Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, March 23, 2014, Rev. Anne Edison-Albright preaching. Today’s text: John 4:5-42.
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There are these very short, very popular quizzes all over facebook. They come from sites like buzzfeed. If you’re on facebook, you’ve seen them and probably taken at least one of them. Some of the ones I’ve taken, you could sort of maybe argue they’re related to my job: which of Jesus’ disciples are you, which medieval theologian are you, which woman of the Bible are you. There are other more general ones like: where should you live, what should your career be, what decade do you really belong in. I like the more obscure ones, like which Star Trek the Next Generation Character are you, which Muppet are you, or which classic Liz Lemon favorite food are you.
For the record, I am a cupcake sandwich.
Some people don’t like these quizzes because they are silly and totally unscientific and a waste of time. To them I say, yes. Exactly. Sometimes a person needs a brain break, and the sillier and less edifying, the better.
Facebook make taking and sharing these silly quizzes very easy, and it’s fun to see what friends get and compare their results to yours. For example, E. H. and I are both tubas who really belong in the 1950’s, but for which US President are you we parted ways.
People frequently comment on their own results by saying, “Yes!” “Exactly.” “This is totally me.” “This is true.” Or … “well, that’s a surprise.” Or, “this isn’t me at all.” Or, “I think this quiz is malfunctioning.”
I think the appeal of these quizzes is clear. It’s a silly waste of time, it’s pure fun and entertainment with no other value whatsoever. The quizzes are fast paced and funny and over so quickly and you get the immediate gratification of a result.
And I don’t want to make too much out of a silly thing, but I think there is something else going on, something else that explains the how popular these things are, and that is that these quizzes speak to and feed into our human desire to be known.
We want people to know who we are. We want people to know who we really are. We want people to know who we really are and to like us for it.
There’s something thrilling about answering a set of seemingly random questions and getting a result that seems to fit so perfectly, that seems like a perfect little representation of me. It affirms the stories we tell about ourselves, and when we share it we’re seeking further affirmation from our friends and family that yes, this is true, this is who you are. You are like Time News Roman Font—classy and timeless. You belong in Paris because you’re a romantic who loves art and fresh bread. You get the idea.
Even if you’ve never taken one of these quizzes … even if you’ve never checked your horoscope on the placemat of the Chinese restaurant … even if you’ve never taken the Myers Briggs and have no idea what I’m talking about when I say I’m an INFJ. Even if you don’t go in for this kind of silliness at all, I am guessing that you, too, have experienced some of that human need to be known, really known, for who you really are, and to be liked, to be loved, for who you really are.
I believe that human need is at the heart of the story H. brought to life for us this morning. A woman goes to the well during the hottest part of the day, hoping not to meet anyone who might be there to gossip about her. She meets a Jewish man who does the very odd thing of talking to her and asking for a drink of water. She’s curious and a little suspicious … who is this guy? Doesn’t he know the rules?
And then he reveals that he knows her. He already knows her story. He knows that she’s been married five times and is currently living with a man outside of marriage. He knows who she is and why she’s at the well in the noon day heat. He knows all about her, and he talks to her anyway. More than that, he offers her living water, a taste of eternal life and redemption and forgiveness.
When I was younger I never understood why the woman was so excited about Jesus knowing about her husband situation. I mean, here he is, offering her salvation, and her big takeaway message is, “Come and meet the man who told me everything I’ve ever done.” You know, a good fortune teller could do that, too. A good online quiz can do that. This is JESUS we’re talking about, the Messiah. Is it really that important that he knows her romantic history? Isn’t that kind of a shallow thing for her to focus on?
We’ll, it is and isn’t. Our obsession with ourselves and our need to be known can manifest itself in shallow, self-indulgent ways, to be sure. But the human desire to be known runs deep. And the human desire to be loved is real. And that’s the form that the living water takes for this Samaritan woman.
Jesus saves her by showing her that he knows her and her story, all of it, and loves her anyway. He’s not offering her salvation because he doesn’t know any better. He’s offering her salvation because he knows who she is, who she really is, and that promise of salvation is for her.
On our congregation prayer list this week is a member of the congregation, B., who had a really bad fall and will have a long and painful recovery ahead of him. I went to visit him at the hospital on Thursday we had this awesome conversation about the nature of religion, life, the universe, everything. And he asked me, “Pastor, what was your eureka moment. Your eureka faith moment?”
