So Jesus has gone up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, one of the three feasts when Jews were supposed to come to the temple. Jesus and his people, you’ll remember, were in Galilee. Galilee is separated from Jerusalem by Samaria. The Jews and the Samaritans did not get along. They were descended from common ancestors—Jacob, for example—but somewhere along the line they had split and their worship was different. And they despised each other.
Jesus is traveling back home to Galilee in this story after the Passover. John’s Gospel says that he had to go through Samaria. Now, he could have gone around, but Samaria was the direct route. And I cannot overemphasize how difficult, how hard this travel was. This was mountainous country, mountains and valleys, bandits and wild beasts. There were dangers along the way. That’s what happened in the story of the Good Samaritan. One of the bandits got him. Despite these challenges, the experts who have read the texts closely tell us that they were able to travel about 20 miles a day by foot, which to me is astounding.
But you can imagine that by the time Jesus gets to this well in the heat of the day, he’s got to be pretty tired. Sychar is about 40 miles from Jerusalem, so they’ve presumably been on the road for two days already. He’s resting in the heat of the day while his people go off to get food. This Samaritan woman comes alone to the well. He asks her for a drink. She’s quite surprised that he’s speaking to her for two reasons: First of all, Jews and Samaritans don’t generally talk to each other, and a man would not talk to a woman alone in a situation like that.
But Jesus says, “Give me a drink,” and they begin this long conversation which is really quite profound. He tells her about living water. She doesn’t totally get that. Which is not surprising, but it’s not like last week’s Gospel, the story of Nicodemus, where he seems sort of baffled the whole time.
One day a few years ago, long before anyone could have imagined the specific circumstances that would bring us to this day, Jackie sat down to plan her own funeral. She laid out the hymns she wanted us to sing, and she chose the passages she wanted us to hear from the Old and New Testaments.
Whenever someone takes the trouble to do this—whenever someone has enough courage and faith to face and accept the limits of their own life on earth—it’s an incredible gift to the loved ones they leave behind.
Because it means there will be one less thing they need to worry about in this time when the loss is fresh, and when there are so many other details that have to be arranged and attended to. It’s an act of faith, and a true act of kindness.
And what I realized when I sat down myself to the task of writing a sermon for Jackie’s funeral is that it’s also a gift to the one who will preach. When I started to look over the hymns and readings Jackie had selected, I saw that she basically had outlined this funeral sermon herself.
She knew what message she wanted proclaimed on this day. She knew where she wanted the people who love her to find comfort and reassurance to ease their crushing grief.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
These words we say during the imposition of ashes. They’re a reminder of mortality. The remind us that we’re all going to die. And every year when it comes time to face writing an Ash Wednesday sermon, I come up against that reminder, and I don’t want to face it.
I think of the times when I said those words to a mother whose child had died, or people who were dying, and asked myself if they really needed to be reminded about death. And I’m asking myself the same question as I stand here in front of you this evening. Does this community really need to be reminded of death? We know about it. We’ve seen it up close. There are too many beloveds who were here with us last Ash Wednesday, who are gone now.
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is the sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, but our bishop has asked us to celebrate the observance of Blessed Absalom Jones. His day on our church calendar is actually tomorrow. You probably know that he is the first person of African descent to be ordained in the Episcopal Church. That was an 1802, it was right here in our Diocese of Philadelphia, so we especially lift him up. I think there’s a little bit of team spirit in that.
He was born in the 1740s on a plantation in Delaware, enslaved. As a boy, he was put to work in the house where he had the opportunity to earn some tips. So he had a little money. He bought three books. He bought a primer, he bought a spelling book and he bought a Bible, and he learned to read, which in some ways changed the course of his life. But he was enslaved, so he wasn’t in control of his own life at that point.
And his owner died and the plantation was sold. His mother and his siblings were sent somewhere else. He never saw his mother again. This is when he was a teenager. He was taken to Philadelphia where the son, who now was his owner, had a store, and because he could read and write and do math, he was put to work as a clerk at the store, where again, he had some opportunities to make a little extra money by doing extra jobs and so on.
Every Sunday we come to church and we listen to a short passage from the Gospel and reflect on it a bit. We listen to one of the stories about the life of Jesus. We hear how he preached and taught, how he cured every sickness and disease, as it says in today’s Gospel, how he lifted up people who were on the margins of that society. He fed people—he was able to feed thousands of people miraculously with food that should have fed just a few.
And this is a good thing, because these stories are really the backbone of who we are. We are the people of Jesus, the followers of Jesus in the 21st century.
So it’s a good thing, but there is one problem with this approach, which I think is, hearing these stories in isolation, hearing them one by one, apart from the big picture, you lose a sense of how everything is connected. You lose a sense of the bigger story that they are smjustall parts of. The problem is that you can misunderstand what’s really being said in the story, and I think today’s Gospel is a perfect example of that.
