Sermon: Monday, August 31, 2020: New Student Orientation

The following sermon was preached for New Student Orientation at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) before the start of the Fall 2020 semester.

Texts: Jeremiah 29:4-7 / John 4:5-26

Toward the end of the summer of 1991 my parents drove me and a borrowed truck load of my possessions from Des Moines, Iowa to St. Paul, Minnesota so that I could begin college. All summer long I’d been crossing the days off of a calendar I kept on the outside of my bedroom door for the whole family to see, counting down to the beginning of a new life. As we rolled into the Twin Cities, I popped my well-worn Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits cassette tape into the car stereo and fast-forwarded to his classic 1977 hit, Movin’ Out, and belted the chorus out at the top of my lungs.

A few hours later, having unpacked my stuff into my dorm room, I was out on the courtyard between the library and Old Main at a mingler set up for new students. I’d just said a teary goodbye to my folks and watched them pull away in that empty truck and now I was left to make small talk with a group of strangers. I felt disoriented and alone and not entirely sure I wanted to be there.

It’s no small thing to make a home for yourself in the world. It’s not easy to find your people, build community, establish a sense of safety. I suppose some people are better at it than others, or have led lives that gave them plenty of practice with being uprooted and relocated, but it’s still challenging. Our families may try to prepare us for the experience with smaller, trial-separations throughout our childhood: overnights with friends, sleep-away camps, weeks out of the summer spent with extended family or exploring new places and passions. Or, perhaps, this sense of transience starts early as we shuttle back and forth between parents or guardians or shelters, learning how to carry the essentials of our lives in an overnight bag, how to pack and unpack and make a home wherever we find ourselves this week or this evening. Some of us are forced from our homes by events larger than any one family: mass unemployment and poverty, civil wars and ethnic conflicts, the tides of history forcing our families to flee our homes and seek a new life in a new land. However it happens, sooner or later, we all have to grapple with the reality that everything changes. Even if we were to spend all our lives in one place, our friends might still come and go, loved ones would grow old and die, our bodies will age and let’s just say “require more effort,” our thoughts and personalities will be formed and reformed by lives filled with predictable and unpredictable events. Time will make us strangers to our younger selves. So we are always being slowly uprooted and we are always having to learn to make ourselves at home in the life that each new day brings and to become comfortable in our skin.

Consequently, we have a tendency to grow attached to the homes we build, and not just the brick and mortar homes but the political and ideological and religious homes we assemble. These homes have not only kept us safe, they have also been the backdrop for our most significant relationships. Home isn’t just the place where I’m fed and sheltered, but where my family was formed. School isn’t just the place where I’m taught and tested, but where my deepest friendships were fostered. Church isn’t just the place where I offer praise and worship to God, but where my conscious and unconscious understandings about the world were forged. Our homes, all of them, are dense networks of attachment and relationships to people and places that matter to us, that matter deeply in ways we cannot always easily name or even notice. We discover this when, for example, our parents turn our bedrooms into offices or even sell and move out of our childhood homes and we feel a sense of abandonment. Sometimes it’s not so subtle, as when we discover that the people we have become are unwelcome in the churches that raised us and we find that we can’t bring ourselves to walk through those doors anymore. Sometimes we experience these alienations collectively, like when people sharing a common identity feel that their country or even their faith is being taken away from them because the ideas on which that sense of home was built are found to be false. In moments like these, the very foundations of our sense of self can be broken.

These deep connections between place and faith are on full display in the story of Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan near a well in the city of Sychar. Jesus himself is already out-of-place at the beginning of the scene. He and the disciples had traveled from a wedding in Cana, near his hometown of Nazareth in Galilee to the north down to Jerusalem in Judea to the south for Passover. While in Jerusalem he has a foundation-shaking conversation with Nicodemus, a prominent teacher among the Pharisees. Afterwards, he leaves the city and is teaching and baptizing in the Judean countryside. However, when word arrives that the religious leaders have noticed what he’s doing and are making comparisons with John the Baptist’s movement, Jesus decides it’s time to return to Galilee in the north. The road from Jerusalem to Galilee will take them through Sychar in Samaria, whose people had a complicated and antagonistic relationship with the dominant narrative of the people of Israel. You hear it right away as Jesus asks this woman for a drink from Jacob’s well.

“Give me a drink,” he says.

“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” she replies.

Now the conflict is established, and it is immediately familiar to all of us. These people are strangers to one another, but the places they call home have set them up to be suspicious of one another. 

Jesus says (and this is a paraphrase), “If you knew the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh, living water.”

