I understand that the lessons from the Gospel of John have other important subjects included in their passages. I get that. Last week’s passage looks at regeneration by the Holy Spirit, the upcoming manner of death of our Lord, and a number of other subjects which are rightly considered by members of the Church. And, believe it or not, I am very happy to have those kinds of conversations with you about the readings. Little will excite me more in this work that somebody coming in wanting to talk in depth about the readings. It means that you are reading the lessons in the RCL, and you are struggling with them. And just because I preach on another subject or lesson does not mean that the subject which has caught your eye is unimportant to me. Part of my job is to try and discern where the readings or their subject are needed to be heard in our collective life. I may know that this person needs to hear this and that person needs to hear that, but good sermons, I think, try to feed the congregation present. Good sermons, I think, try to let God speak to the group, cognizant that He may speak to individuals, about those afflictions that need to be comforted or those comforts that need to be afflicted. A good sermon, I think, will cause individuals to struggle a bit with God. Your questions simply mean that God has stirred something within you, and that, my friends, is where the real fun of pastoral ministry is found! That is where we as pastors get to see God at work transforming the lives of those whom He has given into our care!
I give that warning because I understand my sermon this week will skip a number of subjects being discussed in other pulpits today. I do understand that. And I want you each to feel comfortable enough that you can come talk to me about where the lessons were touching on your life this week with no worries of “I must have read it wrong” or “Brian does not want to talk about that.” Every conversation I had about the Nicodemus passage began with an apology of sorts. I don’t want that, and I am certain God does not either. And, let’s face it, a book could be written on this Gospel passage alone. Preaching exhaustively in this pericope could take hours. Most of us want to enjoy some of the tourney today!
Our Old Testament reading today is from the book of Exodus. Most of us are familiar with the story. The people are mad that there is no water. Moses whines to God. God tells Moses to strike the rock, and He will cause water to gush forth for Israel. Moses calls the site where this all occurs Massah and Meribah, because the people quarreled and tested the Lord. How little has changed!
A few weeks ago, I was approached by “Luke.” I was returning from somewhere, maybe a hospital, and was passing through the Parish Hall to go to my office. “Luke” grabbed me and loudly proclaimed “Father Brian, I have been searching for a wise priest for many years. I am kind of like an old fella named Diogenes. Anyway, I tell clergy that if they can answer my questions correctly, I will attend their church. Would you like to try and answer my questions?” Now, those of you who attend church when one of the AA groups is meeting understands the cacophony of noise in the Parish Hall. Luke said this loud enough that I was immediately put in mind of the Pharisees and priests who like to make a good show of righteousness in front of others. This was grandstanding. So I stopped. I asked him to repeat himself, which he did. What was great was that all the other conversations drew to a close so that they could listen. So I asked Luke if he was seriously wrestling with God or just grandstanding. Luke asked what I meant. So I explained. After my explanation he claimed he was really looking for a good priest, one really steeped in God’s Word. He said he just had not found one yet. So I asked him again if he was sure about making this oath, that if I answered his three questions he would starting coming to church. “Absolutely, Father. Just don’t be too disappointed if I trip you up. Ever since I joined AA and started seeking God as my high power, no priest has ever answered my question. That’s why I said I was like that guy Diogenes.”
Inwardly, of course, I chuckled. I knew how this was going to end. The calm had already descended on the room. I had stopped in my tracks. I was not sure what the questions would be or my answers, but I knew this meeting had been ordained. It had been years since someone mention the “fellow” Diogenes in conversations with me. So I reminded him about oaths to God. “Are you sure? Because if I take your challenge and answer your questions correctly, you have to come to church. You are making a vow to God. You are challenging him. And if He meets your conditions, what happens if you fail to live up to your end of the covenant?” Luke said he was not sure, and before I could answer, the room grumbled an assortment of “oh, you do NOT want to be an oath breaker with God!” answers.
That was the first time I saw Luke act nervously. He looked around the room as some forty people were answering his question. He knew them all. He has walked a path of sobriety with him. And they were all shaking their heads and muttering all kinds of fun things about breaking covenants with God. After a minute or two, things died down. He replied that he was very serious. He really wanted to be discipled, but he did not want to be discipled by a false teacher. So I told him to ask away.
Before he did, he said he had a condition. I was curious and asked what it was. He said that when I failed to answer his questions correctly, I was no longer allowed to pester him about coming to church. I would have had my big chance and missed, as far as he was concerned. He got tired of me and other clergy always asking him to come to church. I teased him that if I missed, I would try hard not to care about his eternal fate and not invite him to church. The room laughed for a second and waited.
