Sermon for March 23rd, 2014

Sermon for Third Sunday in Lent, March 23, 2014

St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wallis, Texas

Sermon Text:  John 4:5-26

Sermon Theme:  “A Paradigm for Witnessing”

(Sources:  Emphasis online illustrations; Emphasis online Commentary; Anderson, Cycle A, Preaching Workbook; original ideas; Concordia Pulpit Resources, Volume 24, Part 2, Series A)

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

I want to tell you an old story that’s been around for so long you may know it.  Even if you’ve heard it before, I’m going to tell it anyway, because it’s one of my favorite stories and it helps to make the main point of my sermon.

The story is about two evangelists who went door-to-door inviting people to come to church.  They knocked on the door of a certain woman who told them in no uncertain terms that she did not want to be bothered.  To reinforce her point she slammed her door right in the faces of the evangelists, but the door just bounced open again.

Convinced that one of the evangelists had his foot in the door, the woman reared back and slammed it again, but the door once again bounced open.  Now fuming with rage, the woman was preparing to give the door a final heave shut when one of the evangelists interrupted her.  Before she could act, he said in polite tones, “Excuse me, Ma’am, but before you do that again, perhaps you should remove your cat.”

Now these were orthodox Christian evangelists, like Methodists or Baptists.  I wonder how many of you have slammed the door in the faces of Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormon solicitors? 

It’s my opinion that this door-to-door method of evangelism, or witnessing Christ to others, to solicit them to come to church, usually results in the response described in that old story.  No matter if it’s Methodists or Mormons, there’s a tendency for folks not to want to let them in for solicitation, whether the reason is Godly or ungodly. 

That’s not to say we shouldn’t be evangelists.  But it is to say we need a better paradigm to follow.  “Paradigm” means model or example, and it’s a word that comes out of my past as an English Literature teacher.  To teachers of English grammar, it has a highly specialized meaning, so we won’t talk about that.

When my colleagues and I were together every day, we used ordinary words like “model” or “example,” but if we were presenting a paper at an English teachers’ conference, we’d use “paradigm.”  English teachers love fancy words like “paradigm,” so using big words on a composition might help you make an A.

In any case, the story in today’s sermon text about Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in Sychar offers us the best paradigm for evangelism.

According to Sandra Herrmann, the well is still there today, making it a reliable source of water for some 3,000 years.  This is amazing, especially when you know that tourists keep throwing stones in the well to determine its depth, which means that today the well is “only” 85 feet deep.  It was, — and is, — mostly covered, in order to prevent large objects from falling into the water and to cut down on evaporation.

Actually, it’s rather unusual for Jesus to be traveling through Samaria.  Although Samaria was the most direct route from Galilee to Jerusalem, that route was almost never used by Jews.  The reason for this was that the lower class of Jews living in Samaria were not carried off to Babylon during the Babylonian captivity as the more prosperous Jews were.  The Jews in exile stayed much truer to their beliefs than did the Samarian Jews who were influenced by the pagan Babylonians stationed in their territory.  This religious difference caused animosity between the two groups of Jews, as did racial prejudice, the Samaritans being a rather mixed race.

So the decision to go through Samaria was certainly a problem for Jesus’ disciples, which Jesus was apparently ignoring.  Jesus was alone, sitting on the cover of Jacob’s well in the shade, recovering from the long journey and the heat of the day.  This Samaritan woman comes up to draw water, and Jesus asks her for a drink of water.

Jewish men at that time were forbidden to speak to a woman in public.  It was a protective law, to shield the woman from harassment.  Jews did not have anything to do with Samaritans as they were considered unclean.  So there was a double reason for Jesus not to speak to this woman.  Actually, a third, because she had been a woman of low morals.  But He didn’t just speak to her, — He asked her for a drink of water.  You had to have your own container for water, and He had no cup.  You see, in Jesus there was no condemnation, for He had come, not to condemn but to love, forgive and to save.

Even the woman is shocked.  “How can you ask me for a drink?”  Included in some of the ancient manuscripts of this story is the comment that a Jew will not drink from the same cup as a Samaritan.  And she had come at high noon which no self-respecting woman would have done.  Obviously, because of her bad reputation, she must have been avoiding other people.

