Sunday, March 19th, 2017 – Sermon on John 4:1-42

You can listen to this sermon here.

John 4:5-42
Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John” 2—although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— 3he left Judea and started back to Galilee.

4But he had to go through Samaria.

5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, “I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” 27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” 30 They left the city and were on their way to him. 31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33 So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” 34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35 Do you not say, “Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36 The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” 39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

Sermon

Earlier this week, I went to China buffet with a friend. And let me just say, I love China Buffet. I love it. Chinese food is my favorite, and going to China Buffet is like having all the food, right at your fingertips. And of course you can’t pick just one thing. No – you crowd your plate full of fried rice, and noodles, and six different kinds of chicken, a cream cheese wonton or two.

I realize this is might be the worst preaching analogy ever, but I realized this week that the way I feel about preaching on our gospel reading is the exact same way I feel when I’m at the China buffet. There are so many options of goodness in it that I can’t just decide on one thing, when in fact I just want to taste and share it all. Because this text has become this gushing well of wisdom and grace for me this week and all I feel I can do this morning is invite you into the parts the fed me in hopes that they might do the same for you too.

So, this sermon, like my plate at the china buffet, might feel a little crowded. But hopefully you can find something in it that feeds your soul.

Now, before we start at the china buffet, you have to go to the beginning to pick up some tools that will help you, like a plate, and fork and spoon. This morning we need some tools too. Back at the very beginning of John’s gospel we heard this – In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and lived among us… full of grace and truth.

The Word of God became flesh in Jesus and lived among us – which tells us where God lives, among us. And the Word of God comes full of grace and truth. Which is to say that there isn’t room for anything else. And it says that both come hand in hand – grace and truth. One without the other won’t do. If Jesus comes with grace – God’s unconditional love that is for you and for all forever – but doesn’t know the truth of your life, well that only sounds syrupy sweet.

A couple of years ago, a preacher I know was guest preaching at a church. Afterwards, a congregation member said to him, “That was really nice what you said about God. But if God knew who I really was, God couldn’t love me.” All she heard that day was that God loved her. She didn’t hear that God actually knew her, and the truth of her life and still loved her.

Okay, so God comes in grace and truth. The next thing we need to be reminded of is those famous words we heard last week, in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus – For God so loved the world.

With those things in mind, let’s dive into the text.

The first thing that stood out to me were the words: Jesus left Judea and started toward Galilee but Jesus had to go through Samaria.

Jesus is traveling from Jerusalem to Galilee and it says he had to go through Samaria. Now, you might remember that Samaria was a no-go area for Jews. Samaria was the place of the Other. Those people. In fact, Jews and Samaritans hated each other. They read different scriptures; they worship God in different places – Jews in a temple, Samaritans on a mountain. Now, geographically, if you look at a map, Jesus didn’t have to go through Samaria to get to Galilee. He could’ve gone around it. In fact, that’s what most of the Jews did, so that they wouldn’t come into contact with the Samaritans and become unclean. But then why does it say he had to go through there?

Because it isn’t a geographical need, it is a theological need. Jesus had to go to Samaria – the place of the other, the place of the enemy – because for God so loved the world.

So let me ask you, have you ever avoided something in your life? Taken the long way around so that you didn’t have to confront it. Or maybe it wasn’t something you were avoiding, but someone. Maybe it was a co-worker or a spouse or a friend. And you get really creative about how you’ll avoid that person so that it doesn’t look like you’re avoiding them. But then there is that moment when a voice in side says, “It’s time I cannot avoid this any longer.” Perhaps that is the voice of God at work in your life.

Jesus had to go through Samaria. He couldn’t avoid it any longer. Because God so loved the world. That is the truth. But Jesus in grace and truth. The grace, the love, is that he actually goes there.

And when he gets there, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well at noon. And even more boundaries are broken. Not only is this a Jew interacting with a Samaritan but it is a man interacting with a woman. And it isn’t just any well that they meet at – it is Jacob’s well. Jacob from the Old Testament – Jacob who is part of Jesus’ history and lineage, Jacob who is part of the Samaritans’ history and ancestry. Sometimes when you go through the land of the other, you find part of yourself there. And that you are not so different.

These two people, whose culture and religion says that they should have nothing to do with each other, in the end, they are long lost cousins. Meeting at their ancestor, Jacob’s, well.

