You Can, Unless You Shouldn’t

How can scripture inform the way we share our faith in the midst of disagreement? Christianity isn’t easy. “You can unless you shouldn’t, and you shouldn’t unless you should,” is the heart of Paul’s ethics in Romans. Romans is the last of Paul’s writings after spending years planting and leading churches, being inside of jail cells, and arguing with church leaders about the Gospel. The Romans message is quite different than his early writings because of this lived experience. Paul’s faith matured to realize that Christ did not come to establish a new, unchanging Law; rather we are called to improvise with the Holy Spirit based on the way Christ is shaping and forming us within a faith community. Another way to say this is that Paul offers “Accountable Permission,” as the cornerstone of our shared Christian lives.

For example, “As Christians, should we or should we not eat meat that has been polluted by idols,” is the question Paul addresses in Romans 14. According to the Jerusalem Council, the answer is clearly “No”— “Therefore I [James, the brother of Jesus] have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood” Acts 15:19-20.

The answer seems clear. When the Roman Church asked Paul to settle this dispute, he should have looked in their discipline to see that the matter is settled, and eating this meat is clearly forbidden. Except, that is not what he does…

“Let us therefore no longer pass judgement on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling-block or hindrance in the way of another. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. So do not let your good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual edification. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat; it is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble. The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God. Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve. But those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” Romans 14:13-23.

Paul does not offer “to each his own,” nor does he outright forbid it according to what church leaders had urged. He says that permission is granted unless it causes someone to stumble, and those for whom this is a stumbling block are not to pass judgment on the other. Beautifully and prophetically he writes, “Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God.”

So, what is a church to do at a seemingly impossible impasse? Can we offer permission with great accountability? Can we live by Paul’s difficult “you can unless you shouldn’t, and you shouldn’t unless you should” ethic? We could make things easy, just choose a side, and proclaim the other is wrong, where one side is said to be polluted with idols and the other ignorant holy-rolling abstainers…

But that doesn’t sound like the Gospel…

To those who are soon making difficult decisions, for God’s sake, don’t destroy God’s work for the sake of “food.”

Pokémon…Go?

pokemonYou have to catch them all! Many have taken up the challenge to catch all of the Pokémon out there in the real/digitized world with infectious zeal and reckless abandon. With all cultural explosions, whether long-tenure game changers or fiery and fleeting, I always try to make sense of its attractiveness through a theological lens. Although the Pokemon game in its current state will probably have a short shelf life, the technology is here to stay. How should we think about this emerging digital connectedness from a Christian perspective?

What can the church learn?

Community. Like many other app store offerings, this app encourages connecting with other players. You can certainly fly solo, but to get ahead you have to connect. It also creates a feeling of FOMO—Fear of Missing Out. What’s the church’s FOMO quotient from Sunday to Sunday? Is there personal lament for being out of the loop or maybe a tinge of longing from others when your presence is missed on Sunday morning?

Accessibility. The game is free to play (assuming you have a smart phone). The technological economic gap (those not able to afford the upward mobility) is for another post for another time. For now, there is little barrier to becoming a participant. What barriers exist in communities of faith? Many say, “Come as you are,” but the translation is “Come as most of us are coming,” whether this mantra pertains to dress or politics or race or musical taste.

Diversity. The pokeman you seek to find are quite different from one another. Sometimes erring on a target audience means we miss the people God is actually sending to us. Every church on the planet gets excited about young adults in the sanctuary, but are churches truly interested in Millennial salvation, or is 18-35 year old outreach simply a means of preserving the institution for another generation.

Healthy Competition. In the Pokegym you battle others to gain points. There are serious bragging rights for ending a battle in victory. In the church we call it “Accountability.” Not that accountability is a competition, but it is a challenge of sorts. Encouraging your sister or brother to pray, read scripture, and reach out in service, and in turn, for them to challenge you, helps us to grow in our love of God and each other.

Location, location, location. The game is sending people into places they might never have seen. The heart of church leadership is leading people where they would not go alone. Are we brave enough to go to the other side of town to connect with those outside of our comfort zone?

