Lent 3, February 24, 2008
Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42
Heidelberg Catechism 88-90
Q88: What is involved in genuine repentance or conversion?
A: Two things: the dying-away of the old self, and the coming-to-life of the new.
Q89: What is the dying-away of the old self?
A: It is to be genuinely sorry for sin, to hate it more and more, and to run away from it.
Q90: What is the coming-to-life of the new self?
A: It is wholehearted joy in God through Christ, and a delight to do every kind of good as God wants us to.
The lection from the Gospel of John is one of the most remarkable in the Bible and it’s the subject of one of our Tiffany windows in the sanctuary, the Woman at the Well. The story is so rich I could make ten sermons out of it, and if I were an old-fashioned Calvinist I might. One of my previous sermons on this lection is posted on my blog. Today I’m taking it a different way.
We take a step back first. Way back, to the beginning of the Bible, the first verse of Genesis. "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form and void, and the Spirit of God brooded upon the face to the deep. And God said, Let there be light, and there was light."
The way that God created was by speaking. God spoke and it came to be. God said, "Let this be," and the world answered, "We’ll be that." The world was formed by answering God’s speech. The formation of the world was a response to God’s Word.
Genesis 1:1 is quoted by the prologue to the Gospel of John. The prologue is the famous passage we read on Christmas Eve. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."
Over the centuries the Christian tradition has tended to hear this verse in terms of philosophical theology, where the Word means an Idea, an Idea that takes Form. God created by having an Idea and then commanding the world to take the Form of that Idea, like Michelangelo with a block of marble, only God did not use hands but words.
Well, yes, but this morning I want to take it differently, as connected to the rest of the Gospel, as with our lection this morning, as meaning something like this, "In the beginning was the Talk, and the Talk was with God, and the Talk was God.
You know when it means when a boss says this to an employee: "A word!" That’s going to be a short conversation with a lot of weight, a little talk that had better make a difference.
In the beginning was the Word. In the beginning was the Talk. In the beginning was the Conversation. The prologue is suggesting something about God, something which Jesus expresses in chapters 14-17 in his long soliloquy in the Upper Room, that there’s a conversation between the Father, Son, and Spirit, a private conversation, which Jesus brings us into and which the Holy Spirit carries back out to us, and our audacious sharing in the inner conversation of the Holy Trinity is what starts to form us as a community, a spiritual community. And we Christians dare to think that as our little community of Jesus is being formed by our sharing in the Talk of God, in some small measure we even begin to know the Mind of God.
The prologue is also suggesting something about humanity, and about our place in the world. It was at the creation of the world that God first made public the Trinity’s private conversation. Creation is not commanding speech and dumb obedience, it’s life-giving conversation. As God speaks the world into being, more and more it’s able to answer, until the appearance of human kind, who are able to talk back to God, on behalf of the other creatures. Our connection to God is not just for ourselves, but for us to speak with God for the rest of the world.
The Gospel of John is the gospel of conversations. Like Matthew it has sermons, like Mark it has actions, like Luke it has metaphorical soliloquies, but distinctive to John is an emphasis on conversation. And the longest conversation with any individual is with the woman at the well.
This conversation broke the rules and crossed the proper boundaries. The Samaritans and the Jews were like the Sunnis and the Shiites or the Serbs and the Croatians, their differences were theological and political and hateful. Jesus crossed those boundaries. He crossed the boundary of kosher. Her water jug will have been unclean, and drinking from it he’ll make himself unclean.
He crossed the boundaries of sex. He will have to put his lips on her vessel. And this is at a well which is dedicated to the patriarch Jacob who met Rachel at a well and fell in love with her at first sight. The woman has to wonder is like Bill Clinton or JFK. He’s certainly not like Huckabee! His disciples show up worried that he’s like McCain.
But he never touches her. He doesn’t play with her or use her. He can see through her, but he does not disrobe her, he lets her speak for herself, he lets her lead the conversation, though his responses are not what she expects. This story is all about the conversation. And the conversation is the means of her conversion.
This is not an ordinary conversation at a well. That happened in the morning, when all the other women came to get their water. And their conversation might have been about her, and why such a woman as she was trouble for the rest of them and trouble for herself. And they would be right. We have those kinds of conversations all the time about each other. But such conversations don’t help conversion, and such kind of talk is not for spiritual formation.
This one is. By the process of what they say to each other she comes to the truth about herself. He offers her a few Biblical metaphors by which she can suddenly make sense of her life and everything she ever did. By what he says to her she can judge herself, but not that she should condemn herself—he hasn’t been sent to the world to condemn to world—he judges her not to condemn her but to justify her, not by any prior good performance, but simply by her receiving his gracious gift.
And his gift is a challenge, every word he says to her challenges her, which she might take defensively, but she answers his challenges, even as she ducks and parries, and in her answering him her new nature is coming to life, in her conversing with him she’s going through spiritual formation, just as in Genesis 1 the formation of the world was from the Talk of God.
The Word of God comes to us in several ways: in Proclamation, like Jesus’ sermons and soliloquies, in Demonstration, like Jesus’ miracles and symbolic actions, and in Conversation. A congregation that is vital has to do all three. Proclamation in the preaching and the teaching. Demonstration in the sacraments and our outreach ministries. And Conversation. The sharing of ourselves in prayer and with each other as we respond together to the Word of God.
In this conversation, Jesus shares himself. He says to her, and for the first time in the Gospel, "I am he." He opens himself. And she believes him. And note that we never get from her some long confession, we never hear some cathartic story of how she got this way and how bad she feels, etc. This conversation is not psychotherapy, and as I said, she keeps her clothes on. This conversation keeps quiet and reserved and most of it goes on inside her head.
The point of conversion is to start converting your old nature to the new one, to let your spirit start giving formation to your flesh. And so we watch her go back to her village but in a whole new way of dealing with her neighbors, and we can see the new and living water rising up within her.
There is direction here for our spiritual formation groups. And there is direction here for how summarily the Reformed church does our Lenten repentance, how concisely and condensed. We just repeat God’s word about us back to God, we just tell God that what God says about us must be right.
Yes, there are times for detailed self-examination and an inventory of your shortcomings, but your new creation is simply to believe the summary of what God says about you. When you confess that you agree, when you answer back to God, then you are already living in that new nature, and you can enjoy the delights that God offers you.
Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.