During Advent the three clergy preached a series on the hallmarks of the New Testament Church that we hope to attain here at St. Patrick’s. They were “Radical Love,” “Gracious Evangelism,” “Joyful Discipleship” and “Sacramental Living.” This famous story today of the woman at the well is a beautiful example of Jesus modeling for us both radical love and gracious evangelism.
The relationship of disciples to Master was that the Master fed the disciples spiritually while the disciples fed the Master physically and so the disciples were off doing their job and fetching food. This resulted in Jesus being alone with a Samaritan woman in the heat of the day and it sets the stage for an astonishing divine appointment.
I call it astonishing because Jews don’t speak to Samaritans as the text informs us. Most of you know why but please allow me to catch up any folks we are new to this story.
In 722 BC many of the Jews in the Northern Kingdom were taken into captivity to Assyria. Those who were left behind eventually intermarried with pagans and so their offspring were considered to be no longer pure Jews. Over time they altered their worship practices and even had the audacity to erect their own temple outside of Jerusalem on Mt. Gerizim. To complicate matters further these Samaritans only accepted the first 5 Books of the Moses as canon and they rejected every Jewish prophet except Moses. In short they were considered ethnically impure and religiously heretical.
The Jewish disdain for Samaritans was so strong that even though the route from Jerusalem, north to the Galilee, took you directly through their region, many would travel east in order to go around Samaria before going north. It would be like us driving around Georgia en route to Florida because we think Georgians are that inferior. Given that our Bishop is from Georgia that would be a very bad thing to think.
Not only is it astonishing that a Jew is speaking with a Samaritan but it multiplied by the fact that it is an unaccompanied man was speaking with an unaccompanied woman and add to that it is a holy man, a Rabbi, speaking to a woman with a questionable reputation. No one would have seen this coming.
His popularity had been growing. Early in this Gospel we see some of John’s disciples leaving John and following Jesus. Then throngs come to be baptized in Jesus’ Name. John’s disciples complained, “Everyone is going to him instead of coming to us.” And yet Jesus was willing to put His growing popularity and His reputation on the line by deviating from accepted social norms and He engaged this woman in conversation.
He could have added to His popularity if while speaking to her He condemned her. Think of all the TV preachers that have huge followings and make boatloads of money preaching against liberals and commie pinko’s. Years ago, out of respect for my Pentecostal clergy friend, I attended a Jimmy Swaggart crusade. It was a stretch for me. At one point in the sermon Jimmy said, “And let me tell you, you liberal college professors” and I thought to myself, “Yea I bet the place is filled with them tonight.” It sure got the crowd stirred up like they were at a wrestling match and no doubt it helped the offering.
But Jesus did not take that tact. If anyone had the right to condemn her it would be the One who will return one day to judge the living and the dead. But He did not. Why? The Bible says “For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” Jn 3:17.
This brings us the first application of this story for our own lives. How inclined are we to follow in Jesus’ footsteps and break down barriers and even risk our reputations in order to reach out to others? Do we have the courage to challenge norms that may have stood for a long time? Are we willing to do it even at the risk of others thinking that we are compromising our beliefs?
Let me ask this way. Who is welcome at St. Patrick’s? I’m sure that we would all say that everyone is welcome here but what is our unwritten policy? I hope it is the same.
I received a call a while ago from a person asking about our church. Toward the end of the conversation she asked what people wore to church. I said “we have everything from ties to tattoos” and I was happy that I could say that.
I have said before that the way I was raised was that you wore your Sunday best to church. Saturday night was shoeshine time because my father believed that if he had to look sharp for his commanding officer then he should do the same for the King of Kings. I still believe that way but I also believe that even more important than what a person wears is the fact that they have come to worship the Lord. After all, this is a spiritual hospital not a country club.
Breaking down the barriers begins right here and with us and it creates a culture of breaking down barriers out their in the world. When Beth and I first moved here in 1996 we visited a local Episcopal Church. I won’t tell you which one, only that it was in Murfreesboro. (Hint, hint). We attended two Sundays in a row and I wore my clerical collar each time and not one person spoke to us. That shouldn’t happen.
I know it can be difficult. We have three different services and so it is impossible to know everyone. It’s like the first time you ask a woman how long she has been pregnant and she tells you that she isn’t. You decide right then and there to never ask that question again.
Similarly most of us have asked someone if they are new to the church only to be told that they are a founding member or the Senior Warden or something equally embarrassing. It is all too easy to decide right then and there to never again greet a person that you do not recognize. But we must not give into that temptation. It is a loving act to risk a little embarrassment and reach out to a stranger. It is pride that would keep us from taking a risk. You can do what I do. When I ask if we have met before and they say that we have I just give a little laugh, point to your head and say “mad cow.”
The other act of love that Jesus does for this woman is that at the appropriate time He points out that her lifestyle is not right before God. Jesus did it in a very subtle way but He loved her too much to leave her in her sin because sin is a devourer and a destroyer.
