Sermons

Yearning to Be Known

by Rev. Dr. Jan Nolting Carter, January 28 2018

A sermon based on John 4:1-42

I think the most fundamental yearning that we each have is to be known. To be truly
known. As who we really are. We spend our lives looking for people who will know us.
If we really think about it, being known is intimately linked with love. We hope our
parents know us as we truly are, but that doesn’t always work out—they know us in
part, but we all have different experiences about how much they know us. We seek
friends who know us, and many of us keep the ones close who do. We look for
partners who know us—deeply, meaningfully and completely—soul mates. As the arc
of our lives progresses, if we have children, we hope our children know us enough to
respect our wishes when they become our decision-makers. Sometimes the deepest
sanctuary we seek is the sanctuary of someone with whom we do not need to start our
story over with.

We have a deep yearning to be known.

Part of being known is being seen and noticed. Being known connects us to
community and keeps us from being isolated and lonely.

A good number of us gathered here have struggled with what it means to be known
for who we truly are. And some of those stories involve a great deal of pain and hurt.
Especially when it comes to our faith.

I am no exception to that.

Like most kids going to college, I wanted to make friends and find a place that was
mine. I started the very first day of orientation by going to the Chapel and singing with
the choir. I knew I might find a home there. And I did. I also found my way to the
Presbyterian Fellowship, a small gathering of folks. But back in the dorm, life was
harder to figure out. Fairly quickly though, I found myself in a nice group of peers. They
were all people of faith. They were clean cut. They didn’t party too much. We ate meals
together and shared stories. A couple of them invited me to a religious gathering. I
went. There, I learned all about all the things I wasn’t supposed to believe if I was a real
Christian. Every single thing was something that drew a line in the sand. Every single
thing was something that I believed in.

Meanwhile, I had other friends. One of them, Michael, was a devout Jew. He had
extraordinary faith and a gifted way of talking about it. We had long conversations
about the role of faith in our lives.

But those other voices were louder. The ones that said, “There is only one way to
believe.”

And meanwhile some of the folks I encountered came door to door, talking to folks
in the dorm about their faith. One group described their faith in a kind of flow chart for
God. This group was committed to the idea that anyone who did not come to faith
through believing in Jesus Christ in a certain way was going to hell. The only way to do
that was to be “born again.”

I spoke up. This couldn’t be. God loved everyone. God sent us Jesus to be the light
of the world, but God loves everyone. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves. Only
God can judge and God is bigger than we all are. Surely God had different ways for us
all to approach God, ways that spoke to who we are and whose we are.

I went home at Christmastime very confused. I visited the Associate Pastor at my
home church. “I can’t believe in this Christianity,” I said. “I want no part of it.”

Allen reminded me that there were different ways to come to God. The values I held
dear were not only acceptable, they were loved by God. Perhaps I should find some
different friends.

I did.

Fast forward twenty-five years. My twenty-fifth college reunion. One of those folks
who was so rigid approached me. “Could we have coffee, Jan?” We were FB friends at
that point. I was still a little leary, but open, after all, I am a pastor. I should be able to
talk with folks whose views differ from mine. Still, the tapes from long ago were there in
my head.

We met. The very first thing out of his mouth was, “I wanted to have coffee with you
because I need to say I am sorry.”

“Sorry for what?” I asked. I truly didn’t know.

“Sorry for the way I treated you in college. I was very rigid. I told you that the way you
believed wasn’t right. I was very judgmental. I have learned a lot.”

What ensued was an amazing conversation, one that we are still continuing.
Transformation, change and forgiveness are a part of this story. And knowing. We
understand one another. I don’t see him often, but just a couple of months ago, we had
coffee again, just down the street when he stayed at the Palomar for business.

At the deepest most fundamental level, the story of the Woman at the Well is a story
about being known, being deeply and intimately known and loved by God. But it is set
in an amazing context. In the chapter prior, Jesus talks with Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a
man of power in the Sanhedrin. A man with a name and status. He comes to Jesus in
the night with some questions. Jesus gives him some answers. And one of them is the
verse that often draws lines in the sand.

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from
above.”

And it is put with John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that God sent God’s only Son
that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but shall have eternal life.”

These two passages are too often used to draw a circle that excludes folks. A circle
that excludes you. A circle that excludes me.

But that wasn’t intended. Our scripture today blasts all of that out of the water. In fact,
it offers us living water.

