Saturday, April 02, 2011

it begins and ends with grace (john 4)

It was about noon, the hottest part of the day in a desert culture and Jesus, exhausted by the journey, sat down by Jacob’s well. A woman, a Samaritan, came along at that time to draw water, and Jesus asks her for a drink. It is the beginning of a conversation, but it becomes an exchange between two unlikely conversation partners. He is Jewish, she is Samaritan. Jews looked down on Samaritans, and Samaritans hated Jews. There was a long and contentious history, rooted in the exile and the division into tribes. The Samaritans had intermarried with the Assyrians, their captors. They were no longer religiously pure or politically correct. South of them was Jerusalem, where the temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. Later it would be rebuilt by the Judeans, who had always remained separate from other cultures.

That is a very brief history of two invasions and two exiles over several hundred years, but it all flows into the conversation between these two people, Jesus and the woman at the well. And it leads her to ask the question: How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a Samaritan? And then John’s comment: Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans. We learn something very significant in this request. Jesus is in a place which would have been reckoned as pagan by his people. The very vessels would have been unclean to a devout Jew. In many religious cultures a spiritual leader or even a practicing religious man would not take a drink in a religious environment different from his own, and would not converse with a woman. Jesus does both. So what does this say about Jesus? We might connect these actions with our gospel from last Sunday: God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

A few weeks ago I heard Lovett Weems speak. He talked about a simple concept: a presumption of grace. What if we entered into every conversation, every encounter, with a presumption of grace instead of a presumption of judgment? I have reflected on that question. Why do I presume that I am more spiritual than you are? Why do I presume that I care more about the poor than you do? It may be true, it may not be true. Why do we presume that we are more compassionate than other people? Why do we presume that we are more generous than other people? It may be true, it may not be true.

What if we began with a presumption of grace? Jesus does not begin with a judgment of the woman, although given the history, the politics and the religious factors involved, he might have. He begins with a presumption of grace, and he does so through the simple act of sharing life with her. I was sitting with a group of friends, waiting for a concert to begin. We were at the Station Inn in Nashville, which is like a Mecca for bluegrass music, and an exceptional group was going to perform that evening. The whole place itself is smaller than the chancel area of this sanctuary, so we were up close. We were also close together, as the place was filled. I was glad we had gotten seats.

In the intermission the guy next to me asked where I was from. He had a beard, longer than mine, and appeared to be about my age. I told him “Charlotte”, and asked where he was from, and he said he was from Memphis but he was moving to Nashville. “What do you do?,” he asked. “I am a Methodist minister. What about you?” By now we are in a conversation, I realized. “I am a record producer”. “Tell me about your church,” he continued. That is a wonderful opening: I talked about the music and the joy class and Haiti and the homeless. He seemed more interested than I would have imagined, even if he was not your stereotypical church person, but then I don’t think of Providence as your stereotypical church. Then I asked him, “So do you produce bluegrass music?” He said, “Well I really produce rock music”….and then he named a few people…Sister Hazel, Three Doors Down. Now I have not heard their music, but I know enough to know that, in his world, this is a big deal. The conversation continued, because the intermission stretched on. We exchanged addresses and he called my cell phone, so I have his number, and he has mine. I am going to send him a book; he is going to send me some music. And although it was closer to midnight than noon, and the Station Inn is not Jacob’s Well, and I am not Jesus and he was not a Samaritan woman, we were unlikely conversation partners, a minister and alternative rock music producer/musician. At some point, and I can’t remember the particulars, we began to talk about Christianity and the church. Bluegrass musicians are pretty open about sharing their faith, so it came up naturally, and he was surprisingly open about it all too.

He said, simply, “For me it begins and ends with grace.”

A presumption of grace…the Samaritan woman is startled to discover that this man is willing to share life, a cup of water, even an extended conversation with her. Their dialogue is remembered in the long passage that takes up most of the fourth chapter of John’s gospel. It is a fairly complex passage, almost as if they are talking across each other, Jesus on some kind of symbolic level, the Samaritan woman in a more literal way. But it has everything to do with what they share in common, in that moment: water. For the woman, water is the next thing on the agenda, relief, nourishment. For Jesus, water is this---he is exhausted---but it is more. It is living water. For the woman, drawing water from a well represents the endless cycle of her responsibilities. For us, drawing water from a well might represent the endless cycle of our agendas, our to-do lists: what I have to do today, tomorrow, this week, and then it all begins again. It is ordinary life. Jesus helps her to see the extraordinary in the ordinary---the water in that well is a foretaste of life in which there is no thirst, it is the gift of God that leads to eternal life.

