Jesus Meets the Samaritan Woman

Sermon, March 19, 2017 – Third Sunday in Lent, Year A
John 4:5-42

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

In today’s Gospel reading we heard a great story of how Jesus interacted with a Samaritan woman, leading not only to her own conversion but to the conversion of her village. And unlike some Sundays, today we get to hear the whole story – from beginning to end. Like most stories from the Gospel, there is so much there for us if we slow down and read it carefully.

As I was thinking about this story and what it might say to us today, I recalled something I had read by Bishop N.T. Wright, a bishop and noted scholar in the Church of England. Bishop Wright speaks of how Bible stories can be authoritative for us, even if they are not creeds, rules, or clear theological statements. He says that the Bible contains “an authority that is wielded and exercised through the people of God telling and retelling their story as the story of the world, telling the covenant story as the true story of creation. Somehow, it is wielded in particular through God’s people telling the story of Jesus.”

Bishop Wright suggests that we might think of the Bible’s authority like a five act play by William Shakespeare, in which we do not have the fifth and final act. Suppose that the first four acts provide us with “such a wealth of characterization” and “such a crescendo of excitement within the plot” that we can draw from this how the final act should unfold. The first four acts would act as our authority for how the final act must come out, yet within that authority, we have the responsibility for producing the final act.

Bishop Wright refines his idea by suggesting that the first four acts of our play are “(1) Creation; (2) Fall; (3) Israel; (4) Jesus.” And as for the fifth and final act, the bishop says that the “New Testament would form the first scene in the fifth act, giving hints [to] how the play is supposed to end.” We as the Church would then live under this authority to perform the final act through how we live our lives on earth.

This is an excellent and useful framework within which to think about our Gospel lesson today. Our story is both interesting and compelling but it is a story. Jesus isn’t teaching us in a parable nor is Paul making a theological argument about what we ought to believe. No, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman, they have an interesting and peculiar conversation, after which she convinces her village that Jesus is the promised Messiah. So what can this tell us about ourselves and how we should live?

As we think about this story, let us reflect on how Jesus came to meet and converse with this woman; what sort of person this woman was; what Jesus offered her; and how the woman responded.

What is amazing in this story is that Jesus was able to speak with her despite the social barriers that would normally have blocked any conversation between them. She was a Samaritan woman. As our passage tells us: Jews do not associate with Samaritans. The Samaritans were descendants of the rebellious tribes of Israel which had broken away from the Jewish kings of David’s line. They had their own unique take on Judaism, rejecting both much of the Old Testament and the Temple in Jerusalem as the center for the true worship of God. Jews looked down on Samaritans as being heretical, unclean and racially inferior.

Another barrier was that she was a woman. In ancient near eastern culture, it would have been considered highly improper for Jesus to have spoken with her. But it was even more pointed for this woman as she apparently had a reputation for being sexually immoral. But nothing is too great for God. Consider the story and how the scene is set.

In the first four verses in John chapter four, we learned that Jesus needed to get out of Judea quickly and go to Galilee. Wouldn’t you know it, but that meant that he needed to travel through Samaria. And then he stopped at noon near a well. He sent his disciples to the nearest town to get some food. Now, in Israel, it usually was pretty hot in the middle of the day, and the women in the area would have all come to the well to get their water much earlier, when the day was still cool. And they would have all come together as a group.

But the woman in our story had to come alone, and at a time when she didn’t think anyone else would be there, most likely because she was the target of gossip and mean comments from her neighbors. And so she came when she wasn’t expecting anybody to be there. But Jesus was waiting to meet her. Jesus did not let the social barriers prevent her from encountering him.

What of the woman herself? What kind of person was she? Well, to begin with, she was someone who had some relationship problems. The story tells us that she had been through five husbands and the man she was currently with, wasn’t her husband. Commentators wisely caution us against assuming that this was all her fault. They remind us that in the Jewish and Samaritan culture, it was the husband who had all the control over divorce, not the woman. And we also don’t know whether any of her husbands had died.

