Monday, March 28, 2011

Legacies of the Hands and Legacies of the Heart

I have forgotten her name, but I can still remember her face, her home, and the conversations we had. She was 95 years old, had out-lived her husband, her children, and all her relatives - save a nephew in Chicago who was a retired doctor. All of her friends had long since passed. She lived in a distinctive house overlooking the Mississippi River in the small town where I served as rector at the Episcopal Church. She was frail and homebound and so once a month I took communion to her. During these visits we talked about town history or the changing weather or her latest trip to the doctor’s. But no matter what else we discussed, she always, always, always spoke of being ready to ‘go’ – as in to die. She could not understand why she had lived so long and why everyone she loved was gone, but she was desperately lonely and alone. She wasn’t sad or depressed; she had had a good life and now, in failing health and no one to be with, she was ready for the next big adventure.

The other thing I remember about this woman is she was wealthy. Townsfolk estimated her net-worth to be somewhere between 5-10 million dollars. In a small town struggling to get by, that is a lot of money. She was one of only a handful of people with such resources. When she passed, it all went to her nephew from Chicago. He came to town, attended the funeral, made arrangements for her affairs, and left within a week… looking like a lottery winner. “What a shame,” one of the local civic leaders said to me. “With her wealth, she could have endowed the church, the YMCA, the library, the art center, the hospital, the community college, and anything else she cared about. But now, all that money is headed to out of town with a person who doesn’t even need it.” Sadly, no one had approached her about building a legacy while she was of a frame of mind to consider the possibilities.

Curiously, she always comes back to me when I hear today’s gospel reading. The story of the Samaritan woman talking with Jesus is so full and rich I suspect I could preach on it every Sunday in Lent and still not come close to exhausting the possibilities. But notice how it starts. Jesus comes to the outskirts of a particular town called Sychar. It is noontime on a hot, dry day and Jesus, who has been traveling on foot, is tired, hungry, and thirsty. He sits down at a well; and not just any well, it is a well dug by Jacob.

Being Abraham’s grandson, Jacob was one of the founding patriarchs of the Hebrew people. His many sons become the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel. It was through Jacob that God’s promised blessing to Abraham began to take form and shape.

I believe there are two reasons why Abraham, Jacob, and their offspring fared so well when they settled in the land of Canaan. First and foremost, God blessed them. And second, they possessed technological advantages that benefited them over the local population. For example, they knew a great deal about animal husbandry; particularly how to breed for size and strength. And, they knew how to create wells. In a region where water is so precious this gave them a huge edge. Think about the town of Sychar. People had been living in that area for thousands of years, but not until Jacob settled there did anyone know how to make a well.

Jacob’s work must have transformed life in that community. It now had a clean, consistent water source that held up through the ebb and flow of seasonal droughts. Jacob lived some 1,300 years before Jesus. Every day for 1,300 years that well was a source of life, it was a social center, it was a site where people stopped to be refreshed, and it was all made possible by one person’s stewardship.

What have you done that will endure as a service to others? What can you do now that will support the common good, and not only now, but long after you are gone?

It is easy for us to think about that small town, elderly woman and dream of all the things she could have done with her wealth. It is a little more challenging for people with means closer to our level to imagine we too can make a difference. What we can contribute is just a drop in the bucket, but some buckets get filled up that way… one drop at a time.

Last week we joined with Episcopal churches throughout our country in a project called ‘Hope for Haiti,’ which seeks to rebuild the cathedral devastated in last year’s earthquake… and to rebuild it one brick at a time, $10 a brick. Here at St. Paul’s, our goal is to raise money for 300 bricks. Every one of us here this morning has the capacity to be a part of this legacy.

Here at St. Paul’s, over the course of this month, a plumber has come to evaluate all of the church’s water-using fixtures and to make repairs, a roofer has inspected the gutters and will fix leaks, and a new air-conditioning unit is going to be installed to serve the offices. The to-do list around here never ends. Some people grit their teeth when they see the maintenance line item in our annual budget. Couldn’t that money be used for something better than upkeep on this old building? Well, yes and no. Our facilities are a legacy and heritage from the past and every penny we put in to them guarantees that this will be a center of mission and prayer for decades to come. We don’t know what Jacob’s well looked like, but if it used a bucket and a rope to draw water, you can be sure that both needed to be repaired and replaced more than once over 1,300 years. It was up to each successive generation of the people of Sychar to make sure Jacob’s gift kept on giving.

One summer when I was in college I laid cement, mostly for sidewalks. When I go back to that town I can still drive past houses where I did a job and see the work I did. It is a legacy of sorts, but it is not much nor is it very impressive. Certainly, 1,300 years from now there will be no trace of what I did. I am OK with that and I’ll tell you why.

When I hear today’s gospel reading I recognize that some legacies take a material form – a building, a work of art, perhaps a composition of poetry – that will endure across the ages. Other legacies are financial – gifts given that properly stewarded will yield income in perpetuity. But some legacies are of the heart. There is no way to measure them. There is no way to trace their impact. But their value is real, even if it is unseen.

Here we gather 2,000 years later, and Jacob’s well is an afterthought. I don’t even know if it exists any more. But today people all over the world are gathering in Christian churches to hear again the conversation between Jesus – the Lord of life – and woman who went to a well to draw water. Yes, she filled up her water jars, but even more she drank of the water of Life. Jesus touched her in a way that created a legacy of the heart. It is a gift that does not show up on a balance sheet. You cannot put a plaque next to it for all to read. It is spiritual, but it endures, doesn’t it.

No matter who you are, no matter what your means, you have the capacity to leave this kind of legacy; perhaps with your children, or with your friends, of with the members of your church, or with the most desperately needy people in town. When I think back to those monthly conversations with that elderly woman, I now understand she was telling me something very important, but I didn’t recognize it at the time. The thing that was so crippling for her was not that she was old, not that she was ill, and not that she was alone – although being alone was an important clue. Her struggle had everything to do with the belief she no longer could touch the heart of another. She had no one to comfort, no one to support, no one encourage. She believed there was no one who could benefit from what she had to offer, and thus she was ready to move on.

So, about a reading that I could preach on for a month and not exhaust all it has to offer, let me say just two things. First, you can do something with your resources that will bless and refresh generations to come. And second, whenever we gather with another person we always touch each other, even if ever so lightly, so that some trace of the encounter transforms our hearts and souls in a way that endures. Legacies of our hands and legacies of our hearts move this world ever so closer to God’s dream for all people.