Rev. Dr. Martha Jacobs
God Loves Us Anyway
Psalm 103, John 4:5-29
Sunday, March 19, 2017
Last Monday, I received an email from one of the clergy who attended the workshop I led in Berlin. She wrote that several of the clergy there had gotten together and talked about the workshop. They found themselves talking about how different this workshop had been for them. She said that it was different because they had been willing to share what was going on for them, both personally and professionally, and, at a depth that had surprised them. She asked me if I could explain how I had made that happen, since they could not figure it out.
Shortly before getting that email, I had read today’s reading and I was wondering what I was going to talk about, since so much goes on in this story. After reading the email, my mind started to formulate questions which led me to know that I would somehow be combining these two seemingly different tracks into one sermon.
So, first I had to stop and think about what it is that I do – how it is that I lead workshops. In thinking about it, I realized that I had not done anything different from what I usually do. You see, talking about how people are affected by trauma, especially human-caused trauma, requires talking about feelings. And, of course, talking about feelings in the abstract, doesn’t work, I had to be willing to share my own experiences with trauma as well as the feelings that arose for me, feelings that we don’t normally talk about.
Over the years, I have come to understand that when I share a part of my own brokenness with others, I gain the trust of a group, even a group of strangers. I need to model being vulnerable myself, so that those present can feel safe enough to share their questions and their doubts about faith, particularly in the midst of trauma. By modeling for them, I hope to create a safe space for sharing difficult feelings.
Further, I have to be willing to allow others to express their beliefs and how they see God and interact with God without putting my theology on them. Similar to my work as a chaplain, I am not there to convince them to think about God in the same way that I do. My job is to help them based on their own experience of God, where they see God and how they interact with God.
I believe that each of us has our own way that we feel God and talk with God. So, for example, my trying to tell you how I think you should talk with God, is not helpful to you. Hopefully, my sermons, like the workshop I did, lead you to take in my perspective but then translate that into how you see the world and how you function in the world. One of my goal is to provide you with some additional tools to help you navigate our very complicated world, while at the same time, deepening your own relationship with God, as you experience God.
So, what does this have to do with Jesus’ encounter with this woman? Well, first, Jesus doesn’t hit this woman over the head with his theology – his belief system – he has a conversation with her that leads her to a new place within herself, and a new faith from which to see the world.
Additionally, Jesus is vulnerable with this woman. The reading starts out by telling us that Jesus is tired and is sitting by the well. He starts a conversation with this female Samaritan, this less-than-non-person, by asking her to draw him some water from the well. This leads the woman, whose name we never know, to engage with this stranger. Because it is so unusual for a Jewish man to speak with a Samaritan woman, I think she is intrigued, and a bit uncomfortable. Yet, she challenges him with her knowledge of her ancestor Jacob. They have a longer conversation than most other encounters with Jesus in the Gospels, which is important to notice.
On top of that, Jesus is sitting during this conversation, which would be the normal posture if he were teaching in the temple, because the rabbis always sat down to teach, just as Jesus did when he was teaching in the Temple. Jesus was clearly teaching this woman. Also, this encounter really happened. Otherwise, it would have been about a man having this conversation with Jesus, since women were less-than. This was a very important conversation and was preserved as much as possible.
There are several reasons it is so important. First, Jesus does not condemn this woman for her past. Rather, he sees that she, like many of the women of her time, has lived a tragic and difficult life. Jesus neither tells her that she has sinned, nor that she needs to repent for her past. Instead, he sees that she has been abandoned 5 times and is now dependent on someone who will not marry her.
Second, Jesus, by spending so much time with her, is telling her, and us, that she has value; she has worth, even though she is a woman. She is not invisible; she is a valuable child of God. Jesus does not ignore, critique, or pity her. Instead, he recognizes and names her challenges and sees and values her. In doing so, he conveys to her that she matters to him. Otherwise, he would not spend so much time with her.
And third, Jesus offers her a surprising invitation. An invitation to leave behind her burdens. It seems that he wants her to claim for herself that she is a worthy person. Unlike most of the encounters he has had so far, Jesus tells her that he is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that he loves her despite the life she has lived, or maybe, because of the difficult life she has lived.
Surprisingly, she accepts his invitation. The joy that comes from accepting herself as a person worthy of the attention of this Jewish prophet, this Son of God, will hopefully be contagious as she goes back to the others in her village and tells her story of acceptance and love.
I think that we can all relate to that – that feeling of joy and inner peace when we know that we are loved and accepted for who we are – for all that we are – our scars, our less-than-perfect past, our stumbles and falls in our lives. This is such a deep conversation about life and faith that may never have happened if Jesus was not willing to be vulnerable with this woman.
Which brings me back to the intersection of the email from the clergyperson in Germany and this reading. Had I not received that email, prompting me to think about what I had done that had made a difference for them, this sermon might have taken on a very different theme. Instead, this reading helped me to claim that I allow myself to be vulnerable, to be human, to be open to whatever God puts on my heart to share. Which also brought another realization to me —
Dear ones, I believe that this is one of the qualities that drew all of you to me and me to you – I can’t help but be who I am, and that includes my vulnerabilities and my scars and my humanness. Over my 3½ years here, I have been sharing a deep part of myself with you, the wounded part, and I have been overwhelmed at your willingness to be vulnerable with me and with each other. Our pastoral prayer is a reflection of that vulnerability. It seems to grow almost weekly, and that is a sign of the health of our church – that we are willing to be vulnerable with each other. The trust that you have placed in me as your minister is sometimes overwhelming and deeply touching, because of your willingness to be vulnerable with me and with each other.
At our Board of Deacon’s meeting last Sunday, Keith, our Minister of Music, pointed out that we have become a healing church. A place where all are welcome, as we are and for all that we are. To me, in addition to our pastoral prayer list, our willingness to be so open and caring is exemplified by our Confirmation Class mentors who are willing to be vulnerable with our youth, which, in turn, allows our youth to be vulnerable, to ask the difficult questions, to be heard, even if what they say is different or unexpected. We share a trust that has been built because we are willing to be vulnerable with each other and with our youth.
So, on reflection, what I did in Germany, is what I do here every day. Like the woman at the well, I can’t help but be who I am, just as you can’t help but be who you are. The difference for us, is that we already know that we are loved by God, as we are. Each of us is who we are because of what we have been through in our life both the good and the bad. Jesus knows that, and comes to us, especially when our well is running low – when we are thirsty, when we are in need of being reminded that we are loved, accepted, and welcomed by the one who has living water for us; water from a well that will never run dry, as God promised us. God’s Spirit lives within each one of us. Here at FCC, I hope and pray that your thirst is met and the living water, the living Spirit of God within you, is replenished each time you enter this building.
The Samaritan woman, leaves her water jug and her past behind her and goes and tells her fellow townspeople to “come and see the man who told me everything I have ever done.” Then she says to them, “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”
I can imagine her saying the following to herself, “He treated me like no one else has ever treated me. He respected me despite what I have done in the past and I feel so relieved and so accepted. So, I want all of you who I care about to come and see the man who told me everything I have ever done, and yet loves me anyway.”