March 27, 2011

John 4:5-29

“Coolly Cautious, Chillingly Cold”

Listen to the Podcast of this sermon HERE!: 110327SermonPodcast

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Rev. Allen V. Harris

You know the story. You’ve heard it referred to a dozen times. Someone talks about being in the check-out line at the grocery story and the person in front of them who is on food stamps pulls out of their cart unhealthy food items, like Cheetoh’s or soda pop, or extravagant food items, like fancy cheeses or (gasp!) prime rib steak! “Tsk, tsk, tsk…” you exclaim quietly under your breath. “She should be buying milk for her children with that!” or “He could have bought three or four other items for the cost of that one steak,” you proclaim righteously.” “And all on the public dole, no less!”

I’ve heard the story or a variation of it passed around throughout my lifetime, quite often just as a serious conversation about poverty was beginning. This example of wasteful extravagance tends to immediately cut off discussion. Who can argue that the poor need public resources when they are just going to waste it that way?

While never being comfortable when such conversation-ending examples are given, I didn’t speak up to challenge such thinking. I didn’t say anything until one day a person, who had lived in poverty and who had found it necessary at some point in her life to use public assistance spoke up. She simply said, “If you had to go to soup kitchens and church pantries for most of the food to feed you and your family, wouldn’t you want to splurge every now and then when you had the ability to do so?” You mean, connect my feelings, needs, and desires with those of the “other?” Use that all-too-underused human emotion called “empathy?”

As an adult I understand the fallacies of such a dialogue-deadening example. From a purely logical standpoint, it fails because it argues from the particular to the general, that is one person who is used to represent all persons in that category. Does such abuse of public funds happen? Oh, surely so! But rarely are such examples true for everyone, and more often than not it reflects very few, especially with the assigned intentions attached. More importantly, this example fails because of my own experience. I have lived in several neighborhoods where a large percentage of folks are on public assistance and I see what is in the grocery cart. They eat pretty much just what you and I eat. Likewise, this example fails because I am now pastor to many people who survive on such public assistance. It’s harder to use cheap and easy examples when you know the names and life-stories of the people who are in the check-out line with you.

Last week at Dave’s Supermaket I witnessed a young woman using her Ohio Direction Card (the current means of distributing assistance for food) and she piled from her cart jars and jars of baby food, formula, and other items a parent would naturally buy. Maybe I should start spreading a similar story that all women on public assistance use our hard-earned tax dollar assistance monies on baby food. What a shame! What a terrible shame! Baby food, when she could be buying steak and Cheetoh’s!

Of course, you and I know such a “rumor” would never take off. Why? Oh, there are about a million reasons why, but first and foremost such positive examples don’t activate our judgmentalism gland. The judgmentalism gland? Oh, we know that organ of the body well. It’s the one that gets excited, activated, positively throbbing at the very possibility of looking over someone else’s shoulder and judging who they are, how they look, what they do, or, in this case, what they buy.

I think it’s funny to imagine that check-out line from a different viewpoint. Because, you see, as my judgmentalism gland is getting cranked up at how the woman in front of me is using her food stamps for steaks, the man behind me is looking at all my brand-name food items and judging me, a neighborhood pastor, for not being a better steward of my resources (read that: “the pay your church gives you”). That preacher should buy store brand items! And, as you might expect, the woman behind him is looking in his cart and mentally adding up the salt, fat, and sugar content. Her judgementalism gland is pumping full strength! The gal behind her is “Tsk, tsking” because the woman in front of her didn’t buy recycled toilet paper or paper towels.”

Oddly enough, the woman in front of me has never bought a steak before with her Ohio Direction Card, but it is her birthday and this is the only way she will celebrate it. And Cheetoh’s are a childhood treat that she, just this once, will allow herself. Ah… such are the clumsy and careless ways of being judgmental.

Now, by this point you must be either completely confused or curious as all get out as to why my story about food stamps begins a sermon on the Woman At The Well? Well… 😉 Let me tell you!

This story, like so many others in scripture that tell of women, has been stained with misinterpretation early in Christian theology and has passed down distorted and dangerous throughout history. Without going too deep into the story, for it is one of the longer and more carefully detailed stories in the gospels, may it suffice to summarize it. Jesus comes to a town in Samaria, the area and peoples who, though related to the Jews, were despised by most religiously observant Israelites because of slight historical and religious differences. In the center of this town is a well and Jesus, in the middle of the day, approaches a woman drawing water there and asks her for a drink. The ensuing conversation quickly turns metaphorical when Jesus tells her that he offers living water, and she shares that she longs for such water.

Then, the dialogue that bears the stain of misinterpretation, is begun by Jesus:

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. (vss 15-19)

The vast majority of theological and homiletical interpretation of this passage names the woman as a harlot, a prostitute, or, at least, a wanton woman. Conservative preacher John Piper’s treatment is characteristic. In a sermon on this passage, he describes her as “a worldly, sensually-minded, unspiritual harlot from Samaria,” and at another point in the sermon calls her a “whore.” (1)

But if you actually hear Jesus’ words, there is no indication of why she had five husbands and no single sign of judgment. He simply names the situation. “Just the facts, Jesus!” Clearly, Jesus’ judgmentalism gland is not working properly! He says, “You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” Why didn’t Jesus go into more detail, we do now know.