In the passage that Ron’s family chose for the Gospel today, Jesus declares that “all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.”
We Christians believe that death is part of life, but not the end of life. That what we mark today is not the end of Ron’s life, but his passage into new life, life forever in God.
We hold these things to be true, and yet we’re realists, too. Having faith and hope doesn’t wipe away the immense grief we feel as we gather to give thanks for the life of Ron Bergey.
God made us for love, and when someone you love passes on, it hurts. It really hurts.
Still, we hope that as time passes this sense of enduring love—God’s love, of course, but also Ron’s love, because our love for each other is a participation in God’s love—we hope that love may be something we can hold onto.
So Christmas is over. The Wise Men have found the Christ Child. The season of Epiphany has begun. Jesus has been baptized. And now it’s time to think about the Eagles.
Yes, those Eagles—the green Eagles.
Big game today if you’re an Eagles fan. Which I’m not really, to be honest–but I do like to see the local teams win.
Philadelphia sports fans? They’re a breed apart, aren’t they? I mean, where else would you find a team mascot like the Flyers’ Gritty, with his wild orange hair, and so much attitude. He’s a little grungy, he’s loyal to the team, but he’s not exactly welcoming to the Flyers’ opponents.
And I’ve never seen anything like the wave of red that swept the city back in October when the Phillies made it to the World Series. Pretty much everyone was wearing something red, and there were plenty of team jerseys with the names and numbers of individual players—especially Bryce Harper.
And that, oddly enough, brings me to the subject of today’s Gospel.
The story takes place on the banks of the Jordan River, where John the Baptist has been preaching a message of repentance and renewal, and baptizing people who were ready to commit to it.
First of all, I want to welcome everyone here this evening. To our guests and family members, welcome to you. Those of you who have not been here for a long time, welcome back. For those of you who might never have been here before, welcome to you. And to all of those dear faces I see every Sunday when I’m here, welcome to you, too, and thank you for welcoming me into this community.
It’s so good to be with all of you for our celebration of the mystery of the Incarnation, the birth of Jesus Christ. So here we are, and what a surprise it was that we started with, “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” Was anyone expecting that?
Just kidding, of course. I cannot think of a Christmas service I’ve attended since I was a child that didn’t begin with” O Come, All Ye Faithful” and end with “Joy to the World.” And we have to sing “Angels We Have Heard on High” somewhere near the beginning, right? So we can get all those glor-or-or-orias in. And somewhere near the end, the church gets very silent and we sing “Silent Night,” and then Joy to the World, and we’re out of here.
Bringing a child into the world is an act of hope.
You hope for so many things. Of course you hope the delivery won’t be too difficult. You hope the child will be healthy. You hope you’ll be up to the task of parenting teenagers. But this morning I’m thinking of something bigger than that.
You wonder who they’ll turn out to be. And you hope your child will grow up to be a good person in a world where goodness isn’t something you can take for granted. You she’ll find love—find someone to love, someone who will love her. You hope she’ll have a long and happy life.
There was a movie that came out in 1993 called Schindler’s List. Maybe some of you saw it. I saw it back when it first came out in the theater, so it’s been quite a long time. But there’s one scene in particular that stands out for me. The movie’s about a German factory owner named Oskar Schindler, who saves the lives of many of his Jewish workers during the course of the war. And this scene that I remember so clearly is the liquidation of the Jewish ghetto in Kraków.
Schindler is on a horse on a hill looking down over the city, and he’s watching all of this unfold before him. And it’s a horrific scene. There’s chaos in the streets. The Nazi soldiers are rounding up the people. They’re pushing them, they’re shoving them into line, marching them down the street, tossing their belongings on the ground. You hear cries and screams. You hear sporadic gunfire in the background, and then at one point, one of the soldiers shoots a couple of people at point-blank range, and you see them drop to the ground.
And Schindler is watching all this. And you can tell he’s both horrified and also sort of fascinated. He can’t turn away from it. Almost all of the movie is in black and white but there’s this haunting violin theme playing over all of this. If you saw the movie, you might still be able to hum it. It’s both inexpressibly sad and also in a way sort of joyful. It’s a very interesting melody.
Anyway, so this is all unfolding in black and white, and this is the part I remember so vividly: There’s a little girl and she’s wearing a red coat, and she sort of appears out of nowhere, and she’s almost invisible to everyone in that scene. They’re marching one way, she slips behind them and goes the other way. She slips through people, she almost seem to slip between the legs of the Nazi soldiers. She just keeps going against the flow. She finds a building that’s open. She goes up to an apartment and she hides under a bed. And Schindler has seen her. He’s noticed.