Training. If you want to win, you’ve got to train. Too often many think of baptism as an ending rather than the beginning of discipleship. How are Christians “training” to meet the challenge of the Holy Spirit’s moving? God is alive, which means God is on the move. Can we keep up?

What can the Church teach?

Being Upright. St. Augustine’s definition of sin is an inward-turned soul. Pokémon Go leaves us to be slaves of a screen. It’s not really in the real world. It causes our hands to hold a phone rather than embracing each other. During Holy Communion we hear, “Christ delivered us from slavery to sin and death…and cell phones.” (I’m paraphrasing).

Authenticity. Even though the game sends you out into the world, there’s no encouragement to interact with it. It’s like a misguided mission project. You fly in, build a well, and fly out. You follow your GPS, nab a creature, and then you’re on to the next find. It’s like walking through a garden to get to where you want to go, and missing the opportunity to relish in a flower’s beauty.

Narrow Identity. When you start the game there are a few pre-selected avatars you can use. You have to fit a predetermined character. It’s like a church membership program gone awry, where instead of making disciples, we make conforming members. In Christ we discover a beautiful diversity in who God created each person to become. Many gifts, one Spirit.

These are just initial thoughts, and there’s certainly more to say. What do you think the church can learn from trying to “catch them all?” How can the church offer a different narrative and speak meaning to such a popular phenomenon?

Vision

Castle“All” is a big word. Well, it’s a small word with big importance. You may be surprised to know that “all” in Greek, the original language of the New Testament, means . . . all. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” is a bold statement. This verse reminds me a picture I used to have on my desk (it’s in a box somewhere, and I hope to find it soon) of Walt Disney walking the barren, swampy land in Orlando. Superimposed in the background is Cinderella Castle. Walt was able to see what others either didn’t or couldn’t.

 

If “all” really means “all,” then Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, helps us accomplish what many can’t even yet envision. This power certainly pertains to living through the midst of trial and hardship. These words also keep us humble in moments of prosperity and abundance. But I like to think of Paul’s words as a challenge. What is Christ calling us to accomplish that isn’t yet clear? What is the vision God is calling us to step out in faith to realize? Can we see a kingdom in the midst of a swamp? In other words, it’s one thing for our mission, worship, and fellowship to offer hospitality and spiritual growth for those who call church home, but is our kingdom work making room for those who haven’t yet found this holy place? Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” What vision is God offering to you?

Beast of Burden

Mockingbird Cover“All God’s creatures have a place in the choir,” as the old Bill Staines song reminds us. The question is, who assigns the part and what song does it sing? Yesterday during General Conference there was a protest on the floor calling attention to oppression, violence, and exclusion, but there was something about it that stirred my soul to ponder my uneasiness. It seems that the black body continues to be a beast of burden for both the right and left politic.

From The Faith of a Mockingbird:

Macomb County was certainly divided along racial lines; but on a person-to-person level, people were relatively civil and peaceful to one another. To Kill a Mockingbird forces us think about how our social systems work and how people work together within those systems. For example, we can compare two very different groups—the choir members of First Purchase AME church and the jury members of Tom Robinson’s trial.

First, let’s consider how a choir does what it does. A choir is a collection of vocalists, each using his or her individual voice for the purpose of sharing music. Individual voices are important, but only as they pertain to the group as a whole. The music isn’t always pretty—sometimes discord is purposefully composed into a piece to give it depth and movement. The most important thing is that the individual voices work together as one entity in order to share what the composer has written. There is a beauty in a choir’s purposeful unity that goes beyond the composed harmony. Individual voices, each with their own gifts, are all pointed in the same direction, which offers us a model of how we should come together in unity as diverse children of God.

Hearing a choir sing can be a profound spiritual experience if all goes well. On the other hand, it can be a rather hellish experience when a choir isn’t unified. A single, overpowering voice can stick out and distract from the harmonies of the whole. Other times the sopranos are flat or the basses forget to count or the altos aren’t loud enough. (I believe tenors are a gift from God—they are never wrong.) In these cases, it’s easy to know when someone misses the mark, but it is much more difficult to know when the pitch of an a cappella choir as a whole begins to bend. If an a cappella choir begins in the key of F, but through the course of an unaccompanied piece they mistakenly modulate to the key of E, it is nearly impossible to be able to tell that they are no longer singing what the composer intended. Neither the choir nor the audience can immediately tell when the choir is missing the mark. The only person who can really tell is the one with the tuning fork.

