Earth Care Fair – Putting our Faith in Action

Caring for Our Environment, Rational Thought, Reformed and Always Reforming

Join the Earth Stewardship Action Network at Lyndhurst Community Presbyterian Church for an Earth Care Fair on Saturday, May 12th from 9am-12pm!  All are invited to hear and see how we can faithfully and practically serve our world today through earth stewardship.  Attendees will be provided copies or links to helpful information about Earth stewardship, including presentations, guidelines and grant forms.

Here is the schedule:

  • 9:00
    • Introductory remarks from Rev. Carmen Denise Cox Harwell
    • Keynote Speaker Rev. Jim Butler
  • 9:30
    • Earth Stewardship Panel of Witnesses
      Our speakers will share their passion for earth care, the moral issues involved and their sense of urgency to take action.
  • 10:00
    • How to become an Earth Care Congregation, presented by David Neff from Forest Hill Church, Presbyterian
  • 10:15 – Earth Care Congregations Fair
    • Our churches who have already become Earth Care Congregations will share their stories and actions.
    • Meet Alycia Ashburn from Ohio Interfaith Power and Light
    • Application for Earth Stewardship Action Network grants
  • 10:45
    • Energy Efficiency Workshop, focusing on low cost energy saving opportunities and the Energy Stewards
    • Video presentation by Katherine Hayhoe, climate scientist & Christian, hosted by David Neff — to be followed by a Q&A Session
  • 12:00
    • Closing prayer

Light snacks and beverages will be offered.  No charge to attend – Please click here to RSVP


A Reflection for Maundy Thursday

Seeking God Together

Want to listen on SoundCloud?  Click here.

Mark 14:12-25

 The Last Supper

     12 On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Where do you want us to go and make preparations for you to eat the Passover?”

     13 So he sent two of his disciples, telling them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him. 14 Say to the owner of the house he enters, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 15 He will show you a large upper room, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.”

     16 The disciples left, went into the city and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover.

     17 When evening came, Jesus arrived with the Twelve. 18 While they were reclining at the table eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me—one who is eating with me.”

     19 They were saddened, and one by one they said to him, “Surely not I?”

     20 “It is one of the Twelve,” he replied, “one who dips bread into the bowl with me. 21 The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.”

     22 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.”

     23 Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it.

     24 “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them. 25 “Truly I tell you, I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

This is Maundy Thursday, which is – or at least ought to be – one of the most important events on the calendar of the church. (‘Maundy,’ by the way is an old word that means ‘holy.’) On the evening of Maundy Thursday, followers of Jesus gather to remember together our Master’s Last Supper with his disciples, and to celebrate the sacrament he established on that night.

The other gospels add a number of details about that night. The Gospel of John gives an especially detailed account, complete with the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. But this account from Mark we’re reflecting on today is understood to have been reported personally by Peter, and also to be the one that was published closest to the time of the events it reports. So it seems important to look at what parts of the story seem most important to Mark and Peter.

First of all, it’s important for us to keep in mind that the Last Supper was a Passover gathering. So it was an observance at which Jesus and his disciples joined other Jews in remembering and celebrating the liberation of their people from slavery in Egypt. As you might be aware, the traditional Passover rituals have a bittersweet quality to them. The people ate bitter herbs to remember the bitterness of their bondage in Egypt. They ate bread without yeast to remember that they had to leave Egypt in a hurry – with no time to let bread rise. In fact, the Passover meal was always to be eaten with shoes on, for the same reason. And they ate lamb – a reminder of the lamb whose blood marked the homes of those who would be set free at the cost of its life.

For Jesus and his disciples, this Last Supper was also a bittersweet event. Not only were they remembering the ancient history of their people and its themes of bitterness and liberation through blood, but also it turned especially sinister when Jesus announced at dinner that one of them would betray him. And as his followers looked back in later years, they would remember these things about their final meal with Jesus before his arrest and trial and horrible death.

For us, nearly 2,000 years later, this sacrament remains a bittersweet event, one that we will celebrate twice in the next three days. Each time we observe the Lord’s Supper, we are reminded that our salvation was bought at the price of Jesus’ death – that his own body was broken and his blood poured out for us.

But three days from now, we will observe the sacrament again, but then with a very different emotional and spiritual tone to the observance. Then, on Easter morning, we will be remembering that by Jesus’ death on the cross, we have been rescued from our sins and made members of God’s own family. As members of that family, we will gather around a table in celebration.

For us, as for the Hebrews, the sacrament is always a bittersweet event – the sweetness of our liberation from slavery to sin and death always calls us to remember the bitter price paid to set us free. The body of Jesus was broken for us, and his blood was shed to establish a new covenant for those who love and follow him.

