Want spiritual renewal for your church? Read this and share it with your pastor.
- The hard question for pastors: What, how, and when to feed our congregations
- Beyond Eucharistic feeding: The Five Competencies of a Christian
- The question for congregations: What it means to be “blessed”
In this section of Luke, Jesus toggles between assurances and warnings. He seems to be saying that because of the assurance of God’s providence, we can risk living in a new way. And in the passage for today, there are clear warnings and invitations to this new way of living for both pastors and their congregations.
As pastor of a church, I have to answer to special questions. Hebrews 13:17 says church leaders are to keep watch over the souls of their congregations, and that we will give an account. James 3:1 says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” Jesus’ answer to Peter makes this dramatically clear.
Peter, spokesperson for the disciples and the symbolic stand in for church leadership (why do you think the Roman Catholics figure he’s the first Pope?), wants to know: “Jesus, are you saying these parables for us or for everyone?” Either he’s hoping everyone’s on the hook, or perhaps Luke is specifying two audiences—church leaders and church members.
Jesus’ answer, a further parable about the Faithful and Prudent Manager, suggests he is addressing Peter and other church leaders. There is a Managing Slave in the Master’s household. This person is still a slave, but one with responsibility for other slaves—namely feeding them their allowance of food at the proper time. Recall that in the Gospel of John the resurrected Christ tells Peter to “feed my sheep.”
So this parable asks a simple question of me as a pastor: “Am I feeding my congregation the right food at the right time?” The parable includes some compelling images that demand an answer. Unfaithful Managers will be “cut into pieces” and “put with the unfaithful.” The distinction of “light” versus “severe” beatings isn’t much comfort, since the possibility of “no” beatings isn’t an option. Every pastor, it seems, will fail and be judged. What we have some control over is how badly we fail.
Of course I hear Eucharistic overtones with the question. I can answer confidently that, “Yes, Lord. As you desire, I feed my congregation every week from the Lord’s Table.” And the earlier parable about the master arriving home from the wedding banquet to find his slaves waiting for him, then dressing himself and serving them a meal confirms the importance of our weekly Eucharistic feeding. It appears that I’m serving my congregation from the Lord’s Table, but in fact more often than not I see Christ staring back at me through their eyes when they receive the bread from my hands. It is Christ the Master (“Lord”) who is serving us all.
But the answer really must be bigger than the Table. More particularly, the parable asks me as pastor the question: Am I listening primarily to the Master’s will? Not my own will, not the culture’s, not the expert’s, and not even the congregation’s–but the Master’s.
In the words of the parable: Am I balanced in listening, preparing, and doing? Or to paraphrase: in prayer, study, and serving?
Together the elected leadership of my congregation and I have formulated “Five Directional Goals” in order to answer this important question about feeding our congregation the right food at the right time. You might think of these as the “five competencies of a Christian,” and we look to these for guidance as we lead the church.
Our Five Directional Goals are: (1) knowing what’s in the Bible and how to apply it to our lives; (2) the ability to pray for ourselves and others; (3) enjoying relationships in the community of faith; (4) responding to the needs of the church and the world with service; (5) appreciating how and why we worship together.
As challenging as these questions and answers are for pastors, the text also includes challenging questions for congregations. The primary question is: Are we like those “blessed” slaves whom the Master finds waiting, alert, dressed for action, and with their lamps lit? Will God find us “at work” when he comes and knocks on the door?
The fact that in this parable the Master “knocks” is telling. Unlike other parables where there are trumpet blasts or forewarnings of the Master’s return, in this parable the Master returns to his own house and knocks. Very unassuming. It seems God is eager to dignify us by creating opportunities for us to respond.
Some time ago Jesus came knocking on our church door. I was preparing to leave when I heard him walking down the hallway. When I opened my door, I saw him—a family passing through. They were seeking help, but I could tell what they really would like is a shower. Because someone in our past was “dressed for action” and made us ready, we have showers. I offered this to them, to which they responded with tremendous gratitude. Hearing the toddler laughing in the bathroom was the highlight of my week.
