This sermon is based on a sermon I preached in 2008.
We sometimes forget how our ancient mothers and fathers of our faith struggled to figure out life and faith, too, like we do. How they didn't have it all together, and things did not just fall into place for them. In fact, quite the opposite. More often than not, they felt unsure they were even heading in the right direction and fumbled to find the right steps toward goodness.
Abram and Sarai are a good example of people and couples in the Bible who struggled. In particular, as it is for so many couples, Abram and Sarai struggled with intimacy. Now, we have to be careful here, to not overlay too much of a Western romanticism approach onto our view of their relationship. Certainly, our western notions of romance are not what I mean here by intimacy.
Mainly, Abram and Sarai struggled to communicate with each other or to have each other's best interests in mind when approaching each other. Even if they were not in love the way we understand romantic love today, they also were not making choices to encourage the advancement of their family line. Despite saying that's what they wanted, their actions did not match up with their expressed hopes.
Partly, this was due to Abram's nearly debilitating fear. He feared losing himself, being hurt, or never seeing his dreams fulfilled. He feared these things so much, he regularly sabotaged opportunities for goodness, and his own and his family's well-being, by putting Sarai at risk whenever they entered a new land.
Despite his fears and consistently poor choices, Abram persisted in hoping for an heir. It seemed he hoped the way so many of us hope - that God might simply give him his heart's desire, without him having to be involved in the process. All that business of being a husband and a father, let alone the head of an entire household, really stretched him to his limits. He would prefer to just have the benefits of a great family line.
Have you ever wanted something without actually knowing how to bring it about or having any sense of how you would get there? Practitioners of visualization often teach the importance of believing, of imaging, yourself in the position you desire to be in. For, they say, if you don't believe you can be in that position, if you cannot actually see yourself there, it is far less likely you actually will achieve it.
As much as Abram wants to beget a family as numerous as the stars in heaven, he also cannot struggles to envision the steps to getting there. Particularly, the steps of love, care, and responsibility that tend to be key ingredients in establishing an extensive family line.
Through a series of seven visits, God gently, over time, encourages Abram to gain a sense of awareness of his own presence in building a life with God, family, and neighbors. These visits reach momentum in Genesis 15 when God promises Abraham he not only will have an heir, but he'll have as many descendants as the stars in the heavens.
Then, in Genesis 17, God visits Abraham again and makes the promise even more explicit. Here God pronounces Abram's name shall change to Abraham, and Sarai's name shall change to Sarah. Also, God declares, Sarah will give birth to a son.
What do you usually do when you receive good news? And not just any good news - but the news you've been waiting most of your life for? The best news? Do you call people? Your parents, siblings? Your best friend? Your spouse? Do you ever keep good news to yourself?
In our passage today, we find God coming to visit Abraham and Sarah, along with two attendants. Some time has passed since God and Abraham's last visit, and since then, Abraham and his entire household, including his thirteen year-old son Ishmael, have been circumcised. Upon seeing God approaching, Abraham immediately invites the guests to visit. They accept, and Abraham instructs the household to prepare a feast.
While the party gathers, the LORD repeats his decree – Sarah shall give birth to a son. She is busy in the tent, preparing the meal, but still overhears this absurdity. She cannot help but giggle, or even balk, at the thought. A woman of her age and her life experience, pregnant after all this time.
Then, something curious happens. Rather than addressing Sarah directly, the LORD looks directly at Abraham and asks, "Why is your wife laughing?"
Can you imagine the look on Abraham's face right then? After all the times God and Abraham have shared up until this moment. The question is for Abraham. God is not questioning or admonishing Sarah's faith in this moment. Instead, it seems God is asking: Why, after all our visits, after all I've told you, after all over our covenanting and promising and believing – why, Abraham, is your wife laughing as if she's never heard the good news? Surely, you have not kept her from knowing the dream you share with her is going to come true?
Embarrassed, ashamed, or maybe feeling the tensions rising outside after hearing her husband's silence, Sarah quickly counters, "I didn't laugh."
"Yes, you laughed," God simply says. Though I'm not sure he ever takes his eyes off of Abraham as he speaks.
Here's the thing – God can bring about miracles. God can even harden or loosen hearts. But God does not participate for you. You matter. You showing up matters. Abraham showing up matters. Constantly putting his wife at risk every time they enter a new town - encouraging her to pretend she was his sister instead of his wife in order to save his own skin - mattered. There's only one reason Sarah doesn't already know she's going to have a son. Abraham hasn't bothered to tell her. Why hasn't Abraham bothered to tell her? We may never fully know.
It's good for us to consider the ways we may be getting in our own way, as Abraham kept getting in his own way. The ways we may stop, limit, or obstruct the very dreams God says may be ours from becoming a reality. Sometimes, God steadily makes the way, even as we actively work against ourselves.
