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Sermon for March 15th, 2020 – Living Water

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable to you this day, our Rock and our Redeemer.

I am going to start today with something I have never done before. When I was in seminary, I met with a Spiritual Director regularly. Sometimes, she required me to write a reflective piece to keep in my journal with no thought of sharing it. However, there is one which I wrote which is connected with today’s Gospel reading, and I felt that it would be good to begin my sermon today with this.

I am the woman of Samaria. I have been searching, searching, searching, all my life.
But for what?
That I cannot tell you. But I know that this morning, at the well, before sunrise, I found it. And now I will never lose it. This living water. This water that refreshes. This water that cleanses. This water that renews. It is mine, and I want to share it. For I know that others are also looking, are also seeking, are also lost. Take what I have. Use it for yourself. And when you are ready, you will find that you, too, have enough to share. That is something He didn’t tell me about the living water. It goes on forever. It expands until it will fill the whole world. But now I know as Adam and Eve knew, with the difference being they learned about good and evil and I learned about love.

So often, we do not realize what this encounter at the well was really about. We think that it was about Jesus revealing himself to a Gentile, to a Samaritan. We think that it was about guilt on her part and forgiveness on his. We use it to show how we can all be forgiven. But Jesus giving her what he called living water is really all about love.

As an illustration, I want to talk for just a minute about our Bella. As most of you know, she is a rather large Labradoodle, who insists on thinking that she is a lap dog. She and I spend a lot of time together. Often, when I am working at my desk, she is lying under it, keeping my feet warm, whether they need it or not. When we leave her at home alone, she is not happy, but when we get back after an absence – no matter how long – she is thrilled to see us. Of course, since we acquired OhchoCat, Bella spends a bit more time alone, or at least, away from us. But no matter how often we put her in a room where she can’t get at the cat, and no matter how often we leave her at home alone, whenever she sees us, she welcomes us with a wagging tail, and a loving lick – again, whether we want it or not.

This is love. This is something like the love that Jesus was offering to the woman at the well. This is the love that doesn’t let anything get in its way –not absence, not adultery, not living a life that others condemn. Someone once mentioned that it is no coincidence that “God” spelled backwards is “dog”, and there are times when I agree with that assessment.

And it would seem that I am not the only one. There was a recent newspaper article called “In Times of Stress, Just Call on Rover”. I found this article on the internet, and thought that it was appropriate to use today, considering my own illustration. When it comes to times of stress, the most reassuring companion isn’t your sweetheart – it’s your schnauzer. A study has found that people who were under stress showed the least amount of tension when accompanied by their dog. The stress levels were highest when the people were with their husbands or wives. “I think that dogs are non-evaluative, and they love us,” said Karen Allen,  a research scientist at State University of New York at Buffalo’s medical school.

This item caught my attention – not because of what it says about stress and our spouses. Frankly, I don’t believe that, because I know that being with Keith reduces my stress significantly, most of the time. But what attracted me was what it says about the ways dogs love us, and the benefits that this kind of love has. You see, there is something very biblical in the assertion that non-evaluative love, non-judgmental love, can reduce tension. In fact, if we look at scripture, we will learn that it does much more than just reduce tension. It gives life; it gives hope; it gives assurance to all who receive it.

Non-judgmental, accepting, all-embracing love – this is the essence of the Good News contained in the gospel. We find in statements like this one: Do not judge others lest you be judged, for the judgment you give will be the judgment you receive. Jesus accepts and embraces people whom others find wanting, people living on the margins, sinners of all kinds, tax collectors, lepers – all those people whom the scribes and Pharisees reject; all those people whom we are still rejecting.

In my time, I have been a gardener, and one thing I learned about gardening that every plant needs water to grow. Even the desert cactus must still have a source of water in order to thrive. I know that the plants that in the driest soil, the plants whose leaves are beginning to curl and lose their colour – these plants need more water than the plants which are in damp ground. And I know that plants respond to water. I have seen plants which were shriveling in their beds – or in their pots – suddenly come back to life after a good watering. Their roots go down deep, looking for water. Their leaves turn over so that they can catch water from above and absorb it. And after they do this, then they produce whatever they were meant to produce, whether it is flower or fruit.

We are – all of us – plants in God’s garden. We have been placed here for a reason. But some of us are pretty dry and we need the living water. In fact, all of us need the living water. It is just that some of us have been without it for a long time. And it is this living water which wells up to eternal life. It is this living water which overflows and brings life to other plants nearby.

