Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Sacred Conversations (3/19/17)

Qi He, Jesus and the Samaritan Woman

On Sunday we heard the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. It's a really long story. The key to understanding the Gospel of John can be found in the Prologue to this Gospel. John 1:1-18 explains who Jesus is and what that means for us. That passage tells us that Jesus was always with God the Father; it tells us that Jesus is God; and it tells us that God entered the created world in the person of Jesus. This is also called the incarnation. The Prologue asserts that the incarnation is as important as the creation of the world. Through the incarnation, God enters into a direct relationship with all of humanity. Keep that thought in the back of your mind as you read the story of the Samaritan woman at the well and the sermon below.

Sacred Conversations (3/19/17)

          Good morning! I’d like to thank the Deacons this morning. They do a lot of really good work. In addition to the usual good work that they do, I’d like to thank them for their work in preventing the blizzard last week. You see, we were supposed to meet last Tuesday evening, but when they heard that we might be getting several inches of snow on Tuesday, they moved the meeting to last Sunday after church. I think that pretty much guaranteed that the worst of the storm missed us on Tuesday. Well done, Deacons! I’m glad we didn’t have to deal with the challenges of snowy roads last week.
          All kidding aside, I’ve been in some challenging places in the last couple weeks. As some of you know, three weeks ago, I officiated a funeral for a young man who died of a heroin overdose. His name was Alan and he was thirty years old. I didn’t know him, but his sister is a friend of mine. Alan was a lapsed Catholic and he didn’t have a strong connection to the church anymore. I felt that I needed to be there to officiate this funeral. In truth, it was an honor and a privilege to be invited into that space; it is a sacred space.
          A lot of people ask me if it’s difficult to officiate a funeral. In most cases, the answer is, no. In fact, most of the pastors I know actually like funerals. In that space, in the midst of pain and grief, we are given the opportunity to speak a word of peace. We are afforded the opportunity to speak of God’s grace and mercy, and of the hope we have in the resurrection.
          Yes, sometimes it is difficult to deal with the pain. There was a lot of raw grief at Alan’s funeral; his mother had to endure the loss of her son. No parent should have to bear such a loss. Alan loved his friends and family; everyone at that funeral home was crushed. So, it was a challenge to work through that. And I will also acknowledge that I’ve only been in ministry for a couple years. I haven’t had to bury a member of a congregation that I’ve served for a long time; I haven’t had to deal with my own pain and loss at any of the funerals I’ve officiated.
          That said, when I meet people at a funeral home—whether it’s the family, the friends, or the acquaintances of the deceased—they are all aware of their loss and their need. They feel their own brokenness and that creates a space for conversation. At a funeral home, people are willing and able to admit their own need for grace. This is also true for hospital visits and nursing home visits. The bedside in a hospital room is a sacred space. The kitchen table where I sat with Alan’s mother and sister and planned his funeral, that was a sacred space. And in these sacred spaces, pastors have the opportunity to enter into sacred conversations.
          In this morning’s lesson from the Gospel of John, Jesus enters into a sacred conversation with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, near the city of Sychar. The Gospel tells us that Jesus had left Judea and was headed to Galilee, but he had to go through Samaria. This poses some problems, both for Jesus and for us, as we try to understand this story.
          You see, in Jesus’ time, a proper, upstanding, righteous Jew would not have any contact with a Samaritan—not under any circumstances. You see, the Samaritans were once proper Jews themselves, but long before Jesus’ time, the Samaritans began to worship in different ways. For instance, the Samaritans worshiped God at a shrine on Mt. Gerizim; they didn’t believe that the temple in Jerusalem was where God dwelled. This was the main source of the rift between the Jews and the Samaritans: Jews viewed Samaritans as outsiders and even idolaters, yet the Samaritans viewed themselves as righteous descendants from the northern kingdom of Israel.[1] So the proper response for a righteous Jew is to avoid Samaritans like the plague; they were impure, sinful. A righteous Jew would have been tainted by that sinfulness. And here’s where this story gets really interesting:
A casual glance at a map of ancient Palestine or a rudimentary knowledge of Palestinian geography reveals that it is not, geographically speaking, necessary to go through Samaria when traveling from Judea to Galilee. In fact, a Jew would most certainly not journey through Samaria because of the risk of coming in contact with Samaritans.[2]
