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How to Witness Like a Samaritan

March 24, 2014

“How to Witness Like a Samaritan” John 4:3-42 © 3.23.14 Lent 3A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

She wasn’t a harlot, but you would never know it by the way the other village women treated her. Around the well in the evening, they would hurl insults at her, accusing her of all sorts of immorality. After awhile, they wore her down; she no longer came to get water at the customary hour. Instead, she brought her jar at noon, when she would be alone, and no one would taunt her.

Loneliness and pain seemed to be the story of her life. Her first husband had thrown her out and divorced her on the slightest pretext. The second died from an accident on the job, when a building he was constructing collapsed. There had been five in all, and after so much loss and grief, she had given up on marriage completely and taken a lover. She tried to tell him how she felt about how the women treated her, but his typical response was to utter a vulgarity and advise to forget about it and get supper on the table.

The scars of so many broken relationships had disfigured her soul. She couldn’t just “forget about it,” no matter how hard she tried. Some nights she cried herself to sleep.

Today as she approached the well she saw a man sitting on the rock that covered the opening. She would have to ask him to move, but that would be the extent of the conversation. Just get the water, then go home.

But the stranger spoke first. “Could I have a drink?” he asked. How could this be? A Jewish man talking in public not merely to a woman not related to him, but to a Samaritan woman. She was taken aback. What sort of person was this? He must be some kind of renegade, since he seemed willing not only to speak to her, but also to drink from the same vessel she used. Such an action would render him ritually unclean. She quizzed him about all this, but his “answer” wasn’t an answer at all. It was more of an invitation. He talked about bubbling, life-giving water that God would give.

They spoke some more, and she decided to ask for some of the water. What she drew from the cistern was as flat as the bread she baked every day. It would be so nice to have her own personal spring, flowing and cold. Then she would never have to come to the well at noon or anytime.

“Go call your husband,” the stranger told her. “I don’t have a husband.” “You have that right,” he replied. “You’ve been married five times, and the man you have now is not your husband.”

Oh, no! Not that again! Who had he been talking to? How could someone passing through town have found out? Quick! Change the subject. Argue about religion. Tell this Jew why she and her people didn’t want to worship in Jerusalem, with all the bigoted snobs and their prejudice against people like her.

He didn’t buy it. The man didn’t seem to care about arguments. There would be a time, he claimed, when things like buildings and mountains and rituals wouldn’t matter. In fact, for those able to see it, the time was already here. God would accept anyone—Jew, Samaritan, anybody—who sincerely wanted to worship him.

There was only one category into which she could fit this man. At first, she had thought he was just another Jew who hated her simply for being a Samaritan. Then she had decided he must be a prophet. But someone that had such insight into her soul and preached such an inclusive vision could be none other than the one the Samaritans termed “the Restorer,” whom Jews called “the Messiah.” Could it be? Could it finally be?

At that moment some other Jews came up with some groceries they had bought. Suddenly she felt uncomfortable, and the conversation with the nameless stranger was over. The water could wait. Her neighbors had to hear about this strange meeting by the well. Maybe she would even tell the other women, despite their catty remarks that hurt her feelings.

As is typical with John, this story has many levels. We could pay attention to the historic setting of the encounter. It was Jacob’s well. So maybe the point is that Jesus is the One who fulfills the promises made to the patriarch. The passage is also the author’s account of how the Samaritans came to be included in his community of faith. And of course, it’s famous for our Lord’s statement that those who worship God must worship in spirit and in truth.

But more fruitful for us this morning is a focus on how things turned out in the end. Last week we heard about a frustrated, confused religious leader named Nicodemus who talked with Jesus. It took awhile for him to figure things out. He ended up defending Jesus in a council and then bringing spices for preparing his body after the crucifixion. But the result of our Lord’s conversation with a despised, unnamed, foreign woman was an immediate and effective witness. She went right then and told her neighbors, who came to believe that Jesus was the Savior of the world.

All of us can do what the Samaritan woman did. We don’t have to know theology. We don’t need to have all the answers. We can do without a booklet or a tract to distribute door to door. All we must have is a relationship with Jesus. Because each of us is different, with unique experiences, there can be no cookie-cutter approach to witnessing. And that’s the beauty of life with Christ. Whoever we are, wherever we come from, whatever our struggles and hopes and needs and questions, he comes to us and calls us.

