First Congregational Church, UCC
March 15, 2020
"The Voice of Life"
Scripture Readings Romans 5: 1-5 John 4: 5-26
5:1 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God
through our Lord Jesus Christ,
5:2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we
stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.
5:3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that
suffering produces endurance,
5:4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,
5:5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured
into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
4:5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground
that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.
4:6 Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting
by the well. It was about noon.
4:7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, "Give
me a drink."
4:8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)
4:9 The Samaritan woman said to him, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a
drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" (Jews do not share things in common
4:10 Jesus answered her, "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."
4:11 The woman said to him, "Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is
deep. Where do you get that living water?
4:12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and
with his sons and his flocks drank from it?"
4:13 Jesus said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty
4:14 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."
4:15 The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never
be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water."
4:16 Jesus said to her, "Go, call your husband, and come back."
4:17 The woman answered him, "I have no husband." Jesus said to her,
"You are right in saying, 'I have no husband';
4:18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your
husband. What you have said is true!"
4:19 The woman said to him, "Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 4:20 Our
ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where
people must worship is in Jerusalem."
4:20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where
people must worship is in Jerusalem."
4:21 Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you
will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.
4:22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for
salvation is from the Jews.
4:23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will
worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to
4:24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and
4:25 The woman said to him, "I know that Messiah is coming" (who is
called Christ). "When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us."
4:26 Jesus said to her, "I am he, the one who is speaking to you."
Sermon “The Voice of Life” Minister David Jones
This past Tuesday in Springfield my Clinical Pastoral Education class was visited by a Zen Buddhist who is studying at another institution to become a Buddhist Chaplain. My Christian classmates listened intently. For my part, I hadn’t really had the opportunity to think about my faith in relation to Buddhist teachings since I was in college, and I found myself energized to be doing it again. Our guest was with us mainly to share a broad overview of his tradition, so that my Christian classmates and I might be better able to provide spiritual care to any Buddhist patients we might encounter along our way. Our guest explained that Buddhism is concerned with suffering in this world right now more than with a world beyond this one, and that so long as anyone suffers in this world, the work of overcoming suffering is unfinished. Well, you can imagine how quickly our conversation came around to the situation we are all currently facing as the coronavirus, having spanned the world and our country, spreads now into our daily lives.
As I listened to our guest, to my instructor and classmates reflecting on how this virus confronts us all, I was reminded of those words from Dr. King, about how we are tied together in “a single garment of destiny”; I thought about the union slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all.” It seemed to me in that moment--across different Christian denominations, across different religious traditions, and rooted in a variety of experiences--we were gazing directly at the same insight: God’s creation, our existence, is interrelated. This can be a challenging thing to face and to accept, pulling us into a network of shared identity, shared responsibility, shared suffering. But in a crisis such as the one we are in right now, we are forced to confront this fact more urgently and to act accordingly.
This morning, we are worshipping in our own homes rather than in-person at church. In the face of any other kind of crisis, gathering together in church would be an indispensable way of experiencing that we are all in this together. The nature of this crisis is different; the medical community is asking us to avoid large gatherings. Sometimes honoring our shared responsibility--of recognizing that we are in this together--means tapping into a larger identity. Instead of gathering as neighbors, as members of our local communities, we are having to step back, worship from home, gathering only in spirit, recognizing that our region’s hospitals--and our nation--depend on us observing every precaution. And so it is a good time to be reminded, as we are in our reading from John this morning, that our worship and faithfulness is not tied to a building. Our faithfulness is tied to our community; at this moment, not gathering seems to be the best way of supporting our community and especially those in our community who are most vulnerable to this virus.
And there is something else going on here, an opportunity in this difficult moment. There are many people in our community who are not able to attend worship on Sundays for other reasons than cancelled services, but who are still deeply connected to us in spirit--or are longing to be deeply connected. This crisis represents an opportunity to creatively explore ways to share our Sunday worship with those who cannot regularly attend. The sense of defeat that some of us may feel having to close our church doors on a Sunday can yet yield to doors more open than ever before.
Our local response to this crisis can be transformed, from prevention into something proactive; what this takes from us now, through closures and cancellations, can make us stronger.
This is a process, like Paul describes in his letter to the Romans: out of suffering can come endurance, out of endurance, character, and out of character, new hopes. From this experience of spiritual suffering, our character grows in its compassion with those who cannot get to the church on a Sunday morning. It may be that people’s health, or the building’s accessibility, or their jobs, or their loved ones in their care, are preventing them from being physically with us. In a moment like this, as we all experience our physical and spiritual vulnerability that we can actually draw nearer to our community, and therefore nearer to God.
And we are seeing this play out in our national process too. As we can no longer deny--not in this moment--just how much we depend on each other, how much an injury to one is truly an injury to all, we are having to reckon as a nation with the lack of healthcare in this country, with the lack of paid medical leave, with the precarity of employment, and the precarity of people’s access to food, housing, and utilities. We are having to reckon with how widespread suffering has already been in our society, and how much worse it is likely now to become. Just as we have the opportunity to make our Sunday worship more accessible, so does our country have the opportunity to make people’s lives more secure. Suffering is an awful thing, and we are suffering now.
Truly, I do not know why we suffer in this life, why suffering is part of God’s creation. But I do know that suffering alerts us to something untenable and unsustainable. I think of the soul’s experience of suffering as something like the body’s experience of the pain associated with a broken bone. The pain is not the thing that God wants the body to experience. But when something has gone wrong, we need to know about it if we’re going to mend the injury. It’s not that God tolerates pain and suffering, it’s that God can not tolerate our injury; God cannot tolerate our spiritual distress. God does not make pain and suffering for pain and suffering’s sake, but rather entrusts us with a means to detect that our bodies or our souls need attention and care. Our suffering does not have an inherent value, but it can have a utility on our journey to peace and reconciliation. When we combine this with the insight or the revelation that we are all tied together--that reality is undeniably interrelated--we can then see that pain and suffering can have a social utility on our journey together.
Well, God is being revealed among us now, scandalized that testing for this virus has been either unavailable or has cost people money; angry that the closures and cancellations will deny working people their paycheck. And indeed, in our urgency to make our worship available at home, God is alerting us to the need to learn to do this anyway, every week, for those among us who cannot regularly attend services.
This is a difficult time for us all, and I want to encourage everyone, regardless of the decision reached about holding in-person services in the coming weeks, to prioritize their health and the health of loved ones. And I want to encourage us to understand that this experience can point us in bold, new directions. Though it doesn’t always feel like it when we are distressed, our faithfulness through it is proof that we are drinking from the living water of God. It is proof that God is with us in bringing us new compassion and new hope. And hope does not disappoint us. It is God’s love that cries out in our hope, the voice of life among us.