That Woman: Thoughts on loving the lonely.

John 4: 5-26; 28-30

5So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ 11The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ 13Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ 15The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’

16 Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ 17The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ 19The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ 21Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ 25The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ 26Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’

27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ 28Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ 30They left the city and were on their way to him.

Our passage today is a familiar one.

Jesus meets a woman at a well in Samaria.

The passage is packed with sermon possibilities.

Living water.

Jesus as Messiah.

Worshiping in spirit and in truth.

Evangelism.

I could preach on this text for a month.

But as I read it over and over this week, I began to take notice of that woman.

How must this private, personal encounter with Jesus affected her?

Who was she?

What do we know?

Here are some things we get from the passage.

She is nobody.

John does not even tell us her name.

She was a woman.

In Jesus’ time women were second class citizens.

Little better than property to be used as long as desired then sent away.

This had happened to her five times.

We don’t know why she had five husbands, maybe some died, but the tenor of Jesus’ statement to her implies that she might have been five times divorced.

And divorce in those days was mainly a sign of disapproval on the part of the husband.

A simple piece of paper from the husband and the woman is no longer his wife.

She has been discarded.

She was also a Samaritan.

As a Samaritan, she was part of a community that was shunned by their religious cousins the Jews in Judea.

They hated each other, these Jews and Samaritans.

So when she shows up at the well and there is this Jew sitting there, what did she expect?

“Oh, boy …

What’s he going to do?

Probably be rude.

Maybe he’ll just ignore me.

Like I am unworthy of his attention.”

And we notice that she is alone at the well.

In Jesus’ time, going to get water from the well was a social event for women.

It was where they gathered and talked.

It was their coffee shop.

Their hair salon.

It was an essential opportunity for community and fellowship.

Some years back, I attended a series of lectures on mission work.

There was a story about a group that went to an African village to dig a water well in the village and install a pump to bring up the water.

The missionaries were trying to make the lives of the village women easier because they were walking a mile to the nearest water hole for water every day.

Two years later the missionaries returned and found the pump disconnected and the well covered over.

The women were walking to the water hole.

Why?

Because the women liked their walks to the water hole.

That was essentially their social life.

The well and pump took that away, so they stopped using them.

That is how important the walk to the well was.

Yet our Samaritan woman was alone at the well.

There is only one reason for that.

She was being shunned.

We don’t know why, but it might have something to do with her marriage history.

Whatever … she is truly alone.

Samaritan, woman, many marriages, alone at the water well.

It does not get any lonelier than that.

Mother Teresa described loneliness this way:

Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.

A hard life.

Psychiatrist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann studied loneliness in the mid 20th Century and she said this:

[L]loneliness lay at the heart of nearly all mental illness and that the lonely person was just about the most terrifying spectacle in the world.

But it is actually worse than that.

According to a 2013New Republic article:

Over the past half-century, academic psychologists have … delve[d] deeper into the workings of cells and nerves, they are confirming that loneliness is as monstrous as Fromm-Reichmann said it was. It has now been linked with a wide array of bodily ailments as well as the old mental ones. …

They have proved that long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you.

Loneliness has even been used as a punishment.

It was called banishment.

The Romans often employed banishment as an alternative to capital punishment, a fate nearly as terrible as death.

Loneliness is actually painful.

Really.

Listen to this:

Functional magnetic resonance imaging scans showed that the experience of being snubbed lit up a part of the subjects’ brains … that also lights up when the body feels physical pain.

That is loneliness.

Emotional distress.

Physically harmful.

Punishing.

Painful.

That is the that woman when she meets Jesus.

Then Jesus speaks.

“Can you give me some water?”

I can see her head whip around.

“Wait, what?

Are you talking to me?

A woman?

You want me to give you some water?

A Samaritan?

You don’t share with people like me.

I’m not worthy!”

This is a sarcastic response.

But Jesus presses on.

“I am not like those people who have shunned you.

I have something you might want.

Living water.”

More sarcasm from the that woman.

“What?

