This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: John 4:1-42
Sermon prepared by Rev. Jim Poelman, Sarnia, Ontario
Topics: Testimony, Grace, Lord’s Supper
If we were to write the story of our Christian faith with the intention of sharing it with our friends and neighbors, what would we have to say? It would seem pretty obvious that our story would have to include some solid biblical material, something about forgiveness, a line or two about John 3:16, or a picture of the Prodigal Son being welcomed home by his gracious father. Most of the "Christian Testimonies" we hear have a predictable story line. The template of the story starts with "I had drifted farther and farther from God. My life was a mess and I did not know it. And then God miraculously came to my rescue, turned me around and now my life has direction and purpose."
It is a good story line but if the story of our life does not fit the template, do we have a story to tell? What if we have never drifted far from God? What if we are not at that place where all the troubles of the past are in the past? What if our story is not clean and bristling with Christian piety and perfection? What if we are only hanging on to our faith by our fingernails? Perhaps the thing we need to do then is keep our struggles to ourselves, work a little harder at getting our life together and only when we have been successful, do our part to "Go and make disciples"?
The story of Jesus conversing with the Samaritan woman is usually read for its surprising play on words. The plot begins with Jesus asking a Samaritan woman for a drink of water, and the conversation ends with Jesus offering her Living Water. As we listen we marvel at the way in which Jesus opened this woman’s eyes, broke all the cultural, religious and sexual barriers of the day, so that she could see that it was the Messiah of God standing in her presence.
We are blessed by the early part of the story. The imagery that Jesus used to illustrate who He is and what is to be gained by believing in Him, catches our attention. The opening words of Psalm 42, "As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God," are not only familiar to many, they are experienced by all of us. We long to meet God, to be blessed by His living presence and to have this thirst for God quenched forever. We listen to Jesus conversing with the Samaritan woman but along the way Jesus no longer is talking to a Samaritan woman. He is talking to us. We find ourselves in this picture. It is a conversation between the two of us. We are at the well and Jesus is coaching us into asking Him for a drink of water.
The early part of the story is a good place to be but the concluding part of the story is just as intriguing. Jesus has set the stage for the final part. He has created the plot line and He has provided the audience. His Twelve Disciples have returned from McDonalds, bags of combos and drinks in hand, and Jesus--hungry as He was--did not want as much as a French fry. "I have food to eat that you know nothing of," Jesus said.
The "food" Jesus had his eyes on, as He made clear to the disciples, was the fields that were ripe for harvest. The "ripe fields for harvest" were the Samaritan people who God wanted to include in the family. As Jesus gave His Sunday School lesson about His Father not wanting anyone to be lost, Samaritan or Roman, the Samaritan woman had slipped out the back door and was busy gathering the real food that Jesus was hungry for. She was witnessing what she had heard and seen in Jesus.
The story told by a Samaritan woman to her neighbours and friends is God’s gift to encourage us to be witnesses for Jesus. Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman is the Holy Spirit’s way to have us write our Christian testimony and share it with our friends. It is this last section of the story that we need to absorb as much as we ponder the wonders of the Living Water section.
The fact that we find the Samaritan woman’s story in the Bible, shaped as a direct response to Jesus’ personal conversation with her, gives us good reason to consider her story as having received God’s wink of approval. Jesus would have us listen to the Samaritan woman’s testimony and, in her witness to her community, to find ourselves being able to write our own story and then sharing it with family and friends.
Her "Christian story" is very short and, by the standard of most seasoned saints, dangerously shallow. There is little Christian content to her ‘Jesus and me’ story. In fact you would only need a fraction of a very small napkin to write her entire story from beginning to its end. "Come" she said, "see a man who told me everything I ever did". Well, you do not need a degree from a Bible college or a doctorate from a seminary to see that there is little to no Christian content in her story. If this Samaritan woman’s story is all there is to a "Christian Testimony" then every man, woman and child, Christian or atheist, could tell a "Jesus and Me" story.
