A few years back I heard Bishop Robert Schnase of the Missouri Conference tell a story. I can’t recall all of the details but it went something like this… Being a bishop, he does a lot of traveling and uses a lot of rental cars. He had flown into an airport and gone to one of the rental car counters. He had some kind of tie pin on that identified him as being with the United Methodist Church. The gentleman across the counter who was assisting him recognized it and indicated that he was United Methodist also. They shared some conversation as Schnase filled out the paperwork. Thereafter, another employee came to walk Schnase out to his vehicle. The two employees addressed one another by name and clearly knew one another. It was a small office. Somehow – I can’t recall the details – the topic of Schnase’s church position came up with the second employee as they did that requisite walk around to check the condition of the rental car. And Schnase discovered that this man had attended church in the past but, when he moved to this city a year or so prior, he’d been – as yet – unable to find a church home. He indicated a common obstacle… the difficulty of walking into a church where you don’t know anyone. Any of us who have ever done that know how awkward it can feel. Now, the church he’d attended where he’d lived previously was United Methodist… at which point Schnase walked back into the building with the man to connect him to his colleague. They’d worked together in the same office for months – one attending a UMC nearly every week, the other missing his Methodist Church back home – yet the topic of church had never been so much as hinted at.
This morning I’m continuing the series I’ve been preaching on the membership vows we take as United Methodist Christians. Now, when I was ordained, the United Methodist Church had four vows that new members were asked to take. New members were asked to uphold the church with their prayers, their presence, their gifts and their service. It had been that way since 1932. But in 2008 at General Conference, a big Methodist business meeting held every four years, the vow of witness was added.
Now, if your membership in the Methodist Church came earlier than 2008, you may think you’re off the hook on this witness thing… were it not for the fact that, each time a new member joins the church, all of us who are current members are asked to renew our commitment, including the promise to uphold the church with our witness.
We all know what it means to be a witness when we define the word in the legal sense. If someone rear-ends our car in the parking lot, we hope and pray that we have a witness… someone who saw the whole thing go down AND is willing to stick their neck out enough to hang around and wait to give the responding officer their statement. I looked up the word witness this week, in a regular dictionary and a bible dictionary. And, although the most basic definition of a witness is someone who sees or personally experiences something… after all, without first-hand experience, all you have is hearsay… it seems to me that the most critical component of being a witness is the willingness to share what you know with others. It doesn’t matter what you know if no one knows that you know it. After all, if police are investigating a crime, it’s meaningless to have a witness if they will not come forward and tell the truth about what they saw and heard, right? And so, I think it’s safe to say that the power of a witness is their ability to influence an outcome or a decision because of their commitment to communicate the truth of their personal experience.
So this morning, in honor of Mother’s Day, we’re going to look at the stories of two women in scripture: one whose witness is captured in detail and the other whose witness can only be assumed. The latter is named Lydia, who was mentioned in the scripture I read to you from the Book of Acts. The former is a nameless woman I’ll say more about in just a moment.
Now my guess is that Lydia is unfamiliar to the average churchgoer; although it seems she would have been anything but to a citizen in the first century city of Philippi. Lydia, in what was a male-dominated society, had carved out her place as a real mover and shaker. She was a business woman.
Her marital status is a mystery. But, she speaks of her residence as “my home,” indicating that she must be either widowed or divorced. Originally from the city of Thyatira, she’s in sales and she deals in purple cloth. In ancient times, purple dye was rare and expensive. The fact that it is Lydia’s specialty indicates both she and her clientele have considerable wealth. And, with a salesman’s persuasion, she urges and prevails upon the apostle Paul and his companion, Silas, to come and stay at her home after she has heard them preach the good news of Jesus and been baptized into this new movement sometimes identified in Acts as The Way but known to us today as the Church. Lydia is a woman of wealth and prestige and it seems that she uses her influential position to launch a local congregation within her home. She seems to have such a strong connection to Paul and his missionary work that, when Paul and Silas are compelled to high tail it out of town due to some trouble with the law; they still take the time to make a stop at Lydia’s home where brothers and sisters in the faith have gathered.
The second woman I’m going to talk about this morning is a far cry from Lydia. She is entirely lacking in prestige and so, not surprisingly, she is nameless, although she is probably a bible character many of us are familiar with. She is the Samaritan woman who meets Jesus at a well in the fourth chapter of the gospel of John. She begins to interact with Jesus after he initiates a conversation with her by asking her for a drink of water. It’s noon and it’s, no doubt, warm and Jesus is thirsty. But it’s a pretty radical thing for a male, Jewish rabbi to speak directly to a Samaritan woman he doesn’t even know. And so she responds from John 4, verse 9: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” You see, Jews had as little to do with Samaritans as they possibly could. After a little banter back and forth about water, Jesus cuts to the chase with her and says, “Go call your husband.” When she indicates there’s no husband in the picture, Jesus really blows her away when he says, You’re right. “For you have had” – and now I’m on verse 18 – “You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” Now frankly, that kind of statement would have really offended me and I’d have probably slinked away from that well with my tail tucked. But not this lady; she’s pretty gutsy. She says, “I see that you are a prophet.” And then, she asks Jesus a question about worship.
