Saturday, April 30, 2011

So I Believe
Ps. 118:24; Mt. 28:5-6[1]
Last week we talked about how we as people of the 21st century have some challenges with the founding events of our faith: the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. I’m afraid that if Jesus’ death poses problems for us, his resurrection does so even more. We can all understand death—most of us have first-hand experience with it. We can also understand sacrificing oneself for the sake of others—most of us have been called upon to do just that for the sake of the people in our lives we love and care about. But none of us has any first-hand experience with resurrection—at least not literally. We may have known someone who has had a “near-death” experience, and there are many who have. But there is simply nothing in our experience of this world that gives us a basis for grasping the idea that a person who was dead—not for minutes, but for over 36 hours—somehow came back to life. I simply don’t understand the concept of a dead person coming back to life.
That doesn’t bother me too much, though, because I know that there are some elements of our faith that we may never understand. But what I can do is have the experience of the risen Christ in and through my life. I can sense the presence of the Spirit, I can feel Jesus’ impulse to compassion, and I can enjoy the freedom of faith and hope in the God who is always here. At the end of the day, I think that’s a big part of what Easter is about. When we experience the presence and power of God in our lives, it is the same Spirit that the disciples encountered in Jesus of Nazareth.[2] And the reason we celebrate the resurrection on Easter Sunday is because that same Spirit of the risen Christ lives in me and in you and in all who have the experience of his continuing presence.[3]
And so because Jesus is alive and well in this community, there are some things I believe in.[4] I believe in the Savior who died on the cross to break the power of everything that threatens to enslave or oppress or distort or destroy our humanity.[5] And I believe in a God who takes all our pain and sorrow and suffering and sadness and loss and death and turns it all into new life. And I believe in the new life that came into being on that Easter morning and that will one day transform everything and everyone. [6] Because of the Easter presence of the Spirit is alive and well in this community, I believe in a God who loves us with a love that never lets us go—whose “steadfast love endures forever” (Ps. 118:1). And I believe in a God who never, ever abandons anybody. And I believe in a God for whom “we are all beloved daughters and sons of God”![7] That means that there is no one who is beyond the grace and mercy and love of God. Because of the Easter presence of God is alive and well in this community, I believe in the God who fills this whole creation with the beauty and goodness and truth and love. And I believe in a God who is working to restore the whole creation to the place where it is once again “very good.” And I believe in a God who brings hope out of hopelessness and new life out of death.[8]
Simply put, because the Spirit of Easter is alive and well in this community of faith, I believe in a God who is working to bring grace and peace and mercy and love and justice and freedom and joy and life into every life.[9] To me, that’s what Easter is all about. That’s what the resurrection is all about. But because I believe in this God, the God who raised Jesus from the dead—there are some things I refuse to believe in. I refuse to believe in death and hell and Satan, as if they were somehow more real than God’s love and God’s presence and God’s gift of new life. I refuse to believe that death gets the last word in our lives. I refuse to believe that despair and decay get to define our very existence. [10] I refuse to believe that nothing can ever break the vicious cycles of violence and injustice and despair and death in this world. I refuse to believe that we have no hope and no love and no freedom and no real life.
At the end of the day, it seems to me that the real meaning of Easter is the continuing presence of Christ in all our lives. It means that for us, “Jesus is the light in our darkness, the bread that satisfies our hunger, the vine that is the source of our life, the healer who makes us whole … .”[11] Not “Jesus was,” but “Jesus is.” Easter is like a promise that points toward a future filled with hope and joy and love and life.[12] But it is a promise that we can all begin to experience right here and right now because Jesus is alive and well in us all. Although we may never understand all that Easter means, because Jesus is alive and well in us, we can believe.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/24/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Paul Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, 115, 128; cf. also ibid., 126, where he identifies this Spirit as the Spirit of the God who “suffers not only for the victims of the world” but “suffers like them and with them. Cf. also Hans Küng, The Christian Challenge, 215.
[3] Cf. Knitter, Without Buddha, 129, where he says that the point of the resurrection is that “[Jesus] as the Christ-Spirit is actually risen and alive in me. If he’s not alive in me, which means in us the community, then so what if he stepped forth from the tomb … .” Cf. also Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 83.
