“How is Your Faith ‘Growing’?”
John 4: 5-15; Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook;
Northwood United Church; March 26, 2017
I would like to open with a question: Why have you come this morning? Why have you roused yourself out of bed on a lazy Sunday morning, fixed your hair, donned your ‘Sunday best’, and come to church? Compared to myriad of other options available to you this morning, why have you opted to come to worship at Northwood? I wonder what would your answer would be? I am going to be so bold as to guess and offer a one word answer for each and every one of our motivations in attending. I am going to guess that you have come for…GROWTH. We have come this morning to grow, to change, to metamorphasize. In one way or another, we have come to grow. Growth looks very different to each of us of course: We come, perhaps, to deepen our faith; to heal our pain; to be reminded that we are not alone in this journey; as we find God in worship, in community. In my opinion, if the church is to be anything, it is to be a place of growth and change. In the earliest days, churches were the community centres for the entire town. And while our communities have diversified, and different places offer different things, I believe that we should still see ourselves as ‘spiritual community centres’, places for growth. And conversely, churches that are not places of growth for the people who attend, that are not places that are growing in number, in my opinion they are not doing their job properly and need to revisit their mission, vision and values. So, as we gather together this morning on the fourth Sunday in Lent, we gather pondering the faith question: “how is your faith ‘growing’?”
As we begin to ponder this concept, growth is interesting to consider because we live in a consumer culture that preaches growth and consumption as the way we legitimize and value our existence. When we really thing it through, we know that infinite growth within a finite world is not achievable, and is actually dangerous. We cannot continue consuming in the mass quantities, and producing waste and polluting in the obscene levels that we have in the past. In fact, if we think about it, growth merely for the sake of growth itself is the ideology of the cancer cell and must be avoided. So, this morning, we consider a different kind of growth ~ the nature of spiritual growth. What it is and how we are invited into it in a healthy, life-giving faith.
As we move to this morning’s text, the first thing that sticks out for us is that it is all about growth and change. In the text everything Jesus does is about growth and change. In the fourth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus has been on the move. His scenery has been rapidly changing - Jesus moves from Jerusalem into Judea, and then from Judea into Samaria. As we engage into the text, there is more than just a change of scenery at play. Lives have been changing as well. By the end of the fourth chapter in John, people’s awareness will be forever changed: Jesus will be declared “the saviour of the world”. As we look at this morning’s text, we first note that it is an odd one. To be sure, this interaction never should have occurred. The Samaritan woman goes to the well, seeking to the regular traffic to the well that occurs in the morning. She goes in the heat of the day when most would not be doing physical labour. By all accounts, the well should be have been vacant, devoid of any other water-gatherers. Yet it wasn’t. Someone was there. And that someone would change her forever: That someone was … Jesus. And, Jesus never should have spoken to her. There were gender barriers prohibiting them from speaking; there were cultural barriers prohibiting them from speaking; there were religious barriers prohibiting them from speaking. Yet, Jesus initiates the conversation despite the Samaritan woman’s gender, race and religion. Jesus speaks to her and her life is forever changed and transformed.
What we see transpire is nothing less than the transformation of the woman’s faith! The transformation occurs in two movements. She is first transformed in Jesus’ initiative in speaking to her. Jesus initiates ~ speaking to her. This is the longest drama throughout all the gospel lections and if you were to read all the complex forty-two verses, you would read about the woman’s difficult past. The Samaritan woman is a person who is constantly under the gaze and judgement of others. She is a nobody in their society, a castoff in their culture. I’m sure you can draw the cultural parallels to who our modern day labels as ‘nobody’ or ‘worthless’. Perhaps you have even felt that way yourself. As a result of her status, she shows up at the well at high noon, in the heat of the day. People draw water early in the day, when it is cool. She knew that and chooses to endure the scorching heat in order to avoid the judgmental looks of the townspeople that she so regularly experiences. The transformation begins when she realizes that something is actually there…waiting for her. It is God’s welcome, God’s embrace, God’s grace. It is there at the well waiting for her … too! Yes, she is far from perfect. Yes, she is a broken person. Yes, she is a sinner. But…YES…she is welcomed and loved by God. Have you ever felt unworthy? Have you ever felt less-than? Have you ever pondered whether your life mattered, perhaps even to the point of ending it? The balm to this affliction is found in this passage, and it is a resounding ~ YES. Yes, your life matters. Yes, you are worthy. Yes, you are deeply loved. Jesus’ initiative in speaking to this woman is a powerful reminder that God seeks us out, speaks to us and calls us by name. Jesus sees the woman and he speaks to her. One of the most beautiful reinactments we do of this, I believe, is in taking the initiative to speak to one another, and whenever possible, to speak to one another by name. When we walk by someone and smile, we have a chance to greet them with the love of God and make their day. When we see a panhandler, even if we don’t give them some spare change, when we look them in the face and say ‘sorry, not today, God bless you’. When we serve food to the homeless in ‘the Strip’ in Whalley, I always ask them their name before handing them their food, and then hand them their food saying “God bless you, Bob”. When we wear name tags in church and learn one another’s name, and eventually their stories, calling one another by name, we reflect Jesus’ action of speaking to the Samaritan woman. Jesus goes to the woman, despite any barriers that would separate them, and Jesus initiates the beginning of something that will change her for the rest of her life. And Jesus goes to you, despite all that you might think (or society might tell you) is wrong with you, and begins to engage in a relationship with you as well. Emily Dickinson wrote a beautiful poem back in 1891 that speaks to the grace of God’s grace and love extending to all of us … even those our world names as ‘nobody’s’. It is entitled
“I’m nobody! Who are You?”