In what ways can we better attend to the blessings God invites us to participate in bringing about? In what ways can we better attend to the relationships in our lives – our family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors – in building goodness together? How can we better share the good news God grants us with our loved ones?
The founder and director of Fearless Dialogues, Gregory Ellison II, often shares with his audiences a lesson from his grandmother. He calls it the three-foot-challenge. He shares how his grandmother would often point out how he may not be able to change the circumstances he is facing, but he can change the three feet around him. Abraham probably would have benefitted from Dr. Ellison's grandmother's advice. He probably could have changed more of the three feet around him.
Thank goodness, in Abraham's case, God showed up even when Abraham did not. That doesn't always happen. Sometimes, God allows the chips to fall where they may. Just as God invited Abraham to much more - just as God called the disciples out of their fishing boats and onto the shore – God invites us to make a difference. May we all respond.
This sermon was preached on March 19, 2017, at First Presbyterian Church Santa Barbara. You can view a film in an earlier post with another version of a sermon also based on parallel readings of John 4 and Genesis 34 preached at Hesston Mennonite Church.
This past Christmas, my brother gave our youngest the Oregon Trail Board Game. People my age will remember the Oregon Trail computer game many of us played in elementary school. The board game is based on this original game and uses the same digital images on the cards. So, over winter break, we sat down as a family to play. At one point, one of the kids turns over a card and reads it – You died of dysentery. “What?? I died?! But I have medical cards and food cards. How can I just die? This game is weird.”
The concept of dying in a game, without a battle of power or wills, is foreign to many kids in this generation of gaming. We tried to explain, it’s the Oregon Trail. People died along the way. Yes, even without fighting anyone, and no matter how many reserves they had stored up. And then another kid said, “I want to play it again. I want to figure out how to not die.”
Do – overs. Not only is it hard to grasp the possibility death can come occur, it’s also hard for kids today to grasp how life does not always have instantaneous do-overs. Because so much of their life does. You die in a game. Play it again. Do it over. Make a different ending. Because instantaneous do-overs are so abundant in games, it can be hard for many young people to manage well the jolts of real life consequences – consequences that may take a great deal of time to mend.
Today we’re talking about real life do-overs – the kind Jesus is calling us to participate in. We’re talking about taking the time to do things differently, to deliberately change harmful patterns in our lives, and to make a different ending. We’re talking about how we can become born again, in real life. In order to take a good look what it means to become born again, we’re going to recall what Jesus said to Nicodemus in our passage last week, and consider today’s John 4 passage in relation to a passage John wrote it in comparison to – Genesis 34.
Let’s get into it.
Last week, we heard about Nicodemus, a revered scholar of Jewish law. Nicodemus approaches Jesus in the middle of the night and makes a profound statement of faith: “We know you are a teacher from God.” He’s troubled in the middle of the night, troubled in his heart and seeking guidance – maybe over his own personal experiences or anxieties about someone he loves. I wonder if he may be hoping for his own kind of do-over.
Do you ever seek Jesus out in the middle of night, like Nicodemus? Hoping for something radically to change? In trainings I lead, I often ask people, what kinds of things keep you up in night, seeking Jesus? Often, people will say: Finances. Kids. Loved ones addicted to drugs or alcohol. The mounting stresses young people are facing today. Gambling. Pornography. Worrying about work or losing a job. Worrying about their health or the health of their loved one.
These, sometimes, also are the same kinds of things that keep us avoiding people in the day, steering clear of the crowds, like the Samaritan woman who comes right after Nicodemus. Sometimes it feels much easier to just carry the burdens alone. Jesus says to Nicodemus, the answer you’re seeking is becoming born again. And Nicodemus, like many of us, can’t understand it at first. The disciples, too, don’t fully understand it. And, in John 4, Jesus proceeds to show the disciples what he means.
Today, we find the Samaritan woman deliberately approaching the well at a time when she is sure not to meet anyone else. Everyone else would have avoided the heat of the day, and come early in the morning or will be around later in the afternoon.
So, imagine her surprise . . . maybe even fear . . . when she suddenly finds Jesus there.
She could have felt alarmed for a few reasons. She’s alone. Having been with at least six partners in her past, she’s familiar with how she may be treated well and also how she may not be treated well. Also, she no doubt will be familiar with the lore of the well. She would know about fairytale-like marriages transpiring around wells, stories passed down through the generations about her ancestors Isaac and Rebecca and Jacob and Rachel meeting at wells and marrying. She also would have been familiar with a very tragic meeting that happened near this very well.
