Sunday, February 24, 2008

Sermon from Sunday, Feb 24

I told Jill last week when I started to prepare this sermon that I like the time of Lent. For those of you who might not know this about worship planning, most Protestant churches like the Lutherans and the Methodists preach on the same texts every week. There is a sort of schedule of which texts to preach when, we call it the lectionary; and in the lectionary, the texts go in a three-year cycle. Now we Baptists don’t have to use this schedule, but I’ve found some wisdom in it, just because it keeps you from preaching the same sermon over and over again. It kind of forces you out of your comfort zone as a preacher, and makes you learn to preach different sorts of things.

At any rate, as I was saying to Jill, I like the season of Lent because during Lent, there are these tremendously familiar passages in the lectionary that are just rife with meaning, and rife with depth. In addition, they are stories that more people tend to be familiar with so I can take less time explaining the story and more time expounding on the story. But the flip-side to this is that it is very difficult to find something new in these stories; it can be difficult to find a fresh angle. I try to remind myself when I’m preaching that my job is not to say something new or entertaining, but to say something true; but still, you don’t want to be stale or boring. I hope you find something new and fresh as we examine this familiar story this morning.

This passage starts with people hearing that Jesus was baptizing many people. This aroused jealousy on the part of the religious elite, and Jesus knew of their jealousy. So because of this jealousy, we read that Jesus wanted to leave Judea (where all the Pharisees were) and to go to Galilee, which was out in the boondocks, away from the jealous leadership and any sway they might have had. And so we read that Jesus decided to go.

To get to Galilee, asserts the Scripture, Jesus had to go through Samaria. Galilee was in the north, Judea was in the south and Samaria lay roughly between them. So we read that it was necessary for Jesus to go through Samaria. Now there’s just one thing wrong with this phrase: technically, he didn’t have to go through Samaria. Technically, it wasn’t necessary for him to go through Samaria. As all of you Bible students know, the Jews and the Samaritans were ethnic rivals. The Samaritans were essentially half-Jewish, and half-Gentile. When the Israelite people were conquered and exiled, many centuries before, some of them married some of the natives in the country where they had been exiled–their descendants became the Samaritans. Some others insisted that they should only marry other Israelites–their descendants were pure-blooded Jews (more or less). For lack of a more suitable word, the Jews were the pure-blood descendants, those whose parents had stayed within the people of Israel; and the Jews viewed the Samaritans (again for lack of a better word) as half-breeds, because their parents had married outside the nation.

Because the Jewish people looked down on the Samaritans so much, they did not want to come into contact with Samaria. And so when the people in the North (Galilee) wanted to travel to the South (Jerusalem), they would simply go around. And when the people in the South wanted to go North, they would simply walk around in the same way. The Jews had worked out many routes so that they would not have to set foot in Samaria, the very turf of which they considered impure.

So it was not at all “necessary” for Jesus to travel through Samaria; in fact, it was highly unusual that he would. Yet the Greek word translated here as necessary means basically “divinely necessary.” It was a divine necessity for Jesus to go through Samaria. It was necessary for Jesus to go through Samaria not because it was the only route he could travel but because God had work for him there.

I sometimes wish we could recapture this language of divine necessity. We often wonder why we have to go through hardships in our lives, things we wouldn’t choose to go through, things like sickness or disease or distress. Why do we have to go through them? Perhaps technically we do not have to go through them, but perhaps there is a touch of divine necessity in them; we have to go through hardships because that is the way God changes us and molds us. Well, that’s a whole nother sermon. Let’s get back to the text.

As Jesus walked through Samaria, he came to the historic Jacob’s well, the place where legend held that the great patriarch Jacob had once given to his son Joseph, long, long ago. And a Samaritan woman came to draw water at about noon; many modern commentators like to make a big deal about this. The argument is that most women would come to draw water at the well in the early morning, obviously because you needed to have the water all day long. It made no sense to draw water at noontime because you wouldn’t have any in the morning. Modern commentators argue that this woman must have been an outcast, because she was drawing her water when she could come by herself, when there was no one else at the well to make her feel ashamed. This may be true, I don’t know; if so, she was an outcast among outcasts. If not, she was simply an outcast.

