Friday, April 22, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor as the Samaritan Woman at the Well?


St. Paul’s Episcopal Church - Delray Beach, Florida
3 Lent - Year A - March 28/29, 2011
Exodus 17:1-7; Ps. 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 5:4 - 42
Preacher: The Reverend William H. Stokes, Rector

            …those who drink of the water I will give them will never be thirsty again…John 4:14 
            It was sad to hear this past week of the death of international film legend Elizabeth Taylor.  Her career, her personal story, her loves, was all larger than life...“ She was a Hollywood original to the end,” People Magazine reported in an article that appeared on their website on Thursday.  It continued by stating: “following instructions she herself had left, the service began 15 minutes after schedule…‘She even wanted to be late for her own funeral’ a family rep said in a statement.’”[1] Good for her!
            Velvet Brown in National Velvet; Kay Banks in Father of the Bride; Maggie the Cat in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; the promiscuous Gloria Wandrous in Butterfield 8; Cleopatra; Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe:  Elizabeth Taylor’s range was unbelievable.  There was an exceptionally fine tribute to Ms. Taylor in Thursday’s New York Times in which it was observed, “There was more than a touch of Ms. Taylor herself in the roles she played. She acted with the magnet of her personalities.”[2]
            “Sometimes her film roles seemed to be a mirror image of her life,” the article went on to say. “More than most movie stars, she seemed to exist in the public domain. She was pursued by paparazzi and denounced by the Vatican. But behind the seemingly scandalous behavior was a woman with a clear sense of morality: she habitually married her lovers.”[3] The article stated, “People watched and counted, with vicarious pleasure, as she became Elizabeth Taylor Hilton Wilding Todd Fisher Burton Burton Warner Fortensky - enough marriages to certify her career as a serial wife. Asked why she married so often, she said, in an assumed drawl: ‘I don't know, honey. It sure beats the hell out of me.’”[4]
            I couldn’t help casting Elizabeth Taylor in the role of the Samaritan woman at the well as I thought about this week’s sermon.  Three years ago, when we heard this same Gospel from John, I suggested that I would cast Mae West in the role of the Samaritan Woman and she also would be a great choice.[5]  To be sure, Mae West and Elizabeth Taylor are very different women and each would have brought unique qualities to the portrayal.   Mae West was comic and also brash and sassy.   Taylor could be all of that too. 
            But I think Taylor would have brought more poignancy to the story; a greater awareness of the sadness of this Samaritan woman at the well; of the tragic dimensions of her life; tragic that is, until this encounter with Jesus which changes her life.  And I feel confident the portrayal would have been informed by her personal life experiences.   In many ways, this is a very unusual story.  In other ways, it is characteristically John.  What’s unusual?  Lots! 
            Jesus is alone and talking to a woman and, in that time and cultural milieu, that is generally not acceptable.   She is also a Samaritan and he’s a Jew.   As the text makes clear, “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans” (John 4:9).  Jesus is doing some boundary breaking here.
           
            Why does Jesus speak with her....Well, apparently, he’s tired and thirsty.  He says to her, “Give me a drink” (John 4:7) This woman knows what the normal code of behavior is and so, she challenges Jesus “How is it that you, a Jew, ask of me a woman of Samaria a drink?” (John 4:9)  Jesus responds, “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” (John 4:10).  It’s a rather oblique response....
            As I observed last week when I preached on the encounter with Jesus and Nicodemus, the author of the Fourth Gospel uses this kind of dialogue, questioners probing Jesus with clear misunderstandings, to tease out the deeper levels of Jesus’ teaching.[6] As D. Moody Smith, Jr. observes in his commentary on John’s Gospel, there is a difference between last week’s text and this week’s.[7]  He writes, “in a manner reminiscent of the conversation with Nicodemus, she and Jesus are like ships passing in the night. Nevertheless,” Smith astutely observes, “her questions advance the conversation, as Nicodemus’s do not. She asks about the source of water, and she asks about Jesus and Jacob. Underlying her questions,” Moody writes, “is a growing awareness that Jesus can supply her need.”[8]  And he can, and he does....
            “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 this well, and with his sons and his flocks, drank from it?” (John 4:11 - 12) 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 them will become in them a spring of living water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:13 - 14).
            The key is in the image of the water and two forms of the word used in the narrative.  Smith gives us the key to understanding this exchange...In the Greek version of the story, two words for “well” are used, as in the well of water.  Smith notes, they are phrear and pege....Phrear, “‘Well,’ is used of the well of Jacob, which was and is dug deep into in the earth…”  Pege, ‘Spring’ is used of the water that Jesus gives...the former is everyday natural water; the latter is different...it is internal and eternal.  It gushes up...It is running, living water...”[9]
            In the Bible, living water, running water is often a symbol of salvation.  For us, it is also, needless to say, the central sign and symbol of baptism and you can be sure John intends us to understand this as well.  The woman, however, does not seem to get the full implications of all of this...“Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water” (John 4:15) Her understanding seems to be operating at a more literal level...Jesus seems to understand he is getting nowhere with this conversation...
            “Go call your husband!” (John 4:16)
            “I have no husband!”
            “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.” (John 4:17-18).
            Tom Wright makes an observation about this exchange which I used the last time I preached this text and which is too good to pass up... He observes, “Jesus saw straight to the heart of what was going on....The woman has had a life composed of one emotional upheaval after another, with enough husbands coming and going to keep all the gossips in the village chatting for weeks....”[10]  “But,” Wright observes, “she knew her life was in a mess, and she knew that Jesus knew.”[11]  She tries to change the subject.
           
            “Sir, I see that you are a prophet” (John 4:19)“Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem” (John 4:20). 
            In the setting in which John places this exchange between Jesus and the woman, the two of them would have been able to see Mount Gerazim, where the Samaritans had built a temple for their own use.  By the time John’s Gospel was written both the Samaritan place of worship and the Jewish place of worship would have been destroyed, which helps underscore the importance of the next thing Jesus says to her.
            “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship God 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; the hour is coming and is now here when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth for such the father seeks to worship him.  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23 - 24).
            Now if we are paying attention, we can’t help noticing another connection between last week’s reading about Nicodemus and his conversation with Jesus about the work of the Spirit, and being born from above and this exchange between Jesus and the woman about living water... Spirit and water....rebirth and salvation.
            It is clear, John is giving us a very deep discourse on baptism and the salvation of God; on desire and the power of God to call people into new life through Jesus; to turn lives around; even a person’s life that is as much of a mess as this Samaritan woman’s life is.
            Does a glimmer of understanding begin to show in her when she says to Jesus, “I know that Messiah is coming (who is called Christ)?  When he comes he will proclaim all things to us...” (John 4:25).
            It is interesting to note that the Samaritans were not waiting for a Messiah in the same way the Jews were....The Jews wanted a new Davidic king....Again, Smith is helpful...The Samaritans, who were the inheritors of the northern tribes of Israel had very little interest in such a king....The Samaritans were waiting for a new “restorer” a prophet; one like Moses, which they referred to as “Taheb.”[12]
            Well, whether the woman meant Messiah or Christ or Taheb, Jesus responds to her, “I am he....The one speaking to you” (John 4:26).   It is the first of the so-called “I am” sayings in John’s Gospel.   These echo the revelation of God to Moses at the Burning Bush.  “Who shall I say sent me?”  Moses asked in Exodus (Exodus 3:13)  The voice from the burning bush, the voice of God, responds, “tell them “I am” has sent you Exodus 3:14).  In Hebrew this is translated something like Yahweh; it is the proper and sacred name of God....A name so revered by Jews it is not spoken.
            “I am he” Jesus says to the woman.  In other places in John he will say, “I am the bread of life”  (John 6:35); “I am the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11); “I am the true vine” (John 15:1); “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).  You can be sure each of these is an echo; an intentional identification of Jesus with the revelatory voice of God from the burning bush.[13]
            And what does the woman do with this revelation?  How does she respond?  Well, Jesus’ disciples show up and they are a little shocked that he is talking to a woman and a Samaritan woman at that (John 27:1).  They don’t question him about this, but they are puzzled, and likely troubled....She uses their interruption as an excuse to make a timely escape and she rushes back to the village and calls out to anyone who will listen, “Come and see a man who told me everything I had ever done!” (John 4:29)  Excitement often results in exaggeration! “He cannot be the Messiah can he?” (John 4:29) 
           
