This week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church: August 2 — Stormy Weather

Each night on WESA there is an American Public Media news show called “Marketplace” hosted by Kai Ryssdal. The show is all about the economic news of the day, including the stock market. I am no economist, yet I find the show engaging, informative and … well … entertaining. On of my favorite parts of the show is when they “do the numbers” on the ups and downs of the stock markets. There is always a musical background as they review the daily indexes. It took me a while to recognize the relationship of the music to the report. If the markets go up, the background music is the song “We’re in the Money”. If the indexes are mixed, the song is “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing). And if the markets are down, the song is … can you guess? “Stormy Weather”. I think Marketplace has hit on something here. Music that identifies the mood. So what song are you singing in your head today? Some days, it seems that the world is starting to return to normal and “We’re in the Money”. It seems that most days are “Stormy Weather”. How do we manage these stormy times? Log in to John McMillan Presbyterian Church’s Facebook page this Sunday at 9:30am (or later on YouTube and Facebook) and hear about it when pastor Jeff preaches “Ready for the Storm”. We will look forward to seeing you (virtually).

That Woman: Thoughts on how to respond to loneliness.

That Woman

John 4: 5-26; 28-30

5So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob’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.) 9The 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.) 10Jesus 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.’ 11The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ 13Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but 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.’ 15The 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.’

16 Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ 17The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ 19The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ 21Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ 25The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ 26Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’

27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ 28Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ 30They left the city and were on their way to him.

Our passage today is a familiar one.

Jesus meets a woman at a well in Samaria.

The passage is packed with sermon possibilities.

Living water.

Eternal life.

Jesus as Messiah.

Worshiping in spirit and in truth.

Evangelism.

I could preach on this text for a month.

But as I have read it over and over, I always focus on that woman.

And how Jesus reached out to her.

Who was she?

She is nobody.

John does not even tell us her name.

She was a woman.

In Jesus’ time women were second class citizens.

Little better than property to be used as long as desired then divorced.

The tenor of Jesus’ comment to her implies that she might have been five times divorced.

She has been discarded.

A simple piece of paper from the husband and the woman is no longer his wife.

She was also a Samaritan.

As a Samaritan, she was part of a community that was shunned by their religious cousins the Jews in Judea.

They hated each other, these Jews and Samaritans.

So when she shows up at the well and there is this Jew sitting there, what did she expect?

“Oh, boy …

What is he doing here?

A Jew!

What’s he going to do?

Probably yell at me and try to chase me off so that I don’t contaminate him.

Make him unclean.

Or maybe he’ll just ignore me.

Like I am unworthy of his attention.”

And we notice that she is alone at the well.

It’s noon.

Long past the hour for getting water.

In Jesus’ time, going to get water from the well was a social event for women.

It was where they gathered and talked.

It was their coffee shop.

Their social time.

It was their essential opportunity for community and fellowship.

That is how important the well was.

Yet our Samaritan woman was alone at the well.

There is only one reason for that.

She was not welcome at the normal time.

She was being shunned.

We don’t know why, but it might have something to do with her marriage history.

Whatever … she is truly alone.

Samaritan, woman, many marriages, alone at the water well.

It does not get any lonelier than that.

As Mother Teresa once said:

Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.

A hard life.

Psychiatrist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann studied loneliness in the mid 20th Century and she said this:

[L]loneliness lay at the heart of nearly all mental illness and that the lonely person was just about the most terrifying spectacle in the world.

But it is actually worse than that.

According to a 2013 New Republic article:

Over the past half-century, academic psychologists have … delve[d] deeper into the workings of cells and nerves, they are confirming that loneliness is as monstrous as Fromm-Reichmann said it was. It has now been linked with a wide array of bodily ailments as well as the old mental ones. …

They have proved that long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you.

Loneliness has even been used as a punishment.

It was called banishment.

The Romans often employed banishment as an alternative to capital punishment, a fate nearly as terrible as death.

Loneliness is actually painful.

Really.

