Sunday, February 9, 2014

Another World Is Possible

This sermon was preached at Presbury United Methodist Church as part of our exploration of the Gospel of John using the Narrative Lectionary.

Scripture: John 4:4-42
Jesus had to go through Samaria. He came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, which was near the land Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there. Jesus was tired from his journey, so he sat down at the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to the well to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me some water to drink.” His disciples had gone into the city to buy him some food.
The Samaritan woman asked, “Why do you, a Jewish man, ask for something to drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” (Jews and Samaritans didn’t associate with each other.)

Jesus responded, “If you recognized God’s gift and who is saying to you, ‘Give me some water to drink,’ you would be asking him and he would give you living water.”

The woman said to him, “Sir, you don’t have a bucket and the well is deep. Where would you get this living water? You aren’t greater than our father Jacob, are you? He gave this well to us, and he drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.”

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks from the water that I will give will never be thirsty again. The water that I give will become in those who drink it a spring of water that bubbles up into eternal life.”

The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will never be thirsty and will never need to come here to draw water!”

Jesus said to her, “Go, get your husband, and come back here.”

The woman replied, “I don’t have a husband.”

You are right to say, ‘I don’t have a husband,’” Jesus answered. “You’ve had five husbands, and the man you are with now isn’t your husband. You’ve spoken the truth.”

The woman said, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you and your people say that it is necessary to worship in Jerusalem.”

Jesus said to her, “Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you and your people will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You and your people worship what you don’t know; we worship what we know because salvation is from the Jews. But the time is coming—and is here!—when true worshipers will worship in spirit and truth. The Father looks for those who worship him this way. God is spirit, and it is necessary to worship God in spirit and truth.”

The woman said, “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one who is called the Christ. When he comes, he will teach everything to us.”

Jesus said to her, “I Am—the one who speaks with you.”

Just then, Jesus’ disciples arrived and were shocked that he was talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?” The woman put down her water jar and went into the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who has told me everything I’ve done! Could this man be the Christ?” They left the city and were on their way to see Jesus.

In the meantime the disciples spoke to Jesus, saying, “Rabbi, eat.”

Jesus said to them, “I have food to eat that you don’t know about.”

The disciples asked each other, “Has someone brought him food?”

Jesus said to them, “I am fed by doing the will of the one who sent me and by completing his work. Don’t you have a saying, ‘Four more months and then it’s time for harvest’? Look, I tell you: open your eyes and notice that the fields are already ripe for the harvest. Those who harvest are receiving their pay and gathering fruit for eternal life so that those who sow and those who harvest can celebrate together. This is a true saying, that one sows and another harvests. I have sent you to harvest what you didn’t work hard for; others worked hard, and you will share in their hard work.”

Many Samaritans in that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s word when she testified, “He told me everything I’ve ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to Jesus, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. Many more believed because of his word, and they said to the woman, “We no longer believe because of what you said, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this one is truly the savior of the world.”

Sermon: Another World Is Possible
Let us pray:
Patient Teacher who enters into the midst of our emptiness to quench our thirst,
may you enter into these words I speak and into the reflections of all of us here today, that we might better understand your truth that is living water. Amen.

Another World Is Possible. A new world, a renewed world, a world where we worship in spirit and truth, made whole by new relationships with God--- all this is possible.1 That's what is spelled out for us in the story we read last week about Nicodemus and then again today in the story about this Samaritan woman.

Let me remind you what happened last week, because these two stories are meant to be read together. Nicodemus is a well-respected Pharisee, a pillar of the community in Jerusalem. He came to Jesus at midnight, perhaps in hopes that no one would see him speaking to Jesus, who is, after all, a poor peasant rabble-rouser. But perhaps the writer of the Gospel of John is merely trying to illustrate for us that Nicodemus, for all his learning, is shrouded in a kind of darkness. Jesus speaks to Nicodemus of rebirth, offering him grace to start his life over, illuminated in the light of the God who so loved the world, but Nicodemus' response is just to scratch his head. He asks, rather incredulously, twice, “How is this possible?” His understanding of the world and God is so fixed that even though he senses something is wrong so deeply that he seeks out Jesus, he cannot understand that Jesus is offering a whole new world.

Now, Minister Jackie did remind us that there is grace still available for Nicodemus in the end. But hold off on that a second. Because before the darkness of not-knowing is dispelled in the light of grace, Jesus speaks to another who does accept Jesus' offer of a new world. The Samaritan woman.

We have moved from the center of everything, Jerusalem, speaking with a well-respected man, to find ourselves on the dusty margins, speaking to a woman who isn't even Jewish! Yet it is with her that Jesus' identity is fully revealed. It is with her that we find world-changing grace.

Jews and Samaritans were once one people (to put it super simplistically) who under occupation began to distance themselves. They argued about the proper place to worship God and which books of the Bible were authoritative. It may seem silly to us, but look at how much Protestants and Catholics have fought over the centuries. So Jews and Samaritans constructed these elaborate rules of how they could and could not interact, to avoid as much contact as possible.

Jesus, as he tends to do, ignores those rules. His proclamation of a new world is only possible when rules are broken. He sends his disciples ahead of him because he is tired, and sits himself down by a well. In the brightness of the noonday sun--- perhaps again a literary metaphor on how a conversation with Jesus shed light and life into the heart of this woman--- a Samaritan woman comes to the well, carrying her heavy jar to draw water.

Surely she sees him there, but she would never initiate conversation, not with a man, and certainly not with a Jew. Jesus demands a drink of water, and perhaps it is his abruptness that prompts her to respond not with a drink but with a reminder of the rules of engagement. She is a Samaritan woman and he is a Jewish man. The two don't associate with one another.

