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The First Congregational Church, Columbus Ohio
Feb 27, 2005
A sermon delivered by The Rev. Timothy Ahrens

Dedicated to the memory of Grace Chase who lived into Grace, to Roger and Janet Chase who moved back to live beside Grace and always to the glory of God!
Grace as a Moral Value Part IV of VIII in the Sermon Series: "Moral Values: Which Values and Whos Values?"
Exodus 17:1-7, John 4:5-42

It seems they share nothing in common. As the story opens, their conversation holds no promise. They are separated by gender, religion, and race. She speaks of water as the liquid substance needed to sustain life. He speaks of water as the spiritual substance that transforms creatures into relationship with their Divine Creator. She speaks of buckets needed to pull water from wells to dry land. He speaks of water that, like artesian springs, will gush forth eternal life.

And then it happens. She begins to realize that his is the wellspring for all life - spiritual and physical. As he reveals truths about her life, her five marriages, her current lover (to whom she is not married), and even her ways of worship, the woman's eyes and ears are opened. She challenges him one more time. She wonders about his Jewish beliefs about worship in Jerusalem's temple. He responds: "the time is coming - it has, in fact, come - when what you are called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter. It's who you are and the way you live that counts before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth" (John 4:22-23, The Message).

In the eyes of faith, in the heart of Jesus, it's who you are and how you live in God that counts. With these words, the two come together - Samaritan and Jew, woman and man, water-bearer and Messiah. The gap is bridged. Grace is spoken. Faith gushes forth from the wellspring of life. And then, because of her witness to other Samaritans (with whom Jesus also would seem to have nothing in common), her whole village declares together: "We've heard it for ourselves. We know it for sure. He's the Savior of the World!" (John 4:42). In the end, it is Grace that bridges the divide between Jesus and the Samaritan woman.

Grace is the flow in the stream of living water. Grace is something you can never get, but only be given. You can't earn grace. You don't deserve grace. You don't bring it about any more than you can create the taste of fresh strawberries and cream or bring about your own birth. Grace can be a good night's sleep and good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving someone else is grace, too. After all, have you ever tried to love somebody? It just happens (or doesn't). And when it does, it is grace.

Frederick Buechner writes of this of God's grace:

"The grace of God means something like this: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn't have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It's for you I created the universe. I love you. There's only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift, too." (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, New York: Harper & Row,1973, pp.33-34).

As you see, Grace is shockingly personal. We see this in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Grace engages the entire family in this story. Grace does that. Henri Nouwen says this of the Prodigal's return: "God rejoices. Not because the problems of the world have been solved, not because all human pain and suffering have come to an end, not because thousands of people have been converted and are now praising God for God's goodness. No, God rejoices in Grace because One of his children who was lost is found." (Quoted in Phillip Yancey's What's So Amazing About Grace?, Grand Rapids, Zondervain Publishing, 1997, P.53).

Grace is personal. But, is so much more than personal. Grace is a foundational part of our Christian Story. It is a moral value grafted from the moral fiber of the church. H. Richard Niebuhr has written, "The great Christian revolutions come not only by the discovery of something that was not known before. They happen when someone takes radically something that was always there." Grace is that radical something that has always been in the center of our faith.

Truthfully, I often find the church lacking in grace. According to the Apostle Paul, we are the one institution founded by God to proclaim "the gospel of God's grace." Yet, we often act as though Grace in not here in the church.

In the fourth century Augustine and Pelagius were theological opponents. Pelagius was urbane, courteous, convincing and liked by everybody. Augustine squandered his youth in immorality, had a strange relationship with his mother, and made many enemies. Yet, out of his pain and struggle, Augustine started from God's grace and got it right, while Pelagius started from human effort and got it wrong.

Augustine passionately pursued God, while Pelagius methodically worked to please God. As Christians, we tend to be Augustinian in theory and Pelagian in practice. We talk about grace, but we work obsessively and feverishly to please other people and even to please God. As Christians, we need to be bathed in the grace of God. We need to stand in the light of grace and live into God's grace. We need to give up this Christian job performance mousetrap we've gotten ourselves into. For Grace is everywhere. It is always there for us.

