Posts Tagged ‘mission’

Some background:

The dominant themes of John’s Gospel up to this point have been the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah who fulfils all the promises of the Old Testament to bring in the New Era – the outpouring of the Spirit, the cleansing of sin and uncleanness, the renewal and establishment of the Kingdom of God, and the personal renewal that comes to a person who is brought in to be a part of this all. We have seen Him declared to be the Son of God (not figuratively but literally), the Baptiser in the Spirit, the Messiah, the One who replaces the old ritual washing water with the new wine, the one who replaces the Jerusalem Temple with himself, and the One prefigured by Moses in lifting up the serpent in the wilderness. He has just unpacked for a key Jewish leader what it means to be ‘born from above’ by God’s sovereign action in the work of the Holy Spirit, and now he comes to someone at the other end of the theology/holiness/worthiness/acceptability spectrum: a lonely, broken, shamed Samaritan woman.

4:1-9

Jesus broke a number of cultural conventions, doing what in the eyes of many – especially the Pharisees – would disqualify him from being a Rabbi, let alone the Messiah sent from God. Firstly, he travelled through Samaria. Samaria was the region historically occupied by the ten northern tribes of Israel who had been conquered by the Assyrians in 720BC. The Assyrian policy of relocation meant that many Israelites were scattered among the nations, while may foreigners were brought into Samaria, where they intermarried with the remaining Israelites, developing a syncretistic religion. When the exiles who had been taken by the Babylonians from the Southern kingdom of Judah returned, these locals wanted to participate in the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple, but were not permitted. So they set up their own Temple in Samaria. This developed eventually into the rivalry, bigotry and hatred that existed between Jews and Samaritans right up to Jesus’ time. Many Jews, if they needed to travel North to Galilee, would cross the Jordan and travel up the East side of the river in order to avoid travelling through Samaria, even though this took them 4 days longer than cutting through Samaria.

Secondly, when the woman came to the well, he spoke to her, asking for a drink. This was controversial on four counts. First, as a Jew (and a Rabbi) he should not have spoken to to a Samaritan (at least in a friendly tone). Second, as a male he should not have spoken to a woman on her own. Third, he should not have been willing to drink from a Samaritan cup, which would have technically made him ’unclean,’ since Samaritans were considered by many to be the same or even worse than Gentiles. Fourth, while it’s not explicitly stated, the fact that this woman was at the well at midday, rather than the normal time of first thing in the morning when everyone else would have been there, may indicate that this woman was an outcast even among her own people, since she came alone at a time when no-one else would be there to ridicule or criticise her.

It is important to notice that John includes this story immediately after chapter three’s account of Nicodemus coming to Jesus. John said in is introduction to the Gospel:

11He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. (John 1:11-12)

In John 3 we see a man, Nicodemus, who would have been seen by everyone as ‘one of God’s own people’, yet who just didn’t understand or receive what Jesus was saying, responding to Jesus’ statements with naive, even ignorant questions. Then in John 4 we see this woman, by all accounts an ‘outsider’, who not only is receptive towards Jesus, but as we will see, engaging in robust theological discussion with him – showing up Israel’s esteemed teacher!

It’s also important to note that he initial reason Jesus stopped at this well was that he was tired and thirsty. Presumably when the disciples went into the town to get food, they had taken al the equipment with them, and so Jesus didn’t even have a cup to drink from. The Gospels to not present a ‘superman’ Jesus who floats six feed above the struggles and realities of life in this world. Jesus, the Son of God, is truly one of us, sharing in all that we experience, including tiredness and thirst.

4:10-14

The term ‘living water’ on its face value simply meant ‘spring’ or ‘running’ water – fresh water found in a flowing creek or river, as opposed to potentially muddy or stagnant water found in a well. Both Jews and Samaritans looked forward to the day when the creation was renewed by God’s blessing, and the entire region was watered by flowing rivers (eg. Zechariah 14:8, 44:3), but also that this physical renewal would be a symbol of a spiritual renewal when the Holy Spirit would ‘flow’ into and through God’s people.

Initially this woman takes his statement on the purely physical sense. Not only does Jesus not have the equipment to draw water from the well, but he is claiming to be better than than the one who dug the well – Jacob – by claiming to produce this fresh running water as opposed to stale well water.

