Sunday sermon from March 23, 2014
Text: John 4:5-42
Given at Amherst Presbyterian Church, Amherst, VA
I meant to have a sermon this morning; I really did; you gotta believe me; but, instead, I spent all week watching college basketball.
No, I’m kidding, before you run for the exits; I do have a sermon for you this morning, but I’m not kidding about the college basketball part. March Madness, right? Tip-off for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament starts at about noon on Thursday and between then and about midnight tonight they will have played 48 insane games of college hoops, and especially for those Thursday and Friday afternoon hours it’s like every office I have ever worked at just kind of ground to a halt. And of course it used to be that you either had to call in sick or rather just sit there at your desk surreptitiously checking the scores, but these days, with all the games streamed live online, you can turn your desktop into a college-basketball-watching-superstation, regardless of whatever work you were supposed to be doing.
I suppose your boss should care. Every year about this time somebody comes out with some back-of-the-envelope math to calculate how much the NCAA tournament costs us in lost productivity. This year I read $1.2 billion dollars for every hour of tournament overlap with regular office hours. But maybe I’ve just been very lucky but every boss I’ve ever had has been just as sucked into the tournament as I was. I remember working on a small team where each of us had our own offices fairly closely situated and so, on the first day of the tournament, I put on the first game kind of in the corner of my screen while I half-heartedly looked at some other work and tried to concentrate on my real job and then about twenty minutes later after a particularly spectacular play I heard a pretty loud exclamation from the direction of my boss’s office and realized quickly that he was watching the game, too. In fact the entire team was watching, each of us hiding in the relative safety of our own offices, nobody quite willing to step away from the desk and nobody willing to turn the game off.
That’s the rub of it, really. We just sat there. Which begs a question. I mean, if I’m just watching the game, and if my boss is just watching the game, and if the whole team is just watching the game, and if nothing so mission-critical is coming down the pipeline at the office, why just sit there? I mean, why not the lot of us just get it in a car and head down to Buffalo Wild Wings and camp out for the afternoon? Call it group bonding. Call it team-building. Call it a corporate retreat, whatever; let’s just acknowledge that we’re not getting much done otherwise and we might as well enjoy the moment together but instead we’re glued to our desk chairs and I would argue that we were not glued there by corporate policy or by some anxiety about the dollar value of our productivity but rather the voice inside our heads that says you have a job! and you have to be here! and _well, you don’t want to be the sort of person who just walks out; what would you think of yourself if you were just sitting at Buffalo Wild Wings at 2:30 in the afternoon on a Thursday?__Don’t you want to be the sort of person who at least seems like they’re doing work, because work is what made this country great!_ and _Work is what makes us great!_ and _Work is what gives us value!_ And so, with centuries of old-fashioned Protestant work ethic stirring in our souls, with the words of that old hymn ringing in our ears – “Come, labor on! Who dares stand idle?” – with the deep subconscious conviction that working at that desk was central to our sense of self-worth, we all just stayed put, each one to an office, none of us getting a thing done.
You may be wondering — and rightly so – what any of this has in any degree to do with the story of the Samaritan woman. And so I will admit to you that because no single Sunday morning permits us time to wade through the vast richness of this text from the Gospel of John, and today we will, for the most part, leave the Samaritan woman herself alone, content I hope to be for all time a sign of God working beyond the boundaries of what God’s audience ever expects. Instead this morning I want us to think about the disciples, who, being themselves deeply schooled in the old-fashioned Protestant work ethic, find themselves in the tragic position of no longer having a job to do. You may recall from the very beginning of the story that Jesus sends them off to town for groceries; after all, they’ve been traveling for so long and they needed supplies. And then after this whole conversation with the Samaritan woman the disciples come back carrying everything they could from a strange market in a foreign land; you know, as tired as Jesus was, at least he got to sit by the well and the disciples went all the way to town and carried back a heavy load, and then Jesus promptly says, “Well, I don’t need any of that after all / I have food to eat that you do not know about.”
You have food to eat that we don’t know about? Well, that hardly seems fair. Going to get the food was our thing! Like, we can’t cast out demons or turn water into wine or do any of that fancy Jesus healing stuff, but we can go to town and get groceries. And you may not have noticed this, but, you know, we kinda like going to town to get groceries. It gives us something to do! It gives us a way to help. And then you just decide that you don’t need us to get groceries anymore? I mean, I’d understand it if somebody else had come along and tossed you a sandwich and you might not say no, but c’mon, this is Samaria, Jesus, you know that’s not happening. That’s what the disciples actually say: “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Because they know perfectly well it’s not Samaritan charity he’s living on, they know he’s doing this for himself. But then what’s the point of having disciples? This is full-blown vocational crisis: what are we doing here, giving up everything, following you around; we just wanted to help and you won’t let us help, and we’ve all been in that moment when somebody else wanted to make you a cup of tea and you didn’t really want a cup of tea but you began to realize that the cup of tea really wasn’t for you, it’s just that this person really wanted to help and really wanted to do something and could only figure on making a cup of tea so finally you just say yes, fine, I’d love some tea, because everybody wants their work to be valued, and more than that, everybody feels valued by their work. Otherwise, What’s the point of having disciples? Why are we even here? What good are we if we can’t even go into town for groceries?
