Psalm 137: 1-4; John 4: 5-30)
A conversation. That’s where it all began. That’s where it usually begins, right? From the very first moment of creation, we were made to be in communion with one other. Relational beings. Our very survival as a species depends on our ability to have conversations.
For the woman and Jesus in our scripture today, their conversation began at a well – a conversation about thirst and water and living water. For Greg and me, water also played a part in our conversations, but it was a much different kind of well we gathered around. A swimming pool.
I reached out to Greg, my friend from Mount Airy, last fall. So I’m thinking of doing a sermon series next year on the conversations you and I had, you remember them. I hope you’re okay with that. I was grateful when he said he was. Because the conversations Greg and I had are conversations that I believe the church today absolutely must have. Honest conversations about faith and church and belief and skepticism and loss and doubt. And the journey that all of those things leads us on.
That’s why today I’m beginning a four-week Lenten sermon series simply titled, “Conversations with Greg,” each week bringing you in on one of the many conversations we had at that swimming pool. But before I do that, I’d be betraying my southern rearing if I did not properly introduce you to him.
So Trinity, meet Greg. Greg was in his mid 30’s when we met around three years ago, having moved to Mount Airy to be the swim team coach for our town’s year-round swim team. We immediately connected over our swim coaching ties – I had been a swim coach on and off for decades. We also shared a mutual desire to find a good workout partner. And so three times a week, Greg and I hit the pool for an hour, swimming 2000, 3000 yards, pretty much doing that until the family and I moved out of town and came here.
Now I enjoyed the workouts with Greg and the manner in which my waistline shrunk. But I enjoyed our conversations more. As I got to know him, I realized that Greg fell into the ever-growing segment of American society – 20%, one in five of us – known as the “NONES.” Not a Catholic nun, but an “N-O-N-E.” Those who, on all those demographic studies and surveys, down in the “religious preference” section, those who bypass the boxes labeled “Christian” or “Jewish” or “Muslim” or Buddhist” or whatever, and simply check at the very bottom the box marked “None.” No religious affiliation, no church membership or house of worship.
Greg knew I was a minister, of course; and I guess that’s what got the conversation started in the first place. My parents raised me Catholic, he volunteered one day, but it never quite took. When I left home, I just kind of slipped away from church. Or maybe, church slipped away from me. I’m not sure. Anyway, I don’t have anything against church. I know there are good ones and bad ones. To be honest, I’m not even sure I believe in God anymore – at least, the God that’s been described to me. I hope you’re not offended by that. I assured him I wasn’t.
And so during our workouts we engaged in a little a ritual of sorts, a ritual that took a six-lane pool and transformed it into sacred ground. We’d swim one of our sets, and then we’d stop at the wall for a few minutes rest. And while I was in my lane, hunched over and sucking in oxygen as fast as I could, Greg, in his lane and breathing normally, would offer up a thought – some personal observation about faith, or God, or church. Right there in the swimming pool. Never judgmental, never off-putting. Just a thought. And I found what he shared to be incredibly profound. Because it was honest. Because it was real. And I didn’t’ get offended, because – and I think this is so important – because we were friends first. I knew him and he knew me. And that meant we could talk about the tough things. Like I said – sacred ground.
So over the next four weeks, I want to share with you some of the conversations Greg and I had, conversations that are not Greg’s alone but are happening all around us in lots of different places with lots of different people. One in five, y’all. And as we do this, I want to be clear about something: this sermon series is not about how we can convert the Nones to Christianity, nor is it about how we get the Nones to become members of our church. My hope in bringing you in on these conversations is that, together, we might discover new ways to minister to and with those who are “spiritual-but-not-religious;” those who struggle with what they believe and struggle with the church. And that we do this while acknowledging that, if we are honest with ourselves, in some way and to some degree, we struggle with those very same things too.
Like one of the very first conversations we had. Greg was telling me about a church he’d visited recently. Not the one I was pastoring at the time, mind you! Walked in the door, Steve, and sat right down. The worship service got started. The minister stood up there, said his thing. The people said theirs. Someone started playing an organ and people started singing. And you know what I thought to myself, Steve? He didn’t let me answer. I’ll tell you what I thought. I thought: You Lost Me. Five minutes in, and you lost me.
I asked Greg what it was that made that church “lose him.” Was it the music or the worship service? Was it something someone said? Greg told me – and I thought this was rather astute thinking – he told me it wasn’t a what, it was more a how. That worship service felt like more of a show to him, more performance. And the people? They were either oblivious to him, or so into him it was obvious he was nothing more than another digit on the Sunday attendance tally; another potential pledge card. Not authentic, not real. At least not for him.
You lost me, five minutes in. You know, if I had let my defensiveness kick in, I could’ve easily blamed the shortened attention span caused by our high-tech, multitasking society. Or I could’ve lifted up the prevalent belief that young people today are not looking for things of deep substance and meaning, preferring the plastic and processed over the tried and true.
The thing is, all the studies out there are showing the exact opposite to be the case. The swarms of Gen X’ers and Millennials – those in their 40’s and younger – they are desperately searching for sustained, deeper meaning. They are frustrated by rituals done simply for the sake of ritual, going through the motions. They crave authenticity and genuineness. Something real.
