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.

Baptists, Catholics and Birth Control, part 2

“We do not exaggerate when we say that this is the greatest threat to religious freedom in our lifetime. We cannot help but think of the words attributed to German pastor Martin Niemoeller, reflecting on the Nazi terror: ‘First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”

These words were written by Charles Colson and Timothy George, two Baptists leaders, in response to recent Health and Human Services guidelines that require health insurance companies to provide birth control to women without a co-pay or additional payments. Because some of these women work for religious institutions (hospitals, schools, but not churches) Colson, George and other religious leaders believe these women should be denied this coverage. They believe this so strongly that they grab history’s most heinous example, Hitler’s Germany, and cobbled together one of the most irresponsible paragraph’s that I have ever read.  Since they have already gone there, it is worth pointing out that there are legitimate reminders of Nazi Germany in this current debate.  For the Nazis, the role of women was defined by three words: Kinder, Kirche, Kuche – kids, church and kitchen.

For American churchmen and politicians who still share this Nazi vision of womanhood to cloak their agenda in one of our most treasured freedoms, religious liberty, does an enormous dishonor to people around the world and throughout history who have truly suffered religious persecution not the least of which is Martin Niemoller.

Yesterday there was a congressional hearing regarding this provision to provide birth control to women. Two women were invited to testify. How can you talk about women’s health without inviting at more women or even mostly women to the conversation? Catholic Bishops testified. Southern Baptist Theologians testified. There are certainly no women in either one of those groups as Catholics and Southern Baptist do not trust women to do much leading or thinking.  No women were invited, but two religious groups that have an expressed commitment to discriminating against women were invited.  What is wrong with this picture? Do women not have a voice? Do women not have brains capable of thinking and reasoning?  For them to be excluded from leadership in so many churches is bad enough, but for them to be excluded from the halls of the government elected to represent them is a travesty of justice.

Former Southern Baptist pastor, Mike Huckabee, might have said it best when he said, “We are all Catholic now.”  Who new when Southern Baptists approved a resolution in 1984 pointing out that “. . .the woman was first in the Edenic fall” that their ultimate goal was to reunite with Rome, at least in terms of how women were viewed and treated.  They get together in a room spouting pious phrases in order to decide what women should and should not have and they call it defending religious freedom.

The real violation of religious freedom in this case would come if the regulations were changed to suit the desires these two and other religious groups. If such a turn of events were to occur, the government would in effect become an enforcement arm of the church, enforcing doctrines they themselves have no way of forcing their members to adhere to.

Nothing in the Health and Human Services regulations forces any individual to take birth control, but they are granted access. That access is a good thing according to the Institute of Medicine. It is a good thing according to American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. However, it is a good thing mostly because it puts the decision about birth control where it should be, in the hands of women, not in a room were they were not wanted.

Stop the Hate

Thank you to Ethicsdaily and to the Knoxville News-Sentinel for sharing the love I tried to write about in Using God to Bully.

“At some thoughts one stands perplexed, above all at the sight of human sin, and wonders whether to combat it by force or by humble love. Always decide ‘I will combat it by humble love.’ If you resolve on that once and for all, you can conquer the whole world. Loving humility is a terrible force: it is the strongest of all things, and there is nothing else like it.”

– Fyodor Dostoyevsky, from
The Brothers Karamazov

Sadly, so many today see love not as a strong force for transformation, but as a weakness. Dostoyesky’s words are a helpful reminder that love is more powerful than we realize.

Baptists, Catholics and Birth Control

Today the White House announced a broader exemption to the Health and Human Service’s rule requiring religious institutions to provide contraception coverage to their employees. Basically it says that religious institutions who object don’t have to buy it, but the insurance company will have to provide it free of charge.  The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty sees this as a positive move that protects the freedom of religious institutions and provides for the health care needs of their employees.

Hopefully, this compromise will quell the concerns of those who felt the previous rule provided to narrow of an exemption for religious institution.  I do wonder though if it will be sufficient. In part because I am not sure that religious liberty was their primary concern.  The two religious groups that were most vocal in their criticism of the previous rule were the Roman Catholic and the Southern Baptist Convention.  These are two groups who always have the subjugation of women on their unwritten agenda for engaging the world.  Catholics do not allow women to serve as priest nor do Southern Baptist approve of women serving as Senior Pastors.  One wonders if these two groups would have a different theology about birth control if more women were involved in their theological conversations.

