Powerful Teachers: John 4.1–425

2018.2.4 wellDelivered at Ames UCC
on February 4, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard, rather than read.
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at 10:30 a.m.

How thirsty are you? How thirsty are you this morning? How dry do the tongue of your hearth and lips of your soul get?

I meet with a lot of parched people each week. I see faces dried out by illness and hold hands rough with wear and cold. I hear voices that rasp and squeak as though the struggle to be heard in a world such as ours has made vocal chords rough as sandpaper. I see shoulders held high, as taught with stress as the dried gut of a stringed instrument.

Maybe you would put yourself among them.

Parched for a decent meal, parched for 30 minutes of quiet, parched for a thank you from a boss, parched for a day without a commute, parched for a parent’s or spouse’s health to stabilize, parched for a good prognosis for yourself, parched for a teenager to stop yelling, parched from being a teenager who needs to be heard, parched for just one moment of real hope and certain love.

Some of those thirsts can be quenched, to an extent.  But most are chronic thirsts born of the necessities of earning a wage, the risk of loving people, and the inevitabilities of hormones and aging.

Dehydration is a symptom of human life.

Our tradition does not shy from that truth. Discipleship to God in Christ does not include false promises about what our daily lives or eventual deaths will be like.

Take last Wednesday, for example. After the morning Bible study, the noontime bell ringing, the Wednesday Afternoon Club, and the potluck with pizza, but before the evening Bible study and youth group and choir rehearsal, more than a dozen children, youth, and adults went out to our garden courtyard.

Jean, our youth director, brought a big metal bucket and three bundles of palm fronds out from the office. The palms were from last year’s Palm Sunday, a reminder of the last day of rowdy joy before the sober deceit and violence of Holy Week.

Jean put a few of the fronds into the bucket and C., who is in middle school, lit them. The flames would jump high, then sink low and glow. Sometimes the smoke billowed, other times it tapered. It smelled sweet.

R., who just turned 18, helped add fronds to the flames. So did B. and W., who are in first grade. Amy Erica, whose age I don’t know but she’s a professor, so I’ll put her in the adult category, swept up loose leaves that had fallen off the stems with her hands and added them. At the very end young S. came around the bucket to add a frond of her own.

We all stayed pretty quiet—me, Pr. Hannah, Matt, Marcus, Ben, Jean, the kids, some other adults, several other kids—as the fire burned out and then the embers. Plants that a year ago were watery with life had become the ash we will receive on our hands or foreheads in just ten days.

The psalmist says that we were known by God even when we were being “made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth” (139.15). Ashes to ashes, from dust we come and to dust we will return.

But when Pr. Hannah and I take the ash from that bucket, we will not bring it dry into worship.

We will add oil.

We will add just enough oil so that the crosses on our skin do not flake off, but cling to us with an anointing drink of renewal.

Because even though God does not lie to us about the aridness of the human condition, God also extends an invitation through that desert toward an oasis of faith. To the well of God’s love.

Today’s story says that after her conversation with Jesus, the Samaritan woman left the well and went back to her city. There she spoke to everyone and to everyone she said, “Come and see.” Then the population of the whole city followed her out, a mass conversion along the lines of Jonah and Nineveh.

This story is a testament to the availability of the well of God’s love to everyone and to the well’s transformation of anyone who drinks of it into a powerful teacher.

Last week we heard a compelling case from our Theologian in Residence, Dr. David Csinos, to trust the spirituality of children and youth and be willing to learn from them because their experience of the divine is no less authoritative than ours.

The substantial growth in our own children’s and youth ministries is proof of the success of such trust. We do not memorize doctrine. Knowing what book comes after Deuteronomy will not help any of us when our parents die. Instead, we accommodate all kinds of learning styles and respect whatever expressions of the sacred emerge. This has been so successful that Pr. Hannah is ready to add an additional Godly Play room and split the Wednesday Afternoon Club into two groups. Which also means our Youth Group is about to grow.

There is, however, room for many more adults to accept the invitation to learn from and alongside them: Godly Play or the Wednesday Afternoon Club, Sunday morning’s coffee fellowship, Wednesday night youth group, chaperoning a youth trip, being a mentor during Confirmation, or something else we haven’t thought of yet but you might offer.

Now, if hearing that invitation immediately renders you anxious or guilt-ridden, let it go. The last thing I want to do is add to your burdens. Church needs to be a place that, on balance, gives you more energy than it expends.

I encourage everyone, though, to talk to some of our adult co-learners: Liberato, Bradley, Emily, Genya, Nick, Emma, Jim, Grandma Mim. Ask them why they participate, and what they have learned from the experience.

Late on Wednesday night, after the morning Bible study, the noontime bell ringing, the Wednesday Afternoon Club, the potluck with pizza, the evening Bible study and youth group and choir rehearsal, after we gathered one final time in the sanctuary to sing and to pray, my mind went back to that burning bucket of fronds.

During those 15 or 20 minutes, the adults weren’t working, they weren’t tending to crises. Everyone mingled, with small conversations on the perimeter, quiet at the center.

B. and W. were very excited about the fire (and fearful). C. kept total control of the lighter because she was the one who learned to use it properly. R. offered encouragement born of experience. S. was the personification of observation and thoughtful discernment.

Aren’t all of those elements of discipleship? Being together, excited yet fearful, helpful, encouraging, reflective, and decisive?

The Samaritan woman had no business being a student of Jesus let alone becoming a teacher of her people in his name. But the well that brought them together has that kind of power.

It has that power for us, too.

From it we drink with Moses’ mother and Moses as she protects her son from harm.

At this well, we are rescued from death by exposure, like Hagar and her son Ishmael.

From this well, we draw with Mary the same water she will offer to her son Jesus in his final moments.

How thirsty are you?

There are some young teachers in this church who have drunk deeply from the ancient well of God’s love and who are able to lead you to it as surprisingly and successfully as a many-married Samaritan woman.


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