Saturday, February 23, 2008

Finding the Living Water

John 4:5-42

There are all kinds of communication barriers out there, with language barriers among the biggest and most difficult to get around. He speaks Spanish; she doesn't. How do you communicate? But there are other kinds of barriers that inhibit communication. There are, for instance, generational differences, which can cause major headaches. If you read Zits, you know that this is true. Each generation has its own dialect, and if you’re not hip to the lingo, you’ll likely miss something in a conversation.
Although we don’t always think about it, there are also theological barriers that get in the way of our sharing our faith with others. Sometimes our religious lingo – you know, words like Trinity, grace, atonement, Eucharist – gets in the way. They may be important terms and doctrines, but they’re often meaningless to people on the outside. And so we have to stop and explain what we mean.

If you read the gospels closely, you’ll discover that Jesus often dealt with communication barriers. This is especially true in the Gospel of John, where John often pictures Jesus confounding his conversation partners with irony and double meanings. In John, at least, all of this seems to be intentional. But whether intentional or not, it always seems like Jesus has to explain himself.
John 4 reminds us of how difficult it can be to share our faith with others. Too often our conversation partners aren’t on the same page.
I. The Beginnings of a Conversation and the Breaking of Barriers
In this passage Jesus runs into a Samaritan woman getting water at a well, and he ends up having a theological conversation with her. But this discussion gets hung up on a series of communication barriers. In part that’s due to the fact that Jews and Samaritans didn’t talk to each other. As we all know, mistrust can mess up our conversations. And that’s what happens here.

The conversation begins when Jesus goes up to this woman and asks her for a drink of water. This simple request leads to further discussion – something that normally didn’t happen. That’s probably whey his request takes her by surprise. Jews don’t talk to Samaritans and men don’t talk to women – you see the barriers that are present. Some are tribal some are gender-related, and others are theological.
Despite the awkwardness of the situation, Jesus reaches across the barrier and engages her in a conversation. He doesn’t let tradition and custom deter him, and that’s the way it is with God. We build fences and make boxes, but God can’t be hemmed in. What God does is break through our barriers and helps us see the world in a new way. In other words, God breaks through our stereotypes. In the end, because Jesus challenges the stereotype, the woman becomes a disciple and an evangelist.
II. The Offer of Living Water
Although the story begins with a simple request for a cup of water, it turns into a theological discussion. The subject is living water. Of course, in the beginning, she takes this literally, and gets mixed up. She’s talking physical, and he’s talking spiritual – something that often happens in John. The discussion seems to get hung up on the question of whether Jesus is bigger and better than Jacob, the one legend said gave the people of Sychar this well. And so, again we see the tribal rivalries at play.

But the most important question has to do with the meaning of living water. What she heard was "clear running water." She thought that Jesus knew of a kind of water that would whet her thirst for ever. One drink and you don’t have to ever have another. You can understand why she’d be interested in that kind of water – she was an outcast who came to the well at noon, the hottest point of the day, because it was when no one else would be there. The only problem is that Jesus isn’t talking about this kind of water. Instead, he’s talking about the kind of water that satisfies our spirit.

The water Jesus offers her quenches that inner thirst for communion with God, the thirst described by the Psalmist:

As the deer pants for streams of water, so I long for you, O God. I thirst for God the living God. When can I come and stand before him? (Ps. 42:1-2, NLT)

It is the thirst that Isaiah says only God can satisfy:

Ho, everyone that thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. (Is. 55:1).

The woman’s answer is a typically human one. We can become so fixated on the physical realm that we miss what’s going on spiritually. But John tells us that Jesus knows that we have a need for something only a relationship with God can satisfy.
III. A Place to Worship
The conversation quickly turns from water to worship. Once she catches onto what Jesus is offering, she gets defensive and begins to argue about which place of worship is superior to the other. We worship on Mt. Gerazim, you worship in Jerusalem – she says. But Jesus says that true worship is about the heart not the location or the ritual. Too often we get caught up in the form and loose sight of the purpose of worship. In worship the soul’s thirst is satisfied by an engagement with the presence of God.

Finally, after she begins to catch on, this social outcast returns to her village and tells everybody about her encounter with Jesus. She may not have understood everything about Jesus, but she knew that he held out for her the promise of forgiveness and grace. And that was enough.
Now there is much more to this story, but in the end we see that Jesus breaks down the barriers that keep us from experiencing that sense of wholeness that comes from walking with God. And not only does the woman respond to the offer, but so does her whole village.

There is, of course, a moral to our story. Even as we drink from the water that satisfies our deepest longings, like the woman at the well we will begin sharing this faith empowering experience with others. But, as this story reminds us, there are barriers that must be overcome. Our attempts at communication can get hung up on misunderstandings. And so we must be attentive to those "issues," whatever they may be. As we do this, we will see that deep in the hearts of our friends and our neighbors is that same thirst for the Living Water that will never run dry. Yes, we’re all looking for the Living water that satisfies the human thirst for God’s gracious presence. And as we hear Jesus’ invitation to the woman, so we hear our own invitation to drink deeply from this well.

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA 93105
3rd Sunday of Lent
February 24, 2008

Saturday, February 16, 2008


John 3:1-17

"The answer my friend, is blowing in the wind," so sang Bob Dylan. That may very well be true, but the question is: Which way is the wind blowing? What we know for sure about the wind is that it’s unpredictable and uncontrollable. People living here in Lompoc know something about the wind – it seems to come up every afternoon, keeping things cool and clear. On a hot afternoon, a nice cool breeze can bring relief, but sometimes the wind comes with devastating power. Consider those Santa Ana winds that can whip up a fire, knock down trees, and turn over semis. And in other parts of the country, it could be a tornado or a hurricane that brings devastation in its wake. The winds can come with great power, and while we can try to tap into its power, we can’t control it or predict where it will go. And this is also the case with the Sprit of God.

Unless you thrive on stressful situations, you probably prefer calm normalcy to chaos. We like five year plans and complete answers to all our questions. We want to know where we’re going and when we’re going to get there. The slogan, "A place for everything and everything in its place" describes our ideal of the good life. Though I'm not the most organized person in the world, even I like a little order to my life.

Nicodemus was a religious leader, a member of the Sanhedrin, and a person of importance. I expect he liked things to be decent and in order as well. But for some reason he comes to Jesus, in the night, seeking answers to his questions. It’s a bit odd to see him there. After all, Jesus was his social and spiritual inferior. And yet Nicodemus believed that Jesus had answers to the questions that were on his heart. The only problem was, the answers that Jesus gave him didn’t make sense. They were like answers blowing in the wind.

The reason Nicodemus had a problem with Jesus’ answers was that he had put God in a box. He thought he understood the ways of God, but Jesus’ answer was a bit like the title of a JB Philips’ book: "Your God," Jesus told Nicodemus, "is too small." And when it comes to matters of the Spirit our God is often too small. Our vision is constricted, because we think we know how God should work.


The question Nicodemus posed to Jesus had to do with the kingdom of God. He wanted to know how we enter it. That seems like a simple question, except Jesus and Nicodemus weren’t on the same page. Their understandings of the kingdom were different. Nicodemus’s vision was institutional and traditional, while Jesus had a more open and dynamic understanding. In Jesus’ mind the kingdom is a bit like the wind – it goes where it wants to go. And if we’re going to experience the kingdom then we must go where the kingdom is. And to do that, we must start over from the very beginning.

John’s gospel is full of words and phrases with double meanings. These are often word plays that are evident in the Greek, but difficult to catch in English. For instance, the Greek word anothen, can be translated both as above and as again. This gives the discussion a sense of ambiguity, with Jesus using the word in one way and Nicodemus taking it in a different, more material, way. He was thinking physical birth, but Jesus was thinking of spiritual birth. Jesus says to us, if you want to experience the kingdom you have to be reborn spiritually. You have to begin to see the world from a different point of view.

