Lent 3 – Saved by thirst

Sermon by Jeff Marema and Jonathan Neufeld.

My name is Jeff Marema for those friends I have yet to meet. I stand before you, many things to many people. “Many parts make up a puzzle”.
I also stand before you, “Saved by my thirst”.
I’ve been saved because my thirst brought me here, to this little neighborhood, called Lake City. My thirst brought me to this church, to you good people, to those whose goal in life is to help others.Their goal to help the sick and suffering, the poor and downtrodden, the homeless alcoholic. ME. But there was a road that I took to get here. I’m hoping you can join me for a few minute’s on that road that I call my life
I was born in Chicago IL. into a loving family. To parents that worked as hard as they could to give their kids the things that they didn’t have when they grew up. I had a relatively normal childhood in Chicago, and did very well in school. I was a happy kid. My cup was full. We then moved to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida in 1972. I was 11yrs old at the time. What a joy it was, for me, to live by the ocean. Again, my cup was full, or so it would have seemed to any bystander. However, inside, I became very lonely. I yearned for those things that only a true faith in God can bring, but I closed myself off from faith, from God’s “Living Water”. In John Chapter 4 Verses 5-42 it speaks of Jesus talking with the Samaritan woman, and how he promised her “Living Water”. This is what my life began to lack at that young age. A young boy, literally, swimming in the ocean, surrounded by water, and “Thirsting” for something more. It didn’t take very long after that to find something to quench my thirst. I was 13yrs old when I took my first drink. My parents found me drunk, I got sick, and I was in alot of trouble. I could not wait to get more. It seemed to fill a void that nothing else could, at the time. I wish that I could say that I found faith shortly after that, but that would be someone elses story. No, I thought that I had found “The answer” in alcohol, and no one could tell me anything different. Jumping ahead quite a few years, I found myself on the streets of Lake City, Washington. Homeless.Lost. Scared. Hungry. Lonely. Angry. Tired, of myself. THIRSTY! A drunk in his cups. That’s when God helped me stumble into this Church. And stumble I DID! At the behest of Phil and Josie, a homeless couple who took me under their wing at first, I got up the nerve to walk in the front door of this Church, and eat a little food. I was so very scared of Jonathan, and Melanie, and the volunteers that were reaching out to the sick and suffering. I didn’t even see myself as a sick and suffering Human Being. I saw myself as the scourge of the earth. No human being should EVER have to feel that way. No one of God’s Children should ever suffer like that! It doesn’t matter what brings someone to feel that way about themselves, they just shouldn’t have to feel that way. And that is where I was when I first came into touch with you good people. Once ythis Church opened God’s little acre, I and my friends on the street were afforded a safe place to go and just BE, for a few hours each day. Safe from the struggles of the street. A place where we weren’t looked down upon by passer’s by. The friendly faces of the volunteers have been so important to me. The understanding and compassion that has been afforded to myself and my friends, by the Church and the volunteers at GLA, has been, at times, overwhelming. I’m aware that the Church had a part in my getting the housing that I now reside in. A debt that I will never be able to repay. But I can say, Thank You! Once inside, I started to yearn for more. To quench my thirst, for the first time, through a relationship with God. But how could I do that? A drunk like me? I started to have a conversation with myself. I had been in recovery on several occasions in my life. I felt that I had, each time, failed myself, and those people who loved me. My Mom, my Daughter, my Sister, and my two Brother’s have all seen me start to recover the “Things” in my life, but never my relationship with God. But, I was willing to give it a try. After all, all I could lose was a month of suffering the daily consequences of being a sick and suffering alcoholic. Soooo, I asked for help. I did the work that was necessary to get into treatment. And it was a bit of a struggle. There are those that work for the state who have seen so much failure, and seem a bit jaded. I found that in the case worker that I dealt with. But, because I had the help of a good and caring mental health counselor, who at one time wasn’t so much different than me, I was able to eventually find myself in treatment. I decided, at some point, when I was there, that I wanted to change my life. For good. I remember my first prayer in there. It wasn’t much more than saying hello to God. I told him that I knew he had always looked out for me and that I didn’t know what to do that was any different than before, but if he could just guide me a little, that I’d sure appreciate it. I didn’t know it then, but I’m SURE that he heard me. We talk every day now. I talk and he listens. And he answers me by putting people into my life that speak his words. I truly believe that he speaks through us all. “From the mouths of babes.” He quenches my thirst when I ask for HIS water. For that, I am truly grateful. Because I’m a recovering alcoholic, I know that I only have today. I can only live in the here and now. No promises of things to come. But here’s how I live today. I live to quench my “Living Thirst” by doing things that I’m passionate about. I’m passionate about my relationship my with God. I couldn’t stand up here and talk to you, if I wasn’t. I’m passionate about my family and friends. I can’t just “show up” at any one of my familys’ house, cuz they live in Florida. So, when I get the chance to talk to my Daughter, or my Mom, or my Sis, or my Brothers, on the phone, or Facebook, I’m excited! I value those moments, sooo much. I’m passionate about my sports. I surf. I snowboard. Sometimes I hurt myself doing it, but I wouldn’t change it. I’m an electrician. I’m a Father, a Son, a Brother, a Friend. I’m a Christian. I’m a child of God. And I’m just not that thirsty anymore. Praise God for that!!

Thank you Jeff – it is my privilege to come alongside the story of ‘thirst’ in your life, and offer up a few brief responses to your story.

