March 19, 2017

Sermon for Year A, Lent 3 - Woman at the Well

Sermon for Year A, Lent 3
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
March 19, 2017
St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Pittsburg, Kansas

It’s a bit of a long story, but – I promise, it’ll take us somewhere. Let’s hang in there together.

Many years ago, when I was in a Southern Baptist college
 And engaged to be married to a Baptist girl named Jacquie,
 I took her back to my hometown in western Oklahoma,
   And to my home church, a Southern Baptist congregation
     Just up the street from the house where I grew up.
It was a warm, sunny Sunday.

I don’t know whether, or how, things have changed in that town, or in that church,
 In all the many years between that day and this day. I do know that that church still stands.
All I have now, is the memory that I’m working from.

Jacquie was smart and fierce, and I knew I was just about to marry well above my station.
But we had begun to disagree – not with each other, but with the Baptists.
As sophomores, we spent the entire academic year in Western Civilization,
 Being exposed to the horrors of things like wars, and misogyny, and genocide,
 And I had used up several long months reeling from that experience, sifting it out,
   Wondering why it was that people could be so horrible to each other.

I had approached some friends, some professors, some books I thought might help.
None of it did;
 And I want to be clear: they didn’t fail me because they were Baptist friends or professors –
   That was just my world at the time –
   It was simply that I was in a place where nothing would satisfy my questions and my curiosity,
     And the Southern Baptists provided as good and as wide a target as any.
You couldn’t live in Oklahoma then without that phenomenon,
 And I don’t suspect you can much now, either.

To give credit where it’s due:
 The Baptists taught me the necessity and value of Jesus-in-your-heart
   And Sunday School and tithing
   And Bible study and consistently showing up for church,
     And for those things I will, I must, always, remain deeply grateful.
It’s just that in that season of my life,
 I needed God desperately, but in a new frame of reference outside the old one,
   And the conventional religion of my youth wasn’t cutting it.
I suppose you’d call it growing up and deciding for yourself. Taking on Christ as an adult.
All I knew was that I had big, rambling life-questions; and they didn’t really have the answers.
It wasn’t anyone’s fault. We just had a parting of the ways. This is only typical.

At any rate, on that hot, sunny Sunday,
 When Jacquie’s and my corporate regard for our Baptist forbears had already begun to wane,
   But our love for Jesus had not, we sat and we heard a fiery sermon.

The preacher was the New Guy. He had replaced the Old Guy.
I liked the old guy better, but he wasn’t around anymore.
And so we sat and sat and listened to the new guy; and listened, ... and listened.

We were not ones to doze off; we had been trained to take every word of the sermon seriously.
This one was about the slippage in the culture, and about the role of Chistians.
He was saying that Many so-called Christians (who are actually impure but they don’t know it)
 Had become complicit in this decline,
   And the answer was simple: we just needed to get back to good old Bible basics,
     And for one thing, what was all this about men not being in charge anymore,
       Especially in the so-called churches?
And so, after the first thirty or forty minutes, once the preacher figured
 That he had most of us already on the ropes,
   He dove back into his Bible;  
 And he asked us to turn to the household codes of 1 Peter chapter 2
 As the point of departure for the next phase of his stemwinder.
We were already a bit worn down, but still listening. Still listening.

The household code of 1 Peter chapter 2 goes like this:
 “Wives, ... accept the authority of your husbands,
   So that, even if some of them do not obey the word,
     They may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct,
       When they see the purity and reverence of your lives.
   Do not adorn yourselves outwardly by braiding your hair,
    And by wearing gold ornaments or fine clothing;
      Rather, let your adornment be the inner self
       With the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in God’s sight.
   It was in this way long ago that the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves
     By accepting the authority of their husbands.” ... Here he paused, to let it sink in.

Then, the new guy noticed that we were listening ... um ... intently.
The new guy’s neck and ears got a little red.
Little beads of perspiration popped out on his forehead.
We could see he was starting to tap-dance, then swim, then doggy-paddle.
When people get anxious, it’s fight or flight, stand or withdraw;
 So he doubled down.

He referred us to 1 Corinthians chapter 14:
 “Women should be silent [he paused] in the churches.
     For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says.
     If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home.
     For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”

... All of which led the New Guy to the point he was actually trying to make,
 Which was simply this – and I’m quoting – he said the following:
   “God will not bless a woman-led church.” Which he then repeated twice more.

My smart, fierce fiancĂ©, sitting on my right side, had been holding my hand the entire sermon –
 Acceptable in the eyes of the deacons, since we were engaged at that point –
But as the sermon rolled into this territory especially, she began to noticeably hold my hand,
 And then she held it, and then she squeezed it, outright, hard,
   And pretty soon I couldn’t feel the ends of my fingers.
And when she let go, there was a big red indentation the shape of an engagement ring,
 One with a modest diamond that sort of made a little cave in the side of my finger.

I have often remembered that day, and for many years considered it a fiasco,
 Because we left as soon as the service ended,
 Embarrassed no end for the new guy,
   And I have never again darkened the door of that place.
But God is funny. God has a funny, sometimes deeply-warped sense of humor.

This Lent I have decided to revisit my roots as a Southern Baptist.
So far, I found there the memory of good things like I’ve already mentioned –
 Bible study, regular church attendance, prayer, tithing, and so on –
   On top of which I would add some lovely hymn singing and really ripping ice cream socials.

And I have also revisited this Lent those things that today give me tremendous pause,
 A sharp intake of breath, a memory of pain,
 And, in a way, quite a lot of sorrow:
   ... A natural inclination towards discrimination against anyone not like me,
         Which I now call racism, and which I’m always working to try to move past,
           Though it is a very sticky sin;
   ... The use of the concept of hell as God’s everlasting punishment
         For those who do not behave as prescribed,
           Or, worse yet, who do not believe precisely as they ought;
             And worse still, who just don’t look or act like us for whatever reason;
   ... And finally, the domination of straight white men, of which I am one,
         Over everyone else, and backstopping it with the Bible.

