Sermon for Sunday, March 23rd, 2014 || Lent 3A || Exodus 17: 1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5: 1-11; John 4: 5-52 || The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
The vestry and I spent all day yesterday and much of Friday night together in what was euphemistically called a retreat. In fact, we did anything but retreat; we actually advanced head-first into the ongoing work of discerning where God is calling us as His church and how we’re going to get there—based largely on the input we’ve received from you in the recent parish forums.
You’ll be hearing a lot more about all that in the days ahead, but this morning I want to share with you what feels to me like a particularly risky and somewhat heretical idea that’s been emerging in my thought processes recently, and it’s one which I shared with the vestry over the weekend.
I’m calling this emerging idea “risky” for two reasons. One is because I am unsure of it. It first came to me during a time of prayer, so I’m definitely being attentive to it, but I’m by no means entirely certain of it either. So it feels risky every time I give voice to it out loud, as if I’m committing myself to it a bit more with each airing.
The other reason it feels risky is because it really is, in a sense, a pretty heretical idea in the political and theological climate of today’s church. And that could be for very good reasons. The weight of scripture may or may not back me up on this—I honestly don’t know yet. I just know that this is an idea that wants to be born because it won’t go away. I keep bumping into it from different angles, the most recent of which is looking at today’s scriptures.
So with all of those qualifiers setting the stage, I’ll explain.
See, I think there are a lot more of us in this church than any of us realize, who are as thirsty as the Israelites were as they wandered in the wilderness of the Exodus; many of us as thirsty as the woman at the well in the heat of the noon day sun in this morning’s gospel—as she pleaded for the life-giving water that would not only slake her immediate thirst, but be there for her always—an eternal source of new life and refreshment, as constant as a gushing spring of cool, clear water.
I think that may well be why most of us come here on Sunday morning: To have our thirst slaked by the living water that is Christ, the living water of which we drink so deeply each time we gather as Christ’s body to hear God’s word, praise God’s name, and share in the breaking of the bread and in the wine.
In fact, I think that far more of you than we realize are coming here every Sunday morning flat-out parched. Spent. Exhausted from your over-worked, over-committed, over-extended and frazzled lives—lives in which you spend Monday through Saturday over-doing. And then you come here, and we ask you to do more.
And I fear this thought is heretical because ever since Vatican II and the subsequent revision of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer in 1979, the pastoral theology of the church has been all about “raising up the ministry of the laity” and doing away with clericalism. Admittedly much needed reforms in the 1960s and 1970s.
But what if in today’s world some thirty-five years later most of the lay people in our churches are already too over committed out there to make any sort of commitment in here? What if the last thing men and women like yourselves want from your church today is to be “raised up” in ministry?
And as I prayed about this, it suddenly occurred to me that of all of the thousands of people who followed Jesus, only twelve of them became disciples and committed their lives to serving others. All of those thousands of others in the crowds who came to Jesus came for healing. They came to hear the good news of the gospel; they came to be freed from the things that were enslaving them. They came to Jesus broken and tired and drank in every word when he said, “Come to me all of you who are weary and heavy burdened and I will give you rest.”
And I wonder if most of you don’t come here for the same reason: To read those same comforting words on the arched beam above our altar, to reconnect with the quiet place within yourself that gets drowned out by all the noise and static of your daily lives, to drink in the living water of Christ, and to slake your thirsty souls and be healed.
Like I said, I don’t know if there’s really any truth to this idea, and I can’t say it with any certainty or authority. But it really worries me. Because what if you’re coming here in need of peace and healing, and instead you feel like we’re adding to your burden by asking you to join a committee, to take on a ministry, or to come to the latest church event? Are we doing you a disservice by asking you to be more engaged citizens of this church community? Are we being pastorally insensitive by asking you to find time in your calendar for one more thing—even if it’s a nice meal with people you like and a spiritually enriching, thirst-slaking activity? I don’t know….
I do know that researchers say this is one of the most spiritually hungry generations of all time—yet church attendance in this country is at an all time low. What if one of the reasons for that low church attendance is because people are afraid of being asked to do one more thing they don’t have time for, one more thing they might even love to do, but just feel stretched too thin to say yes to?
It would certainly explain why some people say they hunger for more fellowship activities, but then can’t seem to find their way clear to come to them when they’re offered. It would explain why some lay leaders say they yearn for retreat days together, but can’t commit to setting a date for one. It would explain why so many people say they’d like to do more at church, but don’t. And it would explain why St. Stephen’s is by no means alone as we wrestle with this paradox: That people are thirsting for the very life-giving things they no longer make time for. So they are parched. Spent. Dried up.
They’ve been trying to slake their thirst with careers and kids, virtues and vices, sports and school, hobbies and habits, memberships and meetings, health clubs and country clubs…the list goes on and on and on, relentlessly. And none of it works. None of it works any more than five husbands and an adulterous relationship worked for the woman at the well.
Yet Jesus sees them all with such compassion…and he sees us with such compassion. He sees the things we do and the choices we make as clearly as he saw those of the Samaritan woman. And so he speaks directly to us this morning about our over-busy lives: “Everyone who drinks of those waters will be thirsty again,” he says, “But those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
The woman at the well responded to Jesus by pleading, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty. ” I wonder if she found time to drink of it deeply…
And I wonder if, and how, we can help you find time to drink of it deeply…how we can help you find rest for your weary souls and healing for your burdened hearts.
Because I suspect that’s why you’re really here. Here, in the gathered community of this church, here listening to God’s word, praising God’s name, sharing in the breaking of the bread and in the wine—and having your thirst slaked… at least for now…by the living waters of Christ. Amen.