Now, Jesus meets this woman at the noon. She has come to the well with her jar at the hottest time of the day when no one in their right mind would go to fetch some water. Everyone else would come in the morning. So all we know is that she is a loner. An outcast. She’s an outcast of the outcasts. This burdensome task of fetching water is even more burdensome because she has to do it alone and it reminds her every day of her status and that she is powerless to the world. And the woman has no name. She has no name.

Sometimes we only identify people by what they’ve done in their life or by what has been done to them. Rather than actually knowing them. By their name.

Let’s give her a name. Someone call out a name for her.

(First service gave her the name Hope; Second service gave her the name Sarah.)

So Jesus meets Hope, who should be an enemy and out outcast to him, but really we learn their family. And he asks her for a drink. Which is just remarkable. Jesus comes in need to the outcast, to the marginalized and says, “You have something I need.” He empowers the powerless. Which is to say God is dependent upon the people that society casts aside. God needs the people we would prefer to go around.

How the world would change if we could see each person as bringing something crucial to this world.

Then they go back and forth a bit about water and how Jesus has a different kind of water to offer her –and Hope snarks back at him a bit, “What are you talking about, crazy man? You’ve got no bucket, where are you going to get this so-called living water you speak of.” And then Jesus says that his water isn’t anything you drink from a well, because that water will only quench your thirst for so long. Jesus’ water will make your whole life spring with water to eternal life. Eternal life in the gospel of John isn’t so much about life after death as it is about new life before death. It’s about new life now. Hope isn’t worried about heaven. She’s worried about her life now. Give me new life now!

And notice what Hope says, “Lord, give me this water so that I will never be thirsty again, or so that I will never have to come back to this place again. This place that I come to alone every day.”

And then Jesus gets really real with her. “Go and tell your husband.” It feels like it’s out of nowhere when in fact it is right on the pulse of her life. “I have no husband she says.”

“You’re right, you’ve had five. And the one you are with now isn’t your husband.”

Now, for too long the church has assumed that we know what’s going on here. That this woman is promiscuous and sinful and Jesus is graciously forgiving her. But the text says nothing about that – all it says is that she has had five husbands and now is with someone who isn’t her husband. Which more likely means that she’s been abandoned five times or widowed five times, and the one she’s with won’t give her the security of marriage. This is not a scandalous story, it’s a tragic one. And the real sin here is the sin of the culture that marginalizes her for such a tragic life.

And perhaps for the first time, someone sees the truth about her life. Jesus comes in grace and truth. And the grace she experiences is that, unlike the rest of her community, Jesus doesn’t let that truth create distance between them.

Hope sees that something is special about him, she then asks the religious question that divides them – we worship God on the mountain, you worship God in the temple. In essence, she’s saying, “Where is God? Where is God to be found?”

And Jesus says, “Hope, neither on a mountain nor in a temple.” Which is to say, God is on the loose. Remember, the Word became flesh and lived among us. The Word didn’t become flesh and live in a building. Or live above us. But among us. Full of grace and truth.

We don’t come to church just to find God here, but we come to church to be reminded that God is already out there. Among you!

Jesus says, “Hope, I AM.” Which is the name of God spoken to Moses at the burning bush.” Jesus is saying, “God is standing right in front of you.”

That God would choose to stand with this woman. This woman who has been cast aside her whole life. That God would choose to even need something from this woman. That…that is like having a gush of water spring up in your life.

Jesus had to go through Samaria. Jesus had to visit Hope, because God so loves the world. And to love the world, God in Jesus brings the two things the world needs most – grace and truth. I know you. I really know you and your life. And I love you.

With that kind of a promise, Hope suddenly has the courage and the confidence to go back into her community that has rejected her, and notice that she left behind her jar. A symbol of her old life. With the well of living water gushing inside her, she didn’t need that jar anymore.

What’s the jar in your old life that you need to leave behind?

She returns home and she says to her people, “Come and see the man who told me everything about my life.” They’ve excluded her from their lives but she includes them in the life of God. And those words, “Come and see”? Those are Jesus’ words when he calls his disciples in the gospel of John.

This unnamed Samaritan woman, who at the beginning of the story was a nobody, at the end of the story becomes not only a disciple of Jesus but perhaps one of his first missionary. Let’s never underestimate someone and the way God can work in their life.

And it is because of her witness that her people the Samaritans proclaim in the end, “We know that this is truly the Savior of the World.” That’s the only time in the gospel of John the word Savior is used. And it comes out of the mouth of the Samaritans. Let’s never underestimate the way God can be at work outside our own religious traditions.

Jesus comes to heal the breaches, the places where we have become divided in this world, with grace and truth.