But our Christian witness is never about words, words, and more words. It does not need to be prim and proper, clean and polished to be a genuine witness. A testimony is made of words that tell the story of the grace of God given to you in Jesus, God reaching out and touching you where you are. Testimonies are deeply personal stories. They are stories that do not come pre-packaged, canned from pulpits and dispensed through the internet and used when the opportunity presents itself. These are stories that tell of Jesus coming to you where you were and how His coming was like a glass of cool refreshing water, quenching your thirst on a hot, blistery day.
The wonder of His coming, surprisingly, is not to impress upon you the need to repent, change and get your life in order so that when you have cleaned up your act (booted the man you are living with out), you can than taste and see that the Lord is good. The wonder is: God knows us, knows all about us--no secrets kept hidden, no shame left unnoticed--and still He is willing to drink from the same cup covered with our saliva. The Samaritan woman listened to Jesus and saw her past being opened, layer after hidden layer. And the way in which He opened her past was like a skilled surgeon opens a wound so she can clean, disinfect and heal it. What Jesus did for the Samaritan woman was to shape a story of God’s grace poured out. And it broke the silence of a sin-shamed person. She was transformed and witnessed to her friends and neighbours.
You can be sure that everyone in the town of Sychar knew the story of the "town mistress", the one whom Jesus met at Jacob’s well. She had a reputation and it was not a good one. We do not have a lot of the details describing her lifestyle. We have enough to know she would never have been chosen as Sychar’s model citizen of any given year. We know she was shacked up with her lover. We know she had five husbands before this man. We could be gracious and weep with this widow for having lost five husbands in her short life time. But death was not this woman’s enemy. Shame and ridicule was.
It is most likely that she had been loved and left behind repeatedly, husband, after husband. Broken by many divorces, she had given up on the marriage. "Why bother with the legalities" became her new motto. The town folk could point their accusing fingers at her, knowing that she was now living with her lover. She had moved in with him. There had been no marriage ceremony: Just two glasses of wine, romantic candles caste a telling tale on the closed curtains of the bedroom windows. The rest was left to the imagination and the town folk made their conclusion. The town was alive with chatter. Yes, everyone knew the Samaritan woman and what kind of person she was.
Have you ever felt such personal criticism and slander? You know how we respond to such looks and the gestures? We go into hiding, don’t we? We avoid the crowds. We keep to ourselves. The Samaritan woman hid herself from her community. She went to get her daily water supply at the traditional community well when everyone was home eating their lunch. What normally was a communal outing, the women going to the town well together, like friends gathering for a coffee and a donut, this woman avoided. She stayed home, kept to herself. She spared herself the pain of behind the back whispers and the cutting acts of criticism.
At noon, when the sun was at its peak and the heat outside was intense, this woman went to get her water. At noon it was safe for her to venture outdoors. Everyone else in the community was then inside, in the shade, and eating their lunch.
Slander is a cruel weapon. Now and then we hear it said, "Sticks and stones can break my bones but names will never heart me." What utter nonsense. Names hurt more than the pain inflicted by sticks and stones. Bruises heal with time but slander rumbles on for an eternity, always condemning us as being unworthy. Slander grows like cancer; it takes over our own conscience and convinces us that our past condemns us. Slander imprisons us in our past. Strong voices tell us that we cannot be witnesses for Jesus. "Just look at yourself," they say. And we cannot help but agree.
It is the noise of this slander from within and without that Jesus silenced and its prison that Jesus opened. He unlocked that closed door, probing the secrets, not to condemn but to say "The Body and Blood of Christ given for you." What this Samaritan woman had to hide from, what she lived in shame of, and what drove her to stay away from her own family and friends, Jesus removed. In the uncovering of her shame, Jesus offered her God’s refreshing grace, like cool, clean water on a hot day, with an abundance and abandon that could not be fathomed.