            I can’t help seeing something remarkable in this woman....Last week, when we heard about Nicodemus, he came in stealth in the night, and just disappeared from the scene without a word....The encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well is in broad daylight; at noontime...
            In fact, in something I once read (I wish I could provide you with the source) the author argued that this woman’s reputation was so bad that she had to get her water at high noon, the hottest part of the day, because she was ostracized by the other women of the village who would regularly get their water early in the morning, when it was cool out....I think that’s a reasonable argument.
            But this woman of questionable reputation, this woman who has held her own in conversation with Jesus, who has continually helped take the conversation to a higher level, becomes a messenger of the Gospel to her village...In this, she strikes me as an early foreshadowing of Mary Magdalene, who was sometimes portrayed as a woman of questionable reputation, but who on Easter morning was the one who first carried the news of Christ’s resurrection, who became the apostle to the apostles (John 20:18).
            This figure – a Samaritan, a woman, who has lived with five men, is cast in a similar role for her village...She goes into town and calls out to everyone who will listen, “Come and see a man who has told me everything I have done...He cannot be the Messiah can he?” (John 4:29).  And we’re told that many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done” (John 4:29).  And they came out to him and asked him to stay with them and we’re told he did stay with them for two days.  And many more believed because of his word.  They said to the woman, “it is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world!” (John 4:39-42)
            I don’t know if they’re putting the woman down or not....Smith writes, “the fact that Jesus here encounters a woman who is a foreigner and deals with her on the same basis as everyone else is fundamental to the role and importance of the episode.   In fact, its unique character lays the basis for the Samaritan’s climactic affirmation that Jesus is the Savior of the world.” [14]
            It is an incredible Gospel message about the extent of Jesus saving message....In Christ, God invites all people to new and richer life, no matter where we are, no matter what we’ve done.
            We are in the third week of Lent....It is a time during which we are to allow ourselves to be encountered by Jesus, to imagine ourselves at the well with him, just like the woman; to comprehend that Jesus sees right through us; sees it all, knows everything about us; everything we have ever done, and loves us anyway....
            Above all, Lent is a time to discover that we are not to be defined by those elements of our lives about which we are ashamed....It’s not that they’re not real.  It’s not that they haven’t happened.  It’s not even that they’re not sinful; they likely are....And if we are still living in these things that make us ashamed, Lent is a time to renounce them; it’s a time to allow God’s grace in Christ to give us strength to put them aside so that we can move on in life...And that’s the point....
            Lent is a season of renewal...It is a time when we are, by the grace of God and his forgiveness to put the sin in our lives behind us.  It is a period when we are to engage in what the 12 Step community refers to as “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves”[15] but also a time when we are “entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character., to humbly ask God to remove our shortcomings, and also when we are called to make amends to those we may have harmed or may be harming...”[16]  It is a liberating thing to engage in this cleansing encounter with Christ and with ourselves....It has the potential to make all things new....It has the potential to give us new life....In short, it has the power of Easter. 
            It is Lent....Come and see this person Jesus; really see him, who knows everything you have done....Come and experience his love and let him make you new...
            He is indeed the Savior of the world.
               
           


[1]   http://www.people.com/people/package/article/0,,20261725_20476376,00.html
[2]    Gussow, Mel et al  “A Lustrous Pinnacle of Hollywood Glamour” The New York Times -3/23/2011 http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/24/movies/elizabeth-taylor-obituary.html?_r=1&hp 
[3]    Gussow, Mel “A Lustrous Pinnacle of Hollywood Glamour”
[4]    Gissow, Mel  “A Lustrous Pinnacle of Hollywood Glamour”
[5]    Stokes, William H  “To Err is human but it feels divine!”  Sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Delrya Beach, FL  2/24/2008   http://chipstokesblog.blogspot.com/2011/04/to-err-is-human-but-it-feels-divine.html
[6]    Stokes, William H. “It’s that time of year again…”   Sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Delray Beach, FL 3/20/2011
[7]   Smith Jr., D. Moody  Abingdon New Testament Commentaries:  John (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1999, pp. 113 – 114.
[8]    Smith, pp. 114 - 115
[9]    Smith 114
[10]  Wright, Tom, John for Everyone - Part One (London, Westminster, Louisville: John Knowx Westminster Press, 2004) 44
[11]   Wright, 45
[12]    See Smith, pp. 117 ff.
[13]    See Smith, pp. 118
[14]    Smith, p. 123
[15]   See the 12 Steps of AA Step 4 at http://www.aa.org/en_pdfs/smf-121_en.pdf
[16]   See the 12 Steps of AA Step 6-8  at http://www.aa.org/en_pdfs/smf-121_en.pdf

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

“To err is human, but it feels divine!”

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church - Delray Beach, Florida
3 Lent - Year A - February 23/24, 2008
Exodus 17:1-7; Ps. 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 5:4 - 42
Preacher: The Reverend William H. Stokes, Rector
 