Jesus breaks all kinds of boundaries to encounter the Woman at the Well. He is,
after all, a Jewish rabbi, coming to an ancient, sacred well—the well that Jacob came
to with Rachel— at high noon, in the brightest light of the day. While it seems that the
area around the well is deserted this scene is taking place in the most public of places.
The neighbors are no doubt watching from their windows and doorways. He meets a
woman with no name, a Samaritan woman. To us, readers 2000+ years later, this may
seem like no big deal, but in those days, Jews and Samaritans did not mix. And yet,
here Jesus is, visiting Samaria, the land located between Judea and Galilee—a land
where there has been violence between Jews and Samaritans—literally bad blood
between cousins. A little like the Montagues and the Capulets. The Samaritans only
read the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, the Jews claim the prophets and the
psalms as sacred. The Samaritans believe in the sacredness of Mt. Gerezim, not Mt.
Zion. Jesus has turned water into wine, he has turned the tables over in the temple in
Jerusalem, he’s had a conversation with a Pharisee in the dark of night named
Nicodemus, but now, in the light of day, in the most public of spaces, he encounters a
Samaritan woman. He crosses all kinds of boundaries in doing this, and in doing so,
makes a huge statement about who God is.

“Woman,” Jesus says, give me a drink. He is asking for one of the most life giving
elements we have.

Now in any of our homes, this would mean going to the cabinet and getting a clean
glass and filling it with water. But here at the well, this means offering Jesus a common
ladle. There is some chance in the passing of the ladle, their hands might have
touched. For sure, sharing the common cup would mean touching in other ways. This
boundary crossing isn’t just about gender, or ethnicity—big things in those days, even
today, to be sure—this boundary crossing is about EVERYTHING.

But in some ways, this story is as much about the woman as it is about Jesus. It is
the longest dialogue between Jesus and anyone in any of the stories about Jesus, and
the conversation is characterized by questions.

How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?

Where do you get that living water?

Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob?

Are you Lord?

Are you a prophet?

Are you Messiah?

Are you the Savior of the world?

And this woman, a victim of her society who had been passed from man to man for
safety and security, even sustenance, she gets it. The one who was judged, most
probably because she was barren and could not produce heirs. She understands what
Jesus is saying. She is smart and aware. The most outsider of outsiders, she
understands who Jesus is. And she sees that he knows her. Not in the ways that she
has been known, but truly known for who she is.

And this stuff isn’t meant to be a secret. She goes running off, telling the tale of her
encounter with the Jewish Rabbi. Offering testimony. She runs back across all those
boundaries that society had put up for her, unable to contain her excitement. “Come
and see,” she says. “Come and see the one who told me everything about me.”

They invite Jesus to stay in Samaria and welcome him into their community. He
teaches and preaches. He offers presence. He gives them a glimpse of the Messiah.

They come to know Jesus.

Being known. It goes both ways.

“For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only begotten Son that whoever
believes in him will have eternal life.” In Jesus, the chance to be born anew.

This is a story about God’s coming to everyone. Absolutely everyone. No
exceptions. And in the encounter, there is relationship. There is exchange. There is
mutual knowing that occurs. This is the Jesus I want to know and want to know better.

This is the welcoming Jesus, the one who has room at the table and extends living
water to everyone. This is a Jesus who offers no judgment but knowing and intimacy.

It’s an invitation to all of us to come and see, to nurture the relationship we have with
Jesus in our lives.

Liberal Christians shy away from this. I shy away from it. The tapes are strong in my
head and I don’t want to have anything to do with them.

But here in this passage, we meet Jesus at the well. We are each the Woman at the
Well. We come with our stories. And God knows. God knows everything about us. God
knows who we truly are. And God meets us there and offers us living water. God meets
us there and offers us touch. God meets us there and crosses whatever boundaries we
may have created and whatever boundaries other folks might have put there for us.

It’s a surprising passage when you think about it this way. At least I found it
preaching to me.

I think I am welcoming and inclusive, but maybe I am not. I have little tolerance (at
least inside my heart) for folks who believe differently from me, for folks who might put
a box or a judgment around the way that I believe. I have a hard time engaging in
conversation with folks who might have voted differently from me, or folks who believe
in a way that might draw lines in the sand.

But isn’t that just as rigid as the folks who would tell me that I am going to hell for
not believing in a certain way? Isn’t that just as rigid as folks who say that I am not
Christian unless I am born again?

Perhaps the only way to change the dialogue is to have the dialogue.

Perhaps I need to cross a different set of boundaries.

Perhaps I truly need to expand my understanding of meeting those who believe
differently than I do where they are.

Perhaps just as I have been extended living water, so too, I need to offer living water
to those who believe differently than I do.

Perhaps I need to say, “Come and see” for extending the invitation, I offer the
possibility to meet Jesus at the well.

Come and see.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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