There is a story about a water bearer in India. He had two large pots, each hung on one end of the pole he carried across the back of his neck. One of the pots had a crack in it, and while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream, the cracked pot arrived only half full. This went on every day for two years, with the bearer delivering only one and a half pots of water to his master’s house.

Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishment and saw itself as perfectly suited for the purpose for which it was made. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its imperfection and miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do. After two years of what it perceived as bitter failure, it spoke to the water bearer one day by the stream. “I am ashamed of myself and I want to apologize to you.”

“Why?” asked the bearer. “What are you ashamed of?”

“For the past two years, I have been able to deliver only half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your master’s house. Because of my flaws you have to work without getting the full value of your efforts,” the pot said.

The water bearer felt sorry for the old cracked pot, and out of compassion he said, “As we return to the master’s house, I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path.” Indeed, as they went up the hill, the old cracked pot took notice of the sun warming the wildflowers on the side of the path. The pot felt cheered.

But at the end of the trail, the pot still felt bad because it had leaked out half its load, and again it apologized for its failure. The bearer said to the pot, “Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of your path, but not on the other pot’s side? That’s because I knew about your flaw and took advantage of it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you’ve watered them for me. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my master’s table. If you were not just the way you are, he would not have such beauty to grace his house.

Just so did the Samaritan woman at the well bring the Good News to the other people in her village. Just so are we called to share it with others. And, even more, just so are we called to thank God for the living water he has given us, for the Good News which has been shared with us. Every day, I thank God for his love, for the living water which is constantly being poured on me, even when – or maybe ESPECIALLY when – I feel that I don’t deserve it. And in giving thanks, I do what the woman at the well did after she first met Jesus, after she first realized who he was. I point to him, to the one who is the promised Saviour, the one who accepted me and calls me sister, the one who encourages me and challenges me, the one who never rejects me, but who loves me unconditionally.

This woman at the well had three strikes against her, and Jesus ignored them all. First of all, she was a Gentile, and, as we know, many people believed that his message was first and foremost for the chosen people. But he revealed himself to her before he revealed himself to his own. Secondly, she was a Samaritan, and, as you know, Jews and Samaritans were enemies of long standing. But that didn’t matter. Jesus gave her what she needed, just as he gives us what we need. Finally, and probably most damning of all, she was a woman. Women of that time were treated as property, and as not being worthy of conversation. This did not stop him from blessing her, and calling her sister.

And this, this is why she spoke of him in her village. Not just because he knew her past; not just because he could tell her things that no stranger should know about her. It was because in knowing her, in knowing all about her – her nationality, her gender, her religion, and the history of her marriages – he treated her as an equal. He treated her as someone worthy of respect, worthy of affection, worthy of love. This isn’t just a woman, but a Samaritan woman, one with many husbands– but let’s just boil it all down to the single story: she’s an unclean sinner. Jesus, as a Jewish male, is not supposed to be talking with her, let alone accepting water from anything she has touched. Those were the rules, and life is simpler when the rules are clear. But Jesus broke the rules. Over and over again, Jesus broke the rules.

And that is the point of this whole story and of this whole sermon. Just as Jesus did, we are called to treat others as we would like to be treated. We are called to speak with people in high places in the same way as we speak to people in low places. We are called to talk to sinners and saints with respect, whether we agree with them or not. We are called to open ourselves to friends and strangers alike, and to feel that both of them are open to us. We are called to meet people where they are, and not to judge them. We are told not to patronize people because we feel that they are somehow less than we are. When we do all this, then it is that we are starting to learn something of God’s love. Then it is that we are starting to show something of God’s love. Thanks be to God.

 

Reflections/Prayers/Devotionals

April 3rd – The Peace of Wild Things

Today, I thought to share with you a poem by Wendell Berry. Take a minute to read it, and then I will share some of my thoughts on it.

The Peace of Wild Things
Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but there has never been a time in my life when I have felt so close to despair. Not when my father had a massive heart attack; not when my mother had a stroke; not even when my daughter was diagnosed with cancer. For now, the despair is not for me or even my family, but for the whole world.
I woke this morning to the news of another death in Québec City – this time a man in the palliative care section of the Jeffrey Hale Hospital. Every day, I wake to the news of more deaths, and sometimes they are close to home.
But then I look our my window, where I see trees clustered closely together, where sometimes I see little creatures going about their business just as they have done since they were created. And, with Wendell Berry, I realize that life does go on in the face of pandemics, in the face of wars, in the face of deaths. Wild things continue to be wild. They continue to live their lives as they have always done and as they will always do.
Meanwhile, we are still self-isolating, still practicing compassionate distancing, still being careful whenever we have to go outside. But no matter how long we need to do this, we never need to isolate ourselves from God. Indeed, if there were ever a time when we needed to come closer to God, NOW is that time.

