A Question of Identity

A homily on Matthew 16:13-20 .

Personal Identity
Who do you say that I am? Personally speaking, and this is Ryan talking here, I go by many names. To my children I am Dad.  Lately Bean – that’s the nickname for our 2nd grade daughter Hannah – she’s been calling me “poppa” and that’s kinda fun. To my wife Kathi I am husband, she’ll admit to that, at least on a good day.  To some of you I am Pastor, again, hopefully you’ll also admit to that, at least on a good day.  🙂

In seminary I had a nickname – there were *far* too many Ryan’s at Luther Seminary for any of our good – it seemed like all those Ryan’s running around a small graduate school campus would get confusing pretty fast. So instead, on the first day of class, of each semester, as the professor read our names, to check attendance, when hearing my name I’d respond, “Here.  But please, call me Ishmael.” That little literary reference too was fun, and the nickname has stuck, at least for many of my good friends.

And if you think about yourself, and the multiple roles and identities that you have, you too can easily come up with many, many responses to that simple question, Who do you say that I am? Just by your existence you are all son or daughter, or perhaps also brother or sister, husband or wife, mom or dad, uncle or aunt, niece or nephew. And then there are the names that your education, jobs, and civic organizations will place on you. You could be doctor, priest, president, custodian, director, principal, treasurer, landscaper, perhaps also a super-volunteer as well.

Divine Identity
All these questions, of identity, and the names we go by, all of this is central to today’s text in Matthew chapter 16. Here we have Jesus, surrounded by his disciples, preparing them, and us, for a very important moment. Christ starts out by asking a more general question, consider it an ancient form of an ice-breaker, designed to get people talking. It’s the kind of question you ask before moving on to tougher, more personal questions.

The ice breaker he asks the disciples is fairly broad, he wonders, “Who do people say that I am?” It’s almost like Christ is trying to get a sense of the local chatter. He’s asking his disciples what are you hearing? Or what’s the good word? They respond with a mountain of possibilities, in each case connecting Jesus with someone else. Some thought Jesus was John the Baptist; both men roamed the earth at the same time, both baptized, both were religious figures of their era. So maybe John and Jesus were the same, simply a case of mistaken identity. Still others thought Jesus was a reincarnated version of another Jewish religious figure, either Elijah, or Jeremiah, or maybe another prophet. Coming from his disciples, sharing the local gossip of the day, any of those, at least for us, would be considered a major compliment.

But as nice as all of those possible identities may sound, they still weren’t quite right. To get at his real identity Jesus asks the disciples that more pointed, direct question, the one we started with, Who do *you* say that I am? Here Peter, in a moment of clarity Jesus says came directly from God, here Peter exclaims “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

“Blessed are you,” Jesus, the Christ, tells Peter, “for on this rock I will build this church.” Now I think many of us have some notion of what the church is, it’s a group of people who come together, a people who share a lot in common: shared holy scriptures, shared doctrines, shared creeds. And, ideally at least, this shared identity leads to a shared vision of our purpose here on earth. And even more ideally this shared identity informs how we live into that purpose while we’re here.

But what we may be less certain of pertains to this rock. What exactly is this rock Jesus speaks of? And what exactly is Jesus saying here about how he will build this church? One interpretation is to say Peter, literally, is the rock. And that Christ’s church will be built by, and through, Peter. Our Roman Catholic brethren are certainly of this mindset, Peter was the first Pope. And all Popes since then can trace their identity as leader of the Catholic church directly back to Peter. On one level that certainly makes a lot of sense.

Another way to look at this is to say that it isn’t Peter himself, but instead it is Peter’s faith, that that is where Christ will build his church. Said differently it is Peter’s boldness, Peter’s proclamation, of who Jesus is, the Messiah, the Son of the living God, it is that proclamation that builds the church. And that’s where you and I come in.

For it is our boldness, our proclamation of who Jesus is, and then what we do with that identity, *that* is what builds the church. From that vantage point proclamation becomes our rallying cry, it’s the reason we heal the sick, why we feed the hungry, why we clothe the naked. That identity, of Jesus, as the Christ, becomes our shared identity as the church, and leads us into God’s mission for the world.

Who do you say that I am? We get asked that question, in one form another, all the time. And we respond to that question in all kinds of ways. The next time someone asks you your name, or what you prefer to go by, considering telling them this:

I am a follower of Christ, who is Son of the living God. I too am a child of this living God, and am created in God’s own image. And I take part, as best I’m able, in God’s redemptive mission for the world.

For it is the answer to this question, who do you say that I am, both in our response, and in how we live into that response, it is that, my friends, that can change EVERYTHING. Amen.


A Beautiful Paradox

A message about a favorite movie, a favorite reformer and a favorite piece of art, all tied together with themes from the Protestant Reformation and Romans 7:15-25.

