Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: John 4:7-26
The summer after I graduated from high school, I went to church camp for the last time. I always attended Music Camp. Most of the counselors were young adults. On the last night of camp – always an emotional occasion – one of the counselors talked with me and I have never forgotten our conversation. At camp earlier that summer, they had a resident musician for awhile. He wasn’t there that week. He was back on tour. But the counselor who spoke with me – we can call him Bill – had gotten to be good friends with that guest musician. Bill had grown up in a small town. He had wrestled with his sexual orientation. Struggling all throughout high school, members of his church prayed for him and he prayed and longed so deeply for his orientation to change. He’d felt, perhaps, he was making some headway. But, before that musician left camp, the two of them spoke quite openly with one another. Both confessed that they’d become very attracted to one another and that feelings they’d spent years trying to suppress had risen to the surface. As Bill shared his story with me, he began to cry. It was the last week of the camping season. Soon he would be returning home and he dreaded that return. He would have to hide his feelings, hide his struggle, hide his identity, from the people who assured him that – if he just prayed hard enough – be could become someone else. His summer job was winding down. Bill would have to go back home and make the choice between being rejected by his church family or keeping his true identity a secret.
Today is the final Sunday in a sermon series I’ve been doing called “Tell Me a Secret.” It was inspired by an interview I heard with the founder of a community mail art project called Post Secret. If you don’t remember anything else I’ve said in this sermon series, I hope you’ll remember this one thing: church should be a place where people will still be loved and welcomed if they’re honest about who they are. Church should be a place where people don’t need to pretend and conjure up a secret identity in order to be loved and accepted. Bill had enough experience with his home church to know that he could not go home and be honest about how he felt and who he was. He could only experience their love and acceptance by pretending to be someone he was not.
More than anything else, people today who decide to check out church are seeking authentic relationship. Out in the world, people often feel they need to put on armor, crawl inside their shells and hide in order to protect themselves. Church should be the place – more than any other place – where people don’t need to hide who they are.
Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well is one of my favorite bible stories. Honestly it has so much theological meat in it that I could preach it for months straight and nothing run out of material, so to speak. But, don’t worry; I won’t try to stuff everything in this morning. As the story begins, our narrator tells us that Jesus “had to” go through Samaria. That phrase “had go” is translated from one tiny 3-letter word in Greek, dei. But it’s an important word in John’s gospel. Now, geographically, there’s no “had to” to it. Any good Jew would gladly walk around Samaria. The Samaritans were despised by the Jews. But, Jesus’ decision to enter into this Samaritan village doesn’t reflect a geographical imperative. It reflects a theological imperative; a mission imperative.
Jesus sits down by a well to rest while his disciples head into town to buy some food and he initiates a conversation with this Samaritan woman who comes to the well, alone, to draw up water. As the story unfolds, we discover that Jesus has divine knowledge of this woman. And we shouldn’t be surprised by that. All the way back in chapter one of John’s gospel, we discover that Jesus knows people inside and out. Jesus is assembling his disciples. He’s invited Philip to follow him and Philip goes out and tells his friend, Nathanael, about Jesus. Nathanael makes a sarcastic remark about Jesus being a Nazarene. The next day, when Jesus spots Nathanael walking toward him, Jesus reveals that he has this uncanny insight into Philip’s disposition and remarks. It really freaks Nathanael out. And all throughout John, over and over again, Jesus has divine, supernatural knowledge of the people he meets.
So, once again, we discover that Jesus knows all about this woman’s life and, as their conversation progresses, Jesus tips his hand. He tells her to go get her husband. She says she doesn’t have one. But Jesus doesn’t allow the conversation to stop there. She doesn’t need to try and hide anything from him; Jesus knows it all anyway. So Jesus puts it out there: “Yep. You’ve had five husbands and right now you’re living with someone who isn’t your husband.” Jesus notes her honesty with him: “What you have said is true.” And Jesus leaves it at that. He doesn’t follow up the statement of fact with an assessment of her character or lifestyle; he simply makes her aware of the fact that he knows her. Now, Jesus could have called her out. I find in reading the gospels that Jesus never has a problem calling anyone out. If he felt the need to say more about this woman’s lifestyle, I’m sure he would not have hesitated to do so. But he doesn’t.
And notice how the woman responds. She doesn’t express shame; she doesn’t express anger. It simply has piqued her curiosity. She figures that, if Jesus knows her without having ever met her, he must have access to supernatural knowledge; he must be a prophet.
