Sunday, February 24, 2008

Lent 3A

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

It was as though the massive wooden doors guarded a passage back through time. Stepping through them, we left the noise of New York City and entered a fortress of faith, enormous, ornate, and insulated from the hustle and bustle surrounding it. There was very little light inside, so that the stained glass windows hung like jewels in the dark stone walls, and the ceiling vaulted into shadows filled with smoke from the incense of midday mass. Columns of saints set in marble rose behind the altar, attended by angels carved in choirs along the pews. Out of reverence, no one spoke above a whisper; and yet, even the barest of breaths echoed through the vast space, so that we imagined the saints themselves were speaking.

We were there as part of a class assignment, to study what our professor called the “theology of bricks and mortar,” the way in which worship spaces shape and participate in our prayer. He had asked us to note a number of things in each church we visited, such as the distance between the congregation and the altar, the placement of the pulpit, and the variety of images visible in glass or stone or wood.

At first we thought it was the enormity of the space, or the dim light, or the distraction of ornamentation that made it difficult to find the font. After a while spent searching, however, we finally asked an attendant to show us where it was. We watched as he opened a set of oak doors carved into one of the huge pillars along a side aisle. There, hidden inside the pillar, was the font, the water in its bowl as sober and still as the space in which it was enclosed.

We visited a second church that day, a few city blocks and a thousand light years away. This one was sunk below the busy streets and sidewalks, more accessible by subway than by taxicab. It was full of light, pouring in from the clear glass windows that spanned the length and height of the soaring ceiling. From any of the seats that circled around the altar, we could look up at the people, the traffic, and the concrete and steel of the city, and we could hear its hum. The space itself was fluid, like city life, easily arranged and rearranged to meet the needs of those who worshipped there.

Only one piece in that church could not be moved, a large pool carved in granite that seemed to rise up out of the earth itself. It was the baptismal font, but unlike any we had ever seen, inviting all who entered the church to brush their fingertips across its waters as they passed by, without having to stoop. The water within the font was fountain-stirred, so that the sight and sound of the water led one to suspect they were going to get wet even if they did not touch the water itself.

I thought of this assignment as I read this morning’s gospel story. I saw Jesus sitting on the sun-baked stones surrounding the well that the Samaritan woman had come to for water, a font of sorts. I listened to them discuss the properties of the water within, whether it would really quench what made them thirst – weariness, wonder, the weight of the world. And I found myself wondering what sort of properties the water, the pool, the well within me has. Is it hidden away, as sober and still as the space in which it is enclosed? Or is it living water, fountain-fed, close enough for others to suspect they’ll get wet just from being near me?

We are surrounded by and composed of water. Seventy percent of the earth’s surface. Sixty-five percent of the human body. We are indeed living water, and while in this part of the country our yards sometimes suffer from lack of water, we are fortunate to always have enough water to drink. We are able to satisfy our thirst.

And yet, we are made to be vessels not only for the water that continually flows from earth to air and back again. We are also made to be vessels for God, to hold God within ourselves and to allow God to pass through from us to others and back again. But we are imperfect, easily cracked and drained by the stresses of life – by failures, disappointments, grief, anger, loneliness, self-doubt, and fear. With what do we try to fill the emptiness? With what do we try to quench our thirst? Do these things satisfy us? How soon are we thirsty again? Almighty God, our collect began this morning, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves…although goodness knows we try to fill our empty buckets.

We thirst for love, for companionship, for wholeness. Loneliness, guilt, and grief leave us parched. We try to satisfy our thirst with things like food, drink, work, looks, accomplishments, possessions, and other people. All these can indeed quench our thirst for a time. They can also become toxic. Our thirst can motivate us; it can also kill us.

Like the Israelites’ journey in the desert, like the Samaritan woman’s journey to faith, like Jesus’ heart-breaking journey to the cross, like our journey through this Lenten wilderness, like all these things, life is a journey by stages. Bit by bit, drop by drop, moment by moment, we find the strength it takes to get to the next well, the next place of renewal and refreshment. The woman’s journey takes place within the space of only a few minutes. She does not understand Jesus at first, thinking only how lovely it would be not to have to carry a heavy water jug any more. But as the truth of what he is telling her finally sinks in, soaking her thirsty soul, she realizes that Jesus is offering her something far more essential to her well-being, far more necessary for life, than water itself. Jesus is offering her the living water of God’s grace and acceptance of her, just as she is, cracks and all.

