Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Lent 3A: Persevere and be transformed

Lectionary:Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42

So – here we are at the mid-point of Lent (my favorite liturgical season, by the way). How goes your Lenten experience so far? Are you loving it or are you ready for it to be over?

This third week of Lent is when the sacrifices we have chosen to make start to ache and the prayer disciplines we have added in begin to feel like a chore. This is the week we are tempted to relent and just wait it out until Easter.

The people in the reading from Exodus are also having a kind of Lent 3 experience. They have followed Moses, who is following God, into the wilderness, seeking the Promised Land. But now they are thirsty, uncomfortable and tired of the journey. They grump at Moses, who is a bit worn out himself. “What shall I do with this people?” Moses asks God. Trust me, God says, and do as I say. Keep going – go to the rock at Horeb and meet me there. I will satisfy you and all my people.

This story shows us an important truth about Lent – the truth that we don’t ‘do Lent’ – God does. As I’m sure Fr. Shawn has told you, the word “Lent” means ‘spring’ and it is the time when new life is being grown in the soil of our soul, soil we have made ready by our spiritual disciplines. Since God is the author of all life, it can only be God who ‘does Lent’ – only God can create and re-create life. Remembering that “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves,” as we heard in our Collect, what we do during Lent is remove whatever is in the way of us offering ourselves totally to God.

If we, like Moses, choose to hear and obey God’s will for us, even if it sounds as impossible as bringing water from a rock, God will ‘do Lent’ in us. But how can we know God’s will until we approach God and ask the question Moses asked: “What shall I do…?”

Our Lenten spiritual disciplines are meant to prepare us to make a faithful offering of ourselves. For 40 days (symbolic language for ‘long enough’), we fast from such things as food or complaining or criticism – of ourselves or of others; we fast from the need for perfection or the need to be in control.

For 40 days we add in intentional time in prayer (hopefully something like Centering Prayer or The Rosary, where God is speaking, not us) or lectio divina, or Bible study. These Lenten disciplines allow us to put ourselves and our priorities aside – just for 40 days – so that God’s priorities for us and for the world have opportunity to reach our awareness.

A few years ago about this time of year, I was driving with a friend of mine, Janice, who rarely went to church. Janice’s parents were Southern Baptist and Roman Catholic. She was raised to be a believer, but not a church-goer.

After a rather lengthy pause in our conversation Janice asked me: “Do you have Lent in the Episcopal Church?” “Yes,” I said, grateful that I am in the habit of carrying a travel-sized BCP in my car. I handed it to her and told her where to find our Ash Wednesday service.

(Who knows where to find the Ash Wed service – quick! It’s on page 264. We have to know this sort of thing if we’re going to be builders of the kingdom in the Episcopal tradition!)

After looking over the service a bit, Janice asked: “Why do you have Lent? What good comes from beating ourselves up about sin? So we sin,” she said. “I just don’t think it’s worth beating myself up about. It’s not like I kill anyone. I’m basically a good person.”

“Why would you beat yourself up?” I asked her.

“Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do in Lent?” she asked.

My heart broke. How did she arrive at this understanding? Who is the God she’s envisioning? And who is she in relation to that God?

Jesus demonstrates what our relationship with God is in today’s Gospel reading from John. Having traveled to a city in Samaria, Jesus meets and talks with a woman at the well of Jacob. Violating canon law after canon law, Jesus engages this woman in a redemptive conversation.
It’s important, I think, to look at a few things Jesus doesn’t do in this story:
• Jesus doesn’t exclude the woman at the well according to all of her categories: Samaritan, woman, married 5 times, living with a man who isn’t her husband… which, by the way, countless preachers have done in the centuries since
• Jesus doesn’t ask her to repent or change the situation of her life (does this mean Jesus knew something about her life that caused him not to judge her as living in sin?)
• Jesus doesn’t forbid the woman at the well from proclaiming the AMAZING news he hasn’t even told his disciples yet – that he is the Messiah of God

The woman at the well, who has no name, no fame, and no legacy except in this story, is the first one to whom the Christ revealed himself. She is the first apostle – the first one to proclaim the good news of salvation in Jesus to anyone! She was chosen and sent (which is what an apostle is) because she opened herself to hear the redeeming word of God and was transformed by it. And that’s key: being transformed by the Word of God.

Duncan Gray, III, retired bishop of the diocese of Mississippi, once called his flock to move from change to transformation, saying: "Change is doing something differently. Transformation is becoming something more." Transformation begins to take place [Bp. Gray said,] when we offer ourselves, our souls, our bodies – our dreams, our visions, our plans – to Almighty God. And as we make our offering we say, not, ‘here are our plans, bless them;’ but, rather, ‘here are our lives, use them.’ And…it is in that offering … that [the] weak become strong, the proud become humble, and lives are transformed.

Our Lenten practices are meant to lead us to do things differently so that we can become something more. By them we make room in our hearts and lives for transformation.

As we enter our third week of Lent, may we continue to wait through the discomfort of these 40 days, offering ourselves - our souls and bodies, our dreams, and our plans – to Almighty God. May we persevere in our spiritual disciplines, making room for God to “do Lent” in us.

And may we hear again the truth we know about Jesus and be transformed by it. Then, like the woman at the well, God can send us into the world as apostles, so that others may come to know the transforming truth of our redemption in Jesus Christ, our Savior.

(Note: This sermon was given at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Gastonia, NC as part of the Piedmont Deanery puplit swap. I thank Deacon Pat and the good people of St. Mark's for their welcome and hospitality)

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