[4] Cf. Küng, Christian Challenge, 225-26: Easter faith is “a radicalizing of faith in God”; it means that the God who raised Jesus “can be trusted … beyond the limits of all that has hitherto been experienced to have still one more word to say.” I believe that word is life!
[5] Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 181-83.
[6] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 197; cf. Moltmann, Way of Jesus, 182.
[7] Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 52, 61-62, 128, 140.
[8] Cf. Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 31-34.
[9]Hans Küng, The Christian Challenge, 120 “God’s cause will prevail in the world.”Moltmann, Theology of Hope , 204, 216; Moltmann, Crucified God, 129, 176, 178, 242-44, 276-77; Moltmann, Church in the Power, 77, 83, 100, 134-35, 190-192, 216; Moltmann, Way of Jesus Christ, 104, 109, 133, 178, 190, 223, 225, 255, 263-64, 276, 278-79, 282-86, 303-7, 325; cf. also
[10] Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 22-26
[11] Borg, Heart of Christianity, 88.
[12] Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 24-25. Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3.319 says it this way: we look forward to the day when “the light of life which has appeared in Him will penetrate and fill even the remotest corner of the cosmos.” For me, this hope is based on biblical promises like “ I have swallowed up death forever” (Isaiah 25:8) and “I will wipe away every tear” (Revelation 21:4) and “I am making the whole of creation new” (Revelation 21:5).
Suffering Servants
Isa. 50:1-9 [1]
This is the time of year when we look to the founding events of our faith: the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. But I think we’d have to confess as people of the 21st century, that we have some challenges with these events. Especially as they have traditionally been presented. The traditional way of presenting Jesus’ death is that he was offered by God as a sacrifice that would appease God’s anger over our rebellion and cleanse us from our rebellious tendencies. This whole way of thinking about Jesus’ death on the cross is a problem, because it’s offensive to think of any parent doing that. We don’t believe in a God who commands people to take their children and slaughter them for religious purposes. So how can we believe in a God who sacrificed Jesus on a Roman cross?
I think our lesson from Isaiah for today may help us with this. This passage is one of the “Servant Songs” of Isaiah, where the prophet speaks about one who was to be the “Suffering Servant.” It’s not at all clear who the servant is, whether Israel, or a prophet, or someone else. What is clear, however, is that the servant’s role is to suffer on behalf of others. Notice what the servant says in our lesson for today: as a result of determining to obey God’s call, the servant was beaten, insulted, and humiliated: “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting” (Isaiah 50:5). The question that inevitably comes to mind is why the servant had to suffer like this. Did God want the servant to be beaten?
If that were the case, I think we’d have to agree that we would have some problems with a God like that.[2] But I don’t think that’s the point at all. It seems to me point is this—the servant is called to suffer on behalf of the wayward because that’s who God is. God suffers on our behalf. The God of the Bible is not some cosmic bully who enjoys inflicting pain on us. The God of the Bible is a God who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” The God of the Bible is the one who is completely faithful, which means that God never gives up on relationships.[3] The God of the Bible is a God of justice, which means that God works to make everything and everyone right again.[4] The God of the Bible is a God of mercy, which means that God loves us in such a way that promotes the well-being of all creation. And the God of the Bible is a God who never quits loving us this way. [5]
When it comes to the whole idea of Jesus as a sacrifice for our sins, I think this point of view might help us as well. God didn’t use Jesus as a scapegoat for God’s own anger or for our bad deeds. The God who never quits loving us is a God who suffers with and for us.[6] And so part of the mystery of our faith is that it was God who was suffering on that cross. It was God who was taking on the suffering we have created in this world. God suffers on behalf of people like you and me because that’s who God is—a God of suffering love. And God suffers for us because the only real way to break the power of evil in this world is to absorb it.[7] As one of our confessions puts it, in the mysterious event of the cross, an “abyss” of sin and violence and suffering has been “swallowed up by the suffering of divine love.”[8]
That is why the servant suffers. Not because God is some cosmic bully but because God is determined to heal the suffering of this world. God’s servant is called to suffer because it’s the only way to truly fulfill God’s purposes of justice and peace and freedom in a world of sorrow and pain, of suffering and injustice, of sin and death. What we see on that cross is a God of love poured out for others, a God who takes on all the pain and suffering of the world, in order that we might find true peace and freedom and new life.[9] And we see a person who is willing to follow God’s purposes and fulfill God’s suffering love for us all no matter where it leads—even to a humiliating death on a cross. [10]
We may never know the identity of the “Suffering Servant” Isaiah spoke of so eloquently. But we can know what Christians have known from the very beginning—Jesus carried out task of the servant. Jesus fulfilled the role of the redeemer of the despised, the savior of the hopeless, and the one who chooses the unwanted. But in a very real sense, if this is the only way to truly fulfill God’s purposes in a world of suffering and injustice, then Jesus carried out the role that we all are called to embrace.[11] The suffering God of the suffering Savior calls us all to be suffering servants, breaking the power of evil in our world, taking on the suffering of others in order to bring them relief, pouring ourselves out for a world of pain and injustice in order to bring healing and peace and freedom to those who are struggling in that “abyss" of suffering.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/17/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian, 100: “if this is what the divine Mystery we call God really is, it’s a mystery that repulses rather than embraces.”