Earlier that same week someone from our congregation handed me a ten dollar bill. “Dressed for action,” I bought lunch for this family. I wrote the person and said, “Guess what I did with your ten dollars? I bought Jesus lunch!” When my wife heard this story, she created shower bags so that we would be “dressed for action” the next time Jesus comes needing a shower.
These parables tell us that God wants us to be ready to take a journey. We’re to be dressed, waiting, with our lamps lit. Why lamps? Because he may come in the middle of the night, or near dawn when it is darkest. It might be scary, we might not see very far down the road. But follow we must if we are to be “blessed” slaves.
The question for us as a congregation is: “How else might it look for Faith Church to be ready?” I wonder, do we appear ready to “open the door” to our neighbors? I think about the hundreds of people every day who buy coffee at the drive in across the corner from us. Do they think we’re ready to open the door to them? What do they think when they see our weed infested lawn and temporary vinyl sign? Do we appear ready to them? After a long day’s road-trip, would you be excited to drive into the parking lot of a motel with weeds and a temporary sign?
What would it look like for us to be watching and waiting? Because while we’re supposed to be watching and waiting, dressed for action with our lamps lit, our neighbors are waiting for God’s deliverance. In our neighborhood there are children who only get a third meal when school is in session. We are surrounded by elderly who can’t keep up on their housework. We replaced the furnace filter for someone who hadn’t done it in three years! (I check mine every three months.) There are many single people in our neighborhood—young unmarried, recently divorced, widowed, renters.
These people may not know the words of Psalm 59, but they know the feelings. They feel surrounded by predators who threaten their physical safety and financial security. They sense that life is hostile all around them.
And these neighbors, who are familiar with the feelings of Psalm 59, need us as their neighborhood church to pray for and with them the words of Psalm 59, “I will watch for you, O God, for you are my fortress.”
So the question for us is: Do our neighbors drive by Faith Church look and see a fortress of God, a place of refuge? We have been given this church. We have been entrusted with this church. And Jesus’ final words are clear: Much is required of us.
I have to think about feeding us at the proper time. All of us have to be ready to open the door when the Master comes.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- In what ways is your church leadership trying to ensure that you are being fed spiritually? How could they do a better job? How often are you “eating” what your church is offering?
- In what ways is your church “dressed for action, with lamps lit, and waiting to open the door” to Jesus when he comes, especially when he comes at unexpected hours and in disguise? How can your church be more ready?
- How are you one of the “blessed slaves” from Monday to Saturday, when Jesus might “knock on the door” of your office, car, house, or heart?
What does it mean that Jesus “descended into hell” as the Apostles’ Creed says? Could it be that God’s presence extends even that far?
- The descent into hell in the Bible
- Jewish understandings of resurrection
- Four things the descent teaches us
- How Joseph of Arimathea and a passionate lover exemplify real faith
The two most ancient church creeds share many things in common, but the way they refer to the Triduum (the three days from Good Friday to Easter Sunday) is not one of them. The Nicene Creed says Jesus, “was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried, and the third day He rose again.” The Apostles’ Creed says Jesus, “suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried. He descended into hell. The third day he rose again from the dead.”
The older of these creeds includes what happened to Jesus not only on Friday and Sunday, but also on Holy Saturday—specifically, “he descended into hell.”
When we turn the biblical testimony about this descent, we find only a few shadowy references. In 1 Peter 3 and 4, the author writes:
Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, . . . the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.
A second oblique reference is found in Matthew’s account of the death of Jesus. There, the earth shakes, rocks split, and the tombs are opened. Several bodies of the saints are raised, but they do not depart the tombs until Sunday after Jesus’ resurrection, at which time they appear to many in Jerusalem.
The concept that Jesus descends into hell, or among the dead, is traditionally called the “harrowing of hell.” “Harrowing” is an Old English word for “robbing,” and “hell” here refers not to the fantastic realm of eternal torture (think Dante’s Inferno) but to the venerable Jewish concept of Sheol, the place of the departed where no one can praise God.