Now, this is a part of the story where the exchange gets really interesting. She asks Jesus a question and – in order to appreciate the significance of the question – we need to know a little bit about first-century Judaism. Way back in the Old Testament, after the death of King Solomon, the nation of Israel divided. The ten northern tribes seceded from the union and became their own nation of Samaria. The capital city of Israel had been Jerusalem and that’s where Solomon had built the temple and those folks down south in the capital told those folks up north that there was no other lawful place to worship except Jerusalem. And so, for folks up north in Samaria to be “right with God,” they would have to make that long trek down to Jerusalem in a day and age devoid of interstates – when traveling was really dangerous and difficult. And once they got there, they needed to purchase animals for sacrifices at the temple. That was on top of all the taxes they paid to build and maintain the temple. So, the location of the temple really propelled the economy down south; but it was an enormous burden to the folks up in Samaria. So, after Solomon died, they seceded from the union and they set up their own places for worship. Take that, Jerusalem. Eventually Samaria was conquered and other nations – pagans, of course – moved in and they intermarried and diluted the pure Jewish blood and that made those Samaritan no better than the pagans. So, in the time of Jesus, no good, self-respecting Jew would ever talk to a Samaritan. And that Temple stuff was still a sore point between Jews and the folks up north.
But, it’s a really important question that goes beyond taxes and politics because the Jews believed God, literally, dwelled in the Temple. So, if you wanted to worship God, if you wanted to be in God’s presence, you had to go to that Temple… or else. That was the official stance.
But is it Jesus’ stance? The woman wants to know because this is an important question. It’s a question about relationship. How does one go about being in relationship with God? Is God bound by geography? And Jesus responds seriously to her question and basically tells her that fellowship with God isn’t about a particular geographical place. God isn’t bound by time and space because God is Spirit. The woman wants to know about the coming of the Messiah and Jesus responds to her question with the words “I am.” Now, if you were in church last Sunday or any Sunday during my last sermon series, you’ll hopefully remember that, in John’s gospel, Jesus makes a series of “I am” statements designed to reveal his true identity as one and the same with God the Father. When God encountered Moses at the burning bush and Moses asked God’s name, God replied “I am.” The Samaritan woman is waiting expectantly for the revelation of the Messiah and Jesus answers her, “I am.” This is the first time in John’s gospel that Jesus speaks those words. Just one chapter earlier, Jesus had been in dialogue with a good Jewish religious leader named Nicodemus. They were engaged in theological discussion. Wouldn’t that have been an exciting time for Jesus to say, “I am?” In chapter two Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding reception. It was his first sign; his first miracle. Wouldn’t it have been icing on the cake if he’d have said, “Cheers, I am.”
In that same chapter, he kind of threw a fit in the temple courtyard and threw out all the money changers. He was pretty mad. Wouldn’t you have expected him to justify his righteous indignation by pronouncing “I am?” And when he called those disciples back in chapter one, don’t you think they would have loved to hear the words, “I am.”
But the first person in the gospel to hear those words is a nameless Samaritan woman at a well. It’s astonishing. And armed with that new knowledge, she returns to her village to evangelize; to spread the news of who she just met and to invite them to meet him too. They go out to the well with her and listen to Jesus. Our narrator tells us, “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony…”[i] This woman that the average Jew would not have gone anywhere near becomes a remarkable evangelist and a hero within the story. And it might make us wonder, what might have happened to that woman – to that village – if Jesus had played things differently? What if the brief statement Jesus makes that summarizes her lifestyle would have been followed by judgment and critical remarks that may have driven her away? What if Jesus had never brought it up and out into the open? It is his simple acknowledgement that opens the door to this deep, serious, probing discussion about God and where and how to be in relationship with him.
Friends; Trinity is, officially, a Reconciling congregation. But I know we are not all in agreement with that stance. We do not all share one uniform opinion about sexual orientation. By the way, there are probably plenty of other things we don’t share uniform opinions on… especially this election season. And it would be hypocritical of me to say that we must all agree because THAT would force us to pretend with one another and – as I’ve already mentioned – that is what I hope to have us avoid. And so, we may disagree with one another theologically. But, if we take this bible story of the Samaritan woman seriously, we must acknowledge what it reveals. Jesus wants this woman to know that he knows her. But he doesn’t judge her. And she is eager to know God. She is passionate and serious about her relationship with God. And because of the dialogue they share, she leads an entire village to faith.
If church is nothing else, it must – most certainly – be a place where we need not assume a secret identity and hide who we are. If church is nothing else, it must – most certainly – be a place where we can be honest about who we are and, in doing so, still be loved and welcomed.
[i] John 4:39.
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