Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyterian Church
July 20, 2023
5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)[b] 10 Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ 11 The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ 13 Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ 15 The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’ (You really need to read the rest of the chapter. It was just too long to include in its entirety).
The question about other religions usually comes up in terms of the exclusivity and/or the inclusivity of the Christian faith. Biblical quotes like, “I am the way the truth and the light. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) certainly seems to unambiguously exclude other religions. If you google the verse you will find a number of references like: “John 14:6 means Jesus is our only access to God and salvation. There is no other way to be saved. Our good works cannot save us neither can our positions in the church or among men can save us. This scripture is a non-negotiable requirement to be saved.” But there are billions of people who are non-Christian and millions of people who lived before Jesus’ birth. What about them? Is it possible for a person to be ‘saved’ but never invoke the name of Jesus? Is it possible to claim to be a Christian and completely miss the boat? I would say yes to both circumstances. (More on this later).
As a matter of practical reality, most of us are Christian because of accidents of birth. Very few people chose Christianity after an examination of different religious belief systems. I’m pretty sure that if I were born and raised in the Middle East, I would probably be a Muslim. I might even be an Imam. But many people spend an inordinate amount of time claiming their way is the right way. Each group uses their own scripture to ‘prove’ their point. Paradoxically, such thinking leaves God out of the equation. It leaves out the possibility that God can and does act outside of our expectations. We simply do not have the mind of God. We only have the promises.
Deciding the fate of other people—in this case, Christian or Non-Christian is a common debate but it is not a new issue. In the first century the question would have been, “Can you be acceptable to God and not be a good Jew?” There seems to be an almost overwhelming human desire to make sure we are doing it ‘right’. We get stuck in the human idea that our obedience and proper behavior is required to be acceptable to God. The Pharisees spent an enormous amount of time trying to define such behaviors. Jesus, however, changed the focus entirely. Religious experience is not about us and what we do. It is about God and what God does.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus routinely challenged the religious assumption of his day. He respected the traditions and the law but he demanded that we follow the spirit of the law over the letter of the law. Over and over Jesus cared about people where he found them. It didn’t matter to Jesus if they were pure or impure, if they were church goers, sinners, part of the clan or outsiders. He cared about people and chastised those who did not. The welfare of an animal in a ditch was more important than rules concerning Sabbath observance. This is actually a very disconcerting concept. We are left to discern what it means to be loving. We have guidelines but we do not have certainty. It is a far more challenging task to have a faith based upon discernment over obedience.
Even ‘obvious’ beliefs like ‘God is Love’ are filled with uncertainty. In real life the words “I love you.” are often used manipulatively and out of neediness more than the proactive cherishing that Jesus lived and taught. We often discover unintended consequences when we seek to love and our good intentions do not protect us from doing harm. The same dilemma applies to the history of our faith. God cares about our seeking to love—even more than any particular outcome or any particular creed.
Today’s scripture shines an interesting light on this subject. The Samaritan woman was an outsider in her own village and much more so to a Jew. Jews and Samaritans shared a common ancestry but as far as the Jews were concerned, the Samaritans were not part of the one true religion. In addition, this woman was on the fringe of her own community. She did not go to the well at the traditional communal time (in the morning) but was alone at noon time. We learn that she had five husbands—traditionally a euphemism for promiscuity. She was
These differences, that human beings put so much stock in, did not matter to Jesus. As the woman said: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” Jesus saw this woman. He did not sugar coat. He did not chastise. He showed regard by ‘seeing’ the woman. Jesus demonstrated that the activity of God is proactive cherishing. Whenever and wherever that is occurring, God is at work. Our faith is in a God who loves us and our faith begins with receiving that love. I am not literate enough to speak about other religious systems to be sure, but I believe Christianity is unique in that it tells of a God who seeks and cherishes. Our faith is not about what we do for God it is about what God does for us.
I used to have a quote on my desk that read: “Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.” If there isn’t room to have bad judgment, there isn’t room to learn and grow. This is a circle of learning that must keep rolling if we are to continue to grow and find life. When Jesus loved this woman, he allowed this circle of life and learning to keep moving. She was no longer bound by the secular judgments of her community nor by her self-judgments. When that happened, she was transformed. She was no longer trapped in shame; she was able to tell people who would normally avoid her to “Come and see…” This is, in very ordinary ways, how Jesus saves. Jesus sees us, forgives us and loves us.
This woman’s experience is the heart of religious experience. I would argue that wherever and however such love is offered or received, it is God at work. We don’t have the breadth of experience or learning to see very far beyond our own experience. But that does not mean God is actually limited to what we can understand. Yet that is how the debates within denominations and with non-Christian belief systems are typically argued. If you live in a house that makes pancakes every morning and stacks them in the closet, you will think your neighbor who eats the pancakes is crazy. We need to remember how limited our personal points of view are. Our narrowness of thinking divides us. Far better to be more humble and more trusting in God’s capacity to love outside of what we can imagine.
The religious experience that is saving is discovering a God who loves us and who loves us enough to seek us out. If you even have a taste of that experience, you will be transformed. Try not to worry how God is operating outside of what we know. But be sure he is. Enjoy what you have been given. Seek to offer what you have been given.