A Water Jar Left Behind

And she goes on her way to proclaim God’s Gospel truth—to preach.

“I think the church is caving in to women preachers.”

Well-known pastor, John MacArthur, spoke these words this past weekend at a celebration of his 50th year in ministry. Speaking on a stage with two other men (no women), MacArthur made other negative, dismissive and derisive comments about evangelical women leaders and the #MeToo movement. https://religionnews.com/2019/10/19/accusing-sbc-of-caving-john-macarthur-says-beth-moore-should-go-home/

I began preaching the Gospel in 1987 as a pastor in the mountains of Virginia. Now, 32 years later, I am honored to teach ministry students every day at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity. Many of those students are women, and they are called to preach. I have heard their voices. They are astounding, insightful, passionate, and prophetic preachers.

The best way I know to respond when comments like MacArthur’s make news headlines is to do what God called me to do—preach. I offered the following sermon at one of our school’s new student orientation services several years ago. The sermon text was John 4, a story that carries the familiar title, “The Woman at the Well.”

Called to preach

Thirst. High noon. A well. And a water jar left behind.

They meet at Jacob’s well. A well that holds stories. Maybe even secrets.

Jesus is on his way somewhere else. She is collecting water. As she does everyday. Alone. At noon. To survive. 

They meet. And when they meet? So do their personal stories. And the realities of their lives. A Jewish man. A Samaritan woman. And a long history of cultural, political and religious clashes between their peoples. A long history of too many assumptions. Too many prejudices. A long history of conversations never shared, of possibilities and mysteries never set free. 

They meet. And when they meet. Something happens. 

Don’t be fooled by the misogynist veneer too many sermons have put over this story. Sometimes we are too quick to think and act like we know the woman in this story—what she lacks and what she needs. And yet—we don’t even know her name. How can we know what she needs if we haven’t gotten close enough to her even to know her name? And Jesus? We think we know about Jesus too…and yet…

They meet. And when they meet? A conversation. 26 verses. The longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in the Gospel of John. Not one of those kinds where one person is a submissive listener while the other waxes eloquent with spit-shined but unsubstantiated advice. This is a real conversation. Not small talk. A lively dance of words between two thirsty people. Words that dip and weave around complex theological topics—living water, worship, spirit, truth, salvation, the identity of the Messiah. 

The woman? She is wise in her life-weariness, and she asks questions, insists on clarifications, offers her opinions. She is bold. Fearless, in a way, too. Because she chooses to have conversation with him. In spite of who she thinks he is and in the face of all that other people have assumed she is.

And Jesus? Even as he talks about living water he is bone tired, thirsty, vulnerable—dependent upon her hospitality because he has no bucket and she? She has the water jar she carries with her everyday, and she offers hospitality—the thirst-quenching water in her jar mingling with water offered by Rachel and Zipporah and countless other women right here at Jacob’s well…

They meet. And when they meet? Something happens. Jesus—talks about living water and invites her to look again at what she thinks she knows about water. About life. And Jesus—the thirsty one who has no bucket—could it be that as she offers him water, he sees her? And sees in her the spirit and truth she bears with courage to that well everyday? Does he see in her something he needs to know about himself?

She sees him. He sees her. Shared vulnerability. Mutual regard. No distancing stares or objectifying gazes. She sees him. He sees her. Both are changed. Redeemed somehow. Jesus claims his identity as Messiah—in her presence. She is the first person in the Gospel to whom Jesus makes a bold statement of self-revelation. She is a witness. And she goes on her way—to proclaim new truth. To preach.

Amen.

Draw deep, pour out, preach

Photo by Jill Crainshaw

Are we the woman with the water jar,
bent on the chore of the moment,
intent on survival,
weariness living in our bones,
thirst for God drowning in the business of the day?

She is strong,
physically strong enough to carry that jar of water.
Maybe we can understand that.
What it means to be strong—
but not so strong.
Sure—but not so sure.
Seeking—

Then—in the noonday lull—
A tired stranger with no bucket.
Drawing deep.
Pouring out.
She is changed.
Jesus is changed.
We are changed.
Drinking water becomes living water.
An everyday chore becomes Gospel vocation.
An encounter with a stranger becomes a call to preach.

Her witness lives on today.
The empty jar.
A well of daily comings and goings.
Called.

“Draw deep.”
”Pour out.”