[3] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 112-120, 143-148: “God is the same God all the way from promise to fulfillment” (115).
[4] Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 139; Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 121; cf. also Stephen Shoemaker, GodStories, 217–18;
[5] Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith, 128.
[6] Knitter, Without Buddha, 126: “The God embodied in Jesus suffers not only for the victims of the world; this God suffers like them and with them.”
[7]Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 91, 95; Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 246, 277.
[8] Cf. PC (USA) Study Catechism, q. 45.
[9] Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 82-83, 117-19.
[10] Moltmann, Way of Jesus Christ, 172-78.
[11] Cf. Walter Wink, The Powers That Be, 124, 134-35.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Opening to Life
Rom. 8:6-11[1]
Stories can sometimes tell our truth far better than lectures or sermons. I think that’s why, on any given weekend, you will find far more cars parked at the movie theaters than at churches. Classic fables like the boy who cried wolf have become so familiar they are almost universally recognized. Even ancient myths continue to speak to us, like the myth about Sysiphus who had to push a huge boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down again. Or the one about Icarus whose father made him wings of wax and feathers so he could fly, but when he flew too high the wings melted because he got too close to the Sun. Or the one about Odysseus, who after the Greeks conquered Troy bragged that humans didn’t need the gods and was forced to wander at sea for twenty years. These stories still speak to us today.
One particular myth that I think relates to our lesson from St. Paul is the story of Narcissus. Narcissus was renowned for being so handsome—he was the equivalent of People Magazine’s “sexiest man” in the ancient world. But he was so vain and so self-absorbed that he spurned all those who tried to love him. As a result, one of the gods drew him to a pool of water where he fell in love with his own reflection. When he realized that it was only his reflection, he lay down and died, and in his place grew up a lily, called the Narcissus. The myth of Narcissus is tragic—here’s a man whom everyone loved, but he was unable to love anyone. He was so turned in upon himself that he cut himself off from the joy and enthusiasm and love that were freely available all around him.[2]
I think that this particular fable may have something to teach us about what St. Paul has to say about being “ruled by our desires” (Rom. 8:6, CEV). The standard translation says it this way: “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” Now, when he talks about setting your mind on the flesh, we might think St. Paul is warning us against pornography. But we can’t restrict to that. In a very real sense, “flesh” refers to all the ways in which we seek to fulfill our needs, wants, and desires. It is shorthand for a life that is defined by self-centered and self-oriented “self-actualization.”[3] And St. Paul warns us that when we live a life that is taken up with getting what we want and getting others to do what we want,[4] we wind up choking the life out of ourselves.
Nevertheless, it seems to be more and more the way we live our lives. We live in what is increasingly a “first-person-singular world.”[5] That means a world in which “I” is the dominant factor. Most of us might be tempted to nod our heads and point our fingers to all those selfish and self-centered people out there. But the real challenge in text like this is to acknowledge our own devotion to the “flesh.” If you’re not sure how this applies to you, take a simple test: ask yourself how many of your sentences begin with “I” and end in “me.”[6] Perhaps even more telling would be for us to ask ourselves how many of our prayers begin with “I” and end in “me”? I think most of us would have to acknowledge that we live in an increasingly first-person-singular world.
