The devotions I wrote for Lent 2017 grew out of an eight week sermon series I preached at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Johnsonville, PA. Here is the first of those sermons, in which Jensi is introduced.
Beginning today, and continuing for the next several weeks, I’ll be telling the story of a woman who goes by “Jensi.” It’s a nickname, drawn from her first and middle names, Jennifer Sierra.
Jensi is 27 years old, a college graduate, and employed in a professional position in an up-and-coming business. Her future in the company appears bright. She is competent, and, until a few months ago, was lively, with a winsome personality.
But things are different now. She still gets the job done at work, even though she hardly sleeps through the night; she tosses and turns, unable to sleep more than a snatch at a time. So the dark hours have been long ones. And on this particular night, she’s given up trying to sleep. She gets into her car, and begins to drive, finding her way to a familiar parking lot.
It’s the trailhead for one of those rails-to-trails that have become so popular in recent years. As she turns off the engine, she notices there are no other cars. But why would there be, at 3:30 A.M.?
Getting out the car, she makes her way down the trail by the light of her cell phone. She almost doesn’t need the light; she knows every turn and twist of the trail; she passes familiar gnarled trees; and the spots where wildflowers pop up in the spring; and the wetlands to which the red-winged blackbirds return each year; and the bushes that seem to explode at times with juncos and white-throated sparrows.
Yes, Jensi knows this trail like the back of her hand, and she is headed to one particular point on it.
“Here is it is,” she says to herself, as her foot steps from the macadam to a wooden plank. She is on a bridge that crosses 20 feet above the flowing stream. It is her favorite and most memorable spot on the trail. A smile crosses her face as she recalls that, when she was a small child, her dad would sing a silly song here, a song that went “We’re crossing the bridge, headed for that ridge, behind which we’ll find ice cream in the fridge!”
And she recalled the sense of awe she felt at age 12, when she said to her grandfather, “Grandpa, what’s that bird flying up the stream, the one making all the racket, and coming straight towards us?” As the bird flew by he told her, “It’s a belted kingfisher.”
And it was here, on this very spot, that –but before she could finish the thought, she burst into sobs and tears.
The tears fell from her face, dripping into the stream below. In her grief, she suddenly hears, “Jensi. Jensi.”
Startled, she says, “Who’s there?”
She hears the reply, “Jensi, do not be afraid. I am standing behind you, but do not turn around. It’s not important that you see me. What matters is that you listen to my voice. But before I say more, I want to listen to you. What’s on your mind today? Why are you crying here in the darkness?”
Jensi answers, “My husband is dead. He was killed in a car accident a few months ago. And I miss him so much. It was here, on this very spot, that he asked me to marry him. I shouted ‘Yes!’ We were so happy.
“After our engagement, we would walk this trail, and talk about our future together. We talked about having children; and places we would visit; and how we would serve our church and in community; and how we would grow old together. We had such great hopes for the future.
“And the hopes were starting to bear fruit. Shortly before the accident, we learned that I’m pregnant. We were so excited. But now he’s gone. And I don’t see how I can go on, or how I can raise our child without him. I’m afraid and I’m lonely. That’s why I’m out here in the darkness crying.
“That’s why I’m standing on this bridge, watching my tears fall into the stream below. I have lost him, and I feel lost, too.”
The voice that had listened so patiently now gently said, “Jensi, I also weep at the deaths of those I love. Death is a harsh reality we cannot deny. But listen to my voice. Hear what I now say: ‘My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.’
“Have you heard those words before?”
Jensi replied, “I—I think so. Yes, I do know them. Our pastor emails a suggested memory verse for us each week. Part of what you just said, was this week’s verse.
“Oh my God!” she went on to say, “you’re Jesus!”
“Yes, Jensi,” the voice said. “I am the one who is with you always, even in your deepest loss. Your grief is so new that you will have many days yet of deep, aching sadness. Over time, the tears will decrease, and the grief will not be so intense. And throughout your life, you will have moments you remember your husband and shed a tear or two for him. This is natural; this is an expression of your love for him.
“Notice that your tears are now falling into the stream below you. Let that stream be for you an earthly sign of a heavenly reality. For I promise you that day is coming when I will guide you and all my people to springs of the water of life. In that day, God’s home will be among mortals, and God will wipe every tear from your eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.
“So do not fear the future. For you, your husband, and all creation are in my hands. And what I hold will be brought to fulfillment in the mercy of my Father.
“You have stood above these waters before, Jensi, and they have been life-giving for you. Continue to see them as such. Never lose the memory of the people and the events that matter so deeply in your life.
“And when you see the stream below, recall the water to which you were taken as an infant. You were baptized in my name, marked with my cross forever, and sealed with my Spirit. Let the flowing waters be a sign that although you go through the deepest of loss, you are mine forever. You are mine, Jensi; you are always held in my love. And it is a love that will never let you go.
“That’s my word for you today, Jensi. I have more to say to you, though, but this is enough for today. Come back again, next week. At that time, we’ll talk some more.”
Then the voice was silent.
Jensi stood on the bridge awhile longer, alone and yet not really alone. Tears continued to flow from her face, but in her deep sadness, hope was awakening. She quietly mouthed the words, “Thank you, Lord, thank you for leading me to the waters of life.”
Then she turned and began to go back to her car. The sun was beginning to rise, dawn was breaking, and the first rays of light were glistening through the tree branches.
And it was the first day of the week, Sunday, the day of resurrection, the day of new life.