Jesus’ vision is a radical one, because it turns things upside down. Nicodemus isn’t ready for that – he’s open to reform, but not revolution. He’s open to repainting the walls, but not tearing them down. But as Harvard University chaplain, Peter Gomes, puts it:

To be born again is to enter afresh into the process of spiritual growth. It is to wipe the slate clean. It is to cancel your old mortgage and start again. In other words, you don't always have to be what you have now become . . . You must be born again, is an offer you cannot afford to refuse.1


In verse 11 the conversation goes in a new direction. Jesus begins to talk about belief and unbelief. He says that unbelief ultimately leads to spiritual death, but belief will lead to new life and a new vision of reality. Unfortunately we often think of belief and unbelief in doctrinal terms. Accept this statement of faith, and all will be right with the world. But I don’t think that’s not what Jesus has in mind. The issue here isn’t the acceptance of a creed, but is instead a willingness to leave the old behind and take up a new course of life, one that’s empowered and led by the Spirit. It’s a willingness to let go of our destiny and commit ourselves to the leading of God’s Spirit.

The way of the kingdom is the way forward, and it comes to us as a gift from God. We can’t earn it, we can’t really even build it, we must instead receive it. This gift is a gift of love that costs God dearly. Consider these words that form the best-known piece of Scripture:
God so loved the world that he gave the only Son, that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.

The way forward, the way of the kingdom is rooted in the cross. I know we’d rather not take this path, because we’d just as soon take the kingdom on our terms. We’d rather take a shortcut, but if the Kosmos is to be redeemed, then it will require the entirety of our being.

At this point in the story, Nicodemus is confused and unable to comprehend this message. But if we continue following the story, we discover that in the end Nicodemus becomes a disciple of Jesus. And that’s the way it often is. It can take time for us to figure it out. But, Nicodemus did figure it out. I believe that God wants us to put away our tiny boxes and open our hearts and minds to the winds of the Spirit.

To be a follower of Jesus is a bit like taking a ride on a hang glider. You have to let go and let the wind take you for a ride. Disciple pastor Jan Linn puts it this way:
Spiritual maturity can be described as moving from living life with clenched fists to living life with open hands.
Living in fear or not letting go of old wounds or grudges are signs of spiritual immaturity.

Letting go means being able to trust that our lives are ultimately sustained by faith rather than control. It shows we have decided to live out of love rather than fear.2
If we are truly born from above, then we will be ready to cast our wings into the winds of the Spirit, so that God might use us to redeem the Kosmos and bring into existence the reign of God.

1. Peter Gomes, quoted in Pulpit Resources, 27 (Jan., Feb., Mar. 1999): 38

2. Jan Linn, The Jesus Connection, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1997), 30.

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
2nd Sunday of Lent
February 17, 2008

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Time to Change the Light Bulb

Genesis 1:1-2:3

God said, “let there be light” and there was light.” And when God saw the light, God said, “That’s good!” Indeed, light is good. As you know, it’s kind of difficult to see where you’re going in the dark, so having some light can be helpful.

In the beginning of time, you had the sun – not bad during the daytime – and then there was the moon – it gives off some light, but it’s pretty limited. In time somebody discovered fire, and fire helps a lot. Over time the campfire gave way to the candle, and the candle to the lamp. Every advancement in lighting made living in-doors and going about at night just a bit easier. Then came the biggest revolution in lighting history. Back in the 19th century somebody figured out how to hook up lights to electricity and everything changed. Even though he wasn’t the first to come up with the idea of the incandescent bulb, a guy named Thomas Edison came up with a long lasting filament and history was made. In fact, his idea worked so well that we’re essentially using the same technology today as we were in 1880. Edison’s invention has been a great success, and we give thanks for it every time the lights go out and then come back on. There’s just one problem; these bulbs use a lot of energy. While it’s hard to give up something so successful, perhaps it’s time to change the light bulbs!

There’s a new kid on the block – actually a couple of new kids. Maybe you’ve seen them; they’re called compact fluorescent bulbs (of CFL’s for short) and LED’s. These lights are much more energy efficient. A CFL bulb uses 70% less energy than a typical incandescent bulb. Now, I’m no math wiz – unlike Bill – but that seems like a big difference. Just think if we exchanged just one million incandescent bulbs with CFL’s we could save 400, 000 megawatt hours of energy in one year. That would keep 200,000 tons of green house gases from being released into the atmosphere. The amount of energy saved could power 60,000 homes for a year, and is the same as removing 31,000 cars from the road. And, that’s just 1 million light bulbs. Just think what would happen if we all did this?

