Thursday, March 14, 2013

Watermarks: Faith Conversations (John 4:1-14)

Today in our Lenten series we explore a third Watermark, a third basic faith practice that draws on the promises made by God in our baptisms that enrich our lives as children of God. The first week we focused on Bible study, and two weeks ago the Watermark we discussed was prayer and the ways it forms faith of a Christian. In one simplified view, we could say that Bible Study is like God’s conversation with us. Revealed in Scripture, the living God speaks to us through his Word that we may grow deeper in our understanding of his Son, Jesus. Prayer, by comparison, is our conversation with God. As we pray, our hearts and minds become open to express our thanksgiving, awe, and confession in words that are spoken by the power of the Holy Spirit. Today’s Watermark, faith conversations, focuses on the dialogues between us, the children of God. Faith in God becomes even fuller and stronger as we take the conversation that goes on between God and us and begin to share it with one another. But how does that happen? What does that look like, especially if you’re Lutheran and typically keep that kind of stuff to yourself?

About two years ago I had to travel to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to attend a training and orientation session for the servant trip our youth group was going to make there later that summer. The orientation was run by the mission organization that was setting up the service experiences for our youth—things like building handicap ramps and putting new roofs on small houses. At this orientation I was surrounded by youth groups and leaders from different denominations. In fact, I was the sole Lutheran, and Epiphany was the only Lutheran youth group signed up that summer. I learned that the organization itself, although it served all kinds of youth groups who wished to do mission projects, had deep Southern Baptist roots. I also learned that while Epiphany was going to be performing construction projects for our mission work, all of the other groups were registered for trips where they would be directly interacting with people on the beach or in strip malls and sharing the gospel through conversations. After we devoted a whopping 10 minutes to the particular details of our work duties, we then spent the rest of the orientation listening to presentations on how to finesse methods of approaching total strangers and begin having cold conversations about Jesus and faith.

Now, I don’t know how you would have reacted, but I sat there in that room, I thought, “Well, this is interesting, but…nope. I think I’d rather build ten handicap ramps than have to talk to someone about my faith.” It’s a stereotype, perhaps, but we Lutherans prefer to share our faith with our hands, not out mouths. For example, we make quilts or distribute food to the hungry, or clean up after a hurricane. We write checks, raise foster children, we build houses. To be sure, there is absolutely nothing wrong in such an approach to sharing one’s faith. These real, concrete expressions of God’s love in Jesus are the things we’re compelled to do because of what we know Jesus is alive and doing in the world. Yet, at the same time, we could all be challenged—not just our Baptist brothers and sisters—to finesse our ability in conversation and dialogue to draw attention in to the faith that helps us build those handicap ramps. The occasional voiced connection between belief and action is important both for deepening our own faith and passing it down to future generations.

Is your family, for example, diligent about recycling? Do you explain your practice because the world’s energy problems are leading to global warming and future generations will be doomed?  Or do ever mention something about God’s call to be good stewards of creation?

The mention of Jesus or God or church does not always need to be so explicit, so in-your-face, nor do Scripture verses need to be constantly quoted or referenced. However, it is probably easier than we realize to let a foundational understanding of God’s grace inform many of the conversations we have, to let a perspective of faith and hope in Christ shed light on many things we do and say. If not, we run the risk of sending the message that faith is purely private, something almost to be ashamed of, a light to be hid under a bushel.

Annibale Carracci "The Samaritan Woman at the Well" (16th c.)
Sometimes we just need the right entrée, the right setting for these kind of conversations to occur. One of the aspects of this scene between Jesus and the Samaritan woman that has always stood out to me is their location. In Jesus’ day, wells were not only public spaces, but gathering places where people—usually women—congregated to draw water for their families and livestock. People would rest at wells and spend time catching up on local news and share community concerns. While, as a Jewish male, Jesus’ approach of a foreign woman during the middle of the day would have crossed many social boundaries of the time—certainly a very eyebrow-raising entrée—the fact that he uses a well-known but welcoming public space to begin a conversation is significant. The well in this story, of course, becomes not just a location, but a metaphor for the living water that Jesus brings, but the point remains that in Jesus, God finds ordinary occasions to enter our lives. We don’t need to limit our faith conversations to places like the sanctuary or even the church parking lot. Home, work, and school include many different “well” occasions where Jesus can drop by, often incognito.

