When Jesus Knows All
John 4: 5-42
The Rev. K. Dean Myers
I begin this morning by taking care of two tasks: first, to thank Fr. Peter for inviting me to preach; and second, to introduce myself briefly to you. Both to answer the question most of you are no doubt asking: Who is this other tall guy, and why is he in front of us now?
I am an ordained, but happily retired Presbyterian minister. Yes, I am a little nervous, but not because my Scot Presbyterian spiritual ancestors and your Church of England spiritual ancestors experienced some unhappy moments a couple of centuries ago. We are pretty much over all that, but I am still confused by all the titles bestowed upon your clerics and your lay leaders, and more than a little in awe of everything that transpires up here during worship. Someday I may get a chanted Psalm right!
I am a product of small-town, rural Iowa, a baptized-in-infancy Presbyterian, a graduate of Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and of San Francisco Theological Seminary. Since my ordination in 1968, I have served churches from the west coast to the east, picking up a Doctor of Ministry Degree from Pittsburgh Seminary along the way. I have been retiring in stages for five or six years.
My wife, Maxine, is a Pittsburgh native and unrepentant Steelers fan. We've been married for over 40 years, and have two daughters. Elizabeth, her husband, and their two elementary school daughters live in Oneonta, NY. Rebecca lives in Philadelphia, PA.
Our family moved to Northeast Ohio in 1989 so I could accept the call of the Church of the Western Reserve (CWR) in Pepper Pike to serve as its pastor. Maxine and I live in Orange Village. In 2003, I left CWR and then served as Interim Pastor in four churches, leaving the last one in 2012. Since full retirement, I preach when invited, serve in our Presbytery, and just enjoy being retired.
I write. I’ve tried my hand at short stories, personal essays, creative nonfiction, and political commentaries that often make their way to a blog I have. Music, particularly classical, is a great passion of mine. Maxine and I like to travel, and have been to every corner of this country and to several overseas lands as well. We enjoy being outdoors, both in our small garden and in what's left of the more natural world. We both like to sing, she in the Western Reserve Chorale (with Sara Schiller), me in the Singers' Club of Cleveland, and both of us in the choir of Christ Episcopal Church.
Singing is what brought us to Christ Church in the first place. We have known Jeanette Davis Ostrander and her family since before William was born. For several years, Jeanette was the Church of the Western Reserve's organist and director. Technically, I was her “boss,” but working with her was more like sharing than bossing. When Maxine and I learned that Jeanette was serving here, we knew that Christ Church's music program was in great hands. Since “here” wasn't too far from “there” in Orange Village, we visited one Sunday last spring. We've pretty much been here ever since, joining the choir in the fall.
Christ Church has welcomed us in a way no other church we've visited has. The choir quickly counted us as one of its own, and we've begun to know other members and friends of this congregation as well. We value and look forward to nurturing our relationship with this congregation, where meaningful worship, challenging preaching, good music, significant outreach, and warm relationships abound.
Now you've noticed I have successfully used up a good chunk of my allotted time. I notice it, too. Maybe I've done that because today's texts are so overwhelming, so rich, and so full of preaching possibilities, that it's easier to do almost anything other than speak to and about them.
Introducing myself to you resonates in me with the way Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well encountered and learned about one another.
Their dialogue begins at a very simple level (“Give me a drink,” Jesus asks), and quickly transitions to more complexity. The text transitions to more personal and probing levels of knowing one another, substantial and upsetting pushes and pulls as they explore each other's religious traditions, culminating in Jesus suggesting that true religion goes well beyond both traditions. The Samaritan woman successfully testifies about Jesus to her fellow Samaritans.
These stories parallel how the best of relationships develop in churches such as Christ Church. We start at sharing basic information, then explore more profound needs and hopes, telling others just how good it is to be part of this community!
The starting point for most thinking about this passage emphasizes two great walls between people that this dialogue wants to overcome: A wall between men and women, and a wall between Jews and Samaritans.