1. A Lenten Challenge on Evolution Sunday
So, why am I talking about light bulbs? Besides the fact that light is referred to in Genesis 1? The answer is that besides being the Sunday before Valentines and the first Sunday of Lent, this is also Evolution Weekend. Yes, we’re doing Evolution Weekend again this year, and as I was thinking about what to do with this day, I thought – hey, let’s talk about the environment. As you may remember from last year, Evolution Weekend not only coincides with Darwin’s birthday, it is an opportunity to consider the relationship of our faith to science.

You may have heard that religion and science are at war. There are those who say that science has made religion obsolete. There are others, on the other side, of the spectrum, who say that Charles Darwin, and scientists like him, is the devil incarnate. You have to choose. And there’s my problem, I don’t want to choose. In fact, I’ve come to believe that my faith can live in peace with science, including evolutionary science.

Because Evolution Sunday falls this year on the First Sunday of Lent, I thought maybe this year we could combine the two observances. Evolution Sunday challenges us to learn from the witness of science. Yes, it challenges some of our cherished ideas, but the end result is a stronger faith. As they say, Darwin is here to stay, so how are we going to deal with him? Lent, on the other hand, calls us to a time of fasting, prayer, reflection, and sacrifice. Maybe this year, instead of giving up chocolate or Doritos, we could do something more constructive. Perhaps we could take some time and change some light bulbs, turn off some appliances, drive a smaller car, and do something good for the environment.

2. Our Connection to the Creation

We’ve already heard the grand poetic statement of Genesis 1, which celebrates God’s act of creation. This passage can be taken in two ways. We can interpret it as saying – God set this earth up for you to do with as you please. You’re the master and the earth is your servant. That’s been a popular way of looking at things, but if we look at Genesis 1 through the eyes of the evolutionary scientist, maybe we’ll begin to notice the connection between humanity and the earth. I think this connection is even clearer in Genesis 2. There in the second creation story, God takes some dust and makes a man from it. That dust of the earth is symbolic of the building blocks of the universe. The Bible and Science tell the story differently, but in each of these stories I hear the message – you are connected to the world in which you live. So be good to it.

3. Our Calling as the Imago Dei

Going back to Genesis 1, we read that God creates humanity in God’s image – male and female. Bearing the image of God, which in Latin is the imago Dei, we’re God’s representatives on earth. These first humans are told to be fruitful and multiply and in most translations, they’re told to take dominion over the earth. One of the reasons why our environment is under such a great threat is that too many of us take this to mean – you can do with it, whatever you want. Listening to the voice of science, I’m drawn to the idea that our calling as human beings is to take care of the creation, to be stewards rather than masters of it.

4. Our Responsibility for the Earth

We’re observing Evolution Weekend again this year because God could be, and I think is, wanting to use science to tell us something. Science tells us that we’re all connected. What’s bad for the polar bear is ultimately bad for us. If the Arctic ice pack disappears, not only will the bears disappear, but so might cities and islands all around the world. Global Warming, Al Gore said, is an “inconvenient truth.” There are those who deny that there’s a problem and others say that a solution is too costly. But if we’re willing to listen, science could offer us some solutions, solutions as simple as trading those old incandescent bulbs for some CFL light bulbs. If enough of us do this, then we can make a difference.

If you look at the card stock insert in your bulletin this morning, you’ll find some ways of doing just that – making a difference. But I don’t just have an insert for you; I actually have light bulbs to give to you. Thanks to the City of Lompoc, each of you will get to take home your own CFL bulb. All I ask is that you take that bulb and replace an incandescent one with it. Now, I know that some of you are resistant to change. You’ve been using those incandescent bulbs all your life and you just don’t think that these new fangled bulbs will work as well. My Lenten challenge to you is to let go of those fears and make the change. At our house we’ve replaced almost all of the bulbs, and we’ve got plenty of light! So, with no further ado, and before we sing our invitation hymn, it’s time to pass out the bulbs!
Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
Evolution Sunday/First Sunday of Lent
February 10, 2008

Saturday, February 02, 2008


Matthew 17:1-9

All of us have had experiences that have helped define our identity. It might not be a Damascus Road kind of thing, but something has happened that has changed the way we look at ourselves. These experiences change who we are as a person. And when we look back on them, even years later, we can remember the day vividly, because we were enraptured by it.

