Monday, March 24, 2014

Sermon on John 4:5-26, for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, "Living Water"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Last week we read in John 3 about Jesus’ talk with Nicodemus about being born from above, of water and the spirit. Jesus said that just as the wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but don’t know where it comes from or goes, so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. So Jesus taught that the work of the Spirit was recognizable, but moved by the unseen. Today the breath of the Spirit and the Living Water move yet again in an unexpected way, to restore and refresh a parched and thirsty soul, who did not even know her thirst at first.
You ordinarily escape indoors from the hot noontime sun when you live in the Middle East, I understand. Before indoor plumbing, the women ordinarily went to the community well in groups during the cool morning hours, to avoid the heat and avoid going alone. So this Samaritan woman either had a reason to be, or wanted to be alone, even if it meant going out in the uncomfortable heat. And Jesus knew this was just where to find her. Of all the people in the village He could have chosen to meet, He wanted to meet her. With total purpose, Jesus placed Himself and His thirst, within reach of her help—even as He was bringing her undiscovered thirst into reach of His help. She would have water to quench His physical thirst; He would have Living Water to quench her deep spiritual thirst.
But He wasn’t supposed to be here—at least not according to Jewish custom. And it shows in her surprise. Jews and Samaritans were half-blood relations, but they had a bloody history between them, of idolatry, hatred, the destruction of a Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim, and retaliation by defiling of the Temple of Jerusalem. About 500 years of back and forth history was simmering with animosity between them. To find a Jewish man sitting by the well was suspicious enough—His request for water from a lone, unfamiliar, Samaritan woman was even more so. But Jesus wasn’t there to grind old axes and dwell on what divided them—He was here to bridge the chasm between Jew and Samaritan, and through the unlikeliest woman. As the Spirit blew that day, it rested on a woman who was the talk of the town, and the picture of isolation—whether it was self-sought or imposed on her.
Stop for a moment and consider what has changed from then till now. How different are communities today, than they would be if we had to go to a community well to draw our water? How different would our communities and our isolation be? Might we be forced to more face-to-face conversations, as opposed to conversing behind screens? Would we know one another better, and also be better known? But while indoor plumbing may have eliminated physical thirst and the toil of carrying water, the spiritual thirst of every soul is the same today as it was then. The loneliness and isolation that people feel today may be for different reasons and take different forms, but we all still need loving community. Jesus had divine foresight to plan His meeting with a thirsty and empty soul, but even with mere human sight can’t we see some of the places where humanity is crying out in loneliness, from guilt or pain? Are there ways we can intentionally respond? Do we see our vocations or stations in life as significant places for us to meet others and witness Jesus’ love to them? While our encounters might be unexpected—where Jesus knew what was coming—we can still be willing servants at Christ’s disposal. We can pray for opportunities to arise, and for us to be given the right words to say. Scripture promises us that the Holy Spirit is able to bless and lead us in this way.
As she questions His motives for asking a drink, Jesus begins a conversation about living water, and turns toward spiritual things. Still not tracking with Jesus, she points out that He has no bucket. When Jesus tells her that the water she is drinking is going to leave her thirsty again, and that He offers water that will never leave you thirsty, and wells up inside you to eternal life—He has her full attention. But she still has not understood her own thirst. She’s still thinking of physical thirst and the work it took to get her daily water supply. But Jesus sees a still deeper, unrecognized thirst in her.
What was that thirst, that Jesus’ “Living Water” satisfies? In Jeremiah 2:13 God said to Israel, “my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” Both Jesus and Jeremiah talk of water spiritually. In Jeremiah God tells Israel that the false gods that they worshipped as “replacements” for the One True God were “broken cisterns”—empty storage pits that could hold no water. They were seeking from false gods what only the One True God could provide. The deepest thirst of the soul is to be in fellowship with God, our Maker. Psalm 42:2 says, “My soul thirsts for God, for the Living God.” Augustine, the famous Christian theologian of the 4th century, came to Christ after spending much of his life pursuing fulfillment in excessive pleasure, false religions, philosophy, drunkenness and distractions,[1] and found himself empty and worn. Years after his conversion and baptism, he wrote of his search and his longing, saying to God, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.” This expresses the same thirst and restlessness of the soul that does not know God. Some people describe this as the “God-shaped hole” in us, that only God can fill.
As Jesus gently but resolutely opened her personal life in this private conversation, her suspicions and fears continued to melt away. While she was startled by His knowledge of her past, she also saw that He did not press on this to humiliate or wound her, but to direct her away from empty promises of fulfillment to the source of Living Water. In telling her to call her husband, he exposed the fact that she had no true husband, but five men who had divorced her, and now she was living with a man without marriage. Though only Jesus saw the full dimensions of her spiritual thirst, it’s a big enough hint for us that He had struck on the key point of her painful past. In doing so, He showed her that He knew her thirst, and that her sins were not hidden from Him. He knew what brought her here at this time of day, alone, where He knew He could meet her. And He was the answer to that thirst, not in the empty ways she sought it before, but in bringing her forgiveness and new life.