David Lose, Professor of Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary, explains the possibilities when he writes,

Yet there is nothing in the passage that makes this an obvious interpretation. Neither John as narrator nor Jesus as the central character supply that information. Jesus at no point invites repentance or, for that matter, speaks of sin at all. She very easily could have been widowed or have been abandoned or divorced (which in the ancient world was pretty much the same thing for a woman). Five times would be heartbreaking, but not impossible. Further, she could now be living with someone that she was dependent on, or be in what’s called a Levirate marriage (where a childless woman is married to her deceased husband’s brother in order to produce an heir yet is not always technically considered the brother’s wife). There are any number of ways, in fact, that one might imagine this woman’s story as tragic rather than scandalous, yet most preachers assume the latter. (2)

Why do we do this? Why do we read into people’s lives things that are not true, often damaging, and almost always sets us apart and above them? In scripture it is done over and over again. Poor Mary Magdalene has been equated with being a prostitute throughout Christian history, even though there is no single text that makes that direct equation. Death, at least death of one’s reputation, by conjecture and guilt by association have not only ruined the reputation of many decent people, but have robbed us all of the real conversations we need to be having about how to make this world a better place.

You see, allowing our judgmentalism gland to do it’s thing without any restraint or resistance, ruins not only those we judge, but ourselves as well. It makes us “Coolly Cautious, Chillingly Cold.” Being judgmental is a natural part of being human, but only if it is kept in check as a means of watching out for danger or protecting ourselves and our loved ones. We haven’t needed such highly refined skills of being that judgmental since we moved out of caves and mud huts and into heated and air conditioned homes.

And we’re judgmental about almost everything! The clothes people wear, the way they talk or pray, the way they walk or dance, the people they hang out with and the music they listen to and the church they go to. We judge people based on the radio talk show hosts they are tuned into and the amount of education they have. Again, all reasonable pieces of information upon which to make decisions, but it is the how and the why certain decisions are made that worries me. I’m certainly not above this. My judgmentalism gland is stronger and healthier than I care to admit in front of a crowd!

I think the reason we are judgmental is simply because we are afraid. We are afraid of having to take the time and energy and honest humility of looking into our own shopping carts and evaluating what we buy, who we are, and what we do in life. It is so much easier to scan and evaluate the items in the person’s grocery basket in front of us than to take a serious second look at our own items as we put them on the belt.

We need to be more like Jesus. He looked deeper into the person in the check out line in front of him. He looked to the heart. He knew that there is always a temptation to gravitate toward the thrill of being judgmental. I think Jesus had a judgmentalism gland just like the rest of us, and he knew the power of the adrenaline that shoots through us when we allow that gland to be activated. But he also knew the bone-chilling, heart-freezing effect that judgementalism has, both on the one being judged and the one judging.

So Jesus, rather than obsessing about the morality of the moment (“who sinned she or her mother?!) instead looks for transformation of our lives, our very identities – and ALL of us need to be transformed. He observes and interacts with each and every one of us as if we were a precious child of the living, loving, and laughing God… which we are AND as if each and every one of us need to be transformed… which we do! It’s about our identity, Professor Lose concludes. He writes,

…this story is not about immorality; it’s about identity. In the previous scene, Jesus was encountered by a male Jewish religious authority who could not comprehend who or what Jesus was. In this scene, he encounters the polar opposite, and perhaps precisely because she is at the other end of the power spectrum, she recognizes not just who Jesus is but what he offers — dignity. Jesus invites her to not be defined by her circumstances and offers her an identity that lifts her above her tragedy. And she accepts, playing a unique role in Jesus’ ministry as she is the first character in John’s gospel to seek out others to tell them about Jesus. (3 – emphasis added)

The “Woman At The Well” will be the first person in the gospel of John to ask the question, “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” You see, when someone actually sees us for who we are, and not what their cold, calculating judgmental hearts and minds want to see, then we are allowed to open up to the Spirit and truly seek God’s will and way and word. As we are allowed to be ourselves and judged on the facts, not the assumptions, we find a warmth that is healing and empowering.

Similarly, when we let go of our need to be thrilled by the rush of judging others, and look, instead, deep at their identity as children of God, we will know a different and even more powerful ecstasy: the joy of knowing someone defined not by their morality or even their tragedies, but by their identity as one loved by, claimed by, chosen by God. The warmth of God’s love and grace, as reflected by we who believe in that love and grace, will soften even the hardest cold heart.

And, as truth would have it, the more and more we know one another in this way, the more possibility there is that someone else will know us as a beloved child of God also. And our coolly cautious, chillingly cold lives will melt and we will be redeemed. Such is the place of possibility. Such is the path to salvation. This is the good news of the Gospel!

(1) April 8, 1984 (Morning), Bethlehem Baptist Church, John Piper, Pastor, “God Seeks People to Worship Him in Spirit and Truth” found online at: http://www.soundofgrace.com/piper84/040884m.htm

(2) Misogyny, Moralism and the Woman at the Well, David Lose, The Huffington Post, 2011. Found online at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-lose/misogyny-moralism-and-the_b_836753.html

(3) Ibid.

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