If you, like Hope, this Samaritan Woman, want to know where to find God, look for the places in your life where grace and truth are colliding. Where people know you and love you. And look for the places where your boundaries are being stretched. Where you are being invited to go through your own Samaria – to bring with you grace and truth – to really know someone and to love them. It will be hard. Your friends will criticize you. But God will meet you there.

That’s all I have on my plate.

And if there is anything of God in the words that have been spoken, may they feed you and bring you to new life. Amen.

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Sunday, March 12th, 2017 – Sermon on Nicodemus and John 3(1-17)

You can listen to this sermon here.

John 3:1-17
1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopal Priest, a college professor, and New York Times Best Selling author. Some of you, I know, are familiar with her work.

But to those of us who regularly have to stand up on Sunday morning in search of some Gospel Medicine to prescribe to this waiting room, if you will, full of people, she is the Patron Saint of Preachers. Mostly because she consistently performs what can only be called Homiletical Healings – or sermon miracles. If, late into the week, you pray to her, and by pray I mean google her name plus this week’s gospel text, you just might be blessed with a quotable sermon on the very text you are preaching on – and poof, your sermon is saved, healed, resurrected.

This week, I didn’t find a sermon of hers but I was reminded of her most recent book – Learning to Walk in the Dark.

Learning to walk in the dark – it is her current metaphor for what it is like to be a person of faith right now, but it is also her effort to redeem what the world, and especially the church, has demonized – the darkness.

So often we have associated light with all the good things – and darkness with all the bad and dangerous things.

But can’t God work in the nighttime? she asks. Can’t God teach us things in the dark? In fact, I know people who will only go to church during Lent and on Good Friday (which could be described as some of the darkest services in the church year) because it is the only time in the church year when the mood and the minor key worship mirrors what’s inside their life and their heart. There is a reason why some wouldn’t miss a Wednesday evening vespers service – there is just something life-giving and soul-saving about worshipping in the dark.

Then why have we demonized it so? And how is this polarity between light and darkness infecting our conversations around race in this country?

It is easy to see how the church has fallen into this ditch of equating light with good and darkness with bad. Jesus is the light of the world. A light no darkness could overcome, John’s gospel tells us. Or in the First John – God is light and in God there is no darkness at all.

But while those parts of Scripture are true and vital to the gospel – the opposite is also true. God dwells in darkness. And too often we’ve missed or ignored those texts when darkness was God’s preferred stage. God makes God’s covenant with Abraham in the dark of night. Jacob wrestles with God and receives not only a new name, but also a blessing from God at night. When Moses climbs Mt. Sinai and when Jesus is transfigured on top of a mountain, God comes to both of them in a dense cloud.

And then there is today’s gospel text with Nicodemus. Or Nic at Night, as my childhood pastor used to always call it. Did you catch that? That this whole scene happens at night and under the cover of darkness. It’s easy to miss with the light of these All-Star Scripture verses blinding our eyes – “Truly, I tell you,” Jesus says, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Or “born again” as some texts translate it – creating the verse for the born-again movement. And then the most famous of all – For God so loved the world, the God gave God’s only Son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.”

 I don’t know about you, but these infamous verses generate more anxiety in me than they do comfort. I know that might be a strange thing to hear from your pastor. They are so critical to Christian history and tradition and yet I just don’t know that I understand them. How do I get born again Jesus? And how will I know it’s happened? Where is your verbal emphasis in John 3:16? Is it: For God so loved the world, the God gave God’s only Son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.”

Or is it: For God so loved the world, the God gave God’s only Son.

Which is it, Jesus? Because it matters.

So, I just don’t know that I get them. I’m in the dark, you might say. But then again, so are they. Spoken at nighttime to a man who doesn’t get them either. With Nicodemus, we are not alone, but are in good company.

 How easy it is to forget that these words were spoken to Nicodemus at nighttime and in the dark.

Now, some will peg Nicodemus as the religious elite who is only there to condescend this uneducated peasant Jew. Meanwhile, others will swing to the other side and simply paint him as the dolt who just doesn’t get it. But is there another way to see Nicodemus? Could we see him as a man who is desperately learning to walk in the dark?

More often than not, if we are leaving the comfort of home at night, it’s because we are desperate for something.

When do you bring a child to the ER in the middle of the night? Only when you are desperately afraid that the fever is too high and won’t break.

When do you drive across town and tap on your high school girlfriends window at 1am, risking not only looking like a neighborhood burglar but also running into her parents? Only if you are desperate to know if she will still be your girlfriend in the morning after the fight you just had.