Yet the text of the Gospel tells us that Jesus had to go through Samaria. Very interesting, indeed.
          The text doesn’t tell us very much about the woman, herself. We know that she’s a Samaritan, we know that she’s come to the well at noon, and we also know that she’s been married five times and that she’s living with a man who’s not her husband. We know all that, but we don’t know her name! Over the generations, scholars and pastors have tried to fill in the blanks, in an attempt to make sense of this complex story.
          Sadly, a common judgment that was laid upon this Samaritan woman is that she was an adulteress, a harlot, or a woman of loose morals. Perhaps these interpretations sought to explain why she had so many husbands. But there is no information in the text to suggest that was the case. So, let’s start with something that is in the text: this woman is a Samaritan.
          Remember, the Samaritans thought of themselves as faithful Jews. They believed that the first five books of the Bible—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—were sacred.[3] They believed in the Law of Moses. Under the Law, adultery was punishable by death. So, if this woman had committed adultery, she might have been stoned to death. Now maybe she was granted mercy once or twice, but five times? I don’t know. It’s more likely that this woman was barren; that certainly would have been grounds for divorce. “Yet she is continually blamed for her plight and charged with behavior for which there is no textual or historical proof,” and also, Jesus does not condemn her or her sinfulness.[4] So let’s abandon our own desire to cast judgment upon her. I don’t believe her sin is at the center of this story, but rather, her identity.
          It’s also important that this story takes place at noon, in broad daylight. This stands in sharp contrast to last week’s Gospel lesson—the meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus occurs in the dark of night. Remember that the Gospel of John states that Jesus is the light of all people, “the true light, which enlightens everyone.” To claim that this story is about the woman’s sin is to misunderstand what sin is in this Gospel:
For John, sin has nothing to do with past actions or present indiscretions. Sin is a synonym for lacking a relationship with God. The reference to the time of day points to the theological theme of light and darkness, with darkness representing the realm of unbelief and light, the realm of belief.[5]
Sin and darkness are words that John uses to describe relationship. John’s Gospel is about a change in the relationship between God and humanity. That relationship is forever changed by the incarnation—the entry of God into the created world through the person of Jesus Christ. John’s Gospel testifies to this new relationship; it testifies to the light and the relationships by which the light is shared.
          As I said before, one of the blessings of my call to ministry is that I get invited into spiritual dark places—funeral homes, hospital rooms, and the like. People in those places question if God is real. People in those places question if they are loved. Those places can also be scary for the rest of us.
          Funeral homes and hospital bedsides remind us of our own mortality. They remind us of people we have lost, and in the case of hospitals, they remind us of our own fragility. It’s daunting. Often, we don’t know what to say—and for many people, the way to avoid saying the wrong thing is not going to the funeral home or the hospital at all.
          Mind you, if you want to hear someone say the wrong thing, you will certainly hear it at a funeral home. When my dad died, I can’t tell you how many people said to me, “he’s in a better place.” Really? How do you know? Did you visit him? Yes, yes, I know people say that with the best of intentions, but that statement ignores the truth of my grief: I am not in a better place. I have lost a human relationship that helped to define my identity.
          Now the truth is, the people who said, “he’s in a better place,” were trying to take away my pain. That’s a nice idea, but no words can take away that kind of pain—the loss is too great. What did make me feel better was hearing people tell stories about my dad and how much he meant to them. That validated my grief and pain. It told me that the other person had a sense of how great my loss was.
          I think that’s how Jesus works, too. Jesus doesn’t take away the darkness, Jesus shines a light—a light that the darkness cannot overcome. Jesus doesn’t speak of the Samaritan woman’s five husbands to condemn her, but to show that he knows her pain. Jesus names the truth about her life, “a truth that is heartbreaking and most likely the reason she finds herself alone at the well.”[6]
          Jesus didn’t take away her pain or her darkness, he simply named the reality of her suffering, and through this exchange, the woman came to know that Jesus was the Messiah. This was the larger reason for Jesus’ presence in Samaria:
That Jesus “had to” go through Samaria is better translated “it was necessary for him” to go through Samaria. The detail was not a geographical but a theological necessity. That Jesus must travel through Samaria is stipulated by John 3:16, “For God so loved the world.” The disciples, the hearers of this Gospel, need to know who and what the world is. That God loves the world will be demonstrated by Jesus’ ministry in Samaria. The “world” is not a general claim about God’s love, or a universal description of God’s positive inclination toward new believers. Rather, the world represents the entirety of God’s creation, including those who cannot imagine themselves as objects of God’s love.[7]
Jesus proclaimed God’s love, mercy, and grace to those who were on the outside, to those who were considered impure.
          As we wrestle with the implications of this story, we must remember that it begins with baptism—this is why I began this sermon by pouring the water. The text reminds us that Jesus baptized people and made disciples. Well, sort of: “it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized” (John 3:2). The work didn’t belong to Jesus alone. The disciples were charged with doing the work, too. This is because the human Jesus will only be with the disciples for a short while, so they must carry on the work.
          Hospitals and funeral homes aren’t the only dark places in the world. They are merely the places where the darkness is obvious. To put it another way, they are dark places that we can avoid, if we choose. We can be like faithful Jews in Jesus’ time and avoid going into Samaria, where we might be tainted by our contact with sinful Samaritans. But not every place of spiritual darkness comes with a warning sign. This begs the question: Where are the dark places that we’re afraid to go?
          Being a disciple isn’t easy. We are all called to speak truth into the brokenness of this world. To do this we have to begin by acknowledging our own brokenness. We are broken by sin and we are broken by the world. We are broken by a culture that tells us, asks us, begs us, and shouts at us, and quietly whispers to us: Put your trust in the things of this world. Buy things. Shopping will solve your problems. Earning more money will solve your problems. Saving more money for retirement will solve your problems. Voting for the right political party will solve your problems. Buying a bigger house will solve your problems. Finding the right husband or wife or boyfriend or girlfriend will solve all of your problems. All of these solutions ask us to look away from the Christ, the Word made flesh.
          What happens when we look, instead, toward the incarnation, toward God in the world? What do we see? We see Jesus hanging out with all the wrong people: sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, the blind and the disabled, and even this Samaritan woman at the well.
          “The primary theological question that each Gospel answers in the person and portrait of Jesus is, where is God?”[8] Jesus sets aside all the social conventions of Jewish life in the first century to cross into Samaria to meet this woman at the well. This encounter defies all expectations of the Messiah; Jesus transgresses all the boundaries:
We have a man speaking to a woman, a rabbi speaking to a woman, a Jew speaking with a Samaritan, a Jewish rabbi speaking with a Samaritan, and now, we find out they are alone. For all intents and purposes, this conversation not only should not be happening, but it stands outside the realm of possibility.[9]
Outside the realm of possibility—just like God entering the created world in the person of Jesus. It defies all expectations!
          What about us? Are we willing to defy expectations? Are we willing to follow Jesus into all the wrong places? Here at Rehoboth, you are hoping to find a new, young pastor who will attract young families to this congregation. You and every other congregation. That couple—husband and wife in their early or mid-thirties, with 2.3 kids—is the unicorn of church growth. Yes, they do exist, but the myth is that if you call the right pastor, you will magically attract the right people
          Here’s a thought: Instead of chasing after unicorns, maybe we need to chase after some Samaritans! Maybe we have to look toward some of the wrong people, the lost and the broken hearted, just as Jesus did. Maybe we need to look for mothers and fathers who have lost children to the heroin epidemic. Maybe we need to look for widows and widowers. Maybe we need to look for single mothers. Maybe we need to look for people who drifted away from the church, or who are just too busy.
          This is what it looks like to be disciples and follow Jesus’ call. How do we do this? We must admit our own brokenness and seek out other broken people! We may already know where to find them. Thanks be to God. Amen.

          Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to be the Church, the body of Christ. This is His new creation, by water and the Word. As the Church, we are called to participate in the work of re-creation, through relationship. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, Let all God’s children say, Amen!

[1] Karoline Lewis. John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2014), p. 53.
[2] Lewis, p. 53.
[3] Lewis, p. 53.
[4] Lewis, p. 59.
[5] Lewis, p. 55.
[6] Lewis, p. 59.
[7] Lewis, p. 53.
[8] Lewis, p. 61.
[9] Lewis, p. 56.

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