Sunday, March 23, 2014

Surprise, Surprise

A Sermon preached at St. Augustine's, Wiesbaden on Sunday March 23, 2014

Third Sunday in Lent: Exodus 17:1-7, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42, Psalm 95

The lessons we have been, and will be, hearing from during Lent, from the Gospel according to John, are all about encounters and the subsequent conversations between Jesus and various people. And there is always something surprising about these encounters: the person, the circumstances, the result, and/or the timing. Take last week’s encounter with Nicodemus for example. He came to Jesus by night – perhaps because as a Pharisee and a leader of the Jews, a member of their ruling council, he didn’t want his colleagues to see him visiting Jesus. As a scholar and teacher he might also have been studying the Law late at night, and felt the need to find out more about this man who had so clearly come from God. We don’t know.

We do however have a good idea why the Samaritan woman came to the well at noon, when the sun was at its highest and hottest: she came at a time when she would not have to meet anyone else, especially not the other women of her city. With her personal history and reputation, she would not have been acceptable company and she will have wanted to avoid the dirty looks and muttered insults. So it is very surprising indeed that Jesus strikes up a conversation with her. Not only because of her ‘character,’ the fact that she was a woman and a Samaritan should have prevented any form of contact: “How is that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria,” she asks. The Jews looked down on the Samaritans because they worshipped in the wrong place, on the wrong mountain, and because both they and their beliefs were supposedly tainted by pagan intermingling during the long period of occupation of Israel several hundred years earlier. And yet Samaritans often get to play a positive role in the gospels, not just the Good Samaritan, but also this unnamed woman who has a very good claim to the title of “First Missionary.”

But the surprises don’t end with Jesus asking her for a drink. The conversation itself takes some surprising twists and turns. Instead of Jesus receiving living, that is simply running water, from the deep well, he offers her a different kind of living water, the water of divine wisdom and teaching, the water of new life in Christ. Although she doesn’t understand him at first Jesus tells her, and through this story us too, that accepting him as Lord is like having a spring of water bubbling inside us constantly refreshing us with new life.

But first we must get rid of the stale, stagnant water we have been living off before this time, in the case of the Samaritan woman, as Jesus knows to her surprise, she needs to acknowledge and deal with her irregular married or unmarried life. Looking at how she is accepted by her people at the end of this passage, seeing how they willing they are to follow her lead, it looks to me as if Jesus’ intervention will help her heal her relationships. Within a few sentences she changes from being a social outcast, to an evangelist.

But Jesus has some more surprises in store. As I said earlier, the right place and building to worship in was one of the issues that divided the Jews and the Samaritans. Well, surprise, surprise: you can forget about the rivalry between Mount Gerizim and Mount Zion, Jesus tells her. The worship of God was never really tied to one single place, God is not a physical being in need of a house. Instead you will find God in unexpected places, not just in holy people or holy buildings: on a Cross for example, or in bread and wine. At their best, holy sites are simply signposts to the divine. One great human temptation seems to be to make these places, buildings, pictures, statues – whatever – into substitutes for the real thing and to turn them into the objects of worship. 

Probably the greatest surprise for the Samaritan woman, and the one that sets her off running back to her city, back to all those people who would not normally give her the time of day, is a very simple statement on Jesus’ part: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” By which he means I am the Messiah you have been waiting for, the one who will proclaim the truth, a prophet, your Lord, the savior of the whole world, God incarnate.

When the disciples return, and are themselves very surprised to see Jesus talking to this woman, Jesus no longer has any need for the food they have brought him, He is so excited by this encounter and by the spiritual hunger he has discovered, so exhilarated by the success of his first missionary, that his physical hunger has gone. The disciples fare no better than the woman at the well in following Jesus’ metaphorical use of the words ‘food’ and ‘harvest.’ It took her a moment to understand the new meaning of living water and it takes them a while to realize that the harvest Jesus is referring to is the harvest of a new crop of believers. This will be the disciples’ mission after the Passion and Resurrection as it is ours today.

The first half of John’s Gospel – after the prologue we all know so well – In the beginning was the word – is called the Book of Signs because it contains a series of signs or miracles that point to Jesus’ divinity and help explain something about his mission. At Cana water is turned to wine, in the course of his ministry several people are healed, five thousand hungry people are fed, Jesus walks on water, and Jesus brings Lazarus back to life. But in some ways the greatest signs are not the supernatural ones. Surprising encounters like the one we heard about today are the even greater miracles. Outcasts are welcomed in, relationships are healed, ordinary things like water, bread, wine take on new meaning as symbols of the divine, and very ordinary people become messengers of God. And that’s very good news for us too, because we are very ordinary people, we don’t have miraculous powers, but we can still be messengers of God and we can still encounter and reach out to the stranger and the outcast just as God, in Jesus, encountered them. 

I see three main lessons for us here in this passage. One is appropriate to this time of Lent and self-examination. What stale or stagnant water do we need to get rid of to make room for the living water that Jesus offers? What relationships do we need to heal? What hurt, whether inflicted or suffered, do we need to acknowledge? Whom do we need to forgive or ask for forgiveness?

The second lesson is the need to focus on mission, on being sent by God to reap what God has sown, to harvest the fields that are ripe for harvesting. I don’t want you all to put on pith helmets and head off for the tropics. But I do want you to remember that neither this building not the money we want you to pledge as part of our stewardship campaign are ends in themselves, they are the means by which we carry out God’s mission. Your pledge and your commitment are how we finance the resources we need so that our worship, community events, Christian formation of the young and not so young, as well as our mission and outreach activities can grow and flourish.

Finally - how can we do the unexpected, how can we surprise Wiesbaden? I’ve met a number of our ecumenical partners this week. One thing they’ve told me is how this church used to be well known for being open and inviting, with open doors and lit windows during the week, not just on a Sunday, and how sad they were that we recently turned in ourselves so much, that we became quite literally ‘introverted.’ Well, let’s surprise them by turning out again. The Kaffeeklatsch initiative that Roxanne Richards and others have started is such a good example. It’s wonderful that it is helping us raise money for our ministry and mission, but I think even more important is the opportunity it offers for encounters and conversation. Jesus discovered a spiritual hunger and thirst in Samaria, well there is a spiritual hunger and thirst today that we can help fill or quench. Let this church be our Well, and the coffee and cake we offer be an opening for a conversation about the Good News we believe in, just as water and food were for Jesus. Let us surprise Wiesbaden with the strength of our witness to the God of love as revealed in Jesus Christ.  

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