Don’t get me wrong, the Catholic Church has provided the world with some brilliant and beautiful thinkers. I try to read something from Henri Nouwen and Richard Rohr everyday.  St. Francis, Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day still provide as good of an example of what it means to follow Jesus today as they did when they were alive.  Yet in recent years we have seen that there are problems in the church when it comes to human sexuality.   This is true among Catholics and Baptists as well.  Unfortunately, each group has its share of predators waiting to exploit. Each group has resisted acknowledging the problem and addressing the issue. They have chosen rather to hide behind their theological priorities and ecclesiastical language.  That has left us all a little less comfortable than we might have been when it comes to talking about sex.

A friend pointed out the other day how refreshing it would have been to see the kind of moral outrage from Catholic bishops over children being sexually abused as they demonstrated over the thought of having to provide birth control to their female employees.  In fact, the former Archbishop of New York went in the opposite direction last week by recanting a previous apology he had made on behalf of the church to the victims of sexual abuse and their families. Catholics and Baptists alike seem to prefer telling others what is and is not acceptable rather than having open and honest conversations about sex and why God made us the way God made us.  t.

In a world that is grossly overly-sexualized, the church must find a way to help families and individuals have a calm conversation about what it means that God has made sex apart of our human experience.  To that end, I wish that I could be at A [Baptist] Conference on Sexuality and Covenant this April 19-21.

Church being Church

You may have heard the saying, “hard times don’t build character—they reveal it.”   That saying was much on my mind this week as you, the body of Christ at Ball Camp, walked with the Lethgo family during their time of grief and loss.  There are few times in our lives more difficult than when we face the loss of a loved one.  Watching you be the presence of Christ to a family facing just such a loss was truly a blessing.

Your ministry to them to them was a wonderful answer to the question of what the church is and what the purpose of Ball Camp Baptist Church is.  The news came to us Sunday morning and we started to pray for this family.  Someone was already talking with the family helping to answer questions and make arrangements.  The sanctuary was made available for the funeral service as it always is when a member or friend goes to be with the Lord.  The choir loft was full for the service and there was room there for friends and family who wanted to join in the singing.  Every time I hear our choir sing How Great thou Art at a funeral service, I grow more confident in the promise of heaven.   More than that, I long for it more when I hear them sing.  Somehow it just seems closer when they proclaim it with such power and beauty.   Dr. Leonard Markham’s willingness to return to Ball Camp to preach Gibby Lethgo’s funeral is testimony to the reality that once you have been a part of Ball Camp, experienced the working of God in this place and with our people, it stays with you even when life moves you to other places.  Many of you were here during the receiving of friends and for the service, and by your presence you reminded this family of the promise and presence of Christ.  Of course, on the day of his burial you continued to speak love and support to this grieving family by graciously and wonderfully feeding them when they were hungry.  So like Christ to meet such an everyday, ordinary need in the midst of difficult times.

For many different reasons, we do not always have the opportunity to minister in so many ways to a family suffering the loss of a loved one.  This week, you did and it was a beautiful sight to behold.  No definitions, no explanations, and no words could provide a better understanding of what the church is supposed to be than seeing you and what you have offered to, and been for, this family as they have walked through the cold, dark valley of the shadow of death.  You have been rod and staff to them.

As people of God, saved by God’s grace and made a part of the family of God by God’s unconditional love, we are able to be in constant conversation with that loving and gracious God.  That love and grace shapes our living so that we proclaim with word and deed the truth of it.  Today as we pray, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” we are reminded that we do not face our trials alone.  God has brought us together: “Lead us not,” “deliver us.”  By God’s grace, what we face, we face together and as we do that we see clearly the substance and depth of Christian community.

More than that, we bear witness to the truth of the Gospel.   Jesus told his disciples that he would never leave them nor forsake them, but that he would be with them until the end of the age.  When followers of Christ act and minister in the ways that you have this past week these words of scripture come to life before our very eyes.  They take on flesh and bone as you seek to be the presence of Christ to one another.

Thank you for your faithfulness to the teachings of scriptures and to the commands of Christ.

Using God to Bully

Did you know that in the State of Tennessee there is a law against bullying in schools?  It allows local school districts to develop policies to ensure that students are protected from physical harm, threats of physical harm, and actions that would create a hostile educational environment.

Current attempts to change this law are concerned about the rights of students to express religious opinions.  In other words, some people want to change this law so that it will be permissible for students to express their religious opinions even if expressing those religious opinions creates a hostile educational environment for the student to whom they are being expressed.  For example, Muslim students, who pray five times daily, would be free to criticize Christian students about their lack of devotion to God because they do not pray with as much frequency.  Unitarian students could constantly pester Trinitarian students about their inability to adequately explain the Trinity.  Mormon students could demean Protestant students for their unwillingness to be baptized for their dead ancestors. In short, as long as what a student says to or about another student would be permitted as long as it was based on the speaker’s religious beliefs.