While we may think our most important contributions to the human family are the houses we build, the meals we serve, the healings we bring, and the testimonies for faith and justice that we offer, the truth is that it is the church in every age that is called by God to be the place where God's amazing grace is experienced and shared. We are the bearers of grace. When we fail to carry grace and live for others the presence of God's grace, offering our hearts in the love and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, we drift like ships lost at sea which once had direction, but now have lost sight of land and even the stars.

On Friday, The Columbus Dispatch had a little piece on page F-3, speaking of a Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University study of 1001 adults. The study examined American views on moral values. Not surprisingly, the study found that "moral values" is a highly diverse concept. But, without a doubt, issues that seem to threaten, harm, or cause suffering easily surpassed all other moral concerns mentioned in the poll. The least cited concerns were gambling (18%), homosexuality (31%), and same-sex marriage (38%). The greatest moral concerns for people were combating child abuse (89%) and hunger.

I believe this study is significant in answering the question "Which values and whose values?" In times when we get swept into a sea of negativity and judgment of others by a small subset of people who say they speak for Christianity, I believe this study and our own sense of right and wrong call us to speak boldly this very important truth: That which threatens, harms or causes suffering to others is morally wrong. And the corollary is this: That which embraces, helps, and brings hope and life to others is morally right!

Grace is such a moral value. Grace embraces, nourishes, helps, and brings hope and life to others. As such, we need to live into grace. In nourishing relationships with our children and other adults, we need grace as a core moral value and a daily feature of our faith lived out. While laws around us may drive us to paths of strictness and legalism, we need to administer these laws and live out our faith with hearts of grace. And where there are policies, regulations, and laws speak of un-grace, we need to overturn them in church and society. Why? Because there is enough un-grace in this world to bring about the end of time itself. Where there is No grace. There is No God. At least, not the God of our Savior Jesus Christ! As bearers of grace, we need to be grace for others.

In the early 30's there was a woman named Simone Weil. Simone Weil was like a bright candle flaming in a darkened world when she died at 33 years old. She was a French Intellectual born in the early 20th Century who chose to work on farms and in factories to identify with the working class. When Hitler's Nazi troops rolled into France, Simon, who born a Jew and followed Jesus, fled to the Free French in London where tuberculosis claimed her life. She refused to eat more than the rations being given to her countrymen suffering Nazi occupation. So, in the end, tuberculosis and malnutrition claimed her life. She left behind scattered notes and journals densely populated with the story of her pilgrimage toward God.

Simone concluded that two great forces rule the universe: gravity and grace. Gravity causes one body to attract other bodies so that it continually enlarges by absorbing more and more of the universe into itself. Something like this same force operates in human beings as well, she wrote. We all want to expand, to acquire, to swell in significance. This desire "to be as gods" led Adam and Eve to rebel. It leads us all to self-importance. She wrote, "All the natural movements of the soul are controlled by laws similar to those of physical gravity. Grace is the only exception." While miracles break the physical laws of the universe, grace breaks the rules which govern human gravity and self-importance. Grace is simple and comprehensive. In the end, who shall measure it? (Yancey, pp.272-273)

While the disciples were away in town, Jesus had a one-to-one conversation with the woman at the well. They seemed to have nothing in common. In the end, they discovered gravity and the grace holding them together. The disciples returned to question Jesus for talking to a Samaritan woman. Wrapped-up in laws and moral values in the old system of thought and action, the disciples had yet to experience Grace. But, the woman, as she left the well to go and tell of her experience with the Savior of the world, was already living into Grace. As we exit this place, may God's grace, which is everywhere, simply awaiting our hands and hearts to grasp it, take hold of us. May we carry living water from the well of God's amazing grace into the world thirsting for Living Water. Amen.

Copyright 2005, The First Congregational Church