Preach Gospel news
In the name of the One who
Creates,
Redeems,
and sustains.

chasing artificial light

I long for authentic dreams that come like moonglow to illumine dark nights.

you sit in the night cafe
sipping lukewarm coffee
from a plain white ceramic mug
a half-eaten slaw mustard and chili
cheeseburger and three fries
on a discarded plate in front of you
i saw you there last night too
and the night before that

a neon sign out front beckons
“always open” except for the “o”
that blinks and blinks trying
to stay awake to the promise

what ambitions do you harbor in
that limbo of artificial light or
are you just one of the many chasing
sleepless daydreams of an illuminated life
forgetful that dreams that come true
are nocturnal pollinators
drawn to blossoms
that reveal their mysteries only
to a midnight moon

A word about the poem: Artificial light has been in the news in recent days alongside Greta Thunberg and her bold words about the climate crisis. Several articles last week explored how artificial light and light pollution are affecting the earth and our future. I happen to be reading Sue Grafton’s alphabet mysteries these days, and in G Is for Gumshoe (1990), Grafton’s main character describes her experience in a nursing home by asking “what ambitions” can people harbor in that “limbo of artificial light”? The question has stayed with me as I have thought this week about the climate crisis and about light pollution. Grafton’s description also makes me think about the artificial light that persists through the actions of many U.S. leaders, an artificial light that threatens the future of our country. I long for authentic dreams that come like moonglow to illumine dark nights.

Summon the Wailing-Women

Lament is a revolutionary act because it refuses to hide the raw realities of life beneath a veneer of sentimentalized spirituality or triumphant overcoming.

                                                

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“Lamenting Woman,” by Sheila G. Hunter. Taken at God’s Acre, Home Moravian Church, Winston-Salem, North Carolina


Come Lament.
Bring your tears.
​​​Scatter them along rocky trails,
​​​dissipating petals of unrefined truth
​​​to water dry paths.

​​​Lean in close, Lament.
​​​Place your wizened head
​​​on weighed down shoulders;
​​​whisper-sing in aching ears.

        –Jill Crainshaw

Three public acts of violence shattered innocent lives this week. Pipe bombs were sent to political leaders and news agencies. A white man shot and killed two African Americans at a grocery store in Kentucky. Another white man shouting anti-Semitic slurs opened fire on worshipers at Pittsburgh synagogue. These acts of hatred and others like them across our nation summon us—yet again—to consider what we can do each day to resist the culture of violence that is growing in our nation.

These acts also summon us to lament, for the resisting work we need to do begins, I think, with human communities learning again how to lament. People in ancient communities like the prophet Jeremiah’s community understood lament. Lament was a way people of faith cried out to God in the face of pain and loss that seared hearts and battered souls. Lament was a communal act. Lament was a ritual act passed from one generation to the next. Why? Because the heartache that accompanies great loss is deeply personal and the cloud of witnesses, both historic and contemporary, that surround those in pain—to listen, hold vigil, weep with—prevents weeping from being an isolating experience. Lament arises from and returns to communities of faith and trust, and because of this communal dimension, lament—and lament’s wordless, soundless contortions of pain, anger and grief—is sometimes the only thing that keeps people going when everything good about life seems lost. The very fact of our humanity—its fragility and mortality—needs lament.

As we face the violence in our world today—against black and brown bodies, against immigrants, against people in the LGBTQ community, against women and children, against religious communities and others—and as we seek ways to respond, acts of lament are necessary. Lament is a vital and even revolutionary act because it refuses to hide the raw realities of life beneath a veneer of sentimentalized spirituality or triumphant overcoming. Lament turns her eyes and looks with grief-ravaged love on the violated bodies and weeping family members we see too often in news-feeds from towns and cities across our land. Then, Lament beckons us to see the pain and hear the heartbreak, to repent and seek God’s grace. Lament beckons us to stand with each other. Weep with each other. Wail in grief and rage with each other. And then work with each other across our differences to resist hatred and restore love and grace.

Hear these words of lament from the prophet Jeremiah in the Hebrew Bible:

7 Thus says the Lord of hosts:
Consider, and summon the wailing-women to come;
  send for the skilled women to come;
18 let them quickly raise a dirge over us,
  so that our eyes may run down with tears,
  and our eyelids flow with water.
19 For a sound of wailing is heard from Zion:
  ‘How we are ruined!
  We are utterly shamed,
because we have left the land,
  because they have cast down our dwellings.’

20 Hear, O women, the word of the Lord,
  and let your ears receive the word of his mouth;
teach to your daughters a dirge,
  and each to her neighbour a lament.
21 ‘Death has come up into our windows,
  it has entered our palaces,
to cut off the children from the streets
  and the young people from the squares.’     Jeremiah 9

Indeed, death has come up into our windows and entered our palaces, and we wail. But our weeping is not enough. Our heart-brokenness is not enough. When Lament is allowed to live out loud as a part of faith, people have the freedom to express not only their deep sorrows but also their outrage and protest when violence, death, and injustice persist. To embody lament as a community is to resist as a community those systems that perpetuate hatred. To join Lament’s journey is to walk into tomorrow and the next day and the next determined somehow, by the power of God’s persistent Spirit, to make space for God’s promises of peace and abundant life for all people.

 

Summer Solstice Epiphany

I do not understand why some of our nation’s leaders are doing what they are doing.

