Sunday, March 26, 2017

Phil Kniss: The troublemaking healer

Lent 3: We thirst
John 9:1-41

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We get this healing story once every three years in the lectionary cycle.
I’m always glad when it comes around,
because it’s got almost everything that a good story should—
surprising reversals,
snappy dialogue,
Almost everything.
Except action.
The act of healing itself that Jesus does,
takes 2 verses to tell.
The other 39 verses are talk.

If this was a movie, the critics would say something like,
great dialogue, but it was slow-moving.
I thought of the movie “Fences”—
just won an Oscar for best supporting actress Viola Davis—
Irene and I watched it this past week,
and it dawned on me that we were
about an hour into the movie
and the only thing happening so far, was dialogue.
Non-stop, but compelling,
and often witty and emotion-laden dialogue.
The scenes changed, but no real action.
The movie started with two co-workers talking,
on the back of their garbage truck,
and it continued as they got off work,
all the way into their back yard.
Other characters moved into and out of the conversation,
but that’s all it was—conversation.
Yet, it was gripping, edge-of-your seat, conversation.

That’s the kind of story John 9 is.
Gripping conversation.
Jesus is almost a minor character,
in this longest healing story in the Bible.
Jesus has a few words to say at the beginning,
and a few words at the end.
And he performs the healing for those two verses.

But oh, what trouble he stirred up,
with those few words, and that simple act.
The rest of the story is people reacting—
with emotion,
with passion,
with strategic maneuvering,
with cutting sarcasm,
with religious bullying.
What a story! I’d give Jesus an Oscar, too.
For best supporting actor.
He clearly doesn’t have the lead role here.

So let’s unpack this Gospel story,
and see what sort of Gospel truth is in it for us.

It helps to look at this story as a series of short debates.

We might even say the first debate is among Jesus’ disciples,
before the healing, when they first saw the blind man.
It set up a theological Q&A.
Who sinned, that caused this man to be born blind?
Had to be a culprit.
The man? or his parents?
Jesus pushed back on that idea.
Said it was nobody’s sin.
And then he healed the man, in order, he said,
to reveal the works of God.

But, as it turned out,
it wasn’t a simple healing miracle.
Jesus had some trouble-making up his sleeve.
Some trouble he wanted to start.
And which he succeeded at, quite nicely.
I’ll get to that in a minute,
but let’s look at these debates that unfolded.

The first one was,
“Did this really happen?”
A man who was born blind, could now see.
It simply made no sense.
There was no precedent for this.
It did not fit in to anyone’s view of the world.
Someone said, “That’s the man born blind.”
“No, it isn’t, just looks like him.”
“Yes it is.”
“No, it isn’t.”
The man keeps saying, “Hello!? I am the man.”
So the neighbors demand,
“How can you see? Who did it? Where is he? Prove it.”
The man tried to tell his story, but it didn’t sink in.

Debate number two.
The curious neighbors take the man to the Pharisees
to get the facts straight.
He tells his story all over, and the Pharisees say,
“Nope, can’t be. It doesn’t add up.”
See, it was the Sabbath when Jesus publicly healed the man.
So Jesus can’t be from God,
because he doesn’t keep Sabbath.
Well, others said, Jesus can’t be a sinner,
because he couldn’t perform a miracle like that.
The only explanation? This was some kind of fraud.
So they send for his parents.

Third debate.
“Is this your son? Is this the one you say was born blind?
Then how can he see?”
“We know he is our son. We know he was born blind.
As to how he can see, ask him. He can talk for himself.”
The parents weren’t about to be pushed into a corner,
and get on the wrong side of the religious authorities.

Fourth debate. The big one.
The Pharisees drag the man back in again,
and ask him to swear that Jesus is a sinner.
The man says, “I can’t do that.
All I can say, is I was blind, and now I see.”
“So what did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”
“I already told you. You want to hear it again?
Oh, you want to be his disciples, too!”
The Pharisees start hurling insults at this poor man,
and the man—no power, no position, no training—
gives them a theology lesson they can’t dispute.
So now, they’ve been backed into a corner,
and their only way out is to shame and dismiss him.
“How dare you lecture us on theology?” and they throw him out.
Which, technically, probably means
expelled him from synagogue worship.
Excommunicated him, to use Christian lingo.

Don’t you love it?
A blind beggar, who spent his life on the trash heap,
gets into a debate with religious scholars, and the beggar wins.
In a fit of rage and embarrassment,
they throw him back on the trash heap.

