A huge thanks to Rev. Mindi at Rev-0-lution.org for this year’s Lenten theme, which I’ve slightly reworked under the title: “Advancing the Kingdom, Resisting the World.”
On this third Sunday in Lent, we continue our exploration of the theme: “Advancing the Kingdom; Resisting the World.” Recognizing that our citizenship is with God’s Kingdom (as Paul reminds us in Philippians 3:20), we are exploring the ways that this reality forces us to resist the ways of the world, fighting against the dominant pressures and impulses of our culture.
On March 5, we read about Jesus’ temptation, and we explored that pull within us that misdirects us away from God’s path. Like Jesus, we recognize that citizens of God’s Kingdom advance that Kingdom when we resist the ways of the world.
On March 12, we looked to Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus—those famous words “You must be born again.” These words and others there in John 3 remind us that we need to undergo a complete reformation of our thinking—a complete rebirth into God’s ways—so we will reflect the Savior of the World.
Today, we come to another familiar text—the encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman at a well, wherein Jesus speaks of the living water that abolishes thirst forever. In this text, as we will see, Jesus models how to engage people in a redemptive way—in a way that allows them to see and experience God’s love for them.
The Samaritan Problem
This is one of those texts of the Bible (however) that I think preachers get weary of preaching. Our problem is that we are so distant from the cultural norms, the prejudices and privileges, and the realities of history that this story just doesn’t have much… oompf… unless these things are explained in depth.
In this way, it’s similar to the parable of the Good Samaritan—it’s a fantastic story, but we preachers usually end up spending half or more of our time trying to paint a picture of how the Jews were prejudiced against the Samaritans. We describe history and bias, we encourage you to think of someone you’d see as your enemy, and we engage in all sorts of oratorial acrobatics in order to help our hearers appreciate how radical these teachings and encounters of Jesus truly are.
Today I just want to cut to the chase. Everything Jesus does here is radical. Let’s just take that as a given. The kindness he extends is a radical kindness. The acceptance he offers is a radical acceptance. The welcome he volunteers is a radical welcome.
And somehow—all taken together—we end up with something that we call redemption.
Now don’t get frightened; I’m not going to use a bunch of ten-dollar theological words. In fact, most of our theological words—things like justification, propitiation, atonement, regeneration, sanctification—these are all big, fancy words we use to express our big, fancy theological ideas about the very, very simple reality of God’s love. God’s love is a redeeming love. To redeem something is to compensate for the bad parts. And that is what God—in and through God’s love—accomplishes in us. The bad parts of us are overcome and we are made to be good again—and in this we see the fulfillment of God’s desires in our initial creation from way back in Genesis.
So how does Jesus demonstrate redemption for us here? Well, there are four elements in this story—four pieces of how God through Jesus engages this woman. When we take these four things together, we end up with a model for how we can advance God’s Kingdom by participating in the redemption of others.
1. God meets us where we are
The first piece is this: God meets us where we are. Here in John 4, Jesus meets the woman in her own context and on her own terms.
Jesus does not (of course) hole up in his synagogue in Nazareth expecting that folks needing redemption will come to him. No, as the gospels demonstrate, most of the folks Jesus offers redemption to don’t even think they need it—not at first.
Have you ever been where you don’t belong? In the pursuit of auto parts, custom glass for old cars, or good food heard about on “Check Please!” (a Chicago-local PBS restaurant program), my father seemed to regularly drag me into parts of town where I just didn’t belong. And that’s not just me saying it—I vividly recall locals menacingly telling me that I was in the wrong part of town a time or two. But there were things he taught me about how to be out of your comfort zone and still be ok.
One of the biggest lessons was that people pick up on how you feel.
So if you’re somewhere and you feel out of place, you’re likely to look out of place.
If you feel embarrassed about being somewhere, people will see that.
Eventually I came to see that if I could accept being somewhere, I no longer stuck out like a sore thumb. I didn’t have to change anything except my willingness to be somewhere and see other people as regular people like me.
This is how Jesus begins our story. As a Jew, he has little business in Samaria. It should be out of Jesus’ comfort zone. As the disciples’ reaction in v.27 demonstrates, there are people there his friends think he should avoid.
But God always meets us where we are. So Jesus goes to Samaria—where he doesn’t belong—and he talks to someone he shouldn’t talk to.
Now, it shouldn’t surprise us that getting out of our comfort zone is the first step toward participating in the redemption of others. After all, when Jesus issues what we call the Great Commission in Matthew 28, going is a prerequisite to everything else; it must happen before the disciple-making, baptizing, and teaching.
God always meets us where we are.
2. God offers us welcome
Second, God offers us welcome. In this particular story, Jesus extends welcome to the woman by speaking with her as though there were no obstacles between them.