In a male-dominated culture, a man talking with a woman in public was troubling, but I don't need to explore that in much detail today. Other, often more subtle, but equally irrelevant manifestations of male hierarchy and privilege persist in our time and place.
There were also high walls between Jews (Jesus) and Samaritans (this unnamed woman). How do we tell the reasons simply and somewhat accurately? It's pretty murky at best, as such histories often are.
Samaritans were the descendants of the people of Israel who'd been left home during the exile to Babylon (587 B.C. and later). After sacking Jerusalem, the Babylonians hauled most of the population to their homeland, including Israel’s best and brightest, among them religious leaders, whom the Babylonians apparently felt would be useful. The Samaritan woman's ancestors had been among those left behind, without the established leadership. They intermarried with other peoples in the area, and mixed some of the local, non-Israelite, religious practices with Israel's traditional religious practices. When the exiles, who felt they'd kept the historic faith pure, returned home a half-century or so later, they were appalled by how those who'd stayed behind had corrupted the purity of the nation and of its religion. A huge, forbidding wall was raised between the two groups.
The division between Jews and Samaritans was deep and wide because it was constructed from distrust and disdain between members of one family. It was one thing to have to deal with, say, Romans whose religion was all wrong because they never were Jews in the first place. Lamentable, but understandable. It was quite another thing to have to deal with Samaritans, who had been raised in the same household and should have known better. “How can my brother, my sister, so dishonor our parents? You cannot expect me to understand or to forgive that, can you?”
Against all rules, Jesus (the Jew) asks a Samaritan woman to give him a drink, and that request sets in motion a conversation of twists and turns and uncharted layers of meaning. For example, when Jesus starts talking about “living water,” the woman doesn't get it. Lest we be tempted to attribute her denseness to her being a Samaritan woman, you may recall that last Sunday, good male Jew Nicodemus didn't get it when Jesus started talking about being “born again” or “born anew.” They suffered equally from terminal literalism. “You mean I have to re-enter my mother's womb?” Nicodemus asked.
“Sir, give me this (living) water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water,” the woman demands of Jesus.
Amazingly, Jesus pushes through the misunderstanding to significant issues of religious faith and practice. We could spend far more time than we have exploring what to make of the five husbands Jesus claims to know the woman has had, not to mention the man he says she is living with who is not her husband. How does he know all that? Some hear the number five as symbolic, but that interpretation is controversial. What’s symbolic and what’s literal? What does Jesus mean by worshipping the Father in spirit and truth?
Whatever is happening with this dialogue, we are stopped short and can only stand amazed when this woman (probably not formally educated and a second class citizen of a despised minority) suddenly takes a leap of faith toward the truth: “I know the Messiah is coming,” she offers, as if testing the (living) water. We wonder if she is actually thinking that this man who is talking with her might be the Messiah, the coming savior for both Jews and Samaritans. She dares not say it. Jesus, however, is not at all reticent: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
She knows who he is because he has told her! It's a wonderful, wall-shattering moment of meeting, acknowledgement, recognition, breaking down and breaking through - until Jesus' disciples arrived, astonished that he was speaking with a woman. They didn't voice their astonishment, but it is so obvious that it drove the woman away. Leaving her water jar, she returned to the city and said to her Samaritan neighbors: “Come see this guy. He told me everything (five husbands, etc.) I have ever done. Could he be the Messiah?”
She saves the nearly-lost moment with her witness, testimony and her search for the truth about Jesus. The Samaritans then leave their city and go to find Jesus themselves. She who has left her water jar entices them to leave their city!
The story that began with a single Samaritan woman concludes with “many Samaritans” believing in Jesus because of her testimony. They even ask Jesus to stay with them, and he does - for two whole days! More Samaritans believe because “we have heard for ourselves, and... know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”
Savior of the world God so loved, and loves still. These Samaritans are recorded in John as the first community to realize that Jesus is who he is for the world. Review the previous chapters of John: only John the Baptist seems clear about who Jesus is for. Of all people, the hated, loathed Samaritans, understand, because Jesus knew a woman better than anyone else before knew her. Jesus welcomed her to trust, believe in, and follow him anyway!
