Serving: The Meat of Ministry

Watch the entire worship service:

Sermon Text:

We aren’t going to read the whole story, so let me set the stage for the part we are going to read.  Jesus has been down in the area around Jerusalem.  He’s heading back north to Galilee, going through Samaria.

002-jesus-samaritan-womanHe stops to rest next to a well while the disciples go off to find some food to eat.  While he’s resting, a Samaritan women comes to get water from the well, and Jesus asks her for some water.  She’s surprised that Jesus is even talking to her.

Jesus: If you only knew who you were talking to and the gift God has for you. I can give you living water.

Woman: You don’t have a bucket. How can you give me living water? And are you greater than our ancestors who built this well?  (Who do you think you are?)

Jesus: I offer water that will keep you from being thirsty, bubbling like a spring eternally.

Woman:  Please, sir, I need that. Jesus: Go get your husband.  Woman: Don’t got one.

Jesus: I know, and I know your whole situation.

Woman:  You’re a prophet. So answer this – why the debate over worshipping on Mt. Gerazim vs. Jerusalem?

Jesus: Soon it won’t matter. Woman: Yeah, messiah is coming. Jesus: I AM he.

Read John 4:27-42

If we could choose one word to sum up the past week, I think for many of us maybe it would be COVID-19.  It’s top of the news.  Even though we don’t have cases in our immediate area, it’s changed our lives already.  Events have been cancelled.  The college has extended spring break. Sterling Village has restricted access to the facility, and so has our hospital up in Lyons.

I can tell you that it’s been the focus of conversations among pastors, too, as we discuss how to respond and care for our churches, and, always, how this will impact what we preach.  Today’s readings are from the plan of Sunday readings chosen for this day by church scholars decades ago.[1]  I made plans to use these appointed readings when I was looking ahead months ago, long before we had any idea there would be a COVID-19.  Does this reading have anything to say to us now in the midst of this world health crisis?

Yes, it does.  Surprisingly, or maybe not surprisingly, because COVID-19 is surely no surprise to God, this story can help us know how to respond.

There’s a lot going on in this story.  It’s the longest recorded conversation Jesus has in the Bible.  And he’s having it with a woman, and she is in an area that Jewish people typically avoided because Samaritans were their enemies.  Another place we read about Samaritans is in Luke’s story about the Good Samaritan who stopped to help a man lying on the side of the road.  Jesus tells that story to show us how to love our neighbors.  The story here in John is similar.  Jesus is bringing the good news of God’s love to Samarian neighbors.

Jesus says his food is to do the work of ministry.  Loving our neighbors and serving one another is the heart of ministry.  The meat of ministry.  Why has this conversation with the Samaritan woman been fulfilling?  What is the work of ministry Jesus is doing here?

  1. Healing old divisions – reaching across cultural boundaries[2]

Jesus is speaking to a woman, something that crossed a gender boundary, and he’s speaking to a Samaritan, crossing a cultural boundary.  And he asks her for water, which means they will have to share a cup.  Eating or drinking with someone is an act of welcoming and hospitality, and something Jews and Samaritans wouldn’t do together.

  1. We may not fully understand the division between Samaritans and Jews, but we have divisions today. And sometimes those divisions come out in hateful ways.

There is a restaurant in Texas that is owned by a man who is a Muslim.  One week, vandals attacked his restaurant twice by covering the door with bacon, something that is forbidden for a Muslim to touch. [3] It was a horrible thing to happen, but the community wanted the man to know that the vandal didn’t represent everyone.  They organized an event inviting everyone to come to the restaurant and show support.[4]  So many people came that they extended the event.  It was a wonderful way to promote healing and reconciliation.  Sharing food and drink at that restaurant together was a show of welcoming, hospitality, and acceptance.

  1. Jesus and the woman at the well would have shared a cup. They didn’t know this back then, but we know today that also means they’d be sharing germs.
  2. We trying very hard this days not to share germs, but we do want to be reaching across cultural boundaries, whether that’s gender or economics, race or religion, or age.
    1. One of the reasons we have a ministerial alliance here in Sterling is so that we can work together despite our denominational differences.

The situation with COVID-19 gives us the opportunity to consider our health and age differences.  I’m not as likely to be affected by the virus, but I come in contact with people who are.  This virus is much scarier to those who are more vulnerable, but it’s a virus, so we all play a part in spreading it, or stopping it. That’s why we stopped shaking hands last week, and why we won’t pass the offering plates today.  It’s why we’re all learning to wash our hands better and more often.  It’s why many churches are meeting online today.

The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 2 Cor 5:17-18 God has given us the ministry of reconciliation. Let us do that with love.

  1. Knowing this woman without judgment
    1. Jesus asks the woman to go get her husband. She tells him she doesn’t have one, and Jesus adds that he knows that she’s had several husbands, and that she is not married to the man she’s with currently.   We might read that with judgment, but Jesus isn’t being judgmental, just insightful.  If he were judging her, she would have left and not come back, but she does come back and brings others with her to meet Jesus.

I watched a new TV show this week called Zoe’s Extraordinary Playlist.  Zoe is a young woman who goes for an MRI, and while she’s in the machine there’s an earthquake.  Afterward, she discovers that she hears people thoughts.  Actually, not just their thoughts, but their deeper emotions, because what Zoe hears is them singing.  The first time it happens, she’s walking down the street and the woman next to her starts singing “All By Myself” (don’t wanna be….)[5] revealing her deep loneliness.

