October 2, 2016 —World Communion Sunday
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Who Are You Going to Believe?
(third in the series “Following Jesus through the Fourth Gospel”)
Today we’re continuing our fall series “Following Jesus through the Fourth Gospel” which explores the role of the disciples in the Gospel of John. This Gospel is famous for illuminating the mystical relationship between the Son and the Father. Jesus abides in God, and God abides in Jesus, and God abides in us. But what about Jesus’ relationships with other people?
We left off last week where Jesus was going to Galilee. On the way he stops in Samaria which might seem like a strange choice. There was an intense history of hostility between the Samaritans and the surrounding Jewish communities that goes all the way back to the Babylonian exile. Anybody hearing this would ask, “Why would Jesus stop in this neighborhood of all neighborhoods? Why would he choose this town to saunter into the bar, and order a drink, and talk to a woman? Which is pretty much what happened. It was a well, not a bar, but the same idea.
What happens is a sexy and theologically sophisticated tango of a conversation between Jesus and this unnamed woman at the well. It leads up to the point where the woman says, “I know the Messiah is coming” and Jesus says “I am.” Then who shows up on the scene?! The disciples have caught up to Jesus, and this is where today’s scripture begins.
I invite you to imagine what it would be like to be in that group of disciples. Clearly they’ve walked in on something, but what exactly was going on? The Bible says they were astonished, and no one asked what everyone was thinking: “What are you doing talking to her?” Can you imagine the silence of this unasked question…
The woman hurries to leave and forgets her water jar. She goes back into the city shouting, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” And if I were standing there in that group of disciples, I wouldn’t know.
The disciples tried to get him to eat something, but Jesus would have none of it. Instead he tells a parable: “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me. Aren’t people saying, four months more then comes the harvest? But I say the fields are ready for the harvest now.”
It’s like he’s saying the kingdom of God is at hand right here in this neighborhood. The kingdom of heaven is already come, with no concern over who did the work or who deserves it. It’s not just that the Messiah is coming, but see, he’s already here.
That’s when the disciples realize what the woman realized. If any of them really looked at her when she turned in a hurry to leave, I wonder if they would have seen it in her face, if they would have been able to tell that her life had been transformed by this conversation with Jesus. It’s like he looks at you and sees the whole story of your soul, and you look at him, and you just know. Now your lives will never be the same. Truth seeing truth. Light seeing light. Look at Christ and let Christ look into you, and the kingdom of God is flooding the universe —no more waiting or working.
Maybe the disciples are swept up in the swelling of this realization. Maybe the light is shifting and their eyes are opened, and it’s like the time those other disciples recognize him in the breaking of the bread.
But here’s the thing. If I were with those disciples on that afternoon, I can totally imagine being the one who wonders, “What if everyone else is having this mystical experience, but not me? What if they are looking at Christ and seeing the truth of God, and I see him, and I don’t know?” Then who are you going to believe…
And so it is. The first thing that happens in today’s scripture is the disciples interrupt Jesus and the woman, then they’re left standing there wondering who he is. The second thing that happens is the woman goes back and tells the people in the city, “Come and see this man because what if he’s really the Messiah?”
It would be one thing if this woman were a respected spiritual leader in the community, but that’s not at all the case. Throughout our Christian tradition, she is often portrayed as a prostitute. That’s also not fair. There’s no evidence that she is a prostitute, but something is going on with her. She told Jesus that she’s had five husbands, and maybe that’s a metaphor, or a lie, or maybe she was a widow being handed off from one brother to the next. We don’t know. We do know that she came to the well at noon which is exactly when the other women wouldn’t be there; they would come in the mornings or the evenings.
So I wonder what the Samaritans thought of her before this day. Did they see how vulnerable she was? Did they see her at all? I wonder if they tried to convince themselves that her shame was not really their problem. Maybe they thought, “If she’s in this position, it’s her own fault. I don’t know what she did, but I’m sure she did something to deserve it.”
Friends, I can guess how these claims might go, because I have said heard myself say them before. Maybe you’ve said them too… I know that people on the registry of convicted sex offenders have an extraordinarily difficult time finding a place to live. Most landlords won’t rent to them. They can’t live near a school or playground. It’s no wonder so many sex offenders are homeless! So I tell myself, “Well, it’s kind of their own fault. They got themselves onto that list…”
There is such an appealing theory that goes: if a person is poor, that’s because they’re too lazy to get a job. Or they just want to take advantage of government handouts. Or maybe they don’t know any better. Or they’re choosing to blow their money on drugs.
Really? If I can convince myself of any of this, then I feel less guilty, less responsible.
And so there is a critically important argument we keep having with ourselves. On one side is the dominant narrative which goes: “If that person is suffering, it must be their own fault or their own choice. They must’ve done something to deserve it.” There are times when I am lured into the false loveliness of this logic. If they deserve to be in this situation, then it’s not my problem, then I’m off the hook, right? Thankfully, there are other times when I hear my conscience interject with, “Yeah. I’m not buying it.” Maybe you’ve heard your conscience say that too.
Of course, a person can be poor because their family has been poor for generations, because there are no jobs within walking distance and the buses stop running at 9:30pm when if you could find a job you’d need to be there at 11:00pm. The world says, “If a person can’t get to work on time, it must be their own fault…”
Unless “What if it’s not?” says our conscience. But who are you going to believe?
Imagine being in the city with the Samaritans on that afternoon when this woman comes running down the street. She’s shouting that she may have just met the Messiah. There’s something about her shouting that makes her seem entirely crazy. There’s something about the look in her eyes that makes you believe her.
Sure enough a crowd is beginning to gather; some folks see Jesus approaching and invite him to stay in town for a few days. You know there are people who talk with him for five minutes, and it’s like they had been waiting for him this whole time. Their whole lives are changed by one conversation, one tug on his garment…when I don’t know. I think if I had been in that crowd of Samaritans on the afternoon Jesus came to stay, I don’t know if I would see what everybody else was seeing when they looked at him.
Sometimes it happens where you look into the eyes of Jesus Christ and he sees the whole story of your soul, and you see the truth of God. Light seeing light. Truth seeing truth. The kingdom of God is flooding the universe!
Then there are other times when you realize, maybe that’s not the whole miracle. Maybe it’s not only about seeing and believing Jesus; maybe it’s seeing and believing this woman whom I hadn’t even noticed before.
The truth is we live in a world full of people who go unnoticed and unbelieved, and it doesn’t have to be that way. There are children who are afraid to talk about abuse in their home because who would believe them… Believing someone who’s telling the truth is not no big deal. Believing someone who’s telling the truth, especially someone who is vulnerable, this is what saves lives.
After Jesus had come into the city and the Samaritans believed in him, they went back and found the woman whose name we don’t know. I’d like to think they told her “Thank you.” The Bible says they told her, “At first we believed because of what you said, now we have seen it for ourselves.” And I wonder if Jesus’ disciples heard them say this. Because we know what happens later.
The day will come when Jesus gets killed. His body is taken off the cross and laid in the tomb. Imagine being with the disciples in these hours. Nothing feels real. Then you hear a woman who everyone knows is dealing with mental illness. Here she comes running down the way shouting, “I have seen the Lord. He is risen!” And of course she is crazy and mistaken. Except there’s something about her that tugs at your conscience. I mean, really, who are you going to believe? Amen.