One Way? Week Four: "Like the Woman At The Well"
When I was a youngster I wasn't exactly what you might call "easy on the eyes." Not that I am now, mind you, but back then---things were pretty messed up. There is a school photo I recall that stands out far more than any other. I was perhaps twelve years old at the time.
For some reason I was clad in a dress shirt, a sweater vest and a clip on tie that had the most garish decor could imagine silk screened on it. My hair was sort of plastered to my head, my ears were sticking out and my enormous glasses sort of rounded out the ensemble perfectly. My eyes are crossed pretty severely in the photo on account of the fact they tend to do that because I am blind in one of them. Sometimes, like in this photo, they cross more than others.
To sum things up... I was looking good. Here it is:
Here's the thing, I knew I was an outsider back then. You didn't have to tell me. The fact that it was the 70's and everyone dressed a little weird didn't mitigate the fact that I was weird. I knew what cool kids looked like and acted like, and I wasn't one of them.
Maybe you, or someone you know has been in that place before. It doesn't take much to be made to feel as though you are an outsider. Before you know it, you are changing your habits, your appearance even your personality trying to fit in, and when that doesn't work you resort to keeping your head down, maintaining a low profile and generally trying to stay out of the way of everyone whose on the inside...
I don't care how old you are, or how awesome you think you might be... everyone has felt left out at one point in time or another. Sometimes it happens for so long, and on such a deeply personal level, you feel like there's no way that you will ever be on the inside.
We get this. We've been there.
And it comes down in the end to a really hard question:
How do you calculate worth? Appearances? Money? Success?
Is it like being on the "inside?"
As we continue through the sermon series that we've been working on for the past several weeks--a sermon series about Jesus entitled "One Way?"--we'll be uncovering an incontrovertible truth about Jesus: Jesus loves nobodies... He loves nobodies with a past... he loves nobodies who don't seem to be doing all that well in the present... he loves nobodies who are weird, addicted, messed up, confused, doubting, afraid, angry and alone. He even loves nobodies who don't love him. Jesus loves nobodies because in the eyes of God they are somebodies... with a future.
Which leads us to something pretty profound and awesome that I want you to remember:
Jesus is the One Way to God that cares more about your future than your past.
Let's take a look at John 4:5-42 and a familiar story we know by the name, "The Woman At The Well."
5 So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon. 7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) 9 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.)I need to say a few words about Samaritans and Jews. They hated each other. That was a few words, to be sure--but I suppose I should say more. Over three hundred years earlier when the Jewish exiles began to return home from their exile in Babylon, they discovered that the Samaritans had settled in the land between Jerusalem and the Galilee.
The Samaritans claimed to be the true descendants of Abraham, and worshipped God, but they only accepted the Pentateuch as Scripture--as such the Jews believed they had an incomplete view of God. The Samaritans believed that there would be a Messiah known as Ta'heb or "the one who returns," who would arrive one day to explain all things to them.
On top of this, the Samaritans believed that the only true place to worship God was on top of Mt. Gerazim, where Alexander the Great actually built them a temple. A group of Samaritan vandals went to the Temple in Jerusalem by dead of night and defiled it be spreading human bones all over the place--Jews were considered unclean if they touched a dead body, and bones were included in this prohibition. In 128 BC the Jewish king John Hyrcanus destroyed their temple and eventually the city of Shechem was also destroyed by the Jews.
There had only been 150 years of so of enmity between the two peoples, which isn't a lot considering the way people held grudges in the ancient Near East. But the enmity was pretty serious. The Samaritans routinely attacked Jewish pilgrims who were traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem.
Drinking water from a Samaritan well would have made Jesus ritually unclean. When you add to all of this animosity between Samaritans and Jews the fact that Jesus was speaking to one, who also happened to be a woman---you just know that things are about to get interesting.
What do we know about this woman? Who was she?
