Planning - Third Sunday in Lent
The Israelites grumble about their thirst in the desert. God leads Moses to strike the rock at Horeb with his staff to supply all they need and more.
Psalm response: Psalm 95 (UMH 814).
Response 1 with Tone 2 in C minor [Chant setting in UMH, number 91].
Justified by faith, through God's grace in Jesus Christ, we have peace with God and assurance of moving on to entire salvation.
Jesus asks a Samaritan woman for water and invites her to drink living water that could slake her thirst forever.
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Keeping time with Christ: This is the third Sunday in Lent, Year A. The church continues its series of close encounters of Jesus with the woman at the well, the man born blind, and Lazarus (and his two sisters). Or to put it another way, these are "encounters" with our need, our own thirst, our own blindness and the stench of our own spiritual deadness. For a suggested plan for this whole season, see "Planning for Worship During Lent, Year A."
Holy Week begins on April 17 with Palm/Passion Sunday. If you have not already done so, plan now for a complete celebration of the week, including services for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and The Great Vigil. (See BOW 343-376 for resources, descriptions and service orders, and the link above for thorough instructions and suggestions for The Great Vigil.) Readings for each day are available on the Discipleship Ministries worship website. If you do not plan to gather for services in your worship space, consider organizing smaller gatherings at homes throughout this week (especially Monday-Wednesday), using these texts as guides for your prayer and reflection.
The One Great Hour of Sharing offering is received on April 3, the fourth Sunday in Lent. This denominational offering underwrites the administrative costs of the United Methodist Committee on Relief so it can continue to offer worldwide emergency relief and long-term disaster support with no overhead for its direct services.
The Festival of God's Creation in 2011 falls on Easter Sunday (April 24). You are encouraged always to include the earth and care for the earth in your congregation's weekly intercessions (if not, start adding that now!), and of course on this day as well. If, during Lent, you will encourage folks to reduce their energy consumption, today may also be an occasion for folks to share testimonies or simply place something in the offering plate indicating the results of their efforts to save energy. But Easter should be the primary focus of your celebration this day, regardless of any other denominational focus. So while you may include recognition of the denominational day in worship, keep the resurrection of our Lord front and center, and consider offering other commemorations for the day at a time other than the worship hour.
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Atmospherics: Called to Drink and Share Living Water
Throughout this season of Lent, these helps will help you develop worship around the theme, "Responding to God's Call." Each week, one key call and response will be highlighted. To see the overall plan for this season, with a listing and some explanation of the call and response for each Sunday, click here.
First, an admission -- and something for you to start reckoning with in worship planning for this and the next several Sundays. The gospel readings from John from now through Lent 5 and the gospel reading from Matthew on Palm/Passion Sunday are very long, the longest of any four consecutive weeks in the three-year cycle. So you will need to plan worship carefully to make sure these readings, the central readings for each of these Sundays, are well-read and truly heard. Part of that planning is to let the congregation know this in advance -- not to scare them off, or give them permission to tune out (they won't need permission if you don't notify them or don't read them well!), but rather to share how the importance of these readings warrants their length and how you and your worship planning team will be working to make sure folks don't get overwhelmed and feel like they have to tune out. So be sure to read the suggestions below for Embodying the Word this week and the following weeks, and use or adapt what may work best for you in your setting.
Thirst is a consistent theme today, and the calling is to recognize it, drink living water, and share the stories of what happens when we do. We hear of the thirst of the Israelites who wonder whether they have been led into the desert to die. We overhear an extended conversation between Jesus (who is physically thirsty) and a Samaritan woman about thirst and the capacity of Jesus to offer streams of water that well up to eternal life so she will never thirst again. And Romans reminds that in Jesus Christ, the love of God has been poured into our hearts, like ever-flowing streams of water, through the Holy Spirit.
People experience thirst of all sorts, and different cultures offer different ways to slake them, some more effective than others. In the United States, the most popular "thirst quenchers" may increase thirst in the long run, as carbonation, caffeine, alcohol, and sugar conspire in any combination to reduce the net fluids of the body. Bottled water sells these days in an amazing variety of forms commanding high prices, but the plastic bottles it comes in add to our carbon and pollution footprint. What we offer for thirst only guarantees that our thirst will increase!
Discuss this in your worship planning team: What is the thirst around you like? Are people parched and desperate, as in Exodus? If so, consider desert imagery as part of what you draw from for worship design and texts today, but keep the font full and front and center! Are folks where you are trying all sorts of things to satisfy a spiritual thirst, yet coming away empty, like the woman at the well in John? Consider using images of the many ways the culture around you offers to slake your thirst. Are people where you are full of knowledge or possessions, but lacking in the overflow of the Spirit described in omans? Put another way, are they clear about what they know, but less clear about a living relationship with the One who knows and calls us to salvation?