Let’s pray. Lord, on this Maundy Thursday, we remember with thanks the night when Jesus established the blessed sacrament we share around your table, and we remember also the great promise that sacrament represents: that all who follow him are adopted as members of your own family, and welcomed at your table. In his name we pray. Amen.

Grace and Peace,

(The other readings for today are Psalms 70 and 93; Lamentations 2:10-18; and I Corinthians 10:14-17 and 11:27-32.)

Seeing God Working in Hard Times

Worship Study Prayer

Want to listen on Soundcloud?  Click here.

Genesis 45:1-7

Joseph Makes Himself Known

     1Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh’s household heard about it.

     3 Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still living?” But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence.

     4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.

Most of the time, our Reflections are based either on the gospel reading or the epistle reading listed for the day. It’s a little more unusual for us to base them on the Old Testament readings. But this particular reading from Genesis was the listed Old Testament reading for yesterday, and it strikes me as one with an important lesson in it, so I wanted to take time to think about it with you a little today.

If you remember the story of Joseph, he’s portrayed in Genesis as an arrogant brat who alienated his brothers so much that they eventually sold him into slavery. Or to be more precise, ten of his eleven brothers joined in selling him into slavery. Joseph’s ten half-brothers wanted to murder him, but his only full brother, Benjamin, spoke up to talk them out of it.

The historians, by the way, say that “fratricide” – the murder of brothers – wasn’t that uncommon in the ancient world, especially when one brother seemed to be favored by the father. And, as I mentioned, Joseph made no attempt to hide his understanding that God intended his brothers – and even their parents – to be subordinate to him. So at the very least, Joseph’s people skills left something to be desired. He kept telling the rest of the family about having dreams that he said were messages from God – dreams that foretold that the rest of the family would all bow down to him. As you might imagine, this news was not greeted warmly by the brothers. So they sold him into slavery, and he was carried off to Egypt.

In the subsequent years, however, Joseph did just fine for himself in Egypt. After a rough patch where he was thrown unjustly into prison, Joseph was brought out by Pharaoh, and eventually rose to be what we might call the prime minister of the Egyptian government, second only to Pharaoh himself. When a famine struck the land of Canaan, Joseph’s brothers went to Egypt to buy food, which had food only because Joseph had advised Pharaoh to store some up before the famine struck.

The brothers were brought before Joseph, but they didn’t recognize him. Habits of dress and grooming were no doubt much different among the Egyptian elite than among sheep herders in Canaan. And many years had passed, so it’s probably believable that they might not recognize Joseph, especially given the circumstances. For a while, Joseph sort of jerked his brothers around, making them travel back and forth and framing one of them for theft.

But now, in the reading we’re looking at today, Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers. As you might imagine, these guys are shocked and terrified to learn that they are now completely in the power of a brother they had sold into slavery. Quite reasonably, they expected Joseph to take this opportunity to get revenge for their treachery of years before.

But to their surprise, Joseph’s take on the events of his life is not at all what his brothers expected. Joseph sees God’s hand at work in the ordeal he had gone through. Joseph understands that God has placed him in Egypt, and elevated him through the ranks of the Egyptian government, so that he can protect the people (including his family) from starvation in this time of famine. Joseph sees that out of great injustice, God has brought salvation.

Obviously, we can see in this interpretation a kind of foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross – salvation out of great injustice. But it seems to me we can also see in this story a lens through which we can view the bad things that happen in our own lives.

There are some people who would say that any time something bad happens in your life, it’s God’s doing – as they say, “Everything happens for a reason.” Personally, I don’t interpret it that way. Sometimes people do bad things – or bad things just happen – that are not “God’s will.”

But I do believe that in all the circumstances of our lives – even the most difficult – God gives us opportunities to be his agents in bringing good out of bad. It seems to me that looking for those chances to bring good out of bad can reveal God’s grace in our lives, and in the lives of others. Some people have been sustained in times of great suffering by the determination to bring good out of it – even if only to bear witness against the great evil they have gone through.

In times of hardship, maybe this example of Joseph can help to enact God’s saving grace in our own lives by reminding us that we can be instruments of that saving grace in the lives of others.

Let’s pray. Lord, when we face times of hardship, help us to look for ways that you might work through us to bring salvation, not just to us, but also into the lives of others. And sustain us in those times with the knowledge that even in hard times, we can be serving your purposes. Amen.


(The listed readings for today are Psalms 27 and 1471-11; Genesis 45:16-28; I Corinthians 8:1-13; and Mark 6: 13-29.)


Jesus is accused of insanity and Satanism.

