< back to Sermon archive

Sermon for Sunday 23 March 2014

First Reading                               Exodus 17:1–7

1 From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.  2 The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.”  Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me?  Why do you test the LORD?”  3 But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”  4 So Moses cried out to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people?  They are almost ready to stone me.”  5 The LORD said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.  6 I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb.  Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.”  Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.  7 He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”           


Psalm                                                      Psalm 95

1Come, let us sing to the LORD; let us shout for joy to the rock of our salvation.  2Let us come before God’s presence with thanksgiving and raise a loud shout to the LORD with psalms.  3For you, LORD, are a great God, and a great ruler above all gods.  4In your hand are the caverns of the earth; the heights of the hills are also yours.  5The sea is yours, for you made it, and your hands have molded the dry land.  6Come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the LORD our maker.  7For the LORD is our God, and we are the people of God’s pasture and the sheep of God’s hand.  Oh, that today you would hear God’s voice!  8“Harden not your hearts, as at Meribah, as on that day at Massah in the desert.  9There your ancestors tested me, they put me to the test, though they had seen my works.  10Forty years I loathed that generation, saying, ‘The heart of this people goes astray; they do not know my ways.’  11Indeed I swore in my anger, ‘They shall never come to my rest.'”

 Second Reading                         Romans 5:1–11

 1 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.  3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.  6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.  8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.  9 Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.  10 For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.  11 But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.


Gospel                                                    John 4:5–42

5 So [Jesus] came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.  6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.  7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”  8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)  9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”  (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)   10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”  11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep.  Where do you get that living water?  12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”  13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but 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.”  15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”  16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.”  17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.”  Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.  What you have said is true!”  19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.  20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”  21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.  22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.  23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.  24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”  25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ).  “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”  26 Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”  27 Just then his disciples came.  They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?”  28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city.  She said to the people, 29 Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!  He cannot be the Messiah, can he?  30 They left the city and were on their way to him.  31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.”  32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.”  33 So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?”  34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.  35 Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’?  But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.  36 The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together.  37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’  38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor.  Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”  39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.”  40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days.  41 And many more believed because of his word.  42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”




One of the commencement traditions at Harvard University is Senior Class Chapel.  On the morning of graduation, seniors gather in Memorial Church to hear the minister offer words of solace and encouragement as they leave “the Yard” to take their places in the world.  In 1998, the senior class heard the unvarnished truth from the Rev. Dr. Peter Gomes, minister at Harvard and the author of several books on the Bible, including The Good Book and Sermons.  

In his gentle ringing tones, that call to mind a cross between a Shakespearean actor and the TV sitcom character Frasier, the inimitable Doctor Gomes took no prisoners as he began:  “You are going to be sent out of here for good, and most of you aren’t ready to go.  The president is about to bid you into the fellowship of educated men and women and,” – here he paused and spoke each word slowly for emphasis – “you know just – how – dumb – you – really – are.”  The senior class cheered in agreement.

“And worse than that,” Doctor Gomes continued, “the world – and your parents in particular – are going to expect that you will be among the brightest and best.  But you know that you can no longer fool all the people even some of the time.  By noontime today, you will be out of here.  By tomorrow you will be history.  By Saturday, you will be toast.  That’s a fact – no exceptions, no extensions.”  “Nevertheless, there is reason to hope,” Doctor Gomes promised.  “The future is God’s gift to you.  God will not let you stumble or fall.  God has not brought you this far to this place to abandon you or leave you here alone and afraid.  The God of Israel never stumbles, never sleeps, never goes on sabbatical.  Thus, my beloved and bewildered young friends, do not be afraid.”  What Doctor Gomes did for the senior class at Harvard, Jesus does for the woman at the well.

Before we take a look at our gospel reading, let me let you in on a fascinating fact.   You can go to Israel today and take a journey to Samaria to the town of Sychar.  A place the passage of time seems to have forgotten.  Not many people live there, about 300, and they still consider themselves Samaritans.  The primary structure in town is a kind of cellar, which houses a well, the only source of water for miles.

Archeologists estimate the well date upwards of 4,000 years.  Weary travelers have quenched their thirst there since the time of Jacob.  But even more fascinating than its archeological significance is the fact that this place historically validates for us the precise location where the Samaritan woman had an encounter with Christ.  It’s hard to believe, but the authenticity of the well is undisputed.  Samaritans, Muslims, Christians, Jews all agree that this is the place where the story took place.

It was noonday at Sychar.  The disciples went on into the village—we’re told—to buy food.  Someone has suggested that they were seeking out the stores that gave the best clergy discount.  Jesus stopped at the well on the outskirts for a brief respite from the sun’s blistering rays.  When a woman of the village walked up, Jesus addressed her:  “Woman, give me a drink.”  From John’s account this request seemed to have startled her.

