The Reciprocal Empowerment of the Disreputable


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When Jesus ventures into foreign territory, he encounters a woman at a well. Finally, someone who interests Jesus! He chooses to entrust this woman with the Good News, and she changes her world. Come, drink of God’s living water, and change your world.

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This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scripture

John 4:5-42, selected verses, adapted for Readers Theater

 

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A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.

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Full Text of Sermon

Prayer (sung & spoken):

Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged,
Take it to the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a friend so faithful
Who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness,
Take it to the Lord in prayer.[1]

Introduction

This past week, Joann, John and I returned from a spirit-filled conference called NEXTChurch. Tucked away in the Marriott ballroom in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, the scriptural focus for the week was on today’s gospel reading: Jesus and the Samaritan woman.

I broke my Lenten Facebook fast this week, what being a sinner and all, and I posted a Facebook invitation to Calvary because, as I said there, this is my favorite story in the whole book. Facebook friends began to ask me why I like this story so much. My response was easy. It has everything!

  1. Jesus and the disciples migrate their ministry into a foreign region. In fact, Most Jews regarded Samaritans as an inferior race.[2] John’s gospel goes out its way to tell us how inappropriate this encounter really was.
  2. Jesus models unconditional acceptance, yet again, and gives us another example of biblically-grounded feminism.
  3. This story is full of prophecy—both from Jesus and from the Woman. I think her prophecy was even more important than his.
  4. In this story, Jesus acknowledges the realities of human sexuality and gender-based power dynamics.
  5. In this story, we find writ large the gospel of John’s favorite theme: how God’s eternal power, the Logos, breaks in and raises us up from this imperfect and transient world: “the eternal in relation to the transient…the manifestations of being in a world of becoming.”[3]

It seems to be up for discussion these days so I’ll just ask: do you think spoken words matter?  A story: In my late twenties, I taught high school chorus[4] in Atlanta, Ga. One December, I said to my class, “I will see you all in the new year, unless one of you of little delinquents tries to burn the school down or something.” I thought I was kidding, but one of them tried to burn the school down over Christmas break. What I thought was droll humor has haunted me the rest of my life.  Do words matter that much?

As the readers come forward, I hope you will hear this familiar Bible story with new ears. The passage is edited down a little for the sake of time. Now, with many thanks to Kathie, Larry and Priscilla, listen for the word of God.

 

Readers Theatre: The Woman at the Well[5]

Narrator: A story from John’s gospel. (Pause) Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water.

Jesus: Give me a drink.

Woman: How is it that you, a Jew, are asking a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?

Narrator:  Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.

Jesus: 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.

Woman: Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where will you get the living water? This is the well of our ancestor Jacob. Are you greater than Jacob?

Jesus: Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 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.

Woman: Sir, give me this water so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.

Jesus: Go, call your husband, and come back.

Woman: I don’t have a husband.

Jesus: You have told the truth in saying you don’t have a husband. You have had five husbands, and the man you have now–he’s not your husband.

Woman: Uh, I see… You must be a prophet! I know that Messiah is coming. And when Messiah comes, all things will be proclaimed to us.

Jesus: But I am the one who is speaking to you.

Narrator: Just then his disciples, who had gone into town to get some food, returned and were astonished that Jesus was having a conversation — with a woman. And so, she left her water jar and went back to the city to tell people to “come and see a man” who had told her everything that she had ever done! And the people came back with her to the well. They believed in Jesus because of this woman’s testimony.

The Itinerant Rabbi

The Greek text implies that Jesus “had” to go to Samaria in order for the rest of the Jesus story to unfold. They had to leave their comfortable stomping grounds and visit a place in which they would be regarded not only as aliens but as unwanted visitors. If you need biblical support for how strangers bear the very face of Christ, this is it. There are many more passages that stand in explicit contrast to what’s happening today.  What if the Samaritans had placed a travel ban disallowing Jews to enter Sychar? The gospel is scandalized by fear of “the other.” The Bible warns to remember how “we were once strangers in the land of Egypt.”[6]

An Inappropriate Encounter: Religion & Gender

Fear of “the other” is not a new problem. John points out that “Jews and Samaritans do not share things” to show how inappropriate this encounter really was. That’s an understatement says Scottish theologian, John Bell, who writes:

Jewish men did not talk to women in the open. A Jewish rabbi, even more than a Jewish layman, would never get himself into the position of being liable to public ridicule for doing something forbidden, [like engaging in] this friendly conversation with a Samaritan. Samaritans being beneath the contempt of Jews, no self-respecting Jew would ever use the same eating utensils or drinking vessels. [7]

The Too Political Word

My friend Joanie leads a monthly Bible study comprised of two former Catholic- and five (currently) Jewish women. When Joanie, a former Catholic, asked the group if they couldn’t please read just one Jesus story, the Jewish women objected, saying, “Oh please not Jesus! He’s just too political.” They’re right, you know. The Roman Empire crucified individuals who offended them. Jesus was that disliked by the fearful preservers of empire and the idolaters of religious nostalgia. John Bell makes is plain: “[The] Christ to whom we sing, to whom we pray, behind whom we follow …is a lawbreaker.”[8]

Unconditional Love

That is the power of unconditional acceptance and the perfect love that casts out fear and punishment.[9] Jesus knew all about this woman, how she had five husbands and the man with whom she was associated now was not her husband. Does Jesus feel the need to forgive her? No. Jesus confirms “everything” she had ever done while calling her into ministry.  The ministry of Jesus rests on this disreputable woman. She alone shares the Good News of Jesus with her community. This unnamed Samaritan woman converts her whole town!  But where were the disciples? Out shopping![10]

Saying No to Slut Shaming

Traditional interpretations of this story describe the Samaritan woman as downtrodden and tragic trollop who comes to Jesus for forgiveness, but there is not one shred of scripture to support the tradition of “slut shaming” this woman. What if all five of her marriages were conducted legally, following Levitical law?  It could be. Shaming this woman is destructive. Brene Brown says: “What we don’t need in the midst of struggle, is shame for being human.”[11] Other traditional interpretations ask whether the woman at the well and Jesus share more than a transcendent moment because in the Torah, when a man and woman meet at a well, he usually rescues her, and then they hook up, joined for life.[12] Perhaps this theologically savvy Samaritan woman suspect as much when she challenges Jesus with my favorite line: “You don’t have a bucket. You ain’t even got no bucket,” she tells him. What was he up to, at her watering hole, high noon in her town, and no bucket—seriously?

How Words Matter

Now, here’s the part that is unique to my interpretation. Not many go here, but I just “have” to go here. Until this point in the narrative[13] John’s gospel tells of Jesus as an impressive minister but has yet to name him Messiah. The Samaritan woman is the first person to call Jesus messias, the Messiah come to save us. Jesus takes in her naming of him, and he lives out her prophecy for the rest of John’s gospel. The disreputable woman of Sychar, names Jesus the Messiah. Without the Samaritan woman at the well, there would be no Christianity, not in John’s gospel narrative anyway. That’s how the miracle of transcendence invades the daily grind. That’s how important words are. Words matter.

In Genesis, when God looks out at the chaos and the Spirit is brooding over the deep, how does God create the whole kosmos? God speaks the word, and it all begins. Words matter. How does Jesus empower this Samaritan woman to become the evangelist she was always meant to be? Through his word, logos. Words matter.

Words spoken by leaders matter, especially in public. I have been called on the carpet many times for the words I have in sermons. Yet, I am (we are) being called on by governmental spokespeople to disregard words as if they do not have meaning. If their words are intentional and meant to distract us from what is really going on, I am more saddened than when I realized that his overtly bad behaviors been rewarded.

The words and figures of budgets matter. Budgets are moral statements on what matters, how we will use our resources — yours and mine — to bless or to curse.  It matters for future generations to have clean drinking water and breathable air. It matter that After School Programs that benefit children continue. It matters when any so-called “religious freedom” bill[14] scandalizes the unconditional love of Jesus.

I raise these concerns as one who knows that God is always becoming something new and exceeds this world of being.  (Let me remind you that, in the Presbyterian Church, the preacher is speaking for herself or himself and praying that the Spirit is inspiring the message. I am speaking to you from my heart, and I know some of you disagree with me. If you want to yell at me, I will walk away, but if you want to talk with me, I would be honored to listen to what’s in your heart.)