Worship Study Prayer

Want to listen on Soundcloud?  Click here.

Mark 3:20-35

Jesus and Beelzebub

     20 Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. 21 When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”

     22 And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebub! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.”

     23 So Jesus called them and began to speak to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. 26 And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. 27 In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can rob his house. 28 I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of people will be forgiven them. 29 But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.”

     30 He said this because they were saying, “He has an impure spirit.”

 Jesus’ Mother and Brothers

     31 Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”

     33 “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.

     34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

Today’s gospel reading is a passage from Mark that’s a little complicated, so you kind of have to trace the whole argument to make sense of it. So we’ll do our best.

The listed passage starts out by telling us that Jesus’ family was worried about him. It seems from the way the story is told that word had reached Jesus’ family that he had become so consumed with his ministry that he wasn’t stopping to eat or rest. So some of the family (apparently his mother and brothers) came to look into the situation. The text in Mark says they were afraid that Jesus was “out of his mind.” But it’s a little hard to tell whether the family really thought Jesus was acting ‘crazy,’ or whether they feared he would ‘drive himself crazy’ if he didn’t start taking care of himself.

After this part about Jesus’ family, the story shifts gear a little. Mark tells us that some of the Jewish religious leaders had come down from Jerusalem to look into what Jesus was doing and teaching, and these guys declared that Jesus was actually possessed by the devil. They said this was why Jesus was able to drive out demons.

It’s interesting that these two ideas show up next to one another here – the ideas of mental illness and demonic possession. I say it’s interesting because the line between the two was pretty blurry in the ancient world. Most people back then had no real concept of mental illness. As far as they were concerned, any mentally ill person was possessed by a demon. It seems quite possible that many of those who are described in the gospels as possessed by demons were really victims of mental illness. (That’s not to say there weren’t some actual cases of demonic possession. In some cases demons spoke to Jesus, and knew his true identity even before the disciples did. Mental illness doesn’t give you that kind of spiritual and supernatural knowledge.)

So why would the leaders accuse Jesus of being ‘in league with demonic powers?’ He had been preaching out of the scriptures and healing the sick and disabled. Why would that cause the leadership to declare him to be possessed by the devil?

It seems possible that the Jewish leaders were just cynically trying to think up something serious to accuse Jesus of. (Obviously, people do that to their enemies all the time. Just watch the news.) But it also seems possible to me that these Jewish leaders were making a mistake that people in power often make: They had come to think of themselves as ‘the good guys,’ so anyone who stood in their way might have seemed evil to them.

Of course, once the Jewish leaders accused Jesus of being in league with the devil, he points out the logical flaw in their accusation: If Satan was going to give someone power, he wouldn’t give that power so it could be used against his minions. And Jesus adds a little parable where he likens Satan to a strong man, and says that the only way a strong man’s house can be robbed is if an even stronger man comes in and ties him up. Jesus’ point seems to be that as God in human form, he is strong enough to overpower Satan.

Then Jesus says something that a lot of Christians find a little disturbing: He says that all sins can be forgiven except the sin of blaspheming against the Holy Spirit. Lots of Christians read that and they’re afraid they might have ‘blasphemed against the Holy Spirit’ without knowing it. Not to worry, I think. Most scholars seem to think Jesus meant to specifically address the Jewish leaders’ accusation that the healings and other works of the Holy Spirit were actually works of evil powers. It’s not likely the average follower of Jesus will accidentally ‘blaspheme against the Holy Spirit.’

Then the passage gets back to Jesus’ mother and brothers. They come asking to see him, and they send in a messenger. But Jesus responds by saying that all those around him are actually his family. At first blush, that sounds pretty dismissive of his family. But I think that misreads the passage. Jesus seems to have maintained close ties with his family. His mother and at least two of his brothers seem to have been involved in his ministry. Mary was there at the cross, and his brother James was one of the leaders of the movement after Jesus ascended to heaven.

It seems to me the real point Jesus was making wasn’t one of dismissing his biological family, but rather that all those who followed him in seeking and doing God’s will were members of his ‘spiritual family.’ That’s a principle we remember each time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper.

OK, so like I said, this is a complicated passage. But even though it makes a few twists and turns, it’s one that sheds some light on how his enemies attacked Jesus, how he turned aside their attacks, and the great promise we have that as his followers, we’re considered members of his own family.

Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you that in Jesus, you stood up to the vested interests who found you threatening, and that in him, you were strong enough to break the power of Satan and begin taking back what he had stolen. We thank you, also, that you have opened your own family to all who follow him in seeking and doing your will. Amen.


(The other readings for today are Psalms 91 and 145; Genesis 42:1-17; and I Corinthians 5:1-8.)

