It was unusual to have visitors in my little churches in South Dakota, unless they were visiting and related to someone else in the church. This was not because the church was so unwelcoming; there were just about sixty-three souls in the town (give or take a few), and most of them were already members of my parish.
So that April morning in 1997 I couldn't help but notice the new couple, sitting on the aisle, near the back.
"We'll be back," they told me as they shook my hand at the end of worship. "We're refugees from Grand Forks."
Refugees. That's the word they used. And I knew what they meant. There was water everywhere that spring, and not just in that good, life-giving way we think about. It had been a terrible winter, and now there were roads under water, and detours around the roads under water, and some places where you could not go. But it was worse in Grand Forks and in East Grand Forks.
This couple had left their home and left their church. They were staying with relatives in a small town nearby. They were told to go. They were not sure how long they would have to stay. They were not sure when they would be told they could go back. There were not sure what would be there when they returned.
They were refugees. That's what they called themselves. They were cut off from their home and their church.
They didn't know anyone at my congregation. But, for about a month, they worshipped with us. One evening they made an appointment and came by the church office, just to talk, and to pray.
I remembered then that the community of John's gospel included Jewish believers who had, at some point, been told that their confession of Jesus as Messiah made them unwelcome in their synagogues. They were cut off from the community that had sustained them and given their lives meaning and were struggling to know who they were now apart from that identity.
"Abide in me," Jesus says to his disciples in John 15, "as a branch abides in the vine. Apart from me you can do nothing." It makes sense, but it also seems harsh, thinking about those dead branches, cut off.
I thought of all of the places we call "home" -- the farms of South Dakota where my farmers earned their livelihoods and made their lives, the city where my Swedish grandparents moved and learned a new language and raised their children, the congregation that has called me to be their pastor. They are all places. We can be cut off from every single one of them.
But when you are cut off, when you are a refugee, when you are told you are not welcome, when you are kicked out, Jesus says, "I am the vine. Life is in me. You can bear fruit anywhere."
That's what he says.