Jesus turns the question back on her and says, “If you knew . . . who asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”  This leads to a discussion of what “living water” is all about.  She has had five husbands and she is living with a man she is not married to.  Because Jesus knows everything about her, she decides He must be a prophet.  And she has heard about a Messiah that was supposed to come, and He tells her that He is that Messiah.  He is the Savior who loves all people, who heals, cares for, and forgives them.  In the end, she becomes an evangelist, because she goes to town and tells everybody in town about Jesus.

You see, the Samaritan woman encountered the Word in Jesus.  It was a word of grace, love, forgiveness and truth.  When we truly encounter the Word Made Flesh, we are so transformed by grace that we must tell others about Jesus.

In a nutshell, the story teaches that the Samaritan woman did not know herself or her God; she encountered Jesus, the Word, and came to know herself; she also came to know her God, and her neighbors came to know Christ through her witness.  This, then, is the paradigm Jesus sets for us to follow; it is a natural kind of evangelism that flows out of the simple activities of a person’s daily life.  Because it is natural, it often leads to success.  However, there are times we tell about Jesus and we hit a brick wall.  But that’s OK.

Let me share with you a modern illustration of this paradigm.  Elizabeth Terini, a Russian-Jewish Ukrainian living in New York City, took a taxi one day from Queens to Manhattan.  She suspected that the driver was also from the Ukraine and asked him if he spoke Buhareian, their native language.  When he replied that he did, she asked if he knew a girl she had gone to school with, and it turned out that the girl was his aunt.

He invited her to his home where she tried to tell him about Jesus.  He and his parents were not interested, but an upstairs neighbor was, and before long, the neighbor and his wife, through Bible study together with Elizabeth, were brought to faith by the Holy Spirit through the Word that Elizabeth shared. 

In the natural doings of our daily lives, these opportunities to witness to our friends, our neighbors, even strangers (like the couple upstairs) arise, and in loving kindness we tell them what Jesus has meant to us and to the way we live.  To me, it’s the only kind of evangelism that works, and it’s always an act of love, never an act of solicitation.  It’s a sin to recruit people to become members of the church, so that the congregation can pay its bills!

There’s another kind of natural evangelism that caring people tune in to.  Some times the Holy Spirit leads strangers to your church just out of the clear blue; you notice and you respond. 

One pastor tells about a woman named Marilyn who kept showing up at his church on Sunday mornings and slipping in to worship.  She would arrive late after everyone else was seated, and she would leave early, before the service was completely over; she tried very hard not to be noticed.  Since this was in a small town, the pastor had heard of Marilyn; she had the reputation of being a woman of ill repute and was considered the dregs of society by the townspeople.

She came regularly for several months before anyone, including the pastor, was able to catch her and talk to her.  When the pastor finally did catch her and talk to her, she began to sob loudly and poured out her sordid life story to him.  She ended by telling him that the first time she came to church, she came in because she was very tired and needed to rest, so she sat in the shadows in the back of the church.

But then as she sat there, she heard the pastor talk about Jesus and how our loving Savior forgave sinners, even terrible sinners like her, and gave them a new life.  She felt compelled to keep coming to the services, even though she felt not good enough to be with all these good people.  She watched the pastor baptize a person one Sunday after he had talked about the Samaritan woman at the well. 

“Is there any way I can be baptized and be a part of this church?”  she asked.  “I’m looking for a regular, decent job, and I live by myself now.  And I am so eager to have that new life you were preaching about.”  I believe that visitors can tell when a congregation doesn’t want them there; she knew that this congregation would accept her.

There is a fact that makes evangelism easy.  Whether it’s Marilyn, or the Samaritan woman at the well, who wouldn’t want to start the day with a good long drink from the well of eternal life:  “Your sins are forgiven.”  Forgiveness means the welcoming arms of God, a reception as His child who can say “Our Father” or “Dearest Daddy” with all boldness and confidence and certainty that nothing in all creation can separate us from His love, and we have an eye, a spirit, thirsty for the best yet to come.   Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.