The Rev. Dr. Austin Leininger
Sermon of the 3rd Sunday of Lent
19 March 2017
It’s been an interesting week for me of signing leases, having lunch with new Calvary friends and committees, taking walks on local trails, and seeking connections. What has surprised me in this otherwise rather mixed week is that in all of those places, Coyote’s have come up.
Having been thinking all week about today’s readings, what stood out for me the most was how surprising God was in all the encounters recalled this week, which, even before all the random times coyotes came up this week, already had me thinking about the Coyote figure from some Native American theologies.
For those who may not already know, Coyote is the trickster-figure in many Central and North American First Peoples’ ancient stories of faith. And for those who aren’t familiar with the Trickster figure, she or he exists in many different forms around the world, but common to all traditions, Trickster is always turning conventional understanding on its head in uncovering deeper and more fundamental truths. Coyote, in the North and Central American stories, frequently bends gender roles and breaks taboos of tradition in demonstrating that human convention comes from deeper truths that these traditions can get in the way of seeing. As a manifestation of the wily side of the Great Spirit, Coyote is seen as extraordinarily clever, and almost always surprising. Coyote is also a frequent visitor in wilderness vision quests.
Now, as we have been with Christ in the wilderness for the past sixteen days, perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising that we’re finally encountering Coyote on our own Lenten journey of spiritual discovery.
To put it simply, in this morning’s readings God is surprising!
Connecting us back to last week, Abraham’s grandson is Jacob. Jacob was renamed Israel by an angel before settling in Sheckem where he is believed to have hewn the well from today’s Gospel, which archeologists believe they’ve connected to a well that can still be visited today. Jacob’s son Joseph was the Joseph who was sold into slavery by his brothers and wound up as second in power to Pharaoh in Egypt. He brought Jacob and the whole family to live in Egypt during a time of famine, and they flourished over many generations until a subsequent Pharaoh enslaved the whole family. After what was said to have been 430 years in Egypt, these are the people of Israel whom Moses is leading out of Egypt in today’s first reading.
At this point in their journey, the Israelites have now accused Moses of bringing them into the wilderness to die three times. At the Red Sea, with Egypt pursuing them they complained, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” A couple months later (and remember they wandered the desert for forty years, so this is really just the beginning), they complained “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” As a result, God gave them manna to eat for the whole forty years they spent as desert wanderers. And now they’re thirsty—a very real and desperate concern—but again they blame Moses, complaining “Why did you bring us out of Egypt? To kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” Basically, the people are no longer looking for God. They are tired, they are thirsty, they are likely afraid they really are going to perish in the desert, and they are frustrated with both Moses and God.
For the third time, in answer to their need, God provides for them in ways that were both surprising and unconventional. First, God parted the Red Sea for them. Next, God brought a frost-like manna to cover the desert around them to feed them each day, and now God tells Moses to hit a rock with a stick, and water suddenly gushes from a desert stone.
And there with them through it all was our unexpected God. Leading what was said to be a crowd of 600k men on foot, not counting women, children, and livestock, on a forty-year journey that covered six hundred miles, what we begin to see is that the journey itself was the destination in many ways. The journey was the building of a people, the building of relationship. The journey was finally the dawning of understanding of what it meant that God loved them as God’s own, would provide for them, and that no matter where they were, God was with them— frequently in unexpected and surprising ways.
Coming out of this experience, the generations birthed from the wanderers, (finally including King David many subsequent generations later) could glorify in God’s providence captured in today’s Psalm, remembering how hard it was for God to get through to their own ancestors and yet how truly God has been the constant and frequently unexpected rock of their salvation for centuries.
Picking up the story with Jesus, specifically as the incarnation of God’s love who challenged authority, surprised his followers, undermined tradition, and upended everyone’s expectations of what and who messiah was “supposed to be” according to tradition, we hear from Paul today again about the twists and surprises of relationship with God. Paul reminds us that in Christ, God’s own incarnated-self died for the ungodly. Not so that those already righteous would be affirmed in their faith, but so that we who had driven a wedge between ourselves and God could finally learn that no matter where we are in our journey, God is with us, God is loving us, and that no matter what the price—even death—God will never stop seeking us out.
