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the sermon for

the Third Sunday in Lent

19 March 2017

John 4:5-42
God's love in action breaks geographic boundaries and cultural or ethnic barriers and empowers the least of these to proclaim love for all as true disciples.

by Fred Behnken, Parish Lay Minister

03192017Sometimes important messages and life-changing events happen in the most unbelievable and improbable ways. Who would have thought that I would hear about Jesus after two friends invited me to come with them to Immanuel Lutheran Vacation Bible School when I about 8-or 9 years old? I was invited to hear about Jesus by kids my own age. Two kids known only to a few people, who were not from powerful, influential, or well-known families. This was the first time that I heard Jesus' story in a positive way. Reflecting their invitation placed them in a long lineage of Jesus disciples. Their invitation to "come and see," set the stage for a later invitation from another disciple who entered my life when I was 16 going on 17 years old. That individual invited me to accompany her to First Lutheran Church and hear about Jesus for myself. That disciple is Ginny, my "sometime in the future" fiancée and wife, here with our son Tim. That invitation to "come and see" at First Lutheran changed my life completely.

So, what does being a disciple of Jesus mean? How does one life as a disciple? Today's Gospel lesson is what reminded me of the two invitations that I just mentioned. The Gospel for today documents a conversation that Jesus has with a total stranger, a Samaritan woman. The conversation's length wasn't as important as the revelations from Jesus. Because of the experience with Jesus, an unnamed, five-time divorced, Samaritan woman proclaimed the Good News to her village and in so doing became an exemplary disciple.

What motivated her was the experience of the Word incarnate in Jesus which gave her Good News and changed her. She was born anew. Because of Jesus she was a new creation with a different world view. She was no longer an outsider, a woman marginalized by her marriage status, ethnicity, and her culture, which labeled her "one of those women." Today's gospel witnesses to the Good News of Jesus as the Christ who gives birth to a new, unheralded, and unexpected disciple.

What events led up to the Gospel encounter with a Samaritan woman? Jesus leaves Jerusalem for Galilee, but instead of the safe route, he travels into and through hostile Samaritan territory. Kind of like the Dallas Cowboys going to play an away game at the Washington Redskins' stadium. Judean prejudice and outright hostility was perpetuated against the Samaritans because they worshipped foreign gods and separated themselves from the Temple in Jerusalem. Jews would not travel through Samaria because they were fearful of Samaritan violence. Judeans planning to travel to Galilee from Jerusalem would walk east to Jericho to the Jordan River. They would cross the Jordan and walk up the east side of the Jordan valley flood plain and once more cross the Jordan River west into Galilee. All this to avoid traveling through Samaria.

Contrary to Judean practice, Jesus intentionally travels directly from Jerusalem through Samaria to Galilee. Along the way, the entourage takes a travel break at the Samaritan village of Sychar, north of Jerusalem during the 2nd day of the journey. Jesus sits beside the well, identified as Jacob's well, while the disciples go into Sychar to purchase food. Waiting by the well in this semi-arid region ensures that Jesus would meet shepherds coming to water their flocks or single women who came to fetch water for their household. It turns out that Moses, Isaac, and Jacob met their wives because they came to sit by a village well, so Jesus sitting by Jacob's well was intentional.

An unnamed Samaritan woman approaches the well to draw water and fill her jug according to custom. The woman is surprised and shocked when a man speaks to her. The man who spoke is obviously Jewish because of his clothes and accent. Any man who speaks to a Samaritan and, specially, to a woman is not behaving per established custom. Jesus has totally broken with Judean insistence that their definition of God is the only truth and that Jerusalem is the one, the only rightful place of worship. Jesus declares that the time is now when true worship of God will not be on the Samaritan mountain or for the Jews in Jerusalem. Jesus' message is one where divisions are set aside, where Samaritan. Judean and Galilean will all worship the same God in truth and in spirit.