She is coming to draw water from a well during the heat of the day when she was sure that there would be no one present. Women typically drew water in the morning, and it's obvious that she wants to avoid them. The author of John is setting us up. A reader in the first century would have known that something was up with her---that she was probably a loose woman. They would have leaned a little forward in their seats to see just what she had done.
The woman seems caustic, a little bitter perhaps. She fires back at Jesus that he needs to be minding his own business, and it wouldn't do for either of them to be seen talking to one another. But it's Jesus who initiates conversation, who approaches her with an open hand.
10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?” 13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 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.” 15 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.”The thing with Jesus is that he always plays mind games with his hearers. In this case he uses things that are rooted in reality to teach about things that are beyond reality. The word that he uses for water, is hydor son, which could mean "fresh running water" or "life-giving water." The woman doesn't get it. Like Nicodemus in chapter three of John, she can't seem to grasp what Jesus is saying--although if she could just shift her vision slightly she would see...
16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.” 17 “I have no husband,” she replied. Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”The woman tells Jesus a half-truth. She tells Jesus half-truths, he tells her the whole truth. She says "I have no husband." He says, "You are right, you have had five..." Some scholars believe that this might have actually been an attempt by her to flirt with Jesus to let him know that she was available. This interpretation has led to some speculation as to the true state of her life. It's less likely that she had divorced five husbands, and more likely that she was the victim of Levirate marriage customs--where she after the death of her husband, she was passed like property from one of his male relatives to another. When one would die, or decide he was unable to fulfill his duties he would pass her on to the next male relative. It is possible the last relative refused to marry her, but "kept" her in his home for his own needs. It is also possible that the man she is living with is prostituting her.
But when Jesus tells her about her life and everything starts to get very real--she changes the subject...
19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”This is the equivalent of what happens to me from time to time when people find out I am a pastor and we start to talk about their faith. "I don't go to church anymore," they often tell me, "because I got tired of all the hypocrites... pastors asking for money... rules and regulations... getting my feelings hurt..."
Jesus doesn't say to her, "Listen, you Samaritans have been worshipping in your way and the Jews in their way, and all of it is okay..." He acknowledges that the Samaritans have been traveling the wrong path, so to speak, but now none of that matters. God, who, up to this point, seemingly had been focused on one group of people was now focused on everyone.
25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”Jesus actually says, "I am the Messiah you expect."
27 Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?” 28 Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” 30 They came out of the town and made their way toward him.The woman left her jar... why did John mention this? It's because leaving the jar was a symbol that the woman no longer has any need of the water from Jacob's well, she has found the water she was looking for all along. In verse 29 her question actually begins with a negative particle, meti, which tells us that she was struggling to believe---she was afraid to hope after a lifetime of hopelessness... but her struggle didn't stop her from witnessing.
31 Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” 33 Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?” 34 “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. 35 Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. 36 Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. 37 Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. 38 I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.There was this saying in the ancient world of Jesus: "Another four months and it's harvest time." This spoke to the fact that there was a cycle for harvest--twice a year--and a lag time in between. Jesus is telling them that things are not as they seem--it's not lag time, it's harvest time and the harvest is about to join them at the well due to the witness of the woman he was talking to...
39 Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. 41 And because of his words many more became believers.The word for "stay" here is meno, which means "abide" or "remain." In this context staying and eating with people--taking up residence so to speak--means that you are in a relationship with them. This, as you might expect is pretty huge.
42 They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”The words "Savior of the world" are only used this one time in the entire Gospel of John. So, that's important.
As we think about this story we can't help but notice all of the lines that get crossed by Jesus in order to bring the Good News to these people. He crosses racial, religious, cultural and political boundaries to demonstrate the extent to which God is going to establish his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. He doesn't forget any of the things that the Samaritans have done--they still aren't worshipping "correctly," they still don't really get it when it comes to who God is and what God is up to, and the divisions between them and the Jews are still going to exist when all is said and done.
Jesus shows them that none of those things matter. And that God's boundaries for grace are expansive and generous. Imagine what an impact he must have had on them that they would forget all of their old animosities and believe he was that he was indeed who he claimed to be.