         I was “channel surfing” at home not that long ago and came across a documentary about Mae West.1 There are few more recognizable figures, or more caricatured ones in American pop culture than Mae West....In her film and stage work she pushed the edges of propriety, even crossed those boundaries.  Her sassiness, keen wit and double entendres, and above all her unique look and her eternal youthfulness have made her distinctive and a uniquely American pop icon.  
            Mae West’s story is fascinating. Her quotes, many of which are not fitting for church, are easily recognizable: “Opportunity knocks for every man, but you have to give a woman a ring.”  “She’s the kind of girl who climbed the ladder of success wrong by wrong.”   “Those who are easily shocked should be shocked more often.”  “To err is human but it feels divine.”2
            According to Wikipedia,  Mae West was offered her first movie contract when she was 38 years old?  She only made 12 movies.  The last was Sextette which was filmed in 1978, when she was 85 years old.  She died at her home at age 87 and everyone was still amazed at her youthful appearance.  She reportedly never had plastic surgery and still had her own teeth when she died.3
            A famous Mae West anecdote: In her first film in 1932, Night after Night which starred George Raft, she had a relatively small part with which she was not especially happy.  She got permission to rewrite some of the lines.  In West's first scene, a hat check girl exclaimed, "Goodness, what lovely diamonds." West cracked back, "Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie."4 Classic Mae West!
            So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the lot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.  Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired 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” (John 4:5 - 7)
            I would cast Mae West in the role of the Samaritan Woman. (You were wondering where I was going with that, weren’t you?!) The Samaritan woman is brash, and smart and sassy, and she definitely pushes the edge of propriety.  Of course, Jesus is pushing the edge of propriety himself when he even dares to speak to her. First of all, he is a Jew and she is a Samaritan, and, as the text makes clear, “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans” (John 4:9).  
            She is also a woman and, in that social milieu, it is not acceptable for a woman and man who are not married to each other to be alone, never mind, to speak to one another.   But Jesus does speak to her.  He is tired and thirsty and he says to her, “give me a drink.”  At least he could say “please.”
            Well, she does know the proprieties and, as I already have indicated, she is sassy.  “How is it that you, a Jew, ask of me a woman of Samaria a drink?” (John 4:9)   If Mae West had edited the script, she would have added, “It takes two to get one in trouble!”5
            Jesus snaps back, “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” (John 4:10).  It’s a rather oblique response....I can imagine her raising her eyebrows, Mae West-like, and looking at Jesus as if he is not all there, “Sir, you have no bucket and the well is deep” (John 4:11).  The author of the fourth gospel uses this kind of dialogue, questioners probing Jesus with clear misunderstandings, to tease out the deeper levels of Jesus’ teaching.6
            “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 this well, and with his sons and his flocks, drank from it?” (John 4:11 - 12).  She is neither impressed with Jesus not intimidated by him.  Actually, her tone seems condescending.  She is saying, in effect, “Who do you think you are?”
            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 them will become in them a spring of living water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:13 - 14).
            Mae West once said, “If I asked for a cup of coffee, someone would search for a double meaning.”7  In this dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, it is all about double meanings.  The living waters about which Jesus is speaking are the waters of eternal life.  It is a reference to baptismal waters, the waters that draw persons into his life, and so into the very living waters and life stream of God.  But the Samaritan woman at the well has not caught on yet.  She is, perhaps, so used to the mundane drudgery of everyday life and its constant routines, that her greatest hope would be even the smallest relief from these.  In fact, she hints at that in her next response to Jesus: “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water” (John 4:15)
            Perhaps a little frustrated that she is not catching on, Jesus takes a different tack.  “Go call your husband!” (John 4:16)
            “I have no husband!”
            “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for the you have had five husbands and the one you have now is not your husband.  What you have said is true.” (John 4:17 - 18).
            In his commentary on the fourth Gospel, John for Everyone,8 N.T. Wright observes about this exchange, “Jesus saw straight to the heart of what was going on....The woman has had a life composed of one emotional upheaval after another, with enough husbands coming and going to keep all the gossips in the village chatting for weeks....”9  “But,” Wright observes, “she knew her life was in a mess, and she knew that Jesus knew.”10 “Her reaction to this,” Wright continues, “is a classic example of what every pastor and evangelists knows only too well.  Put your finger on the sore spot, and people will start talking about something else...”11
            If she were being played by Mae West, she would have responded to Jesus, “I’ll try anything once.  Twice if I like it.  Three times to make sure.” 12  The Samaritan woman does say, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet” (John 4:19).   In saying that, she is affirming the truth of what he has said.   As N.T. Wright astutely observes, the Samaritan Woman shifts from the subject of her life, to the broader, safer and more distant question of institutional religion.13  She says, “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem” (John 4:20).
            Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship God 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 (John 4:21 - 22).
            In his answer, Jesus seems to uphold Judaism and its traditions, at least as the original source of salvation, but he doesn’t leave it there.  He continues, “...the hour is coming and is now here when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth for such the father seeks to worship him.  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23 - 24).
