Going to the Well

In a book full of stories that shape and form our understanding of God, the story of the woman at the well is one that seems to always have something more to say about the nature of God.  The Scriptures and the way they have been lived out and are lived out in our own faith community shape our view of God, our image of God.  They create a picture in our minds of the one we turn to in times of trouble, the one we celebrate with in times of joy, and the one who continually invites us to a deeper love relationship.  What images of God come to mind as you read this story?  What does God look like in this story?  What does God act like in this story?

So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.  Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’.  (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)  The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’  (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)  Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’  The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep.  Where do you get that living water?  Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’  Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but 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.’  The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’

Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’  The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’  Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.  What you have said is true!’  The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet.  Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’  Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.  You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.  But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers 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.’  The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ).  ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’  Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’

Just then his disciples came.  They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’  Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city.  She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!  He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’  They left the city and were on their way to him (John 4:5-30).

What did this women think when she saw Jesus at the well?  What was going through her mind as he spoke to her?  Curiosity?  Concern?  Fear?  Excitement?  Will this man ridicule me as so many others have done and still do?  Will he ask something of me that I cannot do or do not want to do?

These sorts of questions and others like them are somewhat instinctive when encountering a new person or situation.  We have a natural tendency to assess the impact of something new on ourselves from our own point of view.  What does this mean to me?  How does this fit into my world, my life?

We may ask those sorts of questions as we read the story and as we imagine what the woman was thinking as Jesus spoke to her, but we need to think about the other character in this story.  What is God doing in this story?  Given what God is doing in the story, what does this say about God?  What would it mean for us to encounter such a God as this?

In a way, we all sit by our own well in the heat of the day.  We go there when we know no one else is around because it is a hard place for us to be.  Our wells do not provide water so much as they hold our tears, tears that we have cried over failures and disappointments, tragedies and heartaches.  We are startled to see someone at our well; we would rather be alone.  But this one knows every tear we have shed.  In fact, he knows everything there is to know about us.

He does not turn away from us or ridicule us.  He offers us water, living water, from a well that never will run dry.

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Troy Polamalu: Faith First

If you watched last week’s NFL playoff game between the Denver Broncos and the Pittsburgh Steelers, you saw Tim Tebow lead his team to victory in overtime.  In doing so, he did what many said could not be done.  Tebow is not a prototypical NFL quarterback, yet he does a lot of things that the experts say he can’t do.  Watching Tebow do what the experts say he should not be able to do is one the reasons that he is so much fun to watch.  Another reason that Tebow is fun to watch is because he takes his relationship with the Lord seriously.  He expresses gratitude regularly, and he allows his faith to frame his outlook and his worldview.  Recently, a reporter was asking about his performance in a game, a game in which Tebow had played well. Tebow wanted to talk about the sick kid that he had visited in the hospital.  To him, what mattered about the game was that it might have given encouragement to the boy in the hospital.  Tebow takes a lot of heat for the public way he lives his faith and for the unorthodox way he plays the game.  What I like about him is that he seems to know the difference between a game and life.  A game is just a game, but his faith is his life.

What I did not realize while I was watching last week’s game was that there was another player on the opposite side of the ball who also takes his faith seriously.  Troy Polamalu, the Steeler’s All-Pro safety, is an Orthodox Christian.  Orthodoxy is the Eastern wing of the earliest Christian church, which split into the Orthodox and Catholic churches in 1054.  In Knoxville, St. George Greek Orthodox Church on Kingston Pike is an expression of this tradition.

Here are some quotes from Troy Polamalu that give an indication of how his faith shapes and forms his life.

“Football is part of my life but not life itself,” he says. “Football doesn’t define me.  It’s what I do [and] how I carry out my faith.”

“When I got injured, I learned so much from it spiritually, just thanking God for the health that I had when I was healthy.”

“People have this idea that the more pious and devout I am, the more successful I am.  Which is very dangerous.  If you look at faith in that way, you’re bound to fail at both — spiritually and in your career.”

“First of all, I’m a Christian so my prayer life really comes first.  Second of all, I’m a husband so my wife comes before anything else.  If I have time to do anything else after that, I do it, but I don’t sacrifice any time with her.”

“It’s really easy for me.  I love my faith and I know that’s first. …. I really think I know what’s important in my life and that’s my faith and my wife.”