Then in the final debate, Jesus shows up in the story again.
Jesus and the man speak.
The man affirms his belief in Jesus as Messiah.
Jesus says,
“the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”
Some Pharisees overhear, and ask,
“What? You saying we’re blind too?”
And Jesus has the last word,
“If you were blind, you wouldn’t be guilty,
but since you claim you can see, your guilt remains.”

Now, let’s think about this trouble Jesus stirred up.
No question—Jesus intended to do more here,
than show compassion to a man born blind.
This was strategic healing,
aimed, yes, at helping one poor man,
but aimed even more directly at healing a sick religious system.
This was the work of a trouble-making healer.

Jesus could have waited a day.
The man was an adult.
He was born blind.
For at least 20 years, maybe more, he coped without sight.
He sat in the same spot every day,
depending on the compassion of others, and surviving.
It was the Sabbath.

This was an in-your-face kind of healing.
It was an act of a trouble-maker.
In complete view of the public,
Jesus knelt on the ground,
and using dirt and saliva,
he “made clay,” the original Greek says,
which he kneaded into a lump presumably,
applied it to the man’s eyes,
and asked him to go wash in the Pool of Siloam.

There was a long-standing religious law that prohibited Jesus,
and any other practitioner of the healing arts,
to perform their craft on the Sabbath.
Furthermore, there was an official list of physical movements
explicitly prohibited on the Sabbath.
One of those movements was “kneading” with your hands.

Why, you may well ask, did Jesus do what he did?
On multiple levels, he went beyond the necessary.
We know some persons Jesus healed from miles away.
Other blind persons, Jesus healed with only a word.
Some he healed with a simple touch and a word.
Most, we assume, he healed on the other six days.

Let’s get it straight!
Congenital blindness is not a health emergency.
The man had done okay there in that spot for over 20 years.
The next day would have been fine.
Jesus could have healed him from a distance,
after he passed by,
without even being identified as the healer.
Or Jesus could have healed with only a word,
and probably escaped the worst of the Pharisee’s anger.
But no, Jesus chose the Sabbath.
Jesus chose the public interchange with the man.
Jesus chose a path of action that required him
to break the Sabbath twice over—
to heal, and to knead clay.
This was purposeful confrontation.

Jesus was taking aim here at a deeper level of brokenness
than one man whose eyes never functioned.
And yes, I meant “taking aim,” as in brandishing a weapon.

Jesus was not only acting out of kind compassion
for this one blind man.
He was going after a deeper sickness.
And he went after it in a confrontational way.
He used healing as a weapon of God,
to confront a systemic evil.
It was an act of confrontational healing.
It was an act of a trouble-making healer.

By this act, Jesus confronted a system of religious legalism
that had become an insurmountable barrier to the kingdom of God.
The Pharisees were obsessed about ritual purity,
worried over every little religious infraction.
In the process, they lost sight of God’s bigger agenda:
justice, mercy, compassion, shalom for all people.

On another occasion, Jesus let loose on the Pharisees,
with a string of merciless metaphors—
you strain out a gnat, and swallow a camel,
you are whitewashed tombs, filled with bones of the dead,
you polish the outside of a cup, then fill it with filth and drink it.

In this healing, Jesus was going to battle against
the filthy stuff inside the cup.

So here, maybe,
is something that points to a Gospel word for us from this story.
Yes, let’s be involved in the ministry of healing and compassion,
reaching out to meet human need where we encounter it.
But are there deeper layers of brokenness
we might be missing in the process?
Is there deeper healing, and restoration, and justice-making,
that God calls us to,
that we pass by
because we don’t want to make trouble?

First-level healing ministers to the hurting individual,
and is non-confrontational.
Second-level healing confronts the powers of this world.
It’s a weapon of the kingdom of Christ.
Its principles embody the character of Jesus, the Prince of Peace.
It’s a non-violent weapon,
characterized by self-sacrificing love,
and respect for the image of God in the other,
but nonetheless confrontational and powerful.

First-level healing feeds the hungry.
Second-level healing asks why there are hungry and poor people
in the fertile Shenandoah Valley,
a community with abundant crops and wealth.

First-level healing provides shelter to our homeless neighbors.
Second-level healing confronts the evil in a system
that keeps homeless people out of sight and out of mind.

First-level healing provides a Free Clinic,
so working poor can get medical help.
Second-level healing confronts an unjust healthcare system
that keeps good health care from being available to all.

