Our Second Reading comes from the Gospel of John, the fourth chapter, verses 39-42. We are reading these four verses at the end of a long story, the encounter between Jesus and a woman by a well in Samaria, so some words of introduction are needed. It is interesting to note that this encounter happens immediately after Jesus meets Nicodemus in John 3. In the case of Nicodemus we have a distinguished religious leader, a pillar of the community, who comes to see Jesus under the cover of darkness. He asks Jesus two questions but then the chapter quickly turns into a monologue by Jesus about God’s intention to save the world and how that will come about.
In our text for today the one who encounters Jesus is almost the exact opposite of Nicodemus. Instead of being a named, upstanding, male, leader of the Jewish community who comes in the middle of the night, Jesus meets an unnamed, woman, a despised foreigner with an irregular marital history. And he meets her at noon – in the fullest light of day.
Yes, Jesus encounters this woman in the light, an important image in the Gospel of John, and they engage in a lively dialogue. It begins as Jesus, sitting beside the well, asks the woman for a drink of water. It is a boundary breaking request. The woman is taken aback not only because he is a Jew and she is a Samaritan but because he is speaking to a woman. Jesus responds with an offer to give her living water. After realizing he is not talking about actual water from a well, the woman asks that Jesus give her this living water so that she need not come to the well again.
The conversation then shifts as Jesus tells her to get her husband and come back. Based on the fact that the woman had five husbands, she is normally thought to be a woman of poor moral character. Why else would she come to the well by herself at noon, right? However, a close reading of the text reveals that we do not know why she had five husbands. In first century Israel, it was just as likely that her five husbands died or all divorced her because she was unable to have children as it is that she was a “loose” woman.
What is most interesting is that Jesus does not seem concerned at all about the number of husbands, as both of them move the conversation to worship, and temples, and the Messiah. When Jesus reveals that he is the Messiah, the woman leaves her water jug and goes to tell the residents of the city that they should “Come and see a man who has told me everything I have done. Could this man be the Messiah?” Whether she had been the saint or the sinner of this community, the people listen to her. They come to see Jesus and invite him to stay with them for a few days.
We join the story here with the Samaritans who came to see Jesus. Let us hear this Word of God.
39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, “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 Savior of the world.”
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Do you remember who it was who first told you about Jesus? Who it was who taught you to sing Jesus Loves Me? Who it was that gave you your first Bible? Whether you were young or grown, who it was that told you the stories of creation, and the flood, and King David, and angels and shepherds and wise men and a manger, a cross and an empty tomb? Yes, do you remember?
For some of you that person or persons might be very clear. Yes, perhaps you did not grow up in the faith, so at some point someone told you about Jesus. You made clear decision for Jesus and your life changed dramatically as a result.
But there are others, and I suspect we have a good number of us with us this morning, who have always been a part of a church family. We cannot remember a time when we were not a part of the church, maybe even this church. If we think about our five confirmands this morning, four of the five of them were baptized as an infant at that baptismal font. Not the same four, but four out of five of them have grandparents who are members of this church. All of them have been raised by fine, upstanding Christians who have served this church and other churches faithfully for years. So if you cannot remember the first person to tell you stories about Jesus, that’s ok. You have always been a part of the church and there are numerous folks who have shared the story of faith with you.
Comedian and late night talk show host Stephen Colbert talks about how his family shared the faith with him:
I go to church and am somewhat religious and when I try to explain to some people who aren’t that I have a belief, I say, “Well, I was given this by my ancestors.” I look at my children and I go, I love them, I wouldn’t want to give them anything that I didn’t think would help them. So I assume I was given this by my ancestors because they gave it to me to try to help me. And I open it like a box and I wonder what’s inside but I don’t think I’ve gotten to the bottom at any point.
Yes, someone in your life has given you this wonderful gift, especially if you have been born and nurtured in the church. However, there is a downside to this as well. Author Martha Grace Reece puts it this way:
People who have grown up in the church think of their Christianity like breathing. Being Christian is so natural you don’t really think about it. You just do it, you just are it! This is the big downside of growing up nurtured by the church. You think the church is the culture. Unless you think about it hard, you assume everyone thinks the way church people do. It’s hard to have much perspective on what a life without faith would feel like.