She would have known how one day, her ancestor, Jacob purchased this land at the end of Genesis 33. And how, right away, in the first verse of Genesis 34, Jacob’s only daughter Dinah cannot wait to go out and meet the other women of the land. Up until Jacob purchases the land, their familiar are nomadic, moving from place to place. Amid this lifestyle, and as Jacob’s only daughter, among twelve brothers, it’s as if she’s been waiting her whole life for this moment to venture out to meet the women of the land, maybe even make some new friends. What will they be like? Will they like her? Will she like them?
Do you remember what it feels like to go to a new place, the high expectation and anxiety of that? A new home, a new school, a new job, a new church? What will they be like? Will they like me? Will I like them?
Sadly, we never find out. Because on that first day, near this very well, when Dinah ventures out, just as the Samaritan woman meets a stranger, Dinah also meets a stranger. Only, instead of meeting Jesus, or her very own prince charming, Dinah met another kind of prince. Shechem. Shechem is a man who gets what he wants. And on that day, he wanted Dinah. So, he took her – the passage says, he seized her and lay with her by force. Then, he went to his father and demanded, “Get me this girl as a wife.”
So, as the Samaritan woman in our passage today is approaching the well, expecting to be alone, avoiding the crowds, and finds Jesus there instead – a strange man – she will be aware of what has gone on before, both the good and the bad.
Jesus initiates with a demand: “Get me a drink.”
She responds by immediately guarding herself, reminding Jesus they are to remain separated. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” We’re not supposed to interact, remember?
And here’s where the do-over starts to occur. Jesus begins to demonstrate with his words and actions how this encounter is going to be unlike any she’s had before, or any in her family history. They are going to make a new way together. Right here, right now, unlike past situations or what the cultural messages around her tell her, this woman is not threatened, she’s not neglected, and she will not be exploited here. Instead Jesus introduces himself and invites her to, safely, be honest about her own life story. And this may be the first time anyone has ever bore witness to her life experience with her.
It’s important to pause here and point out how hard it is for many women, and men, too, to make this significant shift the woman is making here, to not feel like she is in danger. There are so many messages and real experiences to suggest we should constantly be on guard and hyper-vigilant. It can be hard to even imagine what it might be like to live safely.
This message of threat is so pervasive in our culture, that this past year, in her presidential lecture called “Revolutionary Love,” delivered at the American Academy of Religion, renowned theologian Serene Jones ended by quoting Tony Morrison’s profound dream. Hear Morrison’s words:
I want to imagine not the threat of freedom or its tentative panting fragility, but the concrete thrill of borderlessness – a kind of out of doors safety where "a sleepless woman could always rise from her bed, wrap a shawl around her shoulders and sit on the steps in the moonlight. And if she felt like it she could walk out the yard and on down the road. No lamp and no fear. A hiss-crackle from the side of the road would never scare her because what ever it was that made that sound, it wasn't something creeping up on her. Nothing for miles around thought she was prey. She could stroll as slowly as she liked, thinking of food preparations, of family things, or lift her eyes to stars and think of war or nothing at all. Lampless and without fear she could make her way . . . The woman could decide to go back to her bed then, refreshed and ready to sleep, or she might stay her direction and walk further down the road--on out, beyond, because nothing around or beyond considered her prey.
Too many women, and children, and men, throughout history and throughout our Bible, find it hard to believe in and hope for Morrison’s dream of preylessness. In fact, until Jesus makes it abundantly clear, I don’t think it ever enters the Samaritan woman’s mind that she might not be prey that day. Prey for gossip of the neighbors. Prey for mistreatment and abuse from family and strangers. And potential prey for this stranger at the well.
And, as I said before, this fear is not baseless. It’s in her family history. And she’s aware how sometimes, when things go terribly wrong, there’s no one there to help. For example, in the case of Dinah, when her father Jacob found out what happened, he did not seek her out or help her – even if he may have wanted to. Instead, he froze. On one hand, some of us may be shocked by Jacob’s response – how could a father do nothing in response to his daughter being assaulted? On the other hand, many of us know the many reasons some parents do not help. Shame. Guilt. Denial. Feeling unequipped. In Jacob’s case, it may also have been exhaustion. He had just come through a gauntlet of encounters. He may not have had anything left to give.
At the time, Dinah’s brothers – like the disciples in John 4 – were away. When they return, they are astonished and indignant to hear what had happened to Dinah. But they, too, do not seek her out. Instead, they immediately plot revenge. A revenge that they carry out – murdering all the men of the city, pillaging their homes, and taking the women and children captive.
In John 4, when the twelve disciples return, they too, like Dinah’s brothers, are astonished to find Jesus alone with a woman of ill-repute. What does she want, they wonder. And why is he speaking to her? But, radically differently, than Dinah’s twelve brothers, the twelve disciples hold their tongues. They’re thinking it, but they don’t act on it. They respectfully follow Jesus’ lead. In Genesis 34, Jacob is too overwhelmed to lead. So, his sons recklessly take charge. Very differently, throughout John 4, Jesus speaks directly with the Samaritan woman. Besides making clear she’s in no danger, he also invites her to be honest about her life story. And this experience is transformational for her. It enlivens her and inspires her to reconnect with her community.