It’s no wonder we as a people seem to be so unhappy. St. Paul puts it bluntly: setting your focus on the flesh leads to death. Now we might be tempted to take that literally, like the Genesis passage that says “in the day you eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, you shall surely die.” Or we might want to take it figuratively—as in a life that is dominated by selfishness leads to spiritual death. But I want to look at the possibility of taking it in a completely different way: when we orient our lives on fulfilling our own selfish needs, wants, and desires, we tend to close in on ourselves. In the process we cut ourselves off from the joy and and enthusiasm and love that is all around us. We choke the life out of ourselves!
That’s the real pitfall to self-actualization. It has a way of turning into “self-idolatry.”[7] We spend all our time and energy frantically seeking to get all that we want out of life. And because our happiness is so wrapped up with whether we succeed, this quest has a way of consuming us. We become obsessed with getting what we want out of life, and we close in on ourselves. But in the process we are cutting ourselves off from the stream of life that is all around us, flowing through the lives of the people we come in contact with. In a stroke of irony, we spend all our effort trying to get all we want out of life, and in reality we’re only ensuring that we cut ourselves off from life.
I want to tell you the story of another Narcissus—a contemporary one. This one was caught up not with his appearance but his ability. As a result, he felt himself called to a “higher task.” He pursued that task with single-minded devotion. Nothing would dissuade him from this task. He was well-liked by many, but had only few really close friends. He just didn’t take the time away from his quest. And he just didn’t want to take the risk of opening himself up to the people around him.
He continued to pursue his calling, racking up achievements and rising higher in his pursuits. He was a model family man, of course, but he never really took enough time for other people. Part of the problem was that he really didn’t feel comfortable letting them into his heart. And he grew lonely and exhausted from the effort. One day, his whole world came crashing down, and he found himself almost completely alone in the world. No family, no career, no quest. Everything he had so single-mindedly devoted himself to was gone. And he was forced to open himself to the people around him. And as he opened himself to the people around him, he found joy and new life and enthusiasm returning. And now he is … your pastor.
We all have the choice to close in on ourselves, on our own needs and wants and desires, or to open ourselves to the joy and love and life that is all around us. But it takes a leap of faith to open ourselves to life—we have to take the risk of letting go all our selfish pursuits and opening ourselves to the wonderful and unpredictable Spirit that is flowing so freely and so full of life all around us.[8]

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/10/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, 58, where he characterized Narcissus, and the symptom narcissism that takes its name from him, in terms of “a self-absorption and containment that allows no connections of the heart.”
[3] Cf. Paul Achtemeier, Romans, 132; Cf. also James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1-8, 443; Jurgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, 87-88.
[4] Cf. John Caputo, On Religion, 2-3, where he defines this life in terms of being “caught up in the meanness of self-love and self-gratification,” and people who “love nothing more than getting their own way and bending others to their will.”
[5] Cf. Frederick Schmidt, What God Wants for Your Life, 3.
[6] Schmidt, What God Wants, 18.
[7] Achtemeier, Romans, 132.
[8] Cf. Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 171-73. Cf. also Paul Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian, 19, where he “redefines” his Christian view of God in light of his dialogue with Buddhism by saying, “God is the activity of giving and receiving, of knowing and loving, of losing and finding, of dying and living that embraces and infuses all of us, all of creation.”
John 9:1-41[1]
Our eyes are truly amazing. We can detect minute variations of hues in thousands of colors. We can see in bright sunlight and also in almost complete darkness. We can determine the relative distance and speed of moving objects. And yet, at the same time, we can be incredibly blind to what is obvious. Especially when something is “out of place.” Like the set of keys on the counter right in front of us. Or the cell phone that is still lying exactly in the same spot where we put it.
Our Gospel lesson for today is a story about how we can be blind to what is obvious. We tend to think of the metaphors of light and darkness in terms of those who are “enlightened” by their religious faith versus those who are still “in the darkness.” But our Gospel lesson turns the tables on all that. In this story, it is the religious authorities who are blinded to what is the obvious truth, something they should be able to see plainly, something right under their noses. And it is to some extent one who was viewed as an unlearned vagrant who points out what they are so unable—or unwilling—to see.
The episode begins with Jesus encountering a man who had been born blind and who had spent his whole life seeking the charity of others in order to support himself. Part of what makes this story ironic and even humorous, however, is that while the narrator continually speaks of him as “the man who had formerly been blind,” the religious authorities go to great lengths to try to disprove or discredit or simply avoid this obvious truth. As it turns out, they are the ones who are truly blinded because of their religious assumptions—or should be say prejudices?