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. Jesus himself is the living water who longs to quench our thirst for life, so much so that he will wait patiently beside the well for our arrival. If we will have him, he flows through the cracks in our lives, filling every deep crevice so that nothing is hidden from the life that he brings. He flows into every wrinkle and scar, every line drawn by failure, regret, or loss. He makes the roads we’ve wandered into flowing rivers and fills the broken places in our hearts and lives.

In fact, more powerful than our aching, our hunger, more powerful than our thirst, is God’s longing to be our bread of life, to be our living water. Jesus thirsts for us, cracked vessels that we are, longing to fill us with God’s love and grace. God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us, Paul writes. Where our longing and God’s longing meet, a fountain of living water erupts, and we can’t help but get wet.

In the journey by stages through the wilderness, God gave the Israelites more than just water – God gave water where there shouldn’t have been any at all. In the journey by stages through faith, Jesus gave the Samaritan woman more than just water – he gave her a new life as a water bearer. She left behind her heavy jug of well water and carried instead a heart full of grace and good news. Come and see! she says to everyone, echoing Jesus’ call to discipleship. Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done, to whom all hearts are open and from whom no secrets are hidden. He offered me living water, and I drank. Come and see! Could he be the Messiah, the one for whom we have been hoping and praying?

The Samaritan woman is still full of questions, journeying by stages, following the stream to its source. Her story and her life are still full of cracks, but the water is bubbling up from within and pouring out through her witness to others. She will bring them to the well, where there are no buckets or heavy water jugs but rather one who will fill them with the water of life. They, too, will become water bearers, carrying that water with them and passing it on to others who are aching and parched.

Who was it that brought each one of us to the well, to the font, to the living water of God’s love and grace? What has become of that spring inside us? Do we keep it hidden behind closed doors? Is the water in us sober and still? Do we fill our cracks and empty spaces with whatever quenches our thirst for the moment, only to find ourselves thirsty again? Or does the water of life flow freely within us and all around us? Do we carry it to others so that they, too, may drink deeply?

Even though our bodies are sixty-five percent water, we still need eight glasses a day to remain healthy – we will always be in need of more water. In something of the same way, we will always be in need of the well by which Jesus sits and waits, not because the living water he offers would dry up within us, but because we have a habit of shutting the doors on the font, the fount, the spring that sustains us.

As we journey by stages through Lent, as we journey by stages through life, let us drink deeply from the well. Let us open the doors of our hearts. Let us be water bearers, carrying grace and good news. Let us get wet. Amen.

Artwork: "The Woman at the Well", by Huibing Kennedy.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Ash Wednesday

Preached at Saint Andrew's Episcopal School, for Middle and Upper School chapel services. The high point of chapel was hearing Anna sing, "There's a wideness in God's mercy..."

Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 6:3-10

The first time I ever placed ashes in the shape of a cross on someone’s forehead was in March of 2002, just six months after that same someone had been covered in ash from head to toe as Lower Manhattan collapsed around him. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return, I told him, but of course he knew that now.

We were standing just in front of the altar at Trinity Episcopal Church, the great gothic guardian that keeps watch over Wall Street. It was a cavernous, elegant space filled with marble and polished wood and stained glass… filled, still, with enough dust and ash to disable the grand pipe organ and enough memories of that day in September to disable the heart.

The main Ash Wednesday service was long over, but as seminarians we had been asked to remain in the church to offer ashes and solemn words to any who walked in off the street throughout the afternoon. Many of those who came in worked on Wall Street, wearing their suits and vests, hurrying in on their lunch hour and then lulled into lingering by the stillness in the sanctuary. Others lived nearby, assisting children or elderly relatives up the aisle for their helping of dust. I’m sure some were tourists who wandered in after their allotted time on the observation deck that overlooked Ground Zero just a couple of blocks away. There we all were, in church on Ash Wednesday, wearing on our foreheads evidence of our common vulnerability.

After a while, we made our way to Saint Paul’s Chapel, a much smaller Episcopal church that somehow survived when the towers across the street did not. The little church had been struggling to stay open before, unable to find a way to be relevant to the city that surrounded it. But it quickly became a home away from home for the thousands of women and men who came from near and far to help work through the wreckage. Three hot meals were served each day. Workers slept in cots and pews, supplied with pillows and blankets and even, when needed, a stuffed bear. An infirmary was set up to tend to aching heads and blistered feet. Counselors and Kleenex waited in one corner. And there were tables and tables of donated supplies, sent from all over – work boots and gloves, clean shirts, eye drops, water and much more. Surrounding it all, covering every column and wall, hanging from the balcony and lining the windows, were countless colorful banners bearing messages of gratitude and hope, encouraging letters written by schoolchildren, and paper doves silently cooing peace.

