Everyone

Good morning, everyone!

We are already in our third week of a series called, “We Are Reservoir” which hopefully is giving you a taste of how and why we think about faith the way we do – and we’ve anchored these weeks to our  five core values: connection, humility, action, freedom and everyone. These values guide our pursuit of a vibrant, inclusive, healthy faith.

Steve spoke on connection and freedom the last two weeks. And today I’ll talk about the value of ‘everyone.’  It’s an interesting one – because it’s not just a descriptor of who we hope the recipients of these values will be – but it points to a relationship.

Between us and everyone  – and us and God.  It’s the beginning point of why any of our hearts are  positioned to embody these values of connection, action, humility, freedom –  it is for everyoneNot just those we are inspired by, or where there’s ease or obvious common denominators – we are called to love our neighbor, before our ‘neighbor’ is defined. Everyone.  

Here’s how we describe this value of everyone here at Reservoir:

We seek to welcome people in all their diversity, without condition or exception, to embrace a life connected to Jesus and others.”

The only texture I would add is that our engagement with everyone enhances our own connection to, and knowing of, Jesus – and the possibility of that exists everywhere. Not only inside these walls in a Sanctuary, but everywhere we are… and everywhere, everyone is.  There’s a mutuality that is essential to our faith and without ‘everyone’ at the center of it – these other values can run the risk of falling flat.

Sounds lovely.

But it is hard.

And yet it is the heart of the gospel.

It is the only way the good news – is truly good news.

PRAYER
What a wonder it is to be a part of this journey of faith with you, God. As best we can this morning, we listen and seek for your presence.  One that comforts us where we need to know we are not alone – one that slows us , as we need rest… one that inspires us , as we long for more in the city and world around us. . . Oh God, be our good and  life-giving companion this morning, as was true yesterday – and will be true tomorrow… Amen.

For those of you who might not know, I’ve been on sabbatical these last few weeks. At the beginning of that time, I went on a walk with a wise-mentor-y friend.  And she shared as we walked that when she retired  everyone was quickly asking,

“well what are you doing? How’s it going? What are you spending your days doing?”

And she said the only thing she could think in reply was,

“well today I filled my car with gas. I pumped gas. And I didn’t think about my running to-do lists, or whatever thousands of spokes of thought –  I just pumped the gas. I was present at that moment.”

And it struck me – because the thing about being on sabbatical with three mostly unscheduled teenagers at home – is that the word “sabbatical” just means to them that you are more available than ever – for whatever they might want to do.  (*which of course is still a gift*)

But I thought within whatever expression this sabbatical is going to take, I do want to be present to whatever/WHOEVER is in front of me… so “just pump the gas” became my sabbatical mantra. 

 I’m going to share a couple of small stories throughout this sermon of moments where I was really present to who was in front of me and what unfolds.

Vignette #1
The first of which occurred the day after the walk with my friend.  I was in the car stopped at this big intersection in Hyde Park – where a large parkway and a side road intersect.

And I noticed this older woman – likely 70yr+ jogging toward the intersection. She was noticeable mainly because she had this huge smile on her face  – which became only bigger the closer she got to the light pole at the intersection. As she reached this pole, she erupted in self-congratulatory cheers, pumping her fists in the air – laughing – so full of joy. And she continued across the intersection pumping her fists – and I thought, “Wow, this ‘just pump the gas mantra-thing”’ is amazing!  I feel so connected to joy, and to gratitude – and to God!

And yet – obviously – this is not ALWAYS the experience as we make our way through our days. In fact the impact of this moment and it’s surprise, and joy – suggests that most of what I feel on any given day is chafing at best. That the division, the hatred, the cancel culture, the fracture, the ‘avoidance’ of one another is the tenor I pick up on – and  how I navigate most days. 

And when we think about this value of “everyone” -it is really challenging. The good news says,

“God loves everyone.”

And we are called to do the same – to remind people that they are designed for love and to give love. Which is more than a-just-sit- behind-a-closed-window- witnessing-beautiful- moments- posture. It is to be engaged and present – fully to who is in our view. 

Today, I wanted to look at a story in the gospel of John that I think invites us to consider this value of “everyone.” It’s a story of an interaction Jesus has with just one person.  It’s curious to choose this story – because there are so many stories of Jesus where the “everyone” value is on proud display… big banquets and tables full of people who couldn’t/ shouldn’t/ wouldn’t get along, and yet Jesus gathers them. Meals where bread is broken and offered to the least of these… ’everyone,’ ‘everyone’ is the centerpiece.

Today’s story though, centers just one conversation – with Jesus and one woman.  But one that somehow opens up unto everyone in the surrounding city. . . and unto us still today.

So here’s the story of the Samaritan woman at the well.  

John 4: 4-30, 39 (Common English Bible)

4 Jesus had to go through Samaria.

5 He came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, which was near the land Jacob had given to his son Joseph.

6 Jacob’s well was there. Jesus was tired from his journey, so he sat down at the well. It was about noon.

7 A Samaritan woman came to the well to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me some water to drink.”

8 His disciples had gone into the city to buy him some food.

9 The Samaritan woman asked, “Why do you, a Jewish man, ask for something to drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” (Jews and Samaritans didn’t associate with each other.)

10 Jesus responded, “If you recognized God’s gift and who is saying to you, ‘Give me some water to drink,’ you would be asking him and he would give you living water.”

11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you don’t have a bucket and the well is deep. Where would you get this living water?

12 You aren’t greater than our father Jacob, are you? He gave this well to us, and he drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.”

13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again,

14 but whoever drinks from the water that I will give will never be thirsty again. The water that I give will become in those who drink it a spring of water that bubbles up into eternal life.”

15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will never be thirsty and will never need to come here to draw water!”

16 Jesus said to her, “Go, get your husband, and come back here.”

17 The woman replied, “I don’t have a husband.”

“You are right to say, ‘I don’t have a husband,’” Jesus answered.

