Sermon on John 4:5-30, 39-42 for Lent 3 A, March 19, 2017
John 4:5-30, 39-42
So [Jesus} came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 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.) 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.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 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.” 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.”
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”
Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 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.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word. 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 heard a segment on pets on the radio, specifically about dogs. It said that there are thousands of dogs running around in America who think their name is “No”, because that is what they hear the most. Someone shared with me a Far Side comic in which one dog was introducing himself to another dog by saying? “Hi, my name is “Bad Dog;” what’s yours?” I guess if you get called something often enough, you internalize it and believe it.
There are a lot of people who believe that their name is “Bad person.” Especially when they think about what God thinks of them, they think, “bad person.” They heard the message so often, we are sinners and God is angry, that we internalize it. there are different ways people respond to this message of judgement. Traditionally, people have just accepted it as fact.
Day to day, on normal days, maybe this thought is not upper most in our minds, but when something bad happens to us, or to our family, or to our loved ones or even to our nation, what do you hear? God is punishing me, or us. We are getting what we deserve. Is that how it works?
There is another way people respond to the “bad person” message. We are reading the book Grounded this lent. In the introduction, Diana Butler Bass talks about the spike in number of Americans, especially younger ones, who say that they do not affiliate with any organized religion. They are done with the church.
One of the consistent reasons people cite is the church’s judgmentalism. Church is the place where people keep hearing about how bad they are, and how bad others are.
But many people, especially younger people, have figured out that judgmentalism itself is bad. It has caused great harm and is still causing harm to whole classes of people, and if that is what the church is all about, they do not want anything to do with it. This is the other way people respond to the message of judgmentalism.
Well my question is, are they right? And the answer is of course they are right; there are many churches where the message every week is judgmental.
But they are not completely right. This church, for example, is very self-consciously non-judgmental. We are an inclusive congregation. And so are many others, but, taken together, we tend to be the minority.
I want to tell you a story, briefly, about how the church got into the judgmental business, and then look at the story in the text from John’s gospel to show that Jesus had an entirely alternative approach.
Augustine and Original Sin
There were two people, both men, who were exploring the question: “How do we relate to God?” back in the late fourth and early fifth century. One was Augustine. Augustin had a Christian mother, but he did not follow her faith. Augustine was basically a playboy who ran with a group of playboys. He did not want any moral restraints on his behavior. He eventually settled down with one woman and had a son, but did not marry her.
In adulthood, Augustin converted to Christianity. As he looked back on his life, he had a lot to feel guilty about. So when he was reflecting on his own propensity to be immoral, he was attracted to the view that humans inherit Adam’s guilt. From birth, he said, we inherit a sin nature.
Genesis teaches that humans were made in the image of God, but Augustine taught that sin had so infected us as to remove the image of God from us. It could only be restored by baptism. So, our original state is sinful. It is the teachings of Augustine that give us the doctrine of “original sin.” How do we relate to God? As guilty sinners facing God’s wrath.
Pelagius and Original Blessing
The other man who was reflecting on that same question was Pelagius. He was a Britton, but he traveled to Rome and taught there. For Pelagius, our original condition is blessed. All you need to do, he said, to see the image of God in people ,is to look at a newborn baby. God blessed creation, he said, and God called it very good.
Sin and evil is real, but it is not the most fundamental fact about us. Salvation is a release from bondage to sin, so that we can be liberated to be who we essentially are: people made in the image of God, essentially good.
Augustine did not appreciate Pelagius’ theology, so he charged him with heresy, twice. Both times Pelagius was acquitted. The Pope told them to love one another. But Augustine could not tolerate Pelagius’ non-judgmental approach. In 418, Augustin had Pelagius banished from Rome, on a charge of disturbing the peace.
Pelagius kept clandestinely teaching and writing, and his positive approach to Christianity became the source of what we call Celtic Christianity. But Augustine’s doctrine of original sin became the orthodox theology of the church. Augustine was a brilliant man. The volumes of theology that he wrote became the foundational theology of the church.