Often people today reject the notion that you can love the sinner but hate the sin. Many believe that loving someone includes accepting all that they do. They argue that to love someone unconditionally is to accept them as they are. But that stops short of the full story on unconditional love.
When my kids were growing up I loved them unconditionally but I did not accept all that they did. I loved them too much to passively sit by and allow them to do things that were self-destructive or immoral. If someone came up to me while I was correcting my child and said, “But you are not supposed to judge” I doubt that I would have received it well. Discerning what is harmful to my children and showing them a better way is an act of love not an act of judgment.
We see this in our own relationship with God. Sure God loved us and accepted us as we are. The Scripture says, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” But that is not the end of the story. God loves us and accepts us as we are, but He loves us too much to leave us where He finds us. He calls us to be cleansed from our sins. He calls us to walk in the way of righteousness. This is how St. Paul described the Church in Corinth.
“Don’t you realize that those who do wrong will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Don’t fool yourselves. Those who indulge in sexual sin, or who worship idols, or commit adultery, or are male prostitutes, or practice homosexuality, or are thieves, or greedy people, or drunkards, or are abusive, or cheat people—none of these will inherit the Kingdom of God.” But then he goes on to say, “Some of you were once like that. But you were cleansed; you were made holy; you were made right with God by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
We recognize as our Collect said today, that we have no power within ourselves to change ourselves. We need God to intervene on our behalf and that is just what Jesus did in the life of that woman, and it is what He continues to do in the lives of people today who call upon Him. To her credit, the woman “fessed up.” She did not lie or deceive, she did not even try to sugar coat it. “Well he’s sort of a fiancée.” She told the truth and Jesus took it from there. Conviction, confession, absolution….that is how people are made free. That is radical love.
I also want to point out how this whole story is that of gracious evangelism. We should learn from the Master here.
First notice that He did not meet her in the synagogue. The synagogue was a house of worship. Evangelism is done out there in the world. Jesus went to her. In the St. Mark’s version of the Great Commission Jesus told the disciples to “Go out into all the world.” Thus we make a mistake if we think that all we have to do is build houses of worship and they will come.
I was once asked to do a little consulting with a church that was struggling. When I asked what they were doing for outreach they told me that they had just built a new gymnasium and their plan was to give out free tickets to invite their neighbors to tour the gym. I told them that I did not want to hurt their feeling but the reality is that their neighbors could care less that they had a new gym. People want to know how faith is relevant to them. They want to know how it will make their life better. They want to have hope. That was what Jesus was doing when He sought the woman out and spoke to her of the gift of living water.
We need to learn to be as intentional in seeking others as Jesus was. I’m not talking about standing on a street corner and passing out tracts. Gracious evangelism is based in love and love can be creative in how it is expressed.
Most of you know Don DeWolfe who taught Alpha. Don is a vet and has become a chaplain’s assistant at the VA. He goes each week to the VA both in Murfreesboro and in Nashville and visits vets who are from liturgical churches. He offers them communion or prays with them or both. He builds friendships and looks for opportunities to share the Good News. He is using his experience as a vet to draw other closer to Christ, which is a creative way to use his life experiences. I think that he is a great example to the rest of us.
Second we notice that Jesus began where she was. She was there to draw water so Jesus asked for a drink. Then He moved the conversation to living water. He didn’t start out talking about sin. He didn’t hit her with a lot of theology. He didn’t even call on her to respond. He offered her a gift using language that she could understand.
This was a woman that was so full of shame that she came in the hottest part of the day to draw water. She didn’t want to hear the tongues waging. In offering her a gift of eternal value, Jesus values her as a person. She needed to know what she was turning to before being convicted about what she needed to turn from. Once a person sees the banquet that is set before them, it is not difficult to let go of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich that they are clinging to.
A third lesson on evangelism that we can learn from Jesus’ encounter with this woman is that He stayed on target. At one point she insults Him by asking if He is greater than Jacob. It was a kind of “and who might you be?” question. He ignores that and keeps speaking to her of the living water. Next she tries a theological debate about where the proper place is to worship.
I have seen this many times. When people start to feel the conviction of the Holy Spirit they will change the subject to get the focus off of themselves. If you try to chase those rabbits you will never get back to the real point of the discussion. So here we see Jesus bring her back into focus by telling her it is not where you worship but whom you worship and He tells her the kind of people that God is seeking to worship Him. This opens the door for her to ask about the Messiah and Jesus reveals to her that He is the Messiah.
Jesus keeps giving her the Good News without shaming her or introducing any form of fear, which too often is thought to be necessary for evangelism. In this encounter Jesus models for us radical love and gracious evangelism and we have every reason to believe that those are as effective in changing lives today as they were 2,000 years ago at a well in the middle of the day. Amen