Now, I have to tell you. I don’t really fancy myself much of a feminist. But I do find it pretty curious that Christians across the ages have sure invested a lot more time and energy in embellishing the character of this Samaritan woman than they have speculating about that successful, wealthy Greek business woman, Lydia.
In truth, all that we know about this Samaritan woman is that she’s had multiple husbands and is now living with a man who isn’t her husband. Yet, despite all conjecture, her ill repute may be unearned. It is altogether possible that, through no fault of her own, men have turned her out. You see, a Samaritan woman in the first century had no right to request a divorce. Her husband, however, could easily divorce her for any multitude reasons… even as trivial as burning the roast.
So this Samaritan woman is really in a pretty vulnerable position and while she may have lost her good reputation long ago, she hasn’t lost her dignity or her curiosity.
She becomes the first character in John’s gospel to which Jesus reveals his identity as the Messiah, the Christ. She is waiting for the Messiah’s appearance. And what do you know? There he is. Right there in the flesh, right before her eyes. And she is so excited about it that she goes back into her village to announce the good news to everyone. The way in which she does it is interesting. This is her pitch (which we find in John 4:29), “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done. He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done. Hmm… In light of this woman’s reputation – well-earned or otherwise – I would buy a ticket to that show, wouldn’t you? It’s hard to know for sure what it was that hooked her fellow villagers. Was it just her guts to boldly issue the invite? Was it her dangling of that captivating title “Messiah?” Was it her audacity to so glibly reference her personal affairs? I don’t know. But it drew a crowd. It was her witness that set it all in motion. John 4:39 tells us: “Many Samaritans from that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s witness…”
But what about Lydia; that wealthy Greek businesswoman? Well, unfortunately, we know nothing of what she said to the other folks in her neighborhood. But she was adamant about opening up her home to Paul and Silas. She urges them; she prevails upon them, to make her home their “home base,” so to speak, as they carry out their ministry in Philippi. The final verse of Acts, chapter 16, leaves us with the impression that the church there is off to a good and solid start when Paul and Silas are compelled to head out of town. Now, I must be honest. The Book of Acts and the letters Paul wrote are not always in agreement with one another. When Paul, late in his life and career writes to the church at Philippi, he does not mention Lydia by name. But years had passed and, who knows; perhaps Lydia has died or moved back to her hometown of Thyatira. It’s impossible to know. But what we do know from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is that they become a congregation of incredible and genuine hospitality; a hospitality that is the foundation of their witness. They are the only congregation from whom Paul accepts financial support. Their graciousness toward him goes so deep, they even send a member of their congregation to be with Paul and care for him when he is jailed. And so, we see a congregation in Philippi whose love for Christ is most dramatically visible through their witness of compassion, hospitality and generosity. And who’s to say but that the character of that congregation was laid by the woman under whose roof it all began: Lydia.
Friends, the vow of witness is not an easy one to uphold. Surveys and statistics tell us that we Methodists are not very good at it. Maybe we question our ability to speak and act in ways that influence others. Maybe we struggle to put our personal experience with Jesus into words. Maybe we find it difficult because models of witness in our contemporary culture don’t always seem to match up or mesh with the models we see in scripture. But, if witnessing is about communicating the truth of our personal experience, then that means that “witnessing” will be as diverse as we are. The story we tell of Jesus – the story you have to tell others… Well, that will be your story and your experience. Perhaps, like the Samaritan woman, you have a story that’d knock people’s socks off. And if you do, then you ought to share it. Or maybe you’re one of those people with the gift of hospitality who has a talent for drawing people together and connecting them to one another and to Jesus – a kind of “holy book club” where people can share their stories of Jesus. But, I hope you won’t leave here this morning until you’ve decided what it means and what it looks like for you to keep that promise of being a witness.
And let me give you a hint; a big hint. When you discover your way to witness, it will energize you and it will change the lives of others – just like it did with the Samaritan woman and Lydia.
Friends, we talk a lot about how the church will grow. We talk together about advertising and programs and demographic trends. But what matters most is that we talk about Jesus to others. We can influence lives and we can influence this community when we communicate the truth of our personal experience. We live in Mid Western America. We may think that everyone knows who Jesus is just because they’ve heard his name. But I don’t think we should be so sure.
At Britt’s and my first church assignment in Erie, PA we had a children’s gospel choir. One of the songs their director loved leading them in was “Everybody Oughta Know.” That old gospel hymn describes biblical names or titles attributed to Jesus. He’s the lily of the valley; he’s the bright and morning star. What? What does that mean to 21st century Mid-Westerners? Friends, just because people have heard of Jesus doesn’t mean they know him and everybody oughta know who Jesus is through terms they can understand and experiences they can relate to: our terms, our experiences. Like the Samaritan woman and Lydia, like Paul and Silas, people need to hear our witness. Everybody oughta know who Jesus is; and they can through our communication of our personal experience with Jesus.
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