The harrowing of hell rests upon a very Jewish understanding of resurrection, which is distinct from our present-day understanding. In Judaism, a personal and individual resurrection was a late development. It arose in part from Greek philosophy introduced to the Jews about 200 years before Christ, and in part from the injustice of martyrdom which they witnessed a short time later. They were trying to reconcile the truths of a just God and the unjust deaths of the faithful. They concluded that justice would prevail in the resurrection of these saints. And eventually this led to the hope of a general resurrection of all people, some to reward, others to punishment.
We find an example of this way of thinking in the earliest writing of the Newer Testament, written by the Jewish Christian Paul. In 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17 he is addressing the anxiety that some in the church had over those who had already died, before the anticipated return of Christ.
We believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.
This concept that God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ extends to the dead proved rather difficult to convey narratively. It appears often in visual depictions and some hymnody, but how should one include it in the Gospels, for example? Matthew’s is the only surviving attempt, and as we’ve seen, even then it is poetic, obscure, and mysterious. What were those raised bodies of the saints doing from the time they were liberated from their tombs to the time they entered Jerusalem? And what happened to them after that? Taken literally, it is more than a little confounding.
The theology behind the harrowing of hell seems to have appeared early in the Christian movement, as evidenced by Matthew’s knowledge of it. But it seems to have been a marginal point, since it only appears in a few places in the Newer Testament. But later, it made a comeback, as we see in the art of the early church. There are several points of merit to this theology.
First, it does offer an assurance of the vindication of the martyrs. The bodies of the saints are raised, and presumably to a blissful reward. Second, it dramatically demonstrates the victory of God over sin and death. And this leads, third, to hope in spite of death in general, whether one is martyred unjustly or not.
But perhaps the most practical implication of this teaching, and certainly the one with which the Newer Testament most aligns, is that Christ’s harrowing of hell gives us reason to live faithfully in this life, for we know how it all ends. Paul teaches that in baptism we participate in Jesus’ death and resurrection, but that from our baptism forward, in this life, we are already new creations.
When we as the church worship, we gather in the hope of Christ’s return and judgment—his promised bringing of justice. We gather hoping for the time when all those who are crucified, burned, stoned, beheaded, sold into slavery, dispossessed of their land, and otherwise robbed of life and hope, will be raised and restored with Christ; when all who have died as the result of sin, will be raised to new life; when those who have lived for goodness’ sake, will be commended; when the deception of fame, fortune, power, and ego will be exposed; when all the captives of sin, death, and hell will be set free.
I sometimes wonder about Joseph of Arimathea. The handful of verses in the Bible about him tell us that he was rich, a respected member of the Jewish ruling council, and a secret follower of Jesus. After Jesus’ death, his admiration for Jesus was no longer a secret.
Joseph probably envisioned his own death. As a respected person of means, he probably had an idea of what the mourning community would do with his body. Matthew tells us he already had a tomb, newly hewn in a rock. John mentions that it was in a garden. In other words, Joseph envisioned his final resting place to be comfortable, just as his privileged life had been.
But after witnessing Jesus’ life and death, Joseph’s vision changed. He gave up his tomb, and from that time forward he surrendered his life as well, just as he heard Jesus teach: “Whoever would be my disciple, must take up his cross . . . Whoever would find his life, must lose it.” Joseph saw something better for his life when he looked toward that newly hewn rock tomb.
It reminds me of the woman who wrote the Song of Songs. She finds herself gazing out the lattice windows, looking also in the clefts of the rock. Finally she sees her lover. These two spend the poem waiting and hoping desperately for each other.
What she saw, what Joseph saw, what the harrowing of hell teaches us, is that it is the Resurrected Christ who greets the dead. He says to them, “Arise, my love, and come away, for now the winter is past, the shadows flee, even the darkest shadow of the valley of death. Arise, for I have come for you.”
This is the Resurrected Jesus who invites us to take refuge in his love now and in this life, to find in him the rock of ages, and to have hope for the resurrection of the dead–both those who have gone before, and those of us who remain.
