Monday, March 24, 2014

March 23 Sermon

(To hear an audio version of this sermon as preached, click here.)

John 4:5-42
5So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The Samaritan woman said to him, “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.) 10Jesus answered her, “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.” 11The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but 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.” 15The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” 16Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.”17The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But 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.24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
27Just 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?” 28Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” 30They left the city and were on their way to him. 31Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” 34Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.35Do 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. 36The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”39Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41And many more believed because of his word. 42They 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.”


"Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done."

Is there any statement in all of scripture more fraught with emotion, more bound up with the realization that life will never be the same, that the future is full of possibility?

Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done. It's brilliant, just brilliant writing, and it belongs up there with I'm going to make him an offer he can't  refuse, and I've got a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore, and I love the smell of napalm in the morning, and Frankly, my dear . . .

That's the kind of line it is. Just brilliant narrative, brilliant writing, so evocative of what it feels like to encounter a situation that immediately changes you, that cuts through the clutter of life and has a spirited conversation with your soul.

It’s the kind of line that reminds me of the birth of our daughter. We’ve only got one, but for those of you who have kids, perhaps you recognize this feeling too, all the preparation you go into, all the chaos that fills those days, the showers and the painting and the worry, all of that, and then the mother pushes and pushes and suddenly, there’s a baby, an actual person, and you knew it was going to happen, but you didn’t know it would be like this, so full of possibility. You knew, but you didn’t know this.

Or a wedding. You go through the ritual, you plan and plan and say the I do’s, you dance a little maybe, and then you go about your life together: life, with its money problems and its stresses and its ups and downs, its beginnings and endings, the reality of the tough slog of love. You knew this would happen, but you didn’t know it would be like this, so rich, so deep, like good soil. You knew, but you didn’t know this.

Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done. That kind of line doesn’t come to you unless the sum total of the things the man told you are pretty substantial. You don’t utter that kind of line without having done a whole lot of things you aren’t proud of. That kind of beautiful, evocative line comes from the mouth of somebody who has a lot of things to know, but not the kind of things you frame on the wall or put on the refrigerator.

She had a lot of things to know, and maybe that’s the issue. Everybody wants to be known. Everybody longs to be recognized, to be acknowledged, to do as Howard Thurman says, to hear the sound of the genuine in me and see the genuine in you and go down in myself and end up in you. This is what it means to be human, to long to be known.

It is why we so worship at the altar of celebrity, why we now have this whole class of people who are famous for being famous, because there is a part in every person who wishes to be known. Maybe it’s not the biggest part—I mean, I’d just as soon live alone in the woods as be famous—but there’s a part of me, deep down, that would go to great lengths just to be known.

I don’t want to get too ridiculous about it, but I kind of think it is the case that most of the sins we commit all stem from this one desire, this desire to be known. Adultery, of course, is about intimacy more than it’s about thrill; there is a reason that the euphemism for intimacy we see most often in the Bible is to know, to be known. Greed and envy are about needing to be better than, have more than, build bigger than, so that we may be known.

It is pretty incredible the number of things we pile up in order to be known, our own personal Towers of Babel, as if just one more thing, just one more hit, just one more fleeting encounter, just one more thing stacked on top of the rest will make my tower high enough so that I may climb it and glimpse the face of God. We do so many things in order to be known, mold our lives around this idea that we just need a little more, and while it can be overwhelming to face that level of sin, take heart, my friends, for it is certainly not a new trap. Let us remember the unnamed woman in the Gospel of John who met Jesus at the well. Here is someone who was never satisfied in her effort to be known.

There were the marriages, of course. Five husbands, five marriages, five weddings. The point isn’t the number, and it isn’t even really about divorce. Jesus doesn’t take this opportunity to preach about the sanctity of marriage, nor about the heartbreak of divorce. In fact, he doesn’t say much at all at the beginning in this passage, which is unlike him.