And that’s how I see Nicodemus – as someone who is desperate. The lights of everything he has worked for and everything he thought he knew in his life have gone out. The things he once relied on are no longer reliable. His compass is spinning, he’s lost his way and all he can do is use his hands and his feet to steady himself and find a path forward.

If you are like me, when you are desperate, you think you need more information, more resources, more answers. Something you can master and learn and perfect and get a good grade on and then stand upon having conquered it, just like you did before with the thing that just crumbled beneath your feet. Nicodemus is no different, I think. He is looking for answers. Why else would he call Jesus “Rabbi, teacher,” if he weren’t looking to gain something, receive something from him, something that will fit that huge, oddly shaped hole in his life that has opened up.

Standing in the dark, Nicodemus is looking to be enlightened by Jesus. But what he doesn’t understand quite yet is that isn’t the kind of teacher Jesus is. Jesus isn’t The kind of teacher who, when asked a question, gives a straight answer.

Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that while Nicodemus has come to be enlightened by Jesus but perhaps that is not Jesus’ purpose. Instead, Jesus has come to endarken him so that he loses all confidence in his ability to master the subject matter, all ability to achieve anything, and was driven instead into the arms of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus wants Jesus to give him something. And in the end Jesus takes something from him instead. “Nicodemus, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above… Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit  You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 And Nicodemus stands there with his jaw on the floor and all he can say is, “How can these things be?”

Nicodemus got nothing of what he was looking for and he left with less knowledge than he had when he arrived. More questions, fewer answers. And perhaps that is the gift. For him and for us.

That’s what being born again, born anew, born from above does after all. It takes something from you.

To be born again is to become an infant child. It is to have everything you think you know taken away from you. Nicodemus, this elite Pharisee and leader, thought he knew all the rules about how God works. But Jesus said to him, Nicodemus, The wind, the Spirit, blows where is chooses. You do not know where it comes from or where it goes. You do not know, Nicodemus. To be born again, to be a child in need is to have your precious and hard-earned independence and knowledge of how you think this world and God work taken away from you. In its place, to be born again is to be given only one thing – the promise that you are held close to the bosom be held and taken care of by the One, the Creator, the Spirit of God who loves you and the entire world.

Nicodemus came at night. Standing in the dark, knocking on Jesus’ door. To quote civil right activist, Valerie Kaur, “Perhaps this darkness is not the darkness of a tomb – but the darkness of a womb.”

Which means God is a birthing mother – both not ready to let you go, for you are like her very own heart, beating twice as fast as her own, and to let you go, to give you to the world would be like giving up a piece of the puzzle that makes her complete. And at the same time, she is so ready to send you out into the world. Because things can’t stay as they are, and the world will be better off with you than without you.

Perhaps this darkness is the darkness of the womb.

The problem with Jesus is he tends to give us the opposite of what we want, because he knows better of what we need. When we want to wield revenge, he puts the weapon of forgiveness in our hands. When we want peace and comfort, he disturbs us with and calls us to the needs of our neighbors. When we want the joy and power of trusting in ourselves and our ability to make it on our own, he puts us back in to the dark womb of God so that we can be stripped of everything we thought we knew and trust solely on the love and care of God our Mother, and then to be sent back out into the world once again.

Perhaps we have gotten the famous texts wrong. These texts that have been used to get us to know something, to give us something  – the right way to be and become a Christian, or the path to salvation and a ticket into Heaven through believing in Jesus. But what if they aren’t meant to get us to know or understand anything but instead are designed to blow all of our circuits and scramble our hard drives of everything we think we know about God and about the world, and as a result, send us rushing back into the arms of God who not only bears you, but bears with you, over and over and over again.

If Nicodemus is the creature who needs to be born, all he needs to do, all he can do, is wait – while someone else, the Someone Else, bears him. Bears with him.

Did Nicodemus ever figure it out? Was he ever born from above? The Scriptures don’t say. All we know is that the day Jesus died on the cross while still in love with this world, Nicodemus was there too to take his body down. And he had with him one hundred pounds of anointing oil for Jesus’ body. One hundred pounds, when two pounds would have done just fine. Did it make any sense? No, it didn’t make any sense at all. But when you’ve learned to walk in the dark, you find your way with your hands and your heart and not just your head. Sure, thoughtful reason might tell you that two pounds of anointing oil would be enough. But your swelling heart knows only the love that has been given to you by the One that has given birth to you.

And for that?

Two pounds is not nearly enough.

Amen.