For a Eucharistic perspective of God’s love for us, see this famous poem by George Herbert.
Since we know “neither the day nor the hour,” it could happen any time and in any place—maybe even now, maybe even here.
- A perspective on the “Last Judgment”
- The meaning of the parable to Matthew and African slaves
- An interpretation of the parable for today
- Questions for discussion and reflection
By where it appears in the Gospel of Mathew, the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids is a commentary on the “end times.” The surrounding chapters include rumors of worldwide distress, both in creation and among nations. Jesus warns of false messiahs. There are echoes of the story of the Great Flood and Noah’s Ark. There are also stories of the “last judgment,” most famously the parable of the separation of the sheep from the goats. Matthew wants us to hear about the Ten Bridesmaids in this context.
Hosea also includes a judgment scenario. He is the prophet commanded to marry an unfaithful spouse, Gomer. With her he has three children with challenging names: Jezreel, Lo-Ruhamah, and Lo-Ammi. Translated into our day, this is like naming your children Sand Creek Massacre, Not Pitied, and Not My People. This active parable results from the people’s love for God being as evanescent as morning dew.
In our passage this morning, God likens himself to a lion who rips the people apart like prey and carries them away. God withdraws his affection, speaking words that cut to the heart, that even “kill.”
But Hosea knows that after judgment comes grace. He who tears apart will heal. The one who strikes down will build up. The one who blinds with lightning will appear as the dawn; who drowns with floods will gently water like spring rain. Sand Creek becomes Eden, God shows pity, he reclaims his people as his own.
Maybe with God, the “final judgment” isn’t final after all.
The parables of Jesus have many messages. This is the beauty of the parables, and for some of us, the key to retrieving the Bible from the critique of science and reason. In Matthew’s setting of the parable, the message is “Keep awake!” We suspect this is Matthew’s addition to Jesus’ parable because in the parable, “all (even the exemplary wise) became drowsy and fell asleep.”
Among African slaves in the United States, the message was, “Keep your lamps, trimmed and burning.” They came up with this message despite the fact that, “all the bridesmaids (even the exemplary wise) got up and trimmed their lamps.” (To understand their interpretation, however, see also Luke 12:35.)
So here is one message from the parable for us today. In this parable, there is a warning before the final judgment. The Bridegroom is delayed, till “midnight,” but then there is an announcement of his imminent arrival. There was enough time for the foolishness of five of the Bridesmaids to be revealed as all trimmed their lamps. It’s like the moment of time just before the locked car door shuts when you realize the keys are still inside.
But wise drivers have a spare key, and so one message of the parable is to “Keep oil on hand.” We can’t presume to know when and where Christ will appear. It may be a while—it has been a while for some of us.
So one message of the parable is to get the oil while you can. Let me suggest two times when you can get your oil. The first is in those times of Serendipity. These are the unplanned times of refreshing, joy, abundance, and shalom. I had such a time today following an early morning walk.
The second time for replenishing your oil is during a Sabbath. This is the time we are commanded to take to remember times of Serendipity. It is during Sabbath that we look back in our own lives or listen to others testify to their own experiences of Serendipity.
By Serendipity and Sabbath, we keep oil on hand and are ready for Christ’s return, for the judgment. It could happen at any time, in any place; which suggests that in reality, it happens all the time, throughout our lives, and not just at the end.
If we would be wise, we will keep oil on hand, by recognizing Serendipity and remembering Sabbath. Then we can offer light in the dark night. Then we may even offer oil to those “foolish” ones who need it, and maybe that is the wisest message of the parable after all.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- How do you respond to the idea that the parables, and even the whole Bible, contain many meanings that can change depending on context? How has the meaning of the Bible changed in your own life?
- Where have you seen God’s judgment transform into blessing, as it did for Hosea. Where has God’s mercy and grace followed a word of judgment in your own life?
- What are some example of Serendipity in your life? How have you marked these for easy remembrance during Sabbath?
The most hopeful news for people who are in the midst of a severe trial is that God renews his promises on a regular basis. Here’s Abraham’s testimony.
