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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