Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:
I once saw a man at a basketball tournament who momentarily captured my attention. The most noticeable thing about him was that he was much larger than his clothes. His shirt had been pulled together at the center of his abdomen and buttoned, but it had resisted. At each button it was strained and puckered. Between the buttons it pouched open, revealing his T-shirt. His pants had likewise been forcibly drawn together at the waist. Protrusions of person above and below almost obscured his narrow belt. The upper part of his fly was exposed due to threads having succumbed to the pressure. The lower portion was, you might say, overshadowed. The legs and buttocks of the pants were filled.
My attention was captured because he did not have the appearance of a poor person wearing hand-me-downs. Instead, I had the impression that this was a stubborn man who refused to throw these clothes away because, “one of these days” they would fit again. Unlike the majority of us, he didn’t leave them hanging in a closet. Perhaps he thought the constant discomfort would remind him of his need for exercise or diet. For some reason, my creative juices began to flow, and I wondered how I might describe him in writing. The first image that came to mind was that he was obviously more willing to spend money on food than he was on new clothes. The second was that of a crayfish, absolutely refusing to shed his shell. It is this second image that makes me picture him as the subject of a fable from an old issue of Pulpit Resource:
A woman in Michigan went to a church bazaar and purchased a piece of needlework which carried the message, PRAYER CHANGES THINGS. She took it home and hung it above the fireplace. A few days later it was missing and she asked her husband about the disappearance. He had taken it down. She then asked if he did not believe in the power of prayer. “Oh yes,” he responded, “I believe in prayer! In fact, I absolutely believe that prayer changes things. But I don’t like change and that’s why I took it down!”
This fellow probably wants to keep his marriage, family, house, home, job and whole world, including that last great bastion of sameness, the church, restricted in old clothes, old ways and an old shell. He reminds me of the of the group of Christians who are known as the Amish.
In all denominations of Christians, there are the Selectively Amish. Although they drive automobiles to their churches, they demand to sing from “The Horse and Buggy Hymnal.” They had blue catechisms when they were 13 and they had better not find green ones in the church today. They don’t like Shakespeare, because they can’t understand what he wrote, but they demand to hear readings only from the King James (often “Saint” James) Bible when they are in church. They never got to go up to the altar at Communion, or to the front for a children’s sermon when they were kids — and they, obviously, turned out all right — so kids shouldn’t go “parading up there” now. They never had youth services when they were in Walther League and this new-fangled Lutheran Youth Fellowship isn’t going to have them either. This list, by the way, is endless. Naturally, I have avoided my own favorite old ways, but I think these illustrate our resistance to change.
We all see some changes that appear to us to be for the worse, but our universal resistance to change probably has nothing to do with better or worse. The fact is that some changes come to us with all the subtlety of a lightning bolt and we are helpless to stop them. Most of these have devastating emotional, psychological and economic effects. It is no wonder that we tend to buck up against changes — we have found many of them to be very painful. A short list of those that bring the greatest tears and fears includes: birth, death, marriage, divorce, entering school, graduating, starting a new job, getting fired, getting a promotion, getting retired and little things like having cancer or a heart attack.
In his book, Transitions, William Bridges suggests that major changes usually take us through three phases. The first is experiencing an end to what our lives have been. We have feelings of withdrawal, disenchantment, disorientation, and a loss of self definition or identity. The second stage is a kind of neutral zone. We feel disconnected from people and things in past and present as we try to reorient ourselves to the change. Finally, there is the new beginning.
With new beginnings there are new possibilities for better or for worse. A husband and wife were arguing one day, and he said, rather sadly, “You should have married a better man.” She replied, “I did.”
In the book, Unity of All Life, there is a story about a man sitting at his desk, brooding over his dismissal from a company he had served for 20 good years. As you might imagine, he was worried about his income and he was struggling with feelings of being useless and washed up. He noticed a spider on the desk and brushed it off. Suddenly, he watched in awe as the tiny creature instantly spun a strand to bear its weight and swung gracefully to the floor. He began to wonder: If this tiny thing could get into the flow of a mysterious resource and deal so creatively with its crisis, then why could not he do the same? His thinking changed as his circumstances had changed. He might not get his job back, but he would most certainly move inexorably forward to something better.
The philosopher Heraclitus said, “You can’t step into the same river twice.” From this illustration, Fred B. Chenault observed, “The river changes, and the person also changes . . . If the river stood still and failed to continue its course to the sea, it would become a menace to the health of the communities through which it passes. The fact that it moves continually is a sign of its healthful and life-giving waters. So it is with the physical, mental and spiritual life of humans. Futile inactivity is stagnation. Creative work and divine aspiration mean growth toward divine excellence.”
In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, a woman whose life sounds like one upheaval of change after another discovers one more change — finally for the better. Jesus offers her living water — a spring within her that would provide eternal life. She misunderstands at first, thinking that Jesus is offering some kind of magical water. In time she comes to know that He is the Savior of the world, offering the spiritual water of new life to all people. When she first met Jesus, she already had three strikes against her — her sex, her sex life, and her religion. Any one of these put her “out” of any contact whatsoever from a Jewish rabbi.
This Rabbi was different. The woman went to a well to draw water, and Jesus asked her for a drink. A rabbi would not normally speak to a strange woman in public, but thirst might create an exception. This woman, however, was a Samaritan and the typical rabbi would make no exceptions to the rules against drinking from a Samaritan’s cup. Her initial shock was compounded when she discovered that He also knew she had had five husbands and was living with a man now who was not her husband.
An initial reading of this story might make us think that her faith in Jesus came from the fact that He, seemingly in a miraculous manner, knew all about her. While that is certainly possible, I am convinced that her faith is born not out of His omniscience, but His mercy. It is not just that He knew all about her, but that, knowing, He still showed her compassion and acceptance. When she left Him, she was changed. Her old ways, perhaps old clothes and old shell of a life no longer fit. They would be discarded for the robe of forgiveness and righteousness that only Christ can give. Her response was to become a missionary. She ran and told others to come and meet the Messiah.
Jesus also knows all about us. He knew all about sin and sinners before He ever came to the world, but He came anyway. He knew His love and compassion and acceptance would be rejected, but He loved anyway. He knew that if we were to live, He would have to die; He died anyway. We who believe in Him are changed. Like the woman at the well, let us join in His mission. Let us tell others and invite them to come and also believe in the Savior of the world. Through His living water, He grants us forgiveness and eternal life. His body broken for us and His blood shed for us fill us to overflowing with new life. Lent is a great time to come to the Fountain of Life and drink deeply.