Sunday, November 9, 2008

sermon for 11/09/08

I'm not sure how I feel about posting sermons that I've written. I don't have anything against other people sharing their sermons with the world. I think what I have a problem with is sharing MY sermon with the world. Preaching it to my congregation - who know me and who are there to see me preach it - is one thing. To put it out here on the internet, where there really is no accountability for people who want to rip it apart or say mean things about it, is another matter completely.

BUT, that being said, I received a few compliments on my sermon today. And it wasn't the usual suspects that I can often depend on for encouraging words about my sermons. It was from other people, some of whom I perceive to be more discerning in their sermon listening. So I thought that if they got something more from my sermon this week, maybe I should put it out there so that others might get something from it, too.

That being said, here's a brief explanation. Normally, we follow the Revised Common Lectionary, which is a schedule of readings for the church, during the church year. This is how we get the readings for each Sunday that are printed on the insert in the bulletin.

But we are in the midst of our Fall Stewardship Appeal. Our focus for these few weeks is GRACE, which is an acronym which stands for Grace Relationships Acceptance, Community and Education... I'm positive on all of them except the C... but as I'm not preaching on the C, it's ok if I can't quite remember what it stands for. Anyway, todays service was brought to us by the letter A.

As I thought about acceptance, I really wasn't moved by the Gospel reading assigned for this Sunday. In conversation with my senior pastor, we talked a lot about the story of the Samaritan woman at the well and how that was the theme verse for today for other parts of our stewardship drive. Immediately, after that story was named, thoughts and ideas flooded my head. I could tell this was going to be an easier angle.

When I sat down to write this sermon, I feel like it wrote itself. So, here you have a sermon about acceptance focusing on the story of Jesus and the woman at the well (John 4, in case you want to read it first...).

This is a very well known story from the Bible. It gets read a lot, and we talk about it quite a bit. And while I think that it’s a good thing to do, I think it’s also unfortunate because the story loses some of its punch. Because, for the people who would have heard this story back in Jesus’ day, it would have been quite the story. So what I’m going to try to do right now is share with you why this story would have been such a big deal for the people of that time.

So Jesus comes to the well in the middle of the day. Now, this was not the best time to be outside. It was noon, the middle of the day. The sun would have been at its peak and the heat would have made it pretty unbearable. People would have gone to fetch water from the well either early in the morning or later in the evening, when the heat of the sun was not as strong. It would be a rare occasion to find someone at the well during the heat of the day.

But Jesus does come across someone, and it’s a lone woman. Now the women, who would have been in charge of getting the water, would have gone together. It was a communal activity, giving the women a chance to talk and catch up on what was going on in the community. There’s also the idea of safety in numbers, and it would have been better for the women to be in a group.
Also, this is taking place on the outskirts of the city. That means that the chances are good that this was not the most used well. Most towns and cities would have had a well within the walls of the city. That way if an enemy approached, they could close the gates and still have access to a water supply. If the only water was outside the city limits, all the enemy would have to do would be to guard the well and the people of the city would eventually die of thirst.

Now Jesus is at this well, on the outskirts of the city, in the heat of the day and he finds this woman all by herself. This is not normal, and Jesus would have known that something was up. There was some reason why this woman was separated from the community.

As if that wasn’t enough, Jesus was Jewish and this was a Samaritan woman. Now, the Jewish people were big on cleanliness. There were rules and regulations about almost every aspect of living to make sure that they remained clean: from the foods they ate, to the activities they did, to the animals they could come into contact with, to the people they could associate with. And Samaritans were at the bottom of that list of people.

There were a couple of reasons why this was. The first is that the Samaritans were of Jewish descent, but they had mixed with other races. Since they were not of pure blood, they were unclean in the eyes of the Jewish people. The second is they followed the Jewish religion but not as strictly as the Jewish people. Because of their mixed cultural heritage, other things had blended into their religion as well. And so this made them heretics in the eyes of the Jewish people.

So for these reasons, the Jewish people did not interact with the Samaritan people. To do so would be to risk your own cleanliness and your own standing in Jewish society.

So Jesus is at the well, on the outskirts of the city, in the heat of the day and he finds this woman all by herself. And she’s a Samaritan woman and he’s a Jewish man. Neither of them had much business talking to the other. Jesus had his reputation to think about. Stopping to talk to this Samaritan woman who, for some reason, was on the outside of her community would have raised a lot of questions and risked making him unclean. The woman would have had strict gender roles to follow, so to talk to a strange man who was not a part of her family was simply out of the question.

There were plenty of reasons Jesus shouldn’t have talked to her. He should have kept on going, ignoring the fact that he saw her. He should have looked the other way and pretended like she wasn’t even there, which is probably exactly how many in her own community would have reacted to her.

But Jesus stops and he talks to her. He asks her to give him a drink. Now the woman is surprised, and she asks Jesus why he, who is a Jewish man, is asking a drink of her, a Samaritan woman. She’s aware of the way things are. She knows where she stands and what a Jewish person would probably think of her. So the fact that a Jew is acknowledging her, even to ask for a drink, takes her by surprise.

