God loves to disguise his presence among us. Even God’s most particular revelation in Jesus Christ came in disguise. What disguise do you suppose God is wearing in your life right now?
- Looking for Jesus in the darkness
- Looking for Jesus when things aren’t as we expect them
- The two existential questions of our lives
- What happens when the questions cease
- The point of this post-resurrection appearance
- Questions for discussion and reflection
For Christianity, the most specific revelation of God comes in Jesus Christ. But even in Christ, God comes in disguise: The baby Jesus—born to poor, unwed parents, and in Bethlehem! To the Samaritan Woman, Jesus said, “If you knew who it was that was asking you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would give you living water.” Pilate failed to recognize Jesus for the King he was. Those present at the crucifixion didn’t recognize him either, saying, “Let God deliver him if he wants him, for he said ‘I am the Son of God.’”
In the post-resurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene, Jesus is in disguise. But what Mary teaches us throughout, is that it pays to keep looking.
First, John tells us when Mary went to the tomb, it was “still dark.” We could take this literally, but throughout the Gospel of John, darkness is contrasted with light. To cite just one of many examples, Jesus says, “Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. Whoever walks in the dark does not know where they are going.” (John 12:35) So that Mary came while it was still dark must be taken metaphorically also.
We would expect Mary to be “in the dark” on just the third day following the execution of her friend. But to John’s original audience, some 60 years after the resurrection, who were in their own dark, this would be a comfort. And it is a comfort for us still today.
Our darkness today may be grief over some loss, perhaps a lost childhood, a lost loved one, or a lost dream. Or we may be in the dark through some disorientation resulting from a sudden turn in our life. Or we may have anxiety over the forces of darkness that continue to threaten us. No matter what the nature of our darkness, Mary Magdalene encourages us to keep looking.
When Mary arrives at the tomb, things don’t look they she expects them to. Jesus isn’t where she thought he would be. This happens to us also, when religion has had the unintended consequence of making us complacent. We do the same rituals, read the same verses, and sing the same hymns. We know where Jesus is supposed to be. But one day we show up as usual and discover Jesus is missing. Or perhaps we show up even though for us, as for Mary, Jesus has died. What Mary teaches us is that when Jesus seems to have disappeared or died, it pays to keep looking.
For this is what Mary does. She lingers at the tomb, after Peter and the other disciple have gone home. She remains, crying, and continues to look into the tomb. We can assume she is crying out of a mixture of emotions: grief, confusion, frustration, fatigue, and loneliness. Here is how she puts it: “They have taken away my Lord and I don’t know where they have put him.”
Listen to the pathos! “They”: some unidentified force, perhaps the government, or the religious authorities–some authority greater than I, some “one out there” has done this to me. And “I don’t know . . . It’s confusing. I don’t understand. I’m out of control.”
In this situation, when we find ourselves the victim of forces greater than ourselves, confused and out of control, perhaps the best thing to do is follow Mary’s example: not to look for answers, but to begin listening to questions.
Life is always presenting us with challenges to overcome, producing problems to solve, and asking us questions. Some of us only realize this when we slow down and pay attention. The questions are so important that if we don’t do this, God does it for us. I think our getting sick and eventually dying has something to do with this. God is slowing us down, getting our attention. Asking us questions.
Mary is asked two questions: “Why are you crying?” and “Whom are you looking for?” These are the existential questions of our lives. Why are we crying? What causes us grief? What causes us pain? What problem in our lives are we trying to solve? What is the purpose of our living?
The answer to “Why are we crying” will lead us to the question “Whom are we looking for.” If we are crying out for truth, we’ll look for the right teacher. If financial security, we’ll look for the right boss, or the right investment. If it’s personal security, we’ll look for the right commander in chief. If a lost childhood, we’ll look for a parent. What we cry for determines whom we look for.
Mary Magdelene was looking for Jesus, because she was crying for what was lost. And Jesus is present to her, but she doesn’t recognize him. She sees the gardener. Maybe he bore the marks of hard labor. He likely smelled of flowers and spice. It stands to reason that this man is the gardener. Mary makes the best with what she’s got. That’s all any of us can do. Jesus was dead. The body was gone. This was the gardener. The reasonable thing is to ask where the body was taken, so she says to him, “If you have carried him away, tell me where you have placed him, and I will go and get him.”
We make the best with what we’ve got, but the problem is, we think what we know is all we’ve got. But reality is never only what we know. It includes what we know, but it is never only what we know. There are things about reality that transcend what we can know. Yes Jesus was dead. And yes, Jesus comes to us as gardener—if we find ourselves in a garden. He comes as a physician if we are in poor health. He comes as a shepherd if we are lost. And he comes as a savior if we are caught in sin.
