A Well of Living Water
The institution of the church—the committees and the budgets and the orders of worship and the ways-that-we-have-done-things-for-as-long-as-we-can-remember—is not the kingdom.
A couple of weeks ago, a colleague of mine tweeted a whole thread. I’m paraphrasing a little bit here—it was a long and lively conversation—but, basically, she started with this:
Churches—especially white mainline churches like the United Church of Christ—want new people to join us far more than people want to join white mainline churches like the United Church of Christ.
We keep inviting people into the ways that we have done things for as long as we can remember; into serving on committees and supporting our budgets and worshipping the way that we worship. We keep inviting people into the status quo.
And if people wanted to do that, then they would already be here. (Lura Groen, Twitter Thread, https://twitter.com/lura_groen/status/1484220247473365001)
And that hit me hard. It reminded me of a saying… a proverb… and aphorism. Maybe you’ve heard it before: everything that you are doing… is exactly the right thing to do… to get the results that you’re getting. If you want to see change, then one of the things that you have to change, is yourself.
And I’m going to let you in on a little secret that can be a little hard to hear: the institution of the church—the committees and the budgets and the orders of worship and the ways-that-we-have-done-things-for-as-long-as-we-can-remember—is not the kingdom.
That can be a little hard to hear because the institution of the church is important. It is a consulate of the kingdom of God. We embody some aspect of the gospel for the people of our community; some aspect of the gospel that they would not experience if we were not here. And we point the world toward Jesus the Christ, the word of God, the one through whom all things came into being, and the one through through whom all things are redeemed.
The institution of the church—the committees and the budgets and the orders of worship and the ways-that-we-have-done-things-for-as-long-as-we-can-remember—is important. But it is not the kingdom.
In our reading for today, Jesus and his disciples are on their way from Jerusalem to Galilee. And they are passing through Samaria… y’know… where the Samaritans live.
No one knows quite what happened. The story is muddled and mysterious and there are too many versions of it. But even if no one knows quite what happened… at some point in the distant past, the Israelites—the descendants of Jacob, the nation that the Lord led out of slavery in Egypt—splintered. And now there are Jews, and there are Samaritans.
And they’re just alike enough, and they’re just different enough, to hate each other.
And in our reading for today, Jesus and his disciples are passing through Samaria… y’know… where the Samaritans live.
At some point in the distant past, Jacob—that ancestor of both Jews and Samaritans—built a well. He dug down into the earth until he found water. And he laid stones around the place where he had dug. Maybe he even set up a winch and a hook so that his children… and their children… and their children’s children… could get the water that they needed… for their homes and for their journeys.
Right around noon, Jesus and his disciples are passing by that well. And Jesus tells his disciples that he’s tired, and he sits down by the well, while his disciples go into town to buy some food.
After a little while, a woman comes to the well. And she and Jesus—this Samaritan and this Jew—get into a conversation. Jesus tells her about herself, and the woman decides the he must be a prophet, so she asks him, more or less, the question… the question that divides Samaritans and Jews.
Our ancestors worshipped God on this mountain, so we worship God on this mountain. That is the way-that-we-have-done-things-for-as-long-as-we-can-remember. But the Jews worship God in the Temple in Jerusalem, and they tell us that we need to give up the mountain and go worship there. Who is right?
And Jesus tells her, more or less, that that’s the wrong question. He tells her, “The hour is coming when you will not worship God on this mountain or in the Temple in Jerusalem. The hour is coming—it’s already here!—when you will worship God in spirit and in truth.”
And the woman doesn’t know what that means. She kind of dismisses it. She tells Jesus, “Eh, the messiah will come and clear all of this up.”
And he tells her that he. is. that. messiah. And this woman—this Samaritan—believes. She runs to her people and tells them about this man who she met at the well. And they come out and meet him. And these people—these Samaritans—see… and hear… and believe.
In that time and that place, the Jews knew how to be the people of God… because they had the law and the prophets and the Temple in Jerusalem… and because they were waiting for a messiah from the line of David.
And in that time and that place, the Samaritans knew how to be the people of God… because they had the law and the mountain… and because they were waiting for a messiah from the line of Joseph.
And in this time and place—let’s be honest—we know how to be the people of God… because we have the committees and a budget and some orders of worship and the ways-that-we-have-done-things-for-as-long-as-we-can-remember…
In this conversation between a Samaritan and a Jew by the well that Jacob built… Jesus blows up the idea that we know—that anybody knows—how to be the people of God. In this conversation, Jesus tears down mountains and temples and churches and the ways-that-we-have-done-things-for-as-long-as-we-can-remember.
And I need to be careful here. I need to thread a delicate needle.
There is a temptation—a temptation that has led Christians to do terrible things—to say that Samaritans do not know how to be the people of God… and the Jews do not know how to be the people of God… and that Christians do. There is a temptation to say that Jesus tears down mountains and temples… and that Jesus builds churches.
And that is emphatically not what I am saying. I am saying that mountains and temples and churches are important; they can point people toward the creator of the world and the source of life. They are the wells that our ancestors built; they are places where we can find the water that we need for the journey.
Christ tears all of those things down in favor of the kingdom of spirit and of truth. And I’ll be honest. I’m just like the woman at the well. I don’t know what that means.
I am comfortable in a church. I know what a church looks like. I know what a church does. I understand the committees and the budgets and the orders of worship. I understand the ways-that-we-have-done-things-for-as-long-as-we-can-remember. And I can scarcely imagine a kingdom of spirit of truth.
I catch glimpses of it sometimes. I see it on mountains and in temples and in churches. I hear it in songs and prayers. I taste it in casseroles and bacalaitos. I feel it in acts of extravagant welcome and radical charity and abundant love. And I know that it is all around me and just beyond my comprehension: wild and dangerous and full of grace.
And I read it in that thread that a colleague tweeted. I’m paraphrasing a little bit here—it was a long and lively conversation—but, basically, she continued with this:
There are deeply marginalized people who would love a congregation to truly welcome them in. And there are people who would love a spiritual community where they could ask deep questions, learn from what is ancient, create what is new, and work together for justice.
Can we accept that we might have to give up some of the institution of the church—some of ways-that-we-have-done-things-for-as-long-as-we-can-remember—in order to step further into the kingdom that Christ promises? Can we accept that we might have to give up some of the familiar, and welcome those marginalized folks in, and be changed by the aspects of the gospel that they embody for us? (Lura Groen, Twitter Thread, https://twitter.com/lura_groen/status/1484220247473365001)
And here’s the thing:
The institution of the church—the church-as-we-have-known-it-for-as-long-as-we-can-remember—is a well that our ancestors made. They found water and laid stones around it. They set up a winch and a hook so that we could get the water that we need… for our homes and for our journeys. And it is a good well.
But in worship services… in conversations in fellowship hall… in committee meetings… in every moment… Christ is meeting us at this well… and offering us living water… and inviting us to step into a life that we can scarcely imagine.
And maybe… if we are daring enough to take that drink and take that step… people will flock to this consulate of the kingdom. Maybe all of us will see and hear and taste and feel a little more of the kingdom. Maybe we will all believe a bit more deeply.
Maybe we will all reap a little bit more of the harvest of eternal life.