Isaiah 55:1-9 and John 4:7-14, a guest sermon preached at Old First by Cody Long.
Whenever I’m asked to preach at a church, I often wonder what the point is. I am a firm believer in the value of communal worship and the institutional church, but to have this space, and time set aside, for one person to talk at another group of people for about ten minutes straight is kind of bizarre to me. This area around me is a place of privilege, of power. There’s a lot that goes through my head when I stand here: Do I have anything relevant to say? Is it worth the congregation’s time to listen to me talk? By whose authority do I stand here? Do I abuse the power given to me in what I say? And what about the people who don’t have access to this three-by-three space behind the lectern?
I tell you all this first because I want you to know that I stand here in reverence, with great humility and equally great trepidation. I pray that what I have to say is worthy of my head and heart, of you, and of God. But I also tell you this because being here, in this box, has gotten me to think more about power and church than any other experience.
About three years ago now, I visited the Mexican border to study the church’s role in immigration. I hadn’t realized until a few months ago how hard some parts of the trip still were for me to talk about—places we went that made me furious, people we met whose stories broke my heart.
We had stopped at a medical tent just on the other side of the Mexican border. American border police would drop undocumented workers there, and volunteers would provide a snack, a place to rest, a cup of water—and if necessary, emergency medical attention. It had been about 110 degrees the entire time we had been there, and the ground was covered in red ants and flies. You couldn’t go more than six seconds without a fly landing on you, and after awhile, you just stopped swatting. I was asked to translate for a group of three people who had been dropped off a few hours earlier. We sat under the medical trailer—it had just started to drizzle, which was so incredibly welcome after all the heat. Two men and one woman told us about how they had been walking in the desert for days when, out of water and in the company of children, they decided to walk to a highway and turn themselves in to border patrol.
After what I would call gross mistreatment by border police over two days in prison, they were released here, at the medical tent. They had spent all their money to get across the border, and now had no way to tell those who expected them they wouldn’t make it, any idea where the rest of their group was, nor any way home. One man showed us the blisters on his feet from walking in the desert. At first I thought I couldn’t see it. Then I realized the entire length of his foot was the blister.
I remember, after thanking these people for talking to us, stomping back to the van, dirty, thirsty and still hot. I was angry. I was really, really angry. Where was the fairness in all of this? Where was God?
Last year, someone handed me a photo of a fifteen year old girl who had died trying to walk across the desert to the United States. I keep it in my wallet. Her name was Josseline Quinteros. She had traveled all the way from El Salvador with her ten year old brother in an effort to reunite with her mother. She died of dehydration, of thirst. Her body was found by a No Mas Muertes volunteer—an organization that puts out jugs of water and snacks in areas of the desert that are known trails from Mexico to the United States. Ironically, the same person who found her body was charged with littering gallon-sized water jugs in the Arizona desert just two days later. Since October 1st, 2009, 253 people have died of dehydration trying to cross the desert. Where is justice?
And here, Isaiah has the TENACITY, the GALL to say,
“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.”
Isaiah writes in a time of exile. The Jews are exiled in Persia, and this poetry and prophecy Isaiah writes provides comfort. And hope.
When I was talking this sermon idea over with a friend of mine, we got stuck on the word “hope”. It’s been a political buzzword in our recent memory, and as we continue to evaluate Obama’s presidency in terms of whether he was all we hoped for.
We can hope all we want, but unless someone puts the work in, things just won’t get done. This is perfectly logical. We can hope the Christmas decorations get put away., but without people actually doing the mowing there’s no guarantee it’ll get done. I am fortunate to be a part of a project right now writing a new piece of theater about the queer experience. The group of us were evaluating the “It Gets Better” campaign. While it touched so many of us in place we had thought about since middle or high school, we are now wondering aloud if it—being queer—really gets better, and more importantly, how does it get better? Who makes it better?
One could argue, to use just a well-known example, that the Civil Rights Movement would not have succeeded in the manner it did had Rosa Parks not refused to move her seat. Rosa Parks could have hoped all day and all night for equal treatment on Alabama’s public transportation system, but until she refused to move, not a whole lot was happening. She was a catalyst for change, an icon of action. History assures us that desegregation in the United States would never have happened without a lot of literal blood, sweat and tears.