Let us pray.
Loving God,
As we continue to live
A very different kind of life
Separated from those we love
We thank you that
You are always with us

We can feel your embrace
For there is no distance
Between you and us
We can hear your voice
For you will never
Isolate yourself from us
We do not need to be careful
About reaching out to you
For you are always reaching out to us

Grant, Lord, that we do not
Give into despair
But that we cling to hope
Hope that this will soon be over
And that we will remember
The lessons we have learned
During this unusual time

May we be more compassionate
More loving
More caring
More giving
So that after this is over
The world will be a better place
Amen

Reflections/Prayers/Devotionals

April 2nd – Lenten Responsive Liturgy and Short Reflection

The Presbyterian Church in Canada sometimes sends us liturgies which are responsive. I thought that, today, I would share this one with you, which is based on two of last Sunday’s lectionary readings – Ezekiel 37: 1 – 14, and John 11: 1 – 45. It is responsive, but since that is difficult for some in these days of self-isolation, I invite you to imagine the second voice.
This liturgy was written by the Reverend Iona MacLean from the Church of Saint David in Halifax.

One: God set the prophet down in a valley of dry bones
Many: asking, “Can these bones live?”
commanding, “Hear the word of the Lord.”
promising, “I will put my spirit in you, you shall live.”

One: Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend
Many: hearing the grief, “Lord, if you had been here . . .”
knowing the doubt, “Could not he . . .”
commanding life out of death, “Lazarus, come out!”

One: We are tempted by hopelessness and despair
Many: In our own pain
at the world’s brokenness
saying, Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost.”

One: Lord, have mercy
Many: Christ, have mercy
One: Lord, have mercy

Let us pray:
Creator God,
we wait for you and in your word we hope.
For with you is steadfast love
and great power to redeem.
Help us to trust you
and to share your resurrection life
with all people and the whole creation.
SO all may be raised from despair to hope,
from darkness to light,
from death to life;
through Jesus Christ, who is
the resurrection and the life. Amen.

Interestingly, this liturgy was written long before COVID-19 entered our world and our lives, and yet, I was struck by its appropriateness for this time. Many people feel as though they are living in a valley of dry bones, in a place where hope seems to be lost. People are despairing, despite the fact that other people are working hard to bring us back to a new normal. Some people are questioning God. Hope seems to be in short supply, and many people are ready to give up.
But now is not the time to give up. Now is the time for us to come together – virtually – in prayer. Now is the time for us to place our trust in God and in modern science. For faith in God will give us hope that modern science will put an end to this 21st century plague. Faith in God will give us comfort while we wait for self-isolation to end. Faith in God will keep us practicing compassionate distancing. Faith in God will keep us washing our hands, even when they hurt. Faith in God will get us through this time.
Blessings as you go about your day.
Blessings as you do what needs to be done.
Blessings as you find ways to fill the hours.
Blessings on each one of you.

Announcements

Holy Week

Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week. It is a different Holy Week from any I have ever experienced, and, I would hazard a guess, different from any you have ever experienced. However, I am going to try to keep things as close as possible to what I would normally do on Holy Week. This means that we will celebrate Palm Sunday on April 5th, Maundy Thursday on April 9th, a virtual Walk with the Cross on Good Friday, and the resurrection on Easter Sunday. Thursday and Friday I will go live on St. Andrew’s Facebook page at 7 pm. Sunday worship will be at the regular time of 11 am. Check St. Andrew’s page early next week to see what you will need to do to prepare for these special services.Holy Week Message

 

Reflections/Prayers/Devotionals

Meditation March 31st – Connection

Today, I am sharing with you a poem, written by John Donne, and then some of my thoughts on it, in this time of pandemic.
 
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
 
 
Olde English Version
No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man
is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;
if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe
is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as
well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine
owne were; any mans death diminishes me,
because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
 
MEDITATION XVII
 
You will have noticed that it is the same thing twice – once in the way we speak now, and once in the way Donne would have written it. I invite you to read both versions, partly because reading the second one will cause you to slow down for a little, and we can all benefit from this. Even in this time of self isolation and compassionate distancing, I find that many people are busy – often too busy, just as they were before March 15th. So read the poem again. Slow down. And breathe.
 
