Inviting Jesus

Kathryn Lester-Bacon on March 23, 2014

The story that precedes these verses is one you might know if you are involved with Second Course. It tells of how Jesus did something shocking. Jesus is sitting a well in the middle of a village in Samaria. It is high noon, the fiercest heat of the day. A woman approaches. We as readers can speculate that she is there she does not feel comfortable to go any other time. She is a woman who has been married five times and now lives with a man who isn’t her husband. She is thirsty and has her jug to draw water. Jesus asks her for a drink. Jesus, a Jewish man who teaches the scriptures, who knows the Law and the rituals of what is pure and impure, Jesus talks to this woman. He says “The water I will give will become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” and the ostracized woman asks “Where do you get that living water? Sir, give me this water.”

There is so much that could be said about this encounter. It is rich in symbolism and significance. But I want us to focus on the verses that arrive at the end. For here, after the woman walks away with her life transformed and her feet alight with good news, she runs to her fellow villagers and tells them what she has seen and heard. Amazingly, they listen to her. Then, this happens next. Let us listen to the word of the Lord.

John 4: 39-42 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word.”

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

This story begins in a shocking trespass of ethnic, political, religious, and gender boundaries. It ends in Jesus receiving the hospitality of these outcasts, sitting, resting, teaching, and eating with the Samaritans for a couple days. I wonder what might it have been like for his disciples to come upon Jesus talking to this woman. I wonder what was their reaction when they noticed that Jesus was reaching out to and receiving invitations from people they believed were not up to standards.

Well, I have good news! Thanks to our youth, Ethan and Duncan, we have a chance to hear a conversation between Jesus and Peter. Let us listen…

Jesus and Peter Dialogue:[1]

Enter from the Left

Peter:  Eh….Jesus….?

Jesus:  Yes, Peter…?

Peter:  Eh…I was just thinking…

Jesus:  Is that a new experience, Peter?

Peter:  I was just thinking about this…eh…church.

Jesus:  Is something bothering you, Peter?

Peter:  Well, I’m just confused. Is it just for Jews?

Jesus:  No.

Peter:  Is it just for Gentiles?

Jesus:  No.

Peter:  Is it for everybody??

Jesus:  Mm-hm.

Peter:  Including women???

Jesus:  Mm-hm.

Peter:  Jesus!!!

Jesus:  Yes, Peter…?

Peter:  Do you know what you’re getting yourself into? 

Jesus:  Yes.

Peter:  Well, do you know what you’re getting me into??

Jesus:  Do you have something against women, Peter?

Peter:  No, I’m married to one. But if they don’t know their place in the church, they’ll ruin everything.

Jesus:  You mean, they might ask questions and think you don’t know everything?

Peter:  Well…yes…

Jesus:  And that would be a new experience?

Peter:  Well…it’s not just women. It’s the kind of women.

Jesus:  What do you mean, Peter?

Peter:  Are you never afraid you’ll get contaminated?

Jesus:  From food?

Peter: Not from food…From people.

Jesus: Oh, you mean the little girl with the measles?

Peter:  No, not children…adults…like that woman.

Jesus:  Which woman?

Peter:  You know the one.

Jesus:  You mean Phontina?

Peter:  That’s not what most folk call her.

Jesus:  Maybe not, but I’m not most folks.

Peter:  Jesus, she has a reputation.  Has had five husbands already.  They say she’s a cursed man-eater. Also, she’s a Samaritan! And you just talked to her, Jesus.  Like nothing was wrong with that. You ought to hear what people are saying.

Jesus:  I can imagine. I’m hearing what you’re saying.

Peter:  So…

Jesus:  So…?

Peter:  Jesus, you don’t know where she’s been. You don’t know what she believes.

Jesus:  Do you always know what you believe, Peter? 

Peter:  Come off it, Jesus. You’re not making a fool of me. You’re making a fool of yourself.

Jesus(Sternly) So, what if I am? What is it to you, Peter? Are you worried about your reputation? Just remember when I first met you, you were no perfect saint. You swore like a sailor and you stank of fish, and you made off-color jokes all the time.

Peter:  But I didn’t act like she did.