All this is true, but there is more. There is more to how we see things, because we always see things out of our needs and ignorance. But there’s also the way God sees things. God doesn’t see a dead Jesus, but a risen Christ. He sees not just a gardener, but someone who can soften the hardened soil of our hearts and make it fertile; someone who can sow seeds of life among the weeds that are strangling us.
And God sees more than just a grieving, confused woman, crying and looking for something lost. God sees Mary Magdalene, and he calls her by name. For eventually life stops asking us questions. The questions cease, and what we hear is our name. Spoken not as a question, but as an answer. The answer to all we’ve been crying about. The answer to all we’ve been looking for. The way, the truth, and the life of our lives, speaks to us and calls us by name. When life’s questions are hard, Mary Magdalene encourages us to keep listening.
And what happens next is the point of the story, I think. Just when Mary recognize Jesus for who he is—different yet somehow the same—he tells her she can’t hold on to him, but to go and tell others. Eventually we realize that God can’t be contained—not in a church, not in a doctrine, not in a tomb, and certainly not in our understanding.
God is disguised in all these things, but as soon as we figure it out, God changes disguises. God does this to continually lead us deeper into the divine life.
When God changes appearance, Mary Magdalene encourages us to talk with others, so that we can seek and find that which we’ve lost—together. For what Mary Magdalene discovered in the garden that first Easter morning is that in God’s hands, all that is lost, will once again be found.
Questions for discussion and reflection
- If it’s true that God leads us more deeply into the divine life by approaching us in a disguise, what are some of the disguises God may be using in your life right now?
- Where are some of the “dark” places in your life? Not places of hidden sin, but places of confusion, fatigue, of feeling lost? In what ways could you look for God in that darkness?
- Think of times in your life when Jesus wasn’t where you expected him to be. You returned to church, the Bible, the traditions and rituals, and didn’t find Jesus there? Where did you eventually find him?
- As you think about your life, what is the source of your “crying”? If this isn’t immediately known to you, think about what it is you’re looking for. What we cry for determines what we look for. These form the basis of so much of our lives. What’s motivating your life today?
- When we look at our lives, we do so through eyes of need and ignorance. But God sees us through the resurrected Christ. What might God be seeing in your life that through eyes of faith, you might also be able to see?
Jesus’ Last Supper is uncharacteristically a closed communion. All his other meals in the Gospels are populated with all sorts of people, especially sinners and the like. Even when he’s the invited guest of a closed communion, the party is crashed by such people because they just know that they are welcome wherever Jesus is. So this Last Supper is quite unusual.
Here in John, when Jesus performs his most intimate parable, he also offers his most private message. The washing of the disciples’ feet is an active parable, a story Jesus tells not by painting pictures with words but playing a role for all to observe. One of the disciples, Peter, initially refuses to have Jesus wash his feet. It is here that Jesus reveals the key issue for him.
He tells Peter, “Unless I wash your feet, you have no share with me.” The issue of greatest importance to Jesus is that his disciples have a share with him. And before telling them how they can do this, Jesus enacts it and enfolds them. This is why he tells Peter, “You do not understand now what I am doing, but you will.”
And they don’t have to wait long to understand, for immediately after Jesus finishes washing their feet, he says, “Now you know what I have done for you. As I have served you, so you must serve one another.”
What we learn here is that having a share with Jesus is not a matter of correct doctrine, but of faithfully following Jesus’ example. Jesus says as much when he states, “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and that is what I am. But now that you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”
It is amazing that Judas is at the table. Peter is there also. As are all the other betrayers, deniers, and deserters. One has to ask, how does Jesus do it? How does he serve all those who abandon him?
John gives us the answer in the opening comments of the chapter. Jesus showed his disciples the extent of his love for them (1) knowing that God had given him all things, and that (2) he had come from God and was returning to God. In other words, Jesus was able to do this because he had a share with God.
Today we have a share with God when we have a share with Christ. And we have a share with Christ every time we gather at the communion table. Here, where Christ serves us—the betrayers, deniers, and deserters—where we also serve one another, we have a share with Christ. And from here, we are able, as he did, to serve the world.
The Bible tells stories with words and symbols. This is especially true of the fundamental message of Jesus, which is depicted symbolically and in extended narrative during Holy Week.
- Some symbols of Palm Sunday
- Jesus’ fundamental teaching and the framing symbols of Holy Week
- What “obedience” meant to Jesus
- Unconscious and conscious sacrifices, and which ones God wants us to make
- Having the same mind as Christ and following him today
- Questions for discussion and reflection
Holy Week begins the longest section in each of the four gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. From the beginning and throughout the week, the gospel writers use narrative and symbols to proclaim the good news of Christianity. It begins with Palm Sunday.