I’m nobody! Who are you? Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us – don’t tell! They’d banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody! How public, like a frog.
To tell you name the livelong day. To an admiring bog.
Aside from Jesus initiating and reaching out to the Samaritan woman, and to us, something else happens. As a result of Jesus initiative, something begins to change in her…she begins to see him not just as a male, Jewish, foreigner; she sees him as a prophet. The woman at the well starts to wonder if Jesus is greater than Jacob who had given the people that very well around which they gathered. Legend told of Jacob receiving water from this well without having to actually draw it from a bucket; legend told that the water bubbled up and rose to the surface. In her transformation, the woman begins to see Jesus with the eyes of faith. She begins to see beyond someone that she thought was to be avoided as a person of a different religion, culture and gender. She sees the holy in this stranger named Jesus. Mother Teresa is quoted as having said “I see Jesus in every human being. I say to myself, this is hungry Jesus, I must feed him. This is sick Jesus. This one has leprosy or gangrene; I must wash him and tend to him. I serve because I love Jesus”. When this kind of transformation begins to take hold in our lives, we begin to see the face of Christ in others, and they begin to see Jesus in what you do, see Jesus in how you live. Do you feel that you are changing, growing, and becoming closer to God through your relationship to Jesus? The woman at the well has profound transformation of faith as a result of being exposed to Jesus. In the end, she becomes, what feminist scholars argue, as being an unrecorded apostle who is sent by Jesus to testify on his behalf. Now, she won’t gather in the Upper Room and have her feet washed and be painted in Davinci’s painting of the last supper. But she will be transformed and live out her faith testifying to the good news of Jesus in how she lives out the rest of her life.
So, how does our faith grow throughout our lives? And where are we in the process? There has been some interesting work done on faith development by United Methodist Minister and Emory University professor, the Rev. Dr. James Fowler (see “Stages of Faith”). Fowler conceptualized a developmental faith that people can work at growing throughout the course of their lifetime. On the screen you can see the six stages that Fowler saw people going through at various points in their lives, and not all people go through all the stages. It is a journey; it is a practice of faith. Our transformation in faith begins in the first few years of life. If we are blessed enough to experience the loving nurture and safety of family, of church family, we begin to conceptualize the divine in this fashion. These are our first images of the divine ~ no pressure to you young parents. As we move through the toddler years into the early ages of elementary school, faith development occurs through the stories, images and experiences that we come into contact with. Our time in theme conversation and in children’s church, and at home in faith conversation are those opportunities where we grow in faith. This is why taking ‘Theme Conversation’ or ‘Children’s Church’ is so important. Once again, no pressure! As the schooling years progress, we develop a deeper relationship with God ~ often taking God quite literally (which is why children lop onto images of God being an older man with a beard). And some of us get stuck in this image as well. During these school years, we shape a personal identity about faith, justice, and the ordering of the world. Quite often, we tend to be quite rigid in our faith, values and ethical systems, as we dismiss others who do not share a similar viewpoint ~ sort of an ‘us and them’ type of dichotomy shapes our faith-view. Sadly, Fowler observed, this can be the end-point for many people’s faith transformation, and is the breeding ground for many fundamentalist movements in religion. The fourth stage comes following a period of inner angst and struggle as we increasingly take responsibility for our own beliefs and feelings and open ourselves to a growing complexity of faith and an awareness of the gray areas of life. The second to last phase is often called a ‘mid-life crisis’ and occurs when one becomes comfortable at living amidst paradox, and realizes that an interdependent truth cannot be arrived at through any particular statement but rather is very multi-dimensional. Lastly, the phase called “enlightenment” comes when we treat any person with compassion as all peoples are viewed as coming from a universal community and deserve to be treated with the universal principles of love and justice. Fowler cites people like Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi and Mother Teresa as having grown to the sixth phase of faith.
So why have you come this morning? We have come to grow. We come knowing that whether we are a nobody or a somebody, God welcomes us through Jesus’ gracious gift and presence to us. He says, come and sit down and have a drink of water. And as you come and sit down and sip of this water of eternal life, you will be changed, you will continue to grow as one of his disciples. And so no matter where you are on your growth journey, may your find God’s grace, God’s peace, God’s light shining upon you ~ warming you and forever changing you.