(At this link, you will find a video of just the sermon and a page with the liturgy from the service.)
A sermon preached at the 2017 NEXT Church Conference in Kansas City. March 14, 2017
John 4: 15-18; 29
It’s a little jarring for me to tell only that small portion of the story of the woman at the well.
The first words we hear from her in this section of the passage elevate, for me, her desperation. Please, Jesus, I’m thirsty. I’m parched, deep in my soul, and I desperately want to not be thirsty anymore. I would also love to not have to keep coming back to this well, where the women give me the side eye, and decide they know everything about me, and exclude me because of the many ways I don’t measure up. I can’t keep coming back here. Give me this water.
And at first glance, it makes Jesus’ response—go, call your husband, and come back—almost insulting. It raises my hackles every time I read it. He doesn’t really think she wanted 5 husbands, did he? Surely he knows her powerlessness in this and yet this is the question he asks? She asks for living water, something which he brought up in the first place, don’t forget, and then he takes a turn and brings up the husband situation.
I will at least note that Jesus acknowledges, by asking her to bring back her husband, that a woman cannot be caught in the very act of adultery by herself, as some men will try to accuse another woman a few chapters later in this book. So, yay?
How did the thirsty woman—this desperately thirsty woman— hear Jesus’ question, I wonder?
I can picture the questions in her head.
Did he really just ask me about my husband?
Is he going to be just like everyone else and decide he knows everything there is to know about me without bothering to really know me?
How does he even know to ask me this question?
Why would I bring a husband to the well? Men don’t gather water.
Am I safe to be honest with him about my story? Is my story safe with this man?
What do I say?
Have you ever experienced something similar—where you weren’t sure how to respond to a question posed to you?
For me, this inner dialogue pops up when people ask me how many kids I have.
That may be an easy answer for some.
For me, it’s a little complicated. If I’m not sure how “safe” the conversation is, or how much time I have for the conversation, or whether the person who asked it actually cares about the details of my life as we talk at a cocktail party—then “two” is the answer I give. It’s a true answer. I’m not lying. My husband and I have two children.
The honest answer, though, is I have three sons.
As some of you know, I placed a child for adoption when I was in college. It’s been an open adoption, so I’ve been a part of his life through it all. I have to leave here early tomorrow because I’m headed to Dallas for his wedding.
As an aside, if anyone has the etiquette book for birth mother of the groom at weddings, I’d love a copy of it.
(The wedding was great, btw. I never found a copy of that etiquette book, which would have come in handy. I’m thankful to have been there for that important weekend).
When this son, my first born son, Eric, was younger, and when I was more raw and vulnerable about the situation, I spent a lot of time figuring out when and how to tell my story about him.
When my other kids met Eric, and when they knew him and could talk about their other brother, I “came out” about being a birth mother to as many people as I could.
I never wanted my kids to feel they couldn’t talk about their brother.
I didn’t want shame or silence to be a part of their story.
I wanted their experience of family to be both true and honest.
Also, I really want to tell people about my son. He’s a pretty great guy.
Think of how many different ways people have to do this equation.
When you meet people at church, or at work, or at a birthday party is it okay to tell your honest story?
About being gay, lesbian, or trans?
About being an alcoholic?
About being laid off?
About your marriage falling apart?
About your mother having alzheimers and not knowing how to care for her from far away?
About how you voted for Trump?
The world isn’t always a safe place to bring our honest stories, our whole selves.
And honestly, even if the world were good with it, we get messed up in our own heads about it. We think that everyone else’s stories are perfect and ours is the only disaster. And so we have a tendency to offer either a false self, or just a barely true self, to the people we meet.
Like the woman at the well, we’re faced with that nanosecond to make all of those calculations to decide and take the risk to be authentic and to bring our honest selves to the conversation.
John doesn’t give us her inner dialogue. What he records for us in the text was her answer. “I have no husband.”
Her answer has always felt partial to me. Not wrong, exactly. Jesus says it is the truth. It doesn’t it feel like the whole truth, does it?
Her answer feels like the equivalent of an alcoholic telling people, “I’m not having a drink tonight”, which may be a true statement, when the honest answer would be “I’m an alcoholic, so day by day I’m doing my best not to drink again”.
Both answers are fine. Only one of them is fully honest and vulnerable. If you know the honest truth and aren’t fooling yourself, the safe truth may be all that’s needed in some settings. For there are places where safe truth is appropriate and is all you need to share.
Jesus tells the woman her answer is true. He also reveals he knows her honest answer:
“You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.”
Jesus lets her know he already knew her honest truth before he asked her for a drink, AND he chose to be there, talking to her, offering her living water, offering her grace that accepts her, loves her, values her, just as she is.
We preach, or hear this preached, this every week, right?
God’s grace is sufficient for us.
We are God’s beloved children.
And then somehow we are still surprised to discover God knows everything we’ve ever done and is still there talking to us.
I confess to you that in most of my life, I prefer being safely true rather than being truly honest. Vulnerable is not my spiritual gift, which is clearly sarcasm.
I really really relate to the woman at the well, and her “I have no husband” answer. In fact, the He Qi print in your worship book hangs in my home, in a place where I see it every day.
Because in her I recognize my tendency to want to be true without being fully honest and vulnerable. In her, I recognize someone who, like me, discovered life wasn’t unfolding exactly as she thought it would play out, AND who was nonetheless the person to whom Jesus offered living water.
