*Hespeler, 18 September, 2016 © Scott McAndless
Psalm 40:1-11, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, John 4:16-42
ast Sunday I took a rather critical look at how we often assume that the church is supposed to grow. I noted that we usually seem to operate under an “If you build it, they will come,” philosophy. We think that we just need to build a church – not just put up a building, of course, but also create worship services and programs and ministries – but we just seem to assume that if we do all that, people will just come.
Because we assume (probably without thinking too much) that that is how it supposed to work, when things don’t work out that way – when people don’t come or don’t show up in the ways that they maybe once did, we also assume that we know what the problem is: there must be something wrong with what we have built. We easily fall into criticism of how things are in the church and often our reflex is to try and turn back the clock. We think that if we can restore the building or the worship or the programs to what they used to be when more people came, they will just show up again.
But I suspect that there is something wrong with our reasoning. Oh, I’m not suggesting that there is anything wrong with loving and taking reasonable care of our church buildings. And of course we need to bring the best that we can to our worship services and most everything else that we do in the church. I’m just wondering why we think that anyone would come just because we do that, especially when we are living in an age when people seem to be naturally suspicious of institutions in general and especially of religious institutions – in a time when “polished” and “professional” are often seen as synonyms for “phony” and “hypocritical.”
Jesus didn’t do it that way. We see his approach to ministry very clearly in our reading from the Gospel of John this morning. He had apparently decided that some Samaritans, people from the region that lay in between Judea and Galilee and was populated with people who were generally scorned by Jews, needed to hear about what he was doing. His disciples probably wouldn’t have agreed that Samaritans deserved a place in this kingdom of God that Jesus was building, but Jesus had apparently decided to include them.
So what does Jesus do? We’ll he certainly doesn’t employ our usual “If you build it” strategy. He doesn’t come into town and set up a preaching point or a ministry. He certainly doesn’t put up a building or set up an administrative structure and wait for Samaritans to come to him. What had does do is wander into town and sit down by the well.
Why does he sit down there? We might not quite realize the important role that a well played in an ancient town because that we live in a day of municipal water systems and indoor plumbing. Water, for us, is mostly a private and individual matter. But in the ancient world, a visit to the well was a necessary part of everyone’s day and it also tended to be the centre of the social life of the community.
So what would be the modern equivalent of sitting down by the town well? It was the place that everyone visited several times a day, where everyone, especially the common folks had to come and fill their vessels. It would have also naturally been the place where conversation, debate and common gossip were shared.
Where is Jesus sitting down? He’s sitting in the local pub, the corner coffee shop, the arena, the mall. Think of any spot in modern cities where people tend to gather and interact: that is where Jesus just sat down. He did the very opposite of setting up a special place for religious gatherings and waiting for people to come and join you there.
I have thought about that in terms of the expectations that are often put upon people in my position in the church. People seem to expect that I should spend a substantial amount of my time sitting in an office or standing around in other places in the church building waiting for people to come to me with their problems, needs or questions. If I were really following Jesus’ example, shouldn’t I be sitting at the well – wherever the people are. Aren’t the most important hours of my weeks the ones that I spend in the café or the park or, dare I say it, in the bar?
I may do other work or even meet with church folks while I’m there – I’m not suggesting that need to neglect my duties. Nor am I suggesting that I chase people around asking them if they have heard about Jesus. Jesus himself didn’t do that. He only spoke to the woman he met there at first to ask her for some water. No, it is more a question of being there and being open and ready to talk with people about anything – whether it be about the problems they have been having with their plumbing, the weather or the eternal state of their or my soul.
And, even more important than that, it is not about what I or other people in myposition do, as much as it is about how we all live out our Christian lives. It is easy for us to embrace our Christian identity in a place like this where we’ve built a special institution outside of the general culture. We can easily talk Christian and act Christian when we are gathered together with our own kind. But how often do we think about what it means to wear our Christian identity and our allegiance to Christ at the town well? That is where it actually matters.
But Jesus is actually only one example for us in this particular story; there is another – the woman at the well. She is, in fact, the model of what it is to be a Christian in a time like the one in which we live. This is clear because it is only through her that all of the other people who live there come to know Jesus. Before the story is over, she has brought huge numbers of her friends and neighbours to meet Jesus.
