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The Wrong Kind of People


What happens when you talk to the wrong kind of people? You may end up surprising yourself, and your neighbors.

This week’s text tells of an unlikely encounter between two people who have no business talking to each other. But the transformation follows in the wake of their meeting. It’s the story of Jesus and the Woman at the Well.

John 4:1-42

Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John” 2—although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— 3he left Judea and started back to Galilee.

4But he had to go through Samaria. 5So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” 16Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

27Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” 30They left the city and were on their way to him. 31Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?”34Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’38I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” 39Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41And many more believed because of his word. 42They 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.”

To start with the obvious: this is a long story! Someone has claimed (I can’t seem to run down the specific citation) that this is the longest one-on-one conversation that Jesus has with anyone ever. That makes it all the more surprising, because Jesus should not be talking to this person at all. There is a lot of transgression in this text.

It begins with Jesus on the wrong side of the proverbial tracks –in Samaria. Preachers often allude to the fact that 1st century Jews hate Samaritans but rarely explain why. It has to do with Israel’s history. Many centuries before the birth of Jesus, after the death of King Solomon, a succession struggle among his sons divided the kingdom of Israel in two. The southern kingdom was called Judah and had Jerusalem as its capital. The northern kingdom was called Israel and had the city of Samaria as its capital.

In the year 722 BCE, the northern kingdom (Israel) was conquered by the Assyrian Empire. The Assyrian policy was to resettle subjugated people –so the Israelite population was forcibly removed and replaced with people from other parts of the Assyrian empire. But those newly arrived took some elements of Israelite religion and began to intermarry with Israelites who had been left behind.

Put all this in a pot, sit and simmer for about 700 years. The result? In the eyes of faithful Jews (like Jesus and his followers), the Samaritans are a despised class of racially amalgamated and religiously confused people. It’s a potent cocktail of racism and heresy-hating.

But Jesus has to go through Samaria. They stop at a well, about noon. The disciples go into the village to find some lunch and Jesus is alone when a Samaritan woman comes to the well.

Let me just count some of the ways that Jesus has no business talking to this woman: she is a Samaritan, he is a Jew; she is a woman, he is a man; she is a lay person, he is a rabbi. No one would expect them to talk to one another. It isn’t the done thing.

But Jesus strikes up a conversation. He starts by asking a favor –“Give me a drink.” The woman seems taken aback, and reminds him of at least one of the boundaries he is crossing. But Jesus pushed right on ahead into what turns out to be a deep theological conversation.

I will have more to say about the give-and-take in Sunday’s sermon. For now, I would simply note a couple of things.

First, I have heard many sermons that suggest Jesus is somehow shaming of this woman in verses 16-18. Then verse 19 as her trying to change the subject, steering the conversation somewhere less personal.

For my part, I can’t see it that way. She does not react as someone who has been shamed. And in the ancient patriarchal culture of the Near East, a woman would have very little agency in the matter of who her husband(s) would be. She may have been widowed many times. She may have been abandoned or mistreated by men. But I just don’t see how Jesus is shaming her in this story.

Second, verses 27-38 seem like a digression. There is some good stuff here about Jesus’ food being God’s will and the need for more harvest workers. But that material interrupts what matters most to me: the woman’s character arc.

When she rejoins the story at v. 39, we discover something remarkable: she preaching! Her testimony about Jesus leads many in her village to belief. (Remember how critical the word “believe” was in last week’s text?)

In this encounter, the Woman at the Well is transformed. She ends up preaching the Gospel.

And Jesus? I think Jesus may be transformed as well.

Maybe I’ll say more about that on Sunday.


Apply for Easter Offering Grants


Click here to download a copy of the Grant Application for Plymouth’s 2018 Easter Special Offering.


All Church Reads


Plymouth will continue to explore race during Lent using books as our conversation partners. Adult members are invited to read Michael Eric Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America and Plymouth youth members are invited to read All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Keily.

We will have weekly meetings at church and around the community to gather and discuss these books. There will be special sessions for the parents of younger children to share age-appropriate book titles and talk about how to read them with your kids.

Books will be available at the church and at Beaverdale Books. Watch the monitors, website, and church publications for more details.


Take Action against Turkish Human Rights Abuse


Human rights violations in Turkey have increased exponentially in the in the aftermath of the July 15, 2016 attempted coup. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has blamed the plot on the Hizmet (Gulen) movement and seized the opportunity to jail many of his opponents, including 18,000 women and hundreds of children. The Plymouth Peace Committee believes that jailing these women and children and using them as pawns to get male relatives to return to Turkey is a human rights abuse that should not be tolerated. Consequently, please join the Peace Committee in petitioning U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley to pressure Turkey to release these women and children. Petitions will be circulated after the Saturday night and Sunday morning services, in Waveland Hall.

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I’m back! The year end hiatus went a little long, but I am back at it and eager to reflect each week on the text appointed for us by the Narrative Lectionary.

This week we come to a passage so familiar that it may be hard to hear: the story of Jesus and Nicodemus. It invites us to ponder a word both familiar and threatening:

Have you been saved?