For those who knew the full story of her life, those who were her neighbours and accusers, they did not need to hear more than her one sentence when she came that afternoon knocking on their closed doors, saying "Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did." The wonder was not that Jesus, as the Messiah, knew what was hidden in the recesses of one’s mind, like some fortune teller with his gear box stuck in reverse. The wonder was He knew--He knew what was there--and instead of condemning her like everyone else who believed God Himself certainly had condemned her, Jesus offered her the Living Water of God’s grace.
I imagine that seeing her joy gushing like water from a fountain looked a lot better to the town folk than the sticky residue of their own greasy slander. There was life in her eyes and a dance to her steps that had them take notice. She did not have a long polished and perfect testimony for them to sit up and listen to. Just seeing her, seeing her joy, hearing her enthusiasm about some stranger she had met, was enough to grab their attention. They followed her lead all the way to where Jesus was still waiting for their coming. It was a town gathering like no other. The whole town gathered at the well, the disciples watched, chin down to their knees, and the fields that were ripe for harvest were coming home.
The Gospel writer John does not give us all the details of the story. We can forgive him for that because, as he confesses at the conclusion of this gospel, if he said it all "the world would not be big enough to hold all the good news." But, John has provided us enough between the lines for us to fill in the blanks. I believe we can see Jesus eating His fill, filled with joy and bubbling with excitement. The entire town of Sychar, even the men, were saying to their town mistress, "We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world".
The story of their belief, however, started with a less than perfect witness, a less than polished and perfect testimony. But it was enough. It was more than enough to change the lives of an entire community.
Do you have a story to tell? When were you running like a deer longing for water? When did it seem you were far from God? When did your conscience tell you that you did not deserve God? Let the wonder and the grace of this story bless you with the Good News that Jesus is not ashamed to share the same cup that is covered with your saliva. And He is willingly offers you a cup filled to the brim with forgiveness and salvation.
You do have a story to tell and you (not just the preacher or the overseas missionary) are the one to tell it. What will you include in your story? What is the best story coming from the raw pages of your life that you can give for others to meet Jesus? Maybe a story telling others how you put your life in order, finally shaped your life to be a fine Christian, with a bright, eternal future, is not what is needed. The Samaritan woman’s "Meet a man who knew everything about me and still gave me the grace of God like water quenching my thirst" is the story that can best help others to see Jesus.
What an amazing story! Jesus shows us the way to be His witnesses by having us listen to the story of a woman, …a Samaritan woman from outside of Israel, …a mistress who became a witness for Jesus. And her witness still frees us from our prisons of shame, breaks our silence, and has us follow her in telling others "Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did."
Order of Worship
Come, Let Us Worship
Call to Worship: Isaiah 55:10-13
Hymn: #410 Crown Him with Many Crowns
Welcome and Greetings
Prayer: Lord, our God, we are gathered to give our praises to you. We thank you for your Holy Spirit’s powerful presence. Bless us with the ministry of your grace, mercy and peace. We pray that the young and the elderly, the seasoned saints and the curious seekers among us may be surprised and intrigued by the Good News coming from your Word. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
Hymn: #554:1,3,5 In Sweet Communion, Lord, with You
WE CONFESS OUR SINS
To worship God in truth requires that we be honest with ourselves and with God. 1 John 1:8 says "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us." Psalm 130 has us consider what it means to stand on our own before God when it asks, "If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?" The answer, of course is "no one." The psalmist quickly goes on to say, "But with you there is forgiveness…" Let us embrace the mercy and grace of our Lord by turning to Him in prayer:
Our Father in heaven, we confess our sins. The sinful thoughts we have entertained, the words we have spoken and the things we have done have hurt you, our neighbor and the cause of your kingdom. We considered our own needs above others, we have neglected your Spirit’s bidding, and we have busied ourselves building our own kingdoms. Forgive us and let your peace still our anxious spirits. Create within us a new heart and stir us to serve you faithfully. For yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory, Amen.