But what I think we can recognize is that this was a woman who had some serious relationship scars and was quite probably someone who had suffered from abusive or mean spirited men in her life. It seems that she had become so fearful of making yet another relationship commitment that she had decided against marrying anybody else. In the ancient world, this would have made her an outcast and someone to avoid.

Yet, this was the area that Jesus focused on. Jesus identified the area in her life most in need of healing when he brought up her relationship issues, right after he offered her living water. This is an important thing to note in the story. First Jesus offered her living water, then he brought up the area in which she had the greatest need of healing. The two go together.

Listen to what Jesus says when he asks her for a drink and she initially deflects his question. “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Jesus is, of course, offering her himself, that is to say, an everlasting relationship with God himself. This is the living water that will keep you satiated for all eternity.

The Samaritan woman, of course, doesn’t fully understand right away what Jesus means by living water. Bishop Wright points out that in that time, the term that Jesus uses for living water referred to running water, like water in a stream or river, as opposed to standing water in a well or pool. Living water was more likely to be fresh and clean. But Jesus goes further and says that this living water will become a spring within us, welling up to eternal life. Bishop Wright notes that if you want to take Jesus up on his offer of living water bubbling up within you, you will need to get rid of the stale, moldy, stagnant water that you are currently living off of. For the Samaritan woman, her stagnant water was her relationship issues. When we decide that we want to accept the offer of Jesus to heal us, we need to be prepared that he will actually heal us.

How did the Samaritan woman respond? Like us, she tries to stall for more time. “Okay Jesus, that sounds great, but now isn’t a great time. Maybe later.” Initially, she tries to deflect Jesus by bringing up religious controversy. She says “Yes, I see that you must be a prophet. But what about that religious issue that stands between Jews and Samaritans. What about that, Jesus?” But Jesus will have none of it. Jesus tells her quite plainly what the truth is, which is that she has gotten the issue all wrong. Jesus points out to her that it really doesn’t matter where God is worshipped, but rather that God is worshipped in spirit and truth.

The woman then tries one last diversion. She says “I know that the Messiah will come one day. I’ll just wait till then and ask him.” Well, this diversion didn’t work either, since Jesus responds both simply and effectively by saying “Yeah, that Messiah guy? That’s me.”

At this point, it clicks for her. When the disciples return, the woman leaves and goes to her village. She was so emboldened by her encounter with Jesus that she tells everyone in her village about him. Remember that this was the woman who Jesus first encountered because she was avoiding her fellow villagers. Now she is among them enthusiastically telling them about Jesus. And she was so persuasive that many of the Samaritans from that area came to believe in Jesus.

So what does this story teach us? To begin with, we read that no matter how seemingly insurmountable the barriers might be between a person and Jesus, Jesus can still reach them. No matter how insignificant or marginalized a person might seem, Jesus still will reach out to them and offer the living water of himself. As Paul writes in Romans “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

We also learn that when Jesus reaches out to us, he is reaching out to heal and transform us. Each one of us has an area in our lives that is in need of healing. Probably many areas if we are going to be honest. Jesus promises us that he will give us a stream of living water to well up within us to eternal life. As Bishop Wright says, when we accept the living water, we must get rid of the stale and stagnant water that we cling to. What this means is that Jesus comes to transform us. He wants all of us. Imagine that you have broken your leg and you go to the hospital. But what if you refused to let the doctor do what she needs to do to heal you? What if you said “yes, I want to walk again, but you may not do anything to my leg.” That wouldn’t make sense. And so if we truly want the living water that Jesus offers, we must be ready to let him wash away the stale and stagnant sin that infects our lives.

Finally, we see what the woman does when she lets down her barriers and embraces Jesus. Her life is transformed. She is full of joy and can’t be contained. Instead of the woman shunned by and gossiped about by her neighbors, who sneaks to the well when she knows nobody else will be around, we see a woman enthusiastically telling her neighbors about Jesus. And she is so full of life and the Spirit that many are convinced by her.