            It is a surprising and radical move.  It is not the physical location of worship that is at the heart of it all, Jesus is saying.  It is the intersection of the nature of God with the faith and disposition of the believer.   Many Jews at the time of Jesus focused their attention on Jerusalem and the Temple, but these would fall to the Romans in 70 A.D. as they had fallen to the Babylonians 600 years before.  What of faith then?  What of God then? 
            When the geography of religion and its buildings and institutional forms become the focal point of belief, rather than the living God and living faith to which that geography and those buildings and those institutional forms should point, than faith has been misled.  It has become idolatry. 
             I am not suggesting that religious geography is unimportant.  I have led pilgrimages to the Holy Land, to sacred places in England; to Iona, and Greece and Turkey.  These places can be, indeed are, touchstones for faith, places where the veil between heaven and earth is indeed thin. 
            I am not saying that religious buildings are not important.  This beautiful church sits as sacred space in the midst of a bustling community with all the distractions and even sinfulness of contemporary society surrounding it.  This church building is a visible reminder of God and as a sanctuary, to which people may come for respite and prayer and healing and peace; to be fed with the spiritual food of Jesus and to drink of his living waters.
            The forms of our worship are also time tested and important.  We do them because we believe we have received them as gift from God and that they lead us to God.  But when the forms of worship become the “be all and end all” of faith, rather than a vehicle to an encounter and relationship with God, than something has gone wrong. 
            “...the hour is coming and is now here when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth for such the father seeks to worship him.  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:21 - 22).
            The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming...When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”
            “I am he, the one who is speaking to you” (John 4:25 - 26).
It is a stunning self-identification by Jesus.  It is one of the so-called “I am” sayings which are unique to John’s Gospel.   “I am the way the truth and the life” (John 14:6); “I am the good shepherd” (John 6:11);  “I am the true vine” (John 15:1);  “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35).  These and others echo the voice of God  to Moses at the burning bush, “Tell them ‘I AM’ has sent you” (Exodus 3:13 -14).  
            In Hebrew, “I AM” is translated YAHWEH - It is the name of God, the proper name of God.  “I am he” Jesus says to the woman.  The wording of this formulation is no accident and the audience that first read or heard John’s Gospel would have understood the connection.
            The story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman is interrupted by the arrival of Jesus’ disciples and a conversation about literal food and spiritual food that offers a nice parallel to the living water conversation between the Samaritan woman and Jesus (John 4:27 - 30).  We are told the woman left her water jar, and went back to the city and she said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done” (John 4:28 - 29).  The woman, a Samaritan woman,  becomes a model of discipleship and evangelism, going and telling her people about how she has met Jesus and inviting them to come, see and experience Jesus for themselves. 
            “Come and see,” she said to them, and they went...They went to see for themselves.  And we are told later in the narrative that “when they found him, they asked him to stay  with them, and he stayed there for two days, and many more believed because of his word” (John 4:40). They said to her, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard it ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world” (John 4:42).   And once more in this story, we are presented with a stunning identification of Jesus - Jesus as “Savior of the world.”  Note well, what they say.  Not the Savior of the Jews alone.  Not the Savior of the Samaritans alone, but the Savior of the World. But they wouldn’t have heard anything if it hadn’t been for that smart, sassy, sinner of a woman who went and told them about her encounter with Jesus.
            It’s a great story in which Jesus saw right through that woman, saw right through to her very soul.  He saw that her life was a mess, but you know what?  That wasn’t so very important.  You see Jesus wasn’t nearly as concerned with who she was as he was concerned with who she could be.  To be sure, Jesus confronts the woman in her brokenness and in her sinfulness, but he doesn’t do this to leave her in the muck and in the mire.  He calls her out of all of this, and that’s what makes him the Savior: his calling her and leading her out of the mess that is her life.
            He knows that he has something to offer her, something all the other men in her life did not - living water, water gushing up to eternal life.  If she drinks of this water, she will never be thirsty again.  And she does drink of it, and she goes to bring others to the living water, and her world, and theirs, would never be the same again.  They would be saved and as a result they would know and worship God in Spirit and in truth.
            So how about you.  Where is Jesus meeting you in your life?  Are things alright, well good, but perhaps they could be better, more fulfilled, deeper.  Perhaps your life is a mess.  If it is, I have good news for you.  Jesus can be found here, at the well which is this church.  And Jesus isn’t nearly as concerned with who or what you are, as he is with what you could be, a disciple who worships God in spirit and in truth.  If you allow it to happen, you can find water at the well that is this church, living water, the water of life.  Drink of them.  Drink deeply.  But just don’t stand at the well drinking.  Be like that woman.  Go out and invite others to the water.
            Go out tell others whom you know, others who are thirsty, others who need to discover God in spirit and in truth...Tell them to come and see.  Jesus’desire was, and always will be, to give living water to all who thirst, and especially those who are isolated, alienated and alone.  So go out and invite them, invite everyone you know.  Tell them about Jesus and the living water.  Invite them to...come up and see him sometime!               