Well, the first blinder in the story is that anyone who suffers tragedy must have brought it on themselves by some grievous sin. Jesus’ own disciples voice this belief, asking, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Their question reflected the common religious view that if you do what is right you will be blessed by God, but if you do what is wrong you will be punished. But Jesus exploded the myth. I like the way Eugene Peterson translates Jesus’ response in The Message: “You’re asking the wrong question. You're looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do” (John 9:3, Message). In essence, the religion of the day taught that anyone suffering from tragedy surely must have done something terrible to deserve such a fate. In a very real sense, the religion of our day still teaches that! But Jesus says that tragedy in our world is an opportunity for us to demonstrate “the works of God” (John 9:4): kindness, compassion, mercy, and generosity!
The next blinder that comes up in the story has to do with the fact that Jesus healed “the man who had formerly been blind” on the Sabbath day. Because Jesus dared exercise God’s mercy by healing this man, the religious authorities believed he had “broken” the Sabbath and therefore assumed that he was a “sinner.” Some of them put it this way: “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath” (John 9:16). The assumption was that these particular religious authorities were the experts on what one must do to please God. And since Jesus didn’t follow their meticulous rules about keeping the Sabbath holy, he must have been a sinner.
Ironically, it is “the man who had formerly been blind” who exposes their folly. The religious authorities keep pressing him, trying to find a way to avoid the obvious conclusion that this man had been born blind and Jesus had restored his sight. Finally, in exasperation they say, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner” (John 9:24). And this unlearned, marginalized, very like unkempt man, who just that morning had been living on the street, shows a depth of insight beyond any they possess. He says, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (John 9:25).
Think about it: one of the ways we religious people go around trying to make ourselves look and feel good is to brand other people as “sinners.” At one point the religious authorities fire off what they must have thought was the ultimate insult: “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” (John 9:34). At one point even “the man who had formerly been blind” buys into the idea that “God doesn’t listen to sinners” (John 9:31, CEV). But it seems to me that if God doesn’t listen to sinners, we’re all in trouble! Surely when it comes to labeling who’s a sinner and who’s not, we should heed the wisdom of “I don’t know.”
The end of the story finds Jesus making an ironic pronouncement: “I am here to give sight to the blind and to make blind everyone who can see” (John 9:39, CEV). In a very real sense this is what the story of “the man who had formerly been blind” is about. The Message puts it this way, “I came into the world … , so that those who have never seen will see, and those who have made a great pretense of seeing will be exposed as blind” (John 9:39, Message). This story is about exposing how those who think they are so pious and holy and righteous are the ones who completely ignore the grace and mercy and compassion of God. It’s not the “sinners” who go around making a pretense of being holy and pious and righteous. It is the religious people, the church members, the elders and deacons and ministers and priests of this world who make “a great pretense” out of their religion, going around labeling other people “sinners.”
But, as in the case of the authorities in our gospel lesson, all our religious pretenses and assumptions and prejudices tend to be elaborate means for justifying and validating ourselves at the expense of others. They wind up blinding us to what is obvious, to what should be as plain as the nose on our face. They keep us from seeing the people around us, not as “sinners,” but as beloved children of God. They keep us from seeing other people with God’s eyes, which are eyes of mercy, and compassion, and love.[2]

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/3/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream: a Vision of Hope for Our Time, 71-98. Cf. especially p. 97: “if we had the eyes to see, we would look at one another and see the beauty of God, and we would treat each other with appropriate reverence and awe”; and “when we begin to look for the light of God in people, an incredible thing happens. We find it more and more in people—all people.”
John 4:5-42[1]
In 1994, I spent two months during the Summer teaching at a Seminary in the Philippines. I was in Baguio City, in the northern part of Luzon. If you know anything about the Philippines, you know that I was there during what is known as the “rainy season.” Let me tell you, they aren’t kidding about that! It rained most of the time I was there. At one point, we had an eight-day stretch where it rained night and day with no breaks. Eight days straight! As much as all that rain tended to have a “dampening” effect on my mood, I couldn’t help noticing the end result. There was a veritable garden of Eden there! All around me life was flourishing—from hibiscus that served as hedges to beautiful trees to all kinds of flowering plants. It was easy to see the life-giving effects of water all around me.