Humans have a knack for getting slightly out of tune and veering away from what our Composer intended. This is why systematic racism and prejudice can sometimes be difficult for us to see. If we aren’t confronted with these issues in our daily lives, it often becomes hard for us to identify with the injustices of the world. Atticus says to Uncle Jack, “Why reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving [race] comes up, is something I don’t pretend to understand.”[1] Race wasn’t a divisive issue for Atticus like it was for many of Maycomb’s residents, and so Atticus just couldn’t understand their point of view on this issue. If we already consider ourselves “colorblind,” we may dismiss or have trouble identifying with the reality of racial tensions that still occur in our country today. For example, a 2004 University of Chicago study revealed that when job applicants submitted resumes with culturally white names, they received 50 percent more callbacks for interviews over those with culturally black names.[2] And in a study that looked at public schools during the 2011–2012 academic year, 74 percent of high schools in which blacks and Latinos make up a majority of the student body offer Algebra II, as opposed to 83 percent of schools in which whites are a majority.[3] Countless studies attest to the racial inequalities that subtly (and maybe not so subtly) exist in our country today—not to mention the studies conducted about gender inequality and the other races that fill America’s melting pot.

A choir missing the mark is easy to fix. You stop, wait for the conductor to reestablish the key, and start again. A jury that’s missing the mark is much more difficult to discern and even more difficult to correct. A jury’s job is almost counter to a choir’s job. A choir is given a piece of music with the hope they will sing what is written. A jury is given many notes from many perspectives with the task of putting them together into their version of a song of truth. Individually we can make great strides in reconciling racial tension, but sometimes that can cause us to become blind to the collective bias of our differences on a grand scale (end excerpt).

It seems to me that on the right side of the floor the African Delegation is being used as a bargaining chip of political maneuvering to maintain current Disciplinary language on human sexuality (if not to make the language more clearly defined toward hetero-normative). On the left side of the floor the Black Lives Matter movement was coopted to be a Trojan horse for a Queer demonstration that otherwise might have met great resistance. Sitting from the bleachers I feel as if the black body is being used as a beast of burden to plow someone else’s political field. Certainly the African Delegation is against inclusion and there are people of color fighting for gender and sexual inclusiveness, but there seems to be something terribly amiss.

This is why we need the gospel. The gospel is the piece of music that we are called to sing together. We don’t have to guess and barter and weigh truth—instead it is offered to us in the person of Jesus. Even though by definition a jury is never “wrong,” Tom’s conviction is clearly discordant with the gospel’s melody of justice. His story reminds us that every day we must stop, listen to our Conductor, and sing in tune with God and our neighbor as we work, play, and rest.

[1] Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1960), chapter 9, page 117.

[2] Marianne Bertrand, “Are Emily and Brendan More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?” Capital Ideas 4, no. 3 (Spring 2003), http://www.chicagobooth.edu/capideas/spring03/racialbias.html.

[3] U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, Civil Rights Data Collection: 2011-12, “Data Snapshot: College and Career Readiness” (March 2014), http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/crdc-college-and-career-readiness-snapshot.pdf.

 

Uber Revelation

gc geauxI’ve had an unexpected revelation at General Conference of The United Methodist Church. Psalm 139:14 reminds us that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. Although this verse is not new to me, I am surprised to see this verse come alive. I would love to say that I had this experience on the plenary floor at General Conference, but the back and forth between “point of order,” “call to question,” and “what are we voting on again,” isn’t a call and response litany lending itself toward spirit-filled transformation.

It may seem simple or ridiculous, but I’ve seen Psalm 139 in the voice of my Uber drivers. Without a car I’ve been dependent on others for transportation, and thankfully the ride-sharing app, Uber, affordably and effectively meets this need.  It’s like calling your friend who happens to be three minutes away to give you a ride, and out of thanks you send her $7 over your cell phone. Each Uber driver has been so unique. Over the last two days I’ve ridden with an Iranian Crossfit instructor, vegan cheese maker, college history professor, woman who refused to see Deadpool because of the language (apparently the violence is permissible), bank teller, first generation Pilipino, and a woman who got yelled at by a drunk guy who refused to get out of the road…and not one of them were United Methodist.