A Beautiful Mind
Who here has seen the movie A Beautiful Mind?  The film came out in 2001 and starred the likes of Russell Crowe, Ed Harris and Jennifer Connelly. And it was pretty well received by critics and audiences, and was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning four of them, and grossing over 300 million dollars worldwide. What is it that made this movie so successful?

The film tells the real-life story of John Nash, a brilliant economist and mathematician. As the story unfolds we watch as John’s life achievements pile up; he earns a PhD from a prestigious Ivy League college, becomes a professor at MIT, and publishes articles that eventually lead him to receive the Nobel Prize in Economics. Along the way he also falls in love, marries the girl of his dreams and becomes a father. On the surface it’s the kind of American success story many of us aspire to, either for ourselves or our children.

But unfortunately, as is often the case, to capture the essence of a person we have to dig deeper, and go beyond just personal and professional successes. As the film goes on, we find out that John Nash suffers from a debilitating mental illness; John is a paranoid schizophrenic. Schizophrenia defined is a separation from reality, and in his case it causes John to experience auditory hallucinations. The film takes some liberties here and adds in visual hallucinations as well, John first hears, then sees, people that aren’t really there.

As you can imagine this illness takes a tremendous toll on John’s friends, colleagues, and especially his supportive wife. Once John becomes aware of his ailment there’s this remarkable scene in the movie where he grapples with what to do to resolve his problem.

In the scene John tells his psychiatrist: “It’s a problem, that’s all it is. It’s a problem with no solution. That’s what I do, I solve problems.” The psychiatrist replies, “This isn’t math. You can’t come up with a formula to change the way you experience the world.” John disagrees, replying “All I have to do is apply my mind.” The psychiatrist counters, saying, “There is no theorem, no proof, you can’t reason your way out of this.” “Why not?!? Why can’t I?” John wonders. “Because,” the psychiatrist tells him, “your mind is where the problem is in the first place.”

Despite his brilliance, his achievements, his successes and gifts, there is nothing John can do on his own to heal his mental illness. Perhaps it’s this paradox, of a highly successful person, who also is highly flawed, unable to fix his own problems, perhaps that is what attracted audiences to this movie in droves.

A Beautiful Reformation
This dilemma, of being created as good, as we all were in the beginning, and yet stricken with an illness, or perhaps a certain brokenness, or what some refer to as sin; this also haunted Martin Luther.

Luther’s insights into this dilemma, along with so many other of his insights paved the way for the Protestant Reformation. As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of that reformation Pastor Bryan and I will take a deep dive, by way of a sermon series, to explore several revolutionary, scriptural concepts that led to this historic moment. Today marks the first week of that series. If you enjoy the message this week we certainly hope you return for more. And if you don’t enjoy it, well, still come back, as Pastor Bryan’s message next week may just catch your fancy instead 😉

Anyways, back to Martin Luther, the law student turned monk, turned priest, turned professor turned reformer. Similar to John Nash, Luther also had his own struggles. As a young adult Luther lived in a monastery, and worried about sin, constantly fearing that he may have committed it. When he thought he had sinned he would apologize to God, through confession, whenever he failed. He did A LOT of confessing.

Luther was so concerned with his own sin that he would often wake up the head monk in the middle of the night to confess. And at times Luther was so obsessed with sin he would literally whip himself, again, and again and again, as punishment. Painful stuff. So why all this extreme behavior? Because Luther believed that if he died without confessing all his sins that he was destined for hell. I can only imagine the hell this must have been for Luther, unable to stop sinning, or at least unable to believe he could, unable to save himself, with his salvation seemingly always hanging in the balance.

A Beautiful Paradox
Eventually Luther moved past this dark time in his life, due in part to a careful reading of scripture that includes the Romans 7 text we heard earlier. In that passage we have the apostle Paul saying all kinds of strange things, like in verse 15 where he finds that I do not understand my own actions and that I do the very thing I hate. Paul continues to struggle with his own identity in verses 22-23, saying for I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I am at war with the law of my mind.

At war, with the law of my mind. Does that remind you of anyone? Perhaps it reminds you of Martin Luther, at war with his own tendency to sin. And then beating himself, physically, because he was so distraught. Or perhaps it reminds you of John Nash, the brilliant economist who also happened to be schizophrenic. At war with his own mind, unable to heal himself of this terrible illness.

Who else does this war with the mind remind you of? It reminds me of, well, myself. Of course I struggle with sin, hopefully that’s no surprise. We all struggle with our own brokenness, struggle with our own inability to fully live into the inherent goodness that God has created within each of us.

