April 3, 2014
Campus pastor Erik Samuleson recently shared a sermon at Holden Village, a remote Lutheran ministry nestled in a forested valley near Lake Chelan in the North Cascade Mountains of Washington state.
A copy of Samuelson's sermon is below. Photo by Lisa Maren Thompson.
This sermon will be translated in sections into Spanish. Each section will end with a question. As you hear the section spoken in your non-primary language, use that time to reflect on the question that was asked—or any others that come to mind. For the Spanish speakers, you can begin by reflecting on your experience here at Holden Village in the past three days. Where have you felt comforted? Where have you felt challenged?
First of all, Jesus didn’t have to go through Samaria. Things were heating up in Jerusalem, and the temple authorities had caught on to the fact that Jesus was gaining a following—in fact he was now gaining disciples faster than John the Baptist. So from the disciples’ point of view, it probably seemed like a good time to let things cool down, and head back to Jesus’ home town in Galilee. While it was certainly shorter to go through Samaria, it was hardly necessary. In fact, a religious person would have said it was necessary to go around Samaria. To go through meant they might bump into some of the people who lived there, or worse, find themselves needing to eat or drink with them. The Samaritans were different, others, outsiders—and religious people did their best to avoid them. So when the story says it was “necessary” for them to pass through, for whom was it “necessary”? The people of Samaria? This woman at the well? Or, perhaps, the disciples? I invite you to wonder about that question.
While the trip through Samaria might not have been strictly necessary, the need for food and water certainly was. And so Jesus finds himself at a well, and strikes up a conversation with a woman there. By the description we know she is an outsider—Samaritan, yes, a woman, yes, and for whatever reason isolated from even the community of women who would have come for water earlier or later in the day. But Jesus does not begin the conversation with what divides them—but what unites them and is the reason they are there together in the first place—the need for water.
But in the conversation their common need quickly moves to deeper matters, and through her questions this outsider becomes a newcomer as her relationship with Jesus begins.
Even her confusion—due to difficulties in translation perhaps—even this became an opportunity for deeper conversation: about water, about the “living water,” about Jesus relationship to her ancestor Jacob, about where and how God should be worshiped. And Jesus is careful to not give too easy answers to this newcomer, but instead creates a gracious space for the questions. He gets to know this woman at the well, and treats her as someone worth being known. He has the prophetic advantage, of course, that you and I don’t—that deep knowing of her story that so impresses her. But I think even more powerful was that Jesus loved her as she was—even knowing the full story. Just as he loves us just as we are, knowing our full story. The space for questions, led to a deep knowing, that led to an experience of grace in relationship with Jesus. Now she names him not only prophet, but Messiah, Savior, the one she, and we, have been waiting for. And this newcomer becomes a disciple, going back to her village to tell of what she has experienced in a most unlikely place. When have you been a newcomer? When have you been noticed (or ignored)? When have you been loved as you are? I invite you to reflect on these questions.
The disciples return having walked through the heat of the day to find food while Jesus lounged by the well. Although it doesn’t say they are grumbling, I get the sense that they are grumbling. And then they come upon this scene: Jesus in conversation with a woman. A Samaritan woman! A Samaritan woman alone!!! But notice, they don’t ask any questions, of Jesus or this newcomer. They are “oldcomers” and think they know what is going on—and if they weren’t happy about the detour through Samaria, they certainly weren’t happy about this.
I’m reading a book right now called “Wide Welcome” by Jessica Duckworth. It’s about the catechumenate--the process for welcoming and forming new Christians in preparation for baptism—and what role the catechumenate plays in ELCA congregations. She intentionally does not use the terms “insider” or “outsider” but instead the words I’ve been using: “newcomer” and “oldcomer.” The difference here is not who is in and who is out, but simply how long you have been engaged with the community of faith. The main idea in her book is this: Oldcomers in the church need the newcomers as we engage together in the shared work of becoming communities of disciples. Like the questions asked by the woman at the well, we need the questions that the newcomers bring, which are often deeper questions than we oldcomers spend our time bickering about. The stories of the newcomers are essential too, and with them their culture, history, joy, and pain.
Newcomers to our community put us all in the uncomfortable task of building relationships and looking deeply at what we have been doing, and why. The catechumenate is particularly relevant in the season of Lent, which is the time in which the church has historically prepared newcomers for baptism at Easter. And (I learned this week) these LONG scriptures from John are the scriptures used at the end of the process of the catechumenate, and are meant to be used any Lent that a congregation is preparing catechumens.
