3rd Sunday in Lent
John 4: 1-15, 39-42
I would like to begin today with a confession: I have never been much of a reader.
That is, I’ve never been much of a fiction reader.
Even as a child, between myself and my sister Christina, she was the one who gobbled up books, while I was gobbling up bike rides and road hockey and pellet guns, you could say that I was a more or less feral child in contrast to my sister who was (and still is) a brilliant woman with several degrees to her name.
When I finally did find my niche in the world of fiction, it was no surprise that I was captivated by stories of adventure and survival:
I still love true-to-life survival books by Cormac McCarthy, Farley Mowat, Charles Frazier, and more fantastical novels like Stephen King’s The Stand (my all time favorite)
Each of these books follows, more or less the same pattern:
First, we are introduced to the protagonist; who they are in normal life.
Second, the protagonist is thrust into their survival adventure. Sometimes this happens by choice, but more often it is circumstance; a plane crash deep in the wilderness, a natural disaster, or a mysterious illness that interrupts the normal pattern of life
Third, the protagonist proceeds through his or her adventure; they struggle against the natural elements, human enemies, hunger, loneliness, injury, illness, until they finally realize that “individual survival” means nothing next to living in community.
And that is the key. In each of these stories: the protagonist starts out worried about only their own survival, and they each end up yearning for community, needing community.
In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – the protagonists (a father and his son) survive all manner of post-apocalyptic challenges just for a chance to get into contact with a group of other survivors that they are not sure even exist.
In Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain – an American Civil War deserter walks across hundreds of miles of Appalachian wilderness just for a chance to reconnect with the wife and home he has left.
In Stephen King’s The Stand – scattered survivors of a terrible plague endure all kinds of real and psychological dangers all so that they can eventually find community in one another. (emphasis on eventually because it is a VERY long book)
Each of these stories begins with the main character seeking only their own survival, and they end with that same character realizing that individual survival is not enough to live for; that they need community, they need God, they need (in one form or another) church.
The point, and the Good News that I want to share with you is this:
Having been called to follow Jesus Christ…
Having been created in God’s image and given Christ as our Saviour and Guide…
Having been made for “life together” in Christian community…
We must not lose sight of the reality that we were created not for “individual survival” but rather to love God and love neighbour, even when it seems easier not to.
Friends, I know it has been a long week.
On Monday of this week, the Coronavirus outbreak was something on the news. It was something happening in China and Italy. It was no cause for alarm.
Four days later the world was a different place.
By Friday, everything from hockey to the Junos to even small gatherings were cancelled.
What happened in those four days?
Had people forgotten about their neighbour’s need for community?
Had people lost faith in a God who would see us through this time of challenge?
No. I don’t think so.
People had become scared.
We had become scared.
Three days of intense news media and social media had changed our thinking.
We saw bar graphs on Facebook and we got scared.
We saw images of Italian hospitals on the news and we got scared.
We saw people on TV hoarding toilet paper, and hand sanitizer, and ramen noodles and we got scared.
Of course we got scared. Who wouldn’t?
Given enough frightening input, given enough restless nights to think it over and over, given enough emails from every business we have ever set foot in telling us what their “Coronavirus response plan is” we all get scared.
Fear is a human reality that God is very much aware of. And it is not beyond God’s ability to turn for His purposes.
The same God we praise this morning is the same God praised by the Psalmist who said (in Psalm 139):
For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. (v. 14)
This Psalm gives words to the reality that God has made us just as we are: fearful and wonderful: we are capable of great wonder and great fear and God can use both for His divine purposes.
The point in these days is not to convince ourselves to be unafraid, fear is an appropriate response to a devastating illness. Rather, the point is not to forget ourselves in this fear.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus uttered the phrase “Do not be afraid” 10 times.
The reason that this instruction was repeated so often is not because Jesus didn’t make Himself clear the first time but because we are a fearful people. It was repeated because we need to hear it more than once.
So, “Do not be afraid.”
Let us find our rest and our peace in God; in Scripture, in prayer, in this community of faith.
Let us look to one another for comfort and to give encouragement.
Let us remember that it was God who made us both fearful and wonderful, that it was God’s only Son who, knowing us completely, still called us not to be afraid.
And on those days, in those hours where it is simply not possible to be unafraid, let us “fear well.”
Let us fear with sensitivity to our neighbour’s fear and isolation.
Let us fear with the knowledge that God is with us in our fear and that we are not alone in it.
Let us fear with understanding of the Good News; that Jesus Christ has already taken all of it (all our fear, all our individualist reactions, all our anxiety) to the cross and died to it there.
If we are afraid, let us have the honesty to be fearful. But let us do so in a faithful way that still finds room to love our God and our neighbour.
Let our fear motivate us; not to stockpile toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Not to think up ways to outsmart one another in acts of survival; but to practice compassion, to practice community.
When you find yourself afraid, reach out:
Reach out to your friends
Reach out to your neighbours
Reach out to co-workers and strangers who you pass by in your daily life
Offer to buy your elderly neighbour groceries
Offer yourself to be present with a friend or a stranger who needs the presence of God’s peace in these fearful times. That is something we can all offer at no cost. The ability to simply sit and be (in person or through technology) with one who wants to know God and those sent by God’s Son still care.