Let the form or forms of thirst you see in your own life and the lives of the people around you guide your prayer and preparation for this Sunday.
But don't stop there. None of these texts stop there. Instead, all of them, especially the gospel, point us to God, the source of living water, a stream that never runs dry, and to what happens when it is God who truly and completely quenches our thirst.
Especially because the gospel readings this Sunday and following are so long, strongly consider focusing worship planning primarily around the gospel. Here I repeat what I wrote for this Sunday in this year's "Planning for Worship During Lent, Year A."
This week we see how Jesus contends for the soul of a Samaritan woman and wins her. Jesus began the conversation by breaking multiple cultural conventions when he asked her for a drink. We, like she, come with all sorts of personal and cultural baggage in our own lives, some of which could prevent us from seeing and experiencing the saving power of God in Jesus Christ. We hear this woman continually bringing out that baggage and see Jesus continually helping her place it aside. And we see that in asking this woman for a drink and continuing to challenge her thinking, Jesus offers her living water that springs into eternal life.
She thirsted for the living water, and she drank from it. And when she did, she found not only her life named and transformed, but an irresistible urge to share what had happened to her with others, that they, too, might receive the same living water. She not only received the living water; having received, she shared it widely!
What Jesus did for her is what he invites and calls us each to experience --- the same gift of living water by water and the Holy Spirit and the same contagious power that compelled her to share the news of this gift with others.
We are baptized in water over which we pray the Spirit's quickening presence. The earliest Christians baptized in "living" (that is, running) water if they could. They did so as a testimony specifically to this story, as well as Jesus' own baptism in the Jordan. Baptism is no "vaccination" against evil, but a thorough washing away of the stain of sin and death, a rebirth (as we were reminded last week), and the beginning of a lifelong and eternal immersion into the life of the Living God in Spirit and in Truth.
We are called to drink and share living water. We are not called to hoard it for ourselves, as in a well, but to receive it freely, as from a spring, and invite others to share what we have received. And we are called into life in the Spirit, real, constant engagement with the Holy One, whose Life and love cannot be contained in any dwelling made by hands, but always and continually springs up to eternal life.
So who in your midst has stories to tell of receiving living water and finding it too good not to share with others? Remember, this season of Lent is all about preparing people not simply for the ritual of baptism, but for life as the baptized! And that life is not only about receiving living water, but sharing it with all around us. So if you plan nothing else as a response to the Word today, plan a time for two or three people to share their stories of receiving and sharing new life in Jesus Christ in some way -- perhaps live, or perhaps on video, or perhaps via art or music. And as you pray over the candidates in worship today, ask all to pray that these people may too, not only receive, but know the deep joy of sharing what they have received!
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- Remember: The Sundays of Lent are not penitentialb>and they are not an extended Holy Week! Instead, they are feasts with the risen Lord -- as are all Sundays -- with a particular focus on calling, inviting, and preparing people for the sacrament of baptism. The gospel readings invite us to share in encounters with Jesus through the eyes of the tempter, Nicodemus, the woman at the well, the man born blind, and Lazarus. Plan worship for these weeks that gives full attention to these encounters, so your worshiping community can meet Jesus in them for themselves -- perhaps again for the first time!
- Readings and preaching. The temptation for this Sunday and the next several Sundays will be to omit readings and/or to shorten the lengthy gospel readings. Resist that temptation. These are the church's stories. They are not yours to dismiss because they are inconvenient and invade the time concerns you have. When you entered the covenant of ordained as deacons and elders or when you signed your paperwork as a local pastor or pastor from another denomination, you affirmed that you were persuaded "that the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain all things necessary for salvation" and you promised loyalty to The United Methodist Church, "accepting its order, liturgy, doctrine and discipline . . ." (United Methodist Book of Worship, 689, 695). Therefore, read the entirety of these readings out of your persuasion and your acceptance of the liturgy, trusting the Spirit of God to do what God wants to do in the hearts of the people. See "Embodying the Word" below for suggestions for reading these texts in an engaging way.
- Font: Front, Center, Filled and Flowing! A bit of personal testimony here. Recently, I've had occasion to attend worship in two newer worship spaces of other denominations (Episcopal and Roman Catholic). Both of these congregations had installed very large fonts (large enough to immerse an infant) and a pump system to keep water flowing through them. Even more recently, while I was part of a teaching team in Thailand, we had occasion to borrow a fountain from the United Methodist mission center in Chiang Mai to use in our worship service with musicians and pastors from Laos, Thailand, and Nepal. At points of silence in all these services, the sounds of flowing water could be heard throughout the worship space -- an auditory reminder of the presence of the font and the overflowing grace of God, that spring welling up to eternal life. It was a joy to see and hear, not just for me and the worshipers in the U.S., but for our multicultural worshipers across the globe in Thailand as well!