According to the rules of his world:
- He shouldn’t speak to a Samaritan
- He shouldn’t speak to a woman without her husband present
- He can’t drink after a Samaritan without then being excluded from worship
But not only does Jesus speak to her—he initiates the conversation.
You ever think about this? A pastor named Anna Carter Florence got me thinking about this… She says:
What rules is Jesus breaking to talk with us? What social conventions is he disregarding? What lines is he stepping across, in order to speak about what truly matters, and what may save our life? …What traditions or customs or conventions might Jesus have to cross in order to speak to you? (in Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol. 2, p.95)
Think about it. Jesus is not breaking the rules because he is desperately thirsty. He is doing so because he loves so deeply and fully. He breaks the rules because redemption requires the kind of welcome that only happens when you look beyond the boulders and minefield between you and someone God loves.
God offers us welcome.
3. God offers us acceptance
Third, God offers us acceptance. As this story tells us—as the woman’s testimony rings out—Jesus knows everything about her but does not condemn her. In her words, “He told me everything I have ever done” (John 4:39).
This story invariably reminds me of another. In a couple chapters further in (John 8), Jesus encounters another nameless woman—this time, a woman caught in sin. The gospel writer clearly indicates that she is being abused—manipulated—used as a weapon against Jesus, that they might bring him down. Their motivation is not the keeping of the law, but power and control.
They pretend to request Jesus to declare her fate. If he says to free her, he is breaking the Law—he is violating their religious customs and acting against what the Bible says. But if he says that she is to die, they believe it will render his movement impotent.
Do you remember how Jesus responds? He tells them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7 NIV11). Even though hers was a clear case of right and wrong, and even though the punishment was black-and-white, Jesus refused to condemn her. Even after her accusers faded away, Jesus did not issue a punishment for her sin, but he offered the grace of a new beginning: “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11).
You know how ready we are to condemn other people? I can demonstrate it for you real quickly. Back in our scripture reading—in John 4:18—the bombshell revelation that Jesus exposes is that this woman has “had five husbands, and the one [she has] now is not [her] husband.” This is her sin, right? That’s what I’ve been told my whole life by pastors, Sunday School teachers, study bible notes, and seemingly everyone else.
But you know what? They’re all wrong. We’re all wrong. Because we’re judging a person according to the standards and expectations of our own culture, even though theirs was different.
In her own context, this woman at the well has little to nothing to do with her marital status. In her world, she is property—property that has been used and cast out time and time again. Men have married her for whatever reasons, and they have divorced her as soon as their whims changed. She has no power to stand up; she has no power to resist; she has no ability to choose differently. We condemn this woman as a sinner even though the only sin is being done to her. Just as with the woman caught in adultery, the woman at the well is being victimized by the men around her for their own selfish gain.
What Jesus exposes is not her sin, but the one thing that the one thing she is most ashamed of—her abuse. But just as we read last week, Jesus did not come “into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).
In order to redeem us, God offers us acceptance—as we are, and without condemnation.
4. God gifts us in kindness
Lastly, God gifts us in kindness. In John 4, Jesus gifts the woman with an offer of living water, with knowledge of the Messiah, and with insight into true worship.
In kindness, Jesus brings her into this expansion of God’s spiritual health coverage—now broadened to encompass everyone, everywhere—no matter where they were born, their ethnicity, their economics, their gender, or any other obstacle.
In kindness, Jesus gifts us with his presence as he became a human and lived with us.
In kindness, Jesus gifts us with his example of how we humans were made to be.
In kindness, Jesus gifts us with his teachings that instruct us in the way we are to go.
In kindness, Jesus offers healing and grace to those he encounters.
In kindness, Jesus shares his life with the disciples and calls even us today to be his friends.
In kindness, Jesus offers his life to save our own.
Kindness is at the heart of the Golden Rule (Luke 6:31). It is one of the first actions used to define love in 1Corinthians (13:4). It could describe all the actions by those welcomed to the Kingdom in Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25). It seems to be rule #1 for Jesus’ followers: Be kind.
In order to redeem us, God gifts us in kindness. And Jesus instructs us to do the same for others.
In fact, all of these dimensions are actions of Jesus that we are to replicate in our own lives and relationships. The way Jesus interacts with this unnamed “woman at the well” provides us with a model for how we are to interact with others. If we are to participate in God’s mission—in the redemption of the world—then
we too will meet people where they are, instead of forcing them to come to us
we too will offer a welcome that treats people as though there are no barriers between us
we too will offer acceptance of a person regardless of what we know of their past actions or what has been done to them
we too will gift people with kindness and grace
If we are following Jesus—if we are going to participate in God’s redemptive plan—if we are going to advance God’s Kingdom—then this is who we will be. We will be redemptive people.
Who will you be?