This is a form of the Domination System
 That finds its genesis in a long history of privilege.
It has compounded lately, laboring under the fear that the world is moving past us,
 And that we need more than ever to return to stasis,
   Which is to say, to return to power and control by all the usual suspects.

Nowhere did I encounter a greater fear of “the world moving past us”
 Than in the church of my youth.
I found it expressed both in open aggression and hostility, and in veiled subterfuge.
My sisters and brothers, we have not so learned Christ.

Yet it shows itself in many ways,
 And in my own strange way I am glad that I was able to hear it expressed so succinctly
 Those many years ago on that sunny, warm Sunday,
   When the person charged with preaching the Good News
   Instead preached his fear and put words on it.
He just laid it out there, and now I have a label for that kind of thinking.
He said, and I repeat, in order to repudiate it, “God will not bless a woman-led church.”
My brothers and sisters, we have not so learned Christ.

This story we have heard today from the Gospel According to John
 In every way
 Is a first-generation, Jesus-centered takedown
   Of the destructive pattern of subjugating women
     And relegating women to lesser roles in the church,
       Which is the church’s not-so-secret sin.
The Southern Baptists of my youth got stuck in this way of thinking.
Episcopalians, as we know, have been far broader in some ways,
 With Katharine, our recent Presiding Bishop,
   Doing an amazing job steering us through choppy waters,
   And with a growing handful of female bishops in the House of Bishops,
     But may I say not nearly enough of them.
Even so, the Episcopalians have been far less than perfect.
There is much work left to do until we even begin to realize
 How fully women will reliably and faithfully fill all positions of leadership in the church,
   If only we consciously and continuously make a way for this to be.

For me to do my part, I need to speak to this.
That, and more. But at the very least to clearly speak and definitively act.

Until that happens, this remains an issue for all of us,
 And no one is truly free until are all truly free.
Otherwise we live with a way of being,
 That left unattended eats away at the heart of our faith
   And is not found in authentic and mature Christian communities.

Can we say it any more plainly?

Jesus confirms the wonderments and the faith of the woman at the well,
 Just as Jesus confirmed the wonderments and the faith of the Pharisee Nicodemus
   In the reading we heard last Sunday.
He meets her as she is.
He entrusts to her the truth of himself.
He excites within her the possibility of spreading the word.

And this is precisely what she does.
She is a faithful and effective evangelist,
 One who calls the people together to learn,
 Who points the way to Jesus,
   And who makes it so that the people can have an unmediated experience of Christ
   Where the truth of God is richly laid before the lives of the ones who desperately need
     To hear a word of comfort.

Can we say it any more plainly than that?
In John’s Gospel, which is just soaked with images of Jesus as the water of life;
 In a Gospel where he refers to himself as water for all who thirst;
 With liturgical and baptismal imagery meant to inspire Christ-followers
   In the early years of the movement –
     In a Gospel brimming with baptismal language,
       This woman is standing at a well and holding a bucket!

And what would you give for a drink if you were truly thirsty?
Would you pay the price of one of your cherished preconceptions and assumptions
 About who is and is not entitled to help dip the bucket and get the water?
How much would you pay to spend two whole days with Jesus?
If a woman came running into this sanctuary this morning,
 Saying that Jesus was here, and willing to talk, and she would show you where he was,
   Would you stay in your seat just because of her gender? I very sincerely doubt it.
Would you disbelieve her even if you knew she was proffering the truth
 Just because she was a female?

My brothers, and my sisters, the idea that “God will not bless a woman-led church”
 Is nothing more or less than a fat lot of baloney;
   And it is my sincere prayer this morning that all women of every age
   Can hear this and be inspired to find their own unique and wonderful ways to follow Christ –
     In this age and in all ages to come – in every order of service, lay and ordained,
     And not just follow out those paths,
       But be supported and honored by the institutional church at every level
       As completely equal partners in the work of the Gospel with every other person so laboring.

For on that warm and sunny Sunday morning, those many years ago,
 As surely as we heard those words being slung at us;
   I can also attest that many sat listening, nodding along,
     And saying, at every possible silence, “Aymen.”
Builidng a protective wall around the preacher.
Enshrining his preconceptions about who’s qualified to dip a bucket and point to Jesus.
Forming up what they genuinely believed to be a righteous and ritually pure community.
They used the language of their faith to buck up the preacher that morning;
 And we just have to stand against it.
It’s a fight that’s far from over, though it’s easy to forget about,
 Unless you’re in the midst of it every day, as many faithful female pastors and priests are.
Good people can be good people and still have incredible blind spots.

I know that I myself have a lot of work to do.
I am often prevented by really engaging it by believing that I have done my part.
The battle before and inside of me has been exposed this Lent by the grace of God,
 And I am tired of ignoring it.

Because a good portion of the finest, most expert, most pastorally wise work
 That I have ever witnessed
   Was done by amazing women who sacrificed everything they had to give,
     And did it willingly for the God they knew and loved
     In a system that was all too ready to ignore them –
       They pastored just as well as the fellas,
         But as the old Ginger Rogers joke goes,
           They also had to do it backwards, while wearing heels.

In point of fact, God will bless a woman-led church,
 God does bless woman-led churches, and dioceses, and denominations,
   And houses of prayer, and any place there's a well and a bucket;
God loves and needs us all, no exceptions.

So we must keep working at this.
The path up ahead promises to continue to be dangerous and expensive.

But such is to follow Jesus to his cross;
 And this will be our joy.

Thanks be to God.

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