A Sermon For Year A, Lent 3
Copyright © 2007 Nathan L. Bostian
Based on Exodus 17:1-7; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42
Have you ever really thought about it?
For instance: When you think about a perfectly fulfilled life, what is the minimum sized place you would have to live in?
What is the minimum car you would have to drive?
What is the minimum salary you would have to make?
What is the minimum amount of clothes and shoes you would have to own? Where is the minimum store you would buy them from?
Can you imagine living a fulfilled life without: A car? A refrigerator? Fast food? Soda? Coffee?
Could you live without an air conditioner? A television? A computer? A stereo? An I-pod? A daytimer?
How about a cell phone? Let's be honest: Can you imagine life without a cell phone? I can't...
Now, with this being a "Church service" many people might be wondering the motive behind me asking questions like that. Someone might say: "Oh, here comes the guilt trip...
"The preacher man is gonna tell us how horribly materialistic we all are... How we are addicted to stuff, and consume for the sake of consumption... He's gonna tell us how all we need is Jesus, and if we are not fulfilled by him, we are lost."
Well, I will be honest with you. I DO think we live in a materialistic culture. I DO think we are often consumed by our own consumption. And I DO think we are lost without Jesus.
But, I DO NOT think "stuff" is bad. I do not think consumption, in itself, is a bad thing. And I think that part of the way that Jesus fulfills our lives is by giving us a good world to partake in.
Let me explain...
Let me show you my backpack. My backpack is my mobile office, and contains all of the things I think it would be hard to live without... [Unload backpack and describe]
Is any of this stuff in my backpack evil (other than Microsoft Windows on my computer)? No. In fact- it is ALL a gift.
All of creation is a gift from God to fulfill his children. All of creation is a playground for us to enjoy ourselves- responsibly, in a way that saves the playground for the rest of God's children. In itself, there is nothing wrong with our stuff or my backpack.
But there is ONE thing you cannot FIND in my backpack. There is ONE thing that cannot FIT in my backpack. And yet it is THIS ONE thing that makes everything in my backpack- and everything I do with my backpack- meaningful.
What is that ONE THING?
That ONE THING is the living water that is spoken of by Jesus in our Gospel passage today. That ONE THING is the justification and reconciliation spoken of by St. Paul today. That ONE THING is the Lord to whom Moses cried out in the midst of a million faithless crybabies.
That ONE THING is not a thing at all, but a person. The person of Jesus Christ. Without him, all of this stuff in my backpack is meaningless. Without him, all of the stuff that we count on in our lives- from what we drive, to what we talk on- is empty. Without Him, there is a God shaped hole in the middle of our soul that can never be filled no matter how many products, toys, strategies, or ploys we try to shove inside.
And yet, in our culture where we are used to buying what we want, when we want it, and how we want it, we have a really hard time not treating God the same way.
We have a really hard time not treating Jesus like just another lifestyle accessory... Like just another product to be bought and consumed and put on the back shelf (or even thrown away) when we get tired of Him.
For instance, I was at one of our mega-marts the other day with my bride buying all our lifestyle accessories at bargain basement prices. And I came to the book isle: You know, where all of the books are stacked up for easy consumption.
And wedged right between the self-help books and the romance novels, they have the religious bestsellers. There you can find the man with the perfect teeth, telling you how to create a "better you", with a veneer of God around the edges. There you can find all of the designer Bibles with fancy covers- You know: one for men, one for women, one for teens, one for children, and one for husbands of women with teenage children. A Bible for every demographic!
But, sitting side by side in the middle of them all are two stacks of books. One of the stacks of books is written by the current darling of left-wing Biblical scholarship, and it is entitled "God's Problem: How the Bible fails to answer our most important question- why we suffer."
But right next to it is a right-wing stack of books entitled "Conspiracies and the Cross: How to intelligently counter the ten most important theories that attack the Gospel of Christ."
One book is seeking to destroy orthodox Christianity altogether, and the other book is seeking to uphold, at all costs, a particularly fundamental version of Christianity. And there they are, sitting side by side, in the mega-mart.
And what is important here is not which book is more correct. What is important here is that the marketers know more about religious people than we know about ourselves. They know that for most of us- and too often for myself as well- we treat God as just another consumable good.
They know that you can put all of those books side by side, and no one will raise a crisis of conscience. They will simply pick the Bible that fits their lifestyle, and read the theological flavor of the week, without it deeply impacting who they are at all.
Is that all God is: A lifestyle accessory?
Is religion just a product category that makes one a more rounded person?
Do we just buy one set of products to benefit our bodies, another set of products to strengthen our minds, yet another set of products to give us emotional wholeness, a whole other set of products to make us sexy, and finally a set of products to make us more "spiritual"?
And, please do not get me wrong: We are not the first ones to treat God like a product. Look at our reading from Exodus.
The Israelites treated God as a cosmic meal ticket: And when he did not serve them what they wanted when they wanted it, what did they do? They griped. They complained. They even got violent.
And, later, many of them left God behind altogether to worship a golden calf, who gave them more immediate gratification.
Things don't change much, do they?
Or take our lesson from St. Paul. Although it is clear that St. Paul did not treat Jesus as a product, many of those who interpret St. Paul interpret him in consumer terms.
This passage, in fact, has been treated worse than most.
In our passage tonight, He speaks of "God's love [which] has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us."
In the middle ages, it was common to use this passage as an image of God's grace as a sort of "substance" which was poured out through the Holy Spirit into us, to fill us up, and give favor with God. And, combined with this, it was common to say that God has given the Church the only authority to release the Holy Spirit into God's people.
Thus, the Church became the sole dispenser of God's grace to the world. If you wanted grace, if you wanted the Holy Spirit, you had to come shop at the Church. The Church claimed the power to make or break Kings, to bind or release forgiveness, and even to give those locked up in purgatory a free ride out.
But, only if you paid up.
In fact, it was the Church who developed the first advertising jingle: "Every time a coin in the plate rings, a soul from purgatory springs!"
Grace had become a consumer commodity.
So, it was with good reason that the Reformers of the 16th century tried to un-do the whole system. Instead they focused on grace as a free gift of God, received by faith.
In fact, using this same passage, they seized on the idea that we are justified and reconciled freely through Jesus Christ by putting our complete trust in Him. And, in this insight the reformers were right.
But, as time went by, and religion once again became big business in the countries that accepted the reformation, something predictable happened:
Justification and reconciliation became a product too. Instead of seeing justification and reconciliation as a new and living relationship with God through Christ, they began to be interpreted as in legal terms.
Soon, they became interpreted as merely a verdict of "not guilty" given by God to the sinner which insured that when they died they got a free ticket into heaven. The "price" you had to pay was mental acceptance of a set of doctrines, INSTEAD of a living faith in a Person.
And this became formalized in the last two centuries by revivalism, where people are emotionally manipulated to "close the deal" and come down front to pray a simple prayer with the right words, which ensure you get a ticket to heaven.
And for all the best reasons in the world, Jesus is demoted to just a product again. It is no coincidence that many of the leaders of American religious revivalism in the 1800's, are also the founders of modern marketing.
We find Jesus deconstructing the same attitude as he meets the Samaritan woman at the well. The first thing he does to deconstruct this idea that God is just a product to be consumed by the elect few, is that He crosses boundaries that nice religious people are not supposed to cross.
First, he crosses a physical boundary. He, a Jew, went into Samaritan territory. Samaritans were seen as religious and political traitors to Israel- much the same as Israelis feel about Palestinians today. Many Jews would spend an extra day going around Samaria rather than going through it.
And, in all honesty, most Samarians liked it that way.
Next, he crosses a social boundary. It was bad enough that he was in Samarian territory in close proximity to those "traitors". But, in nearly all ancient cultures, it was strictly taboo for an unmarried man to be speaking to a woman in public. That was crossing a sexual boundary and even a property boundary, for women were little more than property to their men.
Yet, He treats this woman as a PERSON, not just as a thing to be used. He even offers her to drink from His "living water", just as He offers a crowd of Jewish MEN three chapters later.
But she was used to being objectified by Jews, and treated like property by men, so she interprets Jesus' offer as just another product: "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water."
Yet Jesus understands, and cuts right to the heart of her woundedness. Jesus knows she has been treated as a disposable product, by many men who wanted to use her without giving themselves to her as husband.
So, Jesus speaks to her hard words, but words that change her life: No matter who has used her, Jesus is HIMSELF living water. His Spirit is the WELL that does not run dry. No matter how many people have turned her into a disposable product, Jesus will not. Jesus will fulfill her. Jesus alone can lead her into the life of Spirit and Truth that can fill her God-shaped hole.
As He shows us with the woman from Samaria, Jesus crosses across all of our consumer boundaries, except one.
That one boundary is that we cannot put boundaries on Jesus. We cannot distill Jesus into a product to be consumed. We cannot fit Him into our time slots or budgets. We cannot buy Him at the mega mart and put Him away at will.
Instead we must fit our lives into Jesus, instead of fitting Jesus into our lives... [PAUSE]
Jesus is the Center, the Source, the Purpose, the Plot, and the Goal of our existence. He alone gives Meaning to all our stuff, all our activities, and all our relationships.
With Jesus, its either all or nothing. He cannot be JUST another spiritual product...
And that is the question I leave you with tonight: Is Jesus your everything, or just a lifestyle accessory?