Now, when I call her a model for us, please note what that doesn’t mean. She is obviously a thoughtful and intelligent woman, but she is not really a woman who has got her life all sorted out. In fact, Jesus tells her (and she doesn’t disagree) that she has had five husbands and is living, unmarried with a sixth man. This would have been seen as a disastrous and quite immoral life situation in such a time and place. And, while Jesus doesn’t condemn her for this (he merely points it out to her), she and the others around her obviously look upon this with a certain amount of shame. For whatever reason (and it need not be her own fault) she just hasn’t managed to get her life together very well.
But obviously whatever has gone wrong in her life up until that point, none of it prevents her from very effectively brings all kinds of people to Jesus and to be part of what he is doing. “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” She eagerly says to anyone who will listen. And if you want to know the truth about how the church grows, that is it right there. It grows when people don’t hesitate to say, “Come and see.”
This is one clear result that you will find in all studies that are done on churches that are growing. The churches may differ greatly in a number of ways, but they generally have one thing in common: the people of the church are actively involved in inviting other people into the church. New people hardly ever just show up on their own at the church; the vast majority of new visitors and new members come in as guests of somebody who has been there a while. I’m not talking about people doing hard-sell evangelism, by the way. It is not that people are out there preaching at people or condemning them for not coming or for who they are. I’m just talking about people naturally sharing a key concern of their life with the people that they know and care for. That is how churches grow.
And I know that we hesitate to do that. And I even understand some of the reasons why we hesitate to it – after all, I find myself hesitating sometimes too. We see the reason in the story of this Samaritan woman. As she goes out, she does say, “Come and see,” but she can’t stop there. The full quote is, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” and that really is saying a whole lot more, isn’t it? Because, in the case of this woman, “everything I have ever done!” includes a lot of things that reflect poorly on her in the community. By saying such a thing, she is actually opening herself up for her neighbours to insult her, abuse her and mock her.
What I am saying is that inviting people to come and see what we have received from Jesus means becoming vulnerable with people. It means that they might mock you or judge you. It especially means being willing to share what Jesus has done for you to heal you or give you forgiveness. That is what this woman does with her neighbours. But, to do that means that you are admitting where you need or have needed healing and that means admitting your weakness or grief or sickness. And it also means being willing to admit that you have sinned or failed. That is not easy. Many of us spend our lives desperately trying to hide such things.
So I do understand where the hesitation comes from. It just seems so much safer to us if we just hide all of that personal stuff from the people we meet throughout the week. So it doesn’t come easy but sometimes the things that don’t come easy are the things that we find most worthwhile in the long run.
That is certainly what Jesus discovers. You see, all this time that Jesus has been talking with this woman by the well, the disciples have been off to the local famers’ market to pick up something for Jesus and themselves to eat. Just after the woman leaves Jesus to go and invite her neighbours to come and see, the disciples finally return bearing the food they have found. But Jesus doesn’t want it. He’s not hungry, he says, even though he hasn’t had a decent meal in a few days. Of course they wonder why and Jesus explains it to them by speaking about what he has just been doing in these terms: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.”
Jesus is not talking about physical food here, of course. He hasn’t had any of that. What he is saying is that, even though it can be difficult to be that vulnerable with people, it is also remarkably rewarding. There are many blessings to be had by being willing to open yourself up to other people – blessings that rebound back onto you regardless of whether the people you are talking to find their way towards the church or not.
That is the freeing thing in all of this. It is not as if it is up to you to bring people into the church. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. But if you do practice that kind of truth telling with yourselves and others that Jesus and the woman do in this story, you give people an opportunity to decide for themselves where they want to be.
That’s what the people of Samaria do at the end of the story. They say, “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 Saviour of the world.” Everyone must decide for themselves where they want to give their allegiance. It is not your job to persuade anybody. What you can do, however, is invite them to come and see for themselves.
So will you do that this week? Would you be willing to reveal a little bit of yourself to one person this week and admit what you have gained from your ties to Jesus and his church? You might find that such openness nourishes you in some surprising ways.
#140CharacterSermon It’s risky to invite people to come & see Jesus. It makes us vulnerable. But it’s an activity that brings many blessings