We don’t have Zoe’s ability, nor are we Jesus, but we do have the Holy Spirit who helps us to have insight and empathy.  People may not be singing songs to us about their deepest feelings, but there are clues in their faces and posture, and in their words and actions.  People around us might be as lonely as that woman that Zoe heard singing, or they might be afraid or hurt or angry.  If we can listen, and listen without judgment, we have the opportunity to love our neighbors in a powerful way.

People are reacting differently to this current crisis because it affects us all differently.  Let’s be patient and gracious with one another, acknowledging and respecting each other’s fears and concerns, offering comfort and help without judgment.

  1. Acknowledging her capacity to spread the gospel
    1. I don’t think Jesus met this woman by accident, but even if he did, he could have simply asked her to bring him to her village so he could talk to one of the men in leadership. Instead he talks to her and reveals to her that he is the messiah, and she goes and tells everyone.
    2. Through this woman the good news goes viral, kind of like COVID-19 did with the man in New Rochelle, NY. There are so many cases there that they’ve set up a containment zone around that city.  All those cases can be traced back to that one man.[6]
    3. All the people in this woman’s village who come to know Jesus do so because of her. One person.
    4. But also one unlikely person. A woman.  A layperson.  A Samaritan.  A woman with five husbands.
    5. When we take the time to listen to one another, we might find that people we thought we would be helping will actually say things that help

One day a woman went grocery shopping with her four-year-old granddaughter Juliet.  On the way home, they stopped at a red light where there was a young man standing on the median holding a sign.  Juliet asked her grandma why the man was there. Juliet had lots of questions.  “Where is his mommy?  Where is his home? What’s the matter with him?”  The grandma told her that the sign said, “I’m starving. Please help.”  Juliet was immediately sad. “Aww, poor thing.”  Juliet’s response tugged at her grandma’s heart, so she suggested they go home and make him a sandwich.  Juliet was very excited about this idea.  At Juliet’s urging, they not only made a sandwich, but packed a bag with chips and an apple, water and some cookies.

As they drove back to find the boy, the grandma was thinking all sorts of jaded thoughts.  What if it’s a scam?  What if he’s dangerous?  Is this even wise?  Shouldn’t he go to a soup kitchen instead?   But Juliet was excited, anxiously looking out the window for the boy.  “Is he still there?  I hope he likes what we brought.”

They found the boy, and as the grandma handed him the bag, they looked at each other.  She saw none of the things in his face that she expected to see.  He didn’t look drugged out or drunk.  He certainly didn’t look dangerous.  He had a nice face.  He had tears in his eyes and he said thank you.

As they drove away, Juliet said, “Aw, grandma, he was hungry.”[7]   He was indeed.  And were it not for Juliet, the grandma would not have brought him food. The gospel shared by a 4yr old.

There are many ways to love our neighbors and serve one another.  We’re going to have lots of practical ways to love our neighbors in the days ahead, as we deal with the impact of this virus on our health and our economy.  We know how to do the practical things, and we’re going to have lots of opportunities to do those. Let’s also go beyond the physical needs and offer emotional and spiritual help to one another.  Let’s be making phone calls to check on each other and to talk with those who are lonely or frustrated or scared.

In the story that Betsy read for us from Exodus, the people are complaining because they have no water.  This week we’ve heard a lot of stories about something equally important – toilet paper.  People were stocking up in case we end up quarantined in our homes, but also because people are afraid.  Moses brings the complaint about water to God who then tells Moses how to bring the people water.  We can bring people living water by praying with people, being comforting and encouraging, and not dismissing their fears, but listening and acknowledging them.

Our lives may be in chaos, but we know the One who brings order out of chaos, Who spoke into the chaos and created a beautiful world for us out of nothing.  God’s word still speaks to us today, reminding us that God is with us always.

Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still and know that I am God.”  God will help us in ways we haven’t even considered yet.

Paul tells us in Romans 8:38-39 that nothing can separate us from the love of God that we have in Jesus Christ.  Not our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow.  Not the powers of hell or even death.  Not even COVID-19 can separate from the love of Jesus.

Jesus says in Revelation, “Behold, I am making all things new.”  God is always working to renew us and draw us to himself.  God is working in our world right now.  What might God be showing us and teaching us?  We’re learning a lot about how to be more healthy.  What else are we learning?  What new opportunities are there for growing?  Where are there new opportunities to do the will of God?  We’ll each get some different answers to those questions, so let’s all be asking them and trusting that God is good and faithful and will guide us and take care of us.

Thanks be to God.

[1] https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/faq2.php

[2] All three points borrowed from Gerard Sloyan, Interpretation Commentary on John, Westminster John Knox Press.

[3] https://houston.eater.com/2016/12/5/13842670/muslim-owned-galveston-restaurant-vandalized-hate-crime

[4] https://www.khou.com/article/news/community/community-shows-support-for-vandalized-muslim-owned-restaurant/366617690

[5] https://www.bustle.com/p/every-song-from-zoeys-extraordinary-playlist-ranked-from-adorable-to-make-it-stop-19773143

[6] https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/11/us/new-rochelle-attorney-containment-area/index.html

[7] https://givingspeaks.com/2011/10/20/a-story-of-radical-hospitality/

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