So the Apostle Paul’s struggles described in Romans 7, of doing the very things we hate reflect Martin Luther’s struggles, and John Nash’s struggles, and my struggles, and yes, your struggles, indeed all of our struggles. It is, after all, the human condition.

Fortunately, when reading Romans chapter seven one day Martin Luther had an aha moment about this paradox, about this dual state we find ourselves in. From this passage Luther coined the Latin phrase simul justus et peccator (pronounced simil usetess et pe-caht-tor). The translation, loosely, means simultaneously saint and sinner. Meaning that, since the time of original sin, where Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, ever since, humanity has retained that sinful nature, it is part of us. And something we cannot overcome ourselves. The good news is that, through the life, death and resurrection of Christ we are made righteous in the eyes of God, made to be as saints.

This paradox, this dual identity is so important to what it means to be Lutheran that, during seminary, I ended up with two different articles of clothing that have some variation of simul justus et peccator written on it. The first is a t-shirt, in fact I wore it earlier this week when writing this message, kinda figured it would be good luck.  On the front of the shirt is that Latin phrase, in big letters. When people see me wearing it and ask what the phrase means, which happens a lot – I mean really, who knows Latin? – I’ll turn around and show them the translation, simultaneously saint and sinner, that’s written on the back of the shirt in small letters. It’s a fun thing to do; you too will likely see me wearing this shirt around one of these days as well.

The second article of clothing I have that relates to this theme is a sweatshirt, with an ambigram on it. An ambigram is an image – really a piece of art – that says one thing when you look at it from one direction. And says another thing when you look at it from the other direction. I brought this sweatshirt so you can see how exactly it works.

If you were to look at me wearing this sweatshirt you’d see this:

And when I look at this same image, while looking down, well, I see this:

This dual state, of being simultaneously saint and sinner, and being able to see that, together, in one image, I think it’s kinda helpful. It’s a reminder that we shouldn’t get too high on our horse in our identity as a saint. And on the flip side we shouldn’t beat ourselves up too much about our identity as a sinner, it’s baked into who we are, something each of us struggle with.

This saint and sinner identity covers all kinds of people, from Nobel prize winners to church reformers to biblical apostles. What made this notion so revolutionary 500 years ago is that it cuts across all classes of society, from clergy to peasants, from kings to paupers. Even today it includes the richest of the rich, the poorest of the poor, and everyone in the middle. It includes the PhDs and those that have never spent a day in school. It covers the biggest givers at church, the non-givers, and the non-attenders too. If you volunteer a ton, you’re part of it. If you don’t, well, I think you get the idea. We are saints. We are sinners.

In the coming weeks, as Pastor Bryan and I continue to delve into the reformation we may greet you by saying good morning, saints! When you hear that please respond with an enthusiastic good morning! And we may also greet you with a good morning sinners! Please also reply, with the same energy, good morning! Both, at all times, are true.

Before we close I’d like to ask you to do something this coming week, consider it your homework. Try to see everyone you meet as a saint, for indeed they are, made in the image of God. At the same time, recognize that everyone you meet also has their flaws – some noticeable, others hidden deep below the surface – that’s the sinner part. And remember that this paradox, of being a sinner, with no ability to save ourselves, yet also being a saint, created in the image of God, and still seen as good in the eyes of God, all this is made possible by the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Amen.

Charting course

I have a confession to make: Until recently I’d never been to Iowa.

Disney World, Spring 2017

Sure, I’ve travelled some, and have been to and through thirty-four states during various road trips and vacations spanning my forty-two years of life. Exploring different parts of the country is downright fun. And I’ve lived in seven of those states, including nearby Missouri and Indiana, along with other parts of the Midwest, South and East Coast. But, at least until recently, I’d never been to Iowa. And then, in late April, not so long ago, the phone rang.

It was a call from the Southeastern Iowa Synod, who had just been forwarded my pastoral mobility paperwork. They asked if I was open to exploring an opportunity in their neck of the woods. An opportunity that, at least on paper, looked like it could be a really good fit. The opportunity was for an Associate Pastor role, at Bethesda Lutheran, in Ames. After asking a few questions of the synod, poring over paperwork from the congregation, website and newsletter, then speaking with my wife Kathi, and praying – a lot – after two days of all this we said, why yes, we’d like to explore this some more.

Around this same time the Bethesda Call Committee, formed with a goal of finding an Associate Pastor, met to do many of the same things. They too pored over paperwork. They met. They discussed. They too prayed. And they watched a video of one of my sermons. And if you ever happen across Council President Rod Place ask him to tell you about his recent experience with a snake in the garden. He shared this tale with me recently; it’s a real life story of how the people of Bethesda Lutheran Ames, and me, a Pastor from South Florida awaiting call, came to be joined together. Thinking about it now as I write, surrounded by moving boxes, well, it gives me goosebumps.