Jesus, in his usual fashion, explains that he has come to replace the Old with something New. In the Old Testament Jeremiah says:

‘…“My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.’ (Jeremiah 2:13)

Jesus’ claim in 13&14 is that he has come to reverse this scenario. The well by which they are standing is a picture of the people turning to find satisfaction in things that are only momentary; and in doing so are rebelling against God, who is the only source of true satisfaction. In Jesus, the door has been opened for people to turn from these broken wells back to the eternal spring of living water.

4:15-19

At this point the woman still wants to engage on a purely physical level, but Jesus pulls the rug out from under her feet. He ultimate need is not her physical predicament of having to come here day after day to get water; it is not the fact that she runs out of water in her house. Rather, her need is spiritual – the broken well is in her, not in her house, as evidenced by the life she is living. She is a ‘serial monogamist’. Five broken marriages, resulting in her being a broken person who no longer has the energy or motivation to even try to live by the standards of her community or God.

Jesus’ comment, and his intimate knowledge of her history is a ‘sign’ to her that he is not just a regular Jewish man, but is in fact a prophet. Her use of this word is significant. The Samaritans only had as their Bible the first five books of the Old Testament, whereas the Jews had all the historical, poetic and prophetic books. In Deuteronomy 18:15-22 God promises to raise up ‘another prophet’ like Moses who will teach the people perfectly from the Law. This idea is developed in the later books of the Old Testament into the idea of the Messiah who is not only a prophet, but also a King and a Priest. But because the Samaritans did not have or recognise these books, they spoke of their future hope in terms of a ‘Prophet’. Many Samaritans however acknowledged the Jewish expectation of the Messiah and that it was to be one and the same Person.

4:20-26

The woman no only discerns that Jesus is a prophet, and maybe The Prophet, but she also recognises the real issue that is at the heart of everything, even behind her current situation of living in an immoral relationship: the issue of worship. It’s no trivial thing that the first four of the Ten Commandments are about worship. The One whom we worship will determine the kind of life we live, as our life is a direct reflection of our worship. Both the Jew and the Samaritan knew that if the issue of worship was sorted (the first 4 commandments – Loving God) then the issue of right living will follow (the last 6 – loving one’s neighbour).

The sore point between Jews and Samaritans was not so much the method of worship as the place of worship, which is what she picks up on. Rather than picking a fight, I believe this is a genuine question from someone who has just come face to face with the Truth of God embodied in the person of Jesus – she is simply framing it in terms of the context that she understands.

Jesus’ answer is not only immensely liberating, but also would have blown any last shred of credibility he may have had with the Jewish leaders by saying something that in their eyes would have undermined the whole Temple system in Jerusalem (just in case he hadn’t done this already when he cleared the Temple in 2:13-22!). And he in essence gives the same answer to her that he gave to Nicodemus: It must be a work of the Spirit. Just as Nicodemus hd no hope of seeing or entering the Kingdom of God apart from the Holy Spirit’s work in his life, so too this woman has no hope of truly worshiping God apart from the Spirit enabling her. We cannot come to God by going to a holy place or entering a holy building in which we do holy rituals. In fact, we cannot come to God at all. True worship happens as God Himself comes to us. It is as the Holy Spirit comes to us and opens our blind eyes to see Jesus, unblocks our deaf ears to hear Him speak the truth, and applies the reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection to us. When he says, ‘…they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.’ We see that the Father also comes to us before we come to Him – the word implies a active, yearning, seeking, not just a desire. It does not mean that people first get their act together with worship and then God will go and find them; rather God the Father is out and about in His world seeking broken, sinful people and turning them into those who truly worship and know Him. The way he dos this is through Jesus. Here we see the God the Son, who has taken on humanity in order to walk among us and, ‘to seek and save the lost’ (Luke 19:10), and this mission has taken him to a lonely well where he has found a lonely, broken, outcast Samaritan woman.

In chapter 1 (41, 45) we see people saying, ‘We have found the Messiah;’ ‘We have found the one Mose wrote about in the Law and about whom the prophets also wrote.’ Here we see this One finding this woman, declaring to her ‘I, the one speaking to you – I am he.’ (26)

If you are interested in any way in seeking God, know that it can only be because He is first seeking you; and if you know God through Jesus it is only because He has sought you and found you through his Son and by the work of His Spirit, and brought you into the truth of who He is.