This is such a tricky moment in the conversation. Because we know Jesus and are inclined to give him a generous reading, we might be willing to receive this as a sincere invitation. But this woman does not know Jesus (yet) and has no reason to offer him the benefit of the doubt. Instead, it must have seemed to her that he has accused her of not knowing God. This struck at the heart of the conflict between Jews and Samaritans. For Jews, the Temple Mount of Moriah in Jerusalem was the appropriate place to offer sacrifices and worship. For Samaritans, it was Mount Gerizim. It was an old fight, going back to the Babylonian exile, and the sorts of identity-based conflict that moments of national trauma, like a Civil War, tend to create. 

In response, the Samaritan woman makes a statement of pride in her heritage. She says, “Are you a better man than our ancestor Jacob, who dug this well and drank from it, he and his sons and livestock, and passed it down to us?” This woman is an excellent debater. By bringing Jacob’s name into conversation, she has driven down to the very foundations of their shared past. Jacob, the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham. Jacob, whose own struggles changed him so profoundly that he was given a new name, Israel. Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. “That Jacob,” she says, “is our ancestor. This is his well. It is deep. And you think you have something I need?”

The church has so much to learn from this story. We have so much to learn from this story. Jesus shows up in Sychar like so many of us have shown up for ministry, ready to teach, ready to heal, ready to be in relationship — only to be reminded that we are all already in relationship. We are born into the net of relationships woven by our ancestors one knot at a time. Our race, our gender, our nationality, our wealth, our religion, our access to power, the laws and taboos that bind us — each one a knot in the net. The Samaritan woman is caught in the net. She has been defined by her relationships with five different men. We don’t know why there were five. Was she a widow? Had she been divorced? Was she a willing participant in any of these marriages or how they ended? The text tells us none of this, yet preachers and interpreters have made all sorts of assumptions about her character that demonstrate to us the net of sexism and misogyny that she and all her descendants would be caught in.

Jesus gestures at Jacob’s well, the well of history. “Everyone who drinks this water will get thirsty again and again. Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst — not ever.” 

Their debate continues and the tone finally shifts from doubting and defensive to searching and sincere. Finally, Jesus signals that there is a future waiting for both of them in which they will not be defined by the conflicts of their past. “The time is coming,” he says, “it has, in fact, come — when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter. It’s who you are and the way that you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people God is looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before God in their worship. God is sheer being itself — Spirit. Those who worship God must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”

This declaration is both deeply hopeful and deeply challenging, because I am so exhausted by the deep divisions of the world as it is. I, too, want whatever water it is that Jesus is talking about that would keep me from having to keep drawing from the well of our broken history over and over again. I want to hang a calendar on the door of my office or the front of the pulpit or, I guess these days, I’d have to screen share it with you, with a countdown to the day that I can finally pop Billy Joel back in the tape deck and declare to this dumpster fire of a world that I’m moving out! Then I remember that, inevitably, on the other side of every voluntary emigration, every self-deportation, comes that moment where I am standing in a courtyard filled with people I do not know, that moment where I have to begin building a home again. 

We are living in a moment of such tremendous rebuilding. Those of you who are joining the seminary as new students this fall have made significant investments of time and effort and income to begin a journey that may challenge the very foundations of your identities. Along the way you will encounter people you have been taught to regard as foreigners, even enemies, who may become your most valuable conversation partners. We, as a seminary community, are still in the early days of learning and relearning how to do things we have always done in an entirely new manner. We may long for the promise of the new, but we are also and equally grieving the loss of the comforts of the familiar. The city of Chicago is an on-going parable of reconstruction and will be a powerful teacher to those who are willing to get out into it. The nation, the United States, find itself at the well of history, challenged once again to tell the truth about the cracks in its foundation, the evils of colonization and slavery and the ongoing effects of racism and white supremacy. The world is either coming together or falling apart as it confronts the twin perils of a global pandemic and the rise of authoritarian regimes. Whether we have travelled great distances to be here (physically or virtually), or we have just stayed put as the world spins, we may feel that we are homeless in this world where nothing familiar holds. 

Into this existential alienation the prophet Jeremiah speaks: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” 

Centuries later the Samaritan woman will reply: “I don’t know about all that. What I do know is that the Messiah is coming. When that one arrives, we’ll get the whole story.” 

To which Jesus responds, “I am” — echoing God’s words to God’s people throughout all of time, from the burning bush onward, the affirmation of God’s being and presence with us in every moment of crisis, in every experience of homelessness, in every realization of alienation, in every opportunity for reformation, in every hope for the future — “I am the one you have been waiting for.”

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