Becoming Born Again in John 4
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.
I had the privilege of preaching at Hesston Mennonite Church on Sunday, February 19, 2017. My sermon, "When the Unthinkable Happens . . . A Long Time Ago," is based on biblical interpretation I first produced in 2012 and was part of the Hesston College 2017 Anabaptist Vision and Discipleships Series. A copy of my sermon appears below, along with a worksheet of the parallel literary themes between the two chapters, Genesis 34 and John 4, I developed in 2012.
Parallel Literary Themes in Genesis 34 and John 4
"When the Unthinkable Happens . . . A Long Time Ago"
Good morning! Thank you for having me. It's a gift to be here, and I am very grateful to explore with you the Word God has for us today.
Let's begin with prayer. Please pray with me.
Good and gracious God - Thank you for the gift of this day. Thank you for the gift of this conference weekend, and for your Holy Spirit dwelling with us throughout this weekend. We are grateful for the mercy, wise counsel, and strengthening you offer us, even in our times of greatest doubt and uncertainty. We continue to be buoyed by your lovingkindness and the light you offer in our most bleakest times – a light that casts away all dread and inspires new life. This morning, we especially thank you for continuing to open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts to learning more of how you intend us to love. We lift all of these things up in the name of your son, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Our passage for today occurs in the middle of a famous account when Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well. Jacob's well. A well on the property Jacob purchases at the end of Genesis 33. The woman comes alone to get water, in the middle of the day, which is a strange time. Normally people would get water in the morning or late afternoon. It suggests does not want to meet anyone along the way and she's avoiding community. At one point, Jesus invites her to be honest about her life experience. It may even be the first time anyone has offered her safe space to do that. She becomes inspired. It seems to transform her. She desires to reconnect with her community. It's at this point we find our passage for today.
Hear the Word of the Lord found in the Gospel of John, chapter 4, verses 27-35:
Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a Samaritan woman, but no one said to her, "What do you want?" or to him, "Why are you speaking with her?" Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, "Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?" They left the city and were on their way to him.
This is the Word of the Lord.
When Jesus first is meeting with the woman, the disciples have been in town looking for food. They suddenly burst upon the scene and are scandalized by the questionable encounter of Jesus meeting alone with a strange woman. But they hold their tongues.
Then, after the woman leaves, Jesus says to the disciples, "the fields are ripe for harvest." What does he mean?
For decades, even centuries, countless interpreters of the Bible have understood this moment as a kind of side conversation. As if, Jesus was in the middle of "minsitry" with teh woman, God bless her, needed so much help, and then when she leaves, he can finally get back to that ongoing conversation he and the boys have been having about tallying up some more believers. As if the two conversations have either nothing to do with each other, or, the woman only serves as an example of yet another person in desperate need of the truth she has been missing for so many years.
But what if that's wrong – or, at least, not fully right? What if the woman – a survivor of numerous losses . . . we're told earlier in the chapter, when Jesus invites her to be honest about the truth of her life experience, that she has had five husbands and the man she is with now is not her husband. All of these have been forms of loss, though we don't know how those losses came about . . . what if the woman has had the truth of her life experience with her the whole time. What if, instead, no one has ever bothered to bear witness to the truth of her life, with her, as someone who loves and cares about her?
AND . . . what if this moment is even bigger than just this woman or just her town? What if Jesus is not only meeting her and them with their personal and recent pains? What if he is also addressing pain that have been passed down to them? Put another way, what if you can counter pain that passes through generations by being present to current pain?
I think the woman is disconnected from her community and has experienced a lot of losses, in part, because of what she has inherited.
Christians have long believed that our life experiences have long-lasting effects. When we study God's Word, we remind ourselves how both human sin and God's blessing can extend across many generations. So, then, we might not be surprised when we notice science catching up – especially in recent years – as science is beginning to explain similar phenomena in greater detail than we have known or recognized before.
For example, consider a recent turn of the century, emerging study, called epigenetics. This study explores how the environment – or the nurture part of the nature and nurture balance – influences genetic behavior. The types of genes we inherit cannot change, however, this study explores how the behavior of our genes can change.
So, for instance, you or someone you love or a neighbor might have a genetic predisposition for something – and the environment you or they are in determines whether that something comes to be or not. This is both positive and negative. Good things can come about – you never actually get a disease you may be predisposed for – or, bad things can come about – a skill your predisposed for never fully takes shape or you actually do develop great bouts with depression. Of course, there are all sorts of variations that may occur, as well, among these varying extremes.
The study of epigenetics bolsters what we Christians already know, but still could do with some reminding – that is, the effects of trauma reshape family and community life and those effects can pass through many generations. They shape what conversation topics are allowed or not allowed. What emotions are allowed or not allowed. What activities are allowed or not allowed. They shape both the spoken and the unspoken rules of family and community life. At the same time, and most significantly, the effects of love and care also can reshape family and community life and pass through many generations. The effects of love and care also shape what conversation topics are allowed or not allowed. What emotions are allowed or not allowed. What activities are allowed or not allowed. They shape both the spoken and the unspoken rules of family and community life.
Jesus' care for the woman at the well makes a big difference – not just for her spiritual salvation, but also for her physiological and biological well-being. We miss that, and we miss the significance of what's going on with the disciples here when we don't read this passage in the context that was intended.