When Achievement Becomes “Rubbish”

Worship Study Prayer

Want to listen on Sound Cloud?  Click here.

Philippians 3:4b-11

No Confidence in the Flesh

   If anyone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

     7 But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

Today’s epistle passage continues the series from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. And in this passage, Paul reflects on his achievements before becoming a follower of Jesus and being chosen by God as the leading missionary to the gentile world.

You might remember that before Jesus confronted him on the road to Damascus, Paul had been one of the most respected leaders in the Jewish religious establishment of his day. In today’s reading, he recites some of his qualifications. He was descended from a long line of Hebrews and a member of a prestigious tribe – the tribe of Benjamin. Paul was also a member of the Pharisees, which was a group of Jews who pledged to obey the law of God as strictly as possible.

But Paul’s credentials even went beyond what’s listed in this passage. What Paul doesn’t say here is that he was a student of the great Jewish scholar Gamaliel, so he was considered to have about the best education it was possible for a young Hebrew to get.

Paul was also a citizen of the Roman Empire, which was fairly rare for Jews of his time. The New Testament scholars say he seems to have been trained in Greco-Roman rhetoric, because his speeches and letters have the kind of structure taught in that discipline. Those speeches and letters also show that Paul had a pretty good background in Greek philosophy – good enough that he could use principles of that philosophy in his ministry among the Greeks.

On top of all that, Paul had been the leader of the Jewish persecution of the followers of Jesus. In the early years of the movement, most of those who followed Jesus were Jews, and most of them continued to observe the religious traditions of their people. Historians believe many of them went to the Jewish synagogues on Saturday and then participated in Christian worship on Sundays. Because they continued to practice the Jewish faith, the followers of Jesus were vulnerable to Jewish authorities.

Although Roman law applied throughout the area, the Romans allowed the Jewish leaders to enforce discipline within the synagogues. That meant Paul and the other Jewish leaders could throw Christians out of the synagogues, or even have them lashed or imprisoned. They could spread the word among Jewish congregations not to do business with followers of Jesus and harass them in other ways. And while the Jews weren’t technically allowed to execute people, if a Jewish mob occasionally stoned followers of Jesus, the Romans weren’t about to get too worked up about it. That’s what happened to Stephen, and while that stoning apparently wasn’t an ‘official action’ of the Jewish leadership, Paul stood by and watched the coats of the mob who killed Stephen.

So the point is that Paul was pretty much a big shot among the Jewish leaders of his day.

But now, Paul says, having encountered Jesus and become one of his most devoted disciples, he regards all those achievements of his former life as so much ‘rubbish.’ In addition to coming to a deep, personal faith in Jesus, Paul has also experienced a major change in his thinking. He no longer believes that he can accomplish ‘a righteousness of his own,’ by observing the law and following Hebrew practices and rituals. Now, Paul says, he has become convinced that his only way of being righteous in God’s eyes is by faith in Jesus.

Paul also believes that the ultimate source of Jesus’ great power is not his wisdom as a teacher (as great as that wisdom obviously was) but rather his suffering and death on the cross. And Paul expresses a longing to share in those sufferings, because that will allow him to share in Jesus’ resurrection, as well.

For those of us who are trying to follow Jesus 2,000 years later, it seems to me that Paul’s teaching – and his example – call us to embrace two ideas.

The first is that trying to achieve a level of righteousness through our own ‘religiosity’ is a waste of time. And not only a waste of time, but also dangerous. When we fall in love with our own ideas about what a righteous person should do and not do, we can end up failing to recognize real righteousness because it doesn’t match our preconceived notions. It’s important to remember that all the Jewish leaders who demanded Jesus’ crucifixion did it because they believed they were serving God and promoting righteousness. But they had come to mistake their own customs for real righteousness. That can happen among Christians, just as it did among the Jews of Jesus’ day.

The second important idea here is that as followers of Jesus, sharing in his righteousness means being willing to share in his sufferings. Almost none of us will be called to the same kind of suffering Jesus himself experienced. But if our lives don’t include any real and meaningful sacrifices for the sake of our discipleship, then we should probably ask ourselves whether God is going to regard that discipleship as real. If our discipleship doesn’t cost us anything, it’s probably not going to allow us to share in the righteousness of Jesus.

Let’s pray together: Lord, take away our desire to achieve righteousness by doing and saying religious things. Help us instead to follow Jesus more and more closely so that we can share in the true righteousness that comes only from him. Amen.


(The other readings for today are Psalms 5 and 51; Amos 5:6-15; and Luke 18:9-14.)