Because I do not understand their actions, I have gained even greater clarity about why I do what I do as a theological educator at Wake forest University School of Divinity.

Let me explain.

Today is summer solstice in the U.S., a day when the sun shines longer than on any other day of the year. Hostile and violent forces are at work in our world today to keep hurting people from knowing the hope and warmth of life’s light. We need these extra hours of sunlight to seek how to live God’s Gospel truth in our times. We need a summer solstice Epiphany.

What is a summer solstice Epiphany?   The ancient sages in Matthew 2, commonly known as the wise people in the Christian Christmas story, followed a God-flung orb of light to Jesus’ birthing place. Many Christian traditions have located the story of the sages’ journey on day of the liturgical year in January known as Epiphany.

The word “epiphany” means “manifestation” or “a striking appearance.” We cannot wait for another January to look for God’s light to reveal a way for the human community to journey toward justice and renewed hope. We need to ask now what the manifestation of God in Jesus means in a world where so many fear for their lives, where too many innocents are abused and slaughtered. How are we who live in a world of such harsh and immoral realities to incarnate Incarnation—right now? These questions are urgent. People’s lives and well-being are at stake.

Matthew’s Epiphany story reveals powerful wisdom for our times. The sages, upon encountering the child Jesus, went home by another way (Mt. 2:12). I am struck by two things about this story on this day in 2018 of creation’s longest light. First, the sages had a home to go to. They were people with positions of power in their contexts. They could go home. Second, the sages decided to take different, less familiar route home to resist doing what Herod asked them to do. They decided not to take a route that would perpetuate a state-sanctioned system of violence and injustice. They risked something about their own lives because of what they encountered in the faces of a young child and family. Could they have gone back to confront Herod? Perhaps they should have and perhaps they did. What we know is that having encountered the truth of who God is in the face of a child, their usual way of going was changed.

This is why I do what I do as a theological educator who is also a Presbyterian Church (USA) Minister of Word and Sacrament. I believe this is also why we do what we do at the School of Divinity. We invite students to be aware of their power as human beings and religious leaders to resist Herod by following the unexpected ways of the Gospel. We spend time in conversation, worship, and prayer across our many differences seeking God’s wisdom for how we live and learn together. We also foster in each other a capacity to discern ways to risk something about our own lives for the sake of the lives of vulnerable others. This is work worth doing—work that must be done—in a world where too many people are denied their worth as human beings.

On this day in June 2018 when the God-flung orb of light called the sun looks out from the skies longer than on any other day of the year, perhaps our souls will be stirred anew. Now is a time for us to shine the light of Gospel truths on lies perpetuated by people who abuse their place and power. Is this stirring—this call—new? No. We here in the U.S. need to lament and atone for a history of injustices justified by people who have bent and are bending their version of the Gospel toward their own ends. We are haunted by questions today that have followed us across the landscape of our history. Have we forgotten or perhaps never understood what it means to be children of God created in the image of God?

The sages in Matthew saw God in the face of a child. Can we? Do we? Can we see God in the face of Antwon Rose, an unarmed teenager shot by a police officer in Pittsburgh this week? Can we see God in the faces of children and mothers and fathers separated by injustice at our borders and within our communities?

We need Epiphany. We need a new understanding of and commitment to what it means to be human together, created in God’s image and living in community here on and with God’s earth. I do not understand why some of our nation’s leaders are doing what they are doing. I do know why I do what I do at the School of Divinity. I do what I do to encounter and be in community with students whose passion for ministry and whose deep belief in the power of Gospel Good News make me continue my vocational journey in transformed ways. I do what I do at the School of Divinity because I believe our work together changes us and sends us out, knowing that we are called as we go to risk something about our own lives for the sake of the lives of others.

I wrote the following poem/prayer for a January Epiphany Day. I have revised it for this summer solstice call to Epiphany.

Star-watchers.
Eyes wide opened
by unexpected light
in backyard night skies,
“Bearing gifts they traversed afar” to
investigate
explore
consider.
Then—eyes wide-opened
by what they saw—
rerouted,
home by another way.

Ah, the peculiarity of Christmastide Epiphanies:
shepherds
cows and sheep and donkeys,
an angel-frightened teenager
and a dream-troubled carpenter.
sky-gazing Zoroastrians
on camels’ backs
tracing a celestial light-beam to an
unfamiliar place.

But what of the rest of the story?
Menacing messages from powerful places,
weeping of innocents,
mama and daddy,
baby held tight
fleeing
violence
death.
Did they know—
To keep their bodies safe
was to keep safe God’s Beloved Child
but only for a moment.

In all of it—
holy visits and visions and vistas
detours and deliberate stars
midnight border crossings
into unfriendly backyards
children’s cries
wailing lullabies
“Hush, little baby! Don’t say a word.”
Immanuel—-God-with-us?
In us?
Through us?
In spite of us?