18 “You’ve had five husbands, and the man you are with now isn’t your husband. You’ve spoken the truth.”

19 The woman said, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.

20 Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you and your people say that it is necessary to worship in Jerusalem.”

21 Jesus said to her, “Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you and your people will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.

22 You and your people worship what you don’t know; we worship what we know because salvation is from the Jews.

23 But the time is coming—and is here!—when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth. The Father looks for those who worship him this way.

24 God is spirit, and it is necessary to worship God in spirit and truth.”

25 The woman said, “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one who is called the Christ. When he comes, he will teach everything to us.”

26 Jesus said to her, “I Am—the one who speaks with you.”

27 Just then, Jesus’ disciples arrived and were shocked that he was talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?”

28 The woman put down her water jar and went into the city. She said to the people,

29 “Come and see a man who has told me everything I’ve done! Could this man be the Christ?”

30 They left the city and were on their way to see Jesus.

39 Many Samaritans in that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s word when she testified, “He told me everything I’ve ever done.” 

Okay, this is the longest conversation with Jesus of any character in the book of John – and there is a lot to be discovered. There are many threads of thought around this scripture  – many parts I won’t touch on – and it might leave you with some questions. I hope that’s ok, and I hope those questions lead you into deeper reflection and conversation of your own. And as we break open this scripture a bit – I want to start with a couple contextual thoughts:

Jesus & the Samaritan Woman

As you might have picked up from this Samaritan woman’s first words, 

“Why do you, a Jewish man, ask for something to drink from me, a Samaritan woman?”

There is in fact deep division between Samaritans and Jews… that goes back for centuries.  The brief historical sketch is this:

  • The Samaritans were thought to be a

“part of a remnant of Jews left behind after the initial conquest of the ten northern tribes of Israel by Assyrians… those who were left behind intermarried with other peoples.  Their Jewish practices became mixed with other religious practices – and while it maintained many of the aspects of Judaism, was distinct enough to cause significant tension between the two belongings.” (What Were You Arguing About Along The Way?: Gospel Reflections for Advent By Pádraig Ó Tuama, Pat Bennett)

    • Such as where they would worship – which temple? On what hill? Which one was the holiest of places to worship  God?
    • In short they were social, religious and political enemies.

Interpretations | Woman

  • It should also be noted that there are diverse interpretations of this scripture – that have been offered upon this Samaritan woman’s life. All kinds of sins have been projected onto her. And I think for far too long this story has been told to us as a sexual morality tale based on an interpretation of the woman as a sinner because she had five husbands. That lens, *“reduces women to their sexuality and reduces their sexuality to immorality.”* Her many marriages are often attributed to her own wrong-doing rather than the more likely reality of gender oppression, death and male-initiated divorce which was highly likely in her context.  

*Sandra M. Schneiders,  Written That You May Believe.

  • So I will not be interpreting scripture through this narrow lens today – because it sadly serves patriarchy more than scripture, and more than this story  – a story which is meant to serve us today. 

However, it can be said that in the meeting of Jesus and this woman there is a web of otherness, histories, gender dynamics, religious divisions – and also social and physical vulnerabilities.  

Jesus is thirsty, it’s been a long trip, and it’s high noon. 

And this woman appears at the well with the necessary tools with which to help Jesus.

Jesus sets this scene with a value on relationship and vulnerability. He does not name what should separate them from one another. He offers this woman who arrives alone – connection, as deep as this well – their shared humanity and their need of one another. 

He does so with the integrity of love, treating her as an individual, not a member of a big “other” group, nor re-enacting the hatred of the ancient stories between these two peoples.

He starts by talking about  “living water”  and then the conversation goes to her personal life, and her five husbands.

It can seem like quite a pivot of conversation – but I think it’s a continuation of this human mutuality that Jesus is trying to ignite in her – for so long she has been accustomed to being alone, silenced, unwelcomed. 

We don’t know the full stories of why five husbands? *and Jesus doesn’t ask either* But we can imagine that having five husbands under an oppressive gender economy ties her worth and survival to her marital status, and this is a lot.  She’s existed on the edges  – of society, her household, herself – regarded as irrelevant, despised.

She has suffered so much.

And she has survived so much.

 It is wild that Jesus takes the conversation right to her five husbands, but as Reverend Ingrid Rasmussen points out

“rather than hearing Jesus pronounce an indictment, as most interpreters would have us do, we hear Jesus simply uncovering and naming the hard realities of this woman’s life. She has had five husbands; and, now, most likely for the sake of survival, she is forced to live outside of social and religious boundaries with a man who is not her husband. But Jesus does not speak words of condemnation or offer easy answers. He simply chooses to validate her words and her experience, saying two times, “you are right”, ‘What you have said is true.’”

There isn’t a condemnation or even an invitation to do differently. He just meets her there. So much has not been in her control. So many decisions made about her, for her, against her. Jesus knows.”  (Rasmussen, enfleshed.com)

Jesus is trying to draw out her own worth and dignity throughout this conversation – as much as he is trying to draw water.

My guess is that everyone of us – when in moments of pain, hardship, grief, stress – appreciate those in our lives who can affirm the truth of what we are feeling – versus rushing to “fix” or “rescue” or “judge” us.

“Jesus sees this woman in the fullness of her experience as if he knows “everything that has ever happened to her. Not just the divorces and/or deaths – but the reasons they aren’t worthy of condemnation, the ways these things have been out of her control, the suffering she has endured by way of systems and people void of kindness. 

Jesus knows all of it.” (Rasmussen, enfleshed.com)

Jesus knows that she is thirsty to experience and remember herself in a new way.

He knows it’s been hard for her to break free of how people treat her – or how hard even today it would be for her to break free of how people translate her story/her life. 

And so Jesus greets that deep thirst to belong – as he says,

“what you say is true.” “What you say is true.”

No, no, there’s no moral code to follow here…

As Reverend Rasmussen notes, this is why the text says she came to believe in the gospel. It’s no small thing to be met in that way. It’s an embodiment of the good news – to bring out into the light that which too often is swallowed by the shadows within us. When vulnerability unveils the things that are so difficult to share, love affirms truth. Spirit joins across barriers.  

And this is how we worship  – Jesus advises – with no moral code to dictate our worth. Nothing but spirit and truth to invite everyone into a sense of belonging. 

And belonging really is the heart of this dialogue – from verse 4 all the way through – this conversation is one consecutive story – a fleshing out of how essential belonging is in the story of God,  for everyone.

Most of our stories are not separate from a larger framework, there’s always other voices/systems/circumstances/influences that come in to break the truth that,

“we are loved  unconditionally and without exception by God.”

How many people in this woman’s community do you think saw her, advocated for her? How many religious leaders spoke to her circumstances? Organized for change on her behalf?

Likely, none.

This messes with the fundamental, deep well –  our given worth and dignity, our spiritual identity that we are beloved children of God, that we all hold traces of the Divine within us.

So for me this is not a disjointment conversation that Jesus and this woman have – bouncing from the subject of water, to husbands and places of worship – it’s all one conversation  – a spiritual one – about belonging in all of the stretches of life.   

And the astuteness of this woman – is to clarify with Jesus,

“wait, are you saying what I think you are saying?  That I could belong in my household, in this city, in this religion you speak of – “a despised Samaritan woman enemy” – without barriers to these waters – of life… here and now… ?”

“Because if that is what you are saying – if you are saying I can belong in the kin-dom/the community of God – then this must/has to be true for everyone…”

And the woman presses still to ask,

“so where then is the proper location for the Jewish temple?”

A question which had caused deep divisions for hundreds of years.  Jesus’ answer to her as a Samaritan is just as surprising to her , as it would be to the Jews – he says, location is not important.  

Reflecting back to this woman,

“Were we not in a temple, you and I, just now at this well? Was that not holy/sacred ground?”

God requires his people to worship

“in the Spirit and in truth.”

It’s not either/or – it’s not Mt. Gerizim-centered or Mt. Zion-centered – it’s Jesus/ Spirit-centered… there’s no location, no coordinates – except where you find yourself in the holy presence of another’s full humanity…their story, exactly where they are at. 

This is how we find ourselves worshiping at the feet of one another. Filling places of regret, shame, pain of oppression – with waters of life and light – the places where we are too often left to dwell alone. 

 Vignette #2:

The other story from my sabbatical and trying to stay in this “just pump the gas” zone.. is less mountaintop-y.  It takes place in a post office, where I witnessed an employee treat every customer in line with such disdain… that by the time I got to the counter, I was nervous and hit the wrong button when it asks whether you have something ‘liquid, perishable or hazardous…’ and the employee said, “I told you to hit the red button – why did you hit the green button?”  

And then as the day went on I took an impromptu trip to Falmouth with my family.  I popped into a gift shop with my son… and there was only one other customer in the store (who I don’t think noticed when we entered).  I soon realized he was relentlessly harassing the cashier. Just bullying her, trying to negotiate a cheaper price for a shirt, and he wouldn’t relent – he just kept coming at her with increasing aggression…

And I wondered, what does “just pump the gas”  look like here? To be fully present to the person in front of you when it’s incredibly hard?  When the deep well of the love of God and others – drains right out of you? 

This is a question that courses through our days. Our days are full of whiplash –  moments of ease – where I can say “hi God!” and moments where I ask a series of questions including,

“just WHERE is it again I’m supposed to find you, worship you, God?”

With the postal employee – I guess I stayed in the moment – because I didn’t storm away. And he noticed I was sending the package to an address with “College Ave.”  I said, “yah my daughter forgot her calculator!” – and he said

“oh I have a kid that just left too – he’s always asking me to send him things.”

and that was it. 

In the gift shop, I went up to the man with harassing behavior and said,

“you need to stop harassing this woman, there’s no negotiating here.”

Period.  He left and the cashier said,

“thank you for saying that… I didn’t want to call the authorities, but I was alone.”

I don’t know what to do in all of these moments – I don’t always have the time to imagine or learn what a person’s story is… and locate that within the story of Jesus.

But I do rely on the integrity of love to guide me…  rather than my own limited understanding. And maybe all the moments – and interactions feel totally random and disjointed – but maybe they aren’t… and maybe everyone – gets somehow a taste of what Jesus said to this woman…

“it’s true, it’s true what you are feeling.” 

 EVERYONE

And here’s the thing about this value, “Everyone” – it’s not merely about inclusion. It’s unto something greater… this Samaritan woman is not worthy of mere inclusion. She invites us into learning and change (true for the disciples, for the town-folk, maybe even for Jesus). It’s more than a nice/generous posture that we make sure to welcome “everyone” – it is because it is the essential way by which we hope to continue to build and create beloved community – it’s where the change and the (un)learning we all will benefit from, occurs. And how we keep dreaming for a just world. 

 LIGHT

This scripture starts with one woman’s conversation with Jesus… and ends with an entire town’s conversation with Jesus. This Samaritan woman, the one who was rejected, marginalized, shamed, an enemy became the first person in John’s gospel to communicate the very good news.  

She is greatly loved. 

To this day, she is loved in all Christianities – in the Eastern traditions – both Catholic and Orthodox – and she is named – her name “Photine” means the light-filled, or luminescent one. In Southern Mexico, during Lent- they make agua frescas in all flavors – to commemorate her gift of water to Jesus. In Russian her name means “equal to the apostles.”

Like the apostles who left nets, boats, parents, their work –  the Samaritan woman leaves her water jar at the well and goes off to embrace her city.  To embody – to be the very vessel of love and goodness and light – that drew her own spirit out, and to bubble over with those life giving waters to everyone around her… even those that despised her.

Her story, unveiled in the full light of day, allows Jesus to instruct us that religious and cultural systems that try to engage moral approval as the basis for acceptance, belonging or unity in the spirit –  actually only keep people in the shadows. 

We are not called to give, demand or receive moral approval from another. But we are called to love one another – everyone.  

For God so loves this world – that God has placed traces of God-self, God’s light in each and everyone of us – Teaching us, inviting us, at every turn how to love this world and everyone within it – just as much as God does.  

ENDING

Dear friends,

“let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.” 

I John 4:7

 

 

Freedom

Dancing feel so good! It’s been a while…

There is a good feeling we get when we find freedom, isn’t there? 

The capacity to move as we’re meant to move, to be as we’re meant to be, to learn and grow and love as the deepest parts of us know we need to.

Yeah, a free person shines like the stardust we’re made out of, like the lights that we are. 

But woah, it’s hard to get there and stay there, isn’t it? 

Real talk – how many of you had fun a minute ago? 

OK, and how many of you were like: what is happening? 

Do I have to get up? Do I have to move? Who’s looking at me? What in the world is Steve doing?

Don’t worry, it was my idea and I was thinking every one of those things. Everyone, don’t worry.

Yeah, we have a lot of resistance to freedom. We want to not be constrained by conventions that don’t suit us. But man, we also don’t want to be that weird person who’s unconventional. 

We want to dare to live by our deepest convictions, to flow in the world in consonance with our deepest truths and hopes, but can we? Is it safe? Is it normal? Will it work?

Freedom and resistance – resistance to our own freedom, sometimes resistance to others’ freedom – tend to show up together. 

Freedom also isn’t just following every one of our instincts without impediment. Freedom is nuanced. Freedom lives within constraint. With great freedom comes great responsibility, they say. It’s true. 

But freedom is really important to us and our flourishing. It’s important to God too. And it’s important to this community you’re in right now. 

This month, in our We Are Reservoir series, we’re preaching through our five core values – Connection last week, Everyone, Humility, and Action yet to come. And freedom is up this week.

Here’s how we defined this years ago when we changed our name to Reservoir Church. 

Freedom 

We encourage honest exploration of faith over conformity of belief or behavior, trusting that the Holy Spirit reveals truth to all who seek God.

This is a really important value of this community. I think it’s a really important value of Jesus’ whole Beloved Community, what Jesus, in his teaching, called the

kingdom

or

the family or the commonwealth of God. 

And I think all of us don’t just prize whatever freedom we have, we’re kind of longing for more liberation, yearning to be more free. 

So today, we take a glance, from a Jesus-centered perspective, about what freedom is or isn’t and how we get there. 

Here’s our text, from one of the earlier letters in the New Testament, written by Paul of Tarsus to the little house churches in Galatia, a region of the Roman Empire that’s now part of Turkey.

It’s kind of the climax of the whole letter. Here we go.

Galatians 5:1-14  (Common English Bible)

5 1 Christ has set us free for freedom. Therefore, stand firm and don’t submit to the bondage of slavery again.

2 Look, I, Paul, am telling you that if you have yourselves circumcised, having Christ won’t help you.

3 Again I swear to every man who has himself circumcised that he is required to do the whole Law.

4 You people who are trying to be made righteous by the Law have been estranged from Christ. You have fallen away from grace!

5 We eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness through the Spirit by faith.

6 Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t matter in Christ Jesus, but faith working through love does matter.

7 You were running well—who stopped you from obeying the truth?

8 This line of reasoning doesn’t come from the one who calls you.

9 A little yeast works through the whole lump of dough.

10 I’m convinced about you in the Lord that you won’t think any other way. But the one who is confusing you will pay the penalty, whoever that may be.

11 Brothers and sisters, if I’m still preaching circumcision, why am I still being harassed? In that case, the offense of the cross would be canceled.

12 I wish that the ones who are upsetting you would castrate themselves!

13 You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love.

14 All the Law has been fulfilled in a single statement: Love your neighbor as yourself.

You don’t have to, but I want us to remember this line I’m about to say, so if you’re willing can you say this line with me, say it after me:

“For freedom Christ has set us free.”

Here’s what’s going on. 

A number of people in this region have heard about the way of Jesus, and they are in. Listening to the words and stories of Jesus before they were even written down. They were learning to worship and trust the God Jesus loved, pray as Jesus taught us to pray, live in love and live by faith the way Jesus taught us and showed us. 

And then some people told them:

there’s more.

They were like:

there are customs. There are rules. There’s a whole tradition you need to uphold, to fall in line with to be Christian.

Maybe these were visiting teachers from another church, maybe members of their community that had picked up these ideas, maybe their own local pastor, we don’t know. 

But we know that one of the customs, one of the rules, he/they were insisting upon was male circumcision. Male Jews had their foreskins of their penis removed at birth or conversion – it had been so for centuries. It was so for Jesus. It was so for Paul. 

And these teachers were like:

you need to do this too. It’s part of the system. You want to be Christian, you want to follow the way of Jesus, getting circumcised, or getting your son or husband or boyfriend or whoever to get circumcised, is one of the things you have to do.

Now I mean, I hate, I hate the way some Christians talk about this text. They call these teachers the Judaizers and act like having Gentiles pick up a few Jewish customs would be this awful thing. It sounds totally anti-semitic to me, and I’m not having that. 

And on the surface, it’s no big deal, I would think. I mean what’s wrong with a few rules? Nothing. What’s wrong with giving respect to the ancient faith tradition from which Jesus himself came? That seems beautiful to me, even if it were to involve a painful medical procedure for the men. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? Who cares?

Well, Paul, one of the people who ended up writing bits of our Bible cared, and he cared a lot! He himself is Jewish. He loves his culture, his ancestry, the faith from which he came – he’s proud of it. But these teachers of the rules and customs required for belonging, they anger him. He’s like:

brothers, if you want to circumcise these folks, you ought to go ahead and castrate yourselves instead.