They are designed to raise up big questions—to get newcomers and oldcomers in conversations around things like: What does temptation look like? How is Jesus the messiah? How can you be born again after becoming old? Who is included? (and in the upcoming weeks) How does sin relate to suffering? Did Jesus come to keep us from suffering and dying? Why did Jesus die? Why did God raise him from the dead? And really, what does all of this mean for us? And in the process of welcoming the newcomers in the season of Lent, oldcomer and newcomers alike wrestle with these deep questions together.
Does this reflect your experience of the Church of Jesus? What might it mean for the church to take seriously the call to be a community of oldcomers and newcomers? I invite you to reflect on these questions, or any of the big questions from the season of Lent.
I currently serve as the Campus Pastor at Trinity Lutheran College in Everett, WA which used to be called the “Lutheran Bible Institute.” This community was once made up largely of oldcomers, white Lutherans, mostly of Scandinavian descent, who came to Trinity (or LBI) to become better Lutherans—to study the Bible and Lutheran traditions to be equipped for ministry in the church and the world.
Several years ago it became necessary for Trinity to move from our beautiful, retreat like campus in Issaquah to my hometown of Everett, which, as I think about it, is kind of the Samaria of Seattle. “Everett?” I often hear, “why would you want to live there?” or nearly as often, “You know, I’ve never stopped in Everett. I mostly just drive by on my way to Bellingham or Canada.” But that’s only because they don’t know about all the great things going on in Everett (especially at Trinity Lutheran College). In our new home, Trinity looks very different than it did even a few years ago. Now 45% of our students are non-white, and somewhere around 80% of them don’t come from a Lutheran background. In fact, today there are more Latino Catholics and questioning Evangelicals (of all ethnic backgrounds) than white Lutherans like me. But in addition to the cultural shifts this has brought, it also means that most of our students are newcomers to the Lutheran way of being Christian, and an increasing number are newcomers to Christianity as a whole.
As you can imagine, this has changed the way we approach many things. These newcomers have brought new questions, ones that many of us oldcomers have never considered before. And they have brought their stories: rich stories that bring with them cultures, histories, joys, and pains. We still hold central the Bible as the living Word of God, the importance of prayer and worship, and the desire to live as a community of disciples who make disciples, but these newcomers have impacted how we teach, how we worship, how we pray, and how we engage the shared task of making disciples. So often we find ourselves (oldcomers and newcomers alike) asking “What does this mean?” of even our most familiar beliefs and traditions. Like the disciples with the woman at the well, like Lutheran congregations living out the catechumenate, the presence of newcomers disrupts our comfortable faith and calls us to focus on being disciples of Jesus. What calls you out of your comfortable faith? How do you respond to the call to be a disciple who makes disciples? I invite you to reflect on these questions now.
Holden Village is a place that lives in the tension of newcomers and oldcomers. This community is always forming and reforming, being built and being broken down.
Like Trinity Lutheran College, we share traditions that keep us centered, and yet are always adapting to the newcomers among us. In this way, this Village serves as a resting place for weary travelers, a place of discernment and playful imagination, and, for me at least, a beacon of hope for the Church of Jesus. We practice here what we long for in the world as we attempt to live faithfully in community, to welcome the stranger, to share in food and drink, to form and be formed as disciples of Jesus and to go out into the world to share the gift that has been given to us.
But I’m an oldcomer here, and I’ve lost track of my visits to this place. And my family is too—my daughter Emma and I figured out this morning that this is her 7th visit to Holden in her 8 years of life. I thought I knew this place, and so this week had prepared a sermon that was not this sermon—and one, I realized, that would not translate well into Spanish. But in the last three days, from the number of hands that were raised at the question “How many of you are at Holden Village for the first time?” and particularly at the Bible study yesterday morning (when the best conversation was happening in a language I don’t understand) it became clear to me that a new sermon was necessary, perhaps for me as much as any of you. Because I am reminded that I too, was once a newcomer in this village, and my parents and the whole community opened up its depths to me in a language I could understand, just as my wife and I have done for my daughters. I was welcomed here, there was room my questions, the community thought I was worth knowing, and through all of this I experienced the grace of Jesus—for me. And, perhaps even more importantly, I am reminded that we were all once newcomers to the community of Christ, and to his table, where we gather again and again, newcomers and oldcomers, just as we are, to hear the promise and experience the grace of Jesus—for me, for you, but also, for us and for the world.
As we gather at the table of Jesus we proclaim what has always been true: In Christ there are no insiders and no outsiders. There is room here for your questions and mine. Your story, your culture, your history, your joys, and your pain are worth knowing. We can be deeply known by God and by one another and never-the-less loved. And through all of this, newcomer and oldcomer, we join together as the body of Christ, experiencing the grace of God in relationship so that we can be sent back to our villages, to tell what we have experienced. No matter how long you have been in this village, you didn’t have to come here. But it was most certainly necessary. What does this mean for you? Amen.