I think all of our delegates should take an Uber ride before voting on legislation, and before the vote we should ponder how our “Yea” or “Nay” will bring his or her Uber rider into communion with Christ. Why would we want to bring them to Christ anyway? In Nazareth Manifesto, Sam Wells writes:

An obvious answer might be, ‘Because those people are going to die, and maybe they’ll go to hell, or oblivion, or nothingness.’ But if one says, ‘And what is so great about going to heaven, then?’ what kind of answer do you get? Heaven is the state of being with God and being with one another and being with the renewed creation. That is to say, heaven is not simply a matter of continued being: what matters is that the continued being is being with. In other words, a heaven that is simply and only about overcoming mortality is an eternal life that is not worth having. It is not worth having because it leaves one alone forever. And being alone forever is not a description of heaven. It is a description of hell (Sam Wells, A Nazareth Manifesto: Being with God, 43).

Jesus saves us from isolation—isolation from God and one another. Could it be that our conferencing, meant to bring us together as peculiar Wesleyan people, has the potential to leave us isolated? It’s all about bringing people to Jesus who helps us fall in love with God and each other. I just pray there’s room for the vegan cheese maker, Iranian Crossfit instructor, bank teller . . .

A Prayerful Mother

mothers day graphicEven though Mother’s Day isn’t mentioned in scripture, this holiday offers us a great opportunity to recognize our mothers, those who were like mothers to us, and the mothers of our faith throughout God’s story. One mother in particular calls me to remember God’s providence, power, humility, and grace.

In 1 Samuel 2, Hannah offers a prayer of thanksgiving to God after her longed-after son, Samuel, is born. She does not pray for Samuel to be a great athlete or leader, or to be the best in his class or a master craftsman. Her prayer is directed to who God is and what God does. She prays:

“He will guard the feet of his faithful ones,
but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness;
for not by might does one prevail” (1 Samuel 2:9).

I encourage you to read the whole prayer when you have a moment, but for now, “Not by might does one prevail,” captures me. Sometimes we think that the way to change the world is through power and control, or we think if we only had the right person in office things would be different. We are quick to equate success with never being in need, or we forget that every “self-made” person was once born from a mother, and was dependent on someone for food, shelter, and care.

If you really want to change the world, rock a baby to sleep. It is an exercise in humility and patience. If you really want to change the world, read a story to a child to stretch her imagination of what’s possible. If you really want to change the world, crouch down, kiss the skinned knee, tell him it will be ok, and mean it. If you really want to change the world, listen to her first heart break, and be there when it happens again.

Changing the world takes humility, patience, kindness, generosity, and the kind of strength that turns the other cheek instead of picking up a weapon. Now, hear me. I am not saying that this is a mother’s job. It’s not the dad’s job to bring power into the equation like a misguided pink and blue Yin-Yang. We are all called to nurture, provide, heal, and listen, but the mothers of our faith—Hannah, Mary, Elizabeth, Miriam, and maybe your own mother, remind us of that calling.

We will not prevail through might, but maybe we will recognize God’s victory through a mother’s prayer of thanksgiving for the child she never thought possible.

We Don’t Have To Be, But Are

Green lawn backgroundOur current worship series at The Well, “Sherlock’s Home: Observing God in the Everyday” is to point us toward finding God’s presence in what we typically might view as mundane, ordinary, and unimportant. Just yesterday I had the opportunity (some opportunity, right?) to mow our backyard. It is no secret that I love to do anything other than lawn care. To say that I am an outdoorsman would be a lie. When I muster the mood to mow I usually grab my phone and headphones and listen to Rage Against the Machine (it seems to help me push the mower just a bit more quickly). In thinking about observing God in the everyday, I left the headphones inside, and made a point of listening to the natural symphony God has already provided.

I found a profound moment. Now, the sounds I heard weren’t particularly beautiful. Some birds were chirping, the wind was rustling pine branches, and my children were yelling about something or other. The mower drowned out most of what I had hoped to hear from the woods beyond the backyard fence. It wasn’t that I left the backyard in awe of nature or that I had a moving experience that God was somehow directing in what order I mowed the overgrown grass; rather I paused to give thanks that I could hear anything at all.

