Refusing to Let the Awfulness Win the Day: Finding the Middle Ground between Lament and Thanksgiving
This past Sunday, November 19th, I had the pleasure of preaching at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Grand Marais, MN.
If you are ever up that way over a Sunday, don’t miss the chance to worship with these people of God: warm, welcoming, and a choir that still has my family’s jaws dropped, a day-and-a-half later.
The occasion was the Women’s Thankoffering Sunday. Not coincidentally, I’m sure, the celebration fell on the Sunday before Thanksgiving.
The text was from John 4, that of the Samaritan woman at the well. She’s a woman oft maligned, and unjustly so, let me be clear.
If we lean in to listen to her, I believe she has something new to say to us about perseverance, defiance, chutzpah, giving thanks…and to know that even, in this season, our lament, grief, and losses might make it impossible to give thanks…and that’s ok.
(Here also is a link to a video taken while I was preaching: if you click for a listen, please excuse both some occasional wobbliness [my daughter was filming while trying to make sure that my son was sitting up in his wheelchair] and my son’s ginormous, worth-of-awe-and-admiration yawn, which I hope the sermon won’t inspire you to do as well!)
Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
It is such an honor to be here.
I have such regard for your pastor, whom, as you clearly know, had such regard for this congregation! It is really a delight to hear his gladness in serving here.
Too, this congregation loves in my family’s lore, for my late uncle, Rolf Hanson, served here decades ago: he and my father’s sister, my aunt Esther, enjoyed their time here, and began to raise their young-and-growing family here back in the day.
So it is, indeed, an honor to preach and preside where such noble people whom I know and respect have held forth—and is also no small reason for a humble ‘gulp.’
And so here we are, celebrating Thankoffering Sunday, right on the cusp of Thanksgiving.
This time of year, this holiday season when the flickery wintery lights pop on in the dark; when egg nog and cocoa flow; when people don their cross-country skis to sail down the trail, and then take them off to sail to the sauna; when relatives and friends gather from next door or next time zone around a table and later, this season, a tree; this whole snowy, shivery, shimmery scene reminds me of a German word, one of many that is hard to translate: Gemütlichkeit.
I just discovered that the Norwegians have a similar word, similarly difficult, to translate: koselig.
They both mean a happy fusion of cozy, and content, and warm, and glad.
This scene, of course, this one of the huge bird on the table and someone carving it to perfection; and all the side dishes being precisely done at precisely the same and the right time; and grins from all who are about to feast; and, naturally, snow gracefully falling outside the four-to-six-paned windows, it plays out in most, if not all, of our minds.
The whole winter/holiday schmear: I take and cultivate it all.
Trouble is, sometimes…there is the errant Uncle Bert who burns the bird, and the Cousin Fran whom no one can stand, and the nephew Phillipe who frightens us all—is that him under the table again?
And there always are the dishes.
Those blessed dishes.
Those mountains of plates and flatware and serving dishes and stemware that make even Mt. Everest bow in honor of the carefully stacked pile.
I know of that poem, and have great respect for it and those who hang it, the one that goes: I thank God for the dirty dishes that loom in my kitchen, for it means that we have enough food to eat and people to eat it…and so on and so forth.
But I must confess that I have a different poem beside my sink; it’s a framed postcard, a German postcard, and it says, simply, “Abwaschen sucks!.” That is, Doing Dishes sucks!
And here, you see, here is the rub of both this day and these texts:
Make no mistake: there is much for which we should be grateful. For starters, in addition to the winter and (hopeful) holiday glory I mentioned above, some people get only to visit here: we get to live here along Minnesota’s North Shore! It is a lived reality that we could, any day we please (except in the off season) eat at the World’s Famous Donut store, or the Angry Trout, or take classes at the North Shore school, or wander along the Lake to discover an Agate.
But all of the blessings that any of us have in life, these very blessings that we are called to summon up and for which we are to thank God, well…there is a flip side to our reality too.
Sometimes…our cars don’t start in the winter cold.
Sometimes…we lose our favorite mittens.
Sometimes…the cold chills us to our very soul.
Sometimes…the dark gets to us.
Sometimes…we don’t like our parent/aunt/cousin…spouse…child.
Sometimes…those we do like, and love, or once loved, are not joining us for the day.
Sometimes…we forget to turn the oven on when we roast our turkey and realize it only an hour before the meal is to begin because we notice that really expensive hunk of organic, free-range, no antibiotic, only grass-fed poultry doesn’t seem to be a very fragrant bird, for all of that.
See, here’s my possibly Scrooge-like worry about days dedicated to Thanking God:
I fear that they unintentionally send a message to people that their lament, their grief, their losses, their shortcomings, their familially public and long-legendary “did-you-remember-when-so-and-so-did-that-to-just-the-mashed potatoes???” flops in the kitchen—the very things that are all the more brought to the fore on days like these—are, on this day, irrelevant and invisible.