Not polite words. 

Here’s my take on this. 

I think what’s at stake is not at all about Jewish or not Jewish, not at all about rules or no rules. We all need some rules to live by, after all. No, here what’s at stake is at the heart of what God wants for us in Jesus. What’s at stake is freedom.

Jesus set you free so you can keep getting more free. For freedom Christ has set you free.

But we keep putting yourselves in prison, and that is a tragedy.

I want to talk about two sets of ways we tend to imprison ourselves, that Paul uses as sort of the opposites of the freedom for which Christ set us free, OK?

They’re the imprisonment of tower, and the imprisonment of field

Now this whole prison/slavery language… it’s hard, it’s loaded. 

We’re in a country whose real practices of slavery and imprisonment have been brutal and violent and racist, physical horrors we need deliverance from. So we can’t use language like this casually. 

On the slavery front, the same was true in Paul’s Roman empire, for what it’s worth – common and brutal and violent then. Some of the members of the Galatian house churches were slaves, and it was awful. 

So I don’t think Paul used slavery as a metaphor casually. He was trying to convey the desperate violence and entrapment of all the ways we fail to walk in freedom, saying we need deliverance from the literal imprisonment and enslavement of humans by humans, and we also need deliverance from the metaphorical, internal imprisonment and enslavement of persons by the systems we swim in and by ourselves as well. 

So there’s the metaphor. Let’s talk about our two big opposites of the freedom for which Jesus has set us free.

So the first I’m calling the Prison of Tower

The prison of tower is the need to be correct, stable, and secure. It’s the belief that you’ve got to always be right and better than. 

It’s often, the prison of tower, born out of insecurity or pride or both. The idea is: mark out your territory, your safe zone, build your tower, your fortress of superiority and protection, and the resist and judge everyone outside. 

For Paul’s opponents, they were like: morally, religiously, spiritually, this is a dangerous world. There are the Romans and the Pagans and the Persians and all kinds of people and beliefs and cultures and customs in the world, and they’re not good. They’re not true. 

Uphold the customs, follow the rules – circumcision included – that set you apart, that make you right and pure and pleasing to God. This will protect you, protect you from assimilation, protect you from the displeasure of God and the judgment of your community. 

But Paul’s like,

this is not the point of the way of Jesus. Faith in Jesus is not a better moral system to set you apart from the world or make you better than anyone else.  

Faith in Jesus is walking with Jesus in a relationship of trust, not a code of certainties. 

Faith in Jesus is a living, breathing relationship with the Spirit of God that leads you into right ways in all circumstances. 

Faith in Jesus is grace, the gift of knowing you’re loved by God, you’re a child of God, that God is always with you, never giving up on you, and can always guide you into greater goodness, greater joy, greater truth, greater freedom. 

Prison of tower still shows up in religious rigidity and superiority. When people say believe the codes we’ve taught you, obey the Bible the way we read it, follow the rules the way we teach them, and you will please God, you will be well, that’s an insecure prison tower. It claims righteousness and honor and safety and superiority, but it’s just smug superiority. 

Nationalism is the same. Loving your culture or your country because it’s home and it’s meaningful to you, that kind of pride is cool if you’ve got it. But confidence that your country or your culture are the best, the chosen, the ones deserving the most power or wealth, that’s prison of tower again – pride that builds walls and props up our little egos, but doesn’t bring us or our communities freedom. 

Put these two together with religious nationalism, in this country, Christian nationalism, and you’ve got a doubly toxic idolatry, claiming God’s backing and favor for our own petty, selfish, violent project. Paul’s like:

curse that kind of attitude. It will estrange you from Christ, lead you away from God It’s no good.

Now friends here at Reservoir, some of us have left prisons of tower. We were once part of Christian cultures, churches, ways of doing faith that we now see as fence-building, wall-building, narrow, rigid, smug, or judgmental. In our honest exploration of faith, we’ve walked away from conformity of belief or behavior. Maybe we believe the Holy Spirit is revealing some truth to us as we seek God. 

I believe that the Spirit of God has been revealing truth to this church, for instance, about inclusion, about good fruit in our lived experience as an important litmus test for healthy, liberating faith. I celebrate the paths of change and renewal going on here and in other places in the Body of Christ. 

But if we’ve left behind prisons of tower. Or if we’re offended, scandalized, angry about other systems of tower we maybe were never part of, I think we’re encouraged to two things, though.

One, spend our energy on our own journey of love, faithfulness, and freedom. Don’t get caught up judging the places we come from, or the tower-making, fear driven projects we were never part of.

Once on Twitter, I made a comment about the really bad behavior and imprisoning tower thinking of some American Christians. And the phrase I used was “so-called Christians.” And one of you messaged me, and you were like:

Steve, that so-called Christians language is smug and judgy, and you’re better than that, and our church is better than that too.

And I was like:

thank you. You are right. And I try not to do that. Judge not, lest you be judged.

And then two, don’t trade one tower for another. Don’t trade white supremacist Christian nationalism for rigidity or fundamentalism in more liberal convictions, for instance. Speak your truth, live by your convictions, follow the way you believe God is leading, but stay generous, stay loving. Be curious, not judgmental, you know. 

And don’t trade religious rigidity for rigidity about your diet or exercise or politics or whatever. It’s good to have convictions, it can be great to have rules to live by – I have mine. But don’t make the rules with the truth, your way in this moment with the way. None of us ever sees all truth. None of us has a God’s eye, complete perspective. We all see in part. We all live by grace. We all find our freedom best when we stay humble too, when we seek to live in love.

