What Is Pleasing to God?
October 6, 2019
From John 4
Jesus left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria… It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The 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.) Jesus 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.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?…” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but 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.” The 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.”
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”
Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship God neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the God in spirit and truth, for God seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
Jesus didn’t actually have to go through Samaria, as the story says. Other people didn’t. They avoided Samaria. They would actually walk further around it just so they wouldn’t run into Samaritans. Not Jesus, though, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a time-saving hack. It could be that he was genuinely thirsty at high noon, the hottest time of day, and the closest well was in Samaria. But the fact that he showed up at the well without a bucket is telling. His journey was intentional.
It almost seems comical to me, this whole situation. Jesus really is that guy, here. That guy who plops himself down by a well in ridiculous desert heat, without a bucket, and uses strange pick-up lines like “give me something to drink” to get a woman’s attention. In rom coms isn’t it usually the guy who offers to buy the drink? I wouldn’t know. I have small children and haven’t been to a movie in a while. If memory serves me right though, the next things that happen are somewhat accurate. Jesus’ friends, the disciples, are all waiting for him to join them for a bite to eat, but he ditches them. There’s something here, worth sticking around for. The conversation starts off rocky, but Jesus finds his footing. The unnamed Samaritan woman starts off by calling him sir- so formal! He is Jewish, of course, so it makes sense. They banter back and forth, discussing their very different backgrounds, until they get to the part about her exes, and religion. If this really was a rom com, it’s where the date would go south. The shocking twist, though, is that it doesn’t. They’re both into it. It’s like they get each other.
I don’t mean to be crass about Jesus and the Samaritan, but the situation is unusual. Maybe that’s the point. Jesus is speaking to the Samaritan woman because even though she’s a Samaritan, and even though something has happened to her that has rendered her oppressed in her community, in the Kingdom of God these are not strikes against her- in fact, they make her resume sing. She’s had a life– a tough one. Forced into marriage after marriage and left out to dry. But, she’s smart, and scrappy. She sees Jesus right away- calls him a prophet within moments. And most importantly, Jesus sees her- Jesus sees her whole life.
I love so many things about this story- the setting, the boundary crossing, the conversation and vulnerability. I don’t love that this woman has suffered, but Jesus seems to be suffering, too. At least, that’s what I see. This is a God who comes to a needy person, needing something from her first; both of them are thirsty.
I wonder if Jesus was sick of trying to convince people of who he was, annoyed with the pushback he was getting, the lack of substance among those he encountered, or utterly fed up and exhausted with the injustice he saw. I wonder if he really was in a vulnerable place. His posture- leaning up against a well in the sun- suggests burnout. So, maybe interacting with the Samaritan woman was a gift- a deep theological conversation with someone who could keep up, who met his match. The fact that they’re talking at all suggests there was mutual respect, and perhaps in sharing those reflections- and even the intimate details of their very different lives- they bonded over the human need they both had. Could it be they both needed the offer of new life, one that could help them each shift away from their present circumstances? At the very end of the story, the part we didn’t read today, they each seem reinvigorated with mission and purpose- Jesus recommits to pushing the disciples out of their comfort zones, and the Samaritan woman becomes the leader of a movement in her community- their conversation having changed both of them.
I remember a few years back I was in New York meeting with some friends for a small conference. We were sprawled out on the lawn in Central Park eating our delicious picnic lunch and drinking some rose in the sunshine. It was a beautiful day. Our conversation was beautiful, too, though not an easy one. We were updating one another on our lives in the sort of way good friends do, not masking the struggles we were each facing. My one friend described how her life felt like a hustle, trying to please everyone- her parents, her husband, her kids, her friends, her church and her boss. She looked up at us and said, “I forget the last time I asked: what is pleasing to God?” Her whole life was pleasing to God, in the way that we are all pleasing to a God who loves us no matter what. But, if we don’t sometimes ask the question, we get off track, we get… thirsty.
I imagine Jesus asked himself this question many times over the course of his ministry. I imagine he was asking it as he sat down by the well without a bucket, thirsty for water and real conversation with someone who would get it. I imagine the Samaritan woman asking this question, too, probably when it felt like she had done everything right and was still abused, and ostracized from her community. And I imagine what gave them both a reason to move forward is that they found the answer in each other.
Friends, if this story tells us anything it’s that what is pleasing to God is not never being vulnerable, or never being at a disadvantage, or taking the long way home to circumvent the hard stuff. What is pleasing to God is admitting that we need God, and each other, and then being able to talk about it. But we live in a culture of individualism, where we aren’t supposed to ask for help or discuss what is at the root of our thirst. And if we do, it’s often a one-way transaction between the so-called needy one and the one who has money or power or privilege. And yet, we are thirsty for this kind of talk- conversation with someone else who has the same taste in living water as we do.
Like many of you, I’ve been following the Amber Guyger case in Dallas, and the verdict that came out this week. She was a Dallas police officer who entered an apartment she thought was hers, but was really the floor above her own, and got so startled seeing a young black man in front of her that she shot him. Botham Jean was his name. He was eating ice cream and watching T.V. on his couch that night. Amber was sentenced to ten years in jail. In the courtroom after her sentence, Botham’s brother Brandt gave a statement. He looked earnest and traumatized as he spoke. He said, “I know if you go to God and ask him he will forgive you. Go to God.” After he said more, he asked the judge, “I don’t know if this is possible, but can I give her a hug please?” You may have also seen his mother’s statement later, outside the courtroom. It was not easy to watch. She called for an end to the corruption in our criminal justice system and the racism and privilege that holds it up.
Deconstructing this story is not an endeavor I take lightly, and I am still very much learning. But, what I do know is that like Brandt said, it is God who must do the forgiving, and it was not cheap grace that was offered by Botham’s family. The video has been shared millions of times on social media, with remarks like, “Now this is what forgiveness looks like,” or “Simply beautiful,” as it gets swallowed up into the fast-paced news cycle and we move on with our lives feeling comforted.
Botham was beautiful. And he was gracious, and it’s not up to me to take that away from him. But, Amber will never fully know what she has done, and our nation has so far to come, and the conversation that happened in the courtroom should not make us as comfortable as we desperately want it to. What would be most pleasing to God is if we had the difficult conversation about what was really going on there.
Tonight, as we also imagine the conversation at the well, between Jesus and the unnamed Samaritan woman, we must dwell in the circumstances. The sheer audacity of it all. Jesus comes with the most humility of anyone, ever, to the least likely person in the world, and he witnesses to her whole life. That is how we should approach conversations with one another. It is too easy to look at a video for a few minutes and assume forgiveness happened because it just should. We have to see peoples’ whole lives. The life of her (point at text), and the life of Botham Jean. Because they matter. And we have to continue to cross borders- ancient and present- having these necessary, difficult conversations, for they are what will shift the axis of the world.
I wonder, when is the last time you asked yourself, “what is pleasing to you, God?” I for one believe what is most pleasing to God is to be thirsty. Thirsty for truth, for justice. Thirsty to be known and loved. And I can tell you that God always shows up with an empty bucket, for us, too. That’s just who God is.
God is interested in each one of us, particularly when we are humble, as well. And this is why we show up to Gathered here at Five. We come to be in community, to be in conversation, and to walk right into the thirsty deserts of our hearts with one another, because that is what’s pleasing to God. Amen.