I Am Second - Week One: "The Power of Story"

This week we are beginning the first of a three part series, featuring "I Am Second," a unique program that is designed to help connect people to Jesus in a very earthy, messy, awesome way.

So what does it mean to say "I Am Second?"  For me it means that I am constantly being reminded of my place in line when it comes to the things that truly matter.  It's a new way of knowing and being known---which is the fundamental desire of all human beings, really.  It's a new way of living life to the fullest, free from the burdens of doubt, fear and the expectations of others.  It's a new way of being defined by the relationship we have with Jesus... not by religion.

Jesus didn't come to live, die and be raised from the dead to form a religion.  I know that sounds kind of heretical to say---but there you go.  I have a t-shirt that has the word "Heretic"emblazoned on the front of it.  I was wearing it when I met Andy Stanley, the pastor of one of the largest churches in America:

This is me, meeting Andy Stanley in my "heretic" shirt.  He said to me, "Nice shirt."

We had a moment.

Don't try to take that away from me with your disparaging thoughts.

So if saying that Jesus desires a relationship with him over my adherence to some religion makes me a heretic, what I am trying to explain is that I have been there, done that and... I got the dang t-shirt.

This week we will begin our I Am Second series with "The Power of Story," and the study of one of the most famous stories in the Bible---The Woman at The Well.

But first, I have to tell you a story of my own--since this sermon is about stories, and who gets to tell them, basically.

When I was in tenth grade I was a second string forward on my school's varsity basketball team.  The guy who played my position was a senior, and he had been a starter for two years.  I was prepared to "ride the pine," as they say, for the entire season.  I practiced hard, but I always knew that I was second string.  During games I would just sort of sit there and have conversations with the other second string dudes, and look down the bench at my coach every so often to see if he was remotely interested in putting me in the game.

The guy starting ahead of me never got tired.  So I road the pine, and every so often went in for a few seconds.

We played a couple of preseason games, and were doing pretty well.  Our coach told us that he had high hopes for us that year.  Then one evening we were practicing and the guy who started in front of me went up for a rebound, and came down on someone's foot.  His knee twisted grotesquely, and he screamed in pain.  It was a torn ACL, we found out later.

I remember the coach putting his hand on my shoulder that night and looking at me with a serious expression on his face.  "It's on you now," he told me.  I wasn't quite sure what he meant by that.  All I knew was that his hand felt heavy on my shoulder, and the weight of what he said felt even heavier.

I was not ready.  I was not skilled enough.  There were a lot of "nots" you could attach to the description of me at that point.  But what I was, was next up.  All of a sudden, I was in the game.  I practiced with new intensity.  I focused harder every moment we went over plays...

I've learned a few things in life, and this is one of the more important things I've picked up along the way:  When it comes to a life of faith, there is a difference between being in the game than being on the bench.

I've also learned that it's a choice how you deal with that.  When it comes to faith, it's easy to keep a "bench" mindset when you feel like there is no chance that you will ever get in the game.  You can find a comfortable routine, stay in the same sort of ruts, so to speak and just be content watching other people play.  Theres not a lot of risk in that kind of life.  Maybe you feel like you're not good enough to play---or not ready.  Maybe you feel like your faith skills, your understanding of God isn't strong enough for you to get off your seat.

But if you were being honest, you would have to say that you would never willingly choose routine and ruts over the adrenaline rush of peeling off your sweats and running out on to the court.  I realize that's a basketball analogy---so feel free to use your own.  You get the picture, though.

Here's the thing.  We've all been in bench mode at one point in time or another in our faith journey.  Maybe some of us are in bench mode right now.  We're bored with church and with religion.  We're too busy to really commit.  We're too distracted by other things in our life, or maybe we're too disillusioned by religion to stand up and get in the game.

Some of us have been on the bench so long we don't even know how to play.

Some of us don't even know if we're on the team.

And most of us feel like there is no way that God would ever want us to do big important things like tell his story.  We never would suspect that God would actually want us to get in the game.

Here's something else that I've learned over the years---  God uses unexpected people to tell his story.  

I wasn't ready to come off the bench, but when the time came---ready or not, I did it.  The truth of the matter was that I was tired of riding the bench, tired of watching other people play.  I just didn't know how much until I was being called into the game.

