I am not good at small talk. I want to be good at it, but more often then not, I just plough right in.
You look like you’re struggling… “what’s the problem?”
You’re angry… “what did I/someone else do?”
You have a problem… “how can I fix it?”
Okay, so that last one is dangerous, especially when we’re talking maritally, right? Men, we’re supposed to listen, not solve the problem.
But the thing is, in the story that John shares in John 4, Jesus defies our rules for engaging our spouses in conversation, and frankly, most of the things they teach you in counseling.
Let’s set the stage. Jesus’ disciples are baptizing so many people that the Pharisees are hounding Jesus. He leaves the region of Judea and heads toward Galilee. But he has to pass through the region of Samaria.
Now, we have the power of hindsight and we know that Samaritans are good, at least the one mentioned in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. (It says it right there in the title.) But the thing is that Samaritans weren’t “good,” to most of the folks that were listening to Jesus’ parables. The fact that we call that Samaritan, who saved a man beaten and left for dead, when the teacher of the law and the priest passed him by, good, in fact is the point. An outsider “got it” when the insiders didn’t.
These outsiders, from Samaria, were persona non grata to the Jews. They didn’t follow the customs, and they didn’t get it “right,” as far as the Jews were concerned. The Samaritans had intermarried with the Assyrians, who had previously been the invaders of Israel, and they held to their own interpretive version of the Bible with a different Temple. The Jews were having none of this and avoided traveling through Samaria like they might pick up instant death just by setting foot there.
And Jesus goes from point A to point B… on a straight line.
Jesus 1, Taboo 0.
So, Jesus sends his disciples into town to buy food and settles in for a moment, tired by the journey, at a well that Jacob had built. And when a Samaritan woman came to get water from the well, because, well (pun intended), they didn’t have running water in their homes, Jesus asked her for a drink. He’s not supposed to talk to a solitary woman, and certainly not a Samaritan one!
Jesus 2, Taboo 0.
Have you ever gotten caught up in such small-minded separation movements? Consider this story:
I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said, “Stop! Don’t do it!”
“Why shouldn’t I?” he said. I said, “Well, there’s so much to live for!”
He said, “Like what?”
I said, “Well, are you religious or atheist?” He said, “Religious.” I said, “Me too!”
“Are your Christian or Buddhist?” He said, “Christian.” I said, “Me too!”
“Are you Catholic or Protestant?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me too!”
“Are your Episcopalian or Baptist? He said, “Baptist!” I said, “Wow! Me too!”
“Are your Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord? He said, Baptist Church of God!” I said, “Me too!”
“Are your Original Baptist Church of God or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?” He said, “Reformed Baptist Church of God!” I said, “Me too!”
“Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?” He said, “Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915!”
I said, “Die, heretic scum!” and pushed him off.
When did we lose sight of the “me toos”? Jesus doesn’t roll that way: Jesus is thirsty, and he’s fully God and fully man, so he asks for a drink.
Now, we’ve seen this pattern. Someone asks Jesus something or tells him something and he doesn’t directly respond. He basically says back, “if you knew who I was, you’d have given me a drink.”
And, “I would’ve given you living water.”
Last week, Nicodemus wanted to know (John 3) how he could climb back into his mother’s womb. He knew it was ridiculous. And here, this woman in Samaria knows Jesus can’t get into the well to get himself a drink, so how could he promise her living water? What even is this living water?
Jesus tells the woman that drinking water wears off, that you eventually get thirsty. But he tells her that he has a kind of water that will be self-generating internally in a person, that the water will lead to eternal life.
Our friend, the Samaritan woman, keeps thinking literally. It’s too easy not to, and too confusing sometimes to understand what Jesus has to say. So she says, “um, okay, I’d like to not be thirsty, so give me some.” If this happened today, you could see this working this way.
A woman comes to the water cooler and goes to get one of those pointy cups. A man tells her he’d trade her some living water if she’d let him use her cup. She asks, “what’ve you got, Gatorade?”
We have to assume that Jesus can see that she’s not getting it, but how can she, when he’s talking in code no one understands yet?