On  growing orchids“I’ve tried but I don’t have enough patience for orchids.  They’re so sensitive.  Here’s what happened recently: It’s funny, I spent all last year trying to nurse this orchid to health.  Finally spring comes along and I thought, I give up, I’m putting it outside.  A month later, I come back to Pittsburgh and guess what?  I look outside and it’s blooming like crazy!  I can’t do what only God can do.”

“. . . you cannot have an experience of God without humility.”

“I think talking is overrated.  Anybody in the world can talk about doing anything.  The hardest thing is to do it.  It’s important for my son to understand, for example, why we pray, why we go to church.  It’s important for him to grow up in an atmosphere of watching us do it.”

We are not alone.  We journey together with a host of believers, some who are famous and some who are unknown, toward the life to which God has called us.  May we strengthen one another as we go.

Being Thankful

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (I Thessalonians 5:16-18). Read literally, these admonitions from the Apostle to the church at Thessalonica seem impossible to do.  Given the hardships and difficulties of life, how could anyone expect to rejoice always? With the busyness of life, how is possible for a person to pray constantly? For those situations and events that we wish had never occurred, how do we begin to give thanks in all circumstances?

For some people, these words have led them to believe that Christian faithfulness dictates that they should always be happy, rejoicing in the face of tragedy, and giving thanks in the midst of calamity. Such a reading pushes one to sometimes say what is not truly felt, and to act as if what has happened has not truly happened. While such utterances and actions may provide a temporary respite from the pain of the moment, yet the deeper grief remains untouched. Therefore, it lingers, still hurting and still impacting the life of the one who boldly and bravely tried mightily to rejoice and give thanks.

For some people, these words make no sense and are therefore dismissed, filed away with biblical ideas that are too hard, too irrational, or to impractical to be taken seriously. While such a response may seem the wiser, it leaves unexplored a deeper spiritual reality and richer intimacy with God.

When Paul says to give thanks in all circumstances, the implication is that circumstances are not be the determining factor of one’s thankfulness. If one can be thankful regardless of circumstances, then one’s circumstances are not the deciding factor in whether or not one is thankful. For Paul, giving thanks is something more than a gesture of politeness, good manners, or heartfelt gratitude.  Normally, when we give thanks there is a reason —  our family, our job, our friends. There is someone or something that touches our life in such a way that we express thanksgiving. Yet, Paul seems to point to something more than someone or something for which we are grateful, to a way of being. Be thankful, with or without someone. Be thankful, with or without something. Be thankful, with or without an apparent reason. There is more to giving thanks than our circumstances, whatever they might be, would indicate.

In a similar way, when Paul says “Rejoice always,” I do not think he is suggesting that we ought to rejoice because of this good event or this bad event. Again, the attitude of rejoicing is not determined by the circumstance or situation. Interestingly, one of the ways that the Greek word “Rejoice” was used was as a greeting. It was similar to our “Hello, I am glad to see you.” Perhaps Paul is suggesting that we greet each moment that comes our way with joy. Such joy is not circumstantial or situational, but takes a longer view. Julian of Norwich, 14th century Christian mystic, seems to have understood this sort of joy, “. . . All will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.”

The gratitude and joy that Paul speaks of are the fruits of a prayerful life. Prayer is central for the follower of Christ. It is the oxygen of living a daily Christian life. For Paul it cannot be relegated to a particular time of day, it must be a constant. This does not mean that all activity stops and the believer does nothing except pray. It does mean that everything the believer does can become prayer, a mindfulness of the presence of God, and of being in that presence. Rejoicing and thanksgiving are rooted in such mindfulness.

With joy and thanksgiving for the way God has made us God’s own, we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving. We have much for which to be thankful, but nothing more so than the reality that God has come to us and made us children of God. Everything is different because of what God has done in Jesus Christ. This Advent, as we remember God first coming to us, and how radically changed the world is because God did come, we are going to ask the question: What if the birth of Christ could change the world again? Is it possible for the joy and gratitude that we have experienced in Christ to impact the world in a way that makes a difference in the lives of people? Let’s conspire together and see what God will do.

