Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
March 19, 2107 (3rd Sunday in Lent)
“The Old, Old Story of Jesus and His Love”
John 4: 5-42
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City
If that just felt like an incredibly long reading, you are right. It is the longest conversation Jesus had with anyone in all the gospels.
There is something we dare not lose sight of in this lengthy conversation. Jesus took the time to speak with another person—not in mindless chatter, but in-depth dialog, the kind where you get to know one another deeply. I hope you paid attention and didn’t get bored.
I am often struck by conversations I have with people and am unnerved by their lack of curiosity. When meeting people for the first time—often clergy colleagues—I will ask where they grew up, where they went to college and seminary, what congregations they have served, what their families are like. They are more than happy to talk about themselves, at length, with considerable embellishment! I am often saddened, however, when it is my turn to tell my story; their minds seem to wander and they don’t appear to care an iota about hearing my story; they don’t ask me a single question. And remember, these are pastors paid to listen carefully to others!
I confess: I am not always the best listener either. On Thursday, I had a conversation with our illustrious congregational president Craig Wilson. He showed considerable interest in me: are you working too much, pastor; I hear your dog Cisco is having some struggles. I talked Craig’s ear off. He had just gotten often a long night’s work, writing news; he was driving home when he received word that his wife, Mary Lou, had been in an automobile accident; he was rushing to see how she was doing. Craig even told me about his dogs and chuckled about the prayer near my office desk—the last gift my mother gave me before she died: “God, help me be the person my dog thinks I am.” When our conversation was over, I kept wondering: had I shown nearly the interest in Craig that he had shown in me? Had I listened as much as I had spoken?
In today’s long gospel reading, a model conversation is heard. Jesus was thirsty and the woman at the well sensed that. We don’t just hear Jesus talking AT the Samaritan woman or just trying to get his thirst needs met and we don’t just hear the woman talking AT Jesus. Instead, an amazing dialog occurred: Jesus listened attentively to the woman and, somehow in the process, figured out that she had had five husbands—I assume Jesus did this, not by some magical gift of ESP, but rather by listening carefully. The woman was so astounded by Jesus’ listening skills that she told others, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”
What is most remarkable is that Jesus even had the conversation. Not only did he talk to the woman, at the well, at noon—something a good Jewish man would never be caught doing—but he talked with a woman who, at least according to his tradition, was a religious outsider (a Samaritan) and had innumerable husbands. Every religious sensibility exhorted Jesus to steer clear; instead he risked breaking down rigid boundaries and moving beyond ancient resentments so that a community of love might be created. Jesus accomplished astonishing ministry simply by talking with—and not AT—another person, telling his story and listening to hers.
If our community here at Holy Trinity is to bring life to others, we need to listen to one another as Jesus did. We need to tell our own stories and be equally fascinated by other’s.
And yet, there is something more to high-quality conversation. It is essential we weave God’s story into one another’s stories because, finally, that story will make all the difference. That story provides hope for those haunted by abuse, embraces a parent who fears their precious little one will never return home again, and gives courage to those who wonder if our nation will continue to be one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. God’s story must be told.
Little children know this. As we tuck them into bed, they almost always say, “Can you tell me one more story? Please, please, please.” That final story is the one that makes all the difference; it is the one that fends off ghosts, petrifies goblins, and trounces monsters all the while providing hope well into the deep, dark night.
Lent is an opportunity to hear and tell that story with renewed vigor. I pray you are reading our fabulous Lenten devotional booklet, “O Lord, Throughout These Forty Days”—you wrote it after all! As you read the astonishing daily devotions, listen carefully to your brothers and sisters telling their stories and listen how they weave their stories into the story of Jesus’ final days.
I sense that many of us are yearning for a better story these days, a story of hope, a story of truth, a story of lasting love. You lamented to me in recent days: “I am fasting from Facebook during Lent; we canceled cable television; I stopped my subscription to The New Yorker. So much conversation and yet I need something different.” You are sensing you need a better story to go with your story and the world’s; you are desperately in need of God’s story.
The great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to American in the 1930s and taught just up the street at Union Theological Seminary at 120th and Broadway. Bonhoeffer preferred attending the African American churches in Harlem, particularly Abyssinian Baptist Church where the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. preached at the time and where Calvin Butts now preaches. He went there because, as he wrote: “In New York, they preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life.”
It’s easy to ramble on about ourselves. It’s also easy to run on and on, complaining, “Ain’t it terrible,” about the current political situation. But, deep down, we need more. We are thirsty for one more story, the one that will quench our horrendous thirst. We need the old, old story of Jesus and his love for us and for our groaning world.