First-level healing sponsors refugees.
Second-level healing raises a collective voice of righteous anger
at international policies—
including those of our own government—
that cause or make worse the wars,
the humanitarian crises,
the religious violence
that force people to flee their homeland,
and then close the door when they flee our direction.

First-level healing offers public prayer for healing in our worship,
for those who are sick, or struggle with depression,
or have a failing marriage, or are wounded by sexual abuse.
Second-level healing moves beyond praying for individuals,
and takes the risk of providing an different way to live together
in genuine Christian community,
that defies our western culture of individualism.
Second-level healing provides the kind of Christian community
that can make marriages stronger,
and prevent abuse,
and foster mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being.
Second-level healing is when the church is not a building to come to,
but a way of life,
where everyone is routinely surrounded by a healing community
where it is safe to be ourselves,
and to be transparent with each other,
where no one’s pain goes unnoticed,
where we bear each other’s burdens,
before they get unbearable.

We need to provide first-level healing ministry
wherever that is needed.
But if we are going to be healers in the name of Jesus,
we should probably be willing to be trouble-making healers.

Especially now,
when other systems in society—political and economic systems—
are failing miserably to bring deeper healing,
maybe we should have the courage to ask ourselves,
how can we, as the church,
be the church God intends us to be,
be the church that is a healing community for all,
even when those healing acts cause trouble.

We may have opportunity for that these days, more than we like,
or more than we are ready for.
But healing in the name of Jesus requires it.

—Phil Kniss, March 26, 2017

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Sunday, March 19, 2017

Phil Kniss: Anybody have a bucket . . . anybody?

Lent 3: We thirst
John 4:5-42

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I’m a helper.
I’m wired to help people.

I’m sure the way I was raised has something to do with that.
My parents were caring, generous, hospitable people,
always looking out for neighbors who were in a hard spot.
And they were raised by missionary-minded parents,
who were constantly out and among those in need—
whether in the jungles of India,
as Esther Augsburger shared last week with the children
about my missionary grandparents,
and my dad, her brother—
or, on my mom’s side,
whose family lived in a mission church in Columbia, PA.
Columbia was once a thriving industrial center,
but when my mom was growing up,
it was a poverty-stricken town,
never recovered from the Depression.
She and her siblings and parents would walk the streets,
learning to know the poorest of their neighbors,
trying to help them find a fuller life,
both spiritually and physically.

Helping people is what I know how to do.
It’s how I was taught.
It’s the environment in which I was formed.

And thank God for that formation!
Without it, I wouldn’t be a pastor today.
Without it, I wouldn’t have done what I did before I was a pastor.

For those who don’t know this about me,
I was a social worker before being a pastor.
Straight out of college, I took a job as a case manager
for Older Americans Council in Gainesville, FL,
a non-profit agency that served senior citizens living at home,
giving them the resources they needed
to stay at home as long as possible—
Meals on Wheels,
home health aids,
emergency alert systems,
housekeepers, and the like.

I was paid to be a professional helper.
The agency gave me a desk, a phone, office supplies,
reimbursed mileage when I drove into remote rural areas.
I even requested funds to establish a branch office in a rural town,
so I could be more accessible to those I was helping.
I became a very efficient helper.

Now, relative to other professions I could have been in,
working at a state-funded non-profit was bare-bones—
my salary was low, resources were few.
But relative to the people I was helping,
I had power, and resources, to spare!

Still, we had to set limits.
The one being helped had to be poor enough,
and had to be impaired enough.

So I—a low-paid, 24-year-old guy in jeans and a beat-up car—
had the status, the education, the resources,
and the power of the state behind me,
to give and withhold help,
at my discretion.
And those getting the help just had to suck it up,
and allow the necessary indignities
in having a guy with a clipboard
sit at the foot of their bed,
and ask them how much they made in social security,
and how much was in their bank account,
and whether they could go to the bathroom by themselves.

Now, did I do a lot of people of lot of good,
through the social services I put into motion?
Because of what I did, some people
lived longer and happier and safer in their own homes.

But I could never quite get over this nagging feeling,
that my helping reinforced my position of power,
and reinforced their position of powerlessness.
There’s a shadow side to being a helper.

This is true for well-meaning guys with clipboards,
and it is true for groups and institutions—like the church.

Any of you directly involved
in any of our mission or outreach efforts at Park View
have come face-to-face with this nagging awareness
that helping others is complicated.