Leaving a Legacy

“The greatest legacy one can pass on to one’s children and grandchildren is not money or other material things accumulated in one’s life, but rather a legacy of character and faith.” — Billy Graham, who turned 93 on November 7,2011.

Billy Graham has been an internationally recognized religious leader for as long as I can remember.  My earliest memories of him come from sitting in my grandparents’ living room watching one of his crusades on the television.  To be honest, as a young boy, I was not particularly thrilled with the idea of watching a televised sermon.  However, there was only one television and only two channels, so the options were limited.  Even if there had been other options, I am not sure that they would have been utilized.  My grandparents made it pretty clear that watching Billy Graham preach was important.

Through the years, they made other values clear as well.  The way they shared their values was just as important, maybe more so, as the values themselves.  They did so with a steadfast consistency that made their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren feel wanted and loved.

Of course, while they were leaving this legacy of love and faith they were not mindful of it.  At least, I don’t think they were.  They seemed to just be living their lives and doing the work that each day brought with it.  Mind you, each day, each task and each interaction was sprinkled with their values so that day by day their legacy was being left.

Legacies are not something that can be put off until the last minute.  Nor are they something that we can borrow from someone else.  All the while we are living we are leaving one.  The question then is not are we leaving a legacy, but what sort of legacy are we leaving?

Billy Graham rightly points out that leaving a legacy of character and faith is to be desired above one of money or material things.  I imagine that most of us would agree with him. Yet, most of us spend a good part of each day working to earn money so that we can buy the material things that we need.  Given that reality, it is not surprising that those matters become the focus of life for so many people. The problem does not lie in laboring daily for the necessities of life, but doing so in a way that conveys the idea that such activity, and the acquisition of its fruits, is what matters most in life.  Esther de Waal writes, “Christ was a carpenter for most of his life, and those years were not wasted ones.  Then I reflect that for me too it would be really very extraordinary if my own Christian life did not grow out of the most ordinary daily round of family life and earning a living.  Christianity does not isolate the sacred from the secular.  Not only are material things good in themselves, they are also signs of God’s loving attention, and they can, if we let them, open up a way to him.  God, in fact, reaches us where we are, at home, in the prosaic reality of our daily lives.”

The notion of leaving a legacy for those who come after us is a bit daunting.  It can easily become one large spiritual challenge that weighs us down rather than setting us free to live as God calls us.  Truth is, the legacy will take care of itself if we simply endeavor to live our lives day by day as near to God as we are able, recognizing God in the ordinary tasks of day- to-day living. and doing those tasks with care and love, even reverently, so life becomes a prayer.

How will we live the next 40 or so days?  Will we live them anticipating the advent of our savior’s birth?  Will they be for us days filled with mystery, wonder, joy and faith?  Or will they be for us hectic days filled with the stress that seems to have become an expected characteristic of the holiday season?  You may feel like you have no choice. You may feel like you have to do all the traditional things that are expected of you to make this season what it is supposed to be.  Many people do feel that certain holiday activities are necessary, even if those activities leave them worn out, frazzled and worried about how it is all going to get paid for when the bills start arriving in January.  Even church people spend a good deal of time during the holiday season upholding traditions that do little to draw them into a deeper experience the grace and love born so long ago at Bethlehem.

Doing something different can be hard, especially when accepted customs and practices have been established for so long.  Nonetheless, at Ball Camp Baptist Church we are going to try something new this year.  In a small way, it is an attempt to leave behind a new legacy, a legacy that gives life, hope and freedom. That’s right we are going to try to make the birth of Christ the focus of this Advent and Christmas season.  We are going to do that by asking a simple question:  What if the birth of Christ changed the world again?  What do followers of Christ need to do in order for Christ’s birth to once again be a world changing event?  How do we need to live these next 40 or so days in order to leave a legacy of hope and love, rather than one of frenzy and frustration?

This Advent season we are going to conspire together (literally: breathe together) around four ideas:

Worship Fully – because Christmas begins and ends with Jesus.

Spend Less – and free resources for things that truly matter.

Give More – of our presence, our hands, our words, our time, our hearts.

Love All – the poor, the forgotten, the marginalized, the sick, in ways that make a difference.

I believe that in our heart of hearts we believe that the birth of Christ is an event that can still change the world, and that is a legacy worth leaving to our children and grandchildren.