If Jesus came for Samaritans, he surely was on the scene for the world. If he could allow himself to know and to be known by those alienated, blaspheming, and loathed brothers and sisters of God's supposed chosen people, he could choose anybody.
Despite knowing everything about us and our communities and cultures, Jesus has chosen us all to follow him. He has chosen to love and use us for holy purposes. He also chooses that person, that outsider, despite all you and I may think we know about them and their community and culture, to follow him with us. He loves and chooses us all, flawed in body and spirit as deeply as we are. As Paul wrote to the Church in Rome long ago, “…while we were sinners Christ died for us”…out of love, out of desire for us, he died.
That is very good news for this world and all of us Samaritans…for all who share life on our little home planet.
God Loved the World
Rev. Peter Faass
At this past week’s Wednesday morning Bible Study, Mark Biggerman reminded me that when I previously preached this particular gospel passage, I held up a sign that read, “John 3:16.” That was six years ago.
You’re familiar with this sign, right? It’s almost impossible to watch a professional football game without spotting at least one of these being held up by a fan in the stands. The verse referred to is the one we heard just a moment ago:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”
John 3:16 is one of the most well-known Bible verses and simultaneously one of the most destructive. Right wing Christians (those holding those placards at sporting events and concerts) define this passage to assert exclusion rather than inclusion to God’s abundant love. These folks say, “If you don’t believe in Jesus exactly as I do, then you are not saved. If you’re not saved, well, get used to a lot of relentless fire and brimstone in the hereafter.”
This use of John 3:16 shows you can’t cherry-pick scripture and use it out of context without rendering great harm. We need to put this verse back into its context. Verse 3:17 follows, stating, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Jesus came to save the world not to condemn it. Yet, the claim that right wing evangelical Christians make of John 3:16 being a litmus test for religious purity while ignoring John 3:17 and other verses that follow it, allows them to justify damnation for many. Disregarding 3:17’s message that God desires to be in relationship with all people, 3:16 has become a bludgeon in the arsenal used to fight the battle for a theology of salvation that is foreign to John’s Gospel and to the Jesus of the Gospels.
Yes, God will save you, but only if you believe in my right wing, evangelical-dogma Jesus. All the rest of us folks, Christian and otherwise, are, to quote a local evangelical pastor, “dangerous and deluded.” Read between the lines: this means going to hell.
Statements calling others “dangerous and deluded” or condemning people to hell portray a God alien to Jesus’ message. These statements are also alien to John’s assertion that Jesus did not come to condemn the world. The certainties about salvation that these folks proclaim come from claims about God that do not reflect the God we know in Jesus.
The assertion in John 3:16 that God loves the world is not some theory for salvation that can be parsed: God loves the world . . . except those people I don’t like and who I want to condemn.
God loves the world is specific, not ambiguous. God loves the entire world.
When we are told God loves the world, we are called to do likewise. We do so by striving to emulate Jesus’ behavior in our lives. This entails radical love and hospitality offered through the care and compassion for the least among us, companionship with all God’s children, and loving one another as we have been loved.
When we read John 3:16, we should understand it as saying this: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him and loves other as Jesus loved them will not perish but have eternal life.”
To love as Jesus loved means that we can never look at any human being and place them in a “God doesn’t love them” category because such a category does not exist except in the minds of severely misguided people. Yet, we still have this great divide between the Jesus of the Gospels and the Jesus created by right-wing evangelicals.
Polls consistently reveal what social scientists have known for a long time: White, conservative, evangelical Christians are least likely to support politicians and policies that reflect the actual teachings of Jesus. It is a dumbfounding irony. Conservative evangelical Christians, who most fiercely proclaim to have a personal relationship with Jesus, are the very people who are most likely to reject his teachings and despise his radical message of love. This is why we have a federal government waging an all-out assault on the lives of so many vulnerable, marginalized, unloved people in our society.