Listen to this:

Functional magnetic resonance imaging scans showed that the experience of being snubbed lit up a part of the subjects’ brains … that also lights up when the body feels physical pain.

That is loneliness.

Emotional distress.

Physically harmful.

Punishing.

Painful.

That is the that woman when she meets Jesus.

Then Jesus speaks.

“Can you give me some water?”

I can see her head whip around.

“Wait, what?

Are you talking to me?

A woman?

A Samaritan?

You want me to give you some water?

We don’t share with each other, Jews and Samaritans.

You don’t think we are worthy!”

But Jesus presses on.

“I am not like those people who have shunned you.

I have something I am willing to share with you.

Living water.”

That woman gets sarcastic.

“What?

You have no bucket, so you have no water.

 And anyway, how can your water, wherever it comes from, be better than the water that comes from this well dug by Jacob – you know – that Jacob?

Grandson of Abraham?”

Jesus says, “Oh, I’ve got plenty of water.

And it’s a different kind of water.

Drink water from this well and you will get thirsty again.

Drink my living water and you will never thirst again.

Ever.

Eternally.”

More sarcasm from that woman.

“Wouldn’t that be nice?

If I get some of that water, I never have to come to the well again, alone.

Give me some of that!”

Jesus moves on.

And I’ll share my water with you despite your checkered past.

He knows all about her marital history.

She takes this as a sign that Jesus is a prophet.

Jesus has her attention now.

That woman starts to realize that this guy is actually interested in her.

In her!

They are having a conversation.

A Samaritan woman and a Jewish prophet.

At the well!

When was the last time that happened?

Like … never.

“Ok then,” she says, “let’s talk about our differences.”

“Why Jerusalem and not Gerizim?”

And then Jesus says something that stuns here.

“It doesn’t matter.

It is not where we worship.

It’s who we worship and how we worship.

Who we are and where we come from does not make a difference.

We are all part of God’s community.”

That woman has heard something like this before.

Not just a prophet?

Messiah?

So she asks.

“The Messiah is someone who knows such things and says such things.”

And Jesus tells her, “Yep, that’s me!

I’m here to share with you to my living water, despite your checkered past and despite where you come from.  

I want you to be part of my community, the community that worships God.

If you do, you will no longer be alone.

You will be part of God’s kingdom.”

The impact of Jesus’ words is striking.

She is no longer alone.

She has a community.

Now her response is enthusiastic.

She has news to tell everyone.

Even those who confined her to isolation.

There must be some kind of change in her because they listen to her and follow her to Jesus.

She is renewed.

She is changed.

Reborn.

What does that woman look like today?

Aaron Stark was a high school student in Denver in 1996.

After the Parkland shooting he wrote a letter to a Denver TV station about how he almost became a school shooter.

He was then interviewed on TV.

Stark describes having a rough childhood.

He was abused and neglected at home.

He was bullied relentlessly at school for his weight, intelligence, and often unwashed clothes.

Stark said that he felt completely unloved.

He was depressed and suicidal.

That was when he considered buying a gun to shoot up his school.

His real hope was that he would be killed himself.

Then this happened, Stark said.

“I was extremely suicidal one evening, and a friend of mine, without having any idea what was going on and what state I was in, invited me over for a party that I didn’t know was existing. She had baked me a blueberry-peach pie, and I got there, and everybody had the pie, and it was all for me.”

Stark said that moment changed him.

He felt loved.

Just for a moment.

Stark said, “That literally saved my life that night. I wasn’t going to survive that night if that hadn’t happened.”

He was renewed.

He was changed.

Reborn.

Stark concluded the interview with this.

“If you see someone who looks like they need love, give it to them. Even a small hug, a word, or a smile could actually save lives. Compassion is the only real way we can stop this. Love people even when they don’t deserve it.”

I think this is what Jesus was doing in our text.

Stark and that woman were unloved outcasts.

Lonely and rejected.

Then they experienced love, even for a moment.

Their lives were changed.