Jesus:  No, you acted worse than she did. Phontina knows she’s not perfect, but you thought you were wonderful, God’s Gift to the world. People don’t contaminate me, because, unlike you, I don’t go looking for dirt on them. I go looking for gold. Plenty of people tell Phontina she is cursed. Plenty of people used to tell Joel that he was unclean because he was a leper and had fingers missing. Plenty of people still whisper behind Matthew’s back that he used to be a dirty tax collector. There’s dirt in everybody, Peter. But those who know how bad they’ve been don’t need you or me to remind them or to avoid them, in case we get contaminated. When you look at Phontina, you see a man-eater.

When I look at her I see a disciple…and it’s the same with Joel…and it’s the same with Matthew…and it’s the same with you.

Peter:  But what about your reputation?

Jesus:  Peter, what about their lives?

Exit to the Right

 

John 4: 39-41 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days.

This story is full of the good news of Jesus Christ spreading through the land; but it doesn’t make everyone happy.

In fact, this is the season of Lent, where we remember that Jesus set his ministry down the path of love, which crossed many boundaries and angered many people in power. 

We are human beings; we like to draw lines and name one side “Saved” and another “Unsaved, “Clean” and “Unclean”, one side “Promising” and one side “Unpromising.” We draw circles around our selves and make sure that they include our favorite people, the people who look, sound, think a lot like us. But when we do draw these lines and circles, carefully crafting barriers and make sure that we are on the inside, we will quickly discover that we’ve left Jesus out of our circle.

I am reminded of this past week with the death of Fred Phelps, the founder of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, KS. The Phelps family makes up almost all of Westboro Baptist. It’s hard to even call it a church. This group has made the news over the past few decades for traveling all over the country picketing funerals and holding up signs, with language of fierce contempt and mind-numbing hate. Biblical principles of Love and grace, compassion, hospitality, and trust in God never make it on to their signs. When Phelps died, four of his nine children were estranged from him.  Indeed, it came to light this week that Fred Phelps himself—and his daughter who had fought Westboro’s case in the Supreme Court—had been excommunicated by the elders of Westboro last month. The group is tightlipped but some speculate it was because Phelps was seen as getting soft. And his daughter was taking too much of a leadership position.[2] This is a sad end to a bitter life.

Jesus crosses boundaries, no matter how high we place the walls or how much we mock him for his trespassing. So now that Fred Phelps has died, I believe he is learning, perhaps for the first time, the love and grace of Jesus Christ.

Indeed, yesterday Westboro Baptist picketed again for the first time since Phelps’ death. Across the street was a group who held up signs saying “We’re sorry for your loss.” One of the women who held the sign, Megan Coleman, noted that the Westboro Baptist protests seem to pull people out of the woodwork to do their own counter protests.  “It kind of brings people together,” she says. [3]

This story can show us how, no matter how fiercely someone defends barriers of hate and prejudice, it is still possible to draw different circles, circles of love and grace. Jesus did not reject the Samaritans. He invites outcasts and sinners alike into the fullness of God’s Kingdom. Before we even approach him, Jesus is at the well, waiting in the heat of the day, waiting to invite us into a kingdom of grace and compassion. He tells us good news of how we might be renewed by water so abundant and refreshing that it would quench our thirst for ever.

Jesus meets people where they are—the woman at the well, or a short tax collector who climbs up a tree, or a number of not-yet-discipled fishermen, cursing up a storm… Yes, Jesus meets people where they are, but the key thing is that these characters don’t meet Jesus, listen, and then let him pass on by. They ask him to stay awhile. Zaccheaus, the tree-climbing tax collector, lets Jesus come to his house. After Jesus says “Follow Me,” the first question those fishermen ask is “Where are you staying?” The woman at the well runs and tells her Samaritan neighbors, who then come to this strange teacher and ask him to stay. And he does, for two whole days. 

And THIS is what upsets those enemies and disciples of Jesus. He isn’t just giving some good speeches to these unclean people and then getting on the road. He visits their homes, breaks bread and rests with them, teaches the scriptures and gets to know their families for days.  It is very important where Jesus stays and who invites him to stay with them.  As disciples of this Jesus of Nazareth, it is one thing for us to read the scriptures and marvel at this man. We might even take time to snap a picture and tweet a quote before continuing along our busy way. These are easy to do.  