Now Jesus shifts the conversation and he stops talking about actual water. He says to her that if she had any idea who he was, and what he had to offer, she would ask him and he would give her living water. The woman still isn’t on board with him, she’s still thinking about real water. And she sees that he doesn’t have a bucket to get water, so she asks him how he would get this water that he offers.

Jesus tells her that anyone who drinks of the water from the well will be thirsty again, but those who drink from the water that he offers will never be thirsty, and it will become in them a spring bubbling forth and granting them eternal life. The woman still thinks he’s talking about actual water and this sounds good to her. If she were to drink this water, then she wouldn’t need to come to the well in the heat of the day. She wouldn’t be reminded every day of how she was not a part of her community, at least in the act of drawing water.

But then Jesus tells her to go call her husband and come back. And the woman says that she has no husband. And Jesus says, that’s right you’ve had five husbands and the man you live with now is not your husband. Back in Jesus’ day, a woman was not able to divorce her husband. It was entirely up to the man to divorce the woman. So, five different men have decided that this woman is not fit to be a wife and divorced her. We have no idea exactly why that is, but now she’s living with a man who is not her husband. And Jesus tells her that he knows that this is so.
Now the woman knows that Jesus isn’t what he appears to be, so she says he must be a prophet. Jesus then takes that opportunity to share the Good News with her. He tells her that the Jewish people might worship God in their temple, and the Samaritans might worship God on their mountain, but the hour is coming when that won’t matter and everyone will worship God in spirit and in truth. The woman tells Jesus that she knows the Messiah is coming and that when he does he will tell everyone this. And then Jesus tells her that he is the Messiah.

This is big news. This is the first time in the Gospel of John that Jesus has told someone he is the Messiah. And he chose a five time divorced Samaritan woman who is rejected by her own community and living with a man to whom she’s not married to share this information with. He didn’t choose some important, devout temple leader or someone else who was considered good enough or worthy enough. He chose to share this news with this woman on the outside.

And this woman is so touched and amazed and excited by this encounter with the Messiah that she leaves her water jar and goes running back into the city. She begins telling everyone what has happened, how she met this man at the well who has told her everything she has ever done, and she thinks he’s the Messiah. She immediately decides to share this Good News with the very people who have made her on the outside. She brings them to meet Jesus and through her testimony and their interaction with Jesus, many of these Samaritans came to believe in Jesus as the Messiah.

So let’s look at this. We have Jesus, offering acceptance to this Samaritan woman, even though she’s an outcast of her community, she’s been divorced 5 times, and she’s currently living with a man who is not her husband. But he still offers her this living water that will give her eternal life. She, in response, runs to the very community that has made her an outcast and shares with them this Good News that she has received at the well. She tells them about Jesus, about this life giving water that he offers, and how her interaction with him has changed her life. So these people follow her out to the well, they meet and interact with Jesus and come to realize that he’s the Messiah. And I think it’s safe to say that they probably accepted this woman back into their community. There is a lot of acceptance in this one short story.

So where do we fit in the story? I think many times people say that we are to be like Jesus in this story. But really, it’s Jesus. There is no way we could ever hope to be as loving or as accepting or as anything as Jesus is. I mean, Jesus is God. We’re just humans.

I think we are the woman in this story. I mean, there have been times, I’m sure, when each one of us has felt on the outside – when our own actions or situations beyond our control have alienated us from others. There have been times when we’ve been excluded or left out or ignored. And really, Jesus has every reason to ignore us, too.

But the truth is, and lucky for us, that Jesus doesn’t let that stuff get in the way. Jesus is able to see through all of that. He can look through our sin, through all of the things we’ve done wrong, all the ways we have fallen short, all of our mistakes and shortcomings, everything that weighs us down and makes us feel unworthy. Jesus can look through that and see the Child of God that we are. And it is to this precious Child of God that he offers acceptance and life giving water. It’s what we call the grace of God, this love and acceptance that is undeserved. It is not because we are great people who are considered worthy and deserving of God’s love. It’s exactly the opposite. It’s because Jesus loves us in spite of our unworthiness. It is when we were still sinners that God chose to send Jesus into the world.

And Jesus comes to each one of us, just as he did that woman. And he looks through all of the things that separate us from one another, and he offers this life giving water, the grace of God, to each one of us.

The woman responded by sharing this great news with everyone she knew, even those who had made her an outcast. She thought that this news was so amazing that everyone needed the opportunity to hear about it. So she rushed back to the city and she told them all about this man Jesus who had met her at the well and had changed her life.

We are called to respond that way, too. We are called to share this great news with everyone we know, even those people we might not agree with or get along with or that we might not even like that much. Because this news really is amazing and everyone does deserve to hear about it. We have a God who loves us and accepts us, who has offered us amazing grace despite the fact that we could never deserve it.

So, just like that woman did, let’s leave from this place where we have been offered this life giving water. Let’s go out into the world and share this amazing news with everyone. Let’s encourage and invite them to come and have an encounter with Jesus, an encounter that will change their lives just like it has changed ours. Let’s invite everyone to come and see! Amen.

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