Dare We Hope

“Dare We Hope”

Ex 17: 1-7 and John 4: 5-42

This past Friday, I was glad to attend our denomination’s Compassion, Peace and Justice Training Day. I saw many familiar faces – familiar to me from my work within the denomination, and familiar to this congregation, too. The opening worship was led by J Herbert Nelson, who confirmed that he would be preaching at Western and leading the Free Inquiry class in the fall. Jim Atwood sends his hello. He and Roxana plan to worship with us the Sunday after Easter. It was a good day. Morning worship was followed by a panel discussion on peaceful alternatives in situations of violence. Then I attended a workshop led by an Ecumenical Accompanier about his experience in the Accompaniment Program in Israel & Palestine. Jim Atwood was the keynote during lunch and all 200 or so of us held on to his every word about the epidemic of gun violence in our nation.

It was the first workshop after lunch that offered me food for thought for today. Four Presbyterian women led a panel discussion on individual and structural violence against women. We heard about the Presbyterian Church’s response around the world. And we were given a charge for how each of us must participate in ending injustices against women.

One story stood out in the context of our gospel lesson from John. Shannon Beck, from the Presbyterian Church office of World Mission in Louisville, told the story of a Congolese woman who had been thrown out of her home after her husband’s death. Apparently, in many households in the Congo, when a husband dies (regardless of the circumstances) the wife is said to’ve caused his death. The dead man’s family – often poor and in need of anything they can get – pillage the marital home and leave the woman out on the streets to fend for herself. It’s called the “widow ritual.” The widow ritual is a culturally accepted norm that emboldens in-laws to chase  widow and her children away – stripping them of everything, calling them witches.

Today, Christina, the woman whose story Shannon shared, is a Presbyterian pastor and the vice president of the Department for Women and Families of the Presbyterian Community in Congo. She is a mission co-worker who stands up for what she calls widowhood rights. Christina is helping to educate the men and women of the Congo so that women, especially, understand their Constitutional and family rights – encouraging them to register their marriages with the courts and not simply with the community, and making sure that they receive birth certificates for their children. With these court-issued documents in hand, they are home free, so to speak because the community culture is not above the law.

The conversation in our workshop quickly segued to an explanation of CEDAW – the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. CEDAW, adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly, is described on the UN website as an international bill of rights for women that defines what constitutes discrimination against women and sets up an agenda for national action to end such discrimination[1]. Interestingly, the US is one of only 7 countries of the 193 members of the UN that have not ratified CEDAW. We hold company with Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Iran, Palua and Tonga. There you go. Lisa Baldez, associate professor of government at Dartmouth, says that the US has “dropped the ball.”[2]

But whether or not the US has dropped the ball, we can count on Jesus to pick it up, offering transcendent, eternal hope. You see, our Samaritan woman didn’t stand a chance, either. We believe that she’d been the victim of structural, gender discrimination her whole life. According to Levirate law, after the death of her first husband, she would’ve been handed from brother to brother (who knows what happened to each of these men along the way. Jesus doesn’t say a word about this and neither does she.). She would’ve had no say in the matter of where she’d live (or with whom). And after exhausting all possibilities for marriage through her now-deceased husband’s family, she would have found herself with no resources of her own, nor any means for taking care of herself.  Ultimately considered to be damaged goods, the Samaritan woman would’ve had no resort but to attach herself to a man who was already spoken for in order to survive. It’s this kind of culturally supported injustice toward women that would’ve left her mouth-agape before Jesus, thirsty for the taste of hope he was serving.

Just like Jesus had a gushing stream of hope for the woman at the well that day, Jesus is standing ready with an outpouring of salvation for all of the world’s oppressed. Scripture tells us that Jesus saves men and women and children who are in any way hurting, or feeling devalued or outside the bounds of justice, bringing healing to those who ask and those who don’t even know what to do next. We know this through scripture that informs with the elegance and efficiency of one Greek word that is used in each of these stories of healing that just as Jesus used his power to heal our bodies he was also using his power to save our souls.