There's this awesome story in the life of Jesus about a woman who found herself in a similar situation.  It's a well known story that most of us know by the name it's been given in those little Bible subtitles we see under the chapter headings.  This is the story of the Woman at The Well.
Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria
called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon. When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) John 4:4-9
To say that Jews and Samaritans hated one another was an understatement.  The divide between them was deep and wide, made all the more intense by the fact that the Samaritans claimed to worship God just as the Jews, but did not worship God in the Temple.  They had their own place of worship, which the Jews deemed illegitimate.  So there was a deep racial divide between Jesus and the woman, and there was also a deep gender divide.  A good Jewish man would never speak to a woman alone, much less a Samaritan woman.
Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.” “I have no husband,” she replied. John 4:13-18
We suddenly realize that there is so much more to this story, and we also realize why this woman is by herself at the well during the heat of the day.  All of the other women in the village had come to draw water earlier when it was cooler.  This woman waited until she was sure there would be no one there to meet her, and she did this because she doesn't want to face their scrutiny:

"I know you don't have a husband," Jesus replies.  "You have had five of them.  And the man you are living with now is not your husband."

We don't know what her situation was exactly.  Maybe she started off as a widow, and then married a relative, and then another... and another.  Maybe she had become such a liability that no one would marry her any longer. Perhaps she had been forced to turn to prostitution, and the man she was living with was selling her.  We have no idea.  All we know is that her life has been full of disappointments, tragedy, pain and shame.  It's no wonder she wants to be alone at the well.

Lucky for her she found Jesus there.

And like a lot of people who are confronted with the truth of themselves, she changes the subject.  "I see that you are a prophet," she says. "Let's talk about religion, then."  I added that last bit, but essentially that's what she does.  She says to Jesus, "You Jews say that the only place to worship is in the Temple, but my ancestors have been worshipping on this mountain longer than yours have been worshipping in the Temple..." that's my paraphrase of what she was saying between the lines.

Have you ever had a conversation about faith with someone and as soon as things started to get real, they begin saying things like, "There's lots of ways to get to God..." or "You believe what you want to believe, and I'll believe what I want..."

Jesus tells the woman, "Listen, things are changing.  God is revealing himself in ways that transcend religion.  He's calling you into a relationship with him, and I am here to give you that relationship."  I am totally paraphrasing now, but that's essentially what he told her.  Then this happened:
Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” They came out of the town and made their way toward him. John 4:28-30
 Jesus shows this woman that he knows her... really knows her.  And that the life she was living was not even close to the full life she was being called to lead.  And that this new way of life was not defined by religion, but by a relationship---with him.

He invited her to come off the bench and get into the game.

And so she did.  Despite her past, despite the scandals and the stares... despite the taunts and the cruelty... she suddenly could think of nothing else but going back into her village and telling the very people who had heaped all of those things and then some upon her that Jesus had changed her life.

I think that the missing lesson in this passage is that this woman was the last person you would expect to share her story... and Jesus chose her.

What's your story?  Why do you think it's not worth telling?  Do you think your sins are too great, your transgressions too grievous?  What is it?  Are your doubts and fears too much for you?  Do you find your spot on the bench comfortable because you don't want to have to face the possibility that you might get called into the game... and you're not ready.

Guess what?  You're not.  Neither am I.  Neither was the woman at the well.  But she realized something very important.  Jesus knew her... and he called her anyway.

Mary was a woman in the very first church that I served.  She was a small, frail old lady who didn't have a lot of tact.  She always seemed to tick everyone off with her brusque and forward demeanor---especially when it came to food drives and fund raisers to prevent hunger.  Mary was pushy.  She would annoy the dickens out of our pastor, elders and eventually even me with her ideas about doing bigger, better food drives to stock the local food pantries or raise money for our Presbytery's hunger initiatives.  She hung posters, made announcements, wrote newsletter articles...  Mary would make you feel like absolute crap if you didn't help her.

Finally one day I asked her why she was so driven about hunger issues.  I did it after a particularly stressful encounter with her over space on the bulletin board in the church hall.  She wanted all of it.  We couldn't give it to her.  This was inconceivable to her.  "Why does this matter so much to you Mary?" I asked her. She looked at me for a moment with her piercing blue eyes---angry and defiant.  Then she softened a bit and told me a story.

Her son had been a drug addict.  He moved to New York with his girlfriend who was also a drug addict.  They had a son together, but the girlfriend left eventually.  Mary's son was raising his three year-old son in squalor, getting high, leaving him with neighbors... letting him go hungry.  When Mary arrived, she found her grandson sitting in an apartment that was devoid of food... he'd had nothing to eat for days.

She told me that she had always been Christian, but had never really been a Jesus-follower, and had never really done all that much to further his cause.  On that day, as she gathered her hungry, think grandson into her arms... she got in the game.  "I swore," she told me "that in the name of Jesus, I wouldn't rest as long as I knew there was one hungry child in the world."

I gave Mary the whole bulletin board.

You may not be ready.  You may have a messed up passed.  You may think that you are absolutely the last person on earth that God would want on his team.

But he wants you in the game.  Isn't it time you got off the bench?  Isn't it time you told your story---the story of how God loved you in spite of yourself, and gave your life new meaning?  Maybe that part of the story needs to be written today. You can totally embrace that.

Just know this...

God uses unexpected people to tell his story.  
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