My sermon from October 30th, 2011 based on John 4:5-26, 39-42. 5th of 5 in “Better Together” series.
A couple of weeks ago now I ended up out for a daddy daughter dinner date with Hannah. We went to her favorite place, Old McDonald’s, and we were sitting there doing that dance of negotiation regarding how many more bites of chicken or apple she needed to have before she could go play in the play area. In the midst of our conversation a visitor stopped by our table. It was a young boy, probably 8 or 9 years old and he just kind of swooped in and out really quickly, only staying long enough to say, “would you like to have this?” and handing me this little flyer.
“Road to Heaven.” It opens by asking a couple of questions, all centered around what happens when we die and then there are four different streets, each with a bible verse. On the back there is a bit more information about hell, a prayer that one could pray (with less than satisfying grammar), and some information about what I presume to be this young man’s church. I think this young boy shared his faith with me, but I’m not really sure… And I know how I received this as a pastor, but I can’t know for sure how this would strike me if I had no church background, but I don’t think it would be quite enough to inspire me to give my life to Jesus or even to visit their church for worship. I appreciate the boldness of the young man, but have some concerns about this whole thing too.
Today we conclude our series, “Better Together.” Over the last four weeks we have explored various spiritual disciplines and the ways in which we are all better, as individuals and as a community of faith, when we live our faith in community.
We began by talking about the reality that we’re better as we pray together as the discipline of prayer helps us to better connect to God’s love for us and helps us better connect to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Three weeks ago then we talked about the reality that we are better as we are present together as a part of the community of faith. Being physically as well as mentally, emotionally, spiritually present for worship and life as a part of the community allows us to more consistently and deeply grow into who God is calling us to be.
On the third week of the series we addressed the reality that we’re better as we give together of our financial resources. As individuals our giving is an act of faithful response to God’s love for us that defines who we are and shapes us. As a community of faith, of course, we are better able to dedicate financial resources to fulfilling God’s ministry in our community and world when we have a larger pool of people giving more regularly to Christ’s work through the church.
And last week we talked about the reality that we’re better as we serve Christ together. Again, this church, like any church, is at the most basic level nothing more than a community of people who have decided to come together and to make commitments to God and one another. Giving of our time and talents in service, like giving of our financial resources is a way in which we are called to respond to God’s love for us. Serving through the church in the world helps us broaden our perspective and grow.
And today we conclude our series by talking a bit about what it means for us to live our faith together in the world, to share our faith with others in the world. Have no fear, though, I’m not going to distribute leaflets to have you pass out at restaurants, but rather I want to reflect a bit on why we share our faith and what it can look like when we do that. I want to center the conversation around the great story from the gospel of John that we read earlier this morning.
I love this story. It is a fascinating story, but to really understand this story it is necessary to understand a little bit of the back-story. In the first century Jews hated Samaritans. I know, I know, hate is a strong word. But Jews hated Samaritans. They despised them and thought them to be mixed race dogs. Their hatred led them to avoid traveling through Samaria or encountering Samaritans if at all possible. When traveling through the region they would cross extra rivers and travel extra miles on foot just to avoid traveling through Samaritan soil.
In John’s gospel we are told a story about Jesus and his disciples traveling immediately through Samaria. At mid-day they stopped at a well and Jesus remained there while the others traveled an additional two miles into town to get food. As Jesus was resting at the well a Samaritan woman came to draw water. The well was a communal well; in the mornings the men would be there to water the livestock and in the evenings the women would come to get water for the next day and to do washing. It would not have been common for a person to be at the well at mid-day. This woman likely came hoping not to see anyone, hoping to be alone. And there was Jesus.
Another layer of the back-story that might be helpful to understand here is that a social custom for the day would have stated that it was inappropriate for a man to talk to a woman in public, but Jesus engages her in conversation nonetheless. They have this interesting exchange about the living water that he offers and he reveals to her the depths with which he knows her (you have had many husbands, but the man with whom you now live is not your husband). They have a lengthy discussion in which the woman states a belief that the messiah will come and then Jesus (saying something he rarely says) makes the statement, “I am the Messiah.”
When the woman hears Jesus make this statement she drops her water pots (which would have been very expensive) and heads to town to tell others the good news of this man she has encountered. After encountering Jesus this woman’s life was changed and she became an immediate witness. She probably wasn’t passing out flyers, but she went to share the good news.
In this text there is a powerful illustration of what it means to witness to our faith, but there is also a serious warning against becoming too complacent in our routines and our lives of faith. The hero of this story is a woman who was looked down upon and despised. She was a Samaritan. She was a woman. She had been married many times. She now lived with a man who was not her husband. Yet, even though she was rejected culturally, she had a powerful encounter with Christ and wanted desperately to tell others about the good news. She rushed to be a witness.
The fact that this woman, that this type of woman, is the hero of this story is totally unexpected. There were a group of people who had been following Jesus, living closely in relationship with him, listening to his teachings, and witnessing his miracles. This group went into town to get their groceries and then headed back to the well where they had left Jesus. In the telling of this story they showed no enthusiasm for the life and teachings of Jesus, they were simply bogged down in routines and errands.
We are invited to witness to our faith as did the woman at the well, to share the story of Christ’s transforming love with our communities. We are invited to do so with enthusiasm and passion. At the same time we are cautioned to not become too complacent in our routines so as to miss opportunities to celebrate and share God’s love with others.
So what do we mean that we’re better together as we live out our faith, as we witness together? There is a traditional understanding of the word witness that primarily has to do with the words that we speak. This is not an inaccurate understanding, but it is incomplete. Yes, on one level we are to speak words that tell other people about God’s love for them. However, if we’re not careful, our efforts might feel as odd to some as it felt to have that young boy hand me this flyer at dinner a couple of weeks ago.
Of equal and maybe even greater importance than sharing our faith with our words, is the way that we are supposed to bear witness to our faith through our actions and the way we live. If we tell people that God loves them, but don’t treat them lovingly, they aren’t going to hear what we have to say. However, if we tell people that God loves them and then we share that love with them and treat them in loving ways, they are much more likely to understand and experience the love of God.
And so, of course, I would encourage you to talk about your faith, to talk about the difference that God’s love makes in your life. But even more so, I would encourage you to really be intentional about living out that love, to letting your life be a witness to God’s love working within you. One of my favorite quotations, that beautifully captures the essence of this idea, is often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel always. When necessary, use words.”
I believe that, if we do this church thing right, our involvement makes a difference in our lives. I believe that taking intentional time to pray, and the act of being present, and the spiritual disciplines of giving and serving can help us become the people that God intends for us to be. I believe that when we do these things our perspective on life and the world can be changed. I believe that we can be happier and more at peace with the realities of our lives. I believe that the people who know us, our co-workers, our friends, our families, might begin to see a difference in our outlook and attitude.
You see, being a part of a community of faith isn’t just about achieving or accomplishing a goal at the end of this life. It isn’t just about being saved. It isn’t just about getting into heaven or avoiding hell when we die. Being involved in a community of faith is a way to connect to Christ’s love for us, to grow in that love, and to experience a new way of living here and now. And as you experience that life, others will want to know more about it and they’re going to ask you about it. And when they do, the door will be open for you to share your faith and to invite them to this place and for all of us to continue experiencing the reality that we’re better together.