Either way, what comes next is surprising: Jesus asks her for a drink. This was simply not done: men didn’t directly address women, Jews didn’t directly address Samaritans; and Jewish men definitely did not address Samaritan women. But Jesus reaches across those ethnic barriers and says, “Will you give me a drink?” It is sort of a funny question, really. I mean, nothing here suggests that Jesus really needs a drink. He’s God; he can make himself a drink whenever he wants; and as a Jewish man, there’s absolutely nothing to suggest that he really needs this Samaritan woman’s help to be refreshed and renewed. And yet, here he is, humbling himself to ask an outcast for help, maybe even outcast of outcasts.

I don’t know about you, but I’m humbled when I think that this is the way God works. We often wonder why God doesn’t snap his fingers and take care of all the troubles in the world. Why is there pain? Why is there hardship? Why is there poverty? Why are there people in the world who suffer by not knowing Jesus? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do bad things happen to bad people, for that matter–why do bad things happen at all? Yet the bare fact of it is that God has not simply waved his hand and made problems disappear. Rather, like he did on that day so long ago with the Samaritan woman, he asks us for help. Even though God doesn’t have to rely on humanity, even though God doesn’t have to use us people as instruments because he could make it happen on his own, he does! Just like it wasn’t necessary for Jesus to go through Samaria, just like it wasn’t necessary for him to put himself at the mercy of a Samaritan woman, it’s not necessary for him to make us partners in growing the Kingdom of God–and yet he does! In the divine logic, it is necessary. Just like that Samaritan woman, God gives us the chance to help him.

How do we help God? With the Samaritan woman, it was a cup of cold water. With us, the offer is different. We are offered the chance to help God in other ways. We Baptists have always claimed that the fundamental way the Kingdom is advanced is through local congregations. We have not believed that there is one church, like the Roman Catholic Church, but many churches, each with their own mission to their parts of the world, and each with a responsibility to be involved with mission all over the world. In fact, if you are the type of person who follows our denominational issues (and may God spare you such a fate), but if you are that type of person, you will know that our denomination is known as the American Baptist Churches. Not the American Baptist Church, but Churches, because we believe at the ground level, in the churches, is the most important part of our life as Christians. And so the most important way we Baptists believe God wants us to help is through our local churches. We support the Gospel in our community when we contribute our time to the church, by involving ourselves in ministry teams of the church. We support the Kingdom of God in our community by taking advantage of the chance to grow spiritually that is here, by committing ourselves to regular worship and Bible study, Sunday School or small groups. We help God when we manage our money in a godly way, caring not only for ourselves but for our church and for others who may not have enough. This is our cup of cold water that Jesus asks us for. Even though he doesn’t have to, he chooses to need us; even though he could have used anything as an instrument, he chooses to use us as his instruments.

Now if you are anything like me, that’s kind of a mixed blessing. Because there is a glory in being an instrument of God, but we like the thought of not just being the instrument, but playing the instrument. Let me give you an example of what I mean. When I was starting to play the piano again, a friend asked me to sing and play at his ordination. So I agreed, and I sang a song called “The Blessing Song,” one I play and sing here at graduation time. And it seemed to go pretty well, you know, people were crying and stuff, whatever, it was pretty good. And so after the service, some people came up and complimented me and said, “That was a great song, you did a great job,” whatever. But what I remember most plainly was one fellow from that church coming up to me and saying, “Don’t we have a wonderful piano at this church? Isn’t it a great instrument?” And I thought, “Geez, well, thanks buddy. Yeah, it’s a great instrument, but I’m the one who had to play it.” The more I think of it, though, the more I realize he’s right–if you’re going to play the piano, you had better have a good instrument to play or no matter how good you are, you’re going to sound bad! And it’s true, there is something beautiful about a piano if you look at it; the strings of different lengths, all tensed just so; the little felt-covered hammers, striking the strings at just the right speed, in just the right way, in just the right spot, to make that glorious sound–it is a beautiful instrument. That piano was a beautiful instrument, but I had never paused to look at it because I was more consumed with the one making the music than with the instrument itself.