What are those “wells” in your life? Where might it be easy for you to strike up conversations with your loved ones or close friends—and maybe even strangers—that could deepen relationships and appreciations for each other’s perspectives? Just before bedtime? The weekly card game with your buddies? The gym?

As a child, I remember the car was one place where conversations happened. We were often taking trips every summer that involved long stretches on the highway. Sometimes we would read or listen to the radio. Once Walkmans became affordable, my sister and I would listen to tapes and CDs. However, every once in a while, books would be put down and the music would be turned off and we would just talk. This happens to be precisely why I discourage iPods and personal music listening devices on youth group trips. They significantly impede conversations and sharing.

I distinctly remember one occasion when we were in the car as a family returning from church. My parents were in the front seat and my sister and I were in the back. As we pulled out of the parking lot, I tuned into what my parents were saying and realized they were discussing the day’s sermon and what the pastor had said. I figure I was only eight or nine years old at the time, but I to this day I still remember exactly what they talked about and how they commented on the structure and content of the sermon. I hadn’t even listened to the sermon, but I eagerly eavesdropped on my parents’ discussion of it. It wasn’t an in-your-face faith conversation, per se, and they didn’t really get into a debate, as I remember, but it did make a mark on me—a Watermark, if you will—that my parents were listening and taking home something they’d heard. That day I realized Jesus could show up just as easily in my dad’s blue Buick as he could at the altar and pulpit in worship…or by a well in Samaria.

It goes without saying that faith conversations don’t need to be so overtly about faith. Relationships, identity, and character can be built and strengthened whenever meaningful conversations can occur, when people are allowed to scratch beneath the surface of superficial interactions. The point is to seize those opportunities when you can, especially when the pressures and schedules of life in this age make us feel as if we’re bouncing off once another, always moving in opposite directions. Family and youth ministry experts Paul Hill and David Anderson have uncovered research showing one of the few common denominators among National Merit Scholars is that they tended to come from families that ate dinner together.[1] I imagine learning the nuances of a faithful discipleship could be the same. The high school Sunday School class here at Epiphany regularly begins by going around the circle and giving each student the chance to rate their week. I know some families in the congregation find some point during the evening simply to share highs and lows. They may sound like simple, ordinary entrées, but isn’t that the type of place we should expect Jesus to show up? I can say from experience that you never know how deep some of those conversations might actually go. All these are all examples of what Martin Luther termed “the mutual conversation and consolation among the brethren [and sistren,]”[2] ways through which the power of the gospel heals and restores the soul and human relationship.

That day at the well in Samaria, Jesus reveals his identity incrementally. Only as their dialogue continues do they reach deeper levels of understanding and authenticity. By the end, she has rushed off to city to share with others in their traditional networks of communication and gossip what she has learned about the visitor at the well. Conversations about God’s love in Christ and his activity in our world may take many forms. But one thing is for certain: this faith that we’ve been given is something to be shared. You have drunk from his gracious well, and been claimed in the conversation between God and creation through the waters of baptism. A hammer and nail on a youth service trip, a needle, thread, and donated fabric pieces on quilt-making day…these things certainly leave a mark of God’s kingdom in the world. But so do the words of the faithful…so do the words of people just like you…maybe every once in a while wielded like a hammer at the appropriate moment, but also woven delicately like one of those quilt threads through the heart of any conversation.

Give us, Lord, the courage to do it.


Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] David W. Anderson and Paul Hill. Frogs Without Legs Can’t Hear Augsburg Fortress, 2003. p 119.
[2] Martin Luther. The Book of Concord, “Smalcald Articles” Part III, Article IV

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