This story tells us that every one of us can be a follower of Jesus. Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t be. But don’t for a minute think that following Jesus doesn’t change everything. It does. But if that scares you, ask yourself this – is the stale, stagnant water of your old life preferable to the fresh, bubbling living water that Jesus promises? I think we all know the answer. Come, let’s drink deeply together.

Let us pray.

We thank you and praise you, O God, that however we may thirst, whatever we may need to satisfy our souls, you offer it freely and abundantly in Christ; So we drink deep of the living water and, as we draw from your wells, we seek to pass the cup to others who, like us, are thirsty for your grace. Amen.

 

Law and Grace

Sermon, February 12, 2017 – Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A
Matthew 5:21-37

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

That was a pretty sobering Gospel lesson that we heard today. Listen to these phrases, some repeated more than once:

“will be subject to judgment”
“answerable to the court”
“will be in danger of the fire of hell”
“may hand you over to the judge, and you may be thrown into prison”
“If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”

Who do these dire warning apply to? Surely only to the most wicked and evil people, right? Surely not to us? Well, actually they do apply to us. Or would if Jesus hadn’t intervened for us. Anyone who is angry with someone else, or calls them a fool is subject to judgment. From what I can see on Facebook and Twitter that takes care of pretty much everyone. But on the off chance that doesn’t apply to you, can you honestly say that you have never had a wandering lustful eye at some point in your life? Out with that eye!

Whoever isn’t condemned to judgment in hell for being angry or dismissive with another, will be walking around with one eye. What kind of world is that? It makes me think how Ron enjoys creative titles for his sermons, and I might just be able to top him today. How about “In the Land of the Damned, the One-Eyed Man is King?” Hmmm….that sounds more like the next big movie about a future dystopia instead of a sermon.

Or I suppose that I could turn this into a sermon on politics. After all, when one thinks of insults, anger, adultery and promise-breaking, what comes more quickly to mind than politicians? Tempting subject, but I don’t think I will go there.

Seriously though – what is our Gospel reading about? What is Jesus trying to tell us in this passage? Where did the good news of the Gospel go? What happened to grace? It’s there. I promise you. But first, we need to see this passage through the right perspective.

We tend to understand these teachings of Jesus through the same lenses as the Pharisees. Understanding this is key to hearing what Jesus is telling us. Now, just to be perfectly clear. I realize that the Pharisees have a very bad reputation today, but the way they viewed law is predominant amongst people in all times and cultures.

The Pharisees were devout Jews who wanted to be sure that they were following God’s law. They studied God’s law as revealed to Moses in the Old Testament and then created a code of behavior which they thought they would keep them safe if they followed it legalistically.

Take the issue of adultery for example. The Ten Commandments said not to commit adultery. Moses allowed for a certificate of divorce in certain circumstances. So the Pharisees codified rules around the specific outward behavior that they believed God was forbidding and then a created legal work around to allow people to end their marriages when they wanted to. Everything was focused on outward behavior.

Our legal system in the United States today adopts this same approach. For every crime, the prosecutor must prove the objective outward act which constitutes the crime. For most crimes, the prosecutor must also prove the subjective intent to do the thing. However, absent an actual outward act, the subjective intent is irrelevant. Think of it this way – I may contemplate and even intend to rob you, but unless I take actual outward actions in furtherance of robbing you, I am not guilty of the crime of robbery.

We often refer to this attitude as being legalistic. The reason is pretty clear – we are adopting from the legal system the principle that only external behavior counts. If you didn’t do the action, then no matter what you were thinking, you didn’t break the law.