On this day, we commemorate the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. The people lay branches and cloaks on the ground in continuity with scriptural precedent. (See 2 Kings 9:13 and Leviticus 23:40. Interestingly, the “waving of palm branches” isn’t part of the Gospel accounts. Mark and Matthew tell us the people spread branches on the ground with the cloaks. Luke says nothing about branches. John reports they are palm branches. Just thought you should know; our contemporary practice of waving palm fronds mimics Hollywood’s depictions of the event.)
The branches and cloaks are among the first of several symbols that serve to tell the story of Jesus’ last week. The week is framed by two symbols that reinforce Jesus’ fundamental message: these are the donkey and the cross.
One of Jesus’ foundational teachings was that if you want to gain your life, you must first lose it (see Matthew 16:25, Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24, Matthew 10:39, and John 12:25). Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey depicts this attitude at the beginning of Holy Week. It sets up the contrast between finding one’s life in this world verses losing it in this world and finding it in God. For while Jesus, the harbinger of the kingdom of heaven was riding in on a donkey, Pilate, the representative of the kingdom of earth, was riding in on a war horse.
The donkey is a sign of humility. In continuity with other scripture passages (Zechariah 9:9) it is also a sign of God’s promise, and thus of our hope. But in inaugurating Holy Week, it is ultimately a sign of Jesus’ obedience.
We don’t like that word, “obedience.” People talk about being obedient to earn a favor. In our culture, however, we prefer to earn things through hard work. Or people are obedient to avoid a punishment. To be punished is to lose control of oneself, and we don’t like that either. Jesus’ obedience, however, wasn’t to earn God’s favor or to avoid being punished. He was obedient out of love for God.
For Jesus, love for God leads to life, and love requires obedience, even unto death, even on the cross. Obedience even unto death evokes the image of sacrifice. But Jesus isn’t the only person to sacrifice himself. Each of us make sacrifices all the time, some are conscious, some are unconscious. Some common unconscious sacrifices include our families which we sacrifice to our careers (for example, missing the game to attend a meeting). Or our well-being physically, spiritually, socially, etc., to the pursuit of pleasure (for example, watching sports instead of playing them).
But some sacrifices are conscious, which means we choose them. These include sacrificing having desert in order to have better health. Or sacrificing a vacation for a staycation in order to get some household things done.
Generally speaking, it’s better to make sacrifices consciously than unconsciously. And Jesus taught that the best chosen, conscious sacrifice is based on love: love for God and love for others. This is the sacrifice Jesus chose. He sacrificed the admiration of the religious elites in order to heal the lepers. He sacrificed the power of the political players to serve the poor. He sacrificed a monastic life to relate to the masses. He sacrificed his life for the life of the world. Jesus taught sacrifice in words and symbol, especially during this Holy Week, first in the donkey, then at the cross.
And because life is found in losing it, because the kingdom of heaven is discovered in serving others, Paul urges that the same mind of Christ be in us, that we make sacrifices based on love of God and others. This is God’s will revealed in Christ’s obedience. Paul understood that Jesus’ obedience unto death led to his exaltation. The donkey leads to the cross, which leads to the empty tomb.
Finding one’s life by losing it, serving others, being obedient to God’s will even unto death may require our whole life. Chrissy is a grieving mother whose child died of an incurable medical condition when he was 34. They predicted this during Chrissy’s pregnancy, but she decided to have him anyway. She loved him his entire life, though it cost her dearly. He required near 24 hour a day supervision and care. Her marriage didn’t survive the challenge. She gave up her professorship at the college. Now in her seventies, alone, financially vulnerable, and full of grief, people question if it was worth it.
“On any given day I would have given my life for my son,” she says. “If I could have traded places with him, taken his condition and given him my health, I would have on the day he was born and every day since.
“In a way,” she continues, “You could say I have given my life for my son. The life I wanted I sacrificed for him. It wasn’t a split decision kind of sacrifice, like pushing him out of the way of a speeding car. But it was a sacrifice I chose every day, little by little, with no heroics and most people not noticing. It was a sacrifice I made out of love.”
Jesus was obedient out of love, even unto death on a cross. This is what God calls us to also, to lose our live with Christ in order to find them in God. Paul instructed the Philippians to have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus. In this Holy Week, here is one place we can start. Jesus asked his disciples to sit, watch, and pray with him when his obedience was most challenged. (See Matthew 26:36ff and Mark 14:32ff.) Take time this week to contemplate Jesus’ obedience, and ask him to lead you in the way of life, even life that comes out of death.
Questions for discussion and reflection
- What are some of the symbols in your life that tell your life’s story? How easy would it be to tell your story using more symbols and fewer words?