You have no bucket so you have no water from this well, and anyway, is the water you have better than the water that comes from this well dug by Jacob – you know – that Jacob?”

Jesus says, “You bet!

Drink water from this well and you will get thirsty again.

Drink my living water and you will never thirst again.

Ever.

Eternally.”

More sarcasm from that woman.

“Wouldn’t that be nice?

If I get some of that water, I never have to come to the well again, alone.

Give me some of that!”

Jesus moves on.

He knows all about her marital history.

She takes this as a sign that Jesus is a prophet.

Jesus has her attention now.

That woman starts to realize that this guy is actually interested in her.

In her!

They are having a conversation.

At the well!

When was the last time that happened?

She warms to the occasion.

No more sarcasm.

A real question.

Keep the conversation going.

“Why Jerusalem and not Gerizim?”

And then Jesus says something that stuns here.

“It doesn’t matter.

It is not where we worship.

It’s who we worship and how we worship.

Who we are and where we come from does not make a difference.

We are all part of God’s community.”

That woman has heard something like this before.

“The Messiah is someone who knows such things and says such things.”

And Jesus tells her that he is that Messiah.

A Messiah who welcomes her to his living water, to his acceptance of her despite her history, to his community, the community of all who worship God.

She is no longer alone.

She has a community.

Now her response is enthusiastic.

She has news to tell everyone.

Even those who confined her to isolation.

There must be some kind of change in her because the listen to her and follow her to Jesus.

She is renewed.

She is changed.

Reborn.

What does that woman look like today?

Here is a story that was in the news this week.

Aaron Stark was a high school student in Denver in 1996.

After the Parkland shooting he wrote a letter to a Denver TV station about how he almost became a school shooter.

He was then interviewed on TV.

Stark describes having a rough childhood.

He was abused and neglected at home.

He was bullied relentlessly at school for his weight, intelligence, and often unwashed clothes.

Stark said that he felt completely unloved.

He was depressed and suicidal.

That was when he considered buying a gun to shoot up his school.

His real hope was that he would be killed himself.

Then this happened, Stark said.

“I was extremely suicidal one evening, and a friend of mine, without having any idea what was going on and what state I was in, invited me over for a party that I didn’t know was existing. She had baked me a blueberry-peach pie, and I got there, and everybody had the pie, and it was all for me.”

Stark said that moment changed him.

He felt loved.

Just for a moment.

Stark said, “That literally saved my life that night. I wasn’t going to survive that night if that hadn’t happened.”

He was renewed.

He was changed.

Reborn.

Stark concluded the interview with this.

“If you see someone who looks like they need love, give it to them. Even a small hug, a word, or a smile could actually save lives. Compassion is the only real way we can stop this. Love people even when they don’t deserve it.”

I think this is what Jesus was doing in our text.

Stark and that woman were unloved outcasts.

Lonely and rejected.

Then they experienced love, even for a moment.

Their lives were changed.

To the benefit of many.

The Samaritan woman took many to Jesus.

Stark decided not to buy a gun.

Both saved lives.

What does this mean for us?

Jesus teaches us to visit the lonely.

Give them a moment of love.

Who are the lonely in today’s world?

They’re the outsiders:

The elderly.

The sick.

The poor.

The bullied.

The disfavored.

The unemployed.

The different.

The strangers.

The homeless.

The hopeless.

The people who have little to live for.

So what does Jesus want us to do?

To encounter the lonely the way he did with that woman and give them a taste of love.

How?

Visit them.

Befriend them.

Welcome them.

Spend time with them.

Include them.

Even those who are different from us.

Who disagree with us or are just disagreeable.

It is like the “Halvorson” benediction we hear every week:

We are to go from this place as a people who are sent.

Wherever we go this week, we are to consider that God is sending us there.

And wherever we find yourselves this week, we are to consider that God is placing us there.

To tell people that the love of Christ rests on all of us and can reach out, touch and include everyone.

We are to go in Christ’s love and peace and power.

And if you do, maybe you will make something good happen.

Like that woman’s evangelism.