Friday Night Lights

You meet interesting people at high school football games. When the game is delayed for two hours because of thunder and lightening you can really get to know them.  At least, that was my experience last Friday night at South-Doyle High School.

The rain had stopped, but the lightening would not go away. The game could not resume until thirty minutes after the last lightening strike. He was standing just outside the door to the home team’s locker room when I noticed him. Since lightening was still in the area, what better way to pass the time than talking football? So, the conversation began.

We talked about games that we had played in ourselves that involved bad weather. I recalled a game that I had played in rain that was just a degree or two away from turning to sleet. He told me about the time that he played in a game that started in the rain and finished in the snow. Between the rain and the snow, there was sleet, and frozen jerseys.  In Michigan, where he played high school football, such weather was evidently not that uncommon.

Having spent my high school years in the temperate climate of East Tennessee, I did not have a weather story to top that one.  Therefore, the conversation progressed to family and work, as conversations do.  When he learned that I was a pastor he began to give me the religious history of his life. It was fascinating, and he was very religious. However, since we were the same age, it could only last for so long (since I am not that old).

Finally, the announcer’s voice came over the public address system saying that the game was going to resume. We began putting some closure to our time together. We were both glad that we had met and talked. It had been a pleasant way to pass the time.

I thought we were done, but then something changed in his eyes. Later, I would realize that at this moment we were just getting started. We had crossed the threshold into that place were he felt comfortable asking me the one question that he carried with him every moment of every day.

Earlier he had told me that he had seven daughters. Now he told me about his one son that he did not mention when we were talking about family.  He had not talked to his son in three years.  It was three years ago that he learned that his son was gay.

Now his son is forbidden to contact anyone in the family. He is so repulsed by who his son is that he does not want to speak to him. He cannot stand to look at him. In his mind, there was no way he could do anything less, given what the Bible says and what the church teaches about homosexuality.

His question for me was whether or not he was right in cutting off all contact with his son. We talked for a while, but in the end I told him that he was the only father that his son had, and that his son needed him now more than ever.  I could not tell if this man wanted a relationship with his son or not. Was he looking for permission to love his son, or justification for hating him?

There was a game to watch and so our conversation really did conclude this time. As I drifted back toward the field, I felt a deep sense of grief for this man and his lack of a relationship with his son. Something he thought would always be there was not.  Would this man’s relationship with his son be different if he had responded to him with love instead of hate, compassion instead repulsion, mercy instead of banishment?

On another level, I grieved for him because of the years he had spent in church.  What did he learn there? Did he learn that it is O.K. to talk about love, sing about love, receive the love of Christ, and then withhold it from people that do not conform to his standard of what is loveable?  Why didn’t someone tell him that sharing the love of Christ is just that — sharing the love of Christ? There are no disclaimers, no qualifiers and no escape clauses, just love. No, it is not always easy; but it is what Jesus calls us to do, because it is what he has done for us. While we were that which we would not love, he loved us and died for us. Without love, Christianity is something other than God intended for it to be.

Joy and Delight

(No animals were harmed in the writing of this article.)

His white coat was not easy to miss in the late afternoon sunlight.  I was startled by his presence.  Immediately, I tried to think of some way to respond to his presence.  Seeing a rock, I picked it up and let it fly in his direction.  Of course, I missed.  He was too small and I was too inaccurate.

He was a mouse.  At least, I started out thinking that he was a mouse.  The longer we were together, the more I started to think he might be an escaped lab rat.  He was too white to be an ordinary rat.  As it turned out he was also smart and fast.

My rock missed the mouse and hit the side of the deck, attracting the attention of my oldest son. “What are you doing?”  Maintaining operational silence, I used hand signals to communicate the presence of our intruder.  My son peered over the side of the deck and quickly spotted the white mouse.  Instinctively, he found a semi-suitable weapon for mouse hunting.  The mouse was cornered.  We made our move, and the mouse made his, around the corner of the house, under the fence, toward the front of the house.

Josh and I were in hot pursuit when my youngest son said, “What are you doing?”

“There’s a mouse in the monkey grass.”  Without any further encouragement, he joined the fray.  Before he made his ultimate escape, we chased that mouse from one end of the yard and back, from flower bed to flower bed, from bush to bush.  Midway through our hunt, I could not help but notice how much fun we were having together. The energy was high, our purpose was clear, our passion was rising, and we were together.  I slowed my efforts to get the mouse in order to watch my boys.

This little adventure was different.  It wasn’t like I had asked one of them to help with something around the house, which they may well have done, but certainly not with the same spirit and energy.  There was joy and delight in those 15 or so minutes of mouse hunting.

I could not help but wonder if what I was feeling was similar to what God might feel when we drop whatever we are doing and spend some time playing, worshipping and working with God.  How does God feel when we throw ourselves wholly, completely, maybe even recklessly, into something that God thinks is important?  What sorts of activities are we doing that cause God to experience joy and delight?

Three months ago Kendall McCosh, one of our deacons, suggested a prayer ministry whereby our deacons would pray for the members of our congregation.  The idea is simple.  Each deacon is given the names of six to eight church members that he or she will pray for each day.  The praying started this week.  I believe it is an activity that will bring joy and delight to the heart of God.

I believe that it does so for several reasons, the most prominent of which is the nature of God.  God is a loving God.  God’s love is never more evident than in Jesus Christ who took on flesh and came to us so that we might know just how much God loves us.  When we are praying for another person, we are demonstrating our love for that person.  Only God knows the impact on a person’s life when the love expressed by our praying joins with the great love that God has for that person.  What we do know is that God desires to be in an intimate and loving relationship with each one of us.  So when we love one another with prayer, we are doing the very thing that is the desire of God’s heart.

Therefore, know that you are loved not only by God, but that you are being loved by one of your deacons as he or she prays for you each day.  Also know that these men and women who accept the call to provide ministry leadership for our congregation are doing so in a way that brings joy and delight to God’s heart.

Who are we?

Who are we?  I Peter 2:9 says that we  “. . . are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”  We are a people whose race is determined not by physical characteristics or ancestry, but by the call of God on our lives. As priests, we open the way for others to discover and to be embraced by the one who has brought us into the light.  We are a set-apart people or nation defined not by geographic boundaries, but by the love we demonstrate to others. 

In a world that is divided by race, gender, social and economic status, religion, and a host of other ways, what is significant about who we are?  If we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, what difference does that make in our lives?  It can make a huge difference.  If we embrace who we are, then every day becomes an opportunity for us to proclaim the mighty acts of the one who called us out of darkness.  We proclaim those deeds sometimes by telling the story of who Jesus was and what he did, but always by embodying his thoughts, his values and his actions in our lives.

As a  “. . . chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people. . .” we are set apart — different from that which surrounds us and sometimes overwhelms us.  We, the church, find ourselves living in a nation and in a world that often bears little resemblance to the kingdom of God.  Nevertheless, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  We live to proclaim another way.  In living as God has called us, we redeem this world so that politically, socially, spiritually, economically, and morally it looks and feels more like the kingdom of the one who sent out the twelve saying “…as you go, proclaim the good news, ‘the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”   That is the mark toward which we ought to aim our lives, that those whom we encounter would experience the wonder of God’s grace, the depth of God’s mercy and the nearness of heaven from our actions and our words.

As the church, we are not always such a people.  In fact, in some ways the church has become an impediment to grace, mercy and the nearness of heaven for some people. Bad experiences, judgmental words and “holier than thou” attitudes have left them cut off from God and convinced that there is no good reason to do anything to remedy the situation.  They conclude confidently that if God is anything like those who so freely speak for him, then grace and mercy are not to be found.

Yet, we know that such is not the case.  We know God is gracious and that God’s mercy is deep and wide.  God has freely given that grace to us.  We know that God loves us.  So, it is all the more imperative for us to be the race, the priesthood, the nation, and the people that God has called us to be.  In darkness, we did not know God.  We did not know God’s love for us.  In knowing God and sharing God’s love and grace with others, we move further into that marvelous light. In denying others God’s mercy, failing to share God’s love with others, we not only push them back into the darkness, but we turn our own lives back toward the darkness as well.

Who are we?  We are the church, the body of Christ, living according to his call on our lives, to his teachings in our minds, and to his love in our hearts, so that the darkness of this world might be overcome by his marvelous light.