8. Wright, Tom John for Everyone - Part One (London, Westminster, Louisville: John Knowx Westminster Press, 2004)

Monday, April 18, 2011

Luminous Darkness and Palm Sunday


A Sermon preached at St. Paul's

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church - Delray Beach, Florida
Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion - Year A (RCL) - April 16/17, 2011
Matthew 21:1-11; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 26:36 - 27:66
Preacher: The Reverend Canon William H. Stokes, Rector


            From noon on, darkness came over the whole land…”  Matthew 27:45
           
            On Wednesday evenings this Lent, I offered a study of the English Mystics, a fascinating group of men and women who in the 14th century attempted to live lives of strict prayer and discipline to deepen their relationship with God in Christ.  It wasn’t an easy period in which to do this.  The 14th century was the time of the Hundred Year War between France and England; of the Peasant Revolt and of the “Black Death” – the plague which decimated half the population of Europe.  Can you imagine such a thing?
            This past Wednesday, we focused on Walter Hilton who was an Augustinian Canon of the 14th century.[1]  One source I used described Walter Hilton as “perhaps the most theologically adept of the medieval English mystics” and further described him as a “wise and gentle spiritual guide.”[2]  His most well-known and admired work is titled The Scale of Perfection.  It offers clear guidance to an anchoress, and by extension to anyone who reads it, about how the image of God might be reformed in each us through disciplines of prayer, scripture reading and contemplation[3] and through the sacraments of “Holy Church.”.
            In preparing for the Hilton session this past Wednesday, I was reading the volume dedicated to him from the Classics of Western Spirituality Series.  This is an outstanding series put out by the Paulist Press which has recovered and reclaimed two thousand years of the Christian spiritual tradition and makes them available to all - clergy and lay person alike - in ways that are very readable and accessible.  What a treasury this is!
            In their Introduction to the Hilton volume, scholars John Clark and Rosemary Dorward, who prepared the volume, touched upon a notion that appears with some consistency in the English mystical tradition.  It is the notion of luminous darkness.”  As Clark and Dorward explain, “the journey from worldly love to love of God is compared to the passage of one day, through the intervening night, to the following day.”[4]   
            Luminous darkness - what a tantalizing idea; passing from the light of one day, through the darkness of night to the lightness of a new day...Of course, this is something each of us experiences every 24 hours; something we take for granted as the ordinary passage of time.  Generally, we don’t give much thought to it.
            Still, at other times, times when we find ourselves in the depths of grief and despair, we don’t take this passage of time for granted at all....In these times, the darkness is all pervasive and often the literal night is something we dread - when we can’t sleep and we are overwhelmed with grief or loneliness, or self-loathing or fear - and we wonder if day will ever come....We wonder if the sun will ever shine again for us....Literal daylight and literal nighttime become metaphors for us and figures of our souls....
            Our combined observance on this day - Palm Sunday and Sunday of the Passion - and indeed, all the things we will engage in this upcoming week though our prayers and liturgies, this week we call “Holy,” seem to me to be operating at this deeper and more spiritual and metaphorical level of “luminous darkness.”  Understanding them in this way allows the possibility that they will have great meaning for us, and even transformative power, if we will allow them to....It is the movement, the spiritual movement, from light through darkness to light again. 
            Certainly this movement from light to darkness is a part of our observance today....We began with excitement and anticipation - palms being blessed, “Hosannas” being sung - telling a story of Christ’s triumphal entry in to Jerusalem.....Everything appears light, filled with hope and joyful expectation...
            But the light soon turned to darkness as we heard the Passion account; heard of Christ’s betrayal and arrest, of his being abandoned by those he loved; heard of his scourging, his crucifixion; heard his cry of “God-forsakenness” Eli, eli lema sabbacthani” (Matthew 27:46).  It was the cry of a soul in the dark night....It is a cry, you have, perhaps cried yourself. 
            Here, it is important to know something about luminous darkness in the mystical tradition....There is, in the writings of some, an understanding that God’s love is so bright, so excessively bright, that it appears to the human soul as darkness....”  Think of looking directly at the sun at midday....You can’t...If you do, you are blinded.  The light is too bright....It is excessive....If you look at it, you will see darkness....luminous darkness....darkness due to excessive light.
            Look at Christ Jesus crucified....Look at the one who, though he was in the form of God did not count equality as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form...humbled himself and become obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross...(Philippians 2:6 - 8).
            The cross....darkness, luminous darkness - the luminous darkness of life laid down for love...love of you, love of me....The light is excessive....It is so bright, it is blinding....God’s luminous darkness, whereby in Christ, God endures the cross out of the depths of love to call us, each of us,  you and me, indeed all human beings, into his love....It is blinding this love....It will take our eyes, our spiritual eyes, about a week to adjust....We have to spend time in this darkness, the way we need to spend time for a while in a room after lights are shut to see our way forward; to see the shadows in that room....
            Here it takes precisely one week to see love in the shadows - in the shadows of Christ turning tables over in a Temple, turning our tables over too.....To see love in the shadows of his Last Supper, when he takes the simple substances of bread and wine and gives them new meaning, deeper meaning, meaning filled with himself, meaning filled with love, so that you and I can take them, eat and drink them, and strive to be what he was and is, love, living love sent forth into the world. 
            It will take time in the shadows of next Friday to see love in the darkness of his passion.   Do you want to know why we call that Friday “Good”?  Precisely because of “luminous darkness.”    It is a “wondrous cross on which the king of glory died.”  As the old hymn says so well, “love so amazing, so divine, demands my life, my soul, my all.”[5]
              Many of the mystics, English, Spanish, German, spent a great deal of time reflecting on the virtues, and especially the virtues of humility and charity - charity as in generous love, not merely giving alms to someone:  the kind of generous love that should fill us with the effusive, overflowing, love of Christ so that we are generous and gracious in all ways to all people.  Humility and charity were key virtues for them because they were key virtues of Christ.  
            Again, as it says in Philippians, “he humbled himself and took the form of a slave.”...He humbled himself...God emptied himself and became one of us, became human.....Why?  So that we could become like him, humble, having a true and forthright awareness of ourselves - the fair and the foul; and also like him, divine, filled with generous love and light; love and light that are sacrificial wherein we regard all others with dignity and respect, the dignity and respect every human being merits as those made in the image and likeness of God, as we ourselves are made in the image and likeness of God (see Genesis 1:26 – 27).
            I can’t help feeling we need this Holy Week experience to call us back to ourselves, to call us back to what we are supposed to be:  imitators of Christ in humility and love, in self-giving, generous, love....
            Holy Week invites us, calls us back to being reformed in the divine image in which God made us....For Hilton, we needed to “re-formed” into the image of God, because he understood that was how God made us at the outset of Creation.   For Hilton, and others, we had lost this in “the Fall” (See Genesis 3).  In Christ, God created the opportunity for us to be “re-formed.”   We need this re-formation.
            There is so much anger and shrillness, greed and self-concern in our culture today it seems as if some will not be satisfied until they have driven us to civil war.  It’s appalling. Where is the humility?   Where is the charity?  Where is the love?  This is darkness without light.  As Christians we must resist this.  Holy Week is our re-engagement with Christ and his passion and our resistance movement against the dominant world and its ways….
            So, come, journey into the darkness that is luminous, walk the way of the Cross this week, walk each step deliberately, prayerfully....It is the movement from day through night to day again...Let God’s love in Christ, let his excessive light and love overflow in you and blind you until God leads us all to the new light; the resurrection light of Easter.
           