It shows us that our boundaries for grace have become too narrow in the Church. It's a good thin that God's boundaries aren't like ours, don't you think? I wonder how many of us would be included if they were. We've become so concerned in church-y world about who's right and who's wrong, who agrees with us and who doesn't, who belongs and who isn't welcome...
Maybe we need a change of perspective.
What rules is Jesus breaking to talk to us? What lines is he crossing? Think about your own life for a moment, and I bet you will find something that someone, somewhere finds completely objectionable. You might be on the "inside" in your sphere of influence, but somewhere else you might be the person hanging around by the fence all by themselves.
If Jesus would cross a line to talk to us---why can't we do the same?
And here's something else---remember what the woman tells the people in her village? "Come see a man who knew everything I ever did...." Don't you think that line is missing something? I do. I think it's missing this: "Come see a man who knew everything I ever did... and loved me anyway."
Beloved... Jesus loves you anyway. It doesn't matter what you've done. It doesn't matter what you find yourself doing now... He loves you anyway.
And he loves you far too much to let you keep doing what you are doing, living like you are living. Which is why the empty water jar is so significant to us and deserves a second look. That empty water jar spoke volumes of the change in the woman as she ran into her village to start witnessing. She didn't need the old water anymore---she had something new and life-giving. If you want to take Jesus up on his offer of running, pure water, you need to get rid of the stale, moldy water inside of you first.
Leave that past behind you. Jesus doesn't care about it and neither should you.
My first youth group outing as a brand new youth director was a colossal failure.
I'd never led a youth group before. I'd only come back to church a few months before landing the youth director job. The first prayer I'd prayed in twelve years was the night I felt like God might want me to be a youth director. I'd just quit smoking--like a month before I got the job. I wore earrings--four of them to be exact.
I knew nothing about Christian music, but when I heard that the rock band Petra was coming to town for a concert, I decided to buy tickets and take the whole group to see them. I remembered Petra from Disney's Nights of Joy when I was in high school, so I figured they were okay. The night of the show we loaded up in a borrowed Chevy Suburban and drove to the theater where Petra was supposed to play. It was deserted. No one was there--anywhere. The kids began to wonder out loud what was happening. One of them finally asked me, "Did you check the tickets to see if it was the right day?" Nope. I hadn't. And when I did in that moment I realized with a sickening feeling that the concert had been the night before.
As I sat there in that moment I felt like that little kid in the photo when I was ten. Silly, wrong, outside... a nobody. "Did you really think God wanted to use YOU?" a crappy voice said in my head? "You really got your wires crossed, buddy. God doesn't want YOU. Look what you've done on the VERY FIRST ATTEMPT WITH THESE KIDS!"
Then I remembered something. I remembered a night a couple of months earlier. I sat in a room filled with people old enough to be my parents--part of the Christian Education Committee for our church. They were talking about how much they needed to find a youth director, and that they didn't have much money to pay this person, and the job would only be certain for one year because after that they expected to have no money left...
And I sat there in my own little world, sweating and wishing I could stand or move---only I couldn't because I could literally feel Jesus' hands on my shoulders.
"I chose you for this." Jesus' voice whispered my head. "I know what you've done. I know who you are. But I chose you for this." I could feel tears coming to eyes and I blinked them back.
That night I prayed the first prayer I had prayed in twelve years. I prayed, "God, I think I am the worst person in the world for this kind of thing. I have no idea what to do. I don't even know what I believe. But if you don't care about my past---I guess I don't either."
All of this went through my head as I stood there staring at those tickets---tickets to a concert that none of the kids in the group really wanted to attend anyway. "So, you guys want to go to the mall and get some ice cream and walk around?" A cheer went up and off we went.
Listen to me. Jesus doesn't care what you've done, where you've been, or even what you believe about him. You might encounter him, stumbling and stammering, afraid to hope. It doesn't matter. Just leave your jar---you don't need it anymore.
Jesus is the One Way to God that cares more about your future than your past.