Frederick Buechner once said that “theology is ultimately autobiography.” If you and I can talk about our lives, we can witness for Jesus. You might claim you have little to say. But try this. Sit down with a piece of paper and plot your life on a timeline. If you can remember them, note important dates and places, those markers that made a difference. They could be times of sorrow or of joy, new adventures and frightening crises, peaks and valleys. Or I could draw a river and show all the tributaries that have flowed into it, the people and experiences that have contributed to who I am today. And then, whatever graphic representation we have chosen, we can muse on how faith has seen us through all those times, how ordinary experiences have shown us who God is, how he’s present. Jesus comes to us in the midst of our common life, as he did to a woman going out to draw water, who was trying to escape criticism and hurt. And like her, we’re intrigued and captivated and ultimately called. Then we might take the initiative to tell the story or when we’re asked what has given us meaning, we share it then.

Witnessing isn’t hitting somebody in the head with a blunt instrument labeled “the good news.” We don’t try to conquer and overwhelm someone we have identified as an enemy and call that “evangelism.” Christian witness is not marshaling the evidence for the existence of God or the reality of the resurrection and trying to convince a skeptic in a debate. We see so much of that, and it’s off-putting. If that’s witnessing, we want no part of it. Maybe we have even been targets for such obnoxious, unloving, aggressive, argumentative people whose goal is not to help someone else, but to put another notch on their Bible so they can brag how they saved another soul.

Instead of such tactics, witnessing is simply inviting someone else to share the wonder, to answer the question of meaning for themselves. As author Eugene Peterson once observed, “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 Samaritan woman didn’t cajole, argue, plead, shout or badger. She merely went back to her neighbors and told them she had met a man who knew all about her. Maybe they would come to the same conclusion she did. Maybe not. But she did a great thing. She opened the door and invited them to walk through and make discoveries for themselves.

A witness on this model is thrilled when people believe and take ownership of faith for themselves and in their own way. The goal is not to create clones, not yet another incarnation of a doctrinal stance or a particular viewpoint who will parrot the party line. What’s interesting or provocative or personal or unique about that? The world is full of people who believe something on the authority of somebody else. They’re members of a certain church because their parents are or were or they have a particular political affiliation or follow a profession because that’s what’s expected, what’s done. They regard as true whatever they read on the Internet or hear from some pundit or TV preacher.

The text doesn’t condemn believing on the authority of others, simply accepting what we have heard from someone else. The belief of the Samaritan neighbors who heard the woman was genuine. James Fowler called that sort of faith “conventional,” and it’s the kind with which many people live their whole lives. Historically, it’s been known as “assensus.” But I think the story invites us to consider a further stage of faith, namely, an examined and owned discipleship that comes from hearing Jesus for oneself. After two days of his teaching, the village folk said to the woman: “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” Fowler termed that “individuative/ reflective faith.” The classic thinkers called it “fides.”

The kind of witness modeled in the story has nothing to fear from people thinking for themselves. Again, just the opposite. The witness really hasn’t succeeded unless people ask questions, struggle, reflect, listen, and filter the message through the sieve of their own experiences. The typical evangelistic practice of badgering and manipulation might get a name on a roll or even a believer in some sense. But what Jesus called us to do is make disciples, who follow him freely and thoughtfully.

We live in a world where people are often treated as objects, things, commodities. And as Walter Brueggemann has observed, commodities don’t talk. A person turned into an object, regarded as a thing, is robbed of self. She or he becomes mute and submissive. There are plenty in the leadership of churches who like such a situation and call it “Christianity.” But that’s a perversion of the faith. Instead, witnessing like a Samaritan gives back the gifts of speech and choice. We treat our neighbors not as objects, but as subjects, real people capable of and responsible for intentional action. We respect the right of individual conscience and decision. Most of all, we give an invitation to imagine possibilities, a new world that meets and exceeds human expectation. It touches the heart of human longing, the questions people are really asking. We say “come and see” and ask “can it be?”

One nameless woman encountered Jesus and shared her experience with him. In so doing, she opened the door of faith for her neighbors. She didn’t have all the answers; she wasn’t even sure Jesus was the Messiah. But she told her story and raised questions.

Maybe we don’t know the ins and outs of Reformed theology. Could be we can’t even get the books of the Bible in the right order. But we too have a story to tell. Every one of us. Without exception. So we can invite our neighbors to share the wonder with us, to come and see, to ask and answer for themselves “Can this Jesus be the Christ?”

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