I relate to the woman at the well, in so many ways, as her story is my story, her story is our story. Life doesn’t unfold exactly as we think it should, and Jesus meets us where we are and offers us living water.
Safe truth will only get us so far. It may protect us and get us through the day. It won’t connect us to other people. I use it as a wall, to keep people out, so I’ll be safe.
Walls. Alonzo spoke yesterday about the walls we build systemically to keep some people from full access to life, to hope, to wholeness. Sometimes, though, we erect the walls ourselves, on a more personal level, little hedgerows around our hearts.
What I’ve discovered, though—and this is not rocket science people. I trust many of you knew this without having to go to therapy— the problem with hiding behind walls is that you’re left alone.
Sure, nobody is hurting you, but they also can’t get to you to love and support you either. We often put up walls for good reasons. Then we leave them up, long after they have out-served their usefulness, barriers to protect wounds that have long been scarred over.
And you can’t make real connections with people from behind walls of safe, sanitized stories we tell about ourselves and each other.
At the end of the woman’s encounter with Jesus, she puts down her water jar and heads back to the city and tells everyone to come and see the man who told her everything she’d ever done.
She doesn’t say “come and see the man who bought the story I told him about my life”.
She invites people to come see the man who told her everything she’s ever done.
If I’m a townsperson hearing that, my first thought, is ‘what is everything you’ve ever done. Do tell’.
If she wants to talk to people about Jesus, she’s going to have to tell her story honestly. If she says, “trust me, it’s private, we had a moment, but its a good story”, everyone will walk away and leave her to her private experience.
How will they connect the Good News of the Gospel to the parched and dry places of their souls if they don’t know how it has sated her soul?
She also makes her statement about Jesus being the messiah in the form of a question, which is also a form of vulnerability, making a claim and acknowledging she might be wrong. We could use a world where more people acknowledged they might be wrong.
Earlier, I said there were plenty of places where the safe truth is enough. We aren’t called to tell everyone we meet everything we’ve ever done.
The safe truth won’t fly with Jesus though. God became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth. Do we think he doesn’t know who we are? People, please.
There are plenty of other wells out there. Ultimately, those other wells won’t satisfy. The well of self reliance, or the well of “everything is just fine”, or the well of prosperity and success, or the well of fear and anxiety—they leave us temporarily sated but perpetually parched.
When we encounter Jesus at a well of Living Water, we bring our whole, vulnerable messy stories. If we want to go tell people about Jesus, we have to lay down the water jars we fill up at the well of safe truth.
What kind of wells do people find when they bring their empty water jars to our churches?
Are we creating communities where people can bring their messed up, broken, disastrous, beautiful lives and find living water? Or do we only offer shallow wells of “wear your Sunday best” and “look at how well my life is going?”
Let me share a story about the congregation I serve. They are welcoming people, people who hug strangers and
drag them, I mean invite them, down to coffee hour. We had a visitor who had been with us 3 or 4 weeks, enough that I could greet him by name, let’s call him Jeff.
One night at our Sabbath service, I introduced myself to a woman who was visiting as I was on my way into the sanctuary. Worship began, and about halfway through the first hymn, I realized that the woman I had just met was actually Jeff the visitor.
After worship, I raced to the back of the sanctuary to catch her and I apologized for not recognizing her. She said, “I figured I hadn’t been here enough for the pastor to know me.”
I replied, “no, that’s not it. I just didn’t recognize you because tonight you’re a woman. You don’t look like Jeff tonight. I didn’t know this was part of your story.”
She said, “I’m not out to my family or work yet. So don’t say anything on Facebook. But this is my true self and I realized that at this church, I was safe to be who I really am”.
I could also tell you stories about how we get it entirely wrong at the church I serve. But in this case, our new visitor was safe to bring her whole self to church, and able to lay down her water jar and receive the gift of living water.
Friends, we live in a world full of walls and shallow wells, creating a thirsty, isolated world. We live in a church full of walls and shallow wells, for that matter. And we come to conferences like these, and we want to impress our colleagues, and act as if “everything is great where I’m at, sorry if you’re serving the mainline church in decline”.
We see the great ideas our colleagues share and think “my congregation should have just hired that person instead of me”, all while the people sharing their ideas are thinking, “why did they ask me to lead this workshop because everyone sitting in the audience is more qualified to talk about this than I am?”
You see the problem. We keep coming to wells that leave us perpetually parched.
As Steven said yesterday in his Peace for Peoria presentation, they have a policy to not compare “my best to your worst”. The reverse ought to be true too. We shouldn’t compare our worst to someone else’s best.
Conferences and gatherings like this can be like work and family were for the visitor at the church I serve—places where we aren’t safe to bring our true selves.
What if we took the rest of our time together to try to be honest about the struggles we’re facing, the challenges in our calls, the inadequacy we try to hide? What if we could be support for each other? What if we allowed our brokenness to be recognized by the brokenness in each other?
I suspect we would find the living water Jesus offers, within this very community, slaking our thirst and renewing our souls.
I suspect God would grace us with living water that would sustain us as we leave.
I suspect we, too, might go and tell our communities about this man who knew everything we have ever done… so they might come to meet Jesus, with their honest selves, as well.
We don’t need those water jars. Let’s leave them here.