- What Isaac represents to Abraham
- God’s unimaginable word to Abraham, and the good that came from it
- How God’s promise to Abraham inspires faith in us today
- Questions or Discussion or Reflection
Throughout the Bible, we find God renewing his covenant with his people. This is necessary because we are forgetful. But it’s especially helpful after a great trial. Just ask Abraham. After 25 years and a couple of dead-end attempts, God’s promise of a child is finally fulfilled and Isaac is born. Isaac is Abraham’s hope and reason for living. He is the foundation of Abraham’s faith, the answer to Abraham’s most heartfelt prayer.
Some of us know what it is like to wait on God for so long and with such intensity. When our marriage settles into a comfortable convenience. When we lose our jobs or our career hits the doldrums. When like Abraham and Sarah we’re told we can’t have children. When the doctor says, “We’ve done everything we can.” Imagine then if we experienced a miracle, and these issues were resolved!
That was Isaac to Abraham. Isaac is the reason Abraham even listens to God anymore. He is Abraham’s personal sacrament of God’s faithfulness. So imagine the heartache when while listening to God, the blessing becomes a curse; God asks Abraham to give Isaac back, to sacrifice him as a burnt offering.
Such a request is horrific to us, but would actually have been quite customary to Abraham. In Abraham’s day, child sacrifice was common. Even 1400 years later, the prophet Jeremiah calls Israel to repent of child sacrifice. And if you think about it, as some might argue, we are still sacrificing our children to idols even to this day.
This represents the test of Abraham’s faith. It is an unimaginable trial. We know how it works out, but Abraham didn’t. In the end, after it was all over, God renews the covenant with Abraham, the promise of innumerable progeny and a national land.
One thing this story teaches us is that during or after a severe trial, it is important to remember and renew the covenant. God’s promises prevail, whether we fail or pass the test. God is faithful even when we are confused, doubtful, disobedient, or utterly faithful. This is what covenant relationship with God is all about.
The vision of the heavenly congregation from Revelation 7 is a fulfillment of the covenant God made and renewed with Abraham. John of Patmos sees 144,000 from every tribe of Israel worshipping God. It is amazing because ten of the twelve tribes were “lost” in the war with the Assyrians, and the other two were decimated by deportations by the Babylonians. Yet here they are all present. 144,000 is obviously a symbolic number, being 12x12x10x10x10. It is a perfectly full number assuring us that all are accounted for; in the end, none is lost.
Even beyond this full number of the house of Israel, John sees an uncountable number of worshippers from “the nations.” Just as God had promised to Abraham, his descendants were innumerable and the nations received a blessing through his offspring.
And John sees the Lamb sharing the throne of God. It is the crucified and risen Christ who takes away the sin of the world. According to God’s promise, the Lamb takes away the sin not just of Israel, but the world; not just the religious, but the world; not just the Christians, but the world.
On Mount Moriah God spared Abraham’s son with a ram. Centuries later, on Mount Calvary, God did not spare his own son, but made him the Lamb. All this, so God’s covenant promise would be fulfilled; there would be a heavenly congregation full of Israelites and Nations.
We now inherit this promise, and now we are called to a faith like Abraham’s. Will we trust God to provide? Will we reorient our lives around God’s Word? Could we move from our comfortable homeland and go to a place only identifiable by God’s eventual direction? Can we be patient until God’s promise begins to become real?
These are the characteristics of Abraham’s faith. And what is more, his response to listen to God more deeply calls to us further. Do we have the faith to listen for the call to sacrifice? Could we hear it if God called us to give up what we have, even our greatest delight, in order to be a blessing to others?
In Abraham’s patriarchal culture, he had no one to talk to. He was the head of the household and made decisions alone—especially religious ones. Today we are more egalitarian. God has called us to walk by faith together, to discern God’s calling in community. This is a particular mark of Presbyterianism.