In our Gospel passage today, Jesus is telling us that this attitude just doesn’t cut it in the Kingdom of Heaven. God’s law is meant to apply to all of our lives – thoughts, intents, and behaviors. One commentator, Professor Scott Hoezee, wrote that “From the outside looking in, it looks like Jesus is making the Law of God ridiculously hard to keep….But is Jesus changing the Law into something new and different? No, he is radicalizing it, he is bringing everyone back to the roots of why God gave the Law in the first place.”

God did not give us the Law as a tedious set of rules which we have to navigate around in order to accomplish our own selfish ends. No, God gave us the Law so that we could set our hearts and minds on God’s call on our lives. Don’t think of God’s law like the criminal law or governmental regulations. No, the better way to think of God’s law is to think of a young man courting a woman. Yes, here is the sermon’s Valentine’s Day reference! But think – what if the young man really didn’t love the woman, but he was just going through the motions? What if he didn’t have any emotional investment in the woman? What sort a romance would that be? Not much of one. In courting, it is the intent which is most important, and the intent animates the courtship behaviors, such as flowers, dinners, and such.

This is what God’s Law must be for us. In our passage today, Jesus is telling us that God’s law isn’t really about our external behavior. He is telling us that it is all about our hearts and minds, knowing that if our hearts and minds are focused on God and what God wants, then our external behaviors will follow.

Let us take another look at the passage. Jesus begins by addressing murder. He repeats the admonition against murder, but then makes it clear that God also wants us to treat others with respect. If we carry bitter, hateful and cynical thoughts in our hearts about others, than that will come out in how we live our lives. We will be living our lives enslaved to our own passions, or own selfish desires, and not in furtherance of God’s will for our lives. God’s call to us is to live in peace and concord with our neighbors to the extent we can. This means reconciling with those we are in conflict with as soon as we can.

Next Jesus addresses the issue of adultery. Again, he acknowledges the teaching against marital infidelity, but then warns us that if we regard others simply as objects to give us sexual pleasure, then we are missing what God’s plan is for our sexuality. God’s plan is that men and women come together in the covenantal bond of marriage, where they are committed to each other and each other’s well-being for life. This bond is the context within which sexual love plays out. This covenantal commitment in marriage is so important that it is compared to Christ’s deep love and commitment to his Church.

Jesus speaks out against the certificates of divorce that were the way that men could legalistically extricate themselves from their marriages. Jesus points out that this is just another way of evading the covenantal responsibility that came with the marriage. Jesus says that the men who wrongly divorce their wives – even if they followed the legal technicalities – are guilty of adultery, because they broke the marriage covenant in their hearts.

Finally, Jesus speaks against oaths. In the time period of the New Testament, scholars believe that the Pharisees had developed intricate oaths which allowed them to avoid telling the truth while not technically violating the Mosaic Law. It would perhaps be the ancient equivalent of today’s fine print. You know, the kind where the big words in the advertisement say one thing, but the fine print at the bottom says something completely different.

Jesus says that this sort of legalistic hocus pocus was an offence against God no matter what technical formulas were used. He calls for a simple yes or no. Jesus would be a big advocate of truth in advertising. His teaching in our passage is calling us to say “yes” if we mean “yes” and “no” if we mean “no.” Trying to make it sound like we mean “yes” when we really mean “no” is being dishonest with others, no matter what clever oaths we use.

So what is Jesus basic message in our Gospel passage? Professor Hoezee writes that Jesus is interested in us “at every level, including at the deepest levels of our hearts and minds. God wants us to respect each other, to love each other, to see God’s own image residing deep within one another. Human life is not supposed to be some giant game in which you scheme and scam to get ahead…We are not to use people as pawns, as objects of lust, as receptacles for our scorn, as the targets for our desires to brutalize, manipulate, and then discard.”