The theme of Donne’s poem – that we are all interconnected – was never more true than it is today. We are seeing it in the spread of the virus – one person visits a seniors’ residence, and all of a sudden, there are 20 people exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19.
 
But it is not all bad. We seem to be caring more for each other. People are offering to pick up groceries for others, for those who, because of age or illness, are not able to do this on their own. People are using social media to check on each other. We are becoming more and more creative about our use of the Internet to foster a sense of community. In a few minutes, I will be attending a birthday party in British Columbia, for a little girl whom I have never met, but whose grandmother was one of my classmates many years ago. Many of are worshiping virtually on Sunday morning, and some of those worshiping are people who have not gone to a physical church in years or decades. God is moving among us.
 
We no longer ask, “Lord, who is my neighbour?” Thanks to COVID-19, we know that our neighbour is everyone. Thanks to COVID-19, we are grieving every single death. Thanks to COVID-19, we are learning a new appreciation for people we never took much notice of before now.
 
Psalm 139 says, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” I say that we are all knitted together. We have been brought together by our apprehension, by our fear, by our grief. And we have been brought together by our care, by our compassion, by our love.
 
We are looking at the world a little differently. Just a short time ago, our biggest problem was the fact that the time was about to change, and we would lose an hour’s sleep. That seems so unimportant now. We have had a time change, and we are seeing a world change. We are seeing ourselves change. We are seeing the church change. And it is up to us to make sure that these changes lead to a better world for each one of us, remembering, as Donne said, “No man is an island . . . every man is a piece of the continent . . . any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”
(Note: In Donne’s time, the word “man” was inclusive, and included all of us.)
 
Let us pray
 
Lord God,
You who created each one of us
You who knitted us together in the same way
You who love us unconditionally
We pray that we will remember
That we are all your children
And that we are all connected
In the same way as our DNA
Is connected
 
We pray that we will care
For each other
In new ways
That we will find ways
Of helping each other
During this time
 
We pray that
The lessons learned now
Will affect our way of life
Not only today
But into the future
So that after this is over
Our world will remember
That we are one
Amen
 
© Katherine Burgess
Reflections/Prayers/Devotionals

A Reminder to Breathe

Today, I share with you something written by two people, reminding us that this will not last forever. It is also reminding us to breathe. Remember exercise classes when the instructor would keep telling us “Don’t forget to breathe”? Now it is I who am saying, “Don’t forget to breathe. And I am also saying it to myself, as I realized yesterday that I was frequently clenching my teeth and forgetting to breathe. Luckily, my watch reminds me periodically, and when it does, I relax my jaw intentionally and remind myself that this is not forever, and even if it lasts longer than I hope, some things will not change.
Conversations will not be cancelled.
Relationships will not be cancelled.
Love will not be cancelled.
Songs will not be cancelled.
Reading will not be cancelled.
Self-care will not be cancelled.
Hope will not be cancelled.
(Jamie Tworkowski)
Beloved, how are we to pray in these times of pandemic, when country after country imposes strict stay-at-home orders? When schools and restaurants and businesses are closed, and all public gatherings banned? When what we do to relax and let go of tension…when the ways we come together to celebrate birthdays and weddings and graduations…when what we rely on to grieve and reassure and comfort one another in funerals and hugs and touch….when these have all been closed off? When life seems to be increasingly put on hold while we shelter in place, and even those who like long stretches of time alone are finding the walls starting to close in?
WE Breathe. – so let us breathe…..
Lord have mercy.
Christ have mercy.
Beloved, how are we to pray when fears start to consume us? When we can’t shake our worries about our own safety and the safety of those we love? When we are daily reminded of the risks taken by health care workers and grocery clerks and delivery people and emergency service providers and all other essential personnel? When closed borders, leave migrant agricultural workers unemployed, while farmers lose their crops and food shortages? When too many are desperate for income as their work places are shut down and jobs eliminated?
WE Breathe…… BREATHE
Lord have mercy.
Christ have mercy.
Beloved, how are we to pray when the number of Covid 19 illnesses and deaths keep rising exponentially? When these stop being safely anonymous numbers, and start being stories about people we know: the doctor in China who first recognized and spoke out about the impending epidemic; the priest in Italy who gave up his respirator so someone else might live; the nursing home residents who died alone after having been abandoned by their caregivers; the first known case in Zimbabwe; the relative – of a friend – of one of your online acquaintances, who is now on your prayer list…? PLEASE add your prayer to the comment section on the FACEBOOK FEED.
Breathe.
Lord have mercy.
Christ have mercy.
Beloved, how are we to pray when nearly every country in the world has insufficient Covid 19 tests, medical masks, respirators, ICU beds, morgue space? When many people lack access to even basic medical care, or can’t afford it? When we know it would take but a single spark to make the epidemic run rampant among the homeless, those in jail, refugee camps, or the many others in the world who simply can’t take the basic precautions of frequent handwashing or social distancing, because they don’t have access to soap and running water, or live in overcrowded conditions?
Breathe. And breath some more…
Lord have mercy.
Christ have mercy.
Beloved, how are we to pray when our prayer lives are so cramped by worries about the virus, that we can barely take in the fact that there was a major earthquake in Croatia? That the Great Barrier Reef in Australia has suffered another mass bleaching? When we know that there must be so much else going on in the world – both good and bad – that merits prayer, only right now neither the media nor we, ourselves, have the energy to focus on it?
Breathe.
Lord have mercy.
Christ have mercy.
Beloved, how are we to pray when hints of goodness and love creep into our tightly-closed-in lives? When governments in India, United Kingdom, and Canada promise payments to assist the poor, the self-employed and/or unemployed during this crisis? When banks and other lenders promise not to foreclose on mortgages and extend the time for monthly payments? When homes become festooned with Christmas lights, or candles or stuffed animals in front windows to cheer the neighborhood? When churches and synagogues and mosques learn to worship and minister to one another via the internet, and schools move classes online or send work home for their students? When free web-based courses in just about every subject, and virtual museum and park tours, and music, and dance performances, and amazing photography proliferate and go viral? When grandparents can meet their loved ones through closed windows, and we check in with one another with love, and clergy administer pastoral care (and even last rites) via phone?
Breathe.
Lord have mercy.
Christ have mercy.
Beloved, how are we to pray when we remember that You are with us always? That You are full of mercy – no matter whether we are angry, frustrated, fearful, sad or full of joy? When we believe – or so much want to believe – that “Love will not be cancelled. Songs will not be cancelled…Hope will not be cancelled”? When we trust that Your love for us will never be cancelled?
Breathe.
Breathe.
Lord, you are full of mercy.
Christ, you are full of mercy.
Lord, we are filled with your breath so we…..
Breathe.
(Beth Walker)
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March 27th, 2020 – All shall be well!