It’s a full-blown vocational crisis. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that as a society we are ourselves living in another full blown-vocational crisis, a crisis in the American theology of work. The world got smaller and we sent jobs overseas – 2.6 million offshore jobs in 2013. The economy crashed and never entirely got back on its feet; at the height of the recession 6.8 million Americans had been unemployed for more than six months; 3.8 million remain on those rolls and many of them will never again hold steady jobs. College graduates face skyrocketing debt with fewer and fewer avenues to the kind of employment that can pay back those loans. But we’re dealing with more than a long slow recovery. Consider this nugget offered up by technology visionary Jaron Lanier: at the height of its power, Kodak employed 140,000 people and was worth twenty-eight billion dollars. But in 2014, Kodak is bankrupt, and the face of everyday photography is a smartphone app called Instagram, and when Instagram was sold to Facebook for one billion dollars it employed thirteen people. Take a picture on your phone and share it with the world and sure, there are people employed in making that phone and sure, there are people employed in maintaining the digital infrastructure thats store that photo, but not enough to bridge the gap between 140,000 and thirteen. The reality is that technology and automation and innovation have reduced the amount of work necessary to perform the societal functions that we rely on, and now the danger is that we have millions of people – well, at least 139,987, but of course that’s just the tip of the bucket – who have been left entirely behind by our old ethics about work and value and earning your way. What happens if we can only value ourselves according to our work and there just isn’t enough work to go around? What happens if all we want to do is go into town to buy groceries but then Jesus just orders everything he needs on Amazon instead?
It’s tempting to view our vocational crisis as an economic problem with economic solutions. Anna Coote from the New Economics Foundation argues that it is time for us to to shift away from the forty-hour workweek and towards something like a thirty-hour schedule. Along with opening up the space for more widespread employment, this could have all kinds of ancillary benefits: it gives more breathing room in the day, especially in households where both parents work; it leaves a smaller ecological footprint, as people with less time are more likely to drive or fly than to take the train or the bus. Research suggests that workers with shorter shifts are more productive within those shifts, so, Coote argues, you shrink hours and you employ more people and you raise wages and you get a productivity boost to compensate and everybody wins. But of course we don’t have the kind of historical data you would need to make this uncontroversial; instead, we’ll keep arguing about the minimum wage and we’ll keep arguing about best employment practices but the reality is that even the best policy outcome would just be a stopgap measure because the big trendline here is that more and more jobs become automated and digitized and programmed and no economic policy can possibly make a dent.
But more importantly, no economic policy that can silence that voice inside us that says “What will I do if there’s no more work for me? What will I be worth then?” That’s the thing about a vocational crisis. It’s not economic. It’s emotional. It’s spiritual. And you don’t even have to lose your job to know how it feels, because we live it every day. For a society bent on making life as convenient as possible, we are working ourselves to death. For a society bent on saving as much time as possible, everybody’s busy. Think about that: I used to have to take the film out of the camera by hand, package it up in those fancy Kodak envelopes, drop it off at the CVS, wait a few days, go back to pick it up, and then swing by the post office and put a few of my favorites in the mail to grandma or mom and dad or whoever and now I just put it on Instagram and five seconds later it’s done and yet somehow I have less time. How are things? Well, you know. Busy. Isn’t everybody? It’s become entirely socially unacceptable not to say how busy you are, and yet by all accounts life has never in human history been more convenient. It doesn’t add up. And the reason it doesn’t add up is that it’s not an economic crisis: it’s emotional; it’s pathological; it’s the voice inside that says “Who am I if I’m not working? Who am I if I don’t have a job? Who am I if I don’t have a task at hand?” And so the fullness of the hours of the day, the frenzy of the calendar, the torrid pace that we set for ourselves; these things become the yardstick of our self-worth, and the voice inside is there to make sure that we don’t measure up.
An vocational crisis. A spiritual crisis. A theological crisis, when we assume that work is the thing that gives us worth. “Oh sure, there’s work to do,” Jesus tells the disciples, as he so often does, using the image of sowing and reaping in the fields. Jesus tells them, “Oh sure, there’s work to do: the harvest is ready and it’s happening and that’s where I’m getting my food and you could be out there harvesting, too.” In some ways it’s a very basic answer to their question: Surely nobody else gave him food?, when of course he has been fed by his encounter with the Samaritan woman. “Oh sure, there’s work to do,” Jesus says, hinting at the mission that still lays before them. But he doesn’t just answer the question on their lips. He also answers the question in their hearts – if we can’t even buy food, why are we here in the first place? what’s the point of having disciples? – and Jesus says all those working in the field are “gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together.”
So that they may rejoice together. Which is to say, Jesus doesn’t want to just give them a job; he wants to celebrate with them, together. Jesus doesn’t just want to give them tasks; he wants to enter into relationship, together. Is it so shocking that Jesus might have gathered these disciples not because he needed assistants or errand-boys or people who could go fetch groceries from town but rather instead because he wanted the company of friends and family and loved ones he could call his own? What if the disciples were called not to go do the shopping but rather simply to be known and loved by God made flesh among them? Surely, here, at last, is the very heart of this Gospel: that you, too, are called not first to do, but simply to be – known and loved by God made flesh. That your value is not measured by the length of your to-do list but rather by the width and breadth of God’s mercy and grace. That your worth is not bound up in the fullness of your time but rather revealed only in the fullness of His. That you are not your jobs. That you are not your schedules. That you are not the tasks set before you. That you are first and foremost and simply and wonderfully children of God, measured only by the boundlessness of God’s love.
Dorothy Bass tells the story of a friend who had stumbled across an open and unscheduled day, a true gift in a sea of over-scheduled frenzy. As Bass tells it, “When her husband came home, there she was with her feet up, reading a magazine. He was happy for her, but she was embarrassed. And so she leapt to her feet, explaining that before this quiet interlude she had done the laundry, made some important phone calls, and helped with their daughter’s homework. ‘Congratulations,’ he chuckled, ‘You have earned the air you breathe. Now sit back down!’”
You’ve already earned the air you breathe. Or, rather, perhaps we should say: God has already earned the air you breathe.
Now sit back down!