"The Cost Of Discipleship"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 3/7/1999
Exodus 17:1-7; John 4:5-14
He said to her, "If only you knew what God gives. The water that I give will cause you never to thirst again. The water that I give will become a spring that will provide you with the life-giving water of eternal life." How would you have reacted to such words coming from a stranger?
Lent offers us the opportunity to examine in depth the temperament of our lives. With our every response, we are either taking cues from the spring of life-giving water Jesus made reference to or from our five physical senses. Our confusion comes when we try to respond to life's experiences by using cues from both sources. If this sounds abstract, it is.
As most of us realize, we give mixed signals with our responses. Our words of faith often do not match our attitudes and actions. We experience this all the time. It bothers us when we have chosen to "play small" in responding to another person. We become frustrated with ourselves when we have allowed others to cancel our abilities to be kind and patient. We wonder during such moments why "our faith" has ceased to serve us.
More than anything else we want understanding about this image Jesus used with the Samaritan woman. Imagine yourselves being able to access the source of this life-giving water anytime you wanted. With Jesus' concept of the Kingdom of God, he came to teach us that all of us already have this source built into us. There has never been a time in life when we were ever without it.
All that we are missing is our commitment and our determination to use it every moment as Jesus did during his ministry. This is the price we must pay when we walk the path of discipleship. We must choose to forsake the conclusions drawn by our senses, conclusions that are limited in their information, and learn to rely on the part of us that remains eternal. Accomplishing this is not easy until we have learned to trust implicitly what Jesus taught and experience the results of following.
For example, Lois and I recently listened to an experience of a woman who lives in the Phoenix area. Barbara's words were filled with hurt, anger and frustration. She had invited her sister and her young son into her home when Barbara learned that both of them had been living on the streets. She gave her sister money, helped her locate both a good job and day care for her son. Barbara loaned her car to her sister for 10 months.
All this was done in the hope that such an opportunity might give her sister another chance at life. It did not. The sister forged Barbara's name to three checks and engaged in behavior that only further eroded the conditions in her home. Barbara gave to her sister with expectations. She clearly had an emotional investment in the outcome of her sister's life. Many of us would react the same way.
Barbara willingly provided an environment where healing and growth might take place. When the sister persisted on being who she was, Barbara became hurt. She felt confused, used and abused. As often happens initially to most of us, she had not yet learned how to detach herself from her sister's choices. As a result, Barbara had to make another choice. Barbara asked her sister to move into her own space by the end of March. Has Barbara failed in loving her sister?
So many of us want the water that gives life meaning and nourishment but quite naturally we also use our five senses to form conclusions that can disappoint us. Barbara said any number of times, "I can't believe my sister would do this to me after all I have given to her," a theme that can be echoed by parents about their children or a spouse about a mate. Yet her sister was only being faithful to what had worked for her in the past. She had not yet learned how rewarding life can be by making choices that would better serve her.
The lesson that is so challenging for us is that the life-giving water only serves the people who have learned how to drink it. For example, we cannot give to other people the ability to experience joy and happiness. We cannot give them the ability to be honest. We cannot give others the ability to live with faithfulness and trustworthiness. All we can do is provide others with the opportunity, with the environment, and with the possibility to make choices that will better serve them. All that Jesus could do among his followers was extend an invitation to follow.
Does this mean that those of us who have discovered this source of life-giving water must choose to remain with those who are out of control? No, it does not. We need to listen to our own spring of life-giving water. It will direct us according to our ability. We should never be ashamed when our pain helps us learn about our own limitations. Barbara learned what happens when people allow the quality of their spirit to be governed by another person's performance.
Some people are able to live quite peacefully around others who take little or no responsibility for their lives. Such people have learned how to give freely without counting the cost. They have learned how to stand in the midst of chaos and allow their light to shine. Their motivation is different. They do not seek or need to change anyone. They stand forth with light because that is who they have become. We saw this quite notably as Jesus hung on the cross. He could do no other than love those who had chosen to remain his enemies. Not all of us can currently live that way.
We must constantly remind ourselves that discipleship is not a final destination, it is a personal commitment to a process that allows us to become more Christ-like one day at a time. The cost of discipleship is learning that our inner work must remain an integral part of life when we decide to drink only from the source of life-giving water.
Barbara was wise enough to understand her current limits. She had not yet grown in the abilities some others have reached. Punishing herself with images of who she ought to be would have only created feelings of further anguish and guilt. From where she was in life, Barbara successfully resolved her situation. She said to her sister, "You and I do not dance the same dance. I will always love you, and yet I respect your need to pursue directions in life that are very different from my own. You may visit as often as you like. But live with me again, No!" That response is honest and loving.
We need to remember that the life-giving water about which Jesus taught will not take us immediately to the pinnacle of wholeness. As was demonstrated again and again by Jesus' chosen group of twelve, discipleship is a process, not a destination. Our five senses cannot teach us about loving without limits or how to trust completely in what we cannot see. Only by deliberately choosing to nourish ourselves with the life-giving spring, will we continue to learn more about the unfailing nature of the eternal, invisible world of God that completely surrounds us.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Thank you, God, for the indwelling of your Holy Spirit. We thank you that during moments of regret, you point to the love we have given away. We thank you that when our minds seem distracted by our shortcomings, you remind us of the difference we have made in other people's lives. We thank you that when we become self-absorbed, you urge us to spend our energy in creating a better world. How wonderful are your ways. We wish we could always discern them and make your ways our own. Yet the detours and delays are many, and we forget that during each of our experiences you are there to empower us. Help us to dissolve our investment in the outcome of our circumstances so that we may remain peaceful in our attempts to make love visible in all of them. Lead us to self-disclose in all that we do that we are followers of Jesus Christ. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Eternal and ever faithful God, we thank you that even while we sleep in our awakened states, you offer us many opportunities to evolve to awareness levels beyond where we are at the moment. May we find meaning in the pain of our own pettiness, the sleepless nights caused by our hasty judgments, the words that have chased smiles from the faces of our children. How can we ever thank you enough for placing the very compass we need for direction within our own emotions.
Through your grace, O God, give us the ability to interpret our feelings so that they better serve us and point out to us where healing may be found. Spare us from fretting, from anxiety and worry -- thoughts that are born from fears that do not recognize your presence in every aspect of our lives. Remind us that faith means believing in and trusting in a world we cannot see with our eyes or hear with our ears. And yet somehow we know you are beside us and within us. We cannot think a thought that escapes your knowing.
Today as we sit in our pews, heal those beside us, in front of us and behind us. Help us release thoughts that are useless. Flood our minds and hearts with energy that helps us rise above the world of noise, chaos and senseless imaginings, that we might always reflect the love of Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .