Friday, February 21, 2014

Year A - Third Sunday in Lent (March 23, 2014)

There are lots of thirsty people in today’s texts.  To get worshipers of all ages thinking about thirst slaking water, borrow a bubbling fountain to display prominently in the worship center.  As the service begins urge the worshipers to listen both to the fountain and for all the thirsty people in worship today.  Offer as a hint, that some of the people are thirsty for water and some of the people are thirsty for something else.  If it fits your theme, encourage them to ponder what they are thirsty for.  During some of the prayers, leave silence in which people can simply listen to the fountain and remember God’s life giving love.

Exodus 17: 1-7

+ The key to presenting this story to children is Moses’ staff.  It is the staff that connects this story to all the important preceding Exodus stories.  Moses’ staff was turned into a snake at the burning bush.  Aaron turned the staff into a snake which ate the staffs/snakes of the Egyptian magicians.  The staff dipped into the Nile turned it into blood.  Held over the Nile, it produced frogs.  Pounded on the dust, it produced gnats.  Moses raised it producing the great hail storm and later the swarm of grasshoppers.  Then, Moses held it out to divide the Sea so that God’s people could pass through safely beyond Pharaoh and his army.  So, bring a large walking stick to display during worship.  With it illustrate a brief account of how Moses used it on the escape from Egypt.  Then read Exodus 17:1-7 emphasizing, maybe picking up the staff as you read, the phrase “take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.” (NRSV) 

I think God used Moses’ staff to remind people that just as God had been with them in the dramatic escape from Egypt, God was with them during the long, hard times in the wilderness.  God would be with them always. 

FYI - “Aaron’s Rod” in Wikipedia notes Jewish, Christian, and Muslim use of this staff that may be fodder for more adult exploration of the staff as a symbol of God’s powerful presence.

+ To set listeners up for Psalm 95, point out the significance of the names of the well and urge them to listen for those names in another scripture today.  Also note that God’s people camped there for a long time, maybe years, and drew water from that well every day.  Imagine going to a well that reminds you that you tested and quarreled with God about drinking water.

Psalm 95

+ Read this psalm AFTER exploring the Exodus story.

+ Start by reading verses 7c-11.  Note the names of the well and the connection to the Exodus story.  Briefly, celebrate being biblical scholars!  Then read the entire psalm.  It could be read by one reader or in unison by God’s people (the congregation).  Or, the separate praises of verses 1-7b could be read by a series of readers with verses 7c – 11 read by another more pensive reader.  The latter would be a good worship leadership opportunity for an older children’s or youth class.

Romans 5:1-11

+ Paul here offers a fairly sophisticated explanation of atonement.  It presents all sorts of problems for children.  First children are offended by the biblical practice of atonement sacrifices.  It doesn’t seem fair to kill an animal to tell God we are sorry about what we have done.  Most church children have been raised with steady insistence that they are the loved children of God and so find it hard to see themselves as God’s enemies in need of saving.  Digging into all this with them in intergenerational worship is not promising.

+ Verses 3-5 offer an interesting sidebar to explore with children with adults listening in for their enrichment.  It might be titled, “what Paul said to the children.”

There is something you need to know that we grownups don’t like to talk about a lot.  Bad things are going to happen to you.  You are going to get sick or hurt.  People you love are going to get sick or hurt.  Or, those people are going to hurt you by what they do.  You may get caught up in war or be the victim of a crime.  Bad stuff like that just happens.  Also, sometimes when you try to do good important things, things that God wants, you might get hurt.  Paul got beaten up for preaching.  Some people in the middle East have been beaten up, even killed, as they protest against unjust rulers.  So, you need to know that bad things will happen to you during your life.  You can count on that.

But, you also need to know that God will be with you when those things happen.  You can count on that too.  Sometimes it won’t feel like God is there.  It is easy to get mad at God when bad things are happening.  We yell, “Why don’t you stop it, God?”   We worry that God must not love us if this is happening to us.  We wonder if we are so bad that God is punishing by letting the bad things happen to us.  Sometimes, we even wonder if God is there at all.  At times like this it is important to remember that God loves us always and is with us even when the bad stuff happens. (Say it again, slowly for emphasis.) God may even be working through us to take care of the world.  We can count on that.  We have to depend on our heads to remember this even when our feelings can’t.

Remember, even Jesus got whipped, nailed to a cross, and died.  But that was not the end of his story.  He was raised on Easter.  It is the same with us.  The bad times are never the end of our stories.  Remember that.

Paul might have gathered the children to tell them this.  Or, in the middle of talking to the adults (aka “the sermon”) he might have said, “Children, this is for you.  Listen up.” 

We don’t talk to children like this often.  For that reason, doing so can be memorable.  It can also prepare children for the bad times when they do come.

+ If you explore Paul’s message to the children, there is an opportunity to do a little worship education about the Benediction.  Ask the children to join you at the front to help you with the Benediction.  Briefly note that worship ends the same way every Sunday.  A worship leader stands up front and urges everyone to do something during the coming week and then reminds them that God will be with them as they do it.  (If you used a staff in worship, bring it to raise during the benediction.)  Then, walk them through the benediction below.  Finally ask them to repeat each line after you.  If it is appropriate in your tradition, lead them in raising their hands to bless the congregation as they repeat the last 2 phrases.

Remember when good things happen this week
God is with you.
Remember if bad things happen this week
God is with you.
Go in peace.