Jesus unambiguously preached mercy and forgiveness, cardinal virtues of the Christian faith.
Jesus proclaimed the slavish pursuit of wealth is contrary to the Kingdom of God . . . and that to be a follower of Him means to give generously of one's money to the poor.
Right wing Christians loath any policy that they think is "socialism," even though socialism is essentially what Jesus preached. They despise food stamp programs, support for struggling schools, job training - anything that might dare to help out those in need, even though helping those in need was exactly what Jesus commanded us to do.
This group loathes Obamacare even though it provides essential medical coverage to millions of poor people. They supported politicians who pledged to repeal it, until they discovered that the Affordable Care Act is the same thing - and repealing it would deny themselves health insurance.
You can’t claim to follow Jesus if these are your values.
Why do I tell you this? Well, I believe that everything I hold of value as a human being and as a Christian is under assault today. I tell you this because I want us to hear Jesus’ voice over and against the forces that lead this assault on authentic Christian values. I want that voice to propel us to action.
I want us to raise our voices for:
I tell you this because recognizing our common humanity with all these peoples, and the earth we share as our home, compels us to understand the sacredness of our being made in the image of a loving God. I tell you this because I believe following the way and the truth of Jesus gives life itself. All this compels me to protect all that is sacred, holy and beautiful in this world. Most importantly, I tell you this because I want you to understand what it truly means when we are told that God loved the world so much he gave us Jesus and his love.
The next time we see someone holding a placard that reads John 3:16, remember John 3:17: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
That is the way, the truth and the life of Jesus. Now let’s live it ourselves.
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11
Rev. Peter Faass
One of my favorite jazz singers is Diana Krall, and her signature song, Temptation, composed by Tom Waits:
Temptation, oh temptation, temptation, I can't resist . . .
My will has disappeared
Now confusion is so clear
Temptation, oh temptation, temptation
I can't resist.”
Imagine these lyrics sung by Eve as the serpent tempts her with the forbidden fruit from one tree in the Garden of Eden:
“Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” the serpent slyly asks Eve. “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden;” she replies, “but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’“ But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Whew! One bite of this fruit and I will be like God? Temptation, oh temptation, temptation. I can’t resist. Chomp!
We have two scripture stories about temptation this morning. The Genesis story is about the fall of the perfection of creation in the Garden of Eden when Eve and Adam disobey God and eat the fruit the serpent tempts them to consume. By caving in to temptation, they introduced death, the pain of childbearing for women, and hard labor to earn their daily bread. The humans are also expelled from the idyllic world of Eden. For his nefarious roll in their fall from grace, the serpent is condemned to slither on his belly. This intriguing punishment leads one to believe that the serpent walked in some upright fashion prior to this; certainly not an image of snakes that I want to think about too deeply!
Adam and Eve were easy marks for the serpent’s wily temptations. How about us?
As we enter Lent, the temptation in Eden poignantly reminds us of how we resist the seductive call of things we have given up this Lent as part of our self-denial. We are subject to weakening resistance even five days in. I suspect many of us hear the serpent’s voice calling us in the chocolate bar, the cup of coffee or the glass of wine. “If you partake of me, you shall not really break your Lenten fast.”
At this time of year, I frequently am asked if it’s okay to break our Lenten disciplines on Sundays, as Sundays are not officially a part of Lent. This is technically correct. The six Sundays of Lent are not counted in the forty days of the season. While that may be legally correct, breaking one’s Lenten fast on Sundays is suspiciously spiritually barren.
Listening to the wrong voice in your life leads us away from keeping our commitment to God. If you eat that hunk of chocolate or drink that coffee you gave up for Lent on Sundays because it’s “not technically Lent,” inevitably the siren sound of the serpent will grow more seductive and insistent, tempting you to do so again on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, because that’s just how temptation works when it wants you to turn away from God. Temptation, temptation, I can’t resist.
Our second temptation story focuses on Jesus in the wilderness. Satan tempts Jesus after forty days of fasting in the desert. Jesus has already gone the distance with his fast - presumably no Sunday exceptions for him! He’s not eaten, so he’s starving and in a weakened state, which makes him vulnerable.