Alright, so that’s the prison of tower. I’ll be briefer here, so I can wrap up, but Paul also contrasts the freedom for which we’ve been set free with another prison, what I’ll call Prison of Field

 I made up this phrase, prison of field, but here’s what I mean by it. Unlike the tower – this fortress of rules and custom and superiority and pride that hides our insecurities, prison of field is like you see the whole field, you see everything you don’t have, and you need it all.

Prison of field is the need to have new and more and better people, experiences, and wealth. It’s like being a good American consumer – I want that, so I’m gonna get it. 

It can be born of lack. Like I’ve had so little, so now I’m going to get what’s mine. Or it can be born of entitlement, like I deserve all that. 

Prison of field is thinking: I’ll be happy when….

I’ll be happy when I have more money or better stuff.

I’ll be happy when I have a new or better job or lover or house.

I’ll be happy when I’m not sick anymore. 

Or even I’ll be happy when my kids are happy, or when my kids have no problems, or when they achieve this or that. I call that notion in myself the idolatry of the perfect child. 

It’s not fair to you or your kids and doesn’t bring us freedom.

Paul says don’t let your freedom in Christ

– your I’m beloved, God is with me no matter what –

don’t let that be an opportunity to be all about your own selfish impulses. 

Instead, serve one another in love. Love your neighbor as yourself. 

Pursue the well being of friend and stranger and enemy as you pursue your own and then you’ll stay free.

Because we’re not free when we’re living by compulsion, when we’re imprisoned by the endless discontentment and hunger for more that all the marketers want us to have. 

And we’re not free when we all can’t get free together.

When my consumption hurts your land, when my need for a new and better phone every two years piles up toxic trash in your backyard, we’re not free. When my ungoverned appetites for food or sex or whatever subject other creatures to my violence or my lustful gaze, then we’re not free. When my never quite enough feeling means I can’t ever commit to a person or a place or a calling, then I’m not free, right? 

For freedom Christ has set us free.

Wherever the Spirit of God is, there is ever-increasing freedom.

Friends, with all its flaws, best as we’re able, we’ve grown this church to be a place where conformity of behavior or belief is not expected. We’ve grown this church to be a community that encourages us all to honestly explore God and goodness and faith, trusting that the Holy Spirit reveals truth to all who seek God.

And Jesus has lived and died and lived again to set you free. To call you a child of God. And to inspire and guide you toward love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against these things there is no law. 

Don’t settle for prison of tower or prison of field. 

Walk with God, listen to the Spirit, live by faith, and love, joy, and peace will be yours.

For freedom, Christ has set us free. 

For freedom, Christ has set us free.

Connection

Last month, we got a new puppy. There were people in my household that have been dreaming of this day for a while. Let’s just say I was the last holdout. But here we are. And it’s not clear yet how we’re all going to feel about this in the long run.

But, man, I will give Pepper this. He’s really cute. And he’s pretty fun. He gets us out of the house more. I’ve met more neighbors, more neighbor dogs the past two weeks than the previous two years. And he’s simple. This toothy little, meddlesome creature just wants to chew on things and get outside and be fed. But even more he really just wants to be liked and cuddled with and played with and then he’ll always be happy. 

Yeah, when he’s not sleeping or eating, this dog’s whole world is like: See me. Talk to me. Smile at me. Play with me. 

He’s just hungering for, always ready for connection. 

He’s not alone. 

The other big new thing in our family life this summer is that one of our parents had a major stroke. And we’ve all been waiting and praying as we see what kind of recovery is or isn’t going to be possible.

We still don’t know what the future holds here, but for over two months, my mother in law has been living in institutions, instead of at home. 

And in a lot of ways, the defining question for her, even more than her physical recovery, has also been about connection, wanting to know:

Who sees me? Who’s praying for me? Who remembers me? Who will visit me? And if I’m losing my mobility and my independence, what will ensure that I am not alone? 

As we age, whether we’re particularly introverted or extroverted, our hunger to not lose relationship and attention and touch, our needs to remain connected, become really important. 

The scriptures of our tradition affirm this fundamental need. One of the first things said about people in the whole Bible is this:

Genesis 2:18b

“It’s not good that the human is alone.”

In the creation epic of Genesis, there’s this joyful litany of celebration about the goodness of the whole created order. Again and again, God calls things good. The Hebrew word is tov. 

Sun and moon – tov

Earth and seas – tov

Plant life, animal life – tov.

Birds and fish – tov

The creation of humanity – very tov. So good. An amplification here!

But then, the idea that a human being would live in isolation, not connected to other humans at all, is not tov. 

It’s not good for people to be alone. 

Now here’s what that doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean you have to get married. Because the creation epic involves Adam and Eve – the man of the ground and the mother of all life – people think about marriage here. Get married, have a family, because it’s not good for humans to be alone.

But not all of us want to get married. And some of us want to, but it doesn’t work out for us. Or we get married, and our partner leaves us or dies. Or the marriage is hard and leaves us lonely more often than not. Or our marriage is pretty great, but we realize that even the best of marriages doesn’t by itself fulfill our needs for relationship, connection, and community. 

Marriage can be wonderful, but it’s not the be all and end all for everyone. You don’t need marriage to not be alone. In fact, you don’t need a romantic partner or a sex life at all either. 

Plenty of people live well and live wonderfully fulfilled lives without sex, without a romantic partner – married or otherwise – either for seasons of life or for all of life.

But none of us live well entirely disconnected. It’s not good for humans to be alone. 

We need connection, and we need circles of different types of connection. 

We need a lot of people to whom we’re very loosely connected, people whose names we’ll mostly never learn – our whole societies, our cultures, our economies in which we find our way. 

And then we need our circles of acquaintances who create networks of belonging for us, the circles of people we work with and live around and share affinity with. These are the people that come and go over time. They’re not intimate, they are loose ties, but they are the networks of giving and receiving that help us understand ourselves and function and matter.

And then we need smaller circles of intimacy, friends and family and partners who don’t just know our names but our stories, people with whom we may have tension and conflict, but where we’ll also experience and offer affection and respect and even love. 