What if we’ve gotten this whole becoming-born-again-thing wrong? What if becoming born again and being a witness for Christ has less to do with telling people about Jesus, tallying up new believers, and getting more points in heaven? What if, instead, it has a lot more to do with bearing witness to the truth of our neighbor’s life experience? What if it’s in that exchange of honesty among neighbors . . . the kind of honesty that doesn’t fix things necessarily, doesn’t change the circumstances or change what’s happened, but instead cares that it did happen, values the person, and appreciations that somewhere in that exchange the other person can discover a new sense of agency and a desire to reconnect. What if that is part of what it means to become born again?
Science suggests that’s exactly what Jesus was doing there. Science tells us that in loving homes, through healthy marriages, among best friendships, and through great mentor relationships – we “feel felt”. We feel a connection between what we have personally experienced and what’s going on around us. A bridge of lovingkindness is made in those interactions that in caring ways acknowledge our life experiences. They literally get our agency hormones – like serotonin – going, and literally counteract our fight or flight hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol. Just as we see happening in John 4, as the woman leaves her jug of water and returns to town.
Unlike what happens with Dinah in Genesis 34. No one speaks with Dinah. No one invites her to tell the truth of what has happened to her, or what her perspective is. And, as the author Anita Diamant famously points out in her popular book, The Red Tent, Dinah’s experience could possibly have been that it wasn’t all bad. But we will never know, because no one ever bore witness to Dinah’s experience with her. Instead, she loses everything. And, as one of my doctoral thesis advisors pointed out – we, the readers of the Bible, are left to be her witnesses.
Consider, who Dinah was at the beginning of this, on that morning she set out to make friends . . . and who she is at the end. What kind of woman is she now? How does she interact now, with the women of the land, held captive in her new home?
Science tells us today that when we experience horrific events, those experiences change the chemistry of our bodies, and even change the behavior of our genes. Those changes can stay with us and we can pass them down through our families. Those changes – like the ones Dinah, her family, and their captives experienced – can be inherited.
Researchers are working today with children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of genocide, holocaust, and slavery survivors, discovering the far-reaching physiological and psychological affects of trauma. And it’s in this important work, they are also finding remarkable signs of hope and healing.
Last week, film actress Jennifer Garner testified about the importance of community programs that support impoverished children. She described what it’s like to go into a home here in the Central Valley, where the trauma of poverty has been passed down through generations, and how silence is what greets you in the home. No adult conversation. No children laughing or babbling. Not even any crying. No reading books. No playing. The fatigue from seemingly insurmountable stress, Garner says, “dulls the senses, saps hope, and destroys the will.”
What’s fascinating, though, she points out, it’s within our reach to change that. It’s through loving our neighbors, through caring interaction, like Jesus demonstrates, that seemingly miraculous development occurs. Right here, the kingdom of God at hand. Garner describes how a facilitator taught the mother of the house how to play with her child, for the first time. As the mother rolls a ball to her child who just a few moments before had been unresponsive, and begins talking with her child, the child’s eyes lit up and the child begins babbling. At one point, the mother tells Garner how no one had ever read her a book in her whole life. Not a parent, not a grandparent, not a school teacher, or a Sunday school teacher. No one. How does someone who has never experience care, offer care?
Garner urged Congress this week – and I would say, this word is for all us – “Give those children one responsive, responsible adult, and you can actually protect them from [severe stress]. That’s how resilient a child’s brain is. It takes so little – and it does so much.”
In fact, that’s exactly what the studies of how trauma gets passed down through generations are showing. It’s only when we gather around, when we make the effort, when we offer care, that we participate in the Holy Spirit creating opportunities for more care to happen. In John 4, the Samaritan woman feels so inspired by the care she’s received – mainly, having experienced a safe person with whom to be honest about the truth of her life – she immediately wants to reconnect with her community and to connect them with the source of this newfound goodness.
While she goes, Jesus turns to his disciples, and says to them, “the fields are ripe for harvesting.” Traditionally, Bible scholars have understood this moment as disconnected from the context of the rest of the chapter. But what if it’s a kind of do-over? Maybe what Jacob could have said to his sons, if he had been in a healthier place. Harvesting has everything to do with the fruit of the Holy Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and temperance. It is attending to what is in front of us. What if Jesus was never only saying, go tell them about me – but, instead, go bear witness to your neighbor’s life story in my name, in a safe way, full of the Holy Spirit? And in doing so, may you both witness the radical work of the Holy Spirit bringing about new life among us.
Notes on the Bible, faith, community, and congregational care.