Friday, March 21, 2014

Reflections on the text – John 3 and 4 – Lent 3

Read John 3:1-17 here: John 3:1-17
Read John 4:5-42 here: John 4:5-42
Finding Jesus
Lost and Found!  Being lost and then found by God is an important theme in the Bible.  The children of Israel are lost in the wilderness, where they wander for 40 years.  But often they don’t think they are lost.  Often, in fact, those who are lost resist all attempts to allow God to find them.  Like a driver who refuses to stop for directions and would prefer to wander, the people of Israel just plunge on ahead getting more and more lost, and sometimes becoming hostile to those who would help them to be found by God. 
Jesus’ ministry is a ministry of healing relationships – our relationship with each other and our relationship with God.  Another way of putting this is that Jesus’ ministry is one of finding those who are lost and our Gospel text for both last week (chapter 3 – Nicodemus’ visit at night) and this week (chapter 4 – the Samaritan woman at the well) are beautiful examples of Jesus reaching out to those who don’t even know they are lost and helping them to find the truth of God in new and profound ways.  In chapter 3 Nicodemus visits Jesus at night.  He is a Pharisee.  He knows his Scripture and the law, but is obviously curious about this teacher and he comes to question him further.  But at the same time he comes in fear under the cover of darkness lest anyone would discover him.  Isn’t the following of the law the way we are to find God, he asks.  Jesus’ response is to turn this question upside down: we don’t find God, Jesus tells Nicodemus, God finds us!  For God so loved the world, that he gave is only son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16).  Even today many who read this text simply cannot accept the grace inherit in it and fixate on the “so that everyone who believes” turning this verse into a condition.  But this is wrong.  God’s love and commitment to humanity knows no bounds, it is beyond comprehension.  This truly radical acceptance and grace – this radical finding – comes through Jesus to all.  And, Nicodemus and readers through the ages – including you and me, are invited to open our hearts and accept this gift – to allow ourselves to be found! 
The companion story is found in the very next chapter, chapter 4 – Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well.  First a couple historical and textual notes – John is setting these two stories next to each other for a reason.  Nicodemus comes in the darkness and late at night - the Samaritan woman comes to draw water in the bright daylight of noon; Nicodemus is an insider, a Pharisee, a man (in a man’s world) and one of the ruling elites - the woman is an outsider, a Samaritan and a woman; Nicodemus is well educated - the woman is not educated but knows her traditions; Nicodemus focuses his worship of God at the Temple in Jerusalem – the woman focuses her worship on Mt. Gerezim in Samaria.  Both are lost, but neither of them knows it at first.  The heart of this scene is when the woman questions Jesus about where the true worship of God is to take place.  “Which is it,” she asks, “Jerusalem or Mt. Gerezim?”  It is probably a bit of a trick question, and indeed when I read this story I can see a twinkle in her eye.  She thinks she knows how Jesus is going to answer, after all he is a Judean, from Galilee, but still a Judean.  But, like Nicodemus, she is stunned at his answer.  “Neither,” says Jesus, “God is present with those who worship in spirit and in truth.”  In other words, God is not confined in a specific place, God is present with you here and now and God is present with you whenever you open your hearts and allow yourselves to be found!
It is important at this point to address a very popular interpretation error that has tended to affect our understanding of this passage.  In verses 16 through 18 Jesus asks the woman to go and fetch her husband.  She replies that she has no husband and Jesus affirms that, adding that he knows she has had five husbands and that she is living with a man who is not her husband.  Many preachers and commentators down through the years have interpreted this to reflect badly on the moral character of this woman – and thus distracted by this non-issue end up missing the important point of the story.  This story is not about morality – it is about being found by God through Jesus; it is about God’s unconditional love and acceptance of all!  Please note – Jesus does not condemn her and neither does he offer her forgiveness.  Why?  She has nothing to be forgiven for.  The fact that she has had 5 husbands would not have been her choice or her fault.  Women in 1st century Palestine had no choice over those kinds of things.  She was a victim.  She was either widowed or divorced – which would have all been done without her input or assent. This detail simply confirms the fact that she is very much an outsider, someone who has suffered in life, someone who has known loss and known powerlessness – unlike Nicodemus! 
At the end of these stories who recognizes their lost-ness and opens themselves to being found by God – not Nicodemus (at least not yet) – not the insider; no he slinks away still uncertain and fearful.  But it is rather the outsider, the Samaritan woman is the one who goes and proclaims the Good News of God’s love through Jesus.  She came to Jesus accidently, not knowing she was even lost but accepted that God had found her and went back to tell all she encountered about God’s love and grace.  She even leaves her water jar behind – because she doesn’t need it anymore – she has been given and received the gift of the “living water.” 
So what about us?  Jesus offers us the same gift; Jesus offers us the living water of God’s unconditional love and grace; God has come to us, has found us as we wander in our own wildernesses.  The question is - will we accept the gift? Do we want to be found?  Will we open our hearts to God’s love through Christ? Or do we still want to pretend we know where we are and have everything under control?  Last week Julie in her wonderful sermon invited us to step out of our comfort zones and do something during the week that would reflect our openness to Christ and our willingness to accept that Christ has found us.  What did you do this week that was an action of the heart, that was an act of belief, that was an act of openness to God’s gifts?  I hope you will continue to ponder and pray about this; I hope you will continue to do acts of the heart throughout Lent and beyond – for in this way we strengthen our relationships with others and with God; in this way those of us who wander lost in the wilderness of this world are found!
"The Samaritan Woman at the Well" by HeQi

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