Sermon, March 19, 2017

Love Has Been Poured into Our Hearts, A Spring of Water
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
March 19, 2017   Third Sunday in Lent
Exodus 17:1-7; Romans 5:1-5; John 4:5-29

Today’s scripture passages are complicated. In fact, you could call them a mess.

God frees the children of Israel from slavery and helps them escape Pharaoh’s army. God gives them Moses to perform miracles and guide them. All that is just what you would expect from a loving and merciful God. But then God leads them into the wilderness where they can find no water and are afraid they will die of thirst. They cry out for help and it is counted against them. It is very messy, very confusing.

Paul’s letter to the Romans starts by affirming that faith is all we need to enter into God’s grace and peace, but then it says that suffering plays a role, too, for “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

Buddhism was founded as a way to escape suffering, but Christianity tells us to take up our cross, go into our suffering and be grateful for it. How can we make sense of that?

Today’s gospel story is an even bigger mess. It is hard to follow the logic of it.

Jesus is on the road from Jerusalem back home to Galilee. He is tired, thirsty and hungry. He also is in the heart of enemy territory. Jews and Samaritans had gone through what you could call a church fight, a terrible, violent one that had lasted seven hundred years. The Samaritans interpreted the Bible as saying that the temple site should be on Mt. Gerizim in Samaria, not in Jerusalem. Two hundred years before Jesus the Jewish army had attacked and destroyed their temple. Jacob’s Well, where today’s story takes place, is within sight of Mt. Gerizim.

Jesus breaks the rules that a Jewish teacher was expected to follow by indulging in conversation with a woman, worse, a stranger, and worst of all, an enemy. The whole scene is messy and confusing. Jesus asks for a drink. The woman is shocked and asks if they should not observe the proprieties. Jesus responds by saying that he could give her a drink: “The water that I give will become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

Jesus responds to her request that he give her some of this water by strangely telling her to go call her husband. They spin into a side topic about her marital history. She decides he must be a prophet. She then brings up the central religious dispute between the Samaritans and the Jews, which is about where to worship.

Jesus says, “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.”

This is an amazing statement, partly because it is so confusing how we got here from a simple request that she give him something to drink, but more because Jesus is saying that the entire controversy between the Jews and Samaritans is irrelevant, that it does not matter where the temple is, what matters is where the heart of the worshiper is. Jew and Samaritan alike need to worship in spirit and truth, and if they do, they are included together as one in God’s realm. The broader implications of this are radical and earth-shaking still today.

The disciples come back and are shocked to find their teacher talking with the woman, but they do not challenge him. It is a tense, uncomfortable situation with the disciples clearly disapproving but not communicating.

Moses, Paul and Jesus are all involved in messes. It seems as if we should be able to have a cleaner, more straight-forward spiritual path. Why do we need to follow God into a dry wilderness, why do we need to have sufferings to boast of, why do we need this convoluted passage in John?

You may remember the story about the Episcopal priest Martin Smith that I have told before.

Smith was a student at Oxford University in the 1960s. He rode his bicycle out into the countryside one hot summer day to see if he could find an ancient spring, lost since the Middle Ages, which had been said to heal eye diseases. He had read an account of an Edwardian expedition that had gone in search of it, but failed to find it. Smith searched the fields where tradition said it should be, poking around with a spade in every likely spot, but to no avail.

Finally he retreated to the shade at the edge of the field to rest. As he took in the scene before him, he noticed that the cows were standing in a patch of deep mud. He got up excitedly and drove them off. He began to dig in the mud and dung. After twenty minutes his spade grated against stone. He uncovered an ancient carved platform from which a wooden pipe still protruded. Pure water poured out of it in a steady flow.

Smith points out that the “fastidious Edwardian ladies and gentlemen had failed to find the spring because they had hurried past the stinking mud patch, the huddled beasts and swarming flies.”

Smith recalled how Jesus says in today’s passage and again in the 7th Chapter of John that the Holy Spirit will gush up like living water flowing out of the heart of the believer. (John 7:38) Smith writes, “I knew enough Greek to know that the word translated heart literally meant guts, the viscera, the womb. The old translation ‘belly’ conveys the earthiness of the original. The home of the Spirit is not in the intellect, the realm of concepts and ideas, not in a refined interior sanctum of spirituality, but in the guts, the deep core where our passions have their spring, the place of conflict, confusion, vulnerability and desire.”   (A Season for the Spirit, “Finding the Spring,” p 17)

We can enter into our suffering with the boldness and hope of Martin Smith digging into the mud and dung because within the depths of our sufferings we find that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit,” a spring of living water that gushes up from exactly those places in our lives where things are messiest and most conflicted in order to heal us and help us see our path.

We find ourselves now in such a place as we decide whether or not to become officially Open and Affirming. We need to have compassion on ourselves for any anxiety or discomfort we feel, or any resistance to entering into this situation. And yet we also need to have faith that by going bravely into it we will find a healing spring that will transform our life as a congregation.

There is a way that you can go through this final week that can lead to the Promised Land, to the congregation of your dreams that you shared two and a half years ago when I arrived. The path is not to seek a yes vote, nor is it to seek a no vote, the path is to seek that place where “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” Pray and ask like Moses, endure and hope like Paul, worship in spirit and truth like Jesus, and you will be on the right path and you will find the love you need.

There is a way to stay together as a beloved community even when we find ourselves in a messy situation where we are confronted with our differences and disagreements and feel conflicted. There is a way to walk without becoming divided, to walk as one people on a journey. It is to find our direction by joining our diverse perspectives together, speaking our deepest truth in love and listening respectfully and compassionately to everyone else’s truth.

One vision of where to go may prevail over others, but if we have focused on the Christ-like, compassionate love that we can find in the midst of all circumstances, then those whose vision has not prevailed will still feel that they are included and affirmed, and that their perspective is still important. A congregation that can walk together in love even as it disagrees will serve as a model for other churches and communities and nations. The world desperately needs such models.

So let us set everything aside this week but this focus on spirit and truth, opening to the place within us where God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, and letting that love for one another and for God and for all God’s creation gush up in us and lead us to do what seems to us like the right and loving thing. Let us do that rejoicing, celebrating and giving thanks that we can take this healthy way through any difficult decision, a way of love that can make us a stronger and more united congregation this week and in the years to come.

Let us open ourselves to this possibility in a spirit of prayer…