We arrived just in time for the Ash Wednesday service to begin, and again we assisted with tracing crosses on the foreheads of those who were gathered there. Many had been working at the site, which at that time was still an active recovery effort. The rest were volunteers who spent the day filling soup bowls or hanging doves or giving out band-aids and clean socks. There we all were, in church on Ash Wednesday, wearing on our foreheads evidence of our common strength.

I learned on that day that although we are desperately vulnerable both to accident and temptation, so are we decidedly strong, resilient, selfless, courageous, and determined to hope. The ashes we wore on our foreheads were for us the sign of our commonalities rather than our differences, despite the variety of colors and textures and shapes of skin upon which the sooty crosses were drawn. They were a sign of our common need for God and for one another in this sin-filled world.

I had always experienced Ash Wednesday as very personal, as a time to repent of the things I had done to separate myself from God’s hope for me. And it is this, in part. But Ash Wednesday is also a celebration of the reality that we are inextricably bound to one another, entirely in need of one another, and sharing more in common than we might at first believe. If you put an end to oppression, God spoke through the prophet Isaiah, If you put an end to every gesture of hate, and to every evil word; if you give food to the hungry and satisfy those who are in need, then the darkness around you will turn to the brightness of the moon. God may have made us from dust, but it’s the kind that sparkles when the light shines through it.

Here we all are, in chapel on Ash Wednesday, and soon many of us will wear on our foreheads the sign of our common vulnerability and our common strength, our common grief and our common hope. May we all choose to shine when the light hits us. Amen.

Banner created by Eliza Linley, on display at

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Another Last Epiphany A

I preached at Saint Andrew's Cathedral this morning. Because so many students and faculty from school attend church here, I re-wrote the sermon from last Tuesday, although I used the same story about Eagle Rock.

Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

One of the first things I learned as a camp counselor in the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina was that I’m not very good at mountain climbing. During staff training, we went on an overnight campout like the ones we’d be leading all summer. We hiked for hours, up hill and down, along wide grassy paths and narrow rocky ones, learning all the trails through the woods.

I had never been on a campout like that before. I thought the mountains were quite beautiful, but after a while I was having second thoughts about being able to identify poisonous snakes, light campfires in the rain, carry a pack taller than I was, negotiate footholds in roots and rocks, tie all the knots I needed to know, and all of that with homesick campers hanging from my elbows.

Late in the afternoon, we started on the trail up to Eagle Rock. The climb wasn’t too bad at first – a winding old dirt road that nature had begun to reclaim, threading its way uphill at a gentle angle. But then, at a point it would take me all summer to find on my own, we turned suddenly off the road and started climbing straight up, it seemed, until the path curved around and rose at a sharper angle still.

About halfway up, I knew I had to stop. My face was bright red and burning, both from exertion and embarrassment – no one else seemed as weary as I was. But they all put their packs down, and we call caught our breath and drank some water from our canteens. I dreaded the moment we’d start up again, but we were at the point it would be just as difficult to go back down as it would be to keep climbing… As we inched our way up the mountain, a few folks stayed close by, cheering me on from behind, and pointing out the easiest path in front of me. How strange, I thought, that we had been hiking together the whole day, but I hadn’t really noticed when all I could think about was how difficult the hike was for me. In the end, the only reason any of us made it up to Eagle Rock was because we helped one another climb.

It was hard to take it all in at the top. The air smelled and tasted pure. You could hear the sky itself, both in rushing wind and sparkling silence. The bursts of breeze were cool on our sweat-soaked skin, and the mossy rock gentle on our aching feet and backs. But it was the view… You could see, I mean really see everything.

I wonder if Peter and James and John, breathless from their climb, were caught up by the view from the top of a very high mountain. I wonder if their feet were glad for the moss and their hot faces glad for the cool breeze. I wonder if they were listening to the wind. I wonder when everything began to change. Did the air sparkle? Did it first turn golden-yellow, as when a thunderstorm ends just at sunset? And Jesus was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.

The story of the Transfiguration is told every year on the last Sunday after the Epiphany, the last Sunday in a season full of the light of revelation. The Magi observed a star and followed it over mountains and across deserts to Jesus. A voice from heaven called Jesus “My beloved Son” as he stood dripping in Jordan River water. “We have found the Messiah,” cried Andrew to his brother as the sun set on his first afternoon spent with Jesus. And so we come to this last and most brilliant epiphany, when Jesus was revealed in a new light – or, rather, in a very ancient light. The light of the glory of God.