- Which kingdom do you find yourself participating in more often, Jesus’ or Pilate’s?
- When you think about your life with God, are you “obedient” because you want God’s favor, are avoiding God’s “wrath,” or because you love God?
- Which sacrifices that you’re making are conscious, that is, chosen? What are they based on? Are they expressions of love for God and neighbor, or do they express other priorities?
- Examine your life for the unconscious sacrifices you’re making. After you’ve brought them to consciousness, will you continue to make them?
- Beginning this week, will you dedicate time to sit, watch, and pray with Christ, in order that his mind may be reproduced in yours, his life replicated in yours?
Psalm 143 helps us balance our number one concerns as humans with God’s number one concern for us.
- How our drive to independence can stifle Christian faith
- Two liberating, if difficult, truths from Psalm 143
- Three ways we participate in our salvation
- Questions for discussion and reflection
Of all the mammals, human childhood dependence is longest. One of our primary responsibilities as parents is to wean children to independence. For society to function it depends on this. How many societal breakdowns occur because people still act like dependent children?
Well into adulthood, however, we continue to cultivate habits of independence which result in an aversion to any kind of dependence. This is why “interdependence”—the highest level of maturity according to Stephen R. Covey, is such an effort. It’s also why faith in God is such a challenge. It’s why Jesus says we must become like little children again if we want to experience the kingdom of heaven. And it’s why, if we live long enough, God in his grace does exactly this—returns us to a state of childhood dependence.
Lent is a time of reconnecting to our dependence, and Psalm 143 provides some guidance, both in these last few days of Lent but also into our post-Easter faith.
The first thing Psalm 143 does is reposition us as dependent beings. It asserts that our deliverance, hope, and salvation depend on God’s righteousness. Verse one says, “Hear my prayer, O LORD, give ear to my supplications in your faithfulness, answer me in your righteousness.” Compare that with Psalm 7:8 which says, “Judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness and according to the integrity that is in me.” I think Psalm 7 reflects a more human perspective than divine. The ultimate truth, though harder for us to accept, is represented by Psalm 143.
Verse two continues, “Do not enter into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you.” This fundamental truth was so central to Paul’s Christianity that he quotes it in both Romans 3:20 and Galatians 2:16, “No one is righteous in God’s sight.” Our ultimate dependence on God is essential to our spiritual well-being. Because of the human drive to independence, it’s also easy for us to forget. I think this is the basis for the story of the Garden of Eden, of Jesus’ ministry, of the Reformations, and of our lives. All reorient us towards increasing our dependence upon God.
A second difficult but liberating truth from Psalm 143 is the acknowledgement that our lives are a constant struggle. It says, “The enemy has pursued me, crushing my life to the ground, making me sit in darkness like those long dead.” I’ve never literally been pursued by such a mortal enemy—most of us have not. This makes it harder to understand verses like this which appear throughout the psalms. I think that’s why the psalms are mostly ambiguous about the identity of the “enemies.” They invite us to join our voices to themselves by supplying our own metaphorical enemies, whatever powers are presently seeking to destroy our relationship with God.
The liberating truth in all this is that if our deliverance based on God’s righteousness is true, then necessarily true is our need for deliverance. Because God has revealed himself as a savior, we no longer have to deny that we need a savior. Psalm 143 helps us name not only our dependence, but also the constant struggle that characterizes our lives.
But just because we need a savior and God fits the bill, it doesn’t mean God has left nothing for us to do. Psalm 143:8-10 give us three ways we participate in our salvation. Verse eight says, “Let me hear of your steadfast love in the morning, for in you I put my trust. Teach me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul.” The first way we participate in our salvation is by trust or submission. “In the morning” indicates that this is primary.
And what is more, this verse suggests that teaching follows trust, human commitment evokes divine guidance. It isn’t a conditional formula, as if God is withholding his guidance until we trust. But it does point to the progressive nature of faith that the more we have, the more we’re shown. I am reminded of Indian Jones’s “leap of faith.”
Second, Psalm 143:9 says, “Save me, O LORD, from my enemies; I have fled to you for refuge.” Another way we participate in our salvation is by seeking God deliberately. Because God is a savior and our lives are a constant struggle, we ought to constantly be vigilant for God’s presence and saving activity. It’s an attitude we cultivate until it is a habit—to look to God to work even and especially through our hardships. It’s like when it begins hailing on the highway; you begin to look for an overpass to park under. We can exercise this same vigilance for God in our lives.
