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Sermon – “But You Say That the Place” – March 23, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, March 23, 2014

First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

But You Say That the Place

Romans 5: 1-11; John 4: 5-42

In the book The Wind in the Willows, Mole tires of spring cleaning, and urged on by the awakening spirit of the season, leaves home for what become many adventures. Later in the story he and his friend Rat are crossing a meadow, on what seems just another of their rambles, when Mole hesitates. He feels the pull of something, much as he did when spring first urged him out into the world. Now it is home. He hasnʼt been back in all this time, and the siren song of his own familiar burrow overwhelms him. He canʼt go on, because he senses that his place is near; he recognizes the landmarks, and is compelled to plead with Rat to accompany him home, and they go.

In another episode in the book, Mole comes upon Rat and finds him infected with wanderlust. Rat has been listening to the tales of rats who go to sea, and the wide horizons and vast possibilities entice him. He almost raves of the pleasures of voyages and the excitement of new places, and Mole is frightened that he has succumbed to madness. Rat snaps out of it, but this short-lived passion for going to sea is the counterpart to Moleʼs rediscovery of the beckoning spirit of home.

Most of the time we share the between-extremes of Mole and Ratʼs more common life up and down the river. Some of us find keen enjoyment in getting away, and others love staying home. The desire for either, as always with desire, can overwhelm some personalities, and lead to what are almost illnesses of restlessness or staying in.

I start here because I want to address the story of Jesus and the woman at the well and focus on the comfort of the familiar and the appeal of larger horizons. What happens in the story is that Jesus is on the womanʼs home turf, and beginning there opens up her perspective to far bigger possibilities. Part of religious life is the relationship between the security of rootedness and the awakening power of turning outward.

Itʼs a pattern we see in the life of Francis of Assisi. Like a number of holy persons, he begins as a child of privilege whose surfeit of worldly experience whets his appetite for spiritual things. One of the transforming events of Francisʼs youth is his visiting a small country chapel not far from his home. There he has a vision in which the Christ on the cross on the church wall asks him to repair his church.

Francis sells some belongings and gives the money to the local priest, and masons and carpenters are hired. He finds other churches nearby in need of fixing up, and helps. His understanding of the vision at first is practical and local, but eventually, by founding religious orders he grows into understanding his calling as much greater. His renunciation of the world and embrace of poverty, his kindness toward animals, and his piety make him an international figure.

Assisi has a great church building. It has soaring walls, beautiful stone vaulting and extravagant styling, and stained glass. Down near the front there is something which looks like an old shed. It is. It is believed to be the hut in which Francis lived out his days, and in good Catholic practice, it has become one of the relics around which the place of worship has been erected.

Standing in that space, with its high ceiling, rich furnishings, and other architectural hints of heaven, all anchored by the rough wooden building, looking like a tiny frontier cabin dropped, like Dorothyʼs home into Oz, into the grandeur of marble, gilt, and glass, brings home the odd continuity between what is homely and personal, and what is universal.

That connection isnʼt hard for us to make. We come here to have our horizons broadened, not only to enlarge concern for the world, but to be reminded of the reality of heaven. At the same time we want to sit in our own seat, have an order of worship we can follow automatically, and sing the songs we have sung for years. Jesus tells his followers that by abandoning their former lives they will gain new human relationships and new homes, and Paul writes that if anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation. That somehow must fit with church being a life in which we are brothers and sisters, who gather regularly together at the table. Our religion is both limitless and homey.

In the fourth chapter of Johnʼs gospel Jesusʼ disciples are surprised to return to the well and find him speaking with a woman. She, however, at first is equally amazed that he is speaking to a Samaritan. We learn from the gospels that there is bad blood between the Jews and Samaritans of Jesusʼ day. Samaria contains the descendants of that part of Israel which remained behind when the leadership was taken into exile. It has returned to familiar religious practices from before King Davidʼs consolidation of a centralized cult in Jerusalem, and so it represents an alternate, and from the Jewish perspective, inferior yet annoyingly related variety of Judaism.

The Samaritans have been there a long time, in the sense that they never left. They are loyal to their own customs and culture, as all human beings are. Their rootedness is expressed a couple of times by reference to the well at which Jesus and the woman meet being the one dug by the patriarch Jacob. When she is challenging what Jesus says about religious things, she asks him if he is greater than their ancestor Jacob.

When Jesus reveals that he knows a great deal about the womanʼs private life, she realizes that he has access to divine insight, but she at first changes the subject. She makes it about the quarrel between Samaritans and Jews about which of their respective local places of worship really is the one at which God desires to be worshiped.

Human beings are social animals, and for most of them, most of the time, what their society knows and values is the local. Thatʼs why locale so often enters into this meeting of Jesus and the Samaritan. Jesus even enters briefly into the spirit of rivalry by replying to her question about places of worship by saying that salvation is from the Jews and that they therefore know what they are doing, religiously speaking, better than the Samaritans.  However, thatʼs not his emphasis. He sees beyond the differences expressed in place and in culture. He sees past the reassuring meanings of the local. In fact he gets away from the notion of physical location altogether. The time is coming, Jesus tells her, when the right “place,” so to speak, to worship God, will be “in spirit and in truth.”

The Jesus in Johnʼs gospel is less mysterious than in the other gospels about whether or not he is the Messiah. He identifies himself as Messiah to the woman, and she challenges her neighbors to decide if, based on her conversation with him, Jesus is the one Sent by God. After they have had a chance to encounter Jesus themselves, they come to share the womanʼs belief in him, but they make it clear that their conviction is not due to her witness, but to their own personal meeting with Jesus.

Thereʼs a lesson in that for everyone who shares about their faith. You can say what has happened in your life, and why that has made you accept what Jesus says, but you canʼt make anyone else share your faith. You share about your faith, and if another is intrigued by that, if that opens that person to paying attention, he or she also may find, through an inner debate with and about Christ, faith in him.

From the beginning of the story Jesus is, from the point of view of his own disciples and the woman, surprisingly open to offering her the truth and insight he can give. She belongs to the wrong people, and her being a woman ordinarily would prevent a strange man from feeling free to address her. We learn in the course of the story that, as so often in all the gospels, she is, by the standards of her society, a notorious woman, yet that does not keep Jesus from reaching out to her.

Here is something else about where we all reside. Here is another way to conceive what is familiar to us, what is our common and customary location–even, sometimes, where it is that we feel most at home. It is in our sin. I donʼt mean by sin any particular failing to live up to moral standards, but thatʼs included. I mean that we all share the frailties of mortal men and women, and have known at least some of the failures common to our kind. By Godʼs grace we have a yen for higher possibilities– itʼs like that call to a larger life which is half the dynamic between the appeal of oneʼs own nest and the wider world–but we spend almost all our time in the midst of frustration and folly, presumption and pride, carelessness and selfishness. It is, the scriptures acknowledge, “where weʼre coming from.”

This story from the gospel reinforces the message from Paulʼs letter to the Roman church. It is while we were yet sinners that God sent Christ to save us. It is despite who we are, despite our anxiety to justify our own way, that Jesus comes to offer us eternal life. Paul doesnʼt harp on tour sinful nature to complain or condemn, but to exult in how Godʼs insistence on coming anyway shows the urgency of Godʼs love. We nestle in our place and are comforted by our customs, but no matter how sincere our faith or wholehearted our worship, there is a holier destiny for us in where our spirits are invited to go. We are part of Godʼs making the world over, and even now, clinging to things habitual and homey, Christ offers us discipleship that can transform where we live our lives, and who we are together.


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