It is not so easy to hear Christ’s words and ask him to stay with us awhile.  It is not so easy to build our days and community life around him. But we can try. In fact, this is what Brian Blount, wrote about when considering this passage. Here, from these few verses at the end of the Samaritan woman story,

“Jesus has shown the way that cuts across the boundaries that humans devise...In John 4… for a brief moment, he succeeded. For two days, Jews and Samaritans prayed and worshiped together as an undivided people. Where there had been division, there was now community.”[4]

When we draw tight circles around ourselves, fearing what is outside and declaring that we’ve got it right on the inside, defending our barriers and building our fortress walls high, we risk looking around and realizing that we are the only one inside. And we might see Jesus, on the other side, watching us, waiting for us, hand extended outward, asking us to step out and drink fully from the abundant water of eternal life—rather than sip anxiously through our own little straw.

We are invited to step out of our fear and into Christ’s love, to leave behind our lines of judgment and to step into relationship with God’s grace, THIS is the good news that changes lives. This is the good news that makes us invite to Christ “Stay awhile. Please.”

You might have read articles about the decline of denominations. A lot has changed from 50 or a 100 years ago. Many churches are older and smaller than they were then.  However, we can fixate so much on loss of numbers in the last 100 years that we forget to notice what has actually been happening for several millennia. Worshipping communities have always shrunk and grown across the many generations. And in our fear, we can ignore that the God of the Ages is always doing something new in the midst of our lives. Those times when we see past the way “things always have been done”, we will glimpse a vision of living-giving water coming from surprising places.  

The Presbyterian Church USA has a new initiative called 1001 Worshipping Communities. With the help of some seed grand money, leaders are encouraged to draw circles of grace and hospitality and build worshipping communities in unexpected places. So now there is a small PC(USA) community in a trailer park and a homeless shelter, at a dinner church in a downtown apartment and an interracial worshipping community in the East End of Richmond, up on Church Hill. 

There is also a circle of rocking chairs on a small white 100 year old church in Floyd County, Virginia. This church was about to be closed and sold off, but a local Presbyterian pastor, Edwin Lacy, had a new vision. He called it the Wild Goose Uprising. Worship happens on Tuesday nights and it includes banjos, Appalachian music, and communion wine out of mason jars. Lacy has had several interviews about his vision of church.  He says:

“Traditional Appalachian music will be integral to everything we do….I want to [celebrate] the love of the land, the camaraderie, the music, arts and crafts, and the community of willingness to help each other…I lead from the rocking chair… Many people are wounded from the church, but are still Christians. I’m trying to reach out to those people. I believe in embracing the quest, embracing the mystery. I’m not preaching answers, I’m preaching questions.”

He describes the worship service as greeting God with a mixture of prayer, liturgy, and music. And why Wild Goose? Lacy explains that in the Celtic Christian tradition, the Wild Goose is the symbol of the Holy Spirit. “It was a better representative than a dove because a goose is free, strong, humorous, and well…wild. A wild goose will also sneak up behind and bite you in the seat of your britches—an apt metaphor for how the Holy Spirit often works in our lives.”[5]

People don’t like being bit in the britches by the Holy Spirit. People don’t like Jesus talking to Samaritans and lepers, prostitutes and Pharisees. Those in power don’t like being told that God’s love is more powerful than they are. It is easier to create barriers that divide and condemn rather than draw circles that unite and include.

In the scriptures, we see that Jesus comes into the world, reaching out when others recoil, healing what others fear, loving what others spit upon. And he knows where this is going to lead him…

Like the woman at the well, we have many questions for this Jesus of Nazareth. Like Peter, we get annoyed by his response and where he chooses to stay. Like so many characters throughout scriptures, we must learn to ask this Messiah: “Will you stay awhile?” And like Jesus, we must practice drawing our circles of community in ways that build grace, love, and JOY. Sometimes it will look like the shouts of a woman who is heard and believed by her fellow villagers.

Sometimes it will look like a circle of rocking chairs with banjos sending greetings to God through the mountain air.

So, friends: Christ is waiting at the well.  What do we do now?



[1] Adapted From: Bell, John L. and Graham Maule. “Contamination”, “A New Experience.” Jesus and Peter: Off the record conversations. Wild Goose Publications: Chicago, 1999.

 

[2] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/20/westboro-baptist-church-fred-phelps-dies

[3] http://www.kshb.com/news/local-news/westboro-baptist-church-protests-lorde-concert-first-protest-since-phelps-passing

[4] http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2014-02/sunday-march-23-2014

[5] http://wildgoosecc.com/building-a-new-fangled-church/