The thought that God chooses to use us as instruments can be very threatening. Who wants to be an instrument in the control of another, when the whole world promises us that we can be in control of our lives? Put in terms of the Biblical story, who wants to take time getting a cup of cold water for this Jewish carpenter when we have other better, more productive things we could be doing with our time? This was the question before this woman and the question before us this morning. Who wants to be God’s instrument when we could be advancing our careers, having fun, or doing what we want to do?

Take a look at the story again. What happens when this woman says, “Yes,” to Jesus? Well, everything changes. The woman is first brought face-to-face with some rather uncomfortable truths about themselves. Jesus asks her to get her husband and come back, and she says I don’t have a husband, and then he says, “You’re right, you don’t have a husband–now. You’ve had five husbands and the man you’re living with right now is not your husband.” Gulp. That’s kind of a conversation killer, isn’t it?

Except that it isn’t. The woman says to him, “I see that you are a prophet.” Even though the truth has been uncomfortable, it is oddly attractive. And so they talk and talk and talk and eventually she leaves her water jar and she goes to the city. And around she goes, this woman, an outcast of outcasts, right into the heart of the city with all the people, and she knocks on doors, she leaves gospel tracts, she preaches to anyone who will listen, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done.”

If anyone tells you the Bible does not allow female preachers, read this passage to them. Show them this woman who says, “Come and see this Jesus, this man who knows me better than I know myself.” Get to know him as I have gotten to know him. And the people do; they flock to him, the Samaritans gathering around this curious Jew, and for two days he stays with them and teaches them. And many, many Samaritans come and hear him for themselves; and they come because the woman has introduced them.

Do you ever wonder how history will remember you? History’s a funny thing. History acknowledges Harry Truman was a much better president than people thought he was in his day. History remembers some mediocre baseball players and forgets some excellent ones. I must confess that sometimes I wonder how history will remember my time here as your pastor. I don’t know.

Musing about history is a privilege given to those in power or leadership. I’m sure this woman never gave a thought to how history would remember her. Outcasts of outcasts don’t get to think about such things; they’re too busy getting water and food to get by day to day. If anything, this woman probably thought about how forgettable she was, how history would never remember her. After all, five husbands had married her and forgotten about her, and the man she was living with now would probably do the same, just like all the others.

And yet, just meeting this man, everything had changed. Just agreeing to serve him, just agreeing to get him a cup of cold water, just saying yes to him had changed her life. One minute, she was a disgraced woman five times left behind–and the next, she was the world’s first evangelist. Suddenly, she went from being a forgotten woman to being a woman we all remember, with a story we all tell and re-tell. There was such a gift here, and it was a gift that she could not know until she said yes to him.

Maybe there is something here for us too. Maybe the God who gives gifts like this didn’t stop with this Samaritan woman; maybe he wants to give us a gift as well. But, like this woman, maybe it starts with getting Jesus a cup of cold water. Maybe it starts simply by saying “Yes” to Jesus, no matter what he’s asking. Maybe it starts by understanding that our lives are not our own, but that we properly speaking are God’s instruments, here to do what He wants not what we want. If we do this, if we say yes to being his instruments, I daresay we will find a whole new life we never knew we had. We will find that we are not mere consumers, not mere 9-5 worker drones, but players in the great drama of salvation. We will find that we are not rats in a race, but children of a King and heirs to a great Kingdom. We will find that we are not simply ascending and descending a corporate ladder, but on a great journey toward holiness that will make us into Christ’s image.

When Jesus asks us to do something, he’s not asking because he needs us. He’s asking because he wants to bless us. He asked that woman for a cup of cold water so he could give her new life. In the same way, he asks us to live lives of holiness; to care for our congregation, to reach out in loving ministry to the world; and he asks us to do this not because he really needs to get it done and doesn’t know how; he asks us to do this so he can bless us, and transform us from death into life.