cover it up, to fix it up, usually work about as well as sewing fig leaves together.

Believe it or not, this is a moment of grace. It feels awful, to be exposed as a fraud, a failure, a fool. It is frightening to be faced with truth, to dangle on the precipice between ruin and rescue.

Yet it is the first step back to the garden. Not back to that long-lost idyll, but to the cultivation of a new life – without fig leaves.


Originally written for Lent 2008.

Photo: Dan Langston’s “Adam and Eve 2.0” on display at the 14th Annual Stillwell Student Art Show, 11/11/2003.


Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Some days, Lord, we aim at righteousness and wind up with ashes. Take the wrecked and burned and broken and wasted pieces of our lives, Lord. Take all the virtues that have come to naught and the crumbled debris of sin. Blow them to the winds, soak them with the rains, bleach them with your sun, that like prophet bones in the desert they may be brought together again, that life may grow where now we see only devastation. Have mercy, Lord, upon your people, and lead us in love from this day forward. Amen.

Text-image by Paul Bellan-Boyer and wordle.com.