Or maybe you will prevent something awful from happening.

Like Stark’s change of plan.

Do you know someone who is lonely?

Do you know the Samaritan woman?

Tell them they are loved.

Are you lonely?

Are you the Samaritan woman?

You are loved.

The God of all creation loves you and invites you to be part of God’s community.

Feel the love.

And be renewed.

Changed.

Reborn.

And know you are not alone.

This Week at John McMillan Presbyterian Chruch

When I was a little kid, my mother surprised me by playing the one song she knew on the piano. What really shocked me was that she sang the words while she played. And the words!

Nobody likes me,

Everybody hates me,

Going to the garden to eat worms …

What? Why on earth would anyone write such a song for little kids? But here’s the thing. I have learned over the years that when someone feels alone and disliked, loneliness sets in and it can often lead to actions direr than eating worms. An article in Psychology Today said this:

In children, [loneliness] leads to all kinds of problems. Failure to be socially connected to peers is the real reason behind most school dropouts. It sets in motion a course on which children spin their way to outcast status and develop delinquency and other forms of antisocial behavior.

In adults, loneliness is a major precipitant of depression and alcoholism. And it increasingly appears to be the cause of a range of medical problems, some of which take decades to show up.

Loneliness is such a problem in Britain that the government there has appointed someone to do something about it. This from NBC News:

It sounds like a character from a dystopian novel, but Britain has created a “minister for loneliness” to tackle modern public health problems associated with social isolation.

The government said Wednesday it appointed Tracey Crouch after research showed as many as one in ten people felt lonely “always or often” and that hundreds of thousands of elderly people hadn’t spoken to a friend or relative in the past month.

Crouch, whose official title is Minister for Sport and Civil Society, will devise a national strategy to tackle isolation across all ages, and find ways of measuring alienation in official statistics.

There are lots of articles on how to fight loneliness. The problem is not new. And this week, Pastor Jeff will continue his Lenten sermon series on individual encounters with Jesus we find in scripture. He will be preaching on the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well from John 4. What does this story have to do with combating loneliness? Come and find out at 8:30 and 11 at John McMillan Presbyterian Church.

Nicodemus: Thoughts on trying to understand Jesus.

During the season of Lent, I will be talking about individuals who had somewhat personal encounters with Jesus.

Encounters where Jesus responds to their particular circumstances.

The kind of thing we all seek from Jesus at one time or another.

An encounter where Jesus responds to our particular circumstances.

Today, we meet Nicodemus.

John 3: 1-17

3Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ 3Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born [again, anew], from above.’ 4Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ 5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ 9Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’10Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

11 ‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’

All of us here have been students.

Grade school.

High school.

College.

Graduate school.

However far we went.

Many here are or have been teachers, too.

And so we have all heard – or said – this:

“There is no such thing as a ‘stupid’ question!”

We are told we should ask questions if we don’t understand something.

Yeah, right!

Nobody falls for that line.

Because what you don’t want anyone to know is that you don’t understand something.

It might not be a stupid question, but it makes you feel stupid.

So, instead of raising your hand in class, you become part of the “after” or “between class” line of students who want to talk to the teacher privately.

To confess your lack of understanding only to the teacher.

To ask for help.

To seek understanding.

That is what is happening in our text today.

This is an encounter between someone who does not understand Jesus, and Jesus.

Nicodemus.

It’s the kind of conversation each of us would like to have with Jesus.

So we can ask our … well … many questions.

And try to understand what means to follow Jesus.

Let’s start with what brings Nicodemus to Jesus.

Let’s set the scene.

Jesus has been baptized, gathered some disciples, prevented a wedding disaster at Cana, and threw some rascals out of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Along the way he has taught many lessons about God and performed many “signs” to back up his authority.

One group of people who have been watching Jesus are the Pharisees.

Some of the Pharisees are religious rules of the people, teachers of Israel and members of the Sanhedrin.

Which brings us to our text.

It is night.

Jesus is done for the day.

Maybe hanging out with his disciples around a fire.

