Wednesday, July 12, 2017

A Transformational Story

A Sermon Given to St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church
By Stephanie Little Coyne
July 9th, 2017



Before I went to seminary, I read the Bible in one of three settings: through traditional Bible Study, through Devotional Studies that focused mainly on life application with a side of scripture, or luckily, since I was the daughter of a wise high school English teacher, I read the Bible through a literary lens.
The latter reading style—outside of any experiential revelations—is what has kept me connected to this book, even when I wasn’t sure that the Bible contained any sort of everlasting truth. Whether she knows it or not, my mom gave me the gifts of Soul Freedom and Soul Competency way before I knew what they were…way before I knew I was a Baptist.
In addition to the personal connection this way of reading the Bible provided me, Mom also modeled, by her faith, some of the limitations to this formal literary criticism—there is a foundation of Truth in Biblical literature that must always be considered—the Bible, read by a Christian, is always seen in an authoritative way whereas other literature is not. Studying the language and the history and the culture are essential components of Bible study. Let’s call this combined critical form “Blessed Assurance.”
One of my first classes in seminary was Spiritual Formation, seemingly one of the hollow introductory classes that every beginning student must take. Instead, in learning about the many other ways to experience scripture, some of which drew upon my literary background, I began finding my niche among the Greek and Biblical scholar students with whom I shared classroom space. Criticism, myth, and study all had their place in the foundations of my theology, and I was learning in sacred and safe, albeit classroom space, that my reading lenses were valid! Historical criticism, the literary term for the ordinary world, was now the much holier, more sacred, (and more German,) “Sitz im Leben,” or “setting in life.”

