Friday, April 10, 2015

Commentary: Two Questions from John 4

By Rev. Chuck Sprenkle, St. Paul UMC, Manchester

In John 4 we see an encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman who had been married five times, and was now living with a man without benefit of marriage. By the end of the story the woman becomes an effective evangelist, bringing the town to meet Jesus. As I read this story, there are two questions that come up; one in the story and the other as a result of the story that I think we should consider.

First the question in the midst of the story. The woman asked Jesus why Samaritans worship on the mountains while the Jews say that worship is to be in Jerusalem. The deeper question here is why [are] there divisions among the people of faith? And in effect, Jesus says that location is immaterial. And further, that knowledge is immaterial. (Samaritans worship what they do not know and Jews worship what they know.) But that true worship requires truth and spirit. Spirit is necessary because God is Spirit. To me that says that worship is humanity connecting with God; our spirit to the Divine Spirit. And that connection needs to be honest and open. We have to offer ourselves just as we are, without masks or pretext. We acknowledge that we are incomplete and sinful in and of ourselves, and that we need God, we [need] Christ to be sanctified. It is a most simple concept.

In our world there are a variety of divisions among the people of faith. There are divisions of geography, divisions over sacraments, polity, and understandings of Scripture. But all those things are about what we know and what we don’t know. That is to say that ‘we’ hold this position because ‘we’ know what the Scriptures say, and ‘we’ know what is in the mind and heart of God. But ‘they’ hold that position because ‘they’ misunderstand the Scriptures, and ‘they’ do not know the mind and heart of God. Yet Jesus says that knowledge or lack of knowledge is immaterial. What is important is an honest, truthful, spiritual connection with God.

Is it possible to live as the body of Christ without division? I’m not sure we can. Because we are triune beings – body, mind, and spirit. Even when we have that spiritual connection with God, our mind will interpret that connection. Our mind will decide through our experience what we know and what we do not know. And because we experience not only God but God’s Word in a variety of ways, what one person knows to be true, another cannot. And there will be division. Not because our God is different, but because our experience and connection with God is different.

In Matthew 7 Jesus says, “Do not judge.” Perhaps that is because judgment is based on knowledge. I have always thought that to mean that we cannot proclaim the salvation or condemnation of any individual. We can and do judge actions and attitudes. But all that is based on knowledge, not a spiritual connection. And so our judgments are faulty at best. We are just not able to judge another’s spiritual connection with God. And yet we try to, because our mind and what we believe we know is such an integral part of us. We cannot turn it off.

Our knowledge and lack of knowledge will continually cause division. Unity can only come when we choose to ignore our differences and strive to connect spiritually as we do with God.

Yet some of our knowledge and beliefs are so ingrained, so basic to our spiritual connection to God that we cannot possibly walk with one who rejects or ignores those beliefs.

My understanding of Jesus’ teaching on divorce is that divorce was never intended to be part of the human experience. But because humanity is the way it is, imperfect and broken, division becomes necessary.

There is still one other question I have after reading John 4. Would we ordain the woman at the well? I believe that some would, because she had a personal encounter with Jesus, and as a result of that, she became an effective evangelist. She was the impetus to get many connected with Jesus. It was to the point where this Samaritan town asked a Jewish man to stay with them. And that was unheard of.

Others would say that we cannot possibly ordain this woman because of the lifestyle she is living. Even if we get past the fact that she has been married five times, she is now living as though she is married but she is not. She is living a lie. An immoral lifestyle. And we cannot lift up such a person as being set apart from God. We cannot even appear to endorse her because [of] the lifestyle she is living. It is an improper exempt to place before the world.

I can see a scenario where this woman would be accepted by most, not all, but most of the church. That would be if she can demonstrate that because of her encounter with Jesus that she was radically changed. In part we can see a change in that she apparently came to draw water when she did to avoid the other women in the town. But after Jesus talked to her honestly and openly about the life she had been living, she intentionally went to the people she previously avoided in order to invite them to meet Jesus. But personally, I would have to see a greater change than that. Her daily living arrangements would have to change before I could approve her even becoming a certified candidate. But I also recognize that others may disagree.

I believe that John 4 has some important questions that are quite relevant to the world and the church of today. I have shared my thoughts and opinions on them. But, of course, they are based on my knowledge and experience, which may be immaterial. I [am] interested in hearing the thoughts and reactions of others. For even if there is division among us, we can still discuss the issues, as we all desire to make our personal spiritual connection with God.

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