Sunday, March 27, 2011

Misunderstood & Engaging the Gospel of John

Part One - Engaging The Gospel

There are a couple ways to read the gospel of John. Think of it as a split foyer home, like the parsonage.

I could invite you downstairs and we could sit on our big puffy couches around the fireplace and a have a nice conversation about the details of the current projects the Church Board is working on this year while at the same time, another group of people could be sitting upstairs in the room above having a deep theological discussion about salvation and the “work of Christ”.

Both groups would be talking about Christian living, but on two very different levels. Both are important.

When we read or hear John’s stories, we can listen on a literal level. Today’s story will be about Jesus and a woman from Samaria. We can examine the details of the well and a water jar and what the disciples are up to in the story. And

We can hear another level where what happens and what is said, tells us about WHO Jesus is and WHAT is his relationship to God.

At each level we gain insight:

The 1st floor will find wonderful meaning in the story and may want to memorize a verse such as, “..those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” Beautiful words to remember and think about.

The 2nd floor may discover an insight into God’s long-term saving plan for all earth’s peoples. They may look at the symbolism in the story and discover what the husbands represent. They may recall the many biblical scenes at wells in the OT record. This scene in John is remarkably similar to the betrothal type-scenes in Gen. 24, 29, Exod. 2.[i] In these scenes “the future bridegroom journeys to a foreign land, where he encounters a girl at a well, and one of the draws water. Afterward, the girl rushes to bring home the news of the stranger’s arrival. Finally, after he has been invited to a meal, a betrothal is concluded between the stranger and the girl.”[ii]

It was true for Isaac & Rebecca, Jacob & Rachel, Moses and Zipporah. If John’s story is designed to recall these important marriages in Jewish history, then we should look back to ch. 3 v. 29 and notice that John the Baptist calls Jesus, “a bridegroom” – hmmm.

Suddenly the conversation upstairs gets VERY interesting and is full of more questions than answers. AND THAT’s The gospel of John. The plot thickens with each story and details becomes important. Our questions lead us deeper into the journey of faith.

As much as we have loved these stories when we talked about them on the 1st floor, we may find we like the conversation on the 2nd floor even more as we discover what we previously missed.

Part Two - Misunderstood - John 4

This is a take-home sermon with homework. I want you to think about this story (John 4) and I will give you some additional food for thought. Or perhaps, since water plays a more prominent role, some water to wet your thirst.

The woman in John’s story may be the most mis-understood woman in the Bible. In the first years after the gospel was written, she was admired by commentators and bishops for her knowledge of the theological debate between Jews and Samaritans. After all this is the longest dialogue that anyone has with Jesus and she certainly holds her own.

In later years, especially around the reformation, scholars (obviously all men at that point) described her as promiscuous. I’ll bet some of you have heard those interpretations. You can still find them everywhere.

When I told this story at camp one year as the visiting pastor, I asked kids, “why do you think she had had 5 husbands.”

You can guess their answer. “She was divorced.” That was THEIR experience. But we don’t know that. She may have been, if her husband chose to divorce her. It wasn’t up to her in that culture. Or she may have been widowed 5 times, or some combination of both. The sticking point seems to be the statement, “The one you have now is not your husband.” Which leads us to think, she’s living “in sin” as they say. But in fact, she might have been trapped in a levirate marriage, where her dead husband’s brother was responsible to marry her, which wasn’t a real marriage.

So, while we don’t know the details of her life, it was likely tragic and she more likely to have been a victim than the ‘whore’ she has often been portrayed as. It changes the feel of the story when you think about it. Because this Jesus’ story isn’t about morality it’s about identity[i] – who is this man by the well who offers living water? (that’s a take home question BTW)

Identity, not morality – changes the players. She seems to catch onto something after her conversation with Jesus and when she does, she runs off to tell her neighbors.