And I guess that’s why I thought about today’s scripture when Greg and I had this conversation. Jesus and the woman at the well. You know, on one hand, it’s kind of amazing that such a simple scene – two people hanging out at the literal local watering hole – that this scene would garner an entire gospel’s chapter. And yet, very little about this scene is simple. It is complicated and nuanced. It is a man and a woman – and there were major first century Palestinian cultural barriers there. Even more: he was a Jew, she a Samaritan. A line that was never crossed!
It is a strange and foreign land these two find themselves in. And that’s a theme that pops up all over the Biblical story. Our Psalm reading chronicles the most unsettling period of the Israelite’s history, when their entire nation was taken from their homeland Jerusalem and forced to live in the strange and foreign city of Babylon. The Psalmist paints a poignant and heart-wrenching picture – of musical instruments hanging in trees and people who cannot bear to use them and sing songs of old:
Alongside Babylon’s rivers, we sat on the banks
and cried and cried, remembering the good old days.
Alongside the quaking aspens, we stacked up our unplayed harps.
That’s where our captors demanded songs, sarcastic and mocking:
Sing us a happy song!
Oh, how could we ever sing God’s song in this wasteland?
Do you hear the anguish? Do you feel the depth of their pain? These are not just laments of a displaced nation. No, these are the cries of a people who have no idea how they fit into the strange world they now find themselves in. They can’t even sing their songs anymore. I mean, the harps are right there in the trees – they could get them down if they wanted to. Thing is, they’re the ones who put them there. It hurts too much to sing their songs, because they remind them of everything they have lost.
Here’s another image. Back in 1924, a walk down the streets of downtown Chicago revealed that the unquestioned tallest building in the city was the First Methodist Church, with its steeple reaching 568 feet into the sky. The height of the steeple was no accident – the way it overlooked the city was a symbol of sorts of the church’s elevated and revered status throughout the town – and not just that particular church, but church in general.
Today, Chicago boasts three of the tallest buildings in the world – none of which are the First Methodist Church. Not even close. The church is barely noticeable in the city’s skyline. And not by accident, perhaps, the church in general has lost the power and influence it once enjoyed, dwarfed by the corporate and business world that surrounds it. The church used to keep a watchful eye over the goings-on of the city, but now, it could be said that the city keeps a watchful eye over the church.
Exile. Displacement. It’s a strange and foreign land we are living in. And it’s oh-so-tempting to just hang our harps up in the trees.
I bring all of this up for a reason: as our church and other communities of faith wrestle with what to do with the one-in-five Nones – realizing, by the way, that those odds alone mean we’re not talking just about people “out there” but very much “in here” too – as we wrestle with that, I think it’s critical that we acknowledge our own loss and displacement as the church. Because when we do that, when we realize that change is not coming but already has come, then I think we find ourselves in a better place to really hear and converse with the Gregs among us.
Which is why I love this story about Jesus and the woman at the well. There was so much about this scene that was “strange and foreign.” And yet – and yet, look at what happens. What does Jesus do? He crosses those male/female, Jew/Samaritan dividing lines, simply by doing what? Starting a conversation. The very thing we are created to do. And when he does that, something profound happens. It is thirst for water that brought both of them to the well that day; the dry and dusty Mediterranean climate. And yet, with just a few back-and-forths, their conversation morphs into a whole different kind of thirst – a thirst for living water; sustained, deeper meaning. And in the end, the woman leaves her water jar – just leaves it! – and goes to tell her friends about this Jesus and the conversation the two of them had.
I love that she leaves the jar there! It’s not serving its purpose anymore. There are more important thirsts to quench. Makes me wonder what could happen if we in the church learn to do the same thing – leave behind those things that don’t serve their purpose anymore, and turn instead to deeper waters. I wonder what it might be like if we strive to emulate Jesus and just have a conversation. Take the initiative. Engage someone and cross the lines of division we so eagerly draw. Meeting people where they are rather than demanding that they come to us; listening to their thoughts and ideas instead of telling them that this is the way it’s always been and this is how it needs to be done.
See, I have an iron-clad belief, my friends; one that’s more of a “gut thing” than something backed up by empirical evidence. It’s a belief you’re going to hear me repeat a lot over the next four weeks, so you probably should get used to hearing it.
It is this: the “Nones” in our world today want very much for the church to get it right. To be the church. Because they are looking for exactly what we are – or what we should be.
They are looking for lasting connections – in a world where everything swirling around them is plastic, counterfeit, processed.
They are looking for something with deep meaning and purpose – in a culture that seems to be in a race for the highest level of nihilism.
They are looking to be part of something bigger than themselves – the days of the “me” generation are gone.
They want church. The question is: are we being church for them? For us? Are we a place where people of all kinds can find deeper meaning, where they can connect, where they can be part of something bigger than themselves? Is that who we are? And if not – why in the world aren’t we?
You lost me, five minutes in. I heard Greg’s statement in the pool that morning not as judgment, not as castigation, but as a plea. A plea for the church to do what is already in our DNA, because it began with Jesus – and it was he who took us to a place of deeper meaning and invited us all to become part of the building of God’s kingdom on earth together
For that woman at the well, for Greg, for all of us, it begins with a conversation. And God only knows where it will take us. Let’s check it out together, shall we? In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
 Psalm 137: 1-4, The Message.