Sometimes we overlook God’s gifts because they are always around us. We could live perfectly well without the ability to hear music or traffic or a baby’s coo (though if music ceased to be, I’m not sure why one would want to be alive). We don’t need to hear, but sound exists anyway. The same could be true of color. There is little point in being able to distinguish blue from purple, and yet the rainbow appears anyway, as far as our eyes can tell. The same could also be said of us. The earth would spin just fine without us, yet here we are!

The fact that we don’t have “to be,” and yet are, points us to God’s heart. We walk upon the earth among the sounds and colors and textures of the world because God desires for us to be. We are not here to serve God. We are here to love God and neighbor, and be loved by God and neighbor. Certainly service is one of the ways in which we express our love of God, but it is love that directs our actions, not a divine “to do list.” In what ways have you shared God’s love today? How have you seen God at work in the unexpected?

Who would have thought that mowing the lawn could be so profound?

In Response to ‘A Plea to my Centrist Friends’

 

one_in_christA Plea to my Centrist Friends,” posted on March 29, 2016, is a cry for those who rest in the center of the church’s debate on human sexuality to maintain the current United Methodist teachings on human sexuality found within the current United Methodist Book of Discipline. I believe the large umbrella of The United Methodist Church is large enough for both Peter and Paul to be in ministry, offering shade to those on opposite sides of this debate. My opposition to this article is not with the author’s stance; rather the argument itself is built on harmful assumptions which call for comment.

First, the assumption that centrists haven’t made a decision about the debate is naive. I am not a centrist because I haven’t made up my mind. I am a centrist because the center is where the bread and cup live. On one side you have Simon the Zealot who wants to overthrow the institution. On the other side you have Matthew the Tax Collector who benefits from the current structure. Both were at the table with Jesus when he offered the bread and the wine to be his body and blood. In other words, the  center is not about compromise; The center is about communion.

Second, the author’s stance on “celibacy in singleness,” is certainly valid, and one I support, but upholding this teaching from the Discipline with one hand, and denying some the opportunity for marriage with the other, creates a catch-22.  In essence, celibacy is the only acceptable form of sexual expression from the LGBTQ community, which unfairly leads the author quickly to jump from promiscuity to discussion about gay marriage.  It’s like kicking someone out of school, and then later in life, blaming them for their own ignorance.

Assuming that relaxing the Discipline’s language for inclusive marriage leads to promiscuity is precisely the opposite result those supporting the change desire. Many of our homosexual brothers and sisters are begging for a Christ-centered, covenantal relationship built on fidelity, trust, and the uniting of wills. To deny them this opportunity, and then refer to their lifestyle as promiscuous is unfortunate and misses the mark.

Finally, marriage is an outward and visible sign of an inward spiritual grace, signifying to us the union between Christ and the Church. What saddens me in this debate is that many in the church are boiling marriage down to intimacy only. When I meet with a couple before their wedding, we talk about a host of topics: what does home feel like, how did your parents argue, what is your favorite way to spend time with the person you love, how do you spend money, and yes, we also talk about sex. In other words, many are quick to turn a couple away because of how they share intimacy, but do we turn away the workaholic because of the damage too many hours in the office can do to a relationship? Do we turn away a couple because one of them will be inheriting a massive amount of debt from the other? Do we turn them away because one wants to have children and the other isn’t sure? I’m assuming we don’t because we have faith that through their connection with the church, they will be able to compromise and learn to honor and love the other person sacrificially; they will learn how to commune daily with each other and with God. If we trust this about those in our churches, why does this article sound the alarm that the UMC is heading toward irreconcilable differences? If the sole purpose of the covenant is to have legitimate sex, then we need to rethink how we call marriage the symbol of how Christ is united to the church.