Contextually, the Bible, especially the Old Testament, places the reader in a primeval part of history, where we know, of course, that things weren’t written down, they were spoken and then repeated. But consider this: if you lived in this part of history, everything you knew would’ve been told to you—you wouldn’t have learned anything by reading. So, anything that you might experience would be paralleled with stories passed down to you. And you would repeat your stories in light of those stories, and so on and so forth.
The meat of those stories would have to be good, else they would have been forgotten. And as they were passed down from generation to generation, those stories grew into legends and mythological-type layers of meaning might also have been added, just as other stories from these early eras of time.
If I sound like I might be setting you up for something, I am, but please don’t hear me say that the Bible is just a legend, regardless of how many times the stories are told; I believe that God remained in and with the stories as a gardener might maintain her soil, ensuring that life-sustaining nourishment would still exist, no matter how many times the garden was harvested.
In her book, Soul Feast, Marjorie Thompson writes:
Thomas Merton, the renowned twentieth-century Trappist monk,….said that in scripture we discover “the strange and paradoxical world of meanings and experiences that are beyond us and yet often extremely and mysteriously relevant to us.”
She continues:
If scripture truly has this character, we can expect to encounter the divine presence in its pages. It is not that the words magically or mechanically contain God’s presence but that, as we allow the same Spirit through which the scriptures were written to inform our listening, the presence of God in and beyond those words becomes alive for us once more.
I have recently wandered back into the reading of scripture through lectio divina, or “hearing the words of scripture with the eyes of your heart,” and today, I offer you three readings based in my combination “literary-myth-lectio divina” process.
I invite you to join along by jotting down the words and phrases and revelations that may speak to you today. I will ask a lot of questions and not give nearly as many answers—a perk of being a guest preacher—and I hope that you will revisit this passage on your own and discover some truths for yourself. Try and use this inter-textual study as a beginning to a personal devotional experience.
Believing that God’s Word is both active and valid, hear Rebekah’s story, from Genesis, chapter 24. We jump into this passage as Abraham’s servant is speaking with Rebekah’s brother Laban. Rebekah has just told Laban, after running to “her mother’s household,” about the servant, for whom she drew water from a well.
34 So he said, “I am Abraham’s servant. 35 The Lord has greatly blessed my master, and he has become wealthy; he has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and donkeys. 36 And Sarah, my master’s wife bore a son to my master when she was old; and he has given him all that he has. 37 My master made me swear, saying, ‘You shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose land I live; 38 but you shall go to my father’s house, to my kindred, and get a wife for my son.’ 39 I said to my master, ‘Perhaps the woman will not follow me.’ 40 But he said to me, ‘The Lord, before whom I walk, will send his angel with you and make your way successful. You shall get a wife for my son from my kindred, from my father’s house. 41 Then you will be free from my oath, when you come to my kindred; even if they will not give her to you, you will be free from my oath.’
42 “I came today to the spring, and said, ‘O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, if now you will only make successful the way I am going! 43 I am standing here by the spring of water; let the young woman who comes out to draw, to whom I shall say, “Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,” 44 and who will say to me, “Drink, and I will draw for your camels also”—let her be the woman whom the Lord has appointed for my master’s son.’
45 “Before I had finished speaking in my heart, there was Rebekah coming out with her water jar on her shoulder; and she went down to the spring, and drew. I said to her, ‘Please let me drink.’ 46 She quickly let down her jar from her shoulder, and said, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels.’ So I drank, and she also watered the camels. 47 Then I asked her, ‘Whose daughter are you?’ She said, ‘The daughter of Bethuel, Nahor’s son, whom Milcah bore to him.’ So I put the ring on her nose, and the bracelets on her arms. 48 Then I bowed my head and worshiped the Lord, and blessed the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who had led me by the right way to obtain the daughter of my master’s kinsman for his son. 49 Now then, if you will deal loyally and truly with my master, tell me; and if not, tell me, so that I may turn either to the right hand or to the left.”
50 Then Laban and Bethuel answered, “The thing comes from the Lord; we cannot speak to you anything bad or good. 51 Look, Rebekah is before you, take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son, as the Lord has spoken.”
52 When Abraham’s servant heard their words, he bowed himself to the ground before the Lord. 53 And the servant brought out jewelry of silver and of gold, and garments, and gave them to Rebekah; he also gave to her brother and to her mother costly ornaments. 54 Then he and the men who were with him ate and drank, and they spent the night there. When they rose in the morning, he said, “Send me back to my master.” 55 Her brother and her mother said, “Let the girl remain with us a while, at least ten days; after that she may go.” 56 But he said to them, “Do not delay me, since the Lord has made my journey successful; let me go that I may go to my master.” 57 They said, “We will call the girl, and ask her.” 58 And they called Rebekah, and said to her, “Will you go with this man?” She said, “I will.” 59 So they sent away their sister Rebekah and her nurse along with Abraham’s servant and his men. 60 And they blessed Rebekah and said to her,
“May you, our sister, become
    thousands of myriads;
may your offspring gain possession
    of the gates of their foes.”
61 Then Rebekah and her maids rose up, mounted the camels, and followed the man; thus the servant took Rebekah, and went his way.
62 Now Isaac had come from[a] Beer-lahai-roi, and was settled in the Negeb. 63 Isaac went out in the evening to walk[b] in the field; and looking up, he saw camels coming. 64 And Rebekah looked up, and when she saw Isaac, she slipped quickly from the camel, 65 and said to the servant, “Who is the man over there, walking in the field to meet us?” The servant said, “It is my master.” So she took her veil and covered herself. 66 And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. 67 Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.
We hear in the final verses the words “he loved her,” and “was comforted,” and they soften this passage that seems very transactional…or do they?
In the harshest reading, a woman is entrapped by her hospitality, “obtained” by jewelry placed on her arms and her nose—as though she were cattle. And then to mark the end of this transaction, she is bought with shiny, material goods—items which have no everlasting meaning, items which have no soul.
Rebekah, accompanied by her maids and her servants, sees the man to whom she has been sold, never-mind that he is her great-uncle!, never-mind that she was fetched by his servant! Rebekah lowers herself to Isaac from her high position on her camel and veils herself, finalizing her place on this hierarchical tier.
It’s an uncomfortable passage for those of us who have even slight feminist or liberation theology inklings. The movement of God’s blessing to the next generation gets a little lost amid this early form of arranged marriage—God-ordained arranged marriage.
Our modern bias against this patriarchal society guides us into the question: Could there have not been some other way, God, to preserve yourself in this family’s history?
Are there any Truths that we can draw from this passage despite our initial reading? Can we lean into the knowledge that, in these verses, we are able to read her name, to hear her name?—We know her name—Rebekah. Rebekah, by her being named, shifts our focus from the unnamed servant and his obedience to Rebekah, and hers.
What other questions shall we ponder; what are other lessons we can learn? Is God with us? Should God’s name be kept and honored? Is obedience a key part of our relationship with God?
Let’s read again, but through the lens of a different passage.
Exodus 2 & 3, read in light of Genesis 24:34-67
Moses fled Pharaoh, and found himself in Midian where he sat down by a well. The seven daughters of Jethro, including Zipporah, came to water their flock, but shepherds tried to drive them away. Moses came to their defense and watered their flock.
Moses, having come from Egypt, now settled in Midian, and was the keeper of the flock of Jethro. He led his flock beyond the wilderness to Horeb, the mountain of God. While walking around, Moses looked up and saw a flame of fire coming out of bush. Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Recognizing that the Lord was with him, and that he was standing on holy ground, Moses removed his sandals.
The Lord said, “I am who I am. I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Moses, you will go to Egypt and tell Pharaoh to let my people go. Moses, you will bring the Israelites out of Egypt to the promised land of the Cannanites—a land flowing with milk and honey—land given to you with my blessings
Moses was afraid and said to God, “perhaps they will not go with me.” The Lord said, “I will be with you.” I will bring this people into such favor with the Egyptians that, when you go, you will not go empty-handed. Each woman shall ask her neighbors for jewelry of silver and of gold, and clothing, and you shall put them on your sons and on your daughters.
Moses went to Jethro and said to him all these things. And Jethro said, “Go in peace.”