And it didn’t even take me a moment to know what it was. It was the Good Friday service after my grandma died. I was 11 years old. I stood in the middle of the congregation I grew up in and we sang “Were you There” a cappella, without any musical instruments, in complete and total darkness. I listened to the voices of my congregation and started picking out individual voices from the whole … There was the voice of one of the pillars of the church, he was bossy and I don’t think he liked me very much. There was the voice of my Sunday School teacher, who was such a mentor to me. There was my mom’s confident soprano and my dad’s quieter, but still very beautiful baritone. There were people who always stopped me and asked me how school was going. And older ladies who told me I should be a pastor when I grew up because I did such a nice job reading the lessons. There were people I knew by name and people I only knew in passing, people who had known me for years and others I’d just met, people who thought I was wonderful and people who thought I was kind of a precocious little pain-in-the-neck.
But what I heard as I was listening to the voice of my congregation that night were the voices of people who knew me and loved me anyway. The collective voice of my congregation that night was the voice of God, and it was saying, “I know everything you’ve ever done. I know the real you. Come, this living water is for you. Salvation, and love, and forgiveness, this is for you. Just as you are.”
You’ve heard me preach this before, this idea that God knows who we really are and loves us anyway. And it may seem kind of obvious, and not like such a stretch to believe because, as flawed as we are, it’s not so hard to imagine God loving us. And maybe you can imagine God loving the Samaritan woman at the well: the outcast, the adulterer, the woman living in sin.
But can you imagine God loving Fred Phelps?
Fred Phelps died this past week. He was the leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, and his church’s entire focus and mission was to get as much publicity as possible for their message, and their message was that God hates homosexuals. They started out by carrying hate-filled signs and protesting at the funerals of gay men and women, but when that didn’t get them very much media attention they switched tactics and started protesting at the funerals of American soldiers killed in combat. That got them attention.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Fred Phelps’ ministry of hate made him one of the most hated people in the world. In the days leading up to and now following his death I’ve seen a lot of pretty amazing responses from the people Phelps targeted. Gay people and their families, the families of the deceased service members, so many people sharing the same kind of response, but not the response you might expect, given all the hurt he caused.
They are sharing prayers of love. They are sharing prayers of grace. They are sharing prayers of forgiveness. “God, welcome Fred into your loving arms and give him the peace he never found in life.” “God, be with Fred’s family and his church as they try to heal.” “God, show this man of hate that you are a God of love.” “God, you know who Fred Phelps is. And we know you love him, anyway. Just like you love all of us.”
Actor and gay rights activist George Takei wrote, “Today, Mr. Phelps may have learned that God, in fact, hates no one. Vicious and hate-filled as he was, may his soul find the kind of peace through death that was so plainly elusive during his life.”
Another gay rights activist named Josh Kilmer-Purcell wrote an amazing article for the Huffington Post about his long-time friendship with Fred’s daughter, Shirley. Shirley started a correspondence with Josh in response to an article he wrote about her family. It was not a positive article, and by all rights the two of them should never have become friends. But they found they had some things in common. Both of them were married to men named Brent. Both of them loved the natural world. Shirley shared her deep love of her children, and Josh shared his deep love of family and of farming, and they appreciated each other for that.
Neither of them changed their views on any issues. Josh continued to be a gay rights activist, and Shirley continued to shout hate-filled messages against gays at the funerals of dead soldiers. So, nothing changed, right?
But they got to know each other. And they even got to care for each other. So, when Josh heard that Shirley’s father had died, he decided to send a casserole. “Casseroles are what my religion does when someone we know is grieving,” he writes. “Death defies words. Which is why in my church, we send a casserole.”
Is it a superficial response to something profound? Is it like being offered living water and only being able to say, “Hey, this guy knows everything I’ve ever done?”
I think the offering of a casserole in this case is about as profound as it gets. It’s one human being saying to another, “I know you, who you really are, and I love you anyway.” It’s God speaking through the grace of one person to the grief of another person, and saying: “Drink this, and you will never be thirsty again. I already know who you are. I already know your whole story. And this water of grace and love and forgiveness is for you.” Amen.