Have you ever done that? Not sit at a well with Jesus, but discovered something so amazing you had to share it? It can be the simplest thing. I ran into another church member when I was at Manassas and I had just picked up my dry-cleaning. We remarked how wonderful to have found the $1.89 dry cleaners! And we both said, how we go around telling everyone about the place. – -Evangelism? For drycleaners?

This woman is the first evangelist and she turns out to be VERY effective, doesn’t she? Think about her exuberant sharing when you go home, because I suspect we have all had something wonderful to share at some time - even as we cringe from the word evangelism and find it difficult to imagine sharing our faith stories. This woman found something so amazing she had to share it. Even tho she didn’t quite get the whole picture yet – still she ran to tell everyone. Or so the 1st floor story goes. How about for ‘extra credit homework’, we move upstairs and deeper look?

And before we go, another quick take home question: What happened to her water jar? Did she ever get water? Did she leave it? Did she not need it any longer? What could that mean? (I look forward to you email and letter homework responses.)

Upstairs at the house, the discussion begins with history so I’ll give you a quick summary. It’s OT history about Samaria from 2 Kings 17. When the Assyrians conquered the region in 721 BCE, they brought colonists from FIVE - foreign –nations - into Samaria. Hmmm 5 foreign nations with whom the “left-behind Jews” now known as Samaritans, intermingled and with whom they married.

Could this be a symbolic representation of Samaria as her 5 husbands? And if so, whose the 6th? It could be Rome, or it could be any of the colonists Herod the Great was bringing in, following the previous patterns. But nearer the time of this story, the Samaritans didn’t intermarry like they once did. So, the 6th—“you are living with, but not your husband”?

Could this woman be the Bride who represents all her people, coming to draw water by the well, where the Bridegroom sits as God’s representative (like Jacob did) to greet his bride; God’s Samaritan children welcomed back into the fold. Now THAT’s a betrothal scene!

There’s one more group upstairs, over in the dining room. And they’re talking about another part of the story; the time of day. These folks have read the first few chapters of John and know the importance he placed on darkness and light. Jesus sits by the well at NOON, the BRIGHTEST part of the day. And the “despised Samaritan, a woman no less” comes to get water and has a long & deep conversation with Jesus.

It’s quite a contrast to the story just previous in chapter 3 where a highly respected Jew, a Pharisee and leader, a MAN, (we even know his name, Nicodemus) comes to Jesus at night, under the cover of darkness. Only he never leaves the first floor discussion and can’t carry on a conversation with Jesus because he keeps taking everything Jesus says, literally. (I have to be born again?) If he is representing HIS people, he better do his homework.

Well, there’s a lot in this story to think about, isn’t there? And YOU have homework in this chapter 4 of John. Let me give you a little more incentive.

While the history of Samaria is interesting – to some, and the redeeming of this woman’s virtue, is certainly worthwhile, I don’t want you to leave thinking the John’s story was only for 1st century Christians, historians and feminist theologians.

You’ll remember John’s story is about identity. So the homework has 2 levels too.

· You can finish your homework by just learning a new understanding of God’s saving plan, which is designed to bring all people and nations ‘home’.
· You can marvel that a woman represents her people in John’s story, just as Nicodemus represents his people. 
· You can even develop a new appreciation for John’s storytelling ability and use of symbols and characters to tell the Story of Jesus, but if you ONLY acknowledge all this intellectually, you will have missed the point.

At the end of the gospel, after relaying the crucifixion and the witness of the women (1st again) at the empty tomb, John’s author tells us why he wrote it all down. “These are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

Any learning short of believing falls short of LIFE, the truth of REAL LIFE; eternal LIFE. Which John says comes by living in relationship with Jesus.

I don’t want you to miss it, b/c it’s the whole point. It IS the Good News AND it’s a story to quench anyone’s thirst.

[i] David Lose

[i] Frances Taylor Gench Back To The Well (Louisville: WJK, 2004) p. 113
[ii] ibid referencing Robt. Alter The art of biblical narrative

1 comment:

Terri said...

Nancy - wonderful! well done! I look forward to hearing what your congregation comes up with as their homework responses.