A recent heartwarming but apocryphal story was recently circulated via social media: the story of Pastor Jeremiah Steepek and his first day in a new, 10 000 member church disguised as a homeless man. The story can be read here, on a website by someone who possibly doesn’t realise it’s a fake. The short version is that Jeremiah tuns up for his first day as new pastor dressed as a homeless man, and is largely ignored by most of the congregation.  Early in the service his appointment was announced, and he came to the platform, revealed his identity, read from Matthew 25:31-46 (the ‘parable’ of the sheep and the goats), berated the congregation and then closed the service.

On my first reading of this story there were a few things that didn’t have the ring of truth – why did the Elders announce him if they didn’t even know if he has shown up? Why would he think it appropriate to close the service only minutes after it had started? And what church is this? If the story reveals the pastor’s name, why not the name of the church, and why when googling his name do only hoax-busting websites come up?

Some were quick to respond to the expose by saying, ‘Well, who cares if it’s true or not, it’s still a great, challenging story!’ Other have also pointed to a true account of Willie Lyle who lived for 5 days on the streets among the homeless before starting in his new church, and posed as a homeless man on the church lawn on his first Sunday. Quite possibly the story of Steepek is an altered version of this.

I admire Lyle for his willingness to obey what he believed to be a dream from God, and for his compassion towards the homeless. I agree also that much of our western, middle class prosperous church needs to be called out of the idolatry of our worship of mammon. However these stories raise some other important questions, firstly about the core mission of the church, and secondly about responsible use and interpretation of Scripture.

What is the mission of the church?

Both stories seem to convey the idea that unless Christians are out helping the poor and needy, they are not truly living the Gospel. Willie Lyle essentially set this agenda for the future of his church in his inaugural sermon. “Our goal should be to improve and change the lives of people as we live like Jesus.” he says. This is a common mantra among both liberal and some ‘evangelical’ churches today – as if our mission is to make this world a better place to live. Ironically, this sentiment is akin to prosperity teaching, as it sees people’s most important needs as physical and financial.

Social Justice and caring for those less fortunate should be a fruit of a life transformed by the Gospel, but it is not the core mission of the church. The Gospel is the announcement of the crucified, risen and reigning Jesus, and is coupled with the call to repent; it’s not a way of living, a challenge to serve, or advice on how to improve ours and others’ lives. The core mission of the church is to proclaim the glory of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God established in Him. And you know, what will happen as a result of that is not just people entering the kingdom, but God’s people expressing their love for God by loving their neighbour, without their church even telling them they have to or needing to put guilt trips on them!

What is Matthew 25:31-46 saying?

This passage is often quoted in the context of motivating Christians to make a difference in the world by helping the poor, sick and imprisoned. But is this actually the point of Jesus’ words?

This quite a judgemental passage. Jesus curses people people and casts them out into “the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels.” And who are those who are cast out? Those who haven’t been involved in helping the needy. Now think for a moment. If Jesus is directing this to Christians, his Church, what is he saying? That despite the atonement and the promise of free grace and forgiveness, Christians will ultimately only be saved if they do good deeds? That a Christian will still end up in Hell if they don’t feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit prisoners? What happened to salvation by grace through faith?

It’s not actually Christians that Jesus is speaking of here. In this account (which isn’t really a parable) the Christians are actually those who are sick, naked, hungry and imprisoned. How do I know that? Because Jesus calls them ‘my brothers’ (vs. 40). Jesus only uses this term for those who are his disciples, those who have believed in him. “Who are my mother and my brothers? …whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 4:33). In the first century (and still today) Christians were persecuted, ostracised and disadvantaged at the hand of both Jews and Romans. God repeatedly (especially in the book of Revelation) promises justice for His people when they are persecuted for righteousness sake and for the Gospel. That is what this is: God’s judgement on those who have shown disdain for Him by mistreating His people. Significantly chapter 25 comes immediately after chapter 24 in which Jesus promises his disciples that they will face fierce opposition in the time leading up to the destruction of the Temple and beyond, even up to the time of His second coming. This passage then gives assurance that justice will be done, and that evil men will not be overlooked in the judgement.

So rather than a challenge for Christians to make helping the needy their core mission, it is both a comfort for persecuted Christians, and a call to the world to repent and be reconciled to this Son of Man before whom they will one day stand.

Cred to Willie Lyle. But please Willie, make Jesus the centre of your sermons, not our good deeds. That is really the only way your church will be built up and make a difference in your town with anything of eternal value.