The story of Moses and the Israelites is full of legendary events and language, right? A bush ablaze—a speaking bush ablaze…that was not being consumed—a rod that turns into a snake, water that turns into blood, and a God who is comforting in one sentence and quick to anger in the next. Moses’ story in Exodus builds suspense with each event; the reading pace becomes quicker with each plague. The movement shifts us, the readers, from the transactional nature of Rebekah’s story to the transitional process of the Israelites move out of oppressive Egypt—from bondage to liberation.
As we place the two stories of Rebekah and Moses beside each other, it’s easy to see some of the themes on the variation. Instead of a female drawing water, Moses steps in for Jethro’s daughters and serves them and their flock. Moses meets his future wife at the well just as Rebekah meets her husband, Isaac, at a well. (Which is also the well where Hagar and Ishmael are blessed and saved by God.) God answers the prayer of Abraham’s servant when he meets Rebekah at a well.
Moses and the servant are both strangers traveling in God’s land. Moses experiences God as Rebekah experiences Isaac. Moses understands that the Lord is near and therefore obediently removes his sandals. Rebekah sees Isaac and veils herself, knowing that she is to be an obedient part of this, God’s plan.
Rebekah and Moses travel from their homelands to Canaan. (At the end of the stories, Rebekah ventures far from her homeland into Abraham’s God-given land, Canaan. Moses moves from Midian to Egypt to the wilderness, and then on towards Canaan, the hope-filled land flowing with milk and honey.)
Both passages identify God as the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob which binds God to human and human to God through a very patriarchal genealogy.