Launching an Earth Stewardship Action Network (and some steps YOUR church could consider)

Caring for Our Environment, Serving Those in Need

By Keith Mills

Our new Earth Stewardship Action Network has been given a mission of earth care and earth justice, and everyone in our Presbytery is invited to participate in this ministry in some way. Our intention is to be both faithful and practical; a specific example follows.

At a Presbytery of the Western Reserve meeting in early 2016, a vote was taken on a potential General Assembly overture that PC(USA) not divest from fossil fuel company investments, believing this move would be counter-productive and divisive. That motion carried, but with the strong recommendation that PCUSA congregations take action to reduce their carbon emissions, specifically though energy efficiency and renewable energy sources.

Therefore, all Presbytery of the Western Reserve congregations are invited to commit to decreasing annual building energy use by at least 10% over time. This is a win/win path that reduces church utility spending — which can be redirected to missions, programs and staff — and reduces our pollution emissions. One justice issue around air pollution is its link to poverty: pollution tends to most dramatically affect low income neighborhoods, as inner city rates of asthma and COPD are among the highest in North East Ohio.

Reducing energy use starts with simply turning off church lighting and equipment when not in use. Each church can restrict hours the building is open, by, for example, closing the church on one night.  Upgrading at least 80% of church lighting to LEDs and using motion sensors over time is recommended, as these investments fairly quickly result in reducing lighting costs. Using setback thermostats reduces heating and cooling costs when the building is unoccupied. Finally, tracking energy use over a period of time helps to confirm that we have actually reduced energy use, and takes weather differences into account.

This path has been followed by many congregations across the country, and is both faithful and practical.   A proposal to Committee on Outreach, if and when approved, will provide monetary grants for congregations who commit to moving along the energy reduction path. Any congregation can start small, installing 5-10 LED bulbs at a time.   Energy efficiency project loans for larger projects are available through PCUSA.

Please contact the Earth Stewardship Action Network at if you would like to share an earth stewardship example that you are passionate about, or if you have questions for (or would like a visit from) one of our Network members.

Every blessing,
Keith Mills

Jesus and the Living Water That Flows From Him

Worship Study Prayer

Want to listen on Soundcloud?  Click here.

John 7:37-52

Jesus at the Festival of Tabernacles

     37 On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” 39 By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.

     40 On hearing his words, some of the people said, “Surely this man is the Prophet.”

     41 Others said, “He is the Christ.”

       Still others asked, “How can the Christ come from Galilee? 42 Does not Scripture say that the Christ will come from David’s family and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?” 43 Thus the people were divided because of Jesus. 44 Some wanted to seize him, but no one laid a hand on him.

 Unbelief of the Jewish Leaders

     45 Finally the temple guards went back to the chief priests and the Pharisees, who asked them, “Why didn’t you bring him in?”

     46 “No one ever spoke the way this man does,” the guards replied.

     47 “You mean he has deceived you also?” the Pharisees retorted. 48 “Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? 49 No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law—there is a curse on them.”

     50 Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked, 51 “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?”

     52 They replied, “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.”

Today’s gospel reading comes from the Gospel of John, and it comes at the end of a section of that gospel that tells about Jesus’ attendance at the Festival of Tabernacles, which was an annual festival held at harvest time – a sort of Hebrew version of our Thanksgiving holiday. In earlier parts of the story, we’re told that by this time, Jesus had started to attract a wide following, and that his brothers had encouraged him to make an appearance at the festival as a kind of promotional opportunity for his ministry. But of course, that kind of self-promotion wasn’t what Jesus understood his ministry on earth to be about. So instead, he went to Jerusalem quietly – “under the radar,” we might say. And once he got there, he went to the Temple and started teaching those who gathered around him.

John describes some of the controversy that had started to spring up around Jesus, with some people regarding him as a good man and an amazing teacher, while others had been convinced by the religious authorities that he was a ‘deceiver.’ John also reported that the rumor was circulating that the leadership wanted Jesus dead.

Today’s passage takes place on the final day of the festival. And in order to get the point of what’s happening, it’s important to know that one of the rituals of the Festival of Tabernacles involved publicly pouring out water before the worshipers. On this occasion, Jesus stepped forward before the assembled crowd and announced what he had told the Samaritan woman at the well – that he was the source of “living water” that would quench the spiritual thirst of those who experienced it. And what’s more, that this living water would allow those who drank it to become a spiritual spring flowing into the lives of others.

That’s a metaphor that we followers of Jesus should probably think about from time to time – that if we are really ‘drinking in’ the Holy Spirit as it flows out of the teaching of Jesus, then that Spirit will be flowing out of us as well, so that others will encounter it through us. Jesus didn’t intend that his followers would just receive his teachings and the Holy Spirit they open us to – but rather that we would become a conduit for those teachings and that Spirit to flow into the lives of others.

