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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Sermon from March 27, 2011 + The Third Sunday in Lent, (A)

“By Night Or By Day”
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Texts: John 4:5-42

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Sometimes it can be hard to imagine what it would be like to encounter Jesus, to have lived when he walked the roads of Galilee, to have been able to hear him, see him. We read the Gospels with a sense of distance from the people and the times which makes us more observers than participants. Until we open the Gospel of John. John’s approach – to tell only a few stories of Jesus but with greater detail and length – is particularly effective in removing some of the barriers to our engagement with Jesus. Somehow in the lively dialogue of his stories, the telling details of the people involved, the careful description of the side characters, we’re drawn into these stories in ways that almost make them seem contemporary. It’s a mark not only of John’s narrative gift, but also of his editorial intent: as he states in several places, he intends his Gospel to be exactly what we experience. He writes so others may see themselves in the stories and so also encounter Jesus for themselves, and his hope and prayer is that by such encounters, others may come to faith. Even those who, like us, are invited to believe without having seen for ourselves.

What’s interesting about the two people we’ve met so far, Nicodemus (last week) and the unnamed Samaritan woman today, is that in a number of ways they represent polar opposites of each other, and yet Jesus engages them, and offers them his grace and life. Both are seeking something, but it turns out Jesus is offering something better. And in their contrasts, it’s likely that each of us can find ourselves in one, if not the other, and so also hear Jesus’ offer to us.

Nicodemus and the woman are in fact a study in contrasts.

Nicodemus is the ultimate insider. A member of an elite sect, the Pharisees, he’s one of the teachers of Israel, the learned in God’s law. He comes to Jesus at midnight because he has everything to lose by this conversation. Jesus is seen by most of the Pharisees as a threat and a blasphemer, but Nicodemus is intrigued by him. But he also knows that he’ll be in serious trouble if he’s seen with Jesus, in addition to the risk of losing status and prestige among his peers. And he comes to Jesus to ask him questions, check his credentials as it were.

The Samaritan woman is the ultimate outsider. She doesn’t even rank the mention of a name. A woman was not to talk to strange men in public, and she’s a Samaritan woman to boot, a member of a race that Jewish people considered half-breeds, heretics, and not to be touched. She speaks with Jesus not at midnight but at broad noon because she’s somehow even outcast from her own people – the women typically would go to the well in the cool of the morning, and together, but here she is all by herself fetching water in the heat of the day. She has absolutely nothing to lose by this conversation with Jesus. Being on the outside fringe of an outside fringe group, she has nothing to fear from her peers, if even she thinks she has any. And Jesus comes to her, not she to him, asking her for a drink.

But look at Jesus. He engages them both in the same way, offering the same thing, as if they are equally deserving and equally in need.

First, he demands complete honesty from both of them. No pretenses are allowed here.

Nicodemus acts as if he’s the teacher, quizzing the pupil. Jesus exposes his weaknesses in understanding God’s law and God’s ways. “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things?” Jesus asks.

The woman responds to Jesus’ offer of living water with a hope for a pitcher which would never run dry, and would take away the burden of carrying water. Jesus cuts right to the quick and asks her to go fetch her husband. He’s not being mean – he knows she’s been married five times and now is living with a man who is not her husband. But if she’s going to receive what he has to offer, she needs to know that he knows her, the truth about her.

Jesus has amazing gifts to offer both of them. But first he needs to be clear with them: He knows the truth about them, he knows everything they’d rather not have known. But he also still is going to offer them life. They are known, and still loved.

The second thing Jesus does for both of these people is offer far more than they expected to receive.

Nicodemus wants answers, wants to know who Jesus is. Jesus opens up the possibility that not only is Nicodemus loved by God, but the whole world, the whole cosmos is. And that a new birth is possible in the Spirit of God, which will give abundant life.

The woman wants a relief from an onerous and difficult daily task – she’d like running water in her home, basically. Jesus offers her a vision of a life richly filled with living water – with the grace and love of God. A life in which there is no such thing as Samaritan or Jew, male or female, insider or outsider – where she is known with all her sins and still offered life and love.

What’s so powerful about John’s two stories is how we can find ourselves in one of these two people.

Because we’ll either be one or the other, usually.

Some of us will likely identify with the insider, Nicodemus. For insiders, being known as a religious person, a follower of Jesus, can be awkward in social circles or at work. We might believe, but we’re going to keep it pretty quiet. We’ve got too much to lose if people think we’re one of those faith people. And insiders tend to keep faith to themselves even after meeting Jesus – just as Nicodemus kept his faith secret until after the crucifixion.

Others here today might identify with the woman, the outsider. For outsiders, life is about someone telling you that you’re not good enough, or your type of person is unacceptable, or you cannot be loved by God. Outsiders might fear that if Jesus really knew the truth about them, he’d think the same thing. They’ve got little to lose, but also little to hope for. And like the woman, when outsiders find welcome they tend to let others know, too – as she ran to her village to tell of Jesus.

What John does is open up the possibility that we might find ourselves welcomed and loved by Jesus in the same way. Whether you feel like an insider in this world or an outsider, there is invitation here from Jesus.

It will mean complete honesty – we can’t hide behind our pretenses and act as if we’re something we’re not. Jesus knows us completely and would rather we were honest about ourselves.
But it also means that we have the joy these two people had of being exposed for who we are and discovering that it doesn’t matter. That we are known fully and still loved. That though there are no pretenses with Jesus, there is grace and forgiveness.

And that means that it’s also true for us, whether we are outsiders or insiders, that Jesus has far more to offer us than we expect or ask.

As he said to the woman, if you had known who it was you were talking to, you’d have asked for more. Whatever it is we want in life – happiness, security, no risks, ease of living, no worries – Jesus doesn’t promise to give us that. We’re not going to find easy answers from Jesus which help us to faith, as Nicodemus wanted, and he’s not about putting in indoor plumbing, which would have helped the woman.

Instead, he offers us the real deal: rich, abundant, full life. Life in the Spirit of God which fills our hearts and souls with meaning and purpose. Life in God’s love which gives us confidence even in the face of suffering and death. Life in the arms of the One who is lifted up on the cross, as Jesus reminds us several times in John’s Gospel, to draw all people to him, all people to the grace of God.

What Jesus has to offer is the life God intended for us all along. Most of John’s Gospel explores how this abundant life, as Jesus calls it in John 10, is different and yet richer than life we think we want. Over 30 times in John’s Gospel life is what is offered in Jesus, God’s Word made flesh. In the two stories yet to come this Lent we’ll find that it’s better than getting our eyesight after being blind, better even than being given back a loved one who has died. It’s life connected to Jesus the vine, filled with the life of God which produces the fruit of love in us for the sake of the world.

As we’ve said several times already this Lent, John tells us these things that we might believe for ourselves that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and believing, have life in his name. Believing in Jesus for us then is not about believing in him for what we think he ought to be for us. It’s believing that he actually has life to offer us that is better, more meaningful, and with greater purpose and joy than anything else we could ever experience.

That he is Messiah in the way he will be Messiah – dying, rising from death, and offering us a loving relationship with the God in whom we are invited to live and move and have our being.

And so we leave it for today.

As to his new Samaritan friend, Jesus says to us, “if you knew the gift of God and who it is who is talking to you, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

If we could see ourselves with Jesus and begin to see what he truly has to offer, maybe even we could ask him and he would give us that living water. I mean, if insiders and outsiders are all welcome, there might be a place for us, too. As the woman said, “he can’t be the Messiah, can he?”

Let’s come to his Table and see for ourselves. And find life in his name, just as he promised.

In the name of Jesus. Amen

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