There is a rustle in the bushes and out of the darkness steps Nicodemus.

He is a Pharisee.

They can see by the way he is dressed.

Maybe Nicodemus saunters over to Jesus and asks if he might have a word with Jesus in private.

“Certainly”, Jesus says, and off they go to be alone.

Nicodemus is prepared for some type of debate and uses a rhetorical tool to begin the conversation.

He compliments Jesus.

Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.

Jesus is thus described as a divinely gifted teacher as is evidenced by these signs of yours.

But Jesus does not seem to be interested in pleasantries.

He gets to the point.

“Why are you here Nicodemus?

Are you trying to understand who I am?

Well, here is what you need to know if you want to understand:

‘[N]o one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’”

So now we need to digress.

This is the passage where we get the term “born again”.

The Greek word translated as “again” is “anothen”.

It has several meanings.

Born again.

Born anew.

Or as the NRSV translates it: Born from above.

There is no single English word that includes all of these.

But the Greek word does and is intended to include all of these concepts in one word.

Each has its own nuance but the word must be understood as including all.

None is preferred, but only one can be selected for translation purposes.

The others are invariably in footnote.

Back to Nicodemus.

When Jesus describes this “rebirth”, he seems to be describing an event of time and place.

The time is when someone encounters Jesus.

The place is from where the new birth comes – from above!

The result of this rebirth is a new way of life.

It’s an illustration.

A metaphor.

Nicodemus misses it.

“Born again?

What?

How does that work?

I’m an old man.

How can my mother give birth to me again?”

So, Jesus responds.

“OK. Let’s try this.

It’s not a real birth, Nicodemus.

It’s kind of like at my baptism.

I was taken into the water and when I came up, the spirit of God came from heaven and rested on me – and stayed.

It started a new way of life for me.

My ministry.

That is what the rebirth is like.

The Spirit of God descends on you and your life becomes new.

And by the way, Nicodemus,” Jesus seems to say, “if you find this difficult to comprehend, don’t feel bad.

This spirit of God is like the wind.

It’s everywhere.

It touches everyone.

It can’t be controlled.

You can feel its presence, but you can’t predict what it will do.

But you can see the result.

Changed lives.

Lives that go in unexpected directions and do unanticipated things.

How does it work?

It is a mystery, Nicodemus.

Get over it.

But when it does touch you, you understand who I am.

I am the Kingdom of God.

Do you see the Kingdom, Nicodemus?

It is right here in front of you.

Talking to you.”

Nicodemus is still having trouble understanding.

“How can these things be?”

You can almost picture Nicodemus with his hands open in front of him, eyes wide, maybe shaking his head.

“I just don’t get it, Jesus!”

Jesus tries again.

Jesus starts with a rebuke.

“Aren’t you a teacher of Israel?

Why aren’t you getting this?

Just be silent and listen.

This is who I am and why I’m here, Nicodemus.

I am the one from God.

You said so.

It’s like this story you know well.

[J]ust as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

That is who I am, Nicodemus.

I am the one to be lifted up.

I am the testimony of God’s love.

‘For God so loved the world [cosmos, Nicodemus – everything and everyone] that he gave [yes Nicodemus, I am a gift] his only Son, [that’s me Nicodemus,] so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

There it is Nicodemus.

Believing in me is like looking at the snake.

Look at the snake and live.

Believe in me and live.

And your life will be an eternal one.

I know what you are thinking, Nicodemus.

What’s eternal life?

God’s the only eternal thing, right?

Eternal life is living God’s life.

You start that the moment you start living it.

Now you are thinking, what does it mean to believe?

How do I believe?

Belief is not entirely mental.

It’s mainly physical.

It is something you do.

Feed the hungry.

Clothe the naked.

House the homeless.

Welcome the stranger.

Care for the sick.

Visit the jailed.

It depicts a sacrificial love for everyone.

Like mine, Nicodemus.

God so loves you that I will die in your place to save your life.

That’s God’s way.

It’s, my way, Nicodemus.

I am a light shining.

