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Two Witnesses

March 29, 2011

“Two Witnesses” John 4:3-42 Lent 3A © 2/27/11 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

A lone deranged gunman opens fire in a crowd, killing several, wounding a number of others, then turns the weapon on himself. Law enforcement officials and media interview witnesses trying to piece together what happened.

Two cars collide on a busy street. Besides looking at physical evidence like skid marks and the place and amount of damage on the vehicles, police talk to drivers who may have seen the accident.

A man and a woman stand up before a judge or a minister and pledge their devotion to each other in marriage. With them are at least two people, their friends, whom they have chosen as their witnesses, to confirm the fact of their union to anyone who asks.

In a courtroom, lawyers question one person, then another, about what they know concerning the character of a defendant or the disputed facts in the case being tried. These witnesses have sworn to answer truthfully.

Different scenarios, but all the witnesses have one thing in common: they have seen and/or heard something important. Their testimony may be vital to the outcome of a case. Or maybe what they attest to is crucial in establishing or confirming the truth of what someone has said. A witness has first-hand knowledge of what happened. As I learned when I worked in a law firm, hearsay is not reliable evidence.

Christian witness also is and must be first-hand knowledge, in this case of an experience with God in Jesus Christ. An author in the same tradition as our gospel for the morning has the perfect description of what we are called to be and do: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard…” (1 John 1:1-3).

Everyone of us is or can be a witness for Jesus in our particular time and place. Within our circle of influence, in ways that suit our style and personality, we tell “what we have seen.” There’s no one model for being such a witness. In fact, trying to follow someone else’s way of doing it is probably not the best course for us to take. After all, no one else has lived your life or mine, no one else can tell the same story we tell with Jesus, no one else has discovered what we have in our unique circumstances. “All theology is at its heart autobiography,” Frederick Buechner once said. We tell what we know, just like a witness to a crime, an accident or a marriage.

Still, whoever and wherever we are, there are some important principles to remember when we are sharing our experience with Jesus. A number of them are right there in the gospel story we heard this morning.

We are taught our “how-to” lesson by two witnesses. One is Jesus himself, who reminds us that witnesses listen more than they talk.

Tom Ehrich, a church consultant, connects this story with an experience in a store where the clerk would not listen to his needs: “As a shopper and church consultant, I find it fascinating to see how much can happen when a vendor understands the most basic tenet of sales: Focus on the customer’s need to buy, rather than your need to sell.

“If I could give any advice to struggling congregations, fragmented families, anxious partners or failing businesses, it would be this: listen to people. Few people will get outside themselves and ‘play nice’ unless they believe someone cares about their needs. Listening to customers is difficult, maddening and time-consuming. But when an enterprise has no curiosity about its constituents and wants only to perpetuate itself, the constituent’s next move is out the door.
“The transaction between Jesus and the Samaritan woman was about more than water. He was straying across boundaries, and she was curious as to why. He understood her deeper need, and she was moved by that curiosity. Jesus listened to her partial comprehension and led her deeper. He wasn’t a vendor with a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. She wasn’t a customer saying, ‘Do it my way or else.’ Jesus listened to her. She listened to him. They interacted and found common ground.
“In my experience, this is how the miracle of Christian love presents itself. Not as some doctrinal truth that can be verified by quoting John 3.16 or some perfect institution offering to share its perfection with me, but as people listening to people, someone listening to me, and my discovering the joy of listening to someone else” (“Listen,” On a Journey, 2/19/08, email devotional).

The organization Faithful Democracy emphasizes respect and listening. Their website offers this advice: “One of the best ways to show respect is to listen.  Focus on what the other person is saying, rather than focusing on what you are going to say next.  Ask yourself, ‘What are they trying to express?’  ‘What is important to them?’  ‘Where do we agree?’” And if someone does not show respect, evidenced by constant interruption, say “‘You just shared your opinion and I listened without interrupting, could you please listen to mine?’” (

So Jesus invites us to hear, and thus invite our conversation partner to hear us. But the other thing we can learn from Jesus is that good witnesses are not baited into discussions of hot button issues. A crafty lawyer can goad a witness into saying something he or she did not intend to say and in a way not meant. The barrister can get the person on the stand flustered and upset and even erode their credibility with the jury and the judge. The witness has to keep cool and not fall for such tactics.

It’s much the same with Christian witness. Jesus models an approach that doesn’t get pulled into discussions of things that ultimately are unimportant or stuff that is really a smokescreen, a diversion to keep the conversation away from personal faith. The woman at the well wanted to talk about Jew vs. Samaritan, our place vs. your place, which is better, who has the right tradition, blah, blah, blah.

Notice that she changed the subject to all that right after Jesus started talking about her marital history. Jesus doesn’t get back to the matter of the five husbands and a lover, but neither does he get sucked into a fruitless discussion about places of worship. Instead, he talks about a new reality beyond this one where neither hallowed place will matter, one’s heritage won’t matter, one’s ritual won’t mean a thing. Only the state of one’s heart in the presence of the Creator will be the standard of whether one is worshipping truly. Only the search for and the appreciation of Truth with a capital “t.” In other words, Jesus wanted to talk about what is most deeply personal about us: what’s in our hearts and souls.