Let’s read the passage one more time, through the lens of one more passage.
John 2, 4; Matthew 1, 2
And Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” The woman had come to draw water from the well of Jacob (they were in the land that Jacob, son of Rebekah and Isaac, had given to his son Joseph.) She looked at Jesus and said, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” 
“Woman, I can bless you with living water.”
“Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob? This is his well, his sons and his flocks drank from it.”
“Woman, I can bless you with living water. Water that will quench your thirst forevermore.”
“Sir,” (the woman called him ‘Sir,’) because she was not able to recognize him or else Jesus did not reveal himself to her, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” She was not about to tell this Jewish stranger that she wasn’t living according to the Law. She was not about to reveal herself to him.
But Jesus already knew. Who was he? A prophet? She asserted, “you may be a prophet, but the Messiah will proclaim to us the truth.”
“Perhaps you will hear me, perhaps you will follow me, perhaps you will believe me when I tell you that I am he. But know this: God seeks Jews and Gentiles to worship him.”
The woman left her water jar and returned to the city to spread word about Jesus. “I went to Jacob’s well today and there, I think I met the Lord. He told me of a living water which sounds greater than silver and gold and jewels.”
Jesus did not depart immediately because he was invited to stay; he stayed with the Samaritans for two days and they believed and they said, “We know that this man is truly the Savior of the world.”
We meet at a well again, a familiar site for our previous betrothed couples Rebekah and Isaac, and Moses and Zipporah. What can we make of Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well? What answers can we offer her, for us? What do we know of Jesus?
Jesus makes use of allegory! He is the source of this living water, he is baptized in water, he is later known to convert water and to walk on water.
He is both the bride and the bridegroom, given costly presents of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and he is anointed by costly perfume. (Reference also John 2.)
Jesus’ ancestors are given to us through a more inclusive family tree. Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph, of David and Uriah, of Boaz and Ruth, of Salmon and Rahab, of Jacob and Leah, of Isaac and Rebekah, of Abraham and Sarah.
In addition to breaking free from a patriarchal genealogy, Jesus also breaks free from cultural restrictions. His interaction with this woman—who was not un-married, who was not a virgin, who was not without sin, who was not obedient—pushes aside pre-arranged transactions. It pushes aside the boundaries of male and female interaction and the boundaries of prejudice.
It pushes us into another transition between the relationship of human and God from bondage, to liberation, to reconciliation. The woman was pretty determined to question Jesus and defer questions from herself. She was determined to not follow this stranger! But Jesus was determined too. If she would not follow, Jesus would pursue. Whereas she was not willing to reveal her identity, Jesus was willing to identify himself to her. (She is the first to know in the Gospel of John that he is the Messiah.)
This interaction is transformational! And it is transformational for far more people than just the woman and the people of her city.
In this story, two groups come together in the end—the woman and her community of Samaritans and Jesus and his Jewish disciples. What a unifying picture. What a picture of the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven!
Rebekah, we are thankful for your part in this story. Though we may struggle to understand why you needed to be brought into this line through transaction, we consider that it might be us who struggle to understand that we too have been bought! We thankfully are wed to the God of everlasting love!
Moses, we are thankful that your part of this story represents transition and liberation for us. We are thankful that your time in the wilderness echoes or own times of wandering.
Jesus, we are thankful that you meet us at the well. We do not always welcome your questions of us, for we’d rather not reveal all that we are to you. Still, you pursue us until we are able to see that you are our Messiah.
Believing that God’s word is personal and active and transformational, listen to the divine voice and rest with it a while.
Amen.

Resources:
The Word of Life Bible
Dockery, David. “Reading John 4:1-45: Some Diverse Hermeneutical Perspectives.” Criswell Theological Review, 1988. 127-140.
Duke, Paul. Irony in the Fourth Gospel. Atlanta: John Knox, 1985.
Foster, Steven and Meredith Little. The Vision Quest: Personal Transformation in the Wilderness. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011.
Thompson, Marjorie. Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life. Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, 2015.

Prayers of the People:

Oh Lord,
For the stranger, for the traveler, we hear you say:
Come to me, ye who are burdened, and I will give you rest.
For those who are pained with illness, we hear you say:
            Come to me, ye who are burdened, and I will give you rest.
For those who need to see light, we hear you say:
            Come to me, ye who are burdened, and I will give you rest.
For those who are weighed down with the division in our world, we hear you say:
            Come to me, ye who are burdened, and I will give you rest.
For those who feel unwelcomed because of their beliefs, whatever they may be, we hear you say:
            Come to me, ye who are burdened, and I will give you rest.
For those who are isolated in their grief, we hear you say,
            Come to me, ye who are burdened, and I will give you rest.
We are eager to be children in your sight, welcomed closely into your presence and filled with the hope of your love.
Amen.