Lighting the way to God.

It enlightens God’s life.

Some come to the light.

Some don’t.

Those who do are reborn and live changed lives.

Those who don’t, well, they don’t.

That is who I am and why I am here.

I am that light.

Live the way I live, and you will live.

Living in the light means you are living the way I live.

My way.

Others do none of these things.

It’s their choice.

If you choose to live in the darkness, that is your choice.

You have judged yourself.

Condemnation comes from you, not me.

I came to save everyone.

Everyone who wants to be saved.”

So, what does Nicodemus choose?

John says nothing here, but we do see Nicodemus again.

We see him next when the Pharisees of the Temple accuse Jesus of being false prophet.

Nicodemus defends Jesus and demands that the Pharisees hear Jesus out before they judge him.

Last, we see Nicodemus after the crucifixion.

With Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus prepares Jesus for burial and puts Jesus in the tomb.

What do we make of this?

I read it that Nicodemus encountered Jesus, chose to live in the light, defended it, and loved it.

And was reborn into the Kingdom.

So what does all this mean for us?

We are all like Nicodemus at first.

We have an encounter with Jesus, most of us in private – no alter calls in the PCUSA, right?

We want to know who he is, why he came and what it means for us.

Jesus’ response is the same.

Feel the presence of the spirit.

Choose to live in the light.

Live in the light and be reborn, born again, born anew, born from above.

See the Kingdom right now.

Be part of the kingdom right now.

Start God’s life right now.

The choice is yours.”

But now I must digress.

The events of this week cry out.

Seventeen students and teachers killed in Parkland, Florida.

This is a terrible and awful thing.

Theologians call this theodicy.

I have preached and taught on it so often I am frankly tired of having to do so.

Why do bad things happen to innocent people?

Why do terrible things like this happen in a redeemed world?

Well, it’s like this.

While we are redeemed, we are still broken.

There is still darkness.

And there are those who choose it.

And live in it.

And act out of it.

Why they make that choice, we cannot know.

It is a mystery.

All I can say is that Jesus offers a way out of the darkness, for anyone who chooses it.

To live in the light – to live the Jesus way.

God’s way.

And live.

Believe it.

Pray with me please.

Lord God,

We are tired. We are so tired of the darkness we see all around us. We confess that we contribute our share to it. We want creation to be reborn as a whole so that all the darkness is scattered. Lord, send your spirit again into this dark world to enlighten us and encourage us to change our lives so that we live your way, the Jesus way. Help us to enlighten others so that they, too can leave the darkness and enter your light, so that the world can be as you would have it, redeemed and reconciled to you. Amen

This Week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church

Back in the late 60s and early 70s there was something called “The Jesus Movement”. It started on the west coast of the United States and eventually spread internationally. The people who were part of the movement called themselves “Jesus People” and later “Jesus Freaks”. The general theology of the movement was one of evangelism and the understanding that there was only “one way” to live (words usually uttered with the index finger pointed upward). This movement also spawned what we call today “contemporary Christian music” (which we still call “contemporary” even though many of the songs are now decades old). I was a witness to the movement in Edinboro, PA where I spent my high school summers. When I showed up one summer, a bunch of my summer friends were hanging out at a “prayer meeting house”, wearing big wooden crosses and carrying Bibles. This was a shock to me because they had never admitted to being religious in years past. It was from them that I began hearing the words “born again” in a way I had never heard before. There was something that I had to do, apparently, to be born again and only if I was born again would I be saved and go to heaven. Since that time, I have learned that the theology of this evangelism is not far off the mark (though I do take issue with its exclusionary nature). But yet my “born once” Presbyterian mother was wary of those “born agains”, a term she did not intend to be all that affirming. Where do we get the term “born again”? It comes from a private conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus the Pharisee in John 3. Jesus tells Nicodemus that to see the Kingdom of God one must be “born again” (at least that is how it is stated in some, but not all, translations). Nicodemus is confused, and Jesus explains. This episode in the Gospel of John is one of those where Jesus has a private conversation with an individual, rather than preaching to a large crowd. What might that be like? This Sunday we start a four-part Lenten Sermon Series that will look at four such private encounters, so we can see how Jesus can touch individual lives … well … individually. This week Pastor Jeff will preach “Nicodemus” based on John 3: 1-17. Come and hear about it at John McMillan Presbyterian Church at 8:30 and 11.