When we open our doors to shelter and feed our homeless neighbors,
when we send funds to our mission agencies,
when we support the development and relief work
of Mennonite Central Committee,
or Mennonite Disaster Service,
when we support the Sharing Fund of Mennonite World Conference,
when we give funds or send people
to help out our sister church in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward,
when we support local groups like People Helping People,
New Bridges Immigrant Resource Center,
Our Community Place, and many others . . .
we are, certainly, answering God’s call to love our neighbor.

And that we must do, and must continue doing.
We cannot turn our back on our neighbors who are poor,
or marginalized, or live in fear of deportation.

But let’s be honest with ourselves.
Helping others puts into motion new relationship dynamics
that we need to recognize, and deal with somehow.

How do we,
who enjoy a position of higher status,
greater privilege, and more resources,
help without creating dependence,
or disempowering those we help?
How do we keep from being over-protective
of our own power and resources?
How do we keep from slipping into a controlling posture,
that will only extend help
if the help-ee fully cooperates with us,
defers to our rules,
submits to our authority,
and meets our expectations.

Help, when given from top down,
is always, in one way or another,
exchanged for something else.
If not actual material or money to be repaid later,
then it’s some intangible benefit we get in return, now.
Maybe it’s public recognition.
Maybe it’s psychological or spiritual benefit we seek.
Maybe it’s an unspoken, and even unrecognized,
expectation that helping the less fortunate,
will ensure that our respective roles—helper and help-ee—
won’t ever get flipped upside-down.

Helping, from a position of power,
can serve to reinforce our position of power,
whether that’s intentional or not.

But . . . everything I have just described,
is confronted head-on by the Gospel story we heard today.

Despite all the good I believe I have done in my life as a helper—
as social worker,
as pastor,
as father, husband, neighbor, or friend—
I think I would do well—
I think we all would do well—
to examine that in the light of Jesus.
To look to Jesus as a model for how to be with people,
especially with people in need—
whatever the need may be.

Jesus, as we know, was a consummate helper.
Everywhere he went, he helped.
Healed, fed, restored, forgave, delivered, taught.
But in today’s Gospel,
we see another side of Jesus.
Here, it was Jesus who needed help.
We don’t often think of Jesus in terms of his
very real, very physical, and very human needs.
But he had them.
And they were sometimes desperate needs.

In this story, Jesus’ needs I think border on desperation.

Just a little background:
In the eyes of Jews, the Samaritans were ceremonially unclean—
(unable to worship at the temple).
Presumably then, a close encounter with a Samaritan
would make a Jew unclean and require a purification ritual.
So, devout Jews took the long route around the region of Samaria.
It was just simpler.
Longer travel time now,
less religious time and hassle later.

For whatever reason, Jesus and his disciples went through Samaria.
Maybe their travel schedule required it.
Maybe they were running low in supplies.
But they calculated it would be better to take the short route,
and pay later.
As soon as they arrived in the town of Samaria,
the disciples went into the city to buy food and supplies.
Jesus stayed by the well.

Contrary to popular belief,
Jesus didn’t stay because he knew he had spiritual business to do
with a Samaritan woman who would stop by soon.
We know that wasn’t the reason,
because John 4:6 tells us exactly why he sat down at the well.
He was exhausted—“tired out by his journey,” John says.

Travel on foot was grueling.
I expect Jesus was wobbly on his feet.
As a rabbi, I doubt he had the stamina
of some of his fisherman disciples.
So he says, “You go get the food. I need to rest for a while.”

So there he sat at the well at noon, in the heat of the day—
alone, hot, thirsty, and without a bucket.
I’m guessing he was eyeing everyone who came along,
thinking, “Anybody have a bucket . . . anybody?”
The odds of someone coming to the well at noon was slim.

So when the Samaritan woman came along, carrying a bucket,
don’t tell me Jesus’ first thought was,
“Oh, here’s a chance to teach a valuable spiritual lesson.”
No, his only thought was getting water from that bucket.
It was pure need that made him ask,
“Will you give me a drink?”
Simple, straightforward question.  “Will you give me a drink?”

Except, it wasn’t quite that simple.
There were other layers here.
She was Samaritan.
She was a woman.
Both those facts put Jesus in the power position.
This was not a conversation between equals.

To make the story even more interesting,
we find out she was not your average
respectable Samaritan woman.
Her marital history and sexual behavior
put her on the margins of her own people.
She came to the well alone at noon,
instead of morning or evening,
when other women would be there
drawing water and socializing.