+ The cross is a reminder of Paul’s message about suffering.  Point to crosses in your sanctuary and tell stories of suffering in your congregation and community.  Describe how looking back we can see God’s presence in those times.  Give the children or all worshipers a small cross to carry with them as a reminder that God is with them in bad times as well as good.  Oriental Trading Company is one on-line source for such things.  Click on for 558(!) inexpensive crosses for distribution.  I would not use some of the 558, but others are fine.  My favorite one for today is a polished worry stone printed with a cross.  Unfortunately, those are almost one dollar a piece – maybe a little pricey.

+ “There’s A Wideness in God’s Mercy” again comes to mind as an appropriate child accessible hymn.  Perhaps it can be sung repeatedly this Lent.  If you do use it, remember to introduce “mercy” as “love” before it is sung.

John 4:5-42

+ Most of this story is a very sophisticated conversation between Jesus and a Samaritan woman at a well.  Children, however, can skip the conversation about water and hear a calling a disciple story.  Jesus treated the total outsider with respect and kindness.  Nobody treated her that way!  In response, she left her water jug (like the fishing disciples left their nets and Levi left his tax office) and became the first evangelist, telling everyone in town about Jesus.  And, she was successful.  The town believed her first and then believed Jesus.  That is a story worth remembering.  As they get older, children can appreciate the conversation that was at the heart of the story.

Women and girls still carry water this way
for their families today.
+ Children do need an introduction to the Samaritan woman before they can understand her encounter with Jesus.  They need to know all the things that meant Jesus should not care at all about her.  She is a Samaritan.  She is a woman.  She is so unpopular that she comes to get water in the middle of the day when she thinks no one else will be there to say mean things to her or call her names.  She is a real loser. 

JESUS MAFA. Jesus and the Samaritan Woman, from Art in the Christian Tradition,
a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved February 21, 2014].
+ Use this painting to introduce the story.  Ask worshipers what they see in Jesus’ hand and in the expression on his face.  Then, ask what they ask what they see in the expression on the woman’s face, especially in her mouth opened in surprise.  Point to the cup she carries that would fit into Jesus’ hand.  Then, urge worshipers to listen to the story to see what happened.

+ If you want to explore the conversation:  The water image in this story is complicated.  It’s not just water, it’s living water.  Explaining the word play there simply doesn’t help children get the joke.  It is more productive to put John’s message into your own words for them.  Verses 31 -34 are a good place to start.  Jesus says it takes something other than food and water to make us feel “alive.”  Jesus felt like he had everything he needed after talking to the lonely lost woman and seeing her feel that she was “alive” again. 

Before reading the verses, list some of things that make people feel “alive” today – soccer, their music, spending time with a good friend, etc.  Note that those things can make us feel more “alive” than food or water.  Then read what Jesus said about what made him feel “alive.”

That something other than food or water makes us feel “alive” is not so surprising.  What is surprising is what Jesus says keeps him “alive.”  It is loving like God loves.  In this story it is making friends with a really outsider woman and in the process making her feel totally different about herself.  This can lead to descriptions about how people felt about working on congregational mission projects.  (Be sure to include projects in which children participate.)

+ No matter how you unpack this story, it is a very long scripture reading!  It is mainly a conversation between Jesus and the woman.  To bring it to life and edit out all the “he said”s and “she said”s, present it with three readers.  The Narrator reads from the lectern.  Jesus sits near the center of the worship space.  The woman stands beside him.  All read from scripts inside dark binders.  A rehearsal in which emphasis is on reading dramatically will be essential.  Below is one simple script.

John 4:5-32

Narrator:  So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.  Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.  A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her,

Jesus:  Give me a drink. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)

Woman:  How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?  (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)

Jesus:  If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.

Woman:  Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?  Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”

Jesus:  Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.

Woman:  Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.

Jesus:  Go, call your husband, and come back.

Woman:  I have no husband.

Jesus:  You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!

Woman:  Sir, I see that you are a prophet.  Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.

Jesus:  Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.  You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.  But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

Woman:  I know that Messiah is coming (who is called Christ). When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.

Jesus:  I am he, the one who is speaking to you.

Narrator:  Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people,

Woman walks off and faces away from Jesus.

Woman:  Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?

Narrator:   They left the city and were on their way to him. Turning back toward Jesus.  Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.”  But he said to them,

Jesus:  I have food to eat that you do not know about.

Narrator:  So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?”   Jesus said to them,

Jesus:  My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.  Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.  The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together.  For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’   I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.

Narrator:  Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.”  So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days.  And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

From New Revised Standard Version


Just as Jesus takes risks to reach out to a woman who is an outsider, Rainbow Fish (in Rainbow Fish to the Rescue) takes a risk to save the little striped fish they have been ignoring when a shark comes through.  Since I found this story connection on Storypath, I have been trying to remember other children’s stories and fables in which a hero/ine reaches out to an outsider.  Which can you add????


  1. Brilliant suggestions, as ever. I used a big stick to do the Moses story and the children were really interested. I also made a connection between the staff and the Lenten cross that we had at the front of the church - both rough-hewn pieces of wood but both speaking of the faithfulness of God. The only point I'd make is the importance of emphasising that Moses' stick wasn't magic. Harry Potter World is practically in my parish here in Watford, England, and so I have to be careful about magic wands! Thanks as ever for the great advice.

  2. I found a video of someone reading Rainbow Fish to the Rescue in case people want to preview it.


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