Taking advantage of Jesus' hunger, the devil tries to entice him by turning stones into multiple loaves of bread. He tempts Jesus to demonstrate his close association with the powerful, proving that God's angels will keep him from injury. The devil also lures him to secure the glory of political leadership by offering him the power to rule all the kingdoms of the world if he would only but cave in to temptation, turn from God, and worship the devil.
Think of how often we have had these temptations proffered to us in different forms. Hey, grab all you can get to ensure your own needs and more. Live by the motto, “I got mine too bad for you,” or, “It’s not what you know it’s who you know. Nepotism is good!”
Make sure you fawn over the rich and powerful despite how they treat people, if you believe doing so will benefit you. Amass as much influence and power as you can to satisfy your own ego and meet your goals, regardless of the means, despite how that may be to the detriment of others.
All of these temptations are held before us like luscious fruits of Eden in the world of commerce, advertising, community life, our professional lives, and maybe most poignantly, in politics. If you thought that chocolate was tempting, wait until unlimited stuff and power and status seduce you.
Temptation, oh temptation. I can’t resist.
Despite his weakened state, Jesus does not cave in to these temptations. He refuses to turn stones into bread to assuage his own hunger. He will instead feed thousands of hungry people in the wilderness with just a few loaves and some fish. He makes sure all have what they need, not just himself.
Jesus refuses to take advantage of his relationship with God by hurling himself down from the heights of the Temple. At the end of his earthly ministry, he endures taunts and scourging, trusting God's power to the end as he hangs on a Roman cross.
Jesus turns down the devil's offer of political leadership over the kingdoms of the world, and instead offers the kingdom of heaven (the restoration of the fallen Eden) to all those who follow him in the ways of justice and righteousness.
Jesus’ response to temptations becomes the template for his earthly ministry.
Each is replayed in Jesus' encounters with persons who are sick, hungry or in need; with persons who use their connections to power to gain benefits for themselves; with people who too easily worry about the world's assessment of their greatness rather than God's assessment of how they are doing with loving one another as they have been loved.
If we take nothing else away from this story of Jesus’ temptation, I pray that we understand that when we are tempted (in ways great and small), God is with us, always. God was with Jesus in the desert and stayed with him throughout his life, even when he hung from the cross.
God is with us when:
God is with us.
God knows our temptations and how seductive they are because God in Jesus experienced them. Because we have an incarnate God who knows our humanity inside-out, we have a God who not only knows and is with us, but who sympathizes with us when we are so tempted as well.
There is no place so desolate, so distant, so tempting or so challenging in human life, where Jesus has not already been. There is no test or temptation so great that Jesus has not already overcome. Because he has been there and done that, he can love us back into right relationship with God, even when we have given in to our temptations.
Whether it’s the seductive call of chocolate, wine or caffeine during Lent, or the tempting voice of evil in the world saying it’s okay to think only of yourself and your own needs to the detriment of others, even when you are tempted by the offer of excessive accumulation, status and power, know Jesus has experienced it. When we pray, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” know that Jesus hears our prayer and he is with us and in his strength, we are strengthened to resist. God’s reign draws ever closer.
Let’s continue to work toward that coming reign as we walk the way of a holy Lent.
Wake Up Before Death Wakes You Up
Rev. Peter Faass
Why is Ash Wednesday such an anathema to most people? When I promote participation to worship on this day, trying to convince people that the message of this fast day is absolutely necessary to enter into the true meaning of the Christian faith, the look on their faces appears as if I had asked them to go through a root canal without anesthesia.
“Are you kidding me?” the looks on their faces convey.
“All I hear about on Ash Wednesday is ashes, dust and death. What a downer. Life is hard and burdensome enough without having to hear about my mortality and death and on a Wednesday no less, when my favorite programming is on television. No thank you!”