If we see this passage through the eyes of the Pharisees, then we are indeed in deep trouble. Our sinful natures are always luring us towards selfishness, scheming, scamming, manipulating and using others. God knows this, and it is why he sent Jesus Christ to die for our sins and take away our guilt. So this passage isn’t about our punishment. Jesus Christ has taken care of that already by his death on the cross. But Jesus came to also show us a better way, and the Holy Spirit has come to live within us, and help us live as God is calling us to live. And that is where this passage comes in. It is Jesus telling us how we are to live now that we have been freed from our bondage to sin.

And that is good news.

Let us pray, in the words of today’s collect, which reminds us that we can only follow God’s law through God’s grace,

O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Cross Trumps Tribalism

Sermon, January 22, 2017 – Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A
1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

There is an interesting symmetry between today’s Gospel reading from Matthew and the passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. In the Gospel Jesus walks along the Sea of Galilee and calls on a motley crew of fishermen to follow him and be leaders in the church. Then we read Paul’s discussion of the problematic factions in Corinth, with each faction following a different leader. It seems like the perfect combination of passages to demonstrate how we always seem to ruin what God calls us to do. God calls us to be leaders in his church and we turn around and break apart into factions, each following our chosen leader to the detriment of the church.

I do wonder if they thought of this interesting connection when they drew up the lectionary readings. In any case, let’s look at Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth and what it tells us about unity and division in the church. To begin with, it is very important to understand the cultural context of the ancient Greek world in which the Corinthian church existed. Once we understand that, we can see what Paul was getting at in this passage.

The Greeks fancied themselves as very sophisticated and philosophical people. Philosophers and intellectual teachers would wander about and attract disciples to themselves. These teachers and philosophers were often puffed up and pompous and their followers would argue and quarrel with each other. Keep in mind that in the ancient world, there were no televisions, radios, or social media. Most people had no say in elections. There were no sports teams to cheer on. Instead, people enjoyed hearing teachers and philosophers spouting off, and they were quick to divide into teams, following one teacher or another.

Trading good natured trash talk is all part of the sports culture in North America. We wear our teams jerseys and call out insults about the opposing team’s star players. On a less light-hearted note, my Facebook friends span from those that are politically conservative to those that are liberal. Over the past year, I have seen all sorts of political postings and discussion. Typically, these devolve into a lot of name calling and hysteria, with insults flying back and forth. People don’t listen to each other and are more concerned with putting down their opponents than they are with constructively engaging anyone.

This sort of tribalism is in our human nature, and just as we engage in this sort of behavior today, the Christians in ancient Corinth apparently did so as well. Scholars don’t think that the factions were actually led by the individuals mentioned in the text, but rather that people were attracted to perspectives represented by the named leaders. Some scholars suggest that the Paul faction were those who regarded themselves as being the true followers of the apostle Paul and so followers of the true authority in the church. The Apollos party is thought to have been a group that regarded themselves as the intellectual elite of the church. The Cephas, or Peter, faction probably represented Jewish Christians who regarded themselves as the purest group within the church. And finally, the Christ party were probably a group that opposed any leadership at all, thinking that they were the most spiritual and may have even tended towards Gnosticism.

So basically, each of these factions was infected with pride and self-importance. Their factionalism turned the focus away from the Gospel and towards themselves. Instead of focusing on Jesus Christ, they were focused on themselves and why they were the best Christians in the church.

We face the same problems in the church today. There are some Christians who are quite convinced that they are better than others because they follow the oldest and most correct teachers or traditions. Others, including many in our tradition, think that they are far more intelligent and intellectual than other Christians. Still others fancy themselves as being the only Spirit filled Christians. Yet others see themselves as the purest and most authentic followers of Jesus because they don’t bother with doctrine but instead practice a social gospel as community and political activists.

The problem is not that Christians serve the poor, or study doctrine, or take teachers and traditions seriously, or seek to engage the intellect, or are open to the movement of the Holy Spirit. Nor is it bad that Christians focus their time and talent in specific areas. God created us each with unique personalities, interests and talents. Some are called to serve the poor, others to advocate for the less fortunate, others to study theology, others to have a greater sensitivity to the spirit. None of this is the problem.