After all this, the call committee said yes, we too see potential here, and they asked Kathi and I to come visit and interview. And before we knew it we found ourselves leaving on a jet plane, destined for Des Moines, with a car rental ready to take us thirty miles north.

South Florida to Ames, Iowa: 1,538 miles

And what did we find during our three days in Ames in the middle of June? We found a town full of kind people. Our family has lived in South Florida for the past 16 years. Prior to that Kathi has lived in or near Chicago for most of her life. We both went to undergrad at Valparaiso University, in Northwest Indiana. We both realized on this trip we missed “Midwestern nice.” Ames has that in spades.

While there we found Iowa State University, which is exciting to us for several reasons. Part of my sense of call is to connect with groups that can best be described by taglines like GenXers, Millennials, the unchurched, de-churched, atheists and agnostics. Many of these groups can be found, in large quantities, among young adults. And certainly among a Big 12 college with 37,000 students. In my previous career I worked for Nielsen, the TV ratings company, and absolutely love the challenge of reaching new audiences in new ways. In this last career at Nielsen we called it marketing. In this next vocation, as Pastor, it’s simply evangelism.

Kathi is also excited about Iowa State, but for another reason. She found out the university recently approved a Nursing program at ISU. Kathi has a PhD in Nursing, and has been interested in pursuing her own call, to academia, for some time now. It’s fun to imagine what that could look like for her, fun to imagine what those possibilities, as this new nursing program launches, could be.

We also found, of course, Bethesda Lutheran. We found a call committee, filled with passionate church members, excitedly sharing all they do, both locally and abroad. (Side note – mission to Tanzania? Cool!) We found Bethesda youth, who gave great perspective about the educational gem that is the Ames public schools. We found Bethesda young adults, on fire with energy about the emerging church, and what faith communities in the US will look like in the coming years. And we found retirees, the backbone of Bethesda, the group perhaps most adept at giving of their time, talents and treasures, more-so than most any other demographic. The South Florida congregations I have served in various capacities, including during my seminary internship year, are *filled* with high energy, dynamic retirees. Self-actualized people, living lives of meaning, lives of purpose. Lives as Christ followers, actively showing a disciple’s heart in all they do.

We also found Pastor Bryan, and wife Tricia, clearly beloved by the congregation. Pastor Bryan is a downright dream to work alongside as an Associate, believe me, I’ve been looking – (can you tell we like him?!?). We found Bethesda staff, who seem to know how to have some fun, all while doing what they do so well.

Heck we even found a house to live in (yeah!) and closed on that earlier this month.

We have a confession to make, Kathi and I.  We found something during this three day visit to Central Iowa in the middle of June.  We found something, for the two of us, for our seven-year-old Hannah and three-year-old Graham, and for our elderly toy fox terrier Chips.  We found something we’ve been searching a while for.  We found home.

Ames Iowa, June 2017

Article originally appeared in the August 2017 edition of the Bethesda Lutheran newsletter The Wellspring.

Big Dogs and Water Bottles

A message on fear and welcome, drawn from some personal narrative set alongside Matthew 10:40-42 and Matthew 10:26-31  Either listen or read below.  Enjoy!

Three days ago, after taking a brief look at today’s gospel reading, I went for a morning jog. I’d spent maybe ten minutes reviewing how expert theologians recommend preaching this text, but to be honest not much in there really hit home. Sometimes, for me at least, jogging on the open, unpaved, rural backroads of Loxahatchee helps to get the creative juices flowing.

While jogging two thoughts kept going through my mind. First, the word “welcome” is used six times in today’s Gospel reading. Surely there must be a more concise way to drive home this point. This suggests the writer of Matthew could have used a better editor – I mean really, using one word, six times, in less than two sentences? Or, more likely, especially since this scripture is directly attributed to the words of Jesus, perhaps this concept of welcome, and the importance of it, and how we welcome others, is a notion that Christ truly wants us to fully grasp.

And the other thought going through my head while jogging? It was hot. It was really, really hot. I’d started the jog right before 10am, way too late to avoid the South Florida summer heat, and temperatures were already in the high 80s. Within minutes I was dripping with sweat.

Big Dog
Two miles into the jog, on a route I’ve run dozens of times before without incident, I notice a dog, a big dog, barking and running right at me. And then I hear shouting. It seems the dog had gotten out of the yard and the owner was trying to get them back.

As the dog gets closer I notice it’s a pit bull. That’s a breed that, stereotypically speaking, you just don’t want to mess with. At least not without knowing more about that particular dog. Every-so-often you’ll hear stories of pit bulls attacking runners, and that possibility definitely crossed my mind. But I reminded myself, quickly, that not all pitbulls are vicious animals. In fact most of them aren’t.