It might be hard to sell the people of northeastern Japan on the life-giving properties of water just now. Hundreds of thousands have either lost loved ones, or homes, or have been displaced by the damage done by the tsunami—not least on the nuclear reactors at the Fukushima plant! All around them is evidence of the destructive power of water. But at the same time, the very difficulty they have ensuring that they and their family have access to clean water reminds them that it is necessary for life. Even though they have all too painful experience with the destructive power of water, they are constantly reminded that it is life-giving.
I think you could probably find some reference to water as a symbol for the gift of new life, divine life, in just about every religion. The image of water as life-giving certainly fills the Bible. In the book of Genesis, the Garden of Eden is watered by four great rivers, and it’s filled with all kinds of plant and animal life. In the Psalms, the vitality of faith is compared to a tree planted by streams of water bearing fruit. In the prophets, the way home from exile was to be attended by streams in the desert, turning the wasteland into a green and living garden. And in the visions of the end, the ultimate renewal comes when the river of the water of life flows throughout the earth from the throne of God.
Jesus’ interview with the Samaritan woman in our Gospel lesson for today illustrates the life-giving quality of water. She came to the well to get water, and he startled her by asking for a drink. She no doubt recognized that he was crossing several boundaries that people just didn’t cross in that day and time[2] —he was Jewish, she was a Samaritan; he was a man talking with a woman who was not a member of his immediate family; and he was a Rabbi talking with one who had been shunned by religious people. No wonder she was startled.
But Jesus replied that he could give her water that would truly satisfy her thirst. And like Nicodemus, she misunderstood him at first. He was talking about something entirely beyond her comprehension. He said it this way: “no one who drinks the water I give will ever be thirsty again. The water I give is like a flowing fountain that gives eternal life” (Jn. 4:14, CEV). But what precisely was this “life-giving” water Jesus was talking about? The mysterious nature of it reminds me of what Jesus said to Nicodemus about the Spirit as the mysterious bringer of new life. In John’s Gospel it is the Spirit who gives us the new life God has in store for us—a completely new experience of life.[3]
I believe St. Paul’s comment about peace and hope and love “poured” into our hearts through the Spirit may help us understand what Jesus was talking about in our Gospel lesson. The Spirit gives us a whole new quality of living in part by assuring us of God’s love. When you look at the Gospel lesson again from that perspective, it seems that what was so life-giving about Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well was his acceptance of her just as she was.[4] It was his offer of unconditional love that brought a whole new vitality to her life.
Think about it. What makes life really worth living for you? What makes you “come to life”? What gives you enthusiasm and strength for living? I guess we might have different answers, but if you’re like me, it’s the fact that you’re the “apple of someone’s eye.” What gives me life is the knowledge that there is someone who loves me unconditionally, irrevocably, and absolutely. There is someone in the universe whose refrigerator is covered with pictures of me. It’s the realization, down deep in my soul where doubts and fears lurk, that, in the words of Desmond Tutu, “there’s nothing you can do to make God love you more,” and “there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less.”[5] That assurance is liberating, it’s healing, and it’s invigorating. Like the cool, refreshing water that constantly surrounds us and sustains us, that experience of God’s love is life-giving.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/27/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Judith Gundry-Volf, “Spirit, Mercy, and the Other,” Theology Today 51 (Jan 1995): 508-510.
[3] In John 7:37-39, when Jesus invites all who are thirsty to drink living water that will fill their hearts, John explains that he was talking about the Spirit of God as the one who brings new life. Cf. Gail. R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” New Interpreter’s Bible vol 9:566. Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.4.126.
[4] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Face to Face with God,” The Christian Century (Feb 28, 1996): 227: “The Messiah is the one who shows you who you are by showing you who he is—who crosses all boundaries, breaks all rules, drops all disguises—speaking to you like someone you have known all your life, bubbling up in your life like a well that needs no dipper.” Cf. Similarly, Gundry-Volf, “Spirit, Mercy and the Other,” 511: “Jesus' spring, …, is a symbol of the sweet water of inclusion. As the Samaritan woman experiences inclusion through Jesus' dismantling of ethnic, religious, and gender barriers, she begins to taste this water and, then, to thirst after it.”
[5] See Desmond Tutu, God Has A Dream, 32