A New Way, A New Day: Thoughts on the barriers Jesus broke.

Mark 2: 13-22

13 Jesus went out again beside the lake; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. 14As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.

15 And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax-collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. 16When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax-collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ 17When Jesus heard this, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’

18 Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, ‘Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ 19Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding-guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 20The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.

21 ‘No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made.22And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.’

Well, its Super Bowl Sunday.

Time to reminisce a bit about our favorite team that is not playing.

The Pittsburgh Steelers.

Purchased by Art Rooney in 1933, the Steelers were rarely a winning team.

They did not have a winning record until 1942.

They did not have a playoff game until 1947, which they lost 21-0 to the Eagles.

They would not return to the playoffs for 25 years.

That would be 1972, or course.

That was followed by four Super Bowl Championships, twice back to back, from 1974-1979.

What changed?

Chuck Noll became the coach in 1969.

When Noll showed up several things happened.

First, Noll was in charge of the draft.

From 1969 to 1974 he drafted Terry Bradshaw, Joe Greene, Mel Blount, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Mike Webster.

Not too shabby.

But what might have been more important, he brought a new way of coaching.

Rocky Bleier put it this way:

Chuck loved teaching moments, but he wasn’t an orator or a motivator. Chuck would say, “It’s not my job to hold your hand. It’s my job to take motivated people and show them how to become better.”

And what made people better?

Good habits.

Bleier again:

[Noll said] habits are created every day in practice, and they carry over to the game … In the third and fourth quarter, you don’t think; you react.

When Noll died, Art Rooney II  said this;

“Chuck knew where he was, where he was going, where he wanted to go and how to do it. He had a very, very strong moral compass.”

Noll showed up in 1969 and there was a new authority in charge.

A new sheriff in town.

It was a new day.

A new way.

And Steeler Nation was born.

Which, interestingly enough, is what Jesus did.

He was the new authority in charge.

The new sheriff in town.

The one bringing a new day.

A new way.

Over the last couple of weeks, we have been following Mark’s description of Jesus’ early ministry.

Jesus was breaking down barriers.

We saw Jesus touch and heal a leper and so get rid of the idea that old ritualistic rules determined a person’s status in the community.

We saw Jesus forgive a man’s sins and so reject the authority of religious leaders in the Temple stand between God and humanity.

And now we see Jesus welcome even the most despised folks into his family of disciples!

Levi, the tax collector.

Again, Jesus is casting off the old ways of discrimination for the new ways of inclusion.

Jesus is not revising the ancient laws, he is announcing they no longer apply.

And then he tells us to celebrate.

A new sheriff in town indeed!

That is the lesson of today’s text.

Jesus breaks down the barriers.

It’s a new day.

It’s a new way.

So, let’s take is scene by scene.

Scene 1.

Jesus is out walking along the shore in Capernaum along the Sea of Galilee.

Maybe right after the paralytic was healed.

The whole crowd was with him and he was still teaching.

He comes across a toll collector sitting in his booth.

Levi.

This guy was the lowest of the low.

Levi would have “leased” his toll booth from the Romans by paying up front the annual tolls he was expected to collect.

He would then charge whatever he wanted and keep any excess.

Like driving on the turnpike and having the toll collector decide what you owe based on the kind of car you drive.

It was little better than theft.

Toll collectors were considered so untrustworthy that they were not permitted to testify in a court proceeding.

On top of that, Levi would have been considered a traitor to Israel because he was collaborating with the Romans.

This guy was ritually unclean and a social pariah.

So what does Jesus do?

He asks Levi to become a disciple.

And guess what.

Levi does.

Can you imagine what the folks were saying?