It is certainly unusual that Jesus doesn’t take the bait, but what is even more unusual is that he’s talking to a Samaritan woman at all. Jesus does all sorts of unusual things, so that’s not it exactly, but the social convention in first-century Israel was that not only did Jews and Samaritans not interact, but a Jewish man certainly did not interact with a Samaritan woman, and my God, he’d never ask her for a drink of water, and those of us who grew up in the south understand this distinction more than most, because while there were not separate wells for Jews and Samaritans, there might as well have been. I love this parenthetical comment in the Gospel—John says that Jews and Samaritans did not share things in common—which is John being sarcastic, going to great lengths to avoid saying they hated each other. Jews and Samaritans didn’t talk, didn’t wave to each other, didn’t interact at all. It’s why the parable of the Good Samaritan is so powerful.

And yet Jesus sees this woman who, we know, has all these strikes against her. She’s female, for one, and Samaritan, and divorced five times, and now she’s living with a man to whom she isn’t married. Jesus’s whole message could be ruined simply by his association with this woman. John says that when the disciples came and discovered that he was talking to her, at the well, in the middle of the day, where everybody could see, they were astonished. You can’t have that kind of association without people talking. I mean, Jesus might as well associate with murderers and tax collectors and prostitutes, which of course he did. It was as controversial then as it is today.

I saw it happen just this week. There’s a Christian columnist named Jonathan Merritt I read and appreciate, and he made the innocuous statement that Jesus was a friend to sinners. And a number of very influential religious leaders took him to task, arguing that Jesus only befriended those who changed, who believed in him, who shed their sins.

And, I have to tell you, I wonder if those folks have read this story, the story of the woman at the well, because nowhere in the story does she apologize for her five divorces, for her current living situation. Nowhere does she repent. Nowhere, in fact, does Jesus say anything disapproving to her. He does not say, “Go and sin no more.” He does not say, “Repent and believe the Gospel.” He says, “I am the Messiah.”

I think it is notable that having heard this news, the woman sets down her water jar and leaves. I mean, she’s gone to the well to fetch water, and yet she leaves her jar behind, just sets it down in the dust and dirt and goes to share the news of her encounter. And she doesn’t even say “Come meet the one who forgives sin.” Or “Come meet the one who gives new life.” She says “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done.”

It’s an acknowledgement that those things she’s done haven’t gotten her any closer to being known any more than the tower of Babel got the Israelites closer to Heaven. It’s an acknowledgement that everything is different from this moment forward, and in fact everything is so different, she sets down her water jar, turns away from the Messiah she’s just met and the well she needs for water and goes the other direction, just leaves in order that she might tell others of that which she has seen, the man who has told her everything she has ever done.

Just leaves it all behind, the jar, the well, the marriages, everything she’s needed to build her up so that she might be known, just leaves it behind, for she has had an encounter with God. She has been known, and it took nothing but setting the jar down and putting everything else aside.

She just set it down, so let me end with this question: what is in your water jar? What are you holding on to in the interest of being known that you need to drop in order that you might meet Jesus?

Is it money? Are you holding onto that? Is it your pride? Is it anger? I’ve met some of the angriest people I’ve ever met inside the doors of a church, and it’s the case that if anger is controlling your life, you can go to the well every single day and drink your fill, but you won’t find an ounce of the living water that gushes up, fills you and washes you clean.

Is it anger? Is it tradition—some family thing that’s always been done that is standing in the way of meeting God? Traditions are great—don’t get me wrong, I am a very traditional, high-church kind of guy—but when traditions stand in the way of worshiping in spirit and truth, if they keep you from meeting the savior, they are nothing but empty vessels, the kind that hold the wrong kind of water, and you can fill them all you want but you’re going to stay thirsty.

I don’t know why you are here today, but can I just ask one more thing? Can I suggest we consider the idea that being known by God means you need to set down the thing you think you came here for and be filled with the living water, energized to go into town and tell everyone the good news of Jesus Christ, the forgiving God who meets us where we are and—despite our silly attempts to the contrary—offers us the chance to be truly known? Can I suggest that?

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