To the benefit of many.

The Samaritan woman took many to Jesus.

Stark decided not to buy a gun.

Both saved lives.

What does this mean for us?

Jesus teaches us to visit the lonely.

Give them a moment of love.

Who are the lonely in today’s world?

The usual folks:

The elderly.

The quarantined.

The sick.

The poor.

The bullied.

The disfavored.

The unemployed.

The different.

The strangers.

The homeless.

The hopeless.

The people who struggle with the pain and suffering of loneliness.

And that feeling is a bit overwhelming these days.

We might not be shunned, but we are more separated than we have been in my lifetime.

We are socially distanced.

We wear masks.

We can’t go to our “wells” for social connection.

We can’t go to our “Jerusalems” or “Gerazims”.

So what does Jesus want us to do?

To treat each other the way he treated that woman and give them a moment of community.

How?

What was that old ATT commercial?

Reach out and touch someone?

While gathering together might not be safe, we have a plethora of other ways to connect.

Use them.

Talk to each other.

Befriend each other.

Welcome each other.

Spend time with each other.

Include each other.

Even those who are different from us.

Who disagree with us or are just disagreeable.

And if you do, maybe you will make something good happen.

Like that woman’s joy.

Or maybe you will prevent something awful from happening.

Like Stark’s change of plan.

Tell someone they are not alone.

That they are part of your community.

That the God of all creation loves them and invites them to be part of God’s community.

And if you are feeling alone these days. I want you to know that you are not alone.

You are part of this community, even when we meet online.

And know that the God of all creation loves you and invites you to be part of God’s community.

Now take a moment.

Feel the love.

And be renewed.

Changed.

Reborn.

And know you are not alone.

How to love in polarized times: Thoughts on speaking with understanding.

One of my favorite cartoonists is Gary Larson.

He is the creator of The Far Side cartoons.

On of my favorite cartoons of his is one of a man talking to his dog, Ginger.

The man says:

“Stay out of the garbage Ginger! I am not going to tell you again!”

What the dog hears:

Blah…blah…blah, Ginger. Blah…blah…blah.

That’s what it’s like to talk to someone who does not understand you.

Maybe they speak a different language.

Maybe they live in a different culture.

Maybe they have different life experiences.

If you have ever been in a place where you can’t speak the language and are unfamiliar with the customs and etiquette, you know what I’m talking about.

It’s hard.

When I preached in Mexico, South Sudan, Borneo and Vietnam, I needed a translator.

Without a translator, I am like the Far Side Cartoon.

Blah blah blah … Jesus … blah blah blah.

But it’s not just the language barrier.

It’s the culture barrier.

I have to take out all illustrations about Pittsburgh Penguin hockey.

And it’s not just between nationalities and languages.

It can happen in your living room.

It’s like talking to my kids when they were teenagers.

It was like they were speaking in tongues!

They thought the same thing about me!

Different cultures.

Different languages.

Different ages.

It’s easy to just throw up our hands and say, “To heck with it!”

“To heck with you!”

Which kinds of sounds like, “You are not worth the effort!”

I mean it’s hard trying to communicate with to someone when they don’t understand you, and you don’t understand them, right?

Believe it or not, this is the problem in Corinth Paul is talking about in today’s text.

1 Corinthians 9: 16-23

16If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe betide me if I do not proclaim the gospel! 17For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. 18What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.

19 For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 20To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. 23I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

Paul is saying that if you want someone to listen to you, you need understand their culture, their language and their belief systems.

Otherwise, they will not listen to you.

Paul tells us to respect and tolerate cultural and language differences in the context of talking to people about Jesus.

The first step is to understand the culture you are speaking to.

Then tell them how Jesus fits into their culture.

Be all things to all people for the sake of the Gospel.

What does that mean, be all things to all people?

Do we change Jesus so that people will accept him?

Make Jesus like them.

No!

And that is not what Paul is saying here.

He is not saying put the culture into Jesus.