Some events are historical and public – Pearl Harbor, the assassination of Martin Luther King, and 9-11 define eras and people. Even if we weren't directly affected by the event, the event still affects who and what we are. Then there are the more personal events – a marriage, a birth, a divorce, a death, that catch us up in the moment and transform us in some way. If we’re willing to listen, we may hear God’s voice in the moment.
Four events stand out as having marked my life with God's transforming grace. The first date is July 9, 1983. On that day Cheryl walked down the aisle in her white lace wedding dress and joined with me in marriage. I was truly enraptured that day by her beauty, and I was changed in that moment. The second date is June 9, 1985. On a Sunday evening hands were laid on me, ordaining me to the ministry and giving me a direction for my life work. Then came April 3, 1990, the day Brett was born. Up to the very moment that he was born, I wasn’t sure if I was ready to be a parent. But from the moment they handed him to me, I was so enthralled that a sense of confidence replaced the fear I had felt. The final date is June 15, 1991. On that day I received my Ph.D., the culmination of years of study.

These events mark me as a husband, a father, a pastor, and as a scholar. They are in their own way marks of God’s grace that have made me who I am as a person. I could have added other events, but these four stand out as symbols of the person I am today.

Sometimes we call life changing events mountain top experiences. We’ve all had them, and perhaps in sharing four of mine, I have stirred your memories as well.
The metaphor of the mountain top experience has deep roots in human experience. There’s something almost mysterious about standing on the top of a mountain. Ancient peoples often went to the mountains to be near the gods, because they believed that heaven sat above the earth, and so if you climbed the mountain you would be closer to them. And if the mountains aren’t near by, then why not build one. The ziggurats of Mesopotamia and the pyramids of Egypt, Mexico, and Central America served as artificial mountains. That’s the point, of course, of the story of the Tower of Babel. This is a story about our human longing to draw close to God on our own terms.

Both Moses and Jesus go to the mountain and in doing so are transformed. Their identities and their callings are transformed because of this encounter with God. Moses becomes the Law Giver and Jesus becomes the Redeemer.


A. In Prayer and Worship

We read about Moses and Jesus and their life-changing experiences. They find their purpose on the mountain. But then the question is: What about me? What about my life? Is a mountain top experience in the offing for me?

I mentioned four events that marked my life. These are mountain top experiences, which we’ve all probably had. As important as these are, I’d like for us to think for a moment about the ongoing experiences, the ones that happen after we come down from the mountain. Notice that Jesus doesn’t have Peter put up tents for him or Moses or Elijah. They didn’t stay on the mountain, because they had things to do. I’d like to suggest two places where we experience transformation along the way, after we come down the mountain.

One is worship and prayer. It could be corporate worship or maybe it’s a moment away from the crowd, maybe during a retreat, when the Spirit overwhelms us and our faces shine with the glory of the Lord. What happens during these moments of spiritual awakening is that we’re empowered to serve. And the moment and manner of this experience will be different for each of us.

B. Service

If worship and prayer is one place along the journey in which the Spirit of God marks our lives anew, another place is service. Going to the mountain is often a difficult journey and once we’re there it’s hard to go back down. We’d just as soon stay and bask in the glory of the Lord. But the fact is, we do have to return to the valley.

Sometimes when we get to the bottom there are difficult situations that need our attention. Moses came down from the mountain and found his people in rebellion. Jesus returned to find his disciples had botched a healing. But the point is, having experienced the presence of God in worship, we’re ready to experience God’s Spirit in the midst of service to others.

It could be any of a number of things. It could be serving a meal to the homeless, painting over graffiti, tutoring a child, or driving an older person to the doctor. It might be changing a bed pan or advocating for peace. The reality is, these activities can be places of transformation. They’re not as contemplative as our time alone with God on the mountain, but they too provide an opportunity to experience the presence of God. Indeed, that’s the point of Brother Lawrence’s book, The Practice of the Presence of God. Even in the little things, like washing dishes and baking a cake, we can experience the transforming presence of God. But our doing is rooted in our being in the presence of God, while in prayer and in worship. It’s kind of a circle – worship, service, worship, and so on!

So, let’s go to the mountain top and experience the enrapturing presence of God in contemplative prayer and worship, and then let’s return to the valleys, refreshed, empowered, and transfigured by that encounter to serve.
Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
Transfiguration Sunday
February 2, 2008