Finally, Psalm 143:10 says, “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God.” This simple prayer is the essence of spiritual discernment through contemplation. It recognizes God and submits to God’s presence and guidance. It summarizes both God’s nature as divine and our nature as dependent. Contemplating God’s presence is as easy as sitting still and quieting the mind, or meditating on God’s mighty acts in the past, as verse five says.
You can reflect upon your own life to see God’s mighty acts. You can read the legends of the saints. You can read the scriptural testimonies. Two of the best places to meditate on God’s past deliverance are at the baptismal font and the Lord’s Table. There is rehearsed for us our struggle in life, our liberation in death, and our deliverance in resurrection.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection:
- In what ways are you dependence-averse? How easily do you ask for help? How quickly do you judge the failures of others?
- What is your reaction to the assertion that our salvation is dependent upon God’s righteousness and not our own? Would it bother you if someone less righteous than you experiences salvation?
- What are some of the “enemies” in your life right now? Have you accepted this struggle in prayer, trusting God to “deliver you from evil” as the Lord’s Prayer says?
- Read and reflect upon Psalm 143:8-10 and the three ways we can participate in our salvation. Have you ever discovered something about God only after trusting him? Is God the first place you go for refuge, or the last resort? How often do you simply rest in God’s presence, meditate on his redemptive work in the world, and give thanks?
Need a new way to read and understand the Bible? Try figuring out what the authors’ presumptions were, and what these presumptions imply today.
- Three presumptions the author of Ephesians 4 makes
- A fourth presumption that underlies and empowers the other three
- Why we need unity in the Body of Christ
- Questions for discussion and reflection
Sometime the biblical authors are clear about their presumptions, such as in Colossians 3:1 with the words, “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” The chapter that follows is based on this presumption. In these cases, the flow of presumption to implication is obvious and easy to follow.
But sometimes we have to read between the lines to find the hidden implications following an author’s presumptions. For example, Ephesians 4:2-3 says, “With all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” What is the presumption here?
The presumption is that there is diversity in the church. The Latin word behind “congregation” (congregare) means to herd together. If you know anything about sheep, they wander; they each have different opinions. What this means for us in the church is that we should not expect to agree with everyone, or even like everyone, in the church. This was a very liberating lesson to me in seminary—I don’t have to be liked by or like everyone to be a pastor.
But while we don’t have to like everyone, Ephesians does say we must exercise humility, gentleness, patience, and love, and especially to work for unity. With the right presumption of diversity, we don’t have to be avoidant or anxious about not liking someone or about disagreements in the church.
A second presumption is included in verses 7, 11, and 16: “Each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, so that the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament, with each part working properly, promotes its growth, building itself up in love.”
The presumptions here are 1. Each one of us is important and 2. It takes work, together, to grow as a Christian. To borrow from another passage using the same body metaphor (1 Corinthians 12), some in the church are “hands,” others are “feet.” Some are “eyes” others are “ears.” Some members of the church are weak or strong, public or private. Some are ordained to “ordered ministry” in the Presbyterian church, others are “unordered” ministers. The point is each one of us is called to function in a ministry in the body of Christ. This is true in the worship of our lives from Monday to Saturday. But it’s especially true and obvious in worship on Sunday morning. The body of Christ is less when just one person is missing.
A third presumption comes with verses 15 and 13: “We must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” Here they are 1. There’s always room to grow and 2. God want to grow us. Remember Jesus’ famous depiction in John 15 of the vine and the branches? There he assures us that God delights in pruning us in order that we may grow and bear more fruit. This applies individually as we grow spiritually, or in our knowledge of the Bible or theology, or in our charitable giving. This is what Lent is about—growing spiritually through prayer, fasting, almsgiving, study, etc.
But it’s also true congregationally. We have room to grow, and God wants to grow us. As I look at our communion, I have to ask: who’s not at the table? How could our congregation better resemble the kingdom of heaven—because even though some folks are not yet at our table, they will be at God’s table? How could our congregation better resemble our town, the neighborhood the church building is located, the neighborhood where you commute from?
So far we’ve seen three presumptions from Ephesians 4: the diversity of the church, the giftedness of each member for ministry, and a presumption of growth both individually and as a church. Underlying all these presumptions is a fourth one from verses 4-5: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”
Here what we remember is that it all depends on the one foundation of the triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Diversity, giftedness, growth—all these come from God. God himself is diverse, being revealed as a trinity. God knows the vulnerability of living in community, where it’s possible not everyone will agree. God also is familiar with the differentiation that accompanies gifts. The Father created us, Jesus justifies us, and the Spirit sanctifies us. And God also grows. I think God grew when Jesus was incarnate and when he died. And God was pleased to grow by adding us, the church as the body of Christ, to himself in Jesus’ resurrection.