Then there is the brief and awkward conversation about the woman’s personal history. It takes up three verses in a thirty verse passage, so we might say ten percent of their encounter. Interestingly, Jesus does not judge or condemn her. He simply names her present reality. She quickly changes the subject. That happens in conversations that become awkward, doesn’t it. And if you read the scripture for today, you will see that the topic becomes worship, where to worship, how to worship. As I have reflected on this passage this week I have come to the conclusion that this may be the first recorded discussion in history of traditional and contemporary worship. The Jews worship in Jerusalem, at the temple, and the woman connects Jesus with the temple. Obviously he is a prophet. But the Samaritans worship on a mountain not far from that well---it was actually Mount Gerizem, which had become something of a rival temple, an alternative worship setting. The underlying question: should we worship on this mountain or that mountain? Which is better? Which is right?

How do you think Jesus would answer that question? Is he going to come down on the side of traditional or contemporary? He responds, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor Jerusalem….the hour is coming when we will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.

And so again Jesus pushes us beyond the ordinary to the extraordinary: it is not where we worship or how we worship, but who we worship. We worship God the Father, through the spirit. Our obsession with styles of worship can in fact be a way of avoiding the substance of worship, which is God. We have many strategies at our disposal to keep God at a distance. One of the most seductive is the church’s insistence on keeping this conversation going: do we worship on this mountain, or on the mountain a few miles away? In this moment something begins to happen. Jesus reveals himself to her. He says, “I am the Messiah who is coming into the world, it is I, who is speaking to you.”

And as in many of the best conversations, this is where they are interrupted. The students of Jesus come along, and they are astonished that he, a rabbi, is speaking with her, a woman From the very beginning, women and men have been a part of the gospel story, no one was excluded from a conversation with Jesus. And so the woman leaves her water jar and goes back to the city. And listen to what she makes of her encounter: Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! Some people hear a sermon, or participate in a worship service, and they learn something about the preacher. Some people hear a sermon, or participate in a worship service, and they learn something about the church. Some people hear a sermon, or participate in a worship service, and they learn something about the Bible. Some people hear a sermon, or participate in a worship service, and they learn something about God. But something in addition is possible. Some people hear a sermon, or participate in a worship service and they learn something about themselves. That is transformation, and that is what happens when we encounter Jesus Christ.

To worship in spirit and in truth is to become honest before God about where we have been and who we are. To worship in spirit and in truth is to understand that our character and our integrity are at stake. And so the Samaritan goes away saying, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done”. That is her witness, and that is our witness. Witness is not telling other people what they should do; that is judgment. Witness is telling other people what has happened to us and in us and among us. And so the conversation---and it is the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in the gospels—moves from water to worship to witness. What we do with the conversation is up to us: do we draw water from a stagnant well or do we taste living water? Do we get caught up in where and how we worship or do we enter more deeply into the question of who we worship? Do we keep Jesus at a distance, or do we begin to see him for who he really is, and thus, do we begin to see ourselves for who we really are? Do we imagine that we are not good enough tell others about Jesus? Do we think we do not know enough to tell others about Jesus? Or do we simply share the Jesus that we know, and the Jesus who knows us, and say, “Come and see”?

Do we see others with a presumption of judgment? The woman at the well, the person we have a contentious history with, or maybe ourselves? Or can we follow the Jesus who always seems to encounter any person he meets with a presumption of grace? And so the Samaritan woman asks, “how is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a Samaritan?” And we might ask, “How is that you, a holy and righteous God, shares life with me, a sinner?”

The answer: “it begins and ends with grace.”

Sources: In gratitude to Paul, for the conversation, and to Lovett Weems.


Blogger Betsy said...

Thanks Ken, it must be by grace we can learn and move from encounters of judgement to those of grace. Great to be in true worship with you yesterday. Blessings to you !

5:03 AM  

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