There are several clues at the beginning of John 4 that first century Christians who had studied the Hebrew Bible more thoroughly would hear as loud bells. We're told that Jesus comes to rest at Jacob's well, property he purchases at the end of Genesis 33. The Samaritan woman also describes being a direct descendent of Jacob and how this well was where Jacob's family and animals go their water. First century hearers would ahve been very familiar with this property and what's gone on their over the years. So would the Samaritan woman. This story, in John 4, is part of a long line of exhausting events.
For example, just before Jacob purchases the land in Genesis 33, he has three significant encounters back to back. First, he finally confronts and reconciles with his father-in-law after both have act in conniving ways toward one another. Then, immediately after, he wrestles with a messenger from God. In the tussle, he receives a blessing, but also a life-long wound in his hip. Then, as if that were not enough, he meets his estranged brother Esau, from whom he once stole a birthright. Jacob is immensely fearful and anxious about this encounter. To his great surprise, though, Esau is nothing but magnanimous with grace and hospitality.
It is after these three tremendous roller-coaster encounters, Jacob finally settles his nomadic family, purchasing land and claiming space for a home for the first time. Jacob has twelve sons and one daughter, Dinah, who also is very hopeful about this new home.
Right away, Dinah goes out to meet the women of the land. Can you imagine what she must have felt like? The only daughter among twelve brothers. Having lived a nomadic life. Has she ever had a friend whose a girl? A peer? How curious she must be? Brimming with possibilities. Perhaps some anxiety too? What will they be like? Will they like her? Will she like them?
Maybe you can recall for yourself a time of venturing out in anticipation . . . when you moved to a new place, or started college, or joined a new church. What will they be like? Will they like me? Will I like them? Will we be friends?
Unfortunately, we'll never know. Dinah never got the chance to find out, because of a very sad thing that happened to her when she met a stranger along the way who hurt her very badly [the Word is shared in this way to make it accessible to young children in the congregation at the time]. Here, in the same property where Jesus meets the Samaritan woman.
Interestingly, when Dinah's encounter with the stranger occurs, Dinah's brothers are out in the fields with their cattle, kind of like how when Jesus meets the Samaritan woman, the disciples are away getting food. Jacob is alone when he finds out what happened to Dinah. He waits for his sons to return before responding. It seems, Dinah is left alone in her time of need. As someone who has studied trauma, I wonder how overwhelmed both Jacob and Dinah are in this moment – the combination of exhausting events, mixed with anticipation, dashed hopes, and overwhelming pain. Is Jacob numb? In shock? Did anyone come to Dinah's aid?
When Dinah's brothers do return, they are immediately reactive. Unlike the disciples in John 4, who hold their tongues despite their own thoughts of astonishment and disgrace, the brothers respond with anger, lies, and deceitfulness. Dinah's brothers end up attacking the men of the town, pillaging anything valuable, and taking the women and children to their camp.
Whatever Dinah may have hoped for has been obliterated. Constant reminders of these wretched acts remain, day after day.
In John 4, Jesus, unlike Jacob, speaks. Jesus not only speaks, he speaks to the woman. Something no one did with Dinah. Jesus invites the Samaritan woman to acknowledge the truth of her life, without judgment or criticism. Within this safety and care, the woman becomes transformed. No longer seeking isolation and being guarded, the woman feels enlivened. She desires to connect with her community.
It's at this point Jesus speaks to the disciples and guides them – unlike Jacob who does not guide his sons. And Jacob, in his own way of being overwhelmed, may not have been able to guide them. But here, in John 4, Jesus says, "My foo dis to do the will of him who sent me . . . look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvest." What if the harvest is not only about spiritual salvation – about becoming a new believer – but what if it is about healing from past and current traumas?
Immediately before John 4, in John 3, Jesus talks about becoming born again and being born of the spirit. In John 4, he talks to the woman about worshipping in spirit and truth. What if the Good News Jesus is revealing to his disciples – to us – is about healing . . . not just spiritual healing, but whole body healing and healing across generations. What if he is modeling how we don't just inherit or pass on trauma and suffering, but also we pass on care and love to the generations to come. What if acknowledging what's happened, being honest and bearing witness to what we've experienced is a significant part of passing on care? That bearing witness matters.
It matters for the Jacob's of the world – the men out there trying to manage it all on their own, without enough Esau's in their lives. It matters for the Dinah's – the women trying to survive without enough of Jesus in their lives. It matters for Dinah's brothers, for the twelves disciples, for the people of the town in Genesis and in the Gospel of John. It matters for us.
Science certainly is suggesting, strongly, that bearing witness does matter. And that bearing witness is not about having the right thing to say or do, but being willing to listen or create safe space for the truth of what the other person has experienced to be expressed. Science says, when someone bears witness for us, we "feel felt" by that caregiver. "Feeling felt" activates our agency hormones. It gets us moving and makes us want to reconnect. It enlivens us. Just like it did for the woman at the well.
In our passage for today, Jesus boldly proclaims to his disciples that the nourishment they and we all are looking for, the nourishment that feeds starving souls and the nourishment and living water the Holy Spirit uses to birth people again, is the nourishment of emotional love and spiritual care after severe loss. The emotional love and spiritual care Jesus models in John 4 is what the Holy Spirit uses to bring about new life after severe losses.
The Bible has been telling us for millennia how to bear witness and love our neighbors – perhaps especially for the neighbors in our own families and in our own towns. And its good for us to be reminded: Our food and living water is to do the will of God. So, look around. And see how the fields are ripe for harvest.
Notes on the Bible, faith, community, and congregational care.