Last week Weldon suggested, that every human being has a need, a place in their mind, body and spirit for God – a place we will seek to fill, whether it is God whom we embrace or not. That the multi-faceted addictions that we all have in our lives: like alcohol, religion, shopping or food – is idolatry, our compulsive attempt to quench a thirst Living Water alone longs to satisfy. I think your story reminds us of this challenge from Weldon and invites our further reflection on addiction and idolatry.
Thank you Jeff – also – for how your story enlightens the gospel story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman.

You suggested that no one, no matter the circumstances or reasons why one ends up in poverty and without housing, should feel themselves to be a waste, cast-off, or scourge of the earth. You also suggested that the welcome, love and grace you have experienced amidst your circumstances – reminded you that you are a child of God.

Hearing that suggestion from you – led me to some reflections from David Lose on this scripture. The mention that the woman had had 5 husbands, and was now with a 6th man – has led many preachers to suggest her to be promiscuous. “But there are multiple possibilities for her story that could equally have been true: She could have been widowed, or have been abandoned, or divorced. She could them have been living with someone that she was dependent on – like having been taken into her deceased brother’s family – as was the tradition of those days. There are many possibilities to invite our thinking that this woman’s story is more tragic than scandalous. Jesus at no point invites repentance, or speaks to her of sin at all.” Jesus’ approach is not one of finding fault, declaring blame – but rather acknowledging the tragedy of vulnerability, inconsistent care, loss, life-altering change that she has been through time and again. If this had led her to self loathing and self-hatred – I can hear Jesus, like you Jeff – say to her ‘you are a child of God’.

-often times when one of friends ends up in prison – I write letters to remind them who they are. Consumer society and the justice system want to name people…criminal, consumer, addict, homeless…which is never who we are, but rather a state of being. Who we are is God’s children, creative and beautiful.
Jeff, you words also remind us of the healing energy, the resistance to oppression passion, and honesty which is knowing, and being known. Jeff – what you did with us today was speaking truth as you know it, and inviting a community to ‘see’ you. Just as the woman said to Jesus – that she saw that he was a prophet, she also was ‘seen’ by someone that knew everything she had done. They became known to one another in the conversation. Folks in the community have heard me on this subject more than they care to, I am sure – but again I say – that secrecy is that which addiction’s food – it’s breakfast, lunch and dinner. It is in large part the power that has been known in the AA movement, the invitation to step outside of the shrouded home of addiction, and to say your piece, tell your story – so she leaves her jar and runs to her neighbors – declaring ‘come and meet the man who knew my story’. The scripture says that many people believed in Jesus, not because he healed the sick, or fed the multitude- but because of her testimony ‘that Jesus told her everything she had ever done’.

Jeff – you have stepped up and put your story out there, a story of tragedy and triumph. Maybe you feel some joy or excitement in having done that, but it some ways your story was already out there. In that, unlike the majority of people in this sanctuary, you for some time didn’t have a house to hide out in and shield others from seeing you. Yet you have shown us a way of being a redeemed community, in that you demonstrated the possibility of transformation that can happen in human relationships – when life in its completeness – is on the table. Our hope and possibility for being a recovery community is in large part found in this scary and hopeful practice of exchanging our stories.
Finally Jeff – your testimony – also brings to mind for the bridges that can be constructed between groups that don’t easily know how to live with each other. Thomas Boomershine reminds us that “Jews were afraid of the Samaritans because there was constant battle going on between them: raids, conflict, people being assaulted when they came through Samaria. Talking with a Samaritan woman was a major violation of the law for a Jewish man. Men did not speak to women in public and especially not to Samaritan women. There were sexual connotations as well as the crossing of ethnic and political barriers. There is a whole lot going on in this conversation.” We know this – we know the social distance that economics, ethnicity, gender, sexuality – create in our world. And yet part of the outcome of taking in living water, is the necessity of bridging those chasms of oppression, ambivalence, avoidance, trauma, hurt – created by personal, public, systemic and societal addiction.

Perhaps some of you have picked up the book we suggested the congregation read during lent, Gabor Mate’s “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts”. In it he describes addiction as the compulsive pursuit of an experience or item, regardless of the harmful consequences. One of the implications of this definition is the assumption that we all know what the negative consequences of addiction are, personally and as a society, we see the wreckage. Considering how knowledge is worshipped as the answer to everything that ails us, knowledge alone – in the case of addiction – will not create change. If the knowledge of global impacts of sweat shop labor were enough, we would have put those companies out of business by not shopping there. If knowledge of the nutritional void of fast food were enough – McDonald’s would have gone bankrupt years ago. The knowledge that 50% our tax dollars are being used to bomb and destroy the economies and lives of God’s children at home and abroad – we would have ended the practice of lobbying in American politics – knowledge alone changes nothing – but it can help us realize is just how parched we really are – in need of a living water that follows knowing with walking, that steps over chasms of human separation in order to see and be seen for who we really are. Rev. Rich Lang wrote in the latest Real Change “Rebuilding a country that has been privatized, with its people commodified, will require decades and generations of struggle, and conflict. In other words, the time of sitting on a fence, frozen because you’re trying to listen to all sides as if they are all equally valid is rapidly fading. The time of choice, of decision, of actions rooted in faith (not certainty) is coming, whether you like it or not, whether you are ready for it, or not.”

Thank you Jeff for in your own way, reminding us of the broad stream of God’s mission of recovery that we are a part of, and the very personal and local ways that transformation can be seen, experienced and known.