Galactic light-spheres align yet again
Sacred solstice sun shines into night hours:
Burn away the fog of unknowing, O God.
Give us eyes wide-opened
by what we see.
Call us to another way
so that we risk our lives to
bring together
Life
Love
Hope

 

Does Death have an infrastructure?

Into the Woods

 

While reading Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder I was struck by the phrase “death’s infrastructure.” My thoughts turned to the ongoing news and debates about health care and this short poem emerged.

Does Death have an infrastructure? Or do we
read about the end of life as we know it
in the morning newspaper, fresh as a starched
shirt until Nell in the nursing home
looking through smudged reading glasses
for the daily crossword skims one more
sensational headline that promises Truth
but whose blurring words already smell of fish?

 

Answered Prayers

Dr. William Barber, II, is a hero. He wrote a letter to the editor that was published in the New York Times on February 3, 2017, following the National Prayer Breakfast. I have continued to think about that letter and the powerful words he quoted from Frederick Douglass (1818-1895): “I prayed for freedom for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”
*********
“These times we’re living in
call for courageous people,”
the preacher said that day.

I am not brave.
Never have been.

Bravery is something to be
read about in storybooks
where quixotic heroes
ride out on prancing
stallions to do battle,
sabers flashing in
magnificent sunlight.

Bravery is something to be
prayed for in church
where harsh living
daylights must first pass
by saintly stained-glass
sentinels of bygone years
before being transmuted
into the kinder, gentler
beams that caress Sunday
morning’s bowed heads.

Isn’t it?

Or maybe we should
pray for freedom,
like Frederick Douglass did,
walking in faith
until our legs are braver
than our thoughts.

So, in this present cloud
of unknowing, being not
brave, we resolve, if
we can find the honesty
to do it, to live on
as best we can,
stringing together each
momentary breath
like pearls of hope to
place with the gentleness
of a lover around our
fear to name its wounds
as our own and journey on
not in spite of
but with it.

For out there, where the
times we’re living in
call for courageous people,
the groaning ground that
soaked up the life-blood of
all who died unjustly just
trying to live
needs the redeeming touch
of feet determined to walk
with their fear until
their legs have learned
to move each day to the
rhythms of justice,
mercy, and love.

While Not in Other News

For the last six and a half weeks, my 81 year old mom has been undergoing radiation treatments for tongue cancer, cause undetermined. She finishes on Friday a “tour of duty” of 33 treatments. Her mouth is raw; her throat is swollen; she is weary. The doctors told her she would need a feeding tube to make it through the therapy. She said “no tube.” Her friends at her senior independent apartment complex, the generous cook in the kitchen of that complex, the kindness of an assortment of drivers, amazing doctors, nurses and technicians at our local hospital, and her desire to keep on doing what she does every day–eating with 102-year-old Lenora and her other friends in the dining room and watching her soap operas–has kept her going. She has grit. Now, with one treatment to go, she has lost 6 pounds instead of the 25-30 the doctors predicted. No feeding tube.

Many headlines have splashed across the news waves this week. I celebrate in this poem news that does not make the Times but that does make a difference. My mom said today what I think is true about life in the midst of so many troubling headlines: “Things happen to us. We are human. We just do the best we can.”

“Egyptian Air Plane Crashed into the Mediterranean”
the week the doctor phoned to break the news:
“Biopsy Is Positive for Cancer”
A life sentence, headliner understated,
one of many.

Eighty percent survival rate;
Eighty-one year-old woman with an
eighty two year life expectancy.
so the doctor said.

Stubborn senior citizen
expectant of everyday life until death
is escorted on the arm of a shiny blue walker
into iron man battle.

Thirty-three excursions down Radiation Way;
Thirty-three high dose zaps to the tongue;
Thirty-three days of taste wasting away.
“Pulse Nightclub Massacre: 49 Dead”
“Zika Arrives in the U.S.”
“Alton Sterling Shooting Sparks Protest”
“Five Dallas Police Officers Fatally Shot”
“Summer Olympics Begin with
Uplifting Spectacle in Gritty Rio”
and Tina in the kitchen
down at the Cypress Gardens
apartments for senior adults
stirs up milkshakes three times a day
even though they are not on the menu
or in her job description
so mom, boosted up, loses six pounds
instead of the 30 they all said she would
with no feeding tube against all life expectancies.

Fortified by 102-year-old Lenora,
91-year-old Doris,
91-and-a-half-year-old Ruth,
and 70-year-old Mary and her 2001 Buick LeSabre
with the extra-capacity trunk,
determined octogenarian perseveres
while doctors and nurses cheer, amazed.

“Hillary Broke the Glass Ceiling” last week;
while not in other news
mom shattered expectations, gained 1.8 pounds,
four more tours to go:
“I’m with her.”