My brother Clayton and his wife Briana have a pit bull as a pet, his name, fittingly, is Tank. Our family visited my brother’s family, in Baltimore, during Christmas 2012; and I have this distinct memory of being a bit worried about having our daughter Hannah, who was two and a half at the time, be under the same roof as a pit bull. But then we got to know this particular big dog. I had the chance to see, first hand, Tank interact with Hannah, watched as she petted him, watched as he joyfully licked her from head to toe. Big dogs have big tongues it turns out, and when they use those big tongues to show love to the humans in their life, well, it’s just fun be part of.

Hannah and Tank got along so well – she calls him Tanky – that my wife Kathi gifted her this stuffed animal to remember him by. Kathi looked for a stuffed toy pit bull all over the local mall, and couldn’t find one, so we settled on a Bassett hound toy to represent Tanky instead. And since this time my brother and his wife have welcomed their own child into their home too. From that I’ve had the chance to watch their newborn baby boy, now toddler, also play with Tanky, and get lovingly licked all over as well.

All that is to say, those stories of runners being attacked by pit bulls, and my own positive experiences with Tanky, the big dog that Hannah loves, those memories were all flying through my head, at a rapid pace, as I continued to watch this pit bull, running at me while jogging, still just three days ago.

After thinking through the situation as best I could, in real time, I slowed down, stopped jogging, and stood there, motionless, hands to my side. I’d heard to take that approach from somewhere, that a dog’s instinct is to chase. And if you don’t give them anything to chase, and don’t appear to be afraid, and don’t threaten them yourself, well, often they’ll get bored.

And that’s exactly what happened.

After sniffing at me for what seemed like an eternity, but was probably closer to fifteen seconds, the big dog lost interest, and instead jaunted over to sniff some grass and the nearby canal water.

Water Bottle
Shortly after that the owner came over, walked right up to me and shook my hand, apologizing profusely. “I’m so sorry,” he said, “my gate was open for just a few seconds to let a truck in, and Sheriff (that’s the name of the dog) ran right out. He just loves to run.” And that line, that he just loves to run, reminded me of other neighbors who would run their dogs while following them in their classic Volkswagen convertible. They liked to call that redneck dog walking, their term, not mine; perhaps that’s a story for another time.

Anyways – “No worries,” I replied to the big dog owner. “I’ve encountered all sorts of dogs out here, and yours is one of the good ones” (which is entirely true for this runner.)
We then talked, me and this new neighbor. We talked of neighborhood happenings, grass cutting schedules and a Trauma Hawk flight he took in 2007, from an accident that happened right on the street I live on, two short blocks from our home.

The big dog owner then offered me a bottle of water, which sounded great, and we began walking to his garage to get it. Along the way he shared what he does for a living, things like the mowing of lawns, the operating of big machinery, and the creating of screened porch enclosures. Manly stuff. Cool stuff.

And the guy cursed up a storm, which I always appreciate when meeting new people. When he asked me what I did for a living, and I replied that I’m a Pastor, he gave a sheepish look; I could almost see him mentally retracing our conversation. “No worries,” again I reply, “I’m one of the good ones, at least when it comes to that; I drop a choice four letter word on occasion too. It’s all good.” I then realized, in that moment, that this big dog owner was helping me to overcome some of my own stereotypes. Perhaps in some small way I could help him broaden his own notion of what a pastor is and how they act.

We proceeded to walk into his garage, and he pulled out that promised bottle of water, right out of an icy cooler. For a runner, who had started a jog in weather likely too hot to safely jog in, and who had just been ran at by a pit bull unexpectedly, well that’s about as welcoming as welcoming can get. As I look around his garage I notice some cans of Coca Cola, sitting alongside a half empty bottle of rum, and I smile. I, too, love a good rum and coke. The ice cold bottle of water now in hand, which really hit the spot, I thank the big dog owner and head out to complete the jog.

While jogging back home, trying to process this chance encounter, I realize that this wasn’t just some random big dog owner. And that this wasn’t just a neighbor newly met. This is someone I like. Someone I could share a rum and coke with. Someone I could talk with about the challenges our world faces. Maybe we could even try and solve a few of those world problems together too. This is someone I could call friend.

And none of that could have happened if I hadn’t been open to getting to know the man behind the big dog.

Earlier in Matthew chapter 10, before all that talk of the importance of welcome, Jesus talks about big dogs too, albeit in a different way. Matthew 10 is the first chapter in this gospel where all twelve disciples have been called and named. The remainder of the chapter consists almost entirely of the sayings of Jesus, speaking directly to the disciples. You could almost think of it as an early huddle, with Jesus as coach, saying something akin to gather around team, I’ve got a mission for you. And here’s how we’re gonna do it.