Hymn: #178:1,2,5 What Shall I Render to the Lord
WE SEEK HIS KINGDOM FIRST
To be forgiven by God is to be raised with Christ to a new life. Jesus said, "She who has been forgiven much, loves God deeply." The Holy Spirit of God is poured out upon us that we may bear fruit, a life-style that reflects "…belonging to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ, in body and soul, in life and in death."
Listen to Jesus as He concluded His Sermon on the Mount with the instruction that we do more than listen to God. He encourages us to be wise builders, people who listen to God and live accordingly.
Read Matthew 7:24-27.
Hymn: #186 I Will Exalt My God, My King
YOUR WORD IS A LAMP TO OUR FEET
Children’s Message (If your congregation practices a special time for the younger members, a story teller could use the visuals of water to quench thirst or the wonder of a story to catch people’s attention. Both would connect well with the Scripture reading and the sermon message).
Prayer: "Spirit of the living God, move among us all; make us one in heart and mind, make us one in love: humble, caring, selfless, sharing. Spirit of the living God, fill our hearts with love" (Psalter Hymnal 424: 2). Let your Word, Lord Jesus, speak to us with the same surprise, wonder and joy it had when you first spoke it beside Jacob’s well to an unsuspecting Samaritan woman, Amen.
Scripture Reading: John 4:1-42.
Message: "Come, See a Man Who Told Me Everything…"
WE RESPOND WITH THANKSGIVING
Hymn: #532:1,2 We Have Told the Blessed Tidings
Prayer: Creator Lord we thank you for your gift of life. Each day is a wonder and a blessing. We thank you for health, for the joy of loved ones, for the comfort of your daily care. In a world in which we are often overwhelmed by the power of evil and the pains of injustices, we thank you for your Holy Spirit’s persistence in keeping our eyes focused on your present, kingly rule. Yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory. We rejoice in knowing that you reign over every place and people of our world.
Today we pray for those who struggle with health issues: those who face chronic illnesses, those who are receiving medical care, and those who are their caregivers. We thank you for our medical community, their research, skills and love. Bless them and us with the gifts of your compassion and healing care.
We pray for each other that we may be a blessing to each other. We thank you for the rich variety of gifts that you have given to your church and which we experience in our congregation. Thank you that we are more than heads, hands and toes. You have made us into a body, each part dependant on the other and no one being of greater importance than the other. Bless us with integrity and love for your body, the church. Let our unity together reflect well our love for you within this community where you have called us to minister.
Thank you Jesus for the time you took to sit by Jacob’s well, for the love that compelled you to travel through Samaria, and revealing a food that could not be purchased in any fast food plaza. We are amazed that you can use people like ourselves, using us and our life stories to help others to come and meet you. We are truly honored, Lord Jesus, and surprised by the wonder of it all. Spirit of God, delight us with the Good News that you know everything about us and still you offer us your body and blood, yourself, the Living Water quenching our thirst and our hunger for the assurance of your forgiveness and love forever. Send us home now with the courage and the desire to tell our stories, and repeat in this community the story of your grace in Sychar, the Samaritan’s story. Amen.
Offertory Prayer: We give you, Lord, what you have first given us. Thank you for the ministries which we are able to support together. We pray for those who minister among us and for those who minister far from home. We pray that the Good News of your kingdom may be experienced in Word and Deed. To that end, we pray for your Holy Spirit’s blessing to rest on these gifts and may they bring your blessings to those who are the recipients. Amen.
Hymn: #501:1,2,4 Oh, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing
We DEPART UNDER GOD'S BLESSING
Prayer: Lord our God, we pray that you will bless us and keep us, turn your face towards us and fill us with your grace. Lord let the glorious light of your Son Jesus Christ shine on our lives and fill us with stories of your surprising peace that passes all understanding. Amen.
Closing Hymn: #501:7 To God all Glory, Praise and Love.