And we even need some sense of connection that stays with us regardless of how other people come and go. We need a fundamental sense that we matter, that we are seen and known and loved, no matter what other people do or say. 

We are profoundly social beings. We are creatures who don’t survive, and certainly don’t thrive, without a lot of connection. 

Today we explore how we can pay attention to and value and engage most wholeheartedly with the people and communities where we offer and receive the most important, richest connection. 

We do this as part of a five week series we call We Are Reservoir. Each week for the next five weeks, we’ll teach scripture and themes related to the five core values that guide our church’s pursuit of vibrant, inclusive, healthy faith. 

These values are connection, freedom, everyone, humility, and action. 

We do a version of this once a year in the fall, so that as a community, we can remember who we are and what we are becoming, and so we can welcome people into belonging and membership in this community and make sure that all of us who want to have opportunities to chip in to the life of this community as well, so we can be a healthy, sustainable church and so all of us who want to can feel connected here. 

Today, as we explore connection, beyond the verse about not being alone, I want to read one other scripture. It’s one of my favorite encounters in the life of Jesus. And it’s a lot of things. But one of the things it is is a story about God making connection and belonging and meaning possible in new ways in a community. 

Here it is.

Luke 19:1-10 (Common English Bible)

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through town.

2 A man there named Zacchaeus, a ruler among tax collectors, was rich.

3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but, being a short man, he couldn’t because of the crowd.

4 So he ran ahead and climbed up a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus, who was about to pass that way.

5 When Jesus came to that spot, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down at once. I must stay in your home today.”

6 So Zacchaeus came down at once, happy to welcome Jesus.

7 Everyone who saw this grumbled, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

8 Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.”

9 Jesus said to him, “Today, salvation has come to this household because he too is a son of Abraham.

10 The Human One came to seek and save the lost.”

Zaccheus lived a life of achievement, of wealth, of privilege, but also of profound alienation and unhappiness. 

Everyone in Jericho knows Zaccheus is rich, but no one likes him. They dislike, despise, resent this man so much that not only is he not welcome in their homes, they’re troubled that Jesus would enter his home. 

Zaccheus is unwelcome in their community because he’s collaborating with their oppressors. He’s the Jewish face of the Roman taxation system that strains their families to pay for the armies and the glory of Rome. 

And not only that, but they are aware that he’s gotten wealthy himself collaborating with Rome at their expense. See, the only way that the empire could maintain a force of local tax collectors would be to turn away at their overcharging to enrich themselves. Corruption and self-serving schemes are part of every violent empire, and Zaccheus is the face of that greed and selfishness to this community as well. 

So Zaccheus is wealthy, but he is not connected. Rejected by his people, and a tool but not a member of the colonizing society, he doesn’t belong. People who interact with Jesus in the gospels are often mentioned with reference to their parents, their children, their friends or spouse, but Zaccheus appears to be solo. He’s alone, which is not tov, not good. 

Whose fault is it? Well, it’s his fault to be sure. He most likely didn’t have to be a tax collector, could have found an excuse to not serve in this role even if called upon, or could have done it while not ripping off his own community so badly.

It’s the fault of a powerful, dysfunctional society as well. Rome encouraged isolation and alienation to keep its economy and power structures moving the way they did.

Maybe it’s even Jericho’s fault to some degree. Who knows? I’ve always wondered if Zaccheus experienced isolation and alienation before his life as a wealthy, corrupt chief tax collector. Maybe he’d always been teased for being so unusually short. Maybe he’d been socially isolated because of other differences or disabilities. 

 Whatever the reason, Zaccheus is hungering for connection that he’s driven out of his life, or perhaps that has been driven from him as well. 

And Jesus initiates connection and care. He sees Zaccheus, who’s simply been trying to see Jesus, and he invites himself over for lunch. 

I’m coming to your house, he says. And as surprised and angry as the rest of the community is, Zaccheus is honored and thrilled.

And it seems like something of the light of God gets in through the cracks in him. Some part of his underlying pain breaks open maybe, and he can own the harm he’s done in his community. And some part of him, in this new circle of connection and care, lights up. A yearning for connection, a yearning for justice and restoration, a sense of agency returns to him. 

And so over the meal, likely with folks eavesdropping outside the windows, he says to Jesus:

I’m going to make things right. I’m going to make things right. And he makes this extravagant beginnings of amends for the harm he’s done.

It’s justice, it’s the right thing, but it’s also a pathway to restoration of community. 

Restoration of wealth to poor, fleeced community members. 

Restoration of justice to angry, embittered neighbors.

The possibility of restoration of social connection and a place in the community for Zaccheus to. 

And so it’s no surprise that Jesus says:

Salvation has come to this house. 

Salvation came to this house. He’s not just talking about eternal membership in God’s family, even if he is talking about that as well. He’s talking about healing, wholeness, restoration for both perpetrators and victims, reintegration into community – everything we can mean when we say this word salvation. 

God has done it. Jesus has done it. Zaccheus has done it. 

Salvation has come – and while salvation comes from God, it’s always a team sport. 

Jesus is the initiator here. He establishes the community of connection and care. 

But Zaccheus was looking for it too – he was hungry, up there in that tree, looking for God.

Connection and care produce a shift in Zaccheus’ consciousness, as care and forgiveness and acceptance and connection always do. Zaccheus is more free, he longs to do right now. Which is good, because connection can be started through care, but it’s only sustained through safe and just practices in community relationships.

Communities don’t work if people don’t do right by one another. So Zaccheus does the good work to partner with God in his own salvation and restoration, which protects his community as well. 

And then at the end it’s amplified, magnified by Jesus when he says: look at this, this man is a real son of Abraham, isn’t he? He’s restoring Zaccheus to community, calling him a good Jew, one who truly belongs among his people. 

