Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Wrong Thank-You (John 4:5-42)

Awesome story. And very long, too, which means many preachers are tempted to cram as much of the good stuff into a sermon as they can.

Since there are at least a half-dozen different sermons that can come out of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman, cramming in lots of stuff would violate one of the Basic Preaching Laws given by Dr. John Holbert, my preaching professor: If you only have one sermon to preach, make sure you only preach one sermon. I’ve blown that one before, so it might be a good idea to pray for some of the people who had to listen to my earliest sermons.

I’m going to dispense with almost all of the story and focus on what happens after the Samaritans meet Jesus. Skip all the way to the last verse. After Jesus stays in the village for a couple of days and teaches the people, they come to the woman who first told them about him. Now we believe because we’ve seen him ourselves, they tell her. We no longer believe just because of the word you brought, but because we’ve met Christ ourselves.

I don’t think they dismiss the woman’s testimony. She came to them with the news that she’d met someone who knew everything she’d ever done. At first, I’m sure they reacted with some derision – yeah, lady, around here everyone knows everything you’ve ever done. It’s a small village. Half of us used to be your in-laws one time or another.

But this guy isn’t from around these parts, and his knowledge has to be something different than villager gossip. So they go to meet him and find out he’s not only not from the area, he’s a Jew to boot. After they listen for awhile, they find they want to hear more, and he stays in the village a couple of days. That’s when they tell the woman with the original encounter they now believe for themselves. They know they wouldn’t have ever heard about Jesus if the woman hadn’t told them, so I think they’re grateful to her.

And now they rejoice because they know him themselves, not just secondhand.

This encounter between Jesus and first, the Samaritan woman and second, the Samaritan villagers, demonstrates some important things in sharing our testimony with people. And it demonstrates some important things about how we respond to the testimony.

Our church baptizes infants. Not because we believe babies will go to hell without it or because we believe they’re able to choose right from wrong and understand what happens. We baptize babies because we believe God’s grace is already at work in them and will bring them to the place where they will know him for themselves.

In the meantime, we teach them about Jesus and about the Bible and about their church. We teach them things about our beliefs. We get them ready for the handoff, when they will have their own responsibility to accept God’s offer of life or reject it. When we baptize a baby, in fact, the whole congregation promises to take part in the handoff.

It works the same way in sharing our testimony with an adult. We tell them about our church, or we tell them something about Jesus, and they may respond by wanting to hear us tell them more. They come to our church when we invite them, and they get to know some people. They get to the point where they want to come here not because we’re here, but because this is the place where they handle their relationship with God on their own.

That’s the goal of every shared testimony – God may use us to start, but our whole goal is to get out of the way once he’s used us so the people who hear us can stand on their own two spiritual feet.

And our goal as people who’ve heard this testimony or invitation from others is to get to that place. We want to get to the place where we own this church or this offer from God as ours, and not something that we need someone else in the middle of. If people come here because they like something I do, that’s great, but if they leave when I do, then I obviously didn’t have time to finish my job.

When we boil everything down in our spiritual lives, we know we owe some people great thanks. Maybe it’s a Sunday school teacher, maybe it’s a pastor, maybe it’s a parent. Maybe it’s a friend who introduced us to their friend, Jesus.

But unless we, like the Samaritan villagers, come to believe on our own instead of because we’ve heard someone else say something, we haven’t completed our journey, and our thanksgiving will be inadequate. Because those people who did something for us all did it because of what God called them to do.

If we don’t understand that God is the ultimate source of the gift we’ve been given, we thank the wrong people, and we don’t truly understand that gift. It’d be like never unwrapping a Christmas present and only thanking the person who wrapped it.

That’s all well and good, but it never will get us to the true gift inside, and the One who sent it to us.

1 comment:

"Ms. Cornelius" said...

I like that advice from your preaching prof. I got much the same idea from reading Barbara Brown Taylor.

And I really appreciated your take on this story. That was a completely different angle than my priest took, and yours resonates with me.