On this day, the feeling seems to go, such matters should be put in proper perspective.
Instead of being sorrowful, being angry, being ashamed, being numb, you should book mark that, put those emotions on the back burner, suspend those experiences and thank God with a glad voice and glad heart ANYway.
Here’s the thing: I’m here to say, such Pollyanna Praise is not only, on occasion, hard to do; it’s impossible to do with any integrity…and that’s ok.
There are some circumstances that can occur in even the world of the ‘best’ people, the ‘saints,’ the ‘bad-things-never-happen-to-thems” that make the expectation of a “Thanks, God” seem forced at best, cruel at worst.
It’s why, in fact, we have a whole biblical book, let alone psalmic and wider-scriptural tradition, called “Lamentations.”
Lament, grief, regret, loneliness, anger…these are not, in and of themselves, bad.
In fact, they are quite, quite holy.
However, left there, such emotions, if one lingers in such places, such emotions claim all the rest of our emotions.
They claim all the rest of our well-being, and the well-being of those around us.
There is, I think, room, that is, for a middle ground, a place for a more authentic expression of the both/ands of life, and a more authentic expression of thanksgiving—thanksgiving being an act, let me be clear, which I find to be righteous and holy beyond measure too.
I think we find some of that middle ground in the woman of our Gospel text today.
But let’s first take a quick look at the quarrelsome bunch of folks in Exodus.
I love it that Moses named two places after them—and not in a good way: Can you imagine having a town named, “Quarrelsome” and “Testing,” in your honor? These were irritable, and irritating, people. Here Moses had up and saved them, at no small trouble to himself, let’s be clear. and sure, they didn’t have their daily rations, but their gratitude—sheesh. It’s not like they had a daily ration of that for Moses or, for that matter, for God.
Grumblers of the worst and most annoying sort. When I read their story I think to myself that while God calls us to love everyone, God never said that we had to like everyone.
Contrast these ungrateful cranks with the woman about whom we hear in John.
I cannot be adamant enough that you hear that there is nothing, nothing, nothing in the text that says that she was a ‘loose woman.”
I confess that I’m a bit over commentators who make that assumption.
First, she as a woman had no power to divorce, so even if she had been divorced, it was not of her own initiative.
Second, if she had been divorced, it may have been that it was because she was barren, meaning a triple-sorrow for this woman: she was abandoned by her husband, she could have no children, and she lost the possibility of security that these children could have provided her.
Third, she may have had a succession of husbands who died. Perhaps, then, she was a widow, and many times over—not an unfathomable thought when life expectancies were remarkably low.
And that, after her exchange with Jesus, neither she nor her message were spurned, but were rather heard with thanksgiving, is remarkable even without the questions that some raise about her integrity, for women were dismissed as witnesses even before they opened their mouths (making, by the way, the news that women were the first ones at the empty tomb who were called to tell the good news all the more remarkable; apparently, people listened to them too.)
In other words, this woman had every reason to be as quarrelsome and testy about God as her Hebrew ancestors were.
Instead, this text conveys a sense of Chutzpah in her.
We have two hounds, pretty darn huge dogs who are even so yet puppies: they are siblings, and are a mix of German Shepherds, Huskies, Golden Lab and Golden Retrievers. One, the biggest, is a male. We’ve named him Gimli, and those of you familiar with the Lord of the Rings series know that he is a stubborn, red-headed dwarf. Gimli is no dwarf, but is stubborn and is red. We call him ‘adorkable.’ His sister, however, she is smaller, and yet is, in some ways, stronger, and is smarter, and is braver. We have decided to call her Chutzpaw. The Yiddish word is spelled “C.H.U.T.Z.P.A.H.,” but we spell it “C.H.U.T.Z.P.A.W (see what we did there?).” It means ‘audacity,’ and ‘sass.’
So listen to her again, this woman, a Samaritan, being approached by a man, a Jew, and not only engaged in conversation, but he requested something of her. In every possible way, Jesus crossed boundaries, and did so, one can imagine, even with a smile on his face. I sometimes think that the guy had no small amount of impishness in him.
But I think she had an impish—tinged with incredulity—grin on her face too. Listen, just to these two lines: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” and “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Can’t you just see her, wiping a strand of hair from her brow in the hot noon sun, both amused and annoyed at this man bothering her, perhaps causing unwanted and uncalled for scuttlebutt, a single woman in a man’s and married woman’s world, grief upon grief, and can’t you just hear her saying those words in this way? “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” and “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
I’m reminded of how my daughter and I, on occasion, pray that common prayer, “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest,” in this way, “Come Lord Jesus, Be Our Guest!”