Part of that playbook Christ refers to in Matthew 10 contains three little words from verse 26: HAVE NO FEAR. The next several verses after that delve into why not. We matter deeply to God, it says. If God cares for the sparrows, then how much more value does God place on us? God knows minute details about us, down to the number of hairs on our head. With such an all-caring, and all-knowing God, what on earth do we have to fear? It’s this fear, in many ways, that keeps us from each other. And keeps us from welcoming one another, as Christ implores, in the name of our Creator.

And in this society, where fear really does sell, following those three little words HAVE NO FEAR can seem downright daunting. The concepts of fear-based marketing can be seen all over the place, with marketers trying to sell you home security systems, car alarms and computer software solutions designed to keep the bad guys out. And you’ll see it in our politics, where fear of the other, both who they are and what they stand for, is the common currency of our political identification. And our political dialogue. Or perhaps our lack of dialogue. This notion of moving past a place of fear, in our modern times, well that’s a fairly radical concept. But there it is. In scripture. Those three words. HAVE NO FEAR. Staring back at us. A precursor to how and who we choose to welcome.

What do you fear? Said differently, what big dogs do you need to make peace with? You’ve heard one of my fears, as a runner, on occasion, I fear big dogs. Kathi and I have always had terriers, little yippy fifteen pound dogs. Dogs we playfully named Salsa and Chips. I honestly haven’t had much experience around big dogs, perhaps that explains some of this big dog fear of mine. But the big dogs in our world come in many, many forms, both canine and otherwise.

Do you have a social fear? Like fear of embarrassment, fear of looking stupid, fear of screwing up? While those may seem small to some, for others those fears can be very big dogs.

Or do you fear the big dog of race? Those dogs come in many colors, be they black, white, brown, or all the hues in between.

Or is it the big dog of nationality? We use words like American, Mexican, Russian and Syrian, sometimes standing behind one big dog at the expense of another.

Or perhaps is it the big dog of religion? Those dogs go by the names of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, just to name a few.

Whatever your particular big dog may be, get to know the man, or the woman, or the person behind that big dog. And then welcome them. And be welcomed by them. For when we do we model Christ, and are rewarded with so much more than a cup of cold water. In this act of welcome we bring the kingdom of God to earth. And in no small way, in this act, of radical welcome, we catch a glimpse of heaven.  Amen.

Love Stories

A message drawn from the narrative of Jesus and the woman at the well in John 4.  Enjoy!

Do you like a good love story? Boy, my wife sure does. For as long as we’ve known each other she has been a huge fan of love stories. Whether it’s reading a good romance novel, watching a good love interest movie, or listening to a favorite podcast, my wife just loves a good love story.

And me? Well, less so. I’m more of an action adventure type when it comes to storytelling, give me a plot line where life and death hang in the balance, where the fate of the world is in play and tie it together with cutting-edge technological cinematronics and well, I’m in heaven. Our preferences likely aren’t too uncommon; girls typically go for the love, guys for the adventure, right? Perhaps there’s some truth to that age old gender stereotype. Perhaps my wife and I are a bit boring, a bit normal in that way.

As I age tho, I’m finding I enjoy a good love story more than I used to. Maybe I’m softening some. And more than only reading, watching or listening to them, I find, on occasion, I enjoy telling these stories too. And that’s what we’ll do for the next fifteen minutes or so, I’d like to share three of my personal favorite love stories with you.

The first love story begins in 1993, in a college town not too far from here, in Northwest Indiana, at Valparaiso University, home of the Fighting Crusaders. This story involves two college freshmen, a boy and a girl that met the first day of band practice; she played the trumpet, he the trombone. They noticed each other that first day, had a good conversation, and parted ways. At the time she was still dating someone else from high school. And the guy? He had some wild oats to sow.

But eighteen months later her high school beau was no more, and his interest in sowing those oats had waned. While this girl and this boy were still friends they began to look at each other a little differently. And one evening, after talking for hours and hours they found themselves in her car, driving past unnamed Indiana cornfields, excitedly wondering where these conversations might lead. That night they led to a local park, and a gazebo, where they drew close and embraced for their first kiss. In that moment, a gentle mist of raindrops fell ever-so-slightly from the sky. It was magical. The love story, for these college sweethearts had begun.

When they married, six years later, they made sure to return to that same gazebo on their wedding day for the taking of pictures. And, to the surprise of those gathered that day, they accompanied the jazz trio at their own wedding reception; she still played the trumpet, and he the trombone. They brought these moments, of first meetings during band, a shared love of music, and first gazebo kisses into their wedding day for a reason. They wanted to make sure those special moments were brought into their marriage as well.