So when we find ourselves in a major trial, or believe God is calling us to a major sacrifice, we should talk to someone about it. We no longer have to listen and figure things out alone. And as we gather at the table of the Lord, it is a time to remember and renew God’s covenant with us through Christ, so that we can respond as Abraham did with ever increasing faith.
Questions or Discussion or Reflection
- What are some of the “Isaacs” in your life—those things that are your most treasured answers to prayer?
- Do you feel you are still listening to God? How would you know if God was calling you to give back your “Isaac.”
- What have you lost like the “lost tribes of Israel” that God may find and restore to you in his time?
- With whom could you talk during a severe trial of your faith? How does it make you feel that you do not have to go it alone?
Does God’s faithfulness to his promises depend on belief? I hope not.
- Faith and Jesus in the book of Hebrews
- The concept of the covenant (vs. a contract)
- What happens when we confuse covenant and contract
- Three teachings on our role in the covenant
- The good news of the new covenant
The original audience of the book of Hebrews appears to be a mixed community of Jews and non-Jews who had experienced some kind of hardship, maybe even persecution. Some in the community have begun to lose faith. All of have doubts and for good reasons. The author of Hebrews assures us that, God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel makes both faith and doubt possible.
The first section of the book (it’s really better thought of as a sermon) establishes Jesus as the foundation of Christian faith. He is this because he is the pinnacle of Jewish faith. And foundational to Jewish faith is the Covenant God has with Israel.
Covenant is a complex idea, but it boils down to a relationship based on promises. You might think of the difference between modern marriage and a business contract. Marriage is a covenant relationship based on promises: “I promise to love you unconditionally”. Business is a contractual relationship based on mistrust: “If you don’t fulfill your part, I do not have to fulfill my part.”
Some covenants from Judaism include:
- With Noah, never to flood the earth again
- With Abraham and Sarah, progeny outnumbering the stars
- With Moses and Joshua, commandments and land
- With David, perpetual monarchy
Sometimes the idea of covenant and contract get combined. This happened in part of the theological and biblical development in ancient Israel, evident especially in the book of Deuteronomy. So, for example, Deuteronomy 4:1 says, “So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you.” This perspective hardens by chapter 28 which lists all the blessings which will result from obedience, and all the curses that will befall disobedience.
This confusion of covenant and contract is very compelling to individuals and nations. We work really hard at our religion if we believe God will withdraw his promised blessings if we don’t. If you’ve ever heard that our nation is or will experience God’s judgment because of some decision of government, that’s a Deuteronomy perspective of covenant mixed with contract.
When we confuse covenant and contract we recognize the mutuality between the partners. It shows that both parties are responsible—able to respond. But confusing them also neglects the nature of the one’s making the covenant. While both are responsible, both are not necessarily equal.
Consider again the marriage vows. The best vows are realistic but aspirational—things that are reasonable but beyond what we are presently doing. We vow to do things that requiring God’s blessing, because we can’t do them alone. What is more, wedding vows are witnessed by a community that pledges to support us with prayer and care. All this makes wedding vows meaningful because ONLY GOD KEEPS HIS PROMISES FAITHFULLY. In our covenant relationship with God, we fail; God does not. We are both responsible, but not equal.
Finally we can listen to Hebrews 3 for what it has to teach us about God’s covenant relationship with us. The first thing it says is that only those who are believing, trusting, and faithful enter God’s promised rest. By contrast, “Those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness,” and “those who were disobedient,” those who failed to trust God for provisions and complained, did not enter the Land of Promise, God’s rest.
So the author exhorts us not to likewise have an “evil, unbelieving heart, that turns away from living God.” In other words, don’t be someone who figures that God is uncaring and as good as dead. If we live according to this belief, we will forfeit resting in God.
Second, we are vulnerable to unfaithfulness when we are alone. The author address his (her?) “holy partners,” fellow inhabitants of the “house” of God. We’re told to “exhort one another” because we are “partners with Christ.” The assumption throughout the sermon, made explicit in 10:23-25, is that we exist faithfully in community, and without community we cannot be faithful.