Yes, to grow up in the church, to assume that everyone thinks like church people think, is a wonderful gift. And yet, it is easy to just skate on the surface of faith. But unless you think about it hard, you will never go deep.
At some point we all have to decide if faith is going to become real for us; if we are going to open the box and unwrap the great gift of our ancestors; if we are going to say yes to God in the same way that God has said yes to us. In the words of the Samaritans in our text for today, “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 Savior of the world.”
As our five confirmands are all accomplished middle school athletes, perhaps a story from the world of sports, a story from long before any of them were born, might help to illustrate our point today.
They are many places to see the highest demonstration of athletic skill and talent, but one of the best is in the Olympic Games. In 1980 the greatest ice hockey team in the world was the Soviet Union. They had dominated since the 1964 Olympics and everyone expected them to win the gold medal in 1980. Everyone that is except Herb Brooks, ice hockey coach at the University of Minnesota who had been selected to coach the American team.
As told in the 2004 movie Miracle, Brooks assembled a collection of college stars for his team. At an early practice, during which a fight had broken out between two college rivals, Brooks said, “We start becoming a team RIGHT NOW! … So, why don't we start with some introductions. Where you from. Who you are.” The first player Brooks pointed to said “Rob McClanahan. St. Paul, Minnesota.”
Brooks asked, “Who do you play for?”
“I play for you, here at the U.”
Brooks looked at another player. “Jack O'Callahan. Charlestown, Mass. Boston University.”
The next, “I'm Ralph Cox. I'm from wherever's not gonna get me hit!”
They began to laugh and practice continued.
Brooks worked to get his team ready to play the Soviets. He wanted them to be the best conditioned team and so for months he worked them hard. They would run a conditioning drill that when I played basketball in high school we used to call “suicides.” They would start at one end of the ice, and skate to the first line and back, then the center line and back, then the far line and back, and finally the other end of the ice and back. All within 45 seconds. At the end of one suicide, your legs ache and your lungs hurt. Brooks would have the team do them again and again. Sometimes Brooks would again ask players their names, where they were from, and who they played for. And they would call out their names, their hometowns, and their college team before beginning again.
Yet, despite their intense practices, the team struggled. One night, while playing an exhibition schedule in Europe, they lost a game they should have easily won. As the arena was being closed for the night, Brooks kept his team on the ice. One by one the lights went off as the team skated the suicide drill. They had just played a game, they were already tired, but when all the players completed the drill, Brooks said, “Again.” The assistant coach blew a whistle and the team set off again. Time after time, Brooks said, “Again” and the whistle blew. Finally with the players exhausted, most laying on the ice, the assistant coach tied to reason with Brooks that the players had had enough. Brooks simply said, “Again.” The assistant shook his head and brought the whistle to his lips. But before he could blow the whistle, one of the players lifted his head. Barely able to get the words out due to his labored breath he called, “Mike Eruzione! Winthrop, Massachusetts!”
Brooks looked at him, “Who do you play for?” With his last remaining strength Eruzione declared, “I play for the United States of America!” Brooks nodded his head, “That will be all gentleman,” and walked off the ice.
It was a transformative moment for that team. It was at that moment that they became a team. Those of you old enough to remember will know that in the Olympics they beat the Soviets, team captain Mike Eruzione scored the winning goal, and the team went on to win the gold medal. Yes, who do you play for? Not their college. Not their old coach. They played for the United States of America.
So my friends, today I ask you, “Who do you play for?” It is not enough to just skate through life thinking you are a Christian because someone told you the stories of Jesus, even if that person was the Samaritan woman at the well. It’s not enough for you to come to worship or youth group or bible study at this church or another church and think you have checked the church box for the week. At some point, and not just once, but time and time again, maybe after one of life’s wind sprint suicide drills or maybe after a victory for the ages, you are going to need to claim the name, to declare who and whose you are. That is what our confirmands have done today.
But how about you? “Who do you play for?” Can you say, will you say, “Not just because you told me, but because I have heard for myself and truly know that Jesus Christ is Lord and the Savior of the World.”
Thanks be to God.
Let us pray: