A sermon for new member Sunday
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on March 19, 2017
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are meant to be heard, not read. You can hear this sermon here.
New members: My admiration for you is unending. It’s vulnerable and brave to join a church. It takes guts just to walk in the front doors the first time. Almost every time I meet with a new person, when I ask them why they came, tears almost immediately begin to flow. The journey here is always different, but it almost always involves pain, rejection, loss and no small amount of mourning. It is brave to trust your tender hearts and your stories to these admittedly imperfect fellow humans who you are only just beginning to know.
Also, I admire you because people will look at you a little funny when you say you joined a church. (I was single for a little while there in between husbands, and let me tell you, telling men at the bar what I did for a living was a surefire way not to get a free drink, much less a date.) Your atheist cousin, your Crossfit enthusiast brother in law, your best friend who yogas on Sunday, your teenaged kids …they all maybe secretly think you’re weird.
And you’ll say to them, “Oh, it’s not that kind of church. And, I promise, it’s not a cult.” And truthfully, they’ll wonder.
Anyway, we delight in your presence here. We welcome you and everything that makes you weird, because we’re weird too. Don’t stop inviting your friends, not in a creepy way to win more hearts for Jesus, but because you’re certainly not the only one who needs a place like this.
Today’s scripture reading so beautifully reenacted by Drew, Janice and Xan, the Woman at the Well, is thought to be both the lengthiest and most theological text in the entire New Testament.
So let me say that the most remarkable thing about this text is not the content of their conversation, but the fact that Jesus was talking to the Samaritan woman at all. Jesus, who was a very pious Jew at the time, should not have been talking to a woman in public. Public conversation between the sexes was forbidden by religious and cultural laws. He also should not have been talking to a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans hated one another.
It’s also important to know that women at the time, and in this area of the world would have gone to the well very early in the morning to fetch water before the sun rose, together as a group. The Samaritan woman in our story comes to the well midday at the hottest time of the day. This is a sign both that she is desperately thirsty, and that she is an outcast in the Samaritan community. If she had not been, she would have been allowed to travel to the well with the other women, before the sun made it hard to travel, and exacerbated her thirst. It is thought that her outcast status is the result of her “many husbands.” And still, despite the rather extreme difference in status, the Samaritan woman is not scared to talk to the Rabbi Jesus, to tell him about her thirst, to question him, even. (Jesus likes bold women. He listens to them. He sees them.)
So despite the fact that she is of a different religious persuasion, gender and social status than he is, Jesus meets her as conversation partner. Despite the fact that she is a different race, Jesus sees her as kin. Despite the fact that he clearly knows her story, Jesus offers to share God’s love with her. In fact, he asks to share her drinking vessel, an action that makes him unclean according to Jewish law. Jesus was crossing every boundary.
In God’s family, there are no lines drawn between people, and the well of God’s mercy is deep and unending.
Like the disciples, every time we turn around, we find Jesus is talking to a person who you and I would rather not befriend. We happen upon Jesus at the well again on our way home from work, and he’s hanging out with that smelly homeless person who kinda scares us, or the boss who we despise, or a Fox News commentator, or our ex-mother in law, or a member of a gang, or a flamboyant drag queen, or a guy with the red #MAGA hat, or whoever we are referring to these days as a “snowflake.” Jesus always seems to see the people no one else notices. He hangs out with the people you and I have de-friended on Facebook because of their political memes. He offers them mercy, depth and belonging. He offers them living water, a font of the spirit that never runs dry.
And as such, he messes with our institutions, and the boundaries we have drawn around them.
Jesus tells the woman at the well that a new day is coming—in fact, it’s already here--
when the importance will not be placed on the time and place of worship
but on the truthful hearts of worshipers.
He says, in essence, it doesn’t matter whether you fit the mold of what other people think a faithful person should look like. What matters is your authenticity. What is in your heart matters far more than what you have done, who you voted for, where you came from, or what the label affixed to your outside is.
New members, with truthful hearts and from many different places, you are joining this congregation in a glorious new day for the Church. If you have been cast out, we welcome you back in. If you have been a stranger in a strange land, or de-friended on Facebook, or made to walk to the well alone, here may you find citizenship and love in the kin-dom of God.
You are here at the exact right time. This is the best time in our nation’s history to join a religious community, the year 2017.
These are hot mess times of unprecedented disunity, divisiveness, instability and a crazy-making war on Truth. These are hot mess times defined by the crumbling of our storied American institutions, including healthcare, schools, the press, democracy itself. And so we need Jesus the boundary-crosser; the truth-teller; the healer. And yet, if you listen to pew reports and academics and sociologists--the institution of the church is crumbling before our eyes, as well. You will hear from people who study religious institutions and nostalgic friends say that the hey-day of the Christian church in America was back in the 1950s when America was great, the pews and Sunday School classrooms were full, and the (white) women stayed home from work and kept the church’s ministries running.
So maybe you think I’m crazy when I say that today is the hey day of the Christian church. But it is.
A new day is coming—in fact, it’s already here.
Here’s why: the statistics say most people don’t go to church in New England at all, much less regularly. This is because nobody has to be here. Nobody pressures you to go, except maybe your grandma. The malls are open on Sundays now, and so are delicious brunch restaurants selling mimosas. I can smell the hot coffee brewing from here. Our jobs are requiring more and more hours out of us, and Sunday is sometimes our only family day; our only day to sleep in or ski. Soccer practice happens during church services, and truthfully, most parents choose sports as the priority for their kids. Church is a choice among many.
And church is seen as boring, outdated, a thing of the past. Worse, the Christian Church is associated with hypocrisy, discrimination and hate, largely due to its own….well, hypocrisy, discrimination and hate. (The church has to get better at being the church, or it will deserve its own death.)
We who sit here in these pews with our questions and our tender hearts: we are here despite all of that. In other words, we’re here for no other reason than because we choose to be. We are here because we still thirst for water from a deeper well, and our thirst is not satisfied by consumer culture, surface-level friendships, buying more stuff, winning soccer games or elections, and mindless entertainment.
We are here only because of a yearning for God and each other. We are here because we choose to be a part of the love revolution, starting with ourselves and one another, and radiating out into the world.
A new day is coming—in fact, it’s already here.
It’s already here because there is unity in the family of God, and we crave unity despite difference. At our path to membership class, 90-year-old Charlie said despite his tendency toward atheism, “I have come to love this place. I don’t know why. I just do. I have so many friends here. The other day, I hugged a Republican! And I liked it!”
A new day is coming—in fact it’s already here!
This new day is already here at First Church in Sterling because we are proud to be theologically and ideologically diverse. Atheists sit next to Theists. Conservatives sit next to Liberals. Gay people sit next to straight people. Young people learn from elders, and elders learn from young people. We serve our community together, regardless of our differences. We reach out to our Muslim and Jewish and immigrant neighbors. We hug each other. We even like it.
That’s because our thirst is consistently quenched by the living water of a shared faith in Love—something deeper than the arbitrary lines that divide us.
Worship, therefore, is sourced in truth; it comes from a place of an authentic love, not tribalism. Worship, therefore, is sourced in truth; it comes from an authentic experience of God, not rote practice, or habit, or compulsion. Love is the spirit of this church, and service is its prayer.
A new day is coming for the church—in fact it’s already here.
Rachel Held Evans says that "For much of my life, being a Christian was all about believing the right things, finding the right denomination, living the right life. My faith had, in many ways, been reduced to intellectual assent to a set of propositions. It took watching that faith completely unravel in the midst of the doubts, questions, and frustrations of my young adulthood to realize that you never really arrive at "right." Right is not the point. What I longed for with church, and what I think a lot of people long for, is not an exclusive club of like-minded individuals, but a community of broken and beloved people, telling one another the truth and taking it all a day at a time. What I longed for was sanctuary -- a place to breathe, to be myself, to wrestle with the mystery, to confess my sins and explore my doubts, to experience God rather than simply believe in God.”
Broken and beloved people: Let us tell the truth to one another, taking it one day at a time. Let us experience this God that brings inside those who’ve been cast out. Let us long for Jesus to continually challenge our assumptions about who should be included in our circle. We thirst, like the woman at the well, to be part of one human family, united in Love. So for all of us who have spent our lives seeking after things that do not satisfy, a new day is coming—in fact, it’s already here.
May Love’s living water that quenches thirst forever.
become a fresh, bubbling spring within you,
giving life throughout eternity.
May you never be thirsty again.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.