Once upon a time, we had a presidential election. Things changed. Now we’re trying to figure out how to inhabit this new reality. We’re having to re-think almost everything.
Had the election turned out differently, I doubt we’d be re-thinking anything…because the administration that would have resulted from that outcome would have been very much like previous administrations. I suspect that as a church we’d carry on like we always had—with a few of us doing justice work, all of us doing charity work, and not really having to think a whole lot about how to be the church. Had the election gone differently, I suspect here at church it would have been business as usual.
The gift of the new reality we’re inhabiting since the election is the way it’s calling us to rethink how we do church. It’s become clear that so many things we’ve taken for granted for so long, so many battles we’ve already fought—and thought we’d won—are still raging…. The battles of racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, and the wholesale assault on human dignity.
Human dignity. Remember when that was something we could assume? Do you find yourself constantly appalled these days by things public figures and even ordinary Americans are saying to and about each other? The vitriol people are spewing at each other….how has this happened? How has it become okay to cut each other down with our words?
And it’s not just words. Words create reality. It’s not a coincidence that as hateful rhetoric has risen, so have hate crimes—attacks on mosques and synagogues, bomb threats called in to Jewish Community centers across the country, the desecration of Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia. Have you seen the pictures? Knocking down all those headstones—over 100 in each cemetery—took a lot of sustained effort. It wasn’t just painting derogatory words on a wall and running away. How could someone engage in all that activity and not once think, Hey, maybe I don’t want to do this?
Crimes against women, lesbian gay bisexual and, especially, transgender people are up. Race-based crimes are up. The proposed federal budget cuts out programs that feed school children and the elderly. There is proposed legislation in our own state that will give adoption agencies the right to bar gay couples from adopting. What is going on? Since when did it become okay to throw the least of these under the bus?
The hateful rhetoric to which we Americans have given free rein in the last year—if we haven’t spoken against it, we’ve endorsed it—has led us to this place where the dignity of all human beings can no longer be assumed….and yes, I’m also talking about Facebook posts and informal conversations. Dehumanization is dehumanization, regardless of your politics.
If there is hope for our country, we must reclaim our commitment to decency. If there is hope for our country, we must recover our belief in the dignity of every person. If there is hope for our country, we must recommit ourselves to working for the common good.
And if there is hope for our country, the church must learn to be church in new ways.
In every age, societal shifts call on the church to re-envision and reimagine what it means to follow Jesus for that time. What does it mean for us to follow Jesus for this time? What does it mean for us as Pilgrimage United Church of Christ to follow Jesus in this new reality? How do we as followers of Jesus act the world into wellbeing now?
The current circumstances are calling us to be church in a new way. What might that new way involve? I’m not sure. That’s something we’ll need to figure out together as a community. I do have a sense, though, of where we must begin. It’s where any plan for acting the world into wellbeing must begin—by reaffirming the inherent dignity of every human being.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ whole purpose is to show us God…so that we might come to believe. So what do Jesus’ actions in today’s Gospel story reveal to us about God?
First, Jesus shows us that God isn’t as interested in societal and religious rules as we might suppose. Jesus speaks to a woman. A Samaritan woman. A Samaritan woman of, perhaps, questionable morals.
Had Jesus abided by social and religious rules of the day, he would have stayed as far away from this woman as possible. He would have seen or sensed all the strikes against her and drawn his own water from the well.
But Jesus saw the person beyond the labels. He didn’t see just a woman, he didn’t see just a Samaritan, he didn’t see just a person with questionable morals—he saw a human being, a beloved child of God, a person desperately thirsty for living water. And so, for no other reason than that she was a human being who needed it, Jesus gave her living water.
And once the woman received it, she came to life. She set down her jug—all it held was H2O…she was now the container for the living water Jesus had given her—she ran back to her village and shared the life she had received from Jesus. Because of her, an entire village came to believe.
What if Jesus had dismissed the woman at the well, as societal and religious rules dictated? If he had dismissed her, if he had diminished her, if he had not looked past the labels society and religious institutions had placed on her and seen her as the beautiful child of God she was, a whole village would have missed the gift of life.
I worry that in our country right now we have begun to lose our ability—and perhaps our will—to look beyond labels…of nationality… skin color…gender…economic status… sexual orientation… political affiliation… It seems like with each passing day, we become more deeply entrenched in an us-and-them mindset. By doing so, I wonder how much life we are missing?
A church in Connecticut found life looking beyond labels. The church in East Lyme “was next door to a group home for adults.” Pastor Erica Wimber Avena writes, “One day one of them came in and sat down before worship, uninvited. She was painfully overweight and wearing clothing that didn’t fit. She hadn’t bathed and wasn’t able to breathe or move comfortably. She wouldn’t speak or make eye contact with anyone.
“From the beginning, she tried our patience. More than once she forgot where she was and lit up a cigarette right there in the pew. Her medication prevented her from being able to follow the order of worship. She fell asleep during sermons. Her breathing problems escalated and became loud snoring problems.
“You can imagine the conversations we had at council meetings: ‘She doesn’t belong here; she couldn’t possibly be getting anything out of it so heavily medicated.’ Some tried financial tactics: ‘I’m tithing to this church, and she’s just giving pennies…she shouldn’t be allowed to ruin it for everyone.’ Some observed that she ate too many cookies at coffee hour. They worried that she was a deterrent to other visitors. I worried about everyone.
“Finally, an exasperated council member said she’d had enough of all this talk. She announced that she would make a friend out of our troubled visitor and would hereafter be sitting next to her in church. Understand: this means that after more than 25 years sitting in one pew, she moved…to a different pew. When the snoring started, the council member gave a gentle nudge; she helped our visitor find the right hymn to sing; she reminded her to put her cigarettes away and limited her to no more than three cookies in the fellowship hall.
“That small act was all our visitor needed. Soon I witnessed her talking to people; she made eye contact and learned to shake my hand at the door after worship; her first words to me were ‘bless you.’
“Some months later I received a phone call from the woman’s social worker. He told me that she had never been accepted by any group or able to sustain a single positive relationship until she started coming to our church. ‘Thank you for welcoming her,’ he said to me. ‘I have never been to your church, but I know it is an exceptional place.’ After I hung up the phone I sat for a moment. ‘Exceptional?’
“Empowered now, the woman went on to make friends with the others in her group home and brought them all with her to church. She had gained her whole life back, put her demons behind her, and told anyone who would listen what the Lord had done for her.” (Erica Wimber Avena, in Christian Century, January 4, 2017. Used by permission.)
In this new reality we’ve entered in our country, God is calling us to be church in new ways. I don’t know what all those ways are. Through prayer, study, and conversation, we’ll figure all that out together.
Here’s what I do know, here’s what I believe with all my heart, mind, and soul, here’s what I believe it means to follow the Jesus who met the woman at the well… Whatever plan we come up with for being church in 2017, we must begin by honoring the dignity of every person we encounter—family, friends, acquaintances, foes, the least of these, each other … If we begin by honoring the dignity of every human being, the rest of the plan of acting the world into wellbeing will become clear. Jesus began with a Samaritan woman’s dignity and a village was transformed. Who or what might be transformed if we do the same?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2017