We still argue, don’t we, about who has the right church government or method of baptism, whether small churches or big churches are more effective, whether this or that doctrine is true? We go on endlessly about how to interpret the Bible or who owns the property of a congregation. We spend untold hours and money and energy fighting about sexuality and ordination. We pit the needs of the old against the expectations of the young or sit in some meeting deciding which mission project is worthwhile and which needs to be scrapped, because it doesn’t bring big numbers. We even get obsessed with the little details of daily church life like paint colors and carpet.

There have been and always will be hot button issues. And maybe some of them are important. But the job of the witness in the style of Jesus is not to debate such things. When we witness like Jesus we are concerned with introducing people to a new and wondrous love, a reality beyond this one, indeed beyond imagination. We want to talk about their heart and our own. Values. Feelings. Circumstances. Possibilities. How life can be new and fresh and alive again like flowing water.

So we learn from Jesus to listen and to stay focused. But the woman at the well also teaches us.

I suspect we have been put off from doing evangelism because we have seen it practiced as a sort of spiritual assault. But the Samaritan woman models a way of witnessing that is gentle and appealing. As the noted author Eugene Peterson has said, “witness” is really a “modest word—saying what is there, honestly testifying to exactly what we see, what we hear” (“Annie Dillard: With Her Eyes Open,” Theology Today, July 1986: 186). The woman’s approach to her neighbors was certainly modest. She didn’t shout or badger or argue or plead. She merely told about a man who knew all about her.

Everyone of us can do what the Samaritan woman did. We don’t have to know the ins and outs and nuances of Reformed theology or the Book of Order . We don’t need a printed booklet or a step-by-step program we learned in a seminar taught by a high-priced consultant. All we have to have is a relationship with Jesus. As I said earlier, the experience each of us has will be different; our Lord calls us to be his own in the place we live, as the people we are. Maybe someone has never known a time when Jesus was not Savior and Lord. Another can pinpoint the moment, the place, every sensory stimulus of the day when he or she dropped to the ground in repentance and faith. But the important thing is that you and I have an story to tell about ourselves and Jesus.

If you and I can tell about our lives, we can witness. Everyday experiences are the stuff of reflection about God’s work with us. For example, I once wrote in my blog what I was taught about faith by preparing oatmeal for my late father-in-law’s breakfast. Another time, it was watching my dog sleep in my wife’s arms. All you or I have to do is look and listen and wonder. Open our eyes to what God is doing around us and in us.

Buren Blankenship, pastor of Trinity Church in Starkville, has written: “Stop and notice the world around you. Any time of the year is amazing — from the first brave flowers in early spring, to the growing fruits and vegetables of the warming summer, through the dazzling yellow-golds and reds of fall leaves. Even the cold days of winter have their own spell of beauty.

“Being observant of the world around us prepares us to see small surprises the Creator God is waiting for us to discover. See the twinkle in someone’s eyes that is fed by a joy that difficult circumstances cannot defeat. Notice the tear of sorrow on a quiet friend’s cheek. See something for the first time in a Bible passage even though you’ve read those verses a hundred times before.”

Jesus comes to us in the midst of life, as he did to a woman going out to draw water, and we are captivated by him and called to be his own. Then in a spirit of humility we go to our neighbors and tell what we have seen and heard.

Part of being humble is not pretending to have the answers. And that is the other way the Samaritan woman teaches us how to witness. She invited her neighbors to “come and see” and she asked them a question. She was confident they could make up their own minds once they met Jesus.

There are plenty of people walking around with a second-hand faith. Maybe you’re one of them. This is belief of a sort inherited from parents or grandparents or the tradition of a congregation, but never really owned personally. People with second-hand faith believe what somebody else told them without ever examining it for themselves. It’s the truth because somebody said it was the truth. Of course, that’s the way a great many in government, media, and religion in our day or any day like it. Those who think for themselves, probe and dig and match up doctrine with common sense or words with actions might come to a different conclusion than the so-called “right” one.

But as witnesses in the way of the Samaritan we have nothing to fear from people thinking for themselves. You can get a decision for Christ, a name on a roll, by manipulation or scare tactics. You can even get a believer in some sense. But when you insist that somebody struggle, listen, reflect, filter the message through the sieve of her or his own life, you get a disciple. And that’s what Jesus calls us to make. Not just believers of doctrine, but disciples who follow him. Christian faith is not about assenting to propositions, as much as some would like us to think that. Instead, it’s about living like Jesus.

Every day we see people treated as objects, things, commodities to be traded and sold. And as Walter Brueggemann has observed, commodities don’t talk. A person turned into a thing, an object, is robbed of self. She or he becomes mute and submissive. But to address a question is to invite her or him to explore, to choose, to decide. Jesus did it this way, with subtlety: “If you knew who it was speaking to you, you would ask him….” The woman asked directly: “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” Witnessing like either or both gives back the gift of speech and choice. We issue an invitation to others to join us in imagining a new world, a new life that goes beyond what we know and touches deep human longing.

One nameless woman encountered Jesus. They talked about things that really mattered. She shared her experience with others. And that opened the door of faith for her neighbors.

Like her, we don’t have to have all the answers. All we need is to tell our story. And we invite our neighbors to wonder and discover for themselves “Can this Jesus be the Christ?”

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