So he switches tacts, and says, “go get your husband.” ‘Let’s make this is a real, kosher conversation.’
It’s not that Jesus hasn’t been talking about things that matter, but this is the moment where we can see that the world is about to get small, that the conversation is about to get real, that somehow, Jesus has gotten to the moment where he’s not just a thirsty dude, he’s the Son of God who isn’t playing around.
I imagine the woman getting a little smaller. There’s a moment of terror that crosses her face. There’s a third taboo that’s about to be broken, because Jesus is making the private public.
“I have no husband,” she whispers meekly.
Jesus says back, “I know. You’re with a sixth man after your first five husbands. You have bounced from relationship to relationship to relationship. You’re no longer living in the law.”
And Jesus tells her in one simple stroke that he knows her. He doesn’t know about her. He knows her.
In Max Lucado’s You Are Special, the wooden Wemmicks live in town, while their creator Eli lives in the house on the hill. The Wemmicks have become practiced at giving each other stickers, stars and dots. Stars go to the Wemmicks who are pretty, smart, accomplish great feats of strength and movement. Dots go to the Wemmicks who are less attractive, clumsy, and awkward. Punchinello is a Wemmick in the second category, covered with dots and a low opinion of himself.
But one day, Punchinello meets a Wemmick who has no sticker stars, Lucia, and asks her how she exists with no stickers. The very absence of stars would merit her getting dots from some Wemmicks! She tells him that every day, she goes to the house of Eli, and spends time with him, and encourages Punchinello to go there.
Punchinello questions why the creator would care about him, but he pushes his way through the great door of the house and enters. He’s concerned by the size and mystery of things, and turns to go, when Eli calls him by name: “Punchinello.” Eli proceeds to remind him that he is special to Eli because Eli made him. That is enough! And Eli invites Punchinello to return everyday to see him.
Our little Wemmick turns to leave with a smile, and thinks, “he really thinks I’m special,” and with that, one of Punchinello’s dots falls to the ground.
Don’t we all want to be known? I think there are two yearnings of the human heart that really cut to the chase of our lives: to be known by others and to matter. Jesus shares the first with the woman, and she responds by acknowledging the power of Jesus that she can see but she’s still stuck on the fact that he’s a Jew and she’s not. She’s still on Taboo #1.
Jesus tells her that this doesn’t matter- that where you worship (Taboo #4) isn’t a “thing” anymore. It will one day not matter where you worship but that you worship at all, that worship will be in Spirit and truth.” And he announces to her that she is the Messiah.
We know from the response that Jesus’ declaration causes an uproar. It causes Jesus’ Jewish disciples to question internally why he was talking to a woman. And it causes the Samaritan woman to go back and tell the rest of the town that they have to come out and see Jesus. To hear and believe. Taboo #5 is that this woman is so empowered by her interaction with Jesus that she becomes a teacher and a leader, an evangelist, in a paternalistic society that told her to be quiet and to stay in the shadows.
And it says that a crowd came to see and hear Jesus and believed.
All because Jesus was thirsty.
All because Jesus was the master taboo breaker.
Think about the kind of people God used throughout the Bible to expand the audience of the message, all outsiders in their own way:
Noah was a drunk.
Abraham was too old.
Jacob (no relation) was a liar.
Gideon was afraid.
David was a womanizer and murderer.
Rahab was a prostitute.
Peter denied Christ.
Lazarus was dead.
Let’s hit the quick recap:
There’s a woman who has been trying to heal a hurt, fill a hole, satisfy a need, and she’s tried it with relationships that can’t satisfy her. Jesus shows up, trying to take a break, and rest. The woman’s need exceeds Jesus’ pursuit of solitude. Jesus offers this outcast woman the good news of salvation through gentle confrontation, and images she can understand, inviting her into an “insider” relationship with God. The woman embraces this good news, and recognizing she has crossed a line into true freedom, her first move is to go and share it with everyone who will listen.