What this means is that today we can be diverse, use our gifts, and grow with confidence, without fear, because it all starts with God who is one. The unity we need in the body of Christ comes about through diversity, giftedness, and growth founded on God alone.
I remember serving a church where two members who had served communion for decades came to me. One was suffering from dementia and could no longer remember people’s names. The other had begun to exhibit the shaking effects of Parkinson’s disease. In both cases, as with others with mental illness or brain disorders, their bodies were not under the control of one mind. They were frustrated and distressed when they asked to be relieved of their joyful service at the Lord’s Table.
As heartbreaking as this reality is, another reality emerged based on the unity of the body of Christ, and that is that these faithful servants for so long are now being served by other faithful servants, exercising diversity, giftedness, and growth.
Each of us is important, each of us has a role to play, the strong serve the weak—all because God is one and we are Christ’s body.
Questions for discussion and reflection
- Using the metaphor of the body of Christ, what is your role in the church? How do you contribute to the diversity, giftedness, and growth of Christ’s body?
- Whom can you invite to worship to diversify the body, to bring their unique gifts, to grow the church?
- Be honest about whom you don’t like or agree with in the church. Do you avoid them? How can you be humble, gentle, patient, and loving towards them instead?
Think there are too many strikes against you spiritually, and that you’re about to be called “Out!”? You’re wrong; just ask this woman.
- The importance of keeping hydrated
- The woman who was spiritually dry
- How Jesus sees us
- Taking one more swing
- Questions for Discussion and Reflection
There are times when we’re very conscious of hydrating, like when we’re exercising. Think about the cyclists on the Tour de France, reaching out their hands and taking a cup of water as they peddle by. Or traveling in developing countries; we drink filtered water when it’s available because we don’t know if there will be any where we are in an hour.
Low-landers hiking in Colorado can avoid a headache if they drink more water. In the hospital, they’re either pouring water down your throat or denying you any at all. I’ve visited people who were begging for one more teaspoon of ice chips. When we are in physical distress, the need for water is obvious. That’s the case spiritually also.
One time early in his ministry Jesus was in Samaria, the region between Judea and Jerusalem, and Galilee where Jesus was from. The Samaritans were remnants of the old Northern Kingdom of Israel, which was conquered by the Assyrians in 740 BC. Under occupation, they developed their own traditions: they had Mt. Gerizim vs. Mt. Zion, for example, and they recognized only the Pentateuch as authoritative. Despite being more conservative and traditional than their Southern Kingdom survivors, the Jews of Judea regarded Samaritans as inferior.
In Samaria, Jesus stopped at a well near the city of Shechem, where Joshua famously called the ancient Israelites to covenant with the LORD. There he met a Samaritan woman. She was drawing water alone at noon, which suggests that she was a very lonely person. She has lots of religious questions. She talks to Jesus about their ancestry in Jacob, Mt. Gerizim, and the Messiah. She has had a hard life: five husbands plus a man she’s not married to. She’s had five failures, or five disappointments, or five victimizations. Her soul needs hydrating.
The Samaritan Woman is the poster child for Psalm 63:1, “O God my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water,” or Psalm 42:1, “As the deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.”
John tells us that Jesus is “tired out by the journey.” He has just come from a time of baptizing many people. When he met this woman, the waters of baptism were on Jesus’ mind, and he was tired out. How many people had he met seeking repentance, redemption, and forgiveness? How many were looking for religious renewal? How many were people just trying something new, anything with promise? Jesus had eyes to see the Samaritan Woman’s dry spirit, and being at the well, he asks her for a drink.
The Samaritan Woman is somewhat taken aback, because she has two strikes against her: she’s a woman, and she’s a Samaritan. She also listens to Jesus literally, whereas he is speaking metaphorically. This happens a lot in the Gospel of John. Jesus told Nicodemus he must be born again. He told the religious leaders that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood. He told the crowds to destroy the Temple and he would rebuild it in three days. He told his disciples that Lazarus has fallen asleep. In each case, the audience took him literally.
What’s really happening is that Jesus takes the ingredients of our lives, and uses them to take us into a deeper encounter with God. He’s able to do this because we’re all spiritually thirsty—we need hydrating. In the middle of our lives is a well, in the driest desert, in the heat of the day, and Jesus is sitting there waiting for us to come. He wants to talk about it. He wants to satisfy our thirst.
To do that for the Samaritan Woman, Jesus asks about her husband. Here is her third strike, the one she hoped to keep secret. She was sure to be sent away a failure now, but instead of being called “Out!”, she was healed. John tells us that the woman leaves her water jar, goes into town, and brings back other thirsty souls.