Yet, as this Samaritan woman informs Jesus that he has broken the rules, in correcting him so boldly, she is the one breaking the rules! She is bold like the noonday sun, Jesus sees this, and so he begins to teach. Of course, when Jesus begins to teach in the Gospel of John, it is usually pretty confusing. With Nicodemus, he spoke of being born a second time, giving Nicodemus the ridiculous mental image of a full-grown man crawling back into his mother's womb. This time, Jesus' response is just as cryptic, basically saying that even though he just asked her for water, since she was the one with the water jug and all, really she should be asking him for water. Living water.

This conversation is not off to a good start. Yet the ambiguity in Jesus' words, as frustrating as it can be initially, is an invitation. Jesus, in case you haven't noticed, does not give straight answers very often. Definitive answers tend to end conversation. But Jesus asks questions, tells stories--- he draws people in. Yet, as with Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman does not understand what Jesus is saying. She answers him as though he is still talking about the drinking water splashing quietly beneath them.

She speaks frankly to this Jewish stranger. She points out that he doesn't have a bucket, so how can he get water? And she references their common heritage in Jacob, a sly jab to make sure he's not feeling more important than she because he is Jewish and not a Samaritan.

Unlike with Nicodemus, Jesus responds to her misunderstanding with an explanation.2 Nicodemus didn't want to understand. But the woman at the well, she is intriguing, she is bold. And perhaps Jesus realizes that this new world is easier to grasp for the people on the margins, people who don't have as much to lose as Nicodemus does. So Jesus explains that he is not talking about the water in the well, but something more, something that will forever sate her--- and our--- thirst.

She still doesn't understand, but just staying and talking to Jesus has taken down her defenses. Jesus must realize this, so he says something strange: “Go get your husband.” What? No, Jesus is not implying that maybe her husband would understand better. Instead, he is revealing to her, in her words, that he is a prophet. He knows that she has had five husbands and is living with a man who is not her husband. It is not important to us as the reader to know why the woman has had so many husbands. Jesus isn't revealing this to judge her. What is important is that Jesus knows who she is and what has happened to her. She is amazed. Knowing he is a prophet, she does something amazing: she engages him in a theological conversation. This woman is the first character in the Gospel of John to engage Jesus in serious, theological conversation.3

She does so by returning to that Jewish-Samaritan history. She wants to know where the right place to worship is. She expects an either/or answer, but Jesus tells her that it doesn't matter where we worship, but how. We must worship in spirit and in truth. Our exclusive hold on truth don't matter. What matters is having a worshipful relationship with God.

And then there's that bit about how the time for a more whole relationship with God is coming at the same time it is already here. This is the promise of another world being possible, in fact already in existence. And here we see that the woman at the well has the same sense that Nicodemus had that something is wrong in the world. She speaks of knowing that the Messiah will come, believing in that hope, needing that hope. And she believes that the Messiah will teach them how to live into this new world.

And he does. This whole story is about being open to receiving God's truth. This grace is how Jesus teaches us to embrace the other world. Yet rarely do we respond to Jesus the way that the Samaritan woman at the well did. We are too often more like Nicodemus, knowing that something is wrong in the world, something is missing in our lives; yet we cling to our misunderstandings and shut out the light of Christ. We have too much to lose if we accept a world of total worship, a world where we place ourselves in God's hands and look upon one another as brothers and sisters rather than enemies or competitors. We don't engage Jesus, we don't try to stay in the conversation.

Or we are like the disciples. When they appear in the story, they are more worried about why the heck Jesus would be talking to a strange Samaritan woman, and then later more worried about eating some food, then they are about actually listening to Jesus. Are we too often more worried about rules and propriety and what people are saying about us then we are about actually listening to Jesus?

This is not to say that everything would be easier for us if we could just be more like this woman at the well. Jesus reveals to her his divinity. “I am,” he says, echoing God's self-naming from within the burning bush. And the woman leaves behind her water jar, having discovered instead living water that will not run dry, to spread the good news of this Messiah. However, the Gospel of John does not have her using the terms grace or spirit or truth; her testimony instead relies on Jesus knowing everything she has ever done. She even questions in her evangelism, “Could this man be the Christ, the Messiah?” Gospel of John scholar Gail R. O'Day writes, “Her affirmation is somewhat tentative, but it is nevertheless expectant and hope-filled. She is not sure if Jesus fits the categories she has for 'Messiah,' but she is filled with enough sense of hope and promise at what she has heard from him that she wants to share her experience.” And people can see the hope inside her pushing out that wrongness she had felt without Jesus. And so they too go in search of a relationship with him.

This text, these two stories of the unnamed woman at the well and of respectable Nicodemus, leave us with a challenge. How are you meeting Christ in your lives now? Do you let your confusion overtake the possibility of another world? Or will you welcome Christ's promises with a thirst for spirit and truth even if that means you lose prestige and control?

Grace is available to us all, over and over again in our lives. Even Nicodemus, who was so cloaked in darkness at the beginning of the Gospel, is the one who anoints the body of Christ after his death with myrrh and aloe. But my prayer is that we follow in the footsteps of the woman at the well instead, that we recognize the grace before us, even when we don't fully understand it. And that when we recognize that grace we reach out far and wide to our neighbors to show one another that another world is indeed possible.

1Gail R. O'Day, The Word Disclosed: Preaching the Gospel of John (St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press, 2002), 52.
2See Deborah J. Kapp, Pastoral Perspective on John 4:5-42, Third Sunday in Lent, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Vol. 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 94.
3Gail R. O'Day, “John,” Women's Bible Commentary, Expanded Edition with Apocrypha, eds. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998.

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