           


[1]   The Augustinians are a rule of mendicant friars who were formed in the 13th century and whose rule is based in the teachings of St. Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354 – 438)  See  Wikipedia “Augustinians” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augustinians#Organization_of_the_Order
[2]   Miller, Gordon L.  The Way of the English Mystics:  An Anthology and Guide for Pilgrims  Kent, England, Burns and Oates, 1996, p. 43
[3]  Hilton’s scheme of three parts of the Contemplative life is worth noting.   See Hilton, Walter The Scale of Perfection – The Classics of Western Spirituality New York – Mahwah:  Paulist Press, 1991, pp. 79 ff.
[4]   The Scale of Perfection “Introduction”  p. 45
[5]   The Hymnal 1982 - #474 – Isaac Watts (New York:  The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1985).

Thursday, April 07, 2011

From Greece to Turkey

We arose on Sunday morning at our usual time of 6:30 AM; had breakfast at 7:30 and were on the road by 8:30 heading toward Alexandrapolis and beyond toward the border of Greece and Turkey.  There were no more sites for us to see in Greece, and so the Greek portion of our adventure was essentially finished.   The drive to the border took about 2 ½ hours and we were to meet our Turkish coach on the Grrek side at 10:30 AM to make the transfer.  This was a new and easier system than that which Susan I had experienced when we led a group on a similar pilgrimage in 2003 when relations between the Greeks and the Turks were much more strained.  Then, crossing over was much more complicated.

In 2003, our coach took us to the border of Greece and Turkey and the bridge across the Meric River.  On the Greeks side, we had to take a taxi, four people at a time (with our luggage), which shuttled us across the bridge, where our Turkish coach and guide met us.    

Herakels and Sophia
When we arrived this time, the Greek coach pulled over to a side area where our Turkish coach was already parked and waiting. 

Transfer at the Greece and Turkey Border


We distributed the Turkish visas we had obtained prior to the trip to each member of our group so they could put them in their passports. The drivers transferred our luggage as we bid farewell to Sophia who had been an extraordinary guide for us, and also to Herakles who had been an excellent driver.  


We met Hussein, our new driver, who will drive us through most of Turkey, until we fly to Istanbul, where we will get a new coach and driver.  Our Turkish coach pulled up to the Greek border crossing, and we had to get out of the coach one by one as a Greek border guard collected our passports, verified our identities with our pictures and then took them into an office to be stamped while we waited on the coach. 


After this, Hussein collected them from the border agent and held onto them, driving the coach across the bridge.  Greek flags bade us farewell and Turkish flags welcomed us midway across the bridge.  Trucks were lined up heading for Greece, waiting as each had to be checked by customs.   When we arrived on the Turkish side,  our Turkish guide, Ali, met us and boarded the bus.   We were processed through Turkish border and customs without getting off the bus.      
Ali is a very personable guide who was gracious and generous in welcoming us to his country.  Shortly into our ride, I asked him how Turkish sentiments toward Americans were.  He assured us all that we were guests and would be warmly received and welcomed as such, that while some may not agree with the policies of American government, we would not experience any hostility.  This kind of warm welcome from the Turkish people was our experience in 2003 when we entered the country on the day bombs started dropping on Baghdad in the “shock and awe” campaign that launched the current war.  Needless to say, our group was a  little apprehensive as we entered Turkey back then.  It turned out then that our apprehensiveness was unfounded.  We experienced warmth and hospitality wherever we went.  Ali’s words to us on the coach were reassuring and I felt confident we would have a similar experience of warmth and hospitality this time as well.

A turkey in Turkey!
From the border, it was about two hours to Gallipoli, a famous battle site during World War I in which the Turks prevailed against the British.  We stopped for lunch en route.  At our lunch stop, the gas station kept a menagerie of animals and Susan took one of a turkey! After lunch, it was on to Gallipoli.