John 3:1-21

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”


John likes to offer up these stories of people having one-on-one encounters with Jesus. It happens again with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), the man born blind (John 9) and John’s Easter account of Mary Magdalene encountering the risen Christ in the garden (John 20).  Each time it happens, the conversation gets complicated. Jesus speaks and is misunderstood; his interlocutors say more than they know.

John 3 may prove especially challenging because v.13 has been wrenched out of context, overused and generally mistreated. (Employed, even, as a sign at football games by the once-ubiquitous Bannerman).

I think the best way to approach is two-fold: first to walk through the text, pointing out certain features then reflect a little on the big picture. (Hint: it has something to do with “salvation”).

So, as we read this text, what do we want to notice?

In verse 1 Nicodemus is a Pharisee. The Pharisees show up a lot in the Gospels, probably because they were the closest rivals to Jesus. There are at least two factions in 1st century Judaism: the Sadducees are the group aligned with the wealthy elites and the Jerusalem temple. The Pharisees are the party of the people. Since Jesus also appeals to ordinary people, he and the Pharisees compete for adherents. It is politically dangerous for Nicodemus to be seen with Jesus, so he comes by night. But, in John’s Gospel, darkness is never mere darkness; it is a metaphor for Nicodemus’ ignorance.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that no one can see the kingdom of God without being born “from above,” which can also be translated as “born again.” The Greek word anōthen is ambiguous, and it would probably be most accurate to translate it in a way that preserves the ambiguity–or, better, the multiple meanings—by rendering it “born again from above” or some such.

Verses 14 and 15 refer to an obscure story from the Hebrew Bible. In the Book of Numbers, we hear how God sent a plague of poisonous snakes among the Israelites to punish them for some sin they had committed. Moses please for mercy, God relents and instructs Moses to place a snake on a pole and lift it up. Those who see it will be healed. What is intriguing about this is that Jesus seems to be making some kind of point about the way in which his death will be salvific. Unfortunately, what exactly Jesus is trying to say is not entirely clear, at least not to me.

Verse 16 is, of course, one of the best-known Bible verses of all time. But, for that very reason, it can be hard to hear. In the hopes of clearing away some of the detritus, let me offer my own translation, with some commentary:

“This is the way (1) God loved the world (2), that the son, the only-begotten (3), God gave, in order that all those trusting (4) in me should not perish but have the life of the age (5).”

  • There is something poetic about the NRSV’s use of “so” in “God so loved the world,” but it is at least possible that John’s intent is not too make an emphatic point (“God loves the world SO much”), but rather to specify the way in which God loves the world: By sending Jesus into it. So the love of God is seen concretely in God’s decision to risk solidarity with the human race.
  • The word for world is kosmos –which means, not just the world of human beings (the word for that is oikoumene) but the entire universe. In an era when the very fate of our planet is at stake, John’s use of the word kosmos seems important.
  • Only-begotten (monogenei) is a word that will figure prominently in the Christological debates of the 4th and 5th But it is anachronistic to take, e.g., the Creed of Chalcedon (451) and read its christological formulas back into John’s account. We don’t really know what John means here; just that he wants to underscore the uniqueness of Jesus.
  • The NRSV speaks of “believing” in Jesus, but this does not do justice to the word pisteuō. It does mean mere intellectual assent, but something like trusting. (The noun derived from the verb is translated as “faithfulness.”).
  • “The life of the age” is a more literal rendering of zōein aiōnion. I worry that “eternal life” conjures notions of pearly gates, harps and wings in way that takes us far from John’s intent. What Jesus offers is not a ticket to heaven, but the kind of life that corresponds to the better things God has promised. And we don’t have to wait to die before we can participate in that.

That is probably enough of wading in the exegetical weeds. Let’s take a step back and try to see the big picture. What is going on here?

Have you been saved?

I think John 3 invites us into reflection on the nature of “salvation.” 3:16 is, in my mind, forever associated with the preaching of Billy Graham and the call to be “born again.” Salvation is a word that the progressive people of Plymouth might prefer to avoid, but that is what Jesus offers here. And based on his conversation with Jesus, a couple of points are worth lifting up:

  1. God loves the kosmos –which means all of us, not just some of us, and the creation as well as the people. Talking about salvation means attaining a broader perspective on the depth, width, height and breadth of God’s love.
  2. God invites us to trust. Right relationship with God is not found in assenting to certain propositions (“I believe that Jesus is the Son of God”), but rather in a posture of entrusting ourselves to God’s promise. Faith means living in such a way that, if what Jesus says is not true, my life will not make sense. Or, to employ an analogy I have often used, I believe in parachutes. I more or less understand the physics; I have seen other people use them. I believe in parachutes, but I have never trusted in one. Trust jumps out of the plane.
  3. To talk about “the life of the age” is to direct our attention away from heaven and back to earth. Salvation is not about getting a ticket to The Good Place when we die; it is about the new life that God has promised breaking into our present reality.

So I ask again: Have you been saved? Do you want to be?