Do you think Jesus' traveled through Samaria just to make the trip shorter? Not likely. His route broke religious, cultural barriers, and traditional boundaries by traveling through Samaria. The Jesus' choice clearly shows that the stranger, the marginalized ill, poor, and elderly, yes even a Samaritan is love by God. God's love is unconstrained by human constructs and definitions of geography, ethnicity, or cultural barriers. As the conversation between Jesus and the anonymous woman goes on, Jesus ultimately reveal himself as the Messiah. Jesus has never so explicitly, clearly, and openly identified himself before this time.

The disciples come back from their foray into the village to buy food and see Jesus talking to a woman—a Samaritan woman at that. The disciples are appalled but never ask him what or why. The woman leaves her water jug and quickly goes back into the village. She shares her experience and says, "Can he really be Messiah, the one who spoke to me?" Because of her testimony, the villagers come to see Jesus. She has done a what true disciple does. She declares without hesitation her full encounter with Jesus. Her proclamation results in many of the villagers going to the well and talking with Jesus. At their invitation, Jesus stays in Sychar for two days. They say they initially came to hear Jesus because of what she said. Now they believe because they heard for themselves that Jesus is the Messiah, the one true Savior of the world. This is what disciples do. They invite others to come and see. The Samaritan woman was not a prominent, wealthy, or powerful woman, but a woman five- times divorced and currently living with a man who was not her husband. She was regarded as one of "those" women, an outcast of their society, one to be derided in her village.

When we Christians wonder how to live as a disciple of Jesus, simply look to Jesus, the cross and resurrection. Who did Jesus minister to and share God's love? The love of God in Christ subjugates and conquers entrenched religious-political, geographic, cultural constraints, and ethnic policies which breed minimalization, discrimination, devaluation, hate and fear. God shows no partiality and includes Samaritans and Gentiles. Jesus comforted and ministered to those who were economically and culturally oppressed and pushed aside -- the widow, orphan and the single mom, the working poor, those too ill and elderly to work or who were unable to care for themselves.

How is it possible for us to proclaim the Gospel knowing who and what we are? The Kingdom of God is here on earth because of the cross and Christ crucified. As Saint Paul wrote, yet while we were dead in sin, Christ died for us. Luther goes even further to proclaim us as simultaneously sinner and saint. Because of God's love in Christ, we are already and ever forgiven.

Our encounter with Jesus as the Living Word leads, pushes us to discipleship. Our encounter with Jesus through the proclaimed word and sacrament lifts us so that we share, proclaim, live our lives as witnesses to God's love and compassion without end for all creation. Because the resurrected Jesus is here on earth, we serve all those loved by God and who sit at God's table. We are empowered to care for others as God cares and loves us in Christ. Because of the resurrected Jesus here on earth, there is no partiality, no prejudice, no one elevated above another, no one left behind, no one cold, no one hungry, no one thirsty, no one sick, no one who lacks shelter. This is indeed the Gospel of the Lord.

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the sermon for

the Second Sunday in Lent

12 March 2017

John 3:1-17
God loves us! And it's that love that gives us life!

03122017Law 1. God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life.

Law 2. Man is sinful and separated from God. Therefore, he cannot know and experience God's love and plan for his life.

Law 3. Man is sinful and separated from God. Therefore, he cannot know and experience God's love and plan for his life.

And finally, Law 4. We must individually receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; then we can know and experience God's love and plan for our lives.

Those are what are, affectionately, called, "The Four Spiritual Laws." And they haven't changed, all that much, since I ran into them back in my first semester at Arizona State! You may recall, I've mentioned them before, a time or two. The reason why is that they are the foundation and the framework for popular religion, here in America! The foundation and framework for ninety percent of the churches here in West Texas! Baptists! Church of Christ! Assembly of God! Nondenominational! Mormon! Jehovah Witnesses! This is their bottom line! Simple. Straightforward. To the point. All wrapped up, nice and neat, in four, easy to remember statements.

God loves us! God has a wonderful plan for our life! But, in the end, push comes to shove, it's all up to us! Or, more accurately, it's all up to me! It all hinges on my choices, on my decisions! Jesus stands at the door and knocks. But the door can be opened only from the inside! Jesus softly and tenderly calls me, but it's up to me to respond. Jesus, according to popular opinion, is a gentleman. He won't force himself on anyone. And so, he waits for us. And he waits. And he waits. Of course, if I don't respond... if I won't respond... if I can't respond... that wonderful plan for my life will never become a reality!

