Acceptance and affirmation

A sermon conversation with the Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis and the Rev. Philip Rohler (John 4:5-26; 39-42) —

Anne Swallow Gills (ASG): About a year ago, Philip Rohler began worshiping with us. I’ve invited him to join me in a conversation about today’s scripture reading, in part because of his concern for and support of those who are marginalized in our society and often in our churches. And if anything, today’s story from the Gospel of John is about a marginalized person encountering a welcoming and nonjudgmental Jesus. The layers of this woman’s marginalization may be hard for us to imagine in this day and age. Samaritans did not regularly intermingle with Jews, even though they came from the same ancestry. Their dispute centered on where, upon what locale, does God want to be worshipped. For Samaritans, it was Mt. Gerizim in today’s West Bank; for the Jews it was Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. It was a bitter family fight. Think of it as similar to the hatred and disdain between Protestants and Catholics down through the years. In addition, a revered rabbinical teacher like Jesus would be considered ritually defiled by having contact with Samaritans, and even more so by contact with a woman not related to him. And, there is this pesky detail about her drawing water from the communal well at noon-time. Has she been shamed and banished from mingling with the other women in the cool of the morning? Even more reason for Jesus to steer clear of this person.

The unusual dialogue between Jesus and this unnamed woman quickly moves from a simple request about a drink of water to an intimate exchange about spiritual thirst, wellsprings of living water within a person, and a revelation of some details about her life. It appears many husbands have either died on this woman or divorced her, and she currently lives with someone not her husband. This may draw a yawn from us, but it was scandalous in Jesus’ time. He calls her out on this reality. He names her marginalization within her culture and community, but interestingly doesn’t dwell on it. He sees her as a person worthy of conversation, of receiving spiritual nurture and invites her to interact with him. No judgment; no shaming. Her marginalization stops there.

At our congregational meeting following worship today, members will be asked to vote on an expanded and renewed statement which clarifies not just our welcome, but our support and advocacy for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer and questioning individuals. We are entering a period of our nation’s history when the rights and safety of this marginalized community are endangered. A retired pastor, Philip has been involved in our Executive Board-appointed Opening and Affirming Group. This group has worked over the recent months to expand this church’s welcome and support of the LGBTQ community. We’ve held after-church forums to explore Biblical views around these issues, and also to better understand gender identity, gender expression, and gender nonconformity so we welcome and support transgendered people. Philip, will you share with us just why it is you wanted to get involved in this church and in this particular working group?

Philip Rohler (PR): After learning about FHC on the website and attending for a year, I’m happy to say I have been warmly welcomed, and I’m glad I have become involved.

Thirty years ago my biological family began to understand in deeply personal ways what it meant for a family member to begin to live in a lesbian relationship. After she and my brother were divorced, they both have remarried. She to her wife and he to his new wife. When my mom was on her deathbed, she invited this former daughter-in-law to visit, and I had the privilege of witnessing their laughter, tears, and my mom’s loving affirmation of her.

In another conversation during her last weeks of life, my mom, knowing she could not do it but wanting us to know what was in her heart, said to my son and me, “Make an appointment for me to visit the president of your denomination; I’ll tell him that the Church will someday change their views about the LGBTQ community, and he should begin giving leadership to that now.”

ASG: Help us get a sense of what it’s like to be part of a denomination that would not consider affirming the kind of Opening and Affirming Statement we will vote on today.

PR: Last week as I was reflecting on today’s gospel text and on my opportunity to join you in this sermon conversation, I watched a TED talk video entitled “I grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church – Here’s why I left.” A young woman told her story of growing up in the fundamentalist church that taught her to hate any person or group that the leaders of the Westboro church told her were sinners; those sinners, she acknowledged, were people of any different religious, ethnic and life-orientation background. That was very similar to the church in which I grew up, and maybe others in this congregation did too.

ASG: Is this the kind of stance your denomination was taking towards homosexuality, when you were ordained by that church?

PR: No. When I became active in 1973, the denomination had just decided that women were not prohibited in Scriptures from being ordained clergy and leaders in a local church. The new church culture was affirming women who had been marginalized in ministry, a culture in which I openly participated.

While I served as a pastor in town and country churches for 28 years, I enjoyed freedom in Christ, including interfaith and inter-church involvements in the communities where I served. Then about 10 years ago, the pendulum began swinging from openness and inclusiveness to exclusiveness. This was keenly made public several years ago when an ordained pastor and a local congregation were dismissed from fellowship in the denomination because they welcomed members of the LGBTQ community into membership and leadership. And it was reinforced that clergy were prohibited from performing a same-sex marriage.

This shift highlights why I was looking for and found in FHCUCC: a spiritual community where I shared values for ministry and for encouraging a person and the congregation to go deeper into the freedom of Christ, to love our neighbor as self and to put into practice the scripture that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither male nor female, neither slave nor free, but that all are one in Christ.

ASG: At the end of today’s story, this once marginalized woman has returned to her community and boldly told them that she has been encountered and seen by this Jesus: “He told me everything I have every done,” she enthusiastically exaggerates. In receiving Jesus’ non-judgmental acceptance of her, she herself has become a source of living water for her community. We too are invited to do the same. Today we have yet another opportunity to step forward and say: This is who we are at Falcon Heights Church. We are welcoming, supportive and ready to advocate for this specific marginalized community which has been scorned and rejected by so many churches. We too become sources of living water, as God’s spiritual waters gush up to abundant life within us, and flow out from us. Thanks be to God! Amen