The Samaritan woman in today’s Gospel is one of my favorite Coyote moments in Jesus’ life and ministry. Jesus was considered a holy-man. As such, he was supposed to be ritually clean and abide by certain rules of tradition, society, and local culture that dictated who should be allowed to be in his company. The Samaritan woman, was NOT such a person. Being a Samaritan, she was already part of a despised group of people who were distained by the Jewish people for intermarrying with other local cultures and for not worshipping at the temple. She was also a single woman alone at the well during the middle of the day, making it taboo for a lone man who is not in her household to approach her. Typically, women would have come to the well in groups in the early morning when it was cool, collect the water for the household for the whole day, and be back to their household tasks well before the heat of the day. To come during the middle of the day suggests that either she is not welcome to come with the other women, that she is not part of a household where she has respectable work to be done at that time, or a combination of both, which the story suggests in that she has had five husbands and the man she currently “has” is not her husband. This also suggests that beyond being a lone taboo Samaritan woman, she is also likely ritually unclean. For so many reasons, a holy Jewish man should never have been caught alone with and talking to her. So, of course, this is the person our wily Jesus asks for a drink. The shock value alone is enough for the gospel to tell us that both the woman herself, and Jesus’ disciples were astonished. But therein, I think, lies the breakthrough moment.
When I finally reencountered God at my friend Dave’s youth group my senior year in high school, it was at the end of seven years of personal, emotional, and spiritual struggle. When my parents split up and I left church, I was both emotionally and spiritually lost. I was glad of the freedom it gave me to have my parents so focused on their own issues, but at the same time it came in a time in my life when I shouldn’t have been left to my own devices. Dave and I had known each other since first grade. But we only became friends because in March of my sophomore year in high school, I was the only person he knew who had a car and a license, and he wanted to go to an Aerosmith concert. So he invited me so I could drive him and his two real friends who couldn’t drive. Toward the end of that same school year, I was bored and decided what I really needed was someone to cut class with to go to the beach. Dave was the only person I asked who was interested. We became best friends that summer, spending more days at the beach than not. By the time Dave tricked me into going to his youth group, I had explored a wide range of teenage rebellions, I was underperforming in school, I had distanced myself from my parents, teachers, and role models, and I was hiding—from myself, from others around me, and probably most of all from God (who was nowhere on my radar).
And then something unexpected happened. Toward the end of my junior year, Dave started inviting me to his youth group. I told him every week for a year, “Sorry man, I work Wednesdays, but if I ever have the night off, sure, I’ll go with you.” Then Dave stopped asking. One Wednesday night, he simply asked nonchalantly, “Hey, what are you doing tonight?” To which, I blindly replied, “Oh! I have the night off for once, did you want to hang out?” “Ya!” Dave said, triumphantly, “we’re going to youth group.” And so I went. I went with all my walls up. I went with all my expectations, from growing up with an evangelical family, of people at Dave’s youth group trying to “save” me. The surprise was that they didn’t. No one told me what I shouldn’t be doing. No one judged me for not being a good enough Christian. No one judged me—period. It was the first place in my life (other than with my mom) where I felt loved and accepted just as I was. It was the first place in my life where I felt safe enough to let down my masks and admit to myself and others just how wounded and broken I was.
Friends, I am stubborn… I am broken… I get caught up in my own life… and I am HARD to reach. Frankly, I need this Sunday’s Trickster Christ to catch me off guard, come in under my radar, and surprise me by loving me just as the wounded, broken, occasional mess that I am. I need God to be surprising, because otherwise I’m simply too ready to wall myself in and close myself off.
Like the Israelites in our first lesson, like the disciples, and like the woman at the well, we are each broken in our own unique ways. We are wounded. We are tired. We are searching. We are thirsty. But it is HARD to reach us, because we get so good at protecting ourselves. Out of broken trust, we learn not to trust. Out of failed relationships, we learn not to invest. Out of being taken advantage of we learn to guard our hearts and lose our innocence. Out of failure, we learn not to risk. Out of rejection we learn to stop trying. Out of judgment we learn to stop playing and grow up. Out of fear we give others power over us until, out of woundedness, we curl in on ourselves and we eventually stop thriving because we are so overburdened that we can no longer remember what it is even like to just breathe.
In Christ, God breaks all of the rules, seeks us out in our darkest places, sneaks behind our walls, and surprises us with a love that offers each of us the space and freedom to breathe-in life again.
Wherever we are wounded, frozen, broken, or otherwise cut off from God and one another, may we find this time in the wilderness to be one of surprise—to be one where we encounter our wily trickster God in unexpected ways—to be one where we find ourselves suddenly and even inexplicably loved, understood, accepted, and forgiven—and to be one where we find ourselves free to breathe again.