I won’t share the rest of the conversation here, but I almost laughed aloud at the first question. Did Jesus have any brothers or sisters? The second question was predictable, How do you reconcile the fact that the Pope is a man like you and still infallible? The last question centered around his understanding from Scripture that clergy can marry, yet the church forbids it. I had almost a moment of sympathy for Luke. Poor guy has thought all this time I am a Roman Catholic priest. He doesn’t even know what church he comes to for AA. But I answered his questions directly. The expression on his face was priceless. He has obviously made lots of Roman clergy squirm, but this was a bp fastball down the middle of the plate, to use a baseball expression. So I answered and then asked, will you be coming for the traditional Eucharist at 8am this Sunday or are you a music lover and better suited to 10:15am? The crowd roared with laughter. Luke was stunned. The crowd was laughing for the same reason you likely are. He thought I was a Roman priest. There were a number of jokes at his expense.
I tell the story with a wrong name because it has been a month and “Luke” still has not made it to church among us. He keeps threatening to come, so I don’t want you to know his real name. I also tell the story because he is still quarreling with God. You know, I never once saw Luke outside the church until after that conversation. After our third “run-in,” he even remarked that he was beginning to wonder if our intersections with each other was God’s way of reminding him of his oath. His real problem is that he thought I was a Roman priest and was not. God had steered him to a clergy who shared his understanding on a couple of issues. “It’s not fair,” he once remarked, “God cheated. I thought all that time St. Alban’s was a Catholic church and you were a Catholic priest.” I reminded him that God often answers our prayers in ways in which we disagree with Him. But I also remind him of his oath. “One day,” I warned, “God’s patience may run out. Now, he may dislocate your hip like Jacob or get bit by a snake like Israel or some other punishments in your quarreling. But one day, His seeking you will be over. Don’t be stupid and risk that. The stakes are too high.” Many of you have heard those words from my mouth. A few of you have even thrown them back into my teeth, when the occasion warranted it.
How can I be sure God is seeking Luke? How can I be sure He is seeking all those among us who do not yet know Him and His love for them? How can I be sure that He sought the real you, the one that you try to keep hidden from everyone? John stories from last week and this do a good job of reminding us that God seeks all. Better still, the results of their conversions speak to the esteem in which He holds all of us once we proclaim Him Lord.
Our story today is well known even outside the Church. The Samaritan woman at the well reaches beyond the confines of church buildings. Jesus is sitting at the well that Jacob gave to Joseph, tired from His journey. As a Jewish rabbi, His presence would have been remarkable. Most “holy” men in Israel avoided Samaria like they would a leper colony. Most Jews were taught to go around Samaria rather than risk going through it. Why? Because the Samaritans had broken the covenant with God! During and after the Exile, the Samaritans married outside the twelve tribes. That was, as you know, a big no-no. Foreign husbands and wives, Yahweh had said, would lead the Jews astray. Plus, ownership of the Land could pass out of the “faithful” families. So, quickly speaking, the Samaritans were viewed as unfaithful half-breeds. They were held in contempt by the Jews. No one wanted to associate with them; no one wanted to hang out with them.
Women, of course, were not very powerful in the ANE. While it is true that God instructed the Jews to value women as created in His image, other cultures were not so enlightened. In many cultures, women were little more than property. But even in the Jewish culture, the peoples’ hearts did reflect the teaching of Yahweh. We know from some of the stories in the Bible that men did not always want to care for older women and widows. Now, combine those two attitudes in today’s story. Our heroine is a Samaritan woman. Perhaps you have a better understanding as to why Jesus’ disciples were amazed and astonished that He was speaking to her. In their eyes, she was beneath pond scum.
Notice as well her worth in the eyes of the Samaritan community. At the beginning of the story, we do not know the why, but we know something is odd. She comes to gather water at the well during the heat of the day, and she does so when no one else is around. Why did she not do it at the beginning of the day when the sun was cooler? Jesus explains that mystery for us. He tells her that she has had five husbands and now lives with a man who is not her husband when she admits she is not married. Ah, now it makes sense. She is likely the focus of gossip in the community. I am sure that in many pulpits today, people will hear that the lady was a harlot. Some in the Church have taught that she lived with whoever would take her in. Jesus’ words do not seem to support that teaching. He tells her that she has had five husbands, not five live-in boyfriends. Is it possible that she has been divorced and remarried multiple times? Yes, that could be the source of the gossip. But, it is also possible that she was black widow. Everybody that she married died. You think that would not cause some gossip? And, let’s face it, I know we men are often stupid, but maybe number six saw the trend and opted, instead, for another arrangement rather than risking his own death. As a five time widow, she certainly would not be dealing from a position of strength!
Rather than try to explain what has happened in her life and how she has fallen short, the woman realizes that Jesus is a prophet. She complains bitterly how the Jews treat the Samaritans, and Jesus tells her that the time is coming when the “where” will not matter in worship. The Father will seek and accept all those who worship Him in spirit and truth. The woman does not argue with Jesus. I think it is fair to say that her faith in God is simple, but it is no less profound. She tells Jesus that she knows that messiah will one day come and explain everything. Put in our vernacular, she tells Jesus that God has promised to teach us everything when He sends His Savior.
