Lent 3a, March 19, 2017

March 21, 2017

The Uncontainable Christ

John 4:5-42


4:5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” 27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” 30 They left the city and were on their way to him. 31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33 So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” 34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35 Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36 The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” 39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”


I appreciate John reading this long passage of scripture, but you just can’t cut out any sections of this episode. This was written as an entire story, and if you leave out a portion of the story you miss a portion of the point of this story. There are several accounts in the Gospel of John that don’t appear in the other gospels, and these stories that do appear are told with very intentional details. It’s only in John that we read about the wedding at Cana where Jesus turned water in to wine, it’s only in John that we learn of the nighttime conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, and it’s only in John that we hear of this midday encounter between Jesus and the woman of Samaria at the well.


In the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, & Luke, we read more about the parables Jesus told that were designed to disrupt the wrongheaded ways people thought about God, and to introduce people to the true nature of the kingdom of God. But you don’t find any parables in the Gospel of John. In John’s gospel you have these long narratives of interactions Jesus had with different people that portray the unique personality and message of Jesus. John tells these stories in ways that are designed to help us see the truth about God, the truth about Jesus, and the truth about ourselves. These stories are set in a land and in a time that are far removed from where we are today, but in essential ways these stories are incredibly familiar. This encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman could have taken place yesterday in the Walmart parking lot.


I dare say this very story did happen yesterday somewhere. It’s what happens when someone comes to see a despised rival in a new way and in the process of engaging with that person they encountered the presence of the living God who redefined everything.


This isn’t something that happens regularly in the Walmart parking lot, but I think John wants us to understand that you just never know where you might run in to the living Christ, and when we do it redefines everything.


We American Christians living in the 21st Century aren’t very sensitive to some of the nuances of this story, but here’s the thing: here was a lot of courting that took place at wells in ancient Palestine. You may recall the story in Genesis of the way Abraham sent his servant back to his homeland to find a wife for his son, Isaac, and it was at the old family well that this servant saw Rebecca coming to get water, and he found her to be fair to look upon and available for marriage. The marriage of Rebecca to Issac turned out to be an agreeable arrangement for everyone and that’s what happened.


Later on, Isaac and Rebecca’s son, Jacob, was ready to get married, so he ventured back down to that same part of the world where he encountered Rachel at the well. Things got complicated, because of some shifty business on the part of Rachel’s father, but they were eventually married and the point is that it all started back at the well.


And there’s another courting scene that took place at a well. Moses had fled in to the wilderness to avoid the wrath of Pharoah, and it was while he had stopped at a well that he met Zipporah, who went on to become his wife.


This is how people met before there was Match.com. You went to the well. Women were the primary water haulers of the day, so that’s where men went in hope of meeting eligible women.


I’m not saying this is why Jesus was lingering by the well when the Samaritan woman came for water. Jesus wasn’t looking for a wife, but the people of Samaria were in need of a more faithful relationship with God, and that’s why Jesus was interested in speaking to this woman.


While there were some powerful unspoken connotations about what went on at wells, the dynamics between the Jews and the Samaritans weren’t so subtle. You might say there was raging hostility between those two ethnic groups. They all claimed Abraham as their ancestor, but this conflict went back to the split between the Northern and Southern kingdoms of Israel. That was a civil war that had never really been resolved, and over the centuries those two regions had developed far different religious traditions. The southern kingdom, which was known as Judea, considered themselves to be far more religiously pure, and it’s probably accurate to say that they were. Judean Judaism was far less influenced by outside religious traditions. They weren’t without religious distortions, but in some essential ways they had maintained the basics of the faith.


The region of Samaria had embraced the traditions of their neighbors and their captors, and it’s accurate to say that it wasn’t very true to the instructions that had been established by Moses. And this is probably what Jesus was calling attention to when he pointed out to this woman that she had had five husbands and the sixth man she was living with wasn’t her husband.


Now when we hear him speak of her having five husbands and living with a sixth man it’s hard for us to not think of her as simply being morally off the scale, but I don’t think it’s helpful for us to simply think of her as a horribly loose woman. It’s not unreasonable to think that she had some issues, but I think the bigger point is that there were some issues with the community she came out of. The faith of the Samaritans was a mess, they needed access to some light, and that’s what Jesus knew. Jesus didn’t encounter her to condemn her. He encountered her in order to provide her with some living water and she had the heart and the wisdom to accept it.


Today’s story highlights someone who was more astute than your average disciple. Unlike the conversation that transpired between Jesus and Nicodemus, who was a man with impeccable religious credentials, but who lacked the heart and the mind to hear what Jesus was saying to him about the need to be spiritually reborn – this conversation that took place between Jesus and a woman who was able to hear what he was saying. We don’t know her name, and what we do know about her isn’t something that most people would want to be known about them. But she wasn’t intimidated by the truth – she was redefined by it.


This is a powerfully telling story. It reveals so much about the way things often go on in this world, and the way in which God can break in to our ordinary routines and transform our lives. The man who thought he already knew everything approached Jesus at night because he was afraid of what might happen if he openly embraced what Jesus was teaching, and he remained stuck in his uninspired life. While the woman who came from an officially unholy part of the world who was known for the number of husbands she had had became what we might think of as one the first great evangelists. She was able to lead her whole city to Christ.


I think one of the most telling details of this story is the fact that she left her water container at the well. She went to the well in need of water, but what she obtained was something that wouldn’t fit in a container. Or maybe the right way to think of this is that she became the container for the living water that she acquired from Jesus.


And that’s how we are to think of ourselves.


Unfortunately, like Nicodemus, it’s so easy for us to be controlled by the boundaries that define who we are and where we are to go. It’s easy for us to be controlled by the expectations of our jobs and our traditions, our families, and our peers. And that can be so deadly.


I’ve mentioned before that I’m no fan of President Trump, and I’m still not converted to his vision for our country, but I will say this about him. He doesn’t seem to be constrained by anybody’s expectations, and on some level I have to give him some credit for that. He recognized that there was some thirst in this nation for our president to behave less like a politician, and he has certainly shown a lot of willingness to be an unconventional politician.


I don’t have uncritical admiration for people who have the capacity to live by their own rules, but that’s a powerful characteristic. It’s not easy to go against conventional thinking. It takes a rare form of strength to live like that. I don’t really like the unconventional way President Trump is proceeding, but I do think he’s showing us what it looks like to be guided by something other than the usual set of expectations. I’m not going to get in to any further analysis of who he is or what he’s doing. There’s no end to the debate about what needs to happen in Washington, but I think he’s providing us with an example of what it looks like for a person to be uncontained by conventional wisdom.


It’s no virtue to simply buck expectations. In fact there’s a lot to be said for behaving properly and doing what’s expected, but our highest calling is not to fall in line and to do as we’re told. And there’s something truly amazing that happens to people who encounter and embrace the uncontainable grace of Jesus Christ. Their lives become defined by something far more essential than conventional wisdom.


This business of following Christ is actually an unsettling undertaking. It can be very disruptive to the normal order of things to embrace the uncontainable love of Christ because it doesn’t defer to cherished traditions and familiar worldviews. Nicodemus represents a man who was primarily concerned with maintaining the normal order of things. The woman at the well represents a life redefined by the love of Jesus Christ. There are many variations of life between these options, but it’s clear who it is that made the best choice.


Jesus Christ seeks to encounter us all in ways that will redefine who we are and how we live our lives. I’m not sure where it is we go that’s like that well where Jesus encountered the woman of Samaria, but Jesus knows where that place is, and you can trust that he’s out to engage us there.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


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