She poked her head through the doorway and looked around. The shadows were short in the noon sunlight. No one was out in the narrow alley except for the usual pack of stray dogs digging around for a few scraps while everyone else was inside to escape the afternoon heat. The path to the well looked deserted, as it usually was at this time of day, so slowly, with empty jars and the weight of the world on her shoulder she stepped out and made her way to the ancient watering hole.
She’d been coming to the well alone for a while now. Before, the other women just glanced at her curiously. They had all heard about her and were pretty certain they knew enough to make a judgment. That’s when the whispering started. She knew it was about her since no one ever came to share the juicy tidbits in her ears. The rumors started making their way from woman to woman about her string of romances. Eventually they just stayed away from her, coming early for their own water or waiting away from the well until she was done before coming to pull their own water. She wasn’t good, wasn’t pure, just wasn’t right to be around. They kept their physical distance, almost as if they were afraid her condition would rub off on them.
It didn’t take long for her to take the hint, and instead of enduring their scrutiny she just stopped coming to the well in the morning when it made sense to come. They didn’t have to make a rule to keep her out; she could tell by the way they treated her when she was there that at best they just didn’t know what to do with her, but at worst they didn’t want her there at all. Ignored, beginning to believe the lie that she didn’t belong, she just stopped trying. Instead she waited until there was no one at the well before she left each day to draw her own water.
Cast aside, ignored, avoided, barred from the everyday tasks and common community and relationships others shared, she never expected a kind word from a stranger, especially not a religious one. Those are the ones who usually hurl judgment instead of acceptance, anger instead of compassion, who build walls and barriers instead of showing her the way to refreshing new life.
He looked around when he entered Sychar. It was hot and dry. The disciples were hungry, but Jesus had other plans for the moment. He looked around and noticed a woman weaving her way quickly and silently through the barren streets. She carried a water jug, so he made a beeline to the well, Jacob’s well, and waited for her where she was sure to come.
He didn’t go to the religious house and wonder why she didn’t walk in looking for her. He didn’t announce his presence and wait for her to come seeking what he had to offer. He looked around and he saw who was clearly left out of the local synagogue, the local community, and he made sure to go to her, to give her the living water he had to offer. He sought after her and welcomed her when no one else would.
The church that really wants to make a difference looks around. The church that really wants to invite new members, encourage new life, and share the love it receives from Jesus looks around for those who are left out, those who are despised or even just ignored. The church that really wants to grow deep and grow wide is willing to open its doors and its minds to people who look and act a little different and is willing to be changed by them. A church that isn’t willing to do this IS willing to die.
When I was in college the church I was a part of provided “adoptive families” to students in the campus ministry. I was paired with a lovely older couple, David and Julie Williamson. When I announced to the Williamsons that I had changed my post-graduation plans and decided to enter seminary they were excited and supportive. They also laid before me what I believe is part of my call from God. With tears in their eyes they told me of one of the deepest pains in their lives.
Their grandson Steve and his family had no church home. They had tried a few churches over time, but nothing had ever worked out. It’s not that anyone told them outright that they couldn’t come. No one made a rule to keep them out. They could just tell by the way they were treated that churches just didn’t know what to do with Steve who had various medical problems and lived with developmental delays.
They didn’t know how to include him in Sunday School. They didn’t know what to do when he reached confirmation age. They didn’t know how to welcome him comfortably into worship, and worse than not knowing, they didn’t try to learn. Ignored, beginning to believe the lie that he didn’t belong, they just stopped trying. When I told the Williamsons I was going to seminary they asked me, they charged me, to make the church better for families like Steve's.
My relationship with the Williamsons and the call they delivered to me was in my heart when I accepted the call to this church because of the relationship with the Rainbow, and it has been with me ever since. I have shared this story with some of you and maybe even in worship once before, but always without a more concrete way to move forward. A long as I have been here I have seen in this congregation special gifts for a ministry of hospitality, education, and worship with families like Steve's, families who are sadly missing from churches all across and beyond our denomination. However, the way to share these gifts has not been obvious to me. A deeper relationship with and spiritual offerings for the Rainbow community even made it to our garden of ministries last spring, but again without a clear vision for carrying these ideas forward.
It seems, though, that now be planting seeds in this garden. Late last week I was invited to be a part of a meeting that will be taking place this coming week. The meeting will include a pastor and representatives from Nearby Lutheran Church and a worship leader from another local congregation who is also the mother of a teenage girl who was diagnosed with autism at the age of four. There is interest among this group in developing an ecumenical ministry in our town that will reach families that are touched by autism and other developmental special needs.
Looking around at all of our church memberships at the same time we can see that the numbers don’t add up. We can see there are people missing, people who have a very special need for loving and supportive community, for messages of hope and grace, for rest and renewal and drinks of living water. There are people in our community, but not in our churches who need to know that God loves them and calls to them, and that the rest of us need their gifts of patience, compassion, advocacy and love in our churches. We have looked around and seen people like Rick and his family who are on the fringes, and we feel called to go to them and embrace them with the love and acceptance of Christ’s body on earth.
I ask for your prayers this week as I am part of these initial inquiries and discernment. I ask that you will prayerful look around, especially outside of our church family, and try to see who is missing. Pray that God might show us how we can meet them without judgment where they are and welcome them into our midst to share the love of Jesus, the living water. I don’t know where these conversations will take us. I pray though that they will take us right to the well where we will meet Christ in each other. Amen.