Rapture

When I was nine years old in Plainville, Georgia, population 210, I practiced the piano incessantly, usually while my father tried to watch the Watergate hearings and the news. Although we were Methodists, I sometimes played the piano at the Baptist church near our home, because Opal, who usually played the piano, wanted to cook dinner for Herb on Sunday nights. So, I became involved with the Baptist church.

The preaching there was much different from ours at the Methodist church. The Baptist preacher always brought up the rapture and how all the sinners would be left behind when Jesus came back, but the righteous Jesus would take to heaven. We even sang a song about it in the Baptist youth choir:

Man and wife asleep in bed,
she’s hears a noise and turns her head, he’s gone!
I wish we’ all been ready…
Two men climbing up a hill,
one disappears and one’s left standing still:
I with we’d all been ready…[15]

I will still be unable to forget that song on my deathbed.

One autumn Sunday afternoon, I walked from home to the Baptist church for my usual practice time, but there was no one there. Usually someone was there to let me in. My watch said it was four o’clock. I sat down on the red brick steps and started thinking; Oh great, I’m evil. Jesus has come and “you’ve been left behind.”

I couldn’t go home. My parents were good people, and they’d be gone, too. Just me left behind and my secret sinful self. I knew from age seven that I was gay, but I didn’t have words or resources to understand why I was different. And now, thought nine year old Victor, Jesus has come back and confirmed my worst fears.

About that time, Louise Hobgood drove up in her royal blue Ford Granada. “Honey, what are doing here so early? Did your mama forget to set the clocks back last night? Don’t cry. It’s alright.” I had taken in the preacher’s toxic words, but she knew a deeper truth. I was going to be alright. In that moment, she was all the Jesus I needed. Perhaps she knew, as with Jesus and the Samaritan woman, that God can use any of us to bless this world. God makes the ordinary extraordinary. That night I played those hymns like never before. “Come, and meet a man who knows everything you’ve ever done” and has he got plans for you! May it be so. Amen.

[1] “What a Friend We Have in Jesus!” by Joseph Scriven, sung to the tune of “I AM a Poor Wayfaring Stranger” In this story, Jesus is the wayfarer which the Samaritan woman welcomes, albeit reluctantly.

[2] Craig Koester, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, Community (Fortress Press, 2003), 187-188.

[3] Frank Kermode, The Literary Guide to the Bible (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1987), 452. “[John] is always attending to [the] deepest purpose, which is the representation of the eternal in relation to the transient, of the manifestations of being in a world of becoming.”

[4] <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Atlanta_High_School>

[5] John 4:5-42, selected verses, adapted for Readers Theatre, United Church of Christ.

[6] Deuteronomy 10:19: “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Welcoming the stranger is not optional, it is a mitzvah, a command to bless.

[7] John L. Bell, States of Bliss and Yearning (Chicago: GIA, 2002), 104-105.

[8] Ibid.

[9] 1 John 4:18 “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”

[10] John 4:8  (They return in verse 27.)

[11] Accessible online at <https://blogs.psychcentral.com/imperfect/2016/07/14-inspirational-quotes-from-brene-brown/> (March 17, 2017)

[12] Genesis 24: Abraham’s servant stopped to ask Rebekah for a drink as a means of locating a future wife for Isaac.  Genesis 29: Jacob exhibits a rush of adrenaline when approached by his wife-to-be, Rachel, at a well.  Exodus 2: Moses meets the daughters of Reuel at a well and marries the one named Zipporah.

[13] I am excluding the prologue of John’s gospel, surely added later, wherein John names Jesus “Logos” — the Word that existed since before the Beginning.

[14] Laura Sydell, “LGBTQ Advocates Fear ‘Religious Freedom’ Bills Moving Forward in States” NPR, February 26, 2017, accessed online at <http://www.npr.org/2017/02/26/515585721/lgbtq-advocates-fear-religious-freedom-bills-moving-forward-in-states> (March 17, 2017)

[15] The full song accessible at <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9gu7Cn0n_Q>. Warning: Graphic content.

 

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