It’s easy to take hydration for granted in ordinary life, when things are going well. It’s like forgetting to hydrate when you’re swimming just because you’re surrounded by water. It’s like forgetting to hydrate when you’re eating salty food and getting a headache as a result. When you’re training for a big event, they tell you to hydrate frequently because by the time you feel thirsty it’s too late; you’re already dehydrated.
It’s like that spiritually also. We need to hydrate frequently and regularly. If wait until we feel the need, we’ve waiting too long unnecessarily. Jesus is available all the time, waiting to hydrate our souls. The easiest way to take advantage of this is through prayer. We can go to Jesus who’s waiting at our well, even at the place where we go over and over to try to satisfy your thirst. He’s waiting to deliver us from a spirituality of trial and error in which we think, “Maybe this will work.” He wants to help us past—or better, through—all our religious questions and distractions.
All Jesus wants to do in your prayers is have a conversation about the ingredients of your life. We bring these to Jesus in prayer, and he turns them into metaphors of meaning. In prayer with Jesus, we find the spiritual interpretation of our lives.
We give you thanks Creator God for you are also creative. You hydrate this world through humidity and rain, through rivers and lakes, and through snow. Through the history of your people you have used water to cleanse the earth, you provided a path through water to liberate us from slavery, you provided water from the rock to hydrate us through the desert wilderness. For our souls you provided the law and the prophets, to guide us in the way that most pleased you.
Because we depart from this way so often, neglecting your Word and wandering from your will, you came to us in Jesus Christ. He turned water into wine, told the blind to wash in the ritual waters, and shared baptism with us that we may have life.
Jesus promised us streams of living waters that would well up in abundance and bring us eternal life. Send us your Spirit in fulfillment of this promise, that we may find refreshment at the well of your table. As your Word transformed Jacob’s well into a place of divine encounter, so send your Spirit that we may encounter the risen Christ in the breaking of bread and the sharing of cup.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- Has anyone ever made you feel religiously inferior? Perhaps you have been judged for not knowing your Bible better, or for just being a person of faith. How does it make you feel that Jesus doesn’t judge the Samaritan Woman? Do you think Jesus judges you?
- How often do you reflect upon the waters of baptism as a source of spiritual hydration? How do these waters address the spiritually dry places in your life?
- What are the “ingredients of your life” that you take literally, but that Jesus can use metaphorically to take you deeper into God?
Worship is kind of like carrying a copy of your passport when traveling in foreign countries. It isn’t as effective as the real thing, but it is effective at some things, and therefore still valuable.
- Though worship practices change, these principles don’t
- How Jesus operates on two levels
- Covenantal relationships, death, and sacrifice
- What Jesus’ death means for us today
I find it helpful to break Hebrews 9 down into four sections. In the first section, we gain some insight in to the nature of worship. Hebrews 9:1-10 outlines some of the liturgical practices of ancient Israel. It depicts the worship in the Tabernacle or Tent, the pre-cursor and prototype of the Temple.
It describes how the lampstand, table, bread of presence are in the Holy Place; how the ark of the covenant with manna, Aaron’s budding staff, tablets of the covenant are in the Most Holy Place. Hebrews 9:5 says, “Of these things we cannot speak now in detail,” but there are a few things to note.
In worship, the details change, but some underlying principles don’t. These include
- The covenantal relationship between God and humans. Covenantal relationships are based on promises made between two parties. Baptism and marriage are primary examples.
- Preparation, intention, placement, and sequence all matter in worship. So we begin, for example, with a call to worship, a hymn of praise, and a rite of reconciliation. This sequence helps us transition from ordinary life to worship.
- Memorabilia help us to remember our history with God and testify of God’s relationship with those in the past. These make present for us this same history, relationship, and God. Today we call them sacraments.
- People are called to particular roles and leadership opportunities in worship. We recognize these vocations officially with titles like Minister of Word and Sacrament, but in fact everyone has a part to play.
- Ritual acts are meaningful, especially sacrifices. In some cases, ritual sacrifice reminds us that sin has consequences. In others, sacrifice expresses our gratitude for something God has done or provided.
- This passage reminds us that ultimately, all worship is provisional. It is real, but a foretaste of something greater. It’s more than this, but it’s a little like a band practicing for a concert; they’re really making music, performing, and enjoying it, but it isn’t concert quality yet.
The second section is Hebrews 9:11-14. Here we learn that in worship, Jesus Christ operates at both levels: provisional and actual, foretaste and final. This because, “When Christ came … as high priest … he went through the greater and more perfect tent not made of this creation … and he entered with his own blood.” (Verses 11-12)
We might think of worship at one level as functioning like a ferryboat that carries cars across a river. It gets the job done, but it isn’t a part of either side, nor is it a part of either highway. What Christ does is provide an actual bridge which connects both sides and is actually a part of the highway. The ferryboat suggests this; the bridge is the fulfillment of it. This is what the creeds and confessions are trying to get at by identifying Christ as “fully God and fully human.”