Huge statue of Mustafa Kemal who would receive the name "Ataturk" - Father of the Turks
This campaign was significant in the national awakening of Australian and New Zealand, whose troops fought at Gallipoli for the British and who experienced tremendous casualties. After World War I, and in part, because of their casualties in this battle, those two countries began to wrest more autonomy for themselves.  Today, Ali informed us, “Aussies and Kiwis” continually come to Gallipoli to commemorate the site.   Gallipoli also launched the career of Mustafa Kemal who would later become known as “Ataturk” which literally means “Father of the Turks.”  He is considered the father of modern day Turkey (many refer to him as the “George Washington of Turkey).  

Memorial at Gallipoli site
 The Gallipoli site is an extensive wooded national park with high ground that affords a great overview for miles and which was, therefore, strategically important.  There are also trenches which we could see, allowing us to use our imaginations as we pictured the horrific conditions on that Eastern front. There were more than 130,000 killed on both sides in the battle of Gallipoli. 

One of the trenches at Galilipoli
Although our itinerary called for us to visit ancient Troy the next day, Ali suggested that we visit it this afternoon, and so we did.  It was a couple of hours from Gallipoli, and we stopped for lunch along the way.  Ancient Troy (the modern city is Troas) is truly an amazing archaeological site that dates back more than 4,000 years.  Perhaps most famous for being the site of the Trojan War and its association with Homer’s Iliad, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Extensive excavations were begun in the 1868 by German businessman Heinrich Schliemann and continued since by archaeologists and universities.  Currently, the site reveals 9 levels dating back to the early Bronze Age (ca. 2950 B.C.) and we saw mud brick structures dating to that period.  

The small numbers on the signs indicate which level I - IX they come from which sets them in time


very ancient mud brick structure

According to Acts of the Apostles Paul had a vision in Troas “of a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us”  (Acts 16: 9).  This vision is understood to be critically important to Paul’s mission and ministry as it called him to go to Europe and ranks only behind his Damscus Road experience in Luke’s understanding.


Contemporary wooden sculpture of the "Trojan Horse"














At the entrance to the ancient site of Troy is a wooden construction of the fabled Trojan Horse which visitors can stand next to or climb. 


It was a long day of travel, but the sites were spectacular!  We left the ancient site and headed for our hotel in Cannakale which was located on the shore of the Aegean Sea and was a lovely setting.  We had a Eucharist at the hotel in a quiet room next to the “British Pub.”  At the conclusion of the service, the group blessed Susan and me with special prayer led by Deacon Clelia Garrity in honor and celebration of our 35th wedding anniversary.  Dinner was excellent with lots of choices including fresh grilled whole mackerel.  After dinner, Susan and I were surprised by a beautiful cake and a very thoughtful gift from the group.  It was a joyous way to end a glorious day.
Our room looked out over the Aegean Sea
 

Monday, April 04, 2011

From Thessaloniki to Philippi and Kavala

The Lion of Amphipolis
It was about a three hour drive from Thessaloniki to Philippi. Throughout the journey we were traveling along a modern highway that runs parallel to the ancient Via Egnatia, and there are points where the original stones of that ancient road can be seen.   About half way, we stopped in Amphipolis to stretch our legs and view the beautiful Amphipolis Lion that was crafted during the reign of Phillip II (Alexander the Great’s father) to honor an Admiral, Laomedan, who had served under him.  

The Gaggitas River near which the "place of prayer" is located
Our first “Philippi” stop was a location tradition holds was the “place of prayer” where Paul first met the woman Lydia of Thyatira (see Acts 16: 11 ff) and where she and her household may have been baptized.  A lovely outdoor chapel sits by the side of the River Gaggitas and we held a Eucharist and renewed our own baptismal promises.
Eucharist at Lydia's Place of Prayer

Following this, we visited the shrine to Lydia which is adjacent to the site. 
Icon of Lydia in Lydia's shrine





















The ruins of the ancient city of Philippi
From there, it was on to the archaeological site of Philippi itself.  According to Otto F.A. Meinardus, Philippi was “a Roman garrison town and the chief city of the province of Macedonia” (St. Paul in Greece Athens:  Lyccabettus Press, 1972, p. 9) In Philippi the imperial forces of Octavius and Antony defeated the republican forces of Brutus and Cassius leading each of these latter two to commit suicide.   The ruins provide clear evidence of a once lively place with a forum standing out, a theater and baths.  There are also ruins of two basilicas built well after Paul. 
 
Paul's jail cell in Philippi



Perhaps most interesting is a site marked as a place where Paul was imprisoned in Philippi, and which resulted in the conversion of his jailer (See Acts 16:16-34).
After our extensive exploration of Philippi, we boarded the coach and took the short ride to the seaside town of Kavala where we split up and ate lunch at two lovely outdoor seafood restaurants.  A short time to explore afterwards, then it was off to our nearby hotel where we had a chance to rest before dinner and a reasonably early night.