One dictionary defines glory as “the unapproachable and mighty manifestation of the immediate presence of God.” Indeed, both Moses and Elijah had experienced God’s glory on mountaintops before, awesome encounters with God so far beyond what their senses could comprehend that God had shielded their eyes and covered them in cloud. And yet, they had also encountered God’s immediate presence – God’s glory – in manna and flowing water, in still small voices, in healing touches, and in the kindness of others.

I am drawn to another definition of glory, offered by Frederich Buechner. “Glory is to God what style is to an artist,” he writes, noting that great works of art – paintings, sculptures, arias, and sonnets – great works of art are saturated in the rich and recognizable style of the artist who created them. “The style of an artist brings you as close to the sound of their voices and the light in their eyes as it is possible to get this side of actually shaking hands with them.”

The view from the top of that very high mountain must have been dizzying, with Jesus’ shining face and dazzling clothes, the companionship of salvation history’s holiest men, and a bright cloud overshadowing all. It is no wonder Peter desperately wants to stop the world’s spinning and contain the moment he cannot comprehend. He does not yet understand that God’s glory has been with him all along, that it climbed the mountain with him, and will accompany him back down. He does not yet understand that God’s glory has a voice – not only the terrifying and strange voice from the cloud proclaiming, This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased, but the also the comforting and familiar voice from his rabbi and friend saying, Get up and do not be afraid. Peter and the others do not yet understand that God’s glory has skin and bones and breath – not only a shining face, but a tender touch as well.

God is beyond all our seeing and hearing and touching and knowing, but the witness of scripture is to the awesome entry of heavenly mystery into human experience, to how the appearance of that mystery ever changes so that we might see it in a new light. And yet still there is no mistaking who the changeless Artist is, the one who paints glory as both dazzling light and dusty feet, messiahs and mountaintops, epiphanies and everyday life.

For all of creation, itself art in motion, reflects something of the glory of God, contains God’s glory in a way Peter hadn’t imagined. The view from the top of any very high mountain, the coolness of a breeze, the fresh scent of moss, the hand that helps you climb, the companionship of friends – are not these great works of art saturated with the style of the artist who created them? The sound of our voices raised in song, the sight of our community gathered in prayer, the touch of a hand at the peace, the smell of the wine in the chalice, the taste of the bread that fills us with the Body of Christ – are not these great works of art saturated with the style of the artist who created them?

Yet a third scholar defines glory simply as “God’s visible manifestation.” There was no mistaking the manifestation of God’s glory on a high mountaintop that day, but Jesus had not changed. God’s glory was on display in him each and every day of his life for those who had eyes to see and ears to hear. It was visibly manifest in his choice of company, his eating, his touching, his smiling, his weeping, his need for rest, his love of climbing mountains. It was visibly manifest even in his receiving a crown of thorns, his face bright red and burning, his breath ragged, his life ceasing. But death could not contain God’s glory, and so when light dawned on the third day, Jesus revealed God’s greatest masterpiece, resurrection, and invited us all to shine, to speak of good news, to taste and feed hunger, to hear and soothe hurt, to touch and heal injustice.

There may not come for us a dazzling light or a voice from heaven. Such transfigurations are rare, and perhaps unbearable. Instead, we are slowly changed from glory into glory, one mountain at a time – and there are many mountains along our way. Nothing really changed on the side or the top of Eagle Rock – the climb was still steep, I was still out of breath, and I still worried about poisonous snakes. Nothing really changed on the outside, but something in me was transformed so that I saw myself, those who were with me, and the woods in which we walked in a new light. There were lots of little epiphanies like that over the course of that summer, little bursts of light like the fireflies and stars that danced over our campfire. Each little encounter illuminated something more of God’s immediate presence, God’s glory, in everyday life – a helping hand rolling up tarps and sleeping bags, sharing an extra canteen of water, singing “Pass It On” in the outdoor chapel across the lake, catching the unchecked smile on a homesick camper’s face when she saw the view from the top of Eagle Rock…

Sisters and brothers, in this season of Epiphany, we have hiked together from the wilderness of the Jordan River to the wilderness at the top of a very high mountain; in a very few days, we will enter the wilderness of Lent. Many of us carry heavy packs. There are roots and rocks to negotiate, knots to tie and lines to cut. The way is narrow and winding and steep. We may get stuck on the side of a hill. We will need to stop to catch our breath. In the end, the only way we will make it to Easter morning is if we help one another climb. Along the path, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear and hands to reach out and tongues to tell and hearts to beat and spirits to serve, we will indeed shine with the likeness of Christ, the Artist in Residence, changed from glory into glory. Amen.

Photo taken from