The sermon from Sunday, March 19, 2017 on John 4:5-42
I had an interesting conversation with someone during this past week about the fact that we talk a lot about Jesus here. That surprises some folks.
I have found that some people know of our inclusiveness around race and gender and gender identity and sexual orientation and economic status and ability status and so on – our commitment to justice and mercy for all people, to the inherent dignity and value of all people and the whole of the planet – and that makes some folks assume that we are somehow not fully and firmly rooted in the Christian faith.
Which is really kind of funny – in an ironic sort of way – because actually, our intentionality about these things is exactly a reflection of our commitment to our faith.
Of course, Christian faith is not the only way to come to have a commitment to inclusivity and justice. There are other ways – both religious and secular – to get there. Sometimes liberal folks think they are coming to a church like our friends across town, the Unitarian Universalists. Those are wonderful, inclusive people with a long and respected faith tradition, but as varied as our own beliefs are here (and our beliefs here are quite varied indeed) – we are different from them. We explicitly claim to be followers of Jesus. It’s here in the Beloved Covenant, right? We will walk together in the ways of Jesus . . .
So sometimes people of liberal faith or people who like to blend things together from different traditions are surprised at how much we talk about Jesus.
At the other end of the spectrum we run into conservative folks who for their assorted reasons believe that their rather narrow and punitive understanding of God and their rather narrow and individualistic interpretation of Scripture is the only legitimate way to be a Christian.
One of their critiques – and admittedly there are others – comes in the focus of my theology on the dynamics of power. There are a lot of people who like to cite Scripture and cite tradition in the service of the status quo, who like to use the Christian faith to defend a culture and a political vision wherein we protect the powerful at the expense of the powerless, where we spend our money and our energy and our expertise perfecting the technologies of the national security state –
- private prisons, those temples of mass incarceration,
- weapons systems, those idols of our pornagraphic obsession with violence,
- surveillance processes, those rituals of our dehumanization of others,
- mechanisms of resource extraction from the earth, that manifest sin of the exploitation of God’s Creation for human profit.
All that rather than national and local priorities of protecting the planet, nurturing creativity, tending the needy, and building inclusive community. That’s what worldly power looks like.
Then we have how Jesus does it. Ah,this story. In this wonderful story – which we could spend a month talking about – we have on the one hand the answer to the folks who wonder why we need so much Jesus – and need Jesus so much – and on the other the people who use religion in service to worldly power.
Look at power here in this story – we’ve been weaving the idea of the geography of grace into our Lenten journey – and here we have it 2 weeks in a row under such different circumstances. Last week we have the religious leader Nicodemus seeking out Jesus by night. Today we have the nameless woman who has stumbled upon Jesus right smack in the middle of the day while doing her routine chores.
And we’re in Samaria in this story. We are in enemy territory. Imagine finding grace there. Are we surprised?
In reality, the geography of true grace is almost always a contested space. We think about gorgeous mountain vistas and beautiful church sanctuaries. Indeed we find both rest and challenge in such spaces. It’s not that there’s no grace in such wondrous spaces.
It’s just that grace often finds us like a cool drink from deep and ancient well at high noon on a hot and dusty day – and like an unexpected word from an at-first unrecognized Messiah who chooses to take his message to enemy territory and deliver it through the most humble of messengers.
A woman. A Samaritan woman. A woman who has struggled to have a reliable social place – and we don’t know if her husbands have died or left her or what – but the story makes clear that this woman has been denied the safety and security and legitimacy and respect and well-being that comes from stable marriage in this society.
Does Jesus care about that? He doesn’t judge her here. In fact, I believe we have to assume that he does care – he cares very much and that is precisely the reason that he chooses her as his messenger.
The disciples – as they so often are in the Gospels – are rather clueless – “They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman”. Well duh – you’d think they’d start to figure out pretty quick that Jesus opts to connect with the most marginalized among the marginal. Not only does Jesus speak to this woman, he asks hospitality of her – and he teaches her and puts her to work spreading the word.
Jesus teaches this woman. Sitting there together at the edge of the well, he deems her a worthy vessel to take word into the community.
She gets it. She has a genuine conversation about theology with Jesus. She partakes of the living water, the deep grace of Jesus’ message and ministry. In a land of scarcity, in a dry and hot and dusty land, she recognizes the promise of Jesus and drinks deep of his message.
And we need to get it too. In this story Jesus didn’t pull up to the mayor’s house. Jesus didn’t pull up to the governor’s house. Jesus didn’t pull up to the White House. Jesus rejects the norms of power and privilege to share a cup of water at Jacob’s well with an outcast woman – and he makes her his messenger.
You want to hear the truth in this world? You want to walk in the ways of Jesus? Well, that doesn’t mean you might never show up at City Hall or the State House or the White House. Or the conservative megachurch. But as we see as we travel the Gospels, when we show up in places of power, it must be to hold power accountable. In John’s Gospel, Jesus has already overturned the tables in the Temple. Those are the folks upon whom he casts judgment – not upon the woman at the well whom he sits with and teaches and puts to work.
When we wander in humble places among humble people, we must ourselves be humble. We must bear truths in our souls and be alert to the truths of the moment.
Even in Samaria.
Even when spoken by an outcast woman.
Especially in Samaria.
Especially when spoken by an outcast woman.
Because otherwise we might miss the truth.
We might miss the path, the path of following Jesus.
We might miss the opportunity tap into a grace that’s much greater than ourselves.
Let us worship in spirit and truth.
Let us do our best to walk in spirit and truth.