The last part of today’s reading tells more about the controversy that surrounded Jesus. Some people thought he was the Messiah (That’s what ‘Christ’ means.), while others pointed out that he came from Galilee. As we know, the prophets had foretold that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem. The people at the festival seem to have known that, but what they didn’t know was that Bethlehem is where Jesus had been born.

Eventually, even the temple guards who had been sent to arrest Jesus were so moved by the power of his teaching that they went back to the temple without him. The chief priests and the Pharisees criticized the guards for failing to arrest Jesus. But the only reason the Pharisees could give for Jesus to be arrested is that they and the other bigshots didn’t believe in him.

On the other hand, the common people who actually sat and listened to Jesus (apparently including these temple guards) found themselves deeply affected by his teachings. The bigshots found Jesus threatening to their power and privilege, but those who actually listened to him with open hearts found themselves drinking in the living water Jesus had talked about, and pouring out that living water for others – exactly as Jesus had said.

Let’s pray. Lord, we ask that you would open our hearts and minds so that the teachings of Jesus and the Holy Spirit that flows with them would fill us – and even overflow us into the lives of others, so they would come to experience the spiritual refreshment and new life only he can provide. Amen.

Grace and Peace,

(The other readings for today are Psalms 29 and 82; Genesis 25:19-34; and Hebrews 13:1-16.)

Transformed into a Powerful Witness

Worship Study Prayer

Want to listen on Soundcloud?  Click here.

John 4:27-42

The Disciples Rejoin Jesus

     27 Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?”

     28 Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” 30 They came out of the town and made their way toward him.

     31 Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.”

     32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”

     33 Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?”

     34 “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. 35 Don’t you have a saying, ‘Four months more and then the harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. 36 Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together.37 Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. 38 I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.”

Many Samaritans Believe

     39 Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. 41 And because of his words many more became believers.

     42 They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”

Yesterday’s reflection was based on the first part of this story, which began with Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman at a well near the Samaritan town of Sychar.

We talked about how odd it was for a woman to be coming to the well in the heat of mid-day, and passed along the speculation from some Bible scholars that she came then to avoid gossip about her unusual marital history. As Jesus discerned, she had been married five times, and apparently was now living with a sixth man.

In the course of their conversation, Jesus had offered the woman “living water” – apparently referring to his teachings and the new life that comes to those who follow him – and promised that living water would quench a deep spiritual thirst within her. He had told the Samaritan woman that a time had come when the old quarrels between Jews and Samaritans about where to worship would no longer matter – all that mattered now was that people worship truthfully and with their whole heart. And Jesus had revealed himself to the woman as the Messiah.

Now in today’s passage, the Samaritan woman races off in excitement, leaving her water jar. That would have been one of the woman’s most valuable possessions, and leaving it behind shows how excited she is. It’s pretty clear that the woman is in a hurry to tell her neighbors about her encounter with Jesus.

It’s very interesting to look closely at what the Samaritan woman says when she arrives back in her town. First of all, she just tells people that Jesus had demonstrated supernatural knowledge – he had known things about her he had no way of knowing. (The woman is obviously exaggerating a little – as far as we can tell from the passage, Jesus didn’t tell her ‘everything she had ever done,’ but OK. She gets some leeway – she’s just met the Messiah.) Anyway, as she’s talking to the townspeople, notice that the woman didn’t flatly state her opinion that Jesus was the Messiah. Instead, she floated the idea in the form of a question: “Could this be the Christ?”

That’s all it took. The woman gave witness to what she had personally experienced, and then she asked the question: Could this be the one? And combined with her obvious excitement, that’s all it took. Her neighbors followed the woman out of the village with belief ‘half-formed’ in their minds and hearts. They came to Jesus, and as they listened to him, their faith became complete. What began as a second-hand faith became as vivid and personal to them as it had been to the woman when they encountered Jesus personally.

This Samaritan woman would have been considered an unlikely person for Jesus to work through. She was a woman, she was a foreigner, and she was a person with a questionable marital history. But this woman was powerfully transformed by her experience with Jesus. Instead of an object of scorn and gossip laboring to the well in the noontime heat, she became an instrument by which a whole community came to Jesus. When you think about it, she became the first ‘Christian evangelist’ in the Gospel of John. She was the first one to tell others about Jesus and lead them to faith. And she did it by expressing her excitement, by bearing witness to what she had experienced personally, and by asking people to consider whether Jesus could be what they had been waiting for.