Is that us? Have we been stuck dealing with taboos that artificially separate us and keep us isolated and alone? Have we been trying to fill the God-sized holes in our hearts with our marriages, our addictions, our jobs, our purchases, or our Facebook accounts? (Seems a little funny to say Facebook accounts, but none of those things are God-sized so they’re all ridiculous!) Have we been blinded to people that Jesus is calling us to love because we think we’re not supposed to talk to them or be with them or to even like them? Even the disciples struggled with that! But if we’re going to show up to church and act like we want to be like Jesus then we need to do things that make us look, smell, sound, and act like Jesus.
The first piece of good news I want to make sure you read today is this: it doesn’t matter what you’ve done to try and fill the God-sized hole, and it’s not too late to let God fill it. That Samaritan woman repented of her sins to Jesus and changed her ways by going to share the good news with others. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been addicted to yourself, or your stuff, or your alcoholism, or your hoarding, you can let it go. But you can’t let God fill the Godsized hole until you kick out, tear down, rip apart all of the junk you’ve got jammed into it. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about what you’ve done either. Sure, it may take time for the consequences of your previous decisions to wash away, but the living water can clean you up and shine you as God’s redeemed creation.
I grew up on an island, and I used to love to go down to the edge of the water and sit on this big rock that was taller than I was. I’d sit there and watch the water on the waves, and listen to the gentle lapping of the waves on the shore. This was living water, alive, life-giving, stretching past what the eye could see and too immense to be fully understood.
The second piece of good news I want you to read today is this: it’s not too late to repent of our homophobic, racist, classicist, denominational, misogynistic ostracization of whoever we deem to be “other”. (Whoa, did he just go there?) If we’re going to set the standard for what it means to be followers of Jesus and not the negative connotations that our friends, neighbors, and families have sometimes felt toward the term “Christian,” then we need to reframe what it means to be like Jesus. I want to take back the term from the Westboros and the Pat Robertsons and claim in the name of Jesus that a Christian is someone who loves God and loves their neighbor and leaves the judging of another person’s worth to the Creator of the Universe.
Paul wrote in Romans 14 that we should “welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way you do. And don’t jump all over them every time they do or say something you don’t agree with—even when it seems that they are strong on opinions but weak in the faith department. Remember, they have their own history to deal with. Treat them gently.” Is that the way you’ve come to understand church?
I want to see the term Christian be synonymous with a church that puts an end to slave trafficking, homelessness, and hunger, more than I care about whether or not a person needs to be immersed or sprinkled when they get baptized.
I want to be so filled by the living water that I shine, that I glimmer, with the joy of the redeemed and the forgiven and the outsider-turned-insider.
Jesus did not ignore that this woman needed help, or deny her sin. Jesus did not tell her she was alright and okay the way she was. But in offering her the good news of the living water, he called her to repentance and offered her ownership, a place, a sanctuary, in the open arms of God. She could change, be restored, but the move toward wholeness was going to require ripping off the things she’d used to mask her struggle.
In The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, there’s a boy who becomes a dragon. The boy’s name is Eustace, and the important thing to note here is that Eustace cannot change himself back. He tries to reveal his true self, but he’s stuck. He tears at the scales of his dragon covering, but he can’t undo his transformation. He knows who he was, but he can’t be restored.
Of course, Aslan arrives and Aslan, as Jesus, offers this boy/dragon a chance to change, but in the process, he will have to tear off the scales. Eustace says, “The first tear he made was so deep, that I thought it had gone right into my heart. When he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’d ever felt.”
Aslan could help Eustace; Jesus could help the woman. Aslan reminded Eustace that he was a boy, not a dragon. Jesus reminded the woman that she was loved by God, that she was not the “woman who had six husbands” or “rejected” or however her community had come to identify her. She was a child of God.
Whatever taboos hold you back, from God above or each other, I pray you kick them to the curb today, and embrace the mighty message of the risen one, Jesus, as translated in The Message: “The time is coming—it has, in fact, come—when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter. It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God.”
May God look at who we are and how we live, and recognize that we have drunk deep from the living water.
This is the sermon for The Stand at Blandford United Methodist Church on January 12 at 9 a.m.