Become the Water

 

8.5" X 6" Woodcut

8.5″ X 6″ Woodcut

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfil the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’ A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. (John 19:28-29)

 

“Louisiana, they’re trying to wash us away…”

Randy Newman—“Louisiana 1927”

Good Old Boys

 

Water. You can’t live without it, but sometimes living with it can be devastating. On the sixth day of creation God offered humanity dominion over the birds of the air and the fish of the sea, but God never offered dominion over the sea itself. In God’s story, water first represents chaos. God’s spirit moved over the waters as if to remind the waves that it still must obey at least the wind. When we see water where it shouldn’t be, our sensibilities urge us to build levees, dig channels, fill sandbags, yet is we redirect the water entirely we would live only for a few days.

Throughout scripture water offers a complex picture of God’s world. It represents chaos, danger, and a barrier to the Promised Land, but it is never evil. Evil is easily defined. You know to avoid it, it profits nothing, and it is the enemy of the good. Water is much more ambiguous than evil. It sustains life, and drowns it away. It transports goods and knocks down walls. Water is neither evil, nor entirely good because water itself has no shape. It is so ambiguous that it takes Jesus himself to offer it new meaning. One day Jesus sat with a Samaritan woman at a well and said, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14). Water takes the shape of the vessel in which it is carried, as Bruce Lee once said, “You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.” Jesus is saying that unless it is he who carries it, you will continue to be thirsty. You see, it is we who are the water in the story!

In the Gospels water begins to take on new meaning. It is categorically “more.” It becomes something through which we find rebirth. It is something transformed into wine. It becomes something living that is offered to the outcast in Samaria. It flows from Jesus’ side from the cross. This is what Jesus accomplishes. He takes a symbol of chaos and transforms it into something life-giving, something than can wash away the dirt life sometimes brings. And yet, from the cross, Jesus says, “I thirst.” How can this be? How can the one who offers living water now be thirsty? If we allow it, Jesus’ thirst bothers our souls even more than Jesus feeling forsaken. We know what being forgotten feels like. We know betrayal on one level or another. But have we really been thirsty to the point of death? Or imagine that when we open the tap that the water is not drinkable, or worse, that we are unaware that it is poison like the folks in Flint, Michigan have experienced. In essence they were told that offering them safe drinking water was just too expensive to maintain. To put it another way, your life doesn’t matter as much as tax breaks and the bottom line. Don’t think we are immune! Our state government is about to cut $800 million from our state budget, and I would hope that cutting infrastructure maintenance to our poorest brothers and sisters is not how the budget will be balanced.

When Jesus was near death he cried out, “I’m thirsty,” and what he received was a sour wine. It could be that Jesus was actually thirsty. Crucifixion quickly leads to dehydration, if the pain and suffocation doesn’t get you first, but because Jesus’ thirst is recorded only in John’s poetic and theologically symbolic Gospel, there is something more at work here. Jesus’ thirst goes beyond sustenance. Jesus thirsts for righteousness.  Jesus thirsts for justice with mercy. Jesus thirsts for the kind of vessel in which living water would pool.

Diving even deeper into the story, wine plays a crucial role in John’s Gospel. Jesus’ first miracle was to turn water into wine at the wedding in Cana. He took the water stored in six stone jars, and transformed them into the best wine the steward had ever brought to his lips. These six stone jars were used for purification, which is kind of like John’s little “inside joke.” You see, six is the number for imperfection. It was the day humanity was created. It’s close to seven, the number for perfection, but it will never be. Using six stone jars of water for purification is like using muddy water in order to get clean. It just doesn’t work. Jesus takes this imperfection and transforms it! Jesus offers the best wine to humanity, and what he received in turn was a sour concoction meant to further his humiliation.  And yet, Jesus accepts this disgrace and leaves it powerless when the tomb was empty on the third day.

Although the institution of the last supper is never mention in John’s Gospel, the wine at the beginning and ending of the story is a symbol of covenant, transformation, and resurrection. Jesus could have transformed the wedding cake into three tiers or switched out the DJ’s Spotify playlist to play only family friendly hits.  He chose to transform the ordinary water into the extraordinary and best wine, just as Christ transforms us into his own body set for resurrection. We are the water in the story!

In Cross-Shattered Christ, Stanley Hauerwas writes:

 

The work of the Son, the thirst of the Son through the Spirit, is nothing less than the Father’s thirst for us. God desires us to desire God. We were created to thirst for God (Psalm 42) in a “dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63). Such a desire is as “physical” or real as our thirst for water, our thirst for one another, and our desire for God. Surely that is why our most determinative response to those who ask how we can ever come to worship this Jesus is to simply ask, “Do you not need to eat and drink?” Our God, our thirsty God, is the One capable of saying to us: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37–38).” (page 52-53).