Paul is saying that we need to put Jesus into the culture.

That is what Paul did in Athens.

He noticed that the Greeks had what they called an unknown god that was sort of an acknowledgment that there were deities they did not know.

Paul told them they were right.

There was a God unknown to them.

The one true God revealed in Jesus Christ.

That made sense to them.

Some came to believe and worship.

Here is s historical example of someone who followed Paul’s recommendation.

Matteo Ricci.

He was a Jesuit Priest who went to China in 1582.

He spent his first few years learning the Chinese language and culture.

He learned to fit in.

He was criticized by many for “going native” because he lived as the Chinese lived, not like his Portuguese countrymen.

But in fact, Ricci became an extraordinary missionary because he could speak about Jesus in a way the Chinese could understand.

He put Jesus into a Chinese context.

This is what Paul is saying.

Jesus is the same for all people and for all cultures and for all time.

And he meets them right where he finds them.

In their own particular culture.

In their own particular language.

Just as they are.

We need to do the same.

Why should someone listen to us if we are not willing to respect them just as they are?

That’s what Jesus did and continues to do.

If we impose a Jesus of our own language and context onto people who don’t understand our culture, they won’t listen to us.

We become Ginger’s owner.

Blah blah blah … Jesus.

It would look like what was described in Barbara Kingsolver’s book, The Poisonwood Bible.

Nathan Price is a Baptist missionary who has taken his family to the Congo in 1959.

His goal is to overturn the ancient cultural traditions of the Congo and replace them with his Americanized Gospel.

His shows his lack of understanding of Africa immediately when he tries to grow a garden of vegetables from seeds he brought from Georgia.

The plants are wildly inappropriate to the environment.

The plants become unrecognizable, almost grotesque, useless, and unable to bear fruit.

The people laugh at him.

Their response is, “Why should we listen to this guy?”

Nor does Nathan listen to the Chief.

He takes no time trying to understand the structure of the community.

And then he wonders why no one comes to “church”.

Why should they?

It made no sense to them.

So, if we want people to listen to us, we need to learn about them first.

We need to do our homework.

This is all like a team preparing for a football game.

The team spends hours watching game films.

They want to know what the other team is going to do, so they can be ready.

It’s like what I did when I prepared for a trial.

I spent hours trying to understand every argument that my opponent might make so I could respond to it.

Want to tell someone about Jesus?

Learn about them.

Listen to them.

Think like they do.

Talk like they do.

Go where they are.

It won’t always work.

But as Paul says, when we become like our audience, we save some.

I think what Paul says has a universal application.

I mean if Jesus used it and Paul used it, shouldn’t we?

Here is what I mean.

Many years ago, I got some training in mediation and conflict resolution.

One of the things I learned was this:

We should never tell someone they are wrong until we can describe to them what they believe to their satisfaction.

That is kind of what Paul is saying.

This little nugget of wisdom is the key to conflict resolution and effective communication.

And it usually works.

This is what it looks like.

I make one of the parties to the conflict describe to the other what the conflict was about and what was needed from the other to resolve it.

I make the other person listen, without responding, until the speaker is done.

Then, before any response, I tell the listener to tell the speaker what the speaker had just said, starting out with the phrase:

“This is what you believe, why you think you are right and what do you want from me.”

I then ask the speaker if the listener got it right.

Usually, it’s pretty close.

Sometimes not.

Sometimes because the listener did not listen, but more often because the speaker did not speak in a way the listener could understand.

So, we work on the message until there is agreement on what the speaker said.

Then the roles are reversed.

It takes time.

It is hard.

Often it is really uncomfortable.

But when they each hear the other repeat accurately what was said, even though they still disagree, it is kind of profound.

It is often a “WOW!” moment.

Why?

Because they listened to each other.

We like it when people listen to us.

We like it when people hear us.

When people try to understand us.

When people try to speak our language.

When people show respect for us.

That is the beginning of effective communication.

This is what Paul is saying.