Think of the story of the hemorrhaging woman found in Mark 12. She had been suffering for 12 years. She determined, “If only I touch his clothes, I will be made well.” As the woman moved through the crowd toward Jesus, her hemorrhaging stopped.  Jesus, feeling that power had gone out from him, asked the crowd who had touched him.  Fearfully, the woman came forward. Jesus said to the double-outcast, “Your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed.” Here. Have some living water. You will never be thirsty again.

Then what about the familiar story of Jesus walking on the water found in Matthew 14. One evening, the disciples were out on the sea. They drifted farther and farther out from land. In the morning, Jesus saw their boat and began to walk across the water toward them. The disciples thought that they were seeing a ghost! “Lord, if it is you,” shouted Peter, “command me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” Jesus called back. When Peter began to walk on the water toward Jesus, he became frightened and began to sink. “Lord!  Save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him. Jesus saves the frightened and skeptical. Here. Have some living water. You will never be thirsty again.

There’s the story from Luke 7, when a Centurion approached Jesus out of concern for his very sick slave. Wouldn’t Jesus please come to his house to save him? When Jesus neared the house, the Centurion sent word to him that he didn’t feel worthy for Jesus to come any further. But, the Centurion said, “Only speak the word, and let my servant be healed…When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him and said, “…Not even in all of Israel have I found such faith.”” When they all returned to the Centurion’s house, they found the slave in good health. Even through the faith of the “other,” Jesus saves the one who would be believed to be outside the bounds of the common leaders’ understanding of worthy. Here. Have some living water. You will never be thirsty again.

Then, again in Mark 2, we remember the story of the paralytic man who was healed after four men lowered him through the roof of a room to where Jesus was speaking. When Jesus saw the faith of the four men, he said to the paralytic, “your sins are forgiven…Take up your mat and walk.” Jesus stops everything to save the disabled. Here. Have some living water. You will never be thirsty again.

Finally for now, in the gospel of John 11, we learn about a man named Lazarus. When we are first introduced to Lazarus he is sick. His two sisters, Mary and Martha, sent word to Jesus to come heal their brother but before Jesus could arrive, Lazarus died. When Jesus arrived, he approached the tomb in which Lazarus had been laying for four days. Jesus said, “Come out!” and Lazarus walked out of the tomb, raised from the dead. Jesus calls out to those who are all but forgotten – those outcast for so long that their bodies have begun to stink – and raises them to new heights for all the world to see. Here. Have some living water. You will never be thirsty again.

In each of these stories, we find people in compromised, unjust and oppressed life circumstances: the simple weak in spirit, the doubly outcast sick woman, the foreigner, the slave, the physically disabled, the dispirited one left for dead. In each of these stories like the one of the Samaritan woman the scope of Jesus’ healing power was broader than one could have ever imagined. Through these stories and more that you and I have come to know in our own life experience, Jesus offers us hope.

There are whole populations of people out there who actually believe that they are unworthy of salvation. Maybe it’s due to a choice they made or one that was not theirs to make at all. Maybe it’s from a medical condition, or a psychological or emotional one. Maybe we don’t know how to ask. Maybe we don’t know how to receive. Maybe we fear that we have to pray a certain way that we just can’t get our hearts around.

As we consider our own life circumstances, the situations of some nearby and the situations others far from our small little worlds who are feeling themselves to be one hundred feet away from hope –those of us who are living in oppressed situations, those of us who are victims of unjust systems, those of us who are living in their own minds filled with fear, as we continue on our Lenten journey of reflection on the life of Christ, let us be inspired by Jesus Christ who is a transcendent truth with the very imminent desire to affirm the value of every human being and save each of our souls from all that ails us. Let us each drink from the deep wellspring of hope that Jesus communicates is free for us all. One by one, as a body – as a church – let us take this cup overflowing with salvation to everyone we meet. Dare we hope that all the world be saved?[3] We should pray for it! We bear witness to a Christ who lived and died and was saved for the world!

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/cedaw.htm

[2] http://www.cnn.com/2013/03/08/opinion/baldez-womens-equality-treaty/

[3] Reference von Balthazar’s Dare We Hope? or Karl Barth’s Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans for more insight on this subject