And what’s more, she became a model for the rest of us in our witness, as well. All of us who have had experiences of faith can bear witness to those experiences, and we can invite others to encounter Jesus and ask themselves whether he might not be the savior they’ve been waiting for – to save them from the burden of their own sins and mistakes, to save them from the shallow materialism of our ‘consumer culture,’ and to introduce them to a new and vibrant way of life.

Let’s pray together. Lord, inspire us by this woman’s example. She didn’t let others’ opinion of her stop her from telling what she had seen. She let her excitement be seen by others, and she invited them to decide for themselves if Jesus is the Christ. By your Spirit, move us to imitate her. Amen.

Have a great weekend, and worship God joyfully on Sunday,

(The listed readings for today are Psalms 130 and 148; Genesis 11:27-12:8; Hebrews 7:1-17; and John 4:16-26.)

A Surprising Encounter at the Well of Jacob

Worship Study Prayer

Want to listen on Soundcloud?  Click here.

John 4:4-26

     4 Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.

     7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

     9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

     10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

     11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?”

     13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

     15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

     16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

     17 “I have no husband,” she replied.

    Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

     19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

     21 Jesus declared, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

     25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

     26 Then Jesus declared, “I who speak to you am he.”

This story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman is the listed reading for the next three days. But since the third of those days is Saturday, I’m going to combine the first two days’ readings so we can think about it for two days rather than three.

And like a number of stories in the Gospel of John, this is a pretty long one, so please bear with me if today’s reflection is a little longer than usual. For my money, this is one of the most interesting and thought-provoking stories from the life and ministry of Jesus.

The story takes place as Jesus travels through the region of Samaria. That in itself is significant, because lots of the Jews despised the Samaritans so much that they wouldn’t even walk through the region – they’d walk all the way around it. The Jews considered the Samaritans to be ethnically and theologically ‘impure,’ and wouldn’t allow them to worship at the temple in Jerusalem. So just by walking through Samaria, Jesus was demonstrating that his mission in the world was sort of breaking down the walls around Jewish religious practice. Jesus was reaching out, as he would on so many occasions, to those considered ‘unworthy.’

As Jesus sits by a well alone at mid-day, he holds a conversations with a Samaritan woman who comes to draw water. That’s a second surprising thing here. Religious Jewish men – and especially rabbis – were told to avoid conversation with women, who were considered frivolous at best, as well as objects of sexual temptation. But Jesus asks the woman for a drink, which would presumably mean drinking out of her jar. The woman expresses her surprise – Jesus’ request would be something like a white southerner during Jim Crow days wanting to drink out a water fountain designated for “colored” people.

But when the woman answers by observing that Jews didn’t associate with Samaritans, Jesus says something else that surprises her. He says that he has something for her – a “living water” that would satisfy a deeper thirst in her. And what’s more, Jesus says, this living water would start to flow out of her, to become a source of eternal life for others. And then he goes on to surprise the woman again, by revealing that he knows the facts of the woman’s unusual personal life. She’s had five husbands, and she’s living with a guy she’s not married to.

It’s common for Christian interpreters to characterize the Samaritan woman as promiscuous, or at least as sinfully cavalier about her marriage commitments. But that might say more about the interpreters than it does about the woman. We have no idea how her five marriages had ended, or anything else about her circumstances.

It does seem reasonable to speculate, as some interpreters have, that the woman’s unusual history had made her the target of gossip in her community. Most women in that hot climate would go to the well for water first thing in the morning, when it was cool. But this woman had gone at mid-day, so there must have been some reason for that. And avoiding gossipy neighbors is a reasonable possibility.

But whatever the reason for her unusual schedule, Jesus doesn’t offer a word of judgment or condemnation. He just tells her that God is doing a new thing. God is washing away the barriers between people, ethnic distinctions, gender boundaries and apparently perceived boundaries of ‘propriety.’ God is now concerned only with finding those who are willing to worship him “in spirit and truth.”

When you really step back and look at this story, the whole theme that runs through it is that on this occasion Jesus did and said a lot of really surprising – maybe even ‘shocking’ – things.

And there was even one more surprise to come. Because it is to this Samaritan woman with the unusual past that Jesus reveals something he has revealed to no one else in the Gospel of John: that he is the Messiah.

The woman doesn’t immediately fall on her knees and worship him, but she does respond in a powerful way. Leaving her water jar by the well, she runs back to town and starts spreading the word that she might just have met the Messiah out at the well.

We’ll think about the conclusion of this story tomorrow.

Let’s pray: Lord, we know you often work through surprising people in surprising ways. Guard us against rejecting your work when it is done through people who might seem ‘inappropriate’ to us. And guard us against being shocked to learn that you intend to work through us, as well. Amen.