Before we can communicate what we believe to someone, and convince them that what we believe might be a better way, we need to step into their shoes and see the world from their perspective.

Walk a mile in their shoes before you tell them there is a better way to walk.

That is what Jesus did.

Jesus spoke in parables.

Illustrations of the Kingdom people could understand.

You want to talk to farmers?

You better use illustrations to them that they get.

If you want to preach Jesus to Martians, you better live on Mars for a while!

Paul goes so far as to say, you need to become a Martian.

To the Jews, think like a Jew.

To the Gentiles, think like a Gentile.

Today it might look like this.

Want to talk about pop culture, think like the pop culture.

To a teenager, think like a teenager.

To someone of a different race, think like that different race.

To someone of a different political party, think like that political party.

To someone who does not want to wear a mask, think like someone who does not want to wear a mask.

To do this you need to listen to them first.

What doesn’t work is to say, “I just don’t understand …” and walk away.

That accomplishes nothing.

It is destructive of community.

And something that really doesn’t work is demonization.

Back in the early days of Saturday Night Live, there was a weekly parody of the 60 Minutes segment called “Point/Counterpoint”.

It was a debate of sorts between columnists form the right and left.

On the SNL version, it was Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin.

Curtin would go first.

Then Akroid would start off his response with, “Jane, you are an ignoramous!”

Only that is not quite what he said.

But it was actually a bit more offensive than that.

It was funny, but it was so true.

When we use personal attacks, we are speaking without understanding.

“You are an animal.”

“You are a racist.”

“You are a sheep.”

“You are an enemy.”

These are not loving words.

These are not words of understanding.

They lead to anger and conflict and tribalism.

It is better to learn about them, what they believe and why.

And we all need to do that, too.

It’s hard.

It’s time consuming.

It’s uncomfortable.

But once done, then the real work can start.

It might not lead to agreement, but it could lead to community well-being.

This I believe is living the Jesus way.

It’s what God did in Jesus.

God came to us and lived with us.

To walk in our shoes.

Maybe to try and understand us.

Understand how hard our lives were.

Find out what we needed.

And then gave it to us.

A way of life that requires us to love each other enough to learn about each other and live with each other, even in polarized times.

So, if we want to live the Jesus way, we need to do the same thing.

Be all things to all people.

That is how we love in polarized times.

That is the Jesus way.

This week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church; July 12, 2020

Several years ago, I traveled to Malaysia with a group of people from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Our base in Malaysia was in Kota Kinabalu, Sarawak, on the Island of Borneo. Kota Kinabalu has one of the world’s largest wet markets. Kind of an outdoor farmers market on steroids. In the middle of this market, there was a huge pile of some kind of fruit. It looked like a giant pear with spines all over it. I was told it was durian. Durian is the “King of Fruits” according to the folks in Malaysia. Well … I had to try it, right?  Our trip leader, who had lived in Singapore for several years, warned me that durian was an “acquired taste”. He bought one for me and the seller cut it open. It had the most awful smell. I can’t describe the smell, but some liken it to wet gym socks left in a locker for several days. But he bought it for me, so I took a bite. To me, it tasted like it smelled. I did what I could to “acquire” a taste for it, but in the end, I couldn’t. I could have reacted two different ways. I could have said, “What’s wrong with you? Why didn’t you warn me how awful it was?” Or I could have said, “What’s wrong with you? How could you eat this thing?” Both of those reactions would have suggested there was something wrong with him for buying me this gift or for thinking it was tasty. But that is not what Miss Manners would say, I think. The kind and loving thing to do was to eat it, because he bought it for me. I could then say that it was not to my taste. Unfortunately, it is much easier to be kind when we are talking about fruit than other things we disagree on in our world. But does that mean we should not be equally kind? Even when we disagree? Pastor Jeff will preach about that Sunday morning on John McMillan Presbyterian Church’s Facebook Live at 9:30 (recorded for later viewing on Facebook or YouTube). Log on and join us.