And yet it is a fact (not an alt-fact), a theological fact of our faith that the message of Ash Wednesday is the inverse of this response. Encountering the ashes, dust and death of our mortal being allows us to fully enter the portal of real life. You can’t apprehend the true meaning of Christianity, which is focused on new life, unless you immerse yourself in the topics of human mortality and death that Ash Wednesday addresses.
In today’s Ash Wednesday meditation from the booklet “Living Well Through Lent 2017: Listening With All Your Heart, Soul, Strength and Mind,” the writer quotes an anonymous monk who stated, “Wake up before death wakes you up!”
This is a parallel statement to C.S. Lewis’ quote that I frequently use in burial homilies, “Die before you die, there is no chance after.”
These comments convey that life is a precious gift which often gets weighed down with our burdens, distracted by our frenzied activities, jaded by our prejudices, and addicted to our habits so that we squander the whole blessed opportunity that the gift of life affords us.
Lewis sagely advises that we die from those things which kill us in this life before we literally die. Once you are dead, once you have returned to the dust from which you were created, you don’t get another chance to grasp the gift of life and live it fully.
On Ash Wednesday, the Church reminds us of our mortality and of life’s fragility and brevity. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” are poignant words that remind us our death is inevitable regardless of our best efforts to prevent it or deny its reality. Accept that reality and use your energies to focus on the here and now of your life and the quality of it, especially as that pertains to your relationship with God and your neighbor.
By reminding us of this reality, the Church also calls us to live the gift of life fully and authentically; dying to those death-giving behaviors and activities that deny us truly living as God desires us to live.
As the Absolution in today’s liturgy states, God “desires not the death of sinners but rather that they may turn from their wickedness and live.” The truth of this desire is undergirded in Jesus’ statement to the disciples that, “I came that [you] may have life and have it abundantly!” (John 10:10)
God doesn’t want us to live burdened by our addictions, bad behaviors, preoccupations, fears or prejudices, which all are death-inducing things. When we let these things define our lives, we are like Zombies, members of the walking dead. We have not “died” before we die, robbing ourselves of authentic life. That is sinful and wicked.
The movie Manchester by the Sea is a vivid example of what this means to allow this burdensome and wicked way of life to rob us of real life. The protagonist, Lee Chandler, is a man who through selfish, reckless behavior and wanton negligence sets up the circumstances for the tragic death of his three young children in a house fire. His lifestyle, which leads to this horror, is one of self-indulgence, revolving around drugs, alcohol, his desire to play more than work, and the need to have his sexual desires met on demand.
Lee is also living off the fading glory as his hometown’s most famous hockey star from his high school days. He seriously needs to face the realities of his wicked ways. Burdened by addiction, a sense of entitlement, bitterness, resentment, self-pity and lack of counsel, these behaviors prevent him from understanding that life is fragile, brief and precious. He needs to die to these things so that he may truly live life, as God desires him to.
The character comes to know the fragility and preciousness of life as he watches the fire fighters bag and remove the bodies of his three dead children from the ashes of his burned house. His children’s deaths do not become an epiphany for him, turning from his wicked ways as the ashes of those burned bodies mark him. His life continues to spiral further downward into death-inducing behaviors.
By the grace of God (through the love of a nephew for whom he has been named guardian and whose life is similarly precarious), he eventually gains a sense of life’s precious fragility, beauty and inherent worth, including his own. He slowly is transformed, possibly by the ashes that fell on him from that hideous conflagration years before.
He begins to journey the road of healing and wholeness, turning from those wicked ways that made him a walking dead person. We can see the inklings of one coming back to life, being transformed and redeemed. It’s a holy moment.
Such is God’s desire for us; to die to before we die, so that we may truly live. May we fully apprehend that truth as the ashes are imposed on our foreheads today and begin a right relationship with God. May we leave those burdens that prevent us from dying before we die behind at this alter. Let’s offer those burdens to God, so we may have a holy Lent and a holy life. By doing this, we will be resurrected with Christ on Easter; receiving the precious gift of authentic life that God has given every one of us.