(The listed readings for today are Psalms 27 and 80; Genesis 11:1-9; Hebrews 6:13-20; and John 4:1-15.)

John the Baptist’s Self Awareness

Seeking God Together, Worship Study Prayer

Want to listen on Soundcloud?  Click here.

John 1:19-27

John the Baptist Denies Being the Messiah

     19 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was.20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Christ.”

     21 They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?”

      He said, “I am not.”

     “Are you the Prophet?”

      He answered, “No.”

     22 Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

     23 John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”

     24 Now the Pharisees who had been sent 25 questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”

     26 “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. 27 He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”

Like yesterday’s gospel reading, this one comes from the beginning of the Gospel of John. It follows the famous introduction, which opens with “In the beginning was the Word,” which we reflected on yesterday. Having set the scene with that well-known interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ life and ministry, the gospel immediately goes on to recount the ministry of John the Baptist.

Actually, you might remember that John the Baptist is mentioned in that introduction, too. In verse 15, we’re told that John the Baptist ‘testified’ to Jesus, and that he said, “He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.” In other words, John acknowledged that Jesus was greater than he, which is something he might well have been hearing all his life, given that his mother and Mary were relatives. But in those opening verses John also said that Jesus had existed in some other realm before coming into this world. That’s a pretty startling insight, when you think about it.

Anyway, in today’s passage, John the Baptist has apparently started his ministry, and the Jewish religious authorities in Jerusalem send a delegation to ask John who he was. We’re told that John freely admitted that he was not the Christ. (Which means the same thing as “Messiah.”). Presumably the religious leaders wouldn’t have thought for a minute that this unkempt guy with bits of locusts and wild honey in his beard could actually be the Messiah. They expected a Messiah who resembled King David, a heroic warrior-king who would drive out the Romans. They probably just wanted to know if John the Baptist was delusional enough to have a “messiah complex.”

But when John “confessed freely, ‘I am not the Christ,’” the delegation from Jerusalem started trying to pin down exactly who he thought he was. First they asked him if he was Elijah, who had dressed and eaten in the same bizarre fashion – camel’s hair clothes and the bugs-and-honey diet. So it might seem reasonable that John the Baptist actually thought he was Elijah. But John denied that, too.

Then they asked him if he was “the prophet.” Jewish religious thought of the time understood that at some point a great and mysterious prophet would appear. But John said that wasn’t him, either.

And when they finally just asked, “Who are you?” John literally gave them a “straight answer” – he said he was the one sent to “make straight the way of the Lord.”

The gospel accounts describe a great movement of people in response to the ministry of John the Baptist – “all the people” coming out to confess their sins and repent and be baptized. It would be very easy under those circumstances, when there were thousands of people responding to your call, to have an inflated self-image. But John the Baptist seems to have had no illusion about his place in the great scheme of salvation history. He saw that he was just an ordinary man who had been given an extraordinary job to do. He was preparing the way of the Lord.

I sometimes wonder if the strange clothes and painful diet might not have been meant to present John the Baptist as the most humble figure imaginable. He must have been pretty gross, actually. John certainly described himself in humble terms, as not worthy to untie the sandals of Jesus. But God used this strange and humble man to call people to a new awareness that their way of being God’s people was missing the mark. And in bringing people to that new level of spiritual awareness, God used John to get the world ready to receive his Son.

I also wonder if John might not be intended as a message to people like us – a message about our own role in salvation history. Maybe our role has something very important in common with John’s. We’re also unworthy to untie the shoes of Jesus. Most of us couldn’t claim to be charismatic heroes, any more than John could. But we’ve also been given the task of preparing the way of the Lord into the hearts of the people around us. The Great Commission commands us to ‘go and make disciples,’ but the truth is that we can’t make disciples. Only Jesus can make disciples by the power of the Holy Spirit. But we can prepare the way for him into the lives of others.

We can prepare a way for him by living lives of discipleship that make others want to know why we do it. By opening our hearts to the Holy Spirit until the fruits of peace and joy and love are unmistakable in us. By forgiving others who don’t deserve it, because we know we don’t deserve the forgiveness we’ve received, either. By loving others until they ask why. If we can live that kind of lives, I don’t have much doubt that our master will use us to make straight his way into the hearts of people around us.

Let’s pray: Lord, help us to be more like John the Baptist – move us to lay aside our own egos so we can do the work you’ve given us to do – to make a straight way for you into the hearts of the people around us. With every day we live, let our lives be more about you and less about ourselves. Amen.


(The other readings for today are Psalms 42 and 133; Genesis 3:1-24; and Hebrews 2:1-10.)