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.