Third Sunday in Lent, March 19, 2017
Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
If there is one question guaranteed to get most good, active Christians to hang their head in shame, it’s this one: how often do you share your faith with others? You see, we know we’re supposed to be evangelizing, spreading the Good News. We know there are a lot of people in the world who desperately need the Good News, who long for some deeper meaning to their lives but looking in all the wrong places. We know that the world is full of parched souls searching for living water, and that Jesus Christ is the living water that will quench that thirst and give them abundant life. And yet, sharing our faith is scary. It’s a very personal thing, and what if we don’t know enough to answer all their questions, and what if they laugh, or what if we offend them? And so we just … don’t. We have living water in a world dying of thirst, and we don’t share it.
I understand, because I’ve been there. When I went off to seminary, some of my friends were shocked. See, they didn’t even know I was a Christian. I’d never even mentioned my faith, because I knew they weren’t believers and I didn’t want to make things awkward. And in the Lutheran church, before you get accepted to seminary to become a pastor, you have to write six pages about your faith and how you feel called by God. It’s not judged on academic standards, but just on how you talk about your faith. That was the hardest six pages I’ve ever had to write in my life. I wasn’t used to sharing my faith, and it made me feel so naked. I know just how hard it can be to share our faith with others, but I also know how vital it is. Each and every one of us is here because someone—parents, teachers, grandparents—shared their faith with us.
So let’s take a closer look at our Gospel reading, to see what we can learn from it. The first thing that strikes me is that Jesus knows her. And it’s that knowledge, not the theology, that gets her to sit up and take notice. It’s the fact that he knows her that gets her village to listen, too. Now, we can never have the kind of intimate knowledge of someone that Jesus has, but we can and do get to know the people around us. And you know what? One of the key ingredients about whether someone responds positively to the Gospel or not is whether there’s a relationship there. If they know and trust the person who’s telling them about Jesus, they’re a lot more likely to listen with an open heart and mind than they will to someone randomly coming up to them and asking them if they’re saved or not. Jesus could build that relationship quickly; for us it takes longer.
Pastor Mark Nygard, currently serving in Bowman, North Dakota, was a missionary in Africa for many years. His first assignment, he was the first missionary in the area. It took him twenty years to gain his first convert, because it took that long to build up the kind of trust and relationship with the community that would inspire them to open up enough to him. He didn’t start by talking—he stared by listening. He started by listening to their concerns, hearing what they hoped for, what they feared, what they cared about. And once they knew he cared about them—not just as souls to be saved, but as people—they were willing to listen to him talk about Jesus. Just like, in our Gospel reading, it’s Jesus knowing and caring about the woman that gets her to open up to him. He knows, her he accepts her, he cares about her … and that’s what shocks her. That’s what sends her out to her friends and family and community to share the Good News.
Second, Jesus took a risk in talking with her. You see, she was a Samaritan and Jesus and the disciples were all Jewish. Jews and Samaritans did not get along. They had never gotten along. They worshipped the same God, our God, but they disagreed about everything: which books should be considered holy Scripture and which shouldn’t, where one should worship, and many other things. They did not live in the same towns, they did not drink out of the same wells, they did not eat together, and if they absolutely had to be at the same place, they ignored each other. Notice that both the Samaritan woman and the disciples are uncomfortable that Jesus is talking with her. Yet we are not sent to spread the Good News only to people who are already like us, but to everyone. It’s a lot easier to talk to people we already know than it is to go out and meet new people. Meeting new people is a risk, especially when they come from different cultures as the Samaritan woman did. Yet however different they are, they are still children of God, created by him, and they still have a thirst for the living water that Jesus gives.
I can’t tell you how many times in the last few years I’ve heard Underwood natives—the people who grew up here, whose families have been here for generations—note that there are all these people they don’t know in town. People who came in to work the mine or the power plant, or who work in Bismark or Minot but wanted their kids to grow up in a small town. Some came from across the state, some came from across the country. And so often, instead of welcoming them in and getting to know them, we just keep talking to the people we already know. If Jesus had done that, the Samaritan woman wouldn’t have come to faith, and neither would her community. And neither would any of our ancestors. We are called to spread the Gospel to all nations and all peoples … and the first step is getting to know the ones here in our midst.
Third, Jesus didn’t spend a whole lot of time on the nitpicking theological points. He doesn’t start out by quoting chapter and verse. He knows what she wants and needs because he knows her, and that’s what they talk about. Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus does explain the fine points of Scripture, but it’s almost always to his disciples, the inner circle who already follow him. When he talks to people like the Samaritan woman, he talks about the things in their lives that matter to them. He talks about how the Good News fits into that. So, for a woman who spends a lot of her day hauling water for drinking and cooking and cleaning, he talks about living water that nourishes our souls and never runs dry. And they talk about her life, and where God is in the midst of it.
This is Good News to her, but it should also be good news to us. You don’t have to know all the Bible by heart to share the living water. You don’t have to have memorized all the correct theological beliefs or clever arguments to persuade people. You just have to be able to talk about their life, and where God might be in it, and where you’ve experienced God in your own life. It doesn’t take professional training in evangelism, although that can help; all you really need is sincerity.
Last, take heart in Jesus’ words to his disciples. The fields are ripe for harvesting, and we are not the only workers. Spreading the Gospel does not rest wholly on our shoulders. It’s not about one heroic witness that wins a soul for Christ. Rather, like farming, spreading the Gospel is the culmination of a lot of little things. Someone has to plow the fields, and then someone has to plant the seeds. Then someone has to fertilize them, and maybe irrigate them. Then someone has to spray for weeds. Then comes the harvest. But all of these roles don’t have to be the same person. Maybe your job isn’t to convert them. Maybe your job is just to till the soil, or plant seeds, or water them with living water. Each one of us is an important part, and each one of us has a role to play. But none of us is the only part. We share in this labor with all Christians. We are sent by Jesus Christ, in the name of the Father, with the Holy Spirit inspiring us and guiding us. We don’t have to do everything. We just have to do our part, and trust that God will send others to do theirs.
Jesus met the woman at the well, and talked with her. He knew her, and cared about her, and built a relationship with her, and she listened because of that relationship. He built that relationship despite all the social taboos against it, despite the pressure to stick with his own people. He shared his experiences, and he showed her how God was a part of her life, and the gift of living water that God wanted her to receive.