A little late posting today, but here I am at last. I have been working on Sunday’s service, and catching up with things around the house. I had a meeting with my mentoring group today, which provided me with some much needed human contact. If you have not yet tried Zoom or Skype or FaceTime, I would highly recommend either of them or one of the other apps which will help you connect with others. There is only so much TV and reading you can do. And let’s not forget the telephone. Sometimes, someone just needs to hear a human voice, and yours could be the voice that they need to hear.

Today, I have been thinking about Julian of Norwich, and wondering what she would make of this. Dame Julian or Mother Julian (late 1342 – after 1416) was an English anchorite of the Middle Ages. She wrote the earliest surviving book in the English language to be written by a woman, Revelations of Divine Love.

She lived throughout her life in the English city of Norwich, an important centre for commerce that also had a vibrant religious life, but which during her lifetime was a witness to the devastating effects of the Black Death of 1348–50, the Peasants’ Revolt, which affected large parts of England in 1381, and the suppression of the Lollards. In 1373, aged thirty and so seriously ill she thought she was on her deathbed, Julian received a series of visions or “shewings” of the Passion of Christ. She recovered from her illness and wrote two versions of her experiences, the earlier one being completed soon after her recovery, and a much longer version, today known as the Long Text, being written many years later.

For much of her life, Julian lived in permanent seclusion as an anchoress in her cell, which was attached to St Julian’s Church, Norwich. Four wills in which sums were bequeathed to her have survived, and an account by the celebrated mystic Margery Kempe exists, which provides details of the counsel she was given by the anchoress. So I think that she would understand the self-isolation many of are practicing now.

Julian lived in a time of turmoil, but her theology was optimistic and spoke of God’s omnibenevolence and love in terms of joy and compassion. Revelations of Divine Love “contains a message of optimism based on the certainty of being loved by God and of being protected by his Providence.”

Possibly the best-known quote from her writings is also found in T. S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding”, the fourth of his Four Quartets. I am sure that you will recognize this: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”.

I offer you today two hymns, the first using Julian’s words.

The other  is one which has a special meaning for me. When I was in seminary, there was a group of us which used to meet once a week before classes to pray together. We often began with one of us asking the question: “Is it well with your soup?” So I invite you to take a little extra time and listen to the beautiful hymn “It Is Well With My Soul”.