Of course, those seeking to amend the law are not primarily, if at all, concerned about the rights of Muslim, Unitarian or Mormon students.  What they are really concerned about is that no law would prohibit a good Christian student from telling and informing a student that is homosexual or perceived to be homosexual of his or her eternal destination or how God really feels about him or her.

The fact that the effort to change this law to allow students to use their religious beliefs to bully others is being led by a group, the Family Action Council of Tennessee that purports to hold up biblical values, makes the endeavor even more ironic.  If a group of Christians were going to get something from the Bible written into the laws of a state, why not something like, “…do unto others as you would have them do unto you…” or “…love one another as I have loved you?”  Why not something that reflects the core of Jesus’ teachings?

This effort to use religion to justify bullying is an example of a group trying to use their religion to maintain their perceived notion of society rather than allowing their religion to inform and shape how they impact their culture.  There is quite enough hatred and intolerance in our world.  Seeing adults trying to pass that hatred on to our children is a sad sight, no matter how sophisticated and sanitized their effort might be.

I am reminded of the Anne Lamont quote, “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”  The God of the New Testament is not one of hate, not one that desires to be used to bully students into feeling left out, isolated, and alone.  The God of the New Testament is one who took on flesh and came to dwell among us so that we would know that we are loved. That same God promised to never leave us alone, but to always be with us.  That God calls us into the world to love with the same radical love with which we ourselves have been loved.

When we find ourselves loving someone we never thought we could, then we may find ourselves approaching the love that Christ has for us.  When we discover ourselves loving someone we never had any reasons to notice, then we may be getting close to the love Christ has for us.  Christ’s love for us is unconditional, unwarranted, unearned, yet freely given.  We are called not just to receive it, but to share it.

Former Vol with a Faith-Filled Future

While most of the football watching public was fixated on Tim Tebow last weekend, I was hoping that his Denver Bronco teammates, Robert Ayers and Britton Colquitt, would play well.  Ayers and Colquitt are former University of Tennessee Volunteers.  As the game progressed, I could not help but wonder what Denver’s team would look like if Al Wilson, another former Vol who used to play linebacker for Denver, was still playing.  Together, he and Tebow would provide some excellent leadership.  New England beat Denver in rather convincing fashion which meant that former Vols Jerod Mayo and Shaun Ellis, who both play defense for the Patriots, came away winners.

To me, watching former Vols play is what makes the NFL interesting.  Arian Foster is the reason I pull for the Texans.  Peyton Manning was the reason I used to pull for the Colts.  Stanley Morgan was the reason that I started cheering for the Patriots when I was just a boy.

Recently, on two occasions, I have had the opportunity to watch, and more importantly hear another former Vol.  Both times, at the Greater Knoxville Fellowship of Christian Athletes banquet and at the Karns High School Football banquet Inky Johnson told his story in a way that was moving and powerful.

Inky is not playing in the NFL today because of an injury he suffered in the 2006 game against Air Force. It was an injury that not only cost him a professional career, but almost cost him his life.  What he has done since that day, the way he has handled adversity and the way he has allowed God to work in his life, is what gives power and meaning to his speaking.  The great thing about Inky’s story is that young people listen to him.  He connects with them and gives them something to think about as they make choices in their lives and face their own difficulties.  Young people hear stories all the time.  There is always someone, a parent or a teacher, trying give them direction and advice; but young people don’t always listen.  They listen to Inky, and the words he shares with them are words that they need to hear — for that matter, they are words that we would all do well to hear and to take to heart.

“We always have a positive outlook when we face trials ( not that were always happy) but because of what the trials can produce in our lives!”

“Be worthy of the sacrifices that the ones have made who came before you!…This is why I dedicated my book to my grandmother.”

“No matter what angle you view it from….We all have the responsibility to make this world a better place before our time is up!”

“Life is about your LEGACY–And that is how people or a place is made better as a result of being around you or because you were there!”

“When you allow your fear to rule you or hold you back you make your fear more powerful than GOD!”

“All I am trying to do is be a blessing to the ones who can’t pay me back!”

Be on the lookout for an event where you might be able to hear Inky speak.  It will be well worth your time.  Meanwhile, you might want to pick up a copy of his book, Inky: An Amazing Story of Faith and PerseveranceIn the meantime, pray for him.  His trials and challenges are not over, but he is endeavoring to do a good thing for God and for people.  Let us encourage him and give thanks that there are voices in this world that are speaking good and not evil, hope and not despair, compassion and not bitterness.