Levi?

The tax collector?

Scene 2.

Jesus is having dinner with tax collectors, “sinners” (moral reprobates, impure Jews or Gentiles), and his many disciples.

At Levi’s house.

It is not just sharing a meal, it’s a dinner party!

A celebratory or ceremonial meal.

Maybe toasts.

Speeches.

A welcome banquet for Levi?

A celebration of the new way?

Scene 3.

Around the perimeter of the gathering, there are scribes, likely sent by the Pharisees to keep an eye on Jesus.

It is unclear whether they have been invited to the dinner or just watch from afar.

But this we know, they are puzzled.

They have a question for some disciples nearby.

If Jesus is a good Jew, why would he eat with these depraved people?

Jesus overhears the question.

I have this image of him raising his eyes and muttering, “Are we back to that again?”

“How can I get them to understand?”

Scene 4.

Jesus speaks.

‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’

An interesting turn of a phrase.

How would the scribes interpret this?

My professor and friend Bonnie Thurston, puts it this way:

Those who have no need for a doctor, the righteous, are those who keep the law, and are already in in a proper relationship with God.

Those folks don’t need Jesus.

Those who do have need for a doctor, the sinners, are those who don’t or can’t keep the law, and are the ones Jesus has come to call back to God.

Those folks really do need Jesus.

Which are you, you scribes?

Either way, you are all welcome here.

I take everyone, Jesus says.

Even these … what you call … corrupt folks.

That is the new way.

In God’s Kingdom, God’s table is open to all, regardless of class, religious identity or purity status.

Scene 5.

Jesus is approached by another group with a challenge.

The Pharisees fast and John’s disciples fast, but Jesus and his disciples have dinner parties!

“What’s with that?”

First, we need to understand a bit about fasting for the Pharisees and disciples of John.

These people were what Gary Charles calls members of renewal movements.

Folks who were waiting for the initiation of God’s reign.

You know, the Messiah.

They fasted (from more than just food) to purify themselves in anticipation of God’s reign.

Maybe they thought they could make it happen sooner.

Or maybe they just wanted to be ready.

If that is why people fasted, why would Jesus disciples fast?

There was no need.

The reign of God had come.

Jesus, the Messiah, was right there.

Its not time to fast, its time to feast!

Its kind of like the bridegroom at the wedding feast.

While the happy couple is there, it is joy and celebration.

Only when they depart is there any reason to stop the celebration.

If Jesus is the bridegroom, it’s time to feast!

Everyone should keep celebrating until Jesus is gone … which will happen soon enough, buy the way.

That is how Levi can become a disciple!

And why we should celebrate.

Its how we become disciples, too.

Everyone is welcome into the Kingdom of God.

It is here right now.

God was near.

God was here.

His name is Jesus.

There was indeed a new sheriff in town.

And we should all celebrate!

We should celebrate God’s presence In Jesus.

We should celebrate Levi’s discipleship.

We should celebrate everyone’s discipleship.

This is the new way!

And this new way does not fit into the old ways.

Jesus’ new way tears apart the old ways.

Just like a new patch on an old shirt or new wine in an old wineskin do not work, we need understand Jesus as the new covenant God offers.

We need to move on from the old covenant and move into the new.

Jesus came to take motivated people, like us, and show them, and us, how to become better.

This is why we read this text in the season of Epiphany.

This is a new revelation from God!

This is a new revelation of God!

It is indeed a new day, and a new way.

And we acknowledge this new covenant at this table.

The table where Jesus eats with all of us.

Tax collectors.

Sinners.

Scribes.

Disciples.

Us.

Just as we announce here at before communion:

Come to this table, those who have much faith and those who want more.

Come to this table those who have been here often, and those who have not been here for a long time.

Come to this table, those who have tried to follow Jesus and like the rest of us have so often failed.

Come tax collectors, sinners, scribes and disciples.

Come all of you.

Jesus welcomes you to his table, to celebrate, and remember.

It really is a new day.

It really  is a new way.