She was taken back that Jesus spoke to her for two reasons.  First, men didn’t publicly speak to women.  And two, she was a Samaritan and Jews had no dealings with Samaritans.  They considered them unclean—— ritualistically speaking and probably in terms of personal hygiene as well.  They were seen as no better than dogs.  Thus, Jesus had crossed both a gender and a racial line by speaking to this person.  She replied: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of water from me, a woman of Samaria?”  Jesus, however, ignores her question, ignores the racial issue, and instead gets to the heart of the matter.  He said:  “If you had known who was asking you for water you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”  Jesus is, of course, speaking theologically, which is the only significant way to speak, but the woman cannot get beyond the literal.  “Oh, go on,” she snips.  “This is a deep well and you haven’t even got a bucket.

The woman appears to be poking fun at Jesus:  “You have nothing to draw with and this well is deep.  Just how did you suppose to drawn this living water of yours?  Our father Jacob drank from this well.  Do you think that you are better than he is?”  You can’t miss the irony in her sarcasm.  Here she’s speaking to the Master of Life about depth, when her own life was so miserably shallow.  But Jesus ignores the sarcasm and startles the woman.  Instead of a tit-for-tat comeback, He asks her to go get her husband. And with a single question, He has exposed her dark side.  

We all have a dark side.  By any standard of ethics, this woman was living an immoral life.  Of course, we already have a hint of that because she has come to the well by herself at noon.  The women of the village come to the well together in the coolness of the morning.  She doesn’t, or isn’t allowed to, come with them because she isn’t welcome.  The woman replies:  “I have no husband.”  At least she’s honest about the situation. Nor does she try to hide her immoral behavior.  She owns up to it and that’s step one in finding Living Water for a thirsty soul. 

In order to receive real forgiveness there must be genuine contrition.  Psalm 51:17 tells us, “True sacrifice to God is a broken spirit.  A broken and chastened heart, God, you will not despise.  We must give an honest confession about our lives.  Jesus replies:  “What you say is true.  You do not have a husband.  You have had five husbands.  And the man that you are living with now is not your husband.”  Note that Jesus doesn’t shake His finger in her face and give her a lecture on what an evil person she is.  You could even say He gives her credit for telling the truth.  This is an important message the church needs to understand.  The purpose of religion isn’t to dwell on the bad in people, but to enhance the good in people.  It’s to elevate people and not pull them down.  But we also need to be careful.  We can’t go to the other extreme and cheapen God’s grace.  What do I mean when I say cheap grace?  Maybe this example will help. 

A man had been working for a lumber yard for twenty-five years.  During that time, whenever he wanted any lumber, he helped himself to it.  In fact, he had stolen so much lumber that he became one of the richest men in town.  He became so rich and prominent, in fact, that he was made a deacon in his local Baptist church.  This worried him because he felt he shouldn’t serve as a deacon with this terrible sin on his conscience.  So one night as he pitched and tossed in the bed, the thought occurred to him that he could go to the local priest about it.  The priest said it was a bit unusual for a Baptist to come to confession, but he would be glad to hear him.  After the man had told the priest about stealing all of the lumber, he said, “You know, this thing they say about confession being good for the soul is right.  I’ve never felt so relieved in my life . . . and that’s all there is to it?”

“Why no,” said the priest.  “You can’t lie and steal and lead a life of sin for twenty-five years and come down here and talk to me for thirty minutes and wipe the slate clean.  You’ve got to do something to make it right with the Lord.  Did you ever make amends?”  “No, I never did make one of those,” said the man, but if you’ve got the plans, I can get the lumber.”  That’s cheap grace, wanting to have your sins forgiven, but not wanting to give up the lumber you’ve stolen.

          It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who made the phrase “cheap grace” popular.  Here’s how he defined it:  “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church.  Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without personal confession.  Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the Cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”  I worry that cheap grace is the grace that has become somewhat the norm in many churches today.  Here’s something else we need to consider.

          When Jesus encountered people, their lives were radically changed.  Zacchaeus the tax collector shared a meal with the Master and he cried out, “Look, Lord!  Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”  Mary Magdalene, possessed by demons, becomes such a devoted follower that she was privileged to be the primary witness to Christ’s resurrection.  The apostle Paul constantly reminded his hearers of what they had been before Christ touched their lives.  Referring to the sexually immoral, idolaters, thieves, drunkards, swindlers etc. he says, “And that is what some of you were.”  (1 Cor. 6:10-11).  The apostle Paul also reminds his hearers of what he had been before Christ touched him, an intolerant persecutor of Christians.

In the military, we would use the command, “As you were.”  However, we never hear, “As you were” as a follower of Christ.  Following Christ is about real change.  Even while Jesus prevented the stoning of a women caught in adultery, a sin punishable but death under the Mosaic Law, He did tell her to go and “leave your life of sin”.  (Jn. 8:11)  This is what Jesus wants the Samaritan woman to understand, so instead of ignoring her sinful lifestyle, Jesus is upfront with her.  He hits a little too close to home and His penetrating observation is making her squirm.  Which helps to explain her next reaction; she attempts to change the subject.