What is the problem is when we become prideful in our areas of interest and shift our focus from Jesus Christ and the Gospel to our own agendas. Does the spiritual revival point people to Jesus Christ, or is the focus on magical signs and wonders? Does the social advocacy show God’s love for people, or is the focus on the political perspective of the activist? Does the theological discussion support the Gospel message, or is does it build up the intellectual egos of the participants? These are the questions to ask.

In his letter to the Corinthian church, Paul sets out some corrective guidelines for us. He does this through three questions. He asks “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” Each of these questions communicates an important truth.

In the first question, our Bibles translate Paul asking “Is Christ divided?” The Greek word is perhaps better rendered “Has Christ been parcelled out?” The point here is that Christ cannot be broken up and divided up. The Gospel is not a smorgasbord where we each only take the parts that we like. Later on in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.”

Paul’s point here is that while we each might have different roles to play in the Church, we must never forget that we are all part of the same body of Christ. Not one of us can vainly imagine that we or our chosen faction are more important than other Christians.

Paul’s next question is “Was Paul crucified for you?” Here he is pointing to the fundamental message of the Gospel – that Jesus Christ died on the cross for us to take away our sins. It wasn’t the imagined leaders of the various factions that died for us, it wasn’t our ideas, our advocacy, our charismatic practice, or anything else. Jesus died for us, and that is where our focus needs to be.

Theologian John Stott writes that the Eucharist is vitally important as a sacrament of reconciliation. He says “to be continually reminded of the cross is one of the healthy results of regularly sharing in the service of Holy Communion.” Stott argues that “reconciliation and unity between Christians is the fruit of the atoning sacrifice of Christ at Calvary, and that the service of Holy Communion is therefore where we begin to demonstrate that unity which is God’s gift to us through the reconciling work of his Son.” Specifically, he writes, Christians “all come together to the Lord’s Table as sinners redeemed by his blood; we there acknowledge the disunity caused through our sin and guilt, then gratefully and joyfully celebrate our unity in forgiveness and cleansing.“ Focusing on the cross should always remind us of our sin and guilt and instill humility in us. Humility is the great antidote to pride and self-congratulation.

Paul’s third question is “Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” Remember how I told you that the ancient Greeks loved to follow intellectual teachers and philosophers? Well, these teachers often staged initiation rituals where followers would become their disciples and would thus come under their authority. Scholars believe that this mindset had infected the church, and that some Corinthian Christians regarded baptism as an initiation where they became the disciples of the person who baptized them. So if Paul baptized you, you were in Paul’s tribe. If Apollos baptized you, you were Apollos’ man.

This is why Paul says “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel.” He is saying that he was not sent to create factions in the Church, but to proclaim the gospel of the cross of Christ. We should all be disciples of Jesus Christ, not of one faction or another.

And so what is Paul’s message to us today about unity in the Church? I think that is quite a simple one. If we stay focused on the Gospel of Jesus and the cross of Christ, we’ll be okay. We’ll remember that, even though we all play a different part, we are all an equally important part of the body of Christ. We’ll remember that we “all come together to the Lord’s Table as sinners redeemed by his blood” and not by our own cleverness, goodness or actions. And finally, we’ll remember that we are all disciples of Jesus Christ, and not of our own little factions and cliques. This is how Christian unity can be restored. It starts at the bottom and works its way up.

So as we move to the confession of sin and sacrament of the Eucharist, let us confess our innate sin of pride and tribalism, and remember – for each and every one of us – it is only through the cross of Christ that we are redeemed. And redeemed, we are all part of Christ’s body because Christ is the one who invited us.

Let us pray,

God of all mercy, your Son died on the cross so that we might be freed from our bondage to sin and death. Grant that we may come together to your table as sinners redeemed by your blood, and gratefully and joyfully receive your body and blood as food and drink for us proclaiming our unity as fellow disciples of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.