And funny thing, much of what we hear... in the revival tent... on the television... claims to be rooted, anchored, here... in the third chapter of John! In fact, that's where the whole movement gets its name!

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

That's how the New Revised Standard puts it. Born from above! King James says, "Except a man be born again..." Born again! "Now is the time! Now is the day! Pray! Receive Jesus as your Lord! Accept him into your heart!" You've heard it all, before! Maybe, like me, you may, even, have responded.

But there's one problem with the whole thing. One, little problem... That's not what the third chapter of John is about! In fact, that's not what the whole gospel is about! Being converted, saved... in the popular sense! John isn't about making choices! He's not about making decisions! Freewill! John – if the gospel is about anything – is about love! John is all about love! From 1.1 to 21.25! Agape he calls it! It's the same thing Paul talks about, only Paul calls it grace! It's charity! Love! Free! Unearned! Undecided! Pure! Fatherly! Divine! John's gospel used the word love nearly twice as often as the other three gospels combined! John's is the gospel of the new commandment! John's gospel is the one that speaks of "no greater love than this!" And of course, there's John 3 . 16! "For God so loved the world!" It's hard to turn a page without, in some way, tripping over it!

And if there's one thing we know about love – if it's love, at all – it's that love never waits! Love never waits until... Love never waits unless... It, just, does! Does what needs doing! Especially when you're the god! When you're the creator! The savior! Think, again, about that first law. God loves us! And, yet, god merely offers us that wonderful plan! What kind of love is that? We're sinners! Separated from god! And god only offers? How does that help? What kind of god is it that isn't willing to move heaven and earth for the ones god loves?

That's why so many in West Texas have a problem with what happened at this font, last Sunday! When babies, infants, toddlers, are brought here to be baptized. It's not a bible thing they have a problem with. It's not, even, a god thing. It's a love thing! Most of us Americans just can't understand! How god can love without reluctance! How god can love without restriction! Love without hesitation! Without exception or excuse! The signs always flash the message about loving god, loving others, changing the world! But what about god's love? What about god's agape? God's charity? God's grace? It's never mentioned!

Thing is, Nicodemus was someone like that! Love always had a catch! Always a price! And that night, in Jerusalem, Jesus showed him this image! "Nicodemus, think of it as the love between parent and child! Love isn't a deal, a bargain! It's not a contract! Love is a gift! Just like this! Pure! Unadulterated! You don't earn anything! You don't deserve anything! You have to be born from above! God the Father, you the child! No control! No choices! Helpless! Dependent! But look at their faces! The joy in that little one's eyes! The smile! This isn't reward! This isn't compensation! This is love!

"And look at god's face! It's the same! Identical! No one can see the kingdom until and unless they are born from above! Unless they see it as a baby! Until they see it as children! Babies and children don't look for reasons! So stop! Stop being such an adult!" Look at that image! Look at those faces! The utter ecstasy! The sheer delight! The face only a mommy, only a daddy, might have! How could god only offer? Holding back? Holding in? Waiting? Delaying?

It doesn't work that way! It just doesn't work that way! Love is, even, reckless! It's spontaneous! Impulsive! Jesus on his knees, in front of us! Arms open wide! Us running to him and jumping – leaping – into his arms! Both of us arms around the other! Hold tight, forever! Love can['t be choreographed! And it can't – won't – be scripted! It, simply, happens! You must be born from above!

Contrary to popular opinion, God's doesn't just offer us love! Waiting, watching, to see what we'll do! God loves us too much for that! Instead, god makes it happen! Beginning to end! Start to finish! It's all god's doing! That night in the stable! That afternoon on golgotha! And each and every day, thereafter! God saying, god showing, I love you! And we are changed! Changed forever! Not all at once! In the blink of an eye! At the sound of the trumpet! But letter by letter and syllable by syllable and word by word, our life is made new! Not by your choices! Not by your decisions! By only by god! Only by god's love! After all, no one can see the kingdom, without, first, being loved into it!

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