Instead of accepting the reality of her situation, she tries to divert the conversation.  She perceives Jesus as a rabbi, and what better subject to talk to a preacher about than religion.  “Sir,” she says, “I perceive that you are a rabbi.  Our fathers worshipped God on this mountain (Mt. Gerazim) but you Jews say that the proper place to worship God is in Jerusalem.  Who’s right?”  In other words let’s not talk about me.  You just go along with my diversion and let’s get caught up with some meaningless discussion on religion.  But Jesus doesn’t bite.

Instead, Jesus responds, the time is now when God the Father will be worshipped neither in Jerusalem nor on Mt. Garazim.  God is spirit and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth.  In other words, the place of worship isn’t as important as the integrity with which you bring to worship.  If you want to talk religion, that’s fine, but the most important subject in religion is you.  Yes, gathering here at church is important, here is where you hear God’s Word proclaimed and it’s here that you receive the Sacraments, but what’s most important is that you worship in spirit and truth.  The Samaritan woman is obviously taken back by this prophetic insight.  

Sir, she says, I know that one day the Messiah, the one who is called Christ, will come and He will tell us all things.  Jesus answered:  “I who speak to you am he.”  For the first time the great messianic secret has been revealed.  This is one of the most dramatic moments in Biblical history.  Jesus lets His true identity be known.  Look at what happens here.  Does He reveal His identity to the Sanhedrin or the Jerusalem Bar?  No!  Nor does He make this pronouncement at the Temple.  This is the moment that history has been waiting for—the hopes and fears of all the years and Jesus ushers in this glad news through this gentile, this woman, this outcast among a people of outcasts.

Why He chose her, I don’t know.  The only hint is found in a single verse in the 11th chapter of Matthew.  On that occasion Jesus prayed to God:  “I thank you father that you have hidden these things (these truths) from the wise and revealed them instead to babes:”  or, as some interpretations word it, these little ones.  Unfortunately the conversation between this Samaritan woman and Jesus is prematurely ended.

Suddenly the disciples return and the conversation is cut short.  They’re stunned to find Jesus talking with this Samaritan woman, but we’re told that they didn’t say anything.  It’s the only time in scripture that Peter didn’t have a comment to make.  Peter, it seems, had an opinion on everything, but even he was stunned.  But just like the woman Jesus was talking too, He also knows what they were thinking.  Jesus knows of their disapproval.  The face tells all doesn’t it.  Their lips may have been silent, but their faces screamed out disapproval.  What happens next is what a real encounter with God is like; the woman drops everything and goes to tell others.

Not even the 12 disciples can stop the woman now.  She has found what she came to the well to receive.  She has found her water; Living Water.  She sees the truth in Jesus’ words.  She sees Him as the Messiah.  And this is the second step in finding living water for a thirsty soul, recognizing and accepting Jesus’ as the Messiah.  She abruptly leaves her water jar and runs back to her village to tell the people what she had experienced.  You can’t evangelize and tell the story until you first believe the story.  You can’t be convincing to others unless you are convinced.

The woman goes and stirs up the entire town and Jesus sees this throng of people coming and He says to the disciples:  “You say that there are four months left unto harvest.  I say to you lift up your eyes and see that the fields are white unto harvest.”  Jesus is saying to the twelve, do not draw boundaries around the kingdom of God.  Don’t limit its scope.  No people, no race, no gender, no sinner is exempt from God’s grace.  The time is now and the people are all around.  And this brings out the third step in finding Living Water for a thirsty soul.  When we’ve filled our cups, the Living Water spills out all around us.  We need to bring the Living Water with us wherever we go.  

The grace we’ve received changes us, makes us reach out, empowers people to move beyond their normal habits.  Next time you’re out and about, I encourage you to really look around you.  Look at the schools and you’ll see students playing on slides and swings, and bicycling, and walking, in reality what you’re seeing is fields white unto harvest.  Continue driving and you’re bound to see the poor and the marginalized of our communities, again what you’re seeing is fields ready for harvest.  Rich or poor, educated or illiterate, there are people all around us who need to know how to receive the Living Water.  Our prayer here at Bethel should be, Lord of the Harvest, send us more laborers.  Send us as people who have a passion and urgency to the Kingdom of God, a people whose lives are filled with Living Water.

It’s really interesting to note, that in her enthusiasm to tell her story, she lost the shame of her sin.  She came to the well in solitude; she returns in congregation.  She came to the well as one disgraced; she returns as one graced!  And her message is well received for the villagers ask Jesus if he will remain with them.  Many villages in Galilee ask Jesus if He would leave, this one asks Him to stay.  And He did.  At the conclusion of this time the townspeople say to the woman:  “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard him ourselves and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the World.  It’s no longer second hand; it is a firsthand witness.  It’s the strongest witness in the world.  No one can argue against it.  It’s a witness that says, yes, I know it’s true because I have experienced it in my own life.

The pages of history haven’t changed the village of Sychar too much.  At night there’s still the same howling, lonely, wind that blows against the blistering sand.  And the well——it’s still there too.  And there’s something else that hasn’t changed or vanished with the ages either.  That’s the Living Water that’s offered to you and to me this morning.  Join with me in drinking from it and we shall never thirst.  And then go and share the Living Water with a thirsty and dying world.


< back to Sermon archive