Jesus’ answer no doubt bothers those who like to claim that He never understood Himself to be the Son of God or the messiah, that those titles were appellated to Him after His Crucifixion. Jesus tells her simply that He is the messiah.
Notice her response. Last week, we looked at Nicodemus and how his conversion took a good bit of time. Hers is completely the opposite. She recognizes that He is from God. She may have thought Him only a prophet when He diagnosed her living arrangement despite not knowing her, but she accepts His claim to be the messiah of God at face value. The transformation is immediate. Those whom she sought to avoid by drawing water under the noonday sun become the very people she seeks to help her understand this prophet claiming to be messiah. “He cannot be the messiah, can he?” Some, no doubt come out of curiosity, but others were no doubt moved by her excitement. If she had been avoiding them for some length of time, her attempts to engage them would have been shocking enough. Then, to find out a Jewish rabbi, maybe a prophet of God, is sitting by their well--that would be miraculous! Finding out He knew her sin and the reason she was separated from the community--they have good reasons to go and see with their own eyes.
By the end of the story, of course, everyone in the city acknowledges that Jesus is the Savior of the world. Notice, though, her enthusiasm and willingness to invite them only served to pique their curiosity. “it is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves.” Those in the city have accepted her invitation to come and see. Whether it was because “that woman” was making the claims or because it was the possibility that a prophet was among them does not matter. All that matters is that they accepted the invitation to go and see and make up their own minds. And, as a result of her faith and enthusiasm and her willingness to go and tell, a Samaritan woman ranks third as an evangelist in the New Testament.
Why the concentration the past two weeks on Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman at the well? Like Luke, we quarrel with God, we wrestle with God, bringing all kinds of baggage to those encounters. Some of us think our own sins are so great that we must be the only ones for whom the Crucifixion could not atone or that Jesus would never have willingly gone to the Cross for us. Others among us try to judge the quality of our faith. My conversion, Father, took too long. My faith was not nearly as impressive as that which leads to a Damascus Road experience. Still others among us try and judge our own relative importance in the Kingdom building process to which we have been called. I’m just me, Father. I don’t really have anything special to offer God. He does not really need me working for Him, I might just screw it up! Ask somebody more important. More tragically, there are even people in our lives who accept these inmost thoughts as true. It is our job to remind them and ourselves that we are all, every single one of us, important to and loved by God. He went willingly to the Cross to save me, and you and them. No exceptions! And He has promised that we have an equal share in the building of the Kingdom and in our inheritance. Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman remind us of that truth.
Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman could not be more unalike, yet their conversion stories in John are right next to each other. Nicodemus is a male Jew, a member of the Sanhedrin, one of the insiders, the cool people. It is good to be the king. Yet the privilege to which he is entitled in some ways forms a barrier to his faith. His conversion takes time. It must be done in secret. The Samaritan woman, by contrast, meets Jesus under the noonday sun. She is a five-time wife and now living with someone else, an existence that causes her to be shunned by those who are rejected by the Jews. Her conversion is nearly instantaneous. And the water which gushes up in her causes her to go back to the very people that she is avoiding at the beginning of John’s narrative to share the Good News! And those who rejected her, who gossiped about her, who shunned her, cannot help but respond positively to her invitation. Who is more important in God’s Kingdom? Nicodemus will purchase the spices and hurriedly place them in the tomb with Jesus’ body on Good Friday because he will not have time to prepare properly our Lord’s body for burial. That will be a task left up to some other women on a very special morning indeed! The Samaritan will initiate a community’s coming to faith in Christ! God uses the rich and the poor, the powerful and the outcast, the men and the women, those who were born two thousand years ago and those born recently, any who are repentant and come to Him in faith. That is all He asks of us. Best of all, most glorious of all, He asks us where we are. God always comes to us rather than hiding from us. Just as He was willing to engage a “half-breed” woman under the glaring heat of the sun, He was willing to engage a “good old boy” Jew under the cloak of darkness. He did or is doing the same for each one of us gathered here today, just as He does for Luke.
Brothers and sisters, there are no second-class citizens in His kingdom. There is no ghetto heaven for those of us who don’t quite measure up. His promise is for all who come to Him in faith. His promise, as Paul writes today, requires only that we accept His offer of grace. It does not matter whether we are men or women, rich or poor, influential or barely hanging on, Democrat or Republican, Iowan or Illinoian, tastes great or less filling. All He asks is that we believe in Him, that He died for our sins and rose again to demonstrate His power and hope in our lives, and that He will make in us a new creation, a glorious creation, capable of honoring and serving Him and others in our own lives. That was the promise to Nicodemus; that was the promise to the Samaritan woman; that is His promise to you and to me.