I tell you this story not just because it is a personal favorite, but because it is my own. Since that time my wife Kathi and I have brought two dogs and two children into this love story, including our seven year old Hannah, and three year old son Graham. And since then we’ve travelled around the sun together more times than either of us would care to admit. We hope to continue travelling around the sun, together, for many, many more years to come.

Now in English we have just one word for love, and that is kind of limiting. Strong, positive feelings for a spouse, a sibling, God or even a sports team all gets lumped into that one word, love. But in ancient Greek there are multiple words for love. The story you just heard was about Eros, that’s the romantic kind.

Philia love is more about affectionate friendship, and is typically between family and friends. This next story is about that, and comes from the 2003 movie Love Actually. That movie, Love Actually, is actually about eight love stories, masterfully woven together into one film. Today we’ll focus on the best of that batch, in my opinion at least, the story of Daniel and Sam.

Daniel, a middle aged man, is played by a favorite actor of mine, Liam Neeson. Early in the film he loses his wife, she’d been suffering from a terminal illness, and had finally succumbed to it. Besides being a fairly young widower he also needs to learn how to be a single father for Sam, that’s his wife’s eleven year old son. Sam responds to losing his mother by locking himself in his room and crying. As you can imagine this worries stepfather Daniel immensely.

But it turns out this sadness isn’t just about losing his mom, Sam is in love with a girl at school. And he doesn’t know what to do about it. Even worse, Sam soon learns that this girl will be moving from England back to America. Sam is devastated.

To get Sam noticed by this girl the father and son come up with a plan, Sam will learn to play the drums and perform at the big school Christmas concert; perhaps that will do the trick. So Sam practices, the day of the concert arrives, and the girl actually smiles at Sam. Dad thinks to himself mission accomplished.

Unfortunately Sam is still miserable, for the girl is going straight from the concert to the airport, heading back to America. Dad convinces Sam that he must tell her he loves her, and drives quickly to the airport, hoping to arrive before she departs. So what happens next? Hold tight, we’ll get back to that in a little bit.

While this love story also contains a girl and a boy and the potential for a kiss, what draws me to it is the relationship between father and son. Both still grieve; Daniel lost his wife, Sam his mother. But they find a way forward, through this grief, towards a deeper relationship with each other. Their story, in a way, is a shared quest for love. This is the kind of deep connection any father would want with their son.

I’d like to suggest that the gospel reading from today, of Jesus speaking to the woman at the well, is also a love story. Unlike our previous two stories this is not a romantic eros or friendship philia kind of love. This is an agape love story. That’s the love of God for humanity. And also the love of humanity for God. Arguably today’s scripture passage has all the trappings of a very good love story. So let’s talk a bit about what makes this such a good tale.

A good love story is rarely convenient. Our gospel reading this week begins with Jesus leaving Judea and heading back to Galilee. But he didn’t take shortest route. Instead, he chose to go through Samaria, requiring extra time, energy and effort for everyone he traveled with. After arriving Jesus sat down and was tired from the journey. Why did Christ take this scenic route? We’ll find out the answer to this plot twist later on.

In a good love story location and setting matter. The setting for this story is a well, a place where water is drawn from the ground. At face value there isn’t anything horribly exciting about a well. But this well was, well, different. It wasn’t just any well. This is Jacob’s well, and the location of several notable Old Testament engagements. Jacob and Rachel were engaged here, so were Moses and Zipporah, Isaac and Rebekah were too. Now those love stories involve the very human institution of marriage. The love story unfolding here does not involve tying the knot, tho, similar to an engagement, the location suggests that a deep, life-long relationship, and perhaps even longer than that, was about to be forged.

A good love story almost always involves, at some point in the narrative, conflict. The conversation between these two people at the well begins with a request; Jesus asks for some water. This immediately piques the woman’s curiosity. Why, she wonders, would a Jewish man ask something of me? Here we have a Jewish Rabbi speaking with a Samaritan woman. And worse, the two are alone. It’s almost scandalous.

We’re told rather plainly in John 4:9 that Jews and Samaritans don’t associate with each other. Theologian Karoline Lewis suggests this is perhaps the greatest understatement in the entire Bible. Jews and Samaritans, culturally at that time, did not share much of anything in common. And they definitely didn’t come in contact with each other. For if they did tradition would require that Jesus return to Jerusalem to undergo a ritual cleansing. Yet here Jesus sits, at the well, asking for water from this Samaritan woman. The tension, in this moment, is palpable.

In a good love story both people need something. After three days of travel, and sitting there in the midday sun, Jesus must have been pretty thirsty. In a very real way he needs this water from the woman. His response tho suggests that this conversation may be about more than getting a sip to drink. He replies, “if you recognized God’s gift, and who is asking for water, you would be asking him instead. And he would give you living water.” The woman, still not grasping Jesus also has something to offer her, comments that he doesn’t have a bucket. And that well is deep. Where would you get this living water? You aren’t greater than our Father Jacob are you?” she wonders. Can you hear the sarcasm in her voice?