Give prominence to the baptismal font for the rest of Lent. Move it to the center of the worship space. You may have people in your congregation who are gifted and willing to put together some kind of fountain or pool of running water in or near the font. The sound and sight of running water will heighten the connections with the stories we are reading and our preparation for baptism (for all ages) during this season. However, even if your font is very small, don't simply replace the font or baptismal pool with something else. (In the hotel in Thailand, we didn't have a font per se at all, so the fountain, actually suggested first by a question from one of the Lao participants, was our primary symbol for that service; and it came to have that function for several others through our two weeks there!) Whatever you use as a font is a primary symbol and should never be obscured, put in the closet, or dismissed. If you have a children's time, it could take place at the font or fountain as well, perhaps as a way of telling the story of the water flowing from the rock at Horeb.
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Embodying the Word: The Third Sunday in Lent, Year A
The flow of Exodus into the Psalm for today may seem strange or forced. How does one go from describing the place where the water flowed from the rock as Meribah or Massah (quarreling/testing) to "Come, let us sing to the Lord?" There is a reference back to this event later in the Psalm, but that may seem too late for the connection to be found.
One way to help bridge this gap could be with soundscapes -- background sounds that help to capture the mood of the text and the people at various points along the way. Offer a soundscape of people complaining during the first part of the Exodus text. Move to silence during the encounter between Moses and God. Then offer a soundscape of people praising God as the water flows from the rock in verse 6, and keep that soundscape going through verse seven into the beginning of the Psalm. The connection is the relief and praise for flowing water.
Strongly consider singing Psalm 95 as an act of praise today. UMH 91 has an Anglican Chant setting, if you're adventurous enough to try it. A recent setting you can download and use with a choir can be found at www.williamstevens.com Or try David Lee's more contemporary setting (scroll down to Psalm 95, and download the score in .pdf or the MIDI file if you want to hear it played; just be sure to acknowledge his copyright).
Romans includes a concatenation that could become the basis for a congregational call and response. You might have the congregation join in the reading of verse 3 as follows:
Reader: And not only that, we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering
Reader: produces endurance, and endurance
Reader: produces character, and character,
Reader: produces hope.
Reader: And hope does not disappoint.
People: Hope never disappoints!
Reader: For the love of God
People: God's love
Reader: has been poured into our hearts
People: in our hearts
Reader: by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
People: Thank you, God!
Consider how you might apply this approach to other parts of this reading, especially if you plan to preach from Romans today.
One way to heighten the reading of John is to have several readers take the part of the narrator, Jesus, the Samaritan woman, the disciples, and the people of Sychar. The last of these could be the congregation saying verse 42. Or you may order a book that sets this up with a musical refrain for the congregation: Who Calls You by Name: Gospel Proclamation for the Scrutinies by Victoria Tufano and David Haas (GIA, 1982, item number G-3662). It also has the gospel readings for the next several Sundays set up for dramatic reading. Or you may sing The Faith We Sing, 2253, "Water, River, Spirit, Grace," a simple Thomas Troeger refrain connecting the physical and the Spirit's gracious action. Use it as a sung response at various points during the John reading; for example, after verses 10, 15, 26, 38, and 42.
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Call to Worship:
- Psalm 95. Call to worship and obedience.
- See Season of Ash and Fire, page 30.
Act of Congregational Centering: BOW 470 (Exodus, John) Opening Prayer:
- BOW 467 (Exod.)
- Season of Ash and Fire, page 30.
Canticle: UMH 91. "Canticle of Praise to God" (Psalm)
Prayer for Illumination: See Season of Ash and Fire, page 32.
Response: BOW 174, "Baptismal Prayer" (John)
Prayer of Confession (with invitation and pardon/words of assurance)
- 485 (Exodus)
- See Season of Ash and Fire, pages 30-31.
Words of Assurance: BOW, 617 (Rom.)
Concerns and Prayers:
- Prayer: BOW 375, "A New Heart and a New Spirit" (Romans, John)
- BOW 439, Aldersgate Day (Romans)
- BOW 527, For the World and Its Peoples (John)
- See Season of Ash and Fire, page 33.
- The Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore
Prayer of Thankgsiving at the Offering (if no Communion):
- BOW 556 (Exodus, John)
- See Season of Ash and Fire, page 32
Great Thanksgiving: BOW 60-61 (Seasonal)
Dismissal with Blessing: 529 -- Try using the sign of the cross and inviteeach person to sign himself or herself on the last line of the prayer. If you started this practice on the first week of Lent, continue until Easter.
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