That is, as awful as her circumstances seem to be, she didn’t lose her sense of humor.
She acknowledged but refused to let the awfulness win the day.
She did not cede the win to despair, and if anyone had a right to, it was she.
I tell you what; as a widow, I never once gave God thanks for the death of my husband.
And I never once gave God thanks for the brain injury my son suffered in the same accident, and that my daughter and son grow up without the presence of their papa.
But I have learned that to stay in the anger, in the grief, in the loss empowers not me, but those emotions.
Instead, I have learned, like I wonder whether this woman has too, that a bit of snark saves the day.
A bit of gratitude grabs one back from the brink.
When, that is, this man says, “Um, yeah, actually I do have the water of eternal life, there is more to this life, to your life, than despair, let me fill you up with hope and promise,” well, that mattered to her.
It changed her.
It did not mean, let’s be clear, that suddenly all was as it should be—as, clearly even Jesus knew and wished it should be.
It did mean that, if nothing else, the woman knew that God knew her.
God knew her sorrows, her loneliness, and her fatigue.
And God had a different agenda for her, a different intent for her life.
How was all of this conveyed?
By the simplest of things: water.
Sometimes, you see, sometimes it is the simplest of kindnesses that reframe our perspectives.
It wasn’t, that is, just water; it was hope. It was perseverance. It was a conviction that she was, actually, not alone.
I learned sometime ago this phrase: the amount of pain in your life is directly related to the distance between your reality and your expectations.
The temptation is to change our expectations…and to do so by lowering them. We adjust our understandings of what we need, and we deserve, and what ought to be.
There is, depending on the moment, need and worth to that approach. Sometimes we are being far too outlandish in what we believe can and should happen.
But sometimes our expectations are right and holy. They should stay exactly where they are.
In that case, it is worth noting that it may also possible to change our reality…or to change our perception on reality.
That takes more effort, and even courage when deep changes to our realities are necessary.
It takes more than ourselves.
But it can take, this change can take.
I believe that one of the most dangerously deceptive claims that the Christian tradition has spread is that if you believe in Jesus, all will be peachy, or all is as it should be.
On so many levels, it is not true; in fact, depending on the matter, it may actually mean that the opposite is true.
But on this day, on this day, I do believe that we can concentrate on it meaning this:
Jesus is risen.
That is the gospel, the Good News.
The Euangelion, the thing about which we evangelize, is that we know, because we believe that Jesus is risen, that death doesn’t win.
Our reality has, in fact, fundamentally changed.
We never say—or never should say—that death doesn’t happen.
Death in any number of sad and devastating ways happens: it occurs when one whom we love dies, or betrays us, or falls short of what we believed she or he could be; it comes to pass when hopes die, or are exposed as being false; we suffer it when we must let go of what we thought would happen cannot.
Death is a real thing.
But Jesus’ resurrection tells us that, all evidence to the contrary, life wins.
Death should not, and in fact does not win.
And being reminded of this, knowing this, when we are in the midst of it—the ‘it’ being, as I said a moment ago, not just the six-foot-under-death, but also those deaths that this season seems to shine a light on, a magnifying glass on, and give a drum-roll for to boot—we begin to re-claim life, and be all the more, then, thankful for it.
We begin to foster a sense of gratitude in every moment—even the sucky ones. We see God’s agenda for what it is, and in grand contrast for what may instead be.
We detect the beauty of the moment, for we appreciate that at any moment it may disappear.
We savor the seconds, because they too pass.
We look at death’s wanton power grabbing at our spirits, our lives, our essences, and we call the thing what it is: death, and we remind it—and ourselves, what we are: people of life, and then we go about stewarding exactly more of that in our lives—for they are powerfully worthy—and in that of others—even obnoxious Uncle Bert’s.
We are even able to be a bit snarky, a bit audacious, a bit sassy about it: sure, our life isn’t perfect, sometimes radically so…but where it is, we are given the power to change either our expectations, change our reality, or be more aware that Jesus’ resurrection has changed our reality, making us all the more aware of God’s intent, God’s agenda, God’s hope for our lives, and God’s declaration that even when they are mostly filled with sorrow, and exhaustion, and lament, God is still there, and God claims you—and the entire world—worthy of the water.
Thanks be to God for that.
Thank you so much Anna. Today my Bible study group expressed such appreciation for your message. They were comforted, inspired, and had their thirst quenched. They asked how can we get a copy? They have thirsty friends and they want to share. And here you have provided. Thank you so much.
Please convey to them, and to the congregation, my family’s sheer delight at having worshipped with the people of Bethlehem. It was an honor, and we hope to walk (and roll!) through your doors again. Thank you for the invitation!