In terms of Hebrews 9, animal sacrifices purified the flesh. These are the ferryboats, getting the job done but suggesting a better way. Christ’s death purifies both flesh and conscience: verse fourteen says “how much more will Christ purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God?” These “dead works” do not refer to former worship, as if Christian worship nullifies Jewish worship. Instead, this refers to our sinful nature, to our natural state, to our “flesh” as Paul likes to call it, in which everything we do is destined to ultimate destruction. Because of Christ’s sacrifice, Hebrews is saying, what we do in this life actually matters.
The third section is Hebrews 9:15-22, which in Greek uses the same word which is translated “covenant” and “will” in our English Bibles. We know that wills only take effect after death. Occasionally we get letters from our lawyer indicating that someone’s will has been fully executed and whatever their desires were to donate to the church have been fulfilled. This only happens, of course, after the member has died. This is why the request of the younger son in Jesus’ parable is so astonishing. By requesting hs share of the estate before his father’s death, he is basically saying he wish his father was dead already.
By the example of the will, Hebrews is teaching us that there are no covenants without death. In the covenant of baptism, what dies is my human autonomy. I am baptized into the community of the Body of Christ. Divine autonomy also dies in baptism, as Jesus reveals that God is unwilling to be God without us. In marriage, my single life dies. In my neighborhood covenant, my frontier existence dies—I can’t paint my house whatever color I want, it has to be within the palate of the covenant. In church membership, what dies is my self-determined spirituality; there is no “spiritual but not religious” in Christianity. You’re either part of the Body of Christ or you are not. Remember what baptism does above.
With this death-requirement as part of the covenant, Hebrews addresses the forgiveness of sin. Forgiveness of sin is also a necessary part of our covenant with God—for us to relate to God, sin needs to be dealt with. It isn’t so much that God’s justice needs to be satisfied (something the church has taught for a long time). It’s more that we need help dealing with our shame. Remember that in Genesis 3, God hasn’t come looking for humanity with a rod and chains. God comes calling out our name. It is we who are hiding in our shame.
Jesus’ death assures us of God’s forgiveness, of God’s enduring love, of God’s benevolence towards us. The Heidelberg Catechism question two asks, “How do you know the comfort offered in Jesus Christ?” The answer is, “I know my sin and misery, that God has set me free from it, and that I can live in gratitude for such deliverance.”
The final section is Hebrews 9:23-28, in which we learn that, “Christ did not enter the mere copy of the sanctuary, but heaven itself.” We are also reminded that “it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that to face judgment.” There is a parallel here that Hebrews is making. Just as our death is final, so Christ’s death is final. And his death represents the final sacrifice. Christ’s covenantal sacrifice is final, true, eternal, and perfect. So Hebrews teaches that, “Christ has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.”
Jesus’ death assures us of forgiveness, not at the end of our lives, not in the judgment, but now, in this life. He returns not to “deal with sin,” since that is done in his death, but rather to greet those who are “eagerly waiting for him.” Jesus’ death dealt with sin and assures us of forgiveness now. Jesus’ resurrection assures us of the meaning of our lives and anchors our hope. We live today, and hope for tomorrow.
After all this, Hebrews assures us of a salvation or deliverance through whatever judgment may await us after we die. But think about this: What better way to avoid or survive judgment after death, than to live today in the assurance of forgiveness, in the hope of Christ’s return, and in the enjoyment of our relationship with God—now, in this life, today?
What if there really is no more need of trying to make up for our sins? What if we lived no more with the fear that our lives ultimately have no purpose? What if we stopped denying God, running from God, doubting God, or fighting God because instead we were enjoying God today in this life?
We call this “living in grace.” It’s where Lent leads us, because it’s where Christ leads us. Imagine what the world would be like.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- What are some things about worship that you truly appreciate today? How do these things lift you “up” into heaven? Are there some things about worship in the past that you miss? Does it give you some comfort to realize that all worship is provisional?
- Think about your church’s worship service. How do the activities, words, rituals, songs, etc., all take on new meaning in light of the fact that in Jesus Christ these things are “bridged” to God’s presence in heaven? Does the bread and wine of communion take on greater significance? Do the prayers have deeper meaning?
- How does the understanding of Jesus’ death as assurance of God’s forgiveness, rather than satisfaction of God’s wrath, change the way you see God, worship, yourself?
- The sermon ends with a bunch of questions about how we might live if we believed in forgiveness now, eagerly waited for Christ’s return, and enjoyed God’s presence in this life. How did you answer those?