We approach Jesus, not at a well, but through His Word, and in His church where we gather to receive His gifts and blessings. Do we come unsettled by the thought that God’s Word will expose in us some sin or hidden shame? Do we fear what God’s Word has to say about our past, or even our present? Instead we can trust that as Jesus sees the full truth and knows our sin and thirst, so also will He be gracious and merciful to turn us away from the false and empty promises of the world, and back to Him. We can trust Him, as He has shown in countless ways His love and forgiveness for sinners; and we can follow Him on the path of new obedience. Knowing that His knowledge of our sin is not a weapon to wound us, but the scalpel in the hand of the good surgeon to heal us. Knowing that His faithfulness does not end in forgiving our sinful past, but continues  in leading us out of the captivity of sin in our present walk in new obedience. He is the Living Water that refreshes us for journeys and trials in this desert of sin, into His new life and freedom.
As the Samaritan women’s perception of Jesus continued to change, she soon saw Him as a prophet, and moved to genuine questions of worship, even if it was a convenient escape from her past. They were not far from the shadow of Mt. Gerizim, the center of Samaritan worship, where the Jews had destroyed their temple made to false gods. “Since you are a prophet, explain to me where is the right place to worship?” Jesus doesn’t point her to the Jerusalem Temple—because as He explains, very soon the worship of the One True God will no longer be centered there. In fact, “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and Truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in Spirit and Truth.”
Jesus is saying that the new covenant (which He was inaugurating), would be a landmark shift from the Old Testament to the New. It would not decentralize worship from Jerusalem, where God had declared His name and presence—but it would recentralize in Jesus Christ. You have to take in the context of the whole Gospel of John to realize this, but Jesus is the New Temple of God, and the center of all true worship. True believers will worship God in Spirit and Truth. He tells her that the Samaritans had worshipped what they did not know; but we worship what we know, for salvation comes from the Jews. Jesus is that salvation, and bit by bit His conversation was leading her to that Living Water and salvation in Him. Bit by bit the conversation moves from physical thirst to spiritual thirst, through her past to questions of worship and the true God, and culminating in her asking about the Messiah. “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ)”; when He comes, He will tell us all things.” Jesus answers, “I who speak to you am He.”
Suddenly the conversation has reached its climax, and she discovers this thirsty Jewish man, who she eyed suspiciously at first, is entirely more than she realized. How He had stirred her heart and soul, and given her the first refreshing drink of “water” in her memory! Something far deeper than any earthly refreshment she had known, the Holy Spirit filled her with joy and with faith. And forgetting her water jar, she ran to tell anyone she could that the Messiah was here—forgetting even her isolation.
Jesus is the Christ, the Living One, and when our soul thirsts for God, for the Living God, it thirsts for Him. And once He has poured out His life-giving Spirit and Living Water on us, we thirst no more. For there is none other who can quench our thirst; there is none other who can satisfy our soul. Our life reverses direction from an irresistible march toward the day of our death, with sin and empty pleasures drying us up and leaving us craving more, to a life that wells up inside us to eternal life. The life that drinks from and flows from Jesus, the Living Water who is never exhausted and never runs dry. And when we have found our rest and our refreshment in Him, our hearts can be at peace at last, reunited with the One who made us for Himself and whom Jesus redeemed to Himself. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. The Jews and Samaritans had some 500 years of violent history and animosity between them, including the Jews destroying the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim (128 BC), and the Samaritans retaliating by desecrating the Temple in Jerusalem on the eve of Passover, some years before Jesus was born. See the sins of Jerusalem and Samaria compared in Isaiah 10:9-11; Jeremiah 23:13-14; Ezekiel 16:51. Does Jesus allow the grudges and bitterness of the past stand between Him and this Samaritan woman? When she tests the water by referring to those things, how does He respond?
  2. Why do we think the woman was alone at the well? What is the likely cause of her isolation? Who are the lonely and marginalized people today? Where can they be found? Do we seek to bring the Gospel of Jesus to them? Are we available for God to bring us into significant encounters with them, to share the love of Christ?
  3. How does Jesus use her ordinary thirst to think about and discover a deeper spiritual thirst? How did He gently but inescapably expose her thirst? What is that thirst, and what satisfies it, and what things cannot? Jeremiah 2:13; Psalm 42:1-2; 63:1ff; Isaiah 55:1; Amos 8:11-12; John 7:37-39. What do we sometimes try to substitute for God? Why will this always leave us empty?
  4. How did her perception of Jesus grow and change, and what did she finally discover about Him? John 4:25-26, 29. What did she do with this discovery? 4:28-30, 39-42. How did people respond?
  5. How does the theme of not knowing, and then knowing appear in both the story of Nicodemus and the woman at the well? John 3:11; 4:21-24. Where (or to whom) does this new knowledge lead?


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