The Land of Unlikeness: God Crossing Boundaries

A sermon for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, March 19, 2017 by the Rev. Bingham Powell.  Sermon refers to hymns 463 and 464 in the 1982 Hymnal.

I’m going to take a risk this morning. I have a sermon written out, but as I was listening to the reading of the Gospel, another sermon came to my mind. I think after ten years I can try this once. If it’s an absolute failure, then I won’t do it again for another ten years.

Jesus comes from a particular place. He is from Galilee, raised in Nazareth, and eventually moves to Capernaum when he is a little bit older. That place is a marginal place; socio-economically marginal with not much wealth. Jesus is marginal in his teaching and thinking, in that it doesn’t match any strain or denomination of Judaism. It picks up some parts, but he does his own thing, also. Jesus is also marginal in what he chooses to do: he doesn’t continue his life as a carpenter, raise a family, and do all those sorts of good normal things. He travelled around. “The Son of Man has no place to lay his head”. He has no home as he travels.

And he crosses boundaries or borders in what he does. He touches the leper, which is something you wouldn’t have done in that time. He goes to places that are crossing boundaries, from Galilee to Judea; from Galilee to Samaria, which is where we find him in today’s Gospel, crossing a border into enemy territory since the Samaritans and the Jews are enemies. He crosses this boundary into a place where he doesn’t belong, and encounters a Samaritan woman. You can hear in their conversation how odd this is for her. Why are you, a Jew, asking me, a Samaritan, this thing? He’s crossing a border, a boundary, of what is acceptable. He also crosses the boundary from a man to a woman by a well, which means, Biblically, that something is about to happen, usually wedding bells. He goes into that space and engages in conversation about water, about water in a well, and living water. He quickly crosses the boundary from physical need to spiritual need. Jesus is crossing all of these boundaries in the Gospel today, in his ministry, and in his life.

He’s doing that because that’s what God does. God moves from where we expect God to where we don’t expect God. Which is the same thing the Israelites discover in the desert in today’s first reading. In the desert, where there is no water, God is able to bring it out from a rock. In the preceding chapter, when they are in the desert where there is no food, they are able to find manna. God is in the places where we don’t expect God to be.

This past week, we lost three of our parishioners to death. I had to go to the hospital to be with each one of them. And in that place there was God: in the hospital room, in the ICU, there was God, crossing the boundary into the place that makes us uncomfortable; crossing the boundary into the places where we do not want to go. In the desert, in death, in life, there is God offering living water to the people.

We are right now in the season of Lent, moving towards Easter. We think of Easter as the place where God is: in the resurrection. We’re a resurrection people, we’re a resurrection faith. But these forty days in the wilderness remind us that God is not only there in the empty tomb, but God is also there on the cross. And God is also here in the desert wilderness, crossing into this boundary away from the temple in Jerusalem, where we try to put him in a box; here in the church where we try and contain God. But God is breaking out and going to those places of wilderness.

There is a hymn in the hymnal, a W.H. Auden poem, and it begins like this:

“He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.”

“Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness.” This Jesus, who crosses boundaries and crosses borders, has invited us to go with him. So the question I have for all of us together as a community, and for each of us individually, is: What is this Land of Unlikeness that Jesus is taking you into? It’s going to be desert-like, it’s going to be uncomfortable, it’s going to be uncertain, but that’s where Jesus is taking us. For there we “will see rare beasts and have unique adventures”.

Auden goes on to say that there we will find an occasion to dance for joy, if we’re willing to go out in that Land of Unlikeness, into that uncertainty, into that marginal place where Jesus is: away from our comforts, moving through the discomfort of the desert. There we will discover the living water. That living water that is so strong and powerful that we will not thirst again.

We have a choice: it is quite comfortable here in the Willamette Valley. We’ve got plenty of water. But Jesus says we have to keep drinking that water over and over and over again, but he can show us the way of living water. And that living water is only available where we follow Jesus.

My sisters and brothers in Christ, follow Him. We don’t know exactly where it is he is leading us, but follow him wherever he takes you. When you begin to feel that bit of discomfort, I suspect that means you’re on the right path, into the Land of Unlikeness, into the place of living water.