Which is closer to the truth? Well, the leaders of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century thought the solution to medieval theological corruption was to go back to Augustine. So Calvin and Luther both taught about original sin as our fundamental condition. To them, we are sinners facing God’s wrath.
The Reformers had a motto for their reforming efforts. They said, in Latin, “Ad fontes” – back to the fountain, meaning back to the very sources of our faith. Of course scripture is the source they had in mind, but they constantly referenced Augustine. Their reading of scripture was through the lens of Augustine’s theology.
Was it a correct reading? Should we believe in original sin? When we imagine God looking at us, is God saying, “Bad person”?
Jesus and the Thirsty Woman
Let us look at our true source: the stories of Jesus. We read the famous story of the Samaritan woman at the well. John’s gospel is written in a mystical and symbolic way. Jesus arrives at a well in a foreign place and meets a woman. The conversation begins with thirst. In John’s gospel there is a pattern. Jesus has a conversation with someone. They take him literally, and he corrects them with spiritual truth.
So the topic of thirst quickly moves from literal thirst for literal water to spiritual thirst for the living water of the spirit. Jesus begins by asking her for a drink, implying that he is thirsty. But as the conversation goes, Jesus reveals that he knows all about her past – all her previous husbands and her current unmarried partnership, and so it becomes clear that she is the thirsty one. She is thirsty for the kind of love that apparently human men have not been able to give.
Jesus claims to be able to quench that thirst. He says,
“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 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.”
People with a Past
I think everyone is thirsty. We all want to be loved and accepted. It is a deep longing in us, as intense as thirst can be. And we too have had people in our lives that have loved us – parents, lovers, spouses, friends. But just like that Samaritan woman, we have a problem that keeps those loves from quenching our thirst. We all have truths about ourselves that we hope no one finds out.
I have a dear friend who told me, “If you really knew me, you wouldn’t like me.” I don’t believe him. But he believes it.
Who is this Samaritan woman – essentially? Is she a “bad person?” Is she a person without the image of God? A victim of original sin? Should she fear God?
Or, is she a person made in the image of God who has made some poor choices in her quest to quench her deep thirst? Is she a person who needs liberation from the bondage of a life of poor choices so that she can come to see that God is there for her, and has been all along?
It’s interesting that she wants to discuss theology with Jesus. “Who is right,” she asks, “the Jews or the Samaritans? Which place is the holy one, our place or Jerusalem?” She is operating out of the assumption that what God cares about are procedural questions.
That way of thinking about what God wants leaves you thirsty. If God obsesses about procedures, and you have a less than perfect record, then you are going to have guilt and shame and you will have to hide who you really are, and never feel adequately loved. It does not work that way. God is not like that. “God is Spirit,” Jesus says.
So the genius of this story is that her past is an open book, and no one is condemning her, no one is judging her, no one is wagging the finger at her. No one is telling her that she needs to “turn or burn.” That is not Jesus. It may sound like Augustine, but it does not sound like Jesus, our true source.
And the fact that she is fully known and still loved is exactly what amazes her. She tells everyone in town:
“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!”
“He knows me, but he didn’t condemn me.”
God is Spirit
We do not believe in fear-based religion. We believe that sin and evil is real, and it produces horribly destructive, harmful consequences. But we do not believe, anymore than Jesus did, that God’s role in our lives is to stand off from a distance, watching, keeping score and preparing to judge us. That is the traditional view that flowed from Augustine’s pen, but not from Jesus.
From Jesus, in this gospel, we read that “God is Spirit.” God is present to us at all times. God is present in every creature made in God’s image. God’s spirit is present in all of creation as ultimate source. God is present, luring us to the best possibilities; towards goodness and beauty.
And when we respond to the lure of love, there is no hiding necessary; no shame, no fear. This is the living water in our glass that quenches our thirsty hearts. What is most true of us? We are beloved.
That means that the voice in our heads, telling us that we are bad, that we are unworthy, that we will never change, that we should be ashamed, is not from God. The voice we need to hear is the one saying, “I will come to you in a million ways; I love you and you are mine.”