Jesus responds by making a distinction between the well water, and the water that he offers. That well water? Drink from it and you’ll be thirsty again. But the water that I offer, Jesus says? Whoever drinks that will never thirst. And even better, he says, that water bubbles up into eternal life. The woman, now sensing the conversation is more than idle chatter, and that Jesus does have something to offer her he responds, “then give me this water!” That way I’ll never be thirsty, and never need to come back to this well!

A good love story also reveals characters for who they truly are. The identity of Jesus is slowly being revealed in this story, but so far we know next to nothing about this Samaritan woman. And that is about to change. Jesus asks this woman, oddly, to get her husband, and to come back. To which she replies, “I don’t have a husband.” Jesus answers, why yes, that’s right, you do not have a husband. You’ve had five.

Now we don’t know the nature of these former relationships, and to speculate on them would be unfair to the woman. We do know that having all those husbands would have probably ostracized her; she most likely wouldn’t have too many friends. In this culture women did the water fetching, typically going twice a day, in the morning and the evening. And they’d often go together, it was a social gathering. Yet this woman appears at the well at noon, the hottest part of the day. And worse she’s alone. I think it’s fair to say she wasn’t too well connected, or well-liked, in this community.

The woman, whose identity has just been revealed, then calls Jesus a prophet. And in this role of prophet she ask him a theological question. Our ancestors worship God on one mount, she says, and your people say God should be worshipped elsewhere. Which place is correct? Where can God be found? This is no small question, and is at the core of the conflict between Samaritans and Jews.

Jesus responds that God is not confined to either spot, and that the time of salvation is coming. The woman, who seems to be catching on says, “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called Christ.” Sensing she is now ready to hear, and understand his true identity Jesus replies simply, “I am. The one who speaks with you. I am.” The grand reveal, for both main characters in this love story, is now complete.

Often, in a good love story your close friends are surprised. After this grand reveal look who arrives from stage left, why it’s the disciples, back from the city, with lunch in hand. When they see Jesus, talking with the woman, they express shock. They are so shocked they are silent, leaving their questions unspoken. They wonder, scripture says, what Jesus seeks. Of course we the audience know the answer to this unspoken question: Jesus has come to meet this woman. He has gone out of his way, in time, distance, and in breaking cultural norms, to meet this woman.

And in a really, really, really good love story, one where you’re just tickled pink about this new relationship status, you want to tell everyone you know. And that’s exactly what happens. Upon learning that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the woman puts down her water jar and goes to the city. She literally leaves her water jar, which is live-giving in an earthly sense. She then runs to tell others about the living water, the eternal water, that she has now found.

The woman doesn’t just tell everyone she knows about this new love, she invites them to meet Christ too, saying, “come!” This man has told me everything I’ve ever done! And he still accepts me! If that’s not love, truly unconditional love, then I don’t know what is.

God So Loved The World
You see, this love story isn’t just between one man and one woman. It’s broader. And it isn’t only between one man and a town. It’s much, much more. We get a clue to how broad it is in the last verse of today’s gospel; those believing that day conclude Christ is truly the savior of the world. If you go back just one chapter, to John 3, verse 16 – a verse I can almost guarantee you know by heart – we remember that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. There, right there, begins the love story.

For when you’re Christ, on a mission from God, who so loved the world, you have to go to that world. You go out of your way, to meet that world in the flesh. You travel to lands you’re told you shouldn’t travel. You have conversations with people your faith tradition typically shuns. When you’re Christ, you love and accept people for who they are, no matter what. No matter how many husbands or wives they’ve had. No matter their gender, race, ethnicity, religion, creed, nationality, immigration status, ability, disability, income or lack of. When you’re Christ your love knows no boundaries. And when you’re Christ you implore others to go, and do the same.

Before we close I’d like to show you a brief video clip from the movie we spoke about earlier, Love Actually. We’ll pick up where we left off; Daniel and Sam have arrived at Heathrow airport in the hopes Sam can tell the love of his life how he feels. But of course, as with any good love story, sometimes that’s easier said than done. Let’s watch what happens next.

That scene, of the father and son embracing, it hits me every time, just beautiful.

Do you like a good love story? Not just the romantic or friendship kind, but a good agape love story, a love story between you and your Creator. If so, be like Sam at the airport. Make bold moves, break some rules, and chase after this love. Make it your mission in life. Give it everything you’ve got.

And definitely be like the woman at the well. Drop that jar of water, or that bottle of water, or your spring water, or whatever earthly vessel you use. Drop it and run. Run and tell everyone you know. Amen.