Friends, let us learn the lesson of all of those survival novels, let us skip the part in the story where we are only interested in our own survival, our own needs; let us be moved not toward greater individualism at this time but just the opposite: greater community, greater compassion, and greater faithfulness.
In the Gospel story that we heard this morning, we heard the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.
John tells us that as Jesus and His disciples were traveling through Judea toward Galilee, they made a stop in the Samaritan city of Sychar. That day, as the disciples went into the city to buy food, Jesus stopped at the ancient well of Jacob and asked a woman who came to draw water if He could have a drink.
To this, the woman replied: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”
And rather than delve all the way into the history of Judea and Samaria, I just want to point out the parentheses that follows her response in verse 9 “(Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)”
If ever there was a conversation that had the right to end in awkward silence it was this one.
“(Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans)” with John providing this information, we get the sense of the tone that is going on; that this woman has no interest in talking with Jesus. He is her historical rival, her social rival, they have nothing to talk about, and He should know it.
But, while Jesus surely knows what He ought to do in this awkward situation, He does not do it; instead, He invites her to think outside of the box that their history and their society has put them into:
“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.”
In so many words, Jesus has upset the whole order of the conversation. Rather than come as a man looking for a favour, He shows that He has in-fact come as a man offering favor, and not just water but living water.
As Jesus and the woman continue to talk, He takes time and patience to explain that the water he offers is not the water of this world, but rather water that has the power to forever end the thirst of all who drink it.
Finally, the woman is convinced, she drops her guard, her heart opens; so much so that she gives testimony of Jesus’ power to many other Samaritans.
By the end of this long story, Jesus is so much accepted by the people of Samaria that he stays with them for two days and many people come to believe the Good News that He is the saviour of the world.
The Good News of this story for us today is manifold:
First, we are encouraged, that just like the Samaritan woman, our testimony will call others to believe the Good News.
Second, we are given encouragement that where there is historical or social pressure for us not to interact with people, the Good News of Jesus Christ will not be held back.
Finally, though, (and most importantly for today), we are given the simple encouragement that the community of believers Jesus Christ is making in the world will not be diminished by fear of the other. And it has been that way in since Jesus Himself walked the earth.
There was fear of the other that day in Samaria.
The woman Jesus met at the well was vulnerable, she was an ethnic minority and a divorcee in a time and place when either of these was a big enough disadvantage on its own. She had gone to the well for water for her own reasons, for her own survival, not to make friends with a strange Jew, not to be asked strange requests by a wandering rabbi. The woman would have been happy enough to go on surviving on her own and not get caught up with this strange figure and his strange community, but it was a true and divine blessing that she did.
The woman was perhaps annoyed by Jesus’ request; perhaps surprised, but her reaction was one of fear; “What do you mean ‘give me a drink’? You know that your kind and my kind don’t talk to each other.”
It is a fear of reaching across the divide. A fear of being seen with “them.” A fear of risking something in order to gain the wellspring of living water that Jesus freely offers.
In the days, the weeks, and the months that follow, each of us will be called to face similar fears:
The fear to be seen gathering in community when everyone else is focused on their individual survival.
The fear to reach out to our neighbour when the news tells us compassion is not worth the risk of infection.
The fear to offer Christ to those who are afraid because we know that nothing but the living God can cast out this kind of fear that they are going through.
Throughout Scripture we read over and over again how calamities of illness and war and disaster ultimately drew God’s people closer to Him.
Why should we expect anything less for our own time?
The same God who heard Israel sing sad songs in the strange land of Babylon is the same God who still reigns and rules over all of creation.
What is more, we have something that these ancient Israelites did not have; and that is God’s only Son; Jesus Christ; the living and breathing God who intercedes for us and saves us from all sin.
This time of fear, this time of change, this time of challenge is not the first humanity has come through with God’s help and (unless Jesus comes back very soon) it will not be the last.
That is one of the essential differences of what it means to be a Christian.
To be Christian, to live lives in service to the Gospel, means to know that we are here in this time, (and in this place, and with these blessings and challenges) by no other power than the undeserved yet freely-given Grace of God.
The question is not “will we be saved,” but rather “knowing that we have already been saved by Christ on the cross, how then shall we live?”
How shall we live as saved people?
How shall we live as people who know the love outpoured for them by Christ?
How shall we live as resurrection people; as people who know that because He Lives, we too shall Live?
Friends, let us do what is right and sensible and faithful.
Let us listen to our health authorities. Let us quarantine when necessary.
Let us wash our hands and cover our coughs.
Let us take extra precautions around people with compromised immune systems.
But let us not settle for individual survival; rather, let us live in Christian community.
Let us live as ransomed Gospel people, let us live as Christians who live by the story of the Good News, let us live as people who understand that our “individual survival” is not the reason we were put on this earth, but rather that it was in order to love one another, to love God, to serve only Him.
And finally, let us live as people unafraid to share this Gospel with those we meet; let nothing prevent us from living and telling the Good News to a world in desperate need of Christ’s presence and love this day.