After all, Jesus is the human one who came to seek and save the lost. The human one – Son of Man – is an insider lingo kind of title for Jesus but it also means what it sounds like, like he’s the most truly human one who’s ever walked among us. And he looks for people who are disconnected, alienated, lost, and he longs to restore them, as he does here. 

Man, this is a good news story. And it resounds for me in all kinds of ways in our times too, makes me long to keep seeing more of this.

I think of the nearly one in 50 men who are currently incarcerated in this country. They’re like one in five of the world’s incarcerated men. And if you count the formerly incarcerated too, it’s far more.

And these are like the poor versions of Zaccheus. In most cases, they’ve done wrong to somebody in society, they’ve caused disconnection in communities. But more often than not, their criminality was proceeded by all kinds of alienation in their lives, all kinds of ways they’ve been done wrong and severed from healthy community.

And I think of how our society’s systems of so-called justice and punishment isolate and sever people from community, not just while incarcerated but often for many years afterwards. And I long for more cycles of salvation and restoration in this so broken area of this country.

Or in subtler ways, I think of myself.

Middle aged Americans, especially middle aged men in America, often don’t have many friends. And it’s our own fault, right? Putting career and other stuff over time with friends, awkwardness about affection and need, low emotional intelligence sometimes maybe.

But it’s also kind of not our fault too, right? This late capitalist culture has its demands and expectations and norms about work and family and long commutes and all kinds of other stuff that make it hard for middle aged men to make and sustain friendships. 

There’s a cost, though, to all this – a cost in social cohesion, a cost in risk for what we call deaths of despair – suicide, alcohol abuse, and drug addiction that have driven down men’s life expectancy in recent years. With lack of connection being one of the risk factors in these things. 

Anyway, in a smaller way, a few years ago, I was feeling these costs.

A few years ago, I realized I could really use a couple more friends. I was also thinking I could use another spiritual friend or two, people that would understand my faith and values, and with whom I could pray. I love my spiritual relationships here at Reservoir, but I’m always a pastor here, and I wanted a couple more relationships like this outside this church.

But it’s not like you can order friends on Amazon, right? Like hey, I’ll search for local prayer partners that are available. 

So what’d I do? Well, I thought about the local pastors I knew. And I thought of this one guy, who I’d only had a couple short conversations with before, but I knew him by reputation, and we’d been around each other at a few events and meetings. And I liked him, he seemed like a good person too, someone I could connect with and trust.

So I made an appointment to see him, and I was like: hey, I need another pastor friend, and you seem like a good guy. Wanna be friends?

Don’t get me wrong, it was hella awkward at first, for me at least. But he wasn’t awkward at all. In fact, he was like: hey, thanks for thinking of me. And it turns out that another pastor we both knew had reached out to him earlier in the month about getting together a couple times a month to talk and pray together, and he was like maybe you should join us? 

And I did, and for a few years now, we’ve been friends, meeting up a couple times a month for open, candid conversation and prayer. And these friendships have been great. They’ve been useful – I’ve learned about some great resources through these guys, gotten some ideas professionally. They’ve helped me network, gave me advice on a grant I won. And I think I’ve been useful to them too. 

But more than these instrumental benefits, the connection itself in this circle has been tremendously life giving. It’s been a place to be real, to be honest, to get support and affirmation and sanity checks, and to give the same. 

This making of connection started with God growing an awareness in me that I needed it and a sense of where to turn. And then it took my risk and initiative to do something to connect and open up as well as the grace and kindness of a couple folks interested in reciprocating to make this circle of connection and care. 

And it’s gotten deeper because one of the guys wanted this to move beyond just a light social thing and make this a community of practice too – a place where we talk about what we’re doing to be more healthy, wholehearted people and pastors. And that’s given us more reasons to keep getting together and has made these friendships one of the places where for me too, the light of God can get into the cracks for me. 

In a lot of ways, friends, that’s what this church is here for. 

God values for each of us the life-giving connections that will help us pursue God’s wholeness, love, and leading in every area of our lives. And we like to try to encourage that happening. 

We affirm here that to have a good life and a good faith, we don’t need to be particularly rich or beautiful or favored or lucky in any other way. 

We just need help discovering that we are connected, that we are seen and known and loved by a living God. That the goodness and loving kindness of that God follows us wherever we go. And that these experiences of divine love and connection can be mirrored and reflected in rich human to human connections as well. 

Now this may or may not be your experience of church today, but my invitation today is to see if this can’t be true here, if you’d like it to be.

Our membership agreement at Reservoir is pretty simple. You fill it out online at our website, and you’re a member, period. And it doesn’t start with telling you what to believe or what to do, it starts with connection, with saying I believe God has good things in the life for me and others, and that this community can be one of the places in life that encourages those good things.

The membership invitation invites you to, in metaphorical terms, attend Jesus’ party. In literal terms, it says

“I will simply be there, through regular participation on Sundays and through participation in a community group as able.”

We invite you to participate in these ways because this kind of participation for most people stimulates greater connection, community, and belonging.  Church is a rare place to be a contributing, participating member of a community that doesn’t sort and define us on the terms of capitalism, but of beloved community. 

And it’s a place, particularly in our community groups, where some real depth of connection is possible over time. Many of our groups encourage a community of practice, as our pastor of community life Ivy has talked about – places where we try practices that deepen our experience of God and develop a rich spiritual life.

But all our groups start by trying to be communities of connection and care, places where we can show up authentically just as we are, and find that others are glad we’re there, and glad to be part of the connections that help us not just not be alone, but experience the goodness and encouragement and gift of community that we need. 

Our sense as a church is that after all we’ve been through the past couple of years, a lot of us are eager for a little more connection in our lives. Maybe God is stirring that hunger for you too. If so, I hope you’ll pay attention to that, lean into the opportunities around you. 

It’s not good to be alone. You’re all worth better than that, I promise you. And if this community can be part of your circles of connection and care and practice, know we’re here for that.