Third, we are vulnerable to unfaithfulness when we forget. God complains that the ancient Israelites tested God “though they had seen my works for forty years.” The author urges our faithfulness “today,” as we depend on the memory of yesterday. And what is more, our faithfulness “today” gives us hope for tomorrow.
Some find in the book of Hebrews a mixture of covenant and contract. It seems there are many conditional statements, even threats to those who are unfaithful. But here’s the Gospel. Though a generation fell in the wilderness, it is true, God kept his promise to deliver Israel. In the end, God’s promise is fulfilled, even though Israel disbelieved.
Let’s say, as Hebrews might teach, that “sin” includes a lack of confidence, a loss of hope, or disbelief in God’s promise. Still, Jesus comes with a “New Covenant, sealed in the shedding of his blood for the forgiveness of sins.”
Today if you hear his voice, come to the Table. Come renew the covenant, this new covenant, God has with you. For God is faithful to his promises, and your sin, even your disbelief, cannot thwart his fulfilling them.
She may be in your in your past, she may be with you now, she is probably in your future, but the Samaritan Woman has a story you want to hear.
- The three old stories of the Bible and our lives
- The stories of the Samaritan Woman
- How God’s story is different than the one religion tells
- What happens at the Table, and why it matters
- Questions for discussion and reflection
In the words of the traditional hymn, one of the things we do in worship is rehearse “The old, old story.” The Bible is full of old stories. It is the epic of sin and redemption, the most fundamentally human story. It is also boy meets girl, the most popular story. But at the beginning, the first old story of the Bible is Creator and creation.
The story of Jesus meeting the woman at the well combines all these old stories. The Samaritan Woman’s old stories have been interpreted in various ways. She is often cast as uppity, defensive, or coy. I have observed that many people are this way around Jesus, including me. History has portrayed her as an immoral home-wrecker. This often includes that she is a social and spiritual failure.
More recently, scholars have suggested that she is a victim of Levirate marriage, the stipulation in the Old Testament that if a married man dies before having children, his single younger brother is required to marry his widow and produce children for him. This continues through the deaths of as many brothers are available until an heir is born. In this woman’s case, she’s gone through five brothers already—and can you blame the sixth for being afraid to marry her?
In her story, sin has robbed her of hope. Her old story is a love-less, unromantic one. And she appears resentful towards creation which is always so hot and dry (“Give me that living water so I will not have to keep on coming here to draw water”). The only hope in her story is for the Messiah called Christ, and when she encounters Jesus, her story changes.
Through Jesus, she learns of God’s favorite story. She thought God’s story was one of religious rules and rituals: Which mountain to worship on; which marriage law she had to follow; which parts of the Bible were God’s Word. These all characterized her religion as a Samaritan.
But God’s favorite story isn’t a one way religious street. It’s one that merges with our stories. God’s favorite story is one of redemption despite sin, of true love between God and humans, and of communion between Creator and creation. It is the old story of sharing a meal together. Here at Jacob’s well, Jesus shares a drink with the woman, and then tells his disciples he has food they know nothing about.
Did you know that in the Bible God’s first and last words to humans have to do with a meal? In Genesis 2:16 God says, “Eat freely!” And in Revelation 22:17 (quoting our passage from Isaiah), God says, “Drink freely!” Everything in between is God’s story of sharing meals with humanity. (See Leonard Sweet’s book From Tablet to Table for more.)
The table is the perfect place to hear God’s story. At the table, multiple ingredients that alone taste terrible are combined and transformed into something delicious. Likewise, at the table individual lives that were once alone and isolated, like this woman’s, are brought into a community. At the table the individual episodes of our lives are incorporated into God’s favorite and larger narrative and thereby given meaning: “Meaning in life is not found from reducing things into smaller categories and making finer distinctions. Meaning in life is found in putting things together; connecting the dots; and getting the ‘big picture,’ which can be told in narrative and metaphor.” From Tablet to Table, p. 30
Narrative and metaphor is the essence of scripture and sacrament. It is why scripture and sacrament are inseparable. It’s why John Calvin said the sacrament is the