But Jesus puts all these significant power dynamics aside,
and expresses his own need, to this woman.
To this marginalized, Samaritan, woman . . .
Jesus let his human vulnerability show.
He made no pretense.
He needed her.
He asked her to be so kind
as to reach out to him, and meet his need.

His act of vulnerability was so remarkable
that it stunned the Samaritan woman,
and it rendered Jesus’ disciples speechless.
John 4:27 tells us, literally, the things they didn’t say.

Then . . . yes, there began a secondary interaction
between the woman and Jesus,
that quickly got into other spiritual and theological issues
that would be interesting to explore—
about the nature of worship,
and eternal life,
and the metaphor of living water.
That’s part of what was said,
but I expect some of that was even filled in later, in the telling,
as John, the Gospel writer,
distills what was no doubt
an extended theological discourse with the Samaritans,
since we know Jesus spent two more days there,
interacting with the townspeople.

But the most remarkable thing that confronts the reader of this story,
is that here sits Jesus,
opening himself up to,
and allowing himself to receive ministry from,
a socially-suspect . . . Samaritan . . . woman.

And here we also sit, today,
in need of help,
but not wanting to be very vulnerable,
so as to protect our standing.

We have the resources to help others, and generally, we do,
happily, and generously, and often sacrificially.

But when the need is ours, we hesitate.
We don’t want to risk too much.
We need to guard our position.

Letting go of the need to protect our position
opens up all kinds of possibilities.
In the story of Jesus and the woman,
when Jesus ignored his position and became vulnerable,
he not only got his need met,
he was able to help his helper in an even deeper way,
and in turn, to help the whole town.

I can’t help but think that this same dynamic,
the impulse to protect our standing, and not become vulnerable,
plays into so much of the divisiveness, the conflict, the anxiety,
that plagues our church, our community,
and our national politics.
The helping dynamic is different.
We may be trying to “help” our neighbor
get on the right side of the issue—my side,
and thereby “help” solve the conflict.

But whatever the need we are trying to help,
chances are, there is an impulse at work
that doesn’t come from Jesus.
It’s the impulse to put up our guards,
hide our own weakness,
and maintain our position of power over the other.

Sisters and brothers in Christ,
we sit here this morning, thirsty.
Our strength is dried up from the journey.
Some of us are wobbly on our feet.
Our weariness may come from the deep hurt
of the larger world in which we live.
Our weariness may come from the wounds we experience
much closer to us—
from strained or broken family relationships,
from loss and grief,
from prolonged conflict,
from insecurity about our future,
from being betrayed by persons, or institutions,
that we once had trust in,
from internal spiritual struggle playing itself out
in ways we don’t fully understand.

But I know, from personal experience and from conversations,
that many here today . . . thirst . . . desperately.
And have no bucket.
No way to fix things on our own.
No way to quench our own thirst or satisfy our longings.
We need help.
And are even more vulnerable when alone, at high noon,
and no bucket-toting person in sight.

Let’s sit with that thought a bit.
Consider the source of our own weariness and thirst.
What is it drying up your strength today,
making your knees weak?
I invite you to come and sit by the well.

Our Lenten ritual this morning is coming for water,
which you see is right here, at the table, the well.
But there are no drinking vessels at the well.
You will need to come,
and wait for someone else to come and help you draw water.

If you are led to seek water this morning,
just come and stand near this front table, and wait,
as long as it takes.

Someone else, I trust, will see you standing there,
will be moved to come and be the Samaritan,
and will go to one of the two tables on either side here,
and take a small cup
and come to where you are, and pour you a drink of water.

You don’t even need to the know the person waiting at the well.
Jesus and the woman were strangers.
Anyone can help draw the water—
even youth and children.
You, too, are capable of helping.
Remember, the relative position of the helper and help-ee,
in age, status, gender,
does not matter, when we are thirsty.

All are welcome to come,
as those who thirst, or as those with a bucket,
while the rest of us sing . . . again . . .
“Bring me little water, Sylvie . . .”

No matter what the source of your thirst, come to the well and wait.
And no matter your connection to the one who thirsts,
come and help them get water.

Or, do both.
In the story, Jesus and the woman were both the helper and help-ee,
in different ways.

So here we are, at the community well.
Come and be refreshed by the water of God’s spirit,
carried by God’s people.

—Phil Kniss, March 19, 2017

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