What I’m talking about is Justice—divine Justice. Fairness and equality, freedom from hunger, thirst, and oppression. And part of me knows that what Isaiah is talking about is a just society, but he’s very mysterious about how to get there.
The conclusion reads:
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD. 9″For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts.
I love the story of the woman at the well because Jesus takes a risk in the interest of justice. Jesus knows full well the trouble he’s making by even talking to her, and then to ask for a drink from a Samaritan’s well! The woman is clearly flabbergasted, and not really getting what Jesus is saying.
In the story, the Samaritan woman points to the water in the well of her ancestor Jacob, and regards it as something constant, something she’s always had and drank from. Jesus, on the other hand, comes into town, peddling this living water. Eternal life.
Because I had been thinking about justice, and about being thirsty for justice, the first time I read this story I immediately thought about the relationship between justice and charity. Jesus says that if we drink the Samaritan woman’s water, we will thirst again. One could say the same thing about charity. After some serious discussions of homelessness in New York, I was impressed to hear members of Old First’s youth group talk about how affirming and important the shelters we visited are for both the volunteers and their guests, but that it could not end there. We talked about the underlying causes of homelessness, and what had to be on top of the work shelters and soup kitchens provide. Jesus says that if we partake in his living water, we will never thirst again. If we think of the living water like justice, we not only provide to others what is essential to live, but tear down the structures that keep people oppressed. Segregation was codified. It was law. Until those structures were dismantled, there wasn’t a whole lot of change.
Returning to the story: “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?” There is consistency in this well for the Samaritan woman. She and her ancestors have been coming here for centuries to secure their literal life-source, this water.
While I admit that the following might be a stretch of an otherwise unloaded passage, I think this clinging to tradition that the woman of the well displays is exemplary of the predicament churches often find themselves in today. The woman at the well knows the stories, and there is unarguably great importance in the work she is doing, but Jesus is very clear that he is the authority figure here. He insists on a strange new idea, of living water, and is offering it to her—a Samaritan woman who, according to many first century people reading this text, probably didn’t deserve it.
My limited experience worshipping here at Old First has taught me that most of what I just said you know—you stand in frustration with the incompleteness of Isaiah’s vision; you recognize the values of justice and charity presented at the well; and you certainly don’t have an issue with tradition or trying something new. The Word I want to give you today, Old First, is about what I mentioned when I opened my sermon—about power of the church and a community such as this.
While Jesus’ living water imagery can be interpreted a variety of ways, as I have here as God’s justice, or in more traditional ways like salvation, I want to challenge us to think about the living water as something that has real power. When we imagine that the action of inviting the Samaritan woman to partake in God’s justice, to make another world for herself, we change the game. We change the game but it is a dangerous game we play. We face serious political, social and even economic implications when we stand up for justice as church, even when we simply pray that it will happen. Annie Dillard writes, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Users should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
Isaiah’s promise of the kingdom seems unreachable, but it is the idea that such a kingdom would be our ideal that gives us the power to make it so. We believe, like Jesus believed (and offered to the Samaritan woman) that another world is possible.
Part of what I often need to remind myself as a quote-unquote “liberal Christian”, especially in the UCC, is that my living water is biblical. It is God’s. The other world that I imagine is possible is God’s vision expressed through Isaiah, through Jesus, through Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, Jr. If we really wish for this to be true, if we really want things to get better, I need to continually remind myself of this.
(Preached by Mr. Cody Long as the guest preacher at Old First, when Rev. Caine was away.)
I have told the story of the medical trailer in Mexico maybe twice now—but I have never shared what the woman sitting underneath the medical trailer, Concepcion, her name was, said to us as we were leaving. “Que Dios te bendiga; y que vaya contigo” May God bless you and go with you. I know that my passion for justice was realized on that day, but the reminder that God has blessed me and will go with me is sometimes hard to bear. I pray that we remember this, that we drink this fact like the living water it is, and that with this is mind, we realize Isaiah’s vision.
Amos: Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream
Luther: Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God