 

For what do you thirst? I hope when you come to the communion table you thirst for more than what is in the cup. I pray you thirst for what the cup represents and calls us to become—one body with one Lord, taking the sour divisiveness of humanity, and transforming it into reconciliation and peace. Water takes the shape of the vessel in which it is carried. We are the water in the story. Ambiguous, life-giving, sometimes destructive, helpful, chaotic—sometimes you can’t live with each other, but we can’t live without each other either. Jesus thirsts for us, so that we might be carried by him, and thus become a vessel of living water for others. The Well’s logo says, “Living Water for a Thirsty World.” Let us live into who we claim to be! In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!

I Thirst

8.5" X 6" Woodcut

Woodcut by Rick Beerhorst

There once was a young boy playing football outside in the street all afternoon in the summertime heat. The streetlights, which stood as end-zone markers, began to glow as the sunlight faded, signaling that it was time to announce, “Next score wins!” to the rag-tag bunch of neighborhood friends. To say that the evening was hot would be like saying chocolate chip cookies are “just ok,” with milk, or a trip to the DMV was just a short wait. It was balmy, and the air was thick. The child ran inside with a thirst that a child only realizes he has when the game is over. As we ran into the living room he saw a small, half-full glass of water with three ice cubes sitting next to an over-turned National Geographic magazine. It would be far too much work to go to the kitchen and pour his own glass of water. He was basically dying of thirst, at least it felt like if he didn’t gulp down the nearest beverage that his body would break apart like clay in a dried riverbed.

He grabbed the glass, threw it back, and in one gulp, he seemingly inhaled the ice-cold, life saving water, except…it wasn’t water at all. He failed to notice the bottle of Smirnoff Vodka on the kitchen counter. It felt like his insides were on fire. He couldn’t breathe or move or hardly think. He just stood there hoping that the poison he imbibed wouldn’t kill him before he was able to at least ask who would pull such a terrible trick. His father came into the room, saw the empty glass and the boy whose face was the combination of fear, disgust, and confusion. The father simply said, “It’s like watching natural selection happen right in front of me.”

It’s a shock to the system when you expect water, and discover that the glass is half-full of something else. Although no one was playing a prank on the young boy, it certainly felt as if someone was deliberately plotting an evil scheme just to see what the reaction might be. When Jesus was near death he cried out, “I’m thirsty,” and what he received was a sour wine. It could be that Jesus was actually thirsty. Crucifixion quickly leads to dehydration, if the pain and suffocation doesn’t get you first, but because Jesus’ thirst is recorded only in John’s poetic and theologically symbolic Gospel (John 19:28), there is something more at work here. Jesus’ thirst goes beyond sustenance. Jesus thirsts for righteousness. Jesus thirsts for justice with mercy. Jesus thirsts for the kind of transformation in which living water would pool.

Diving even deeper into the story, wine plays a crucial role in the story John is telling. Jesus’ first miracle was to turn water into wine at the wedding in Cana. He took the water stored in six stone jars, and transformed them into the best wine the steward had ever brought to his lips. Jesus offered the best wine to humanity, and what he received in turn was a sour concoction meant to further his humiliation. And yet, Jesus accepts this disgrace and leaves it powerless when the tomb was empty on the third day. Although the institution of the last supper is never mention in John’s Gospel, the wine at the beginning and ending of the story is a symbol of covenant, transformation, and resurrection. Jesus could have transformed the wedding cake into three tiers or switched out the DJ’s Spotify playlist to play only family friendly hits. He chose to transform the ordinary water into the extraordinary and best wine, just as Christ transforms us into his own body set for resurrection. For what do you thirst? I hope when you come to the communion table you thirst for more than what is in the cup. I pray you thirst for what the cup represents and calls us to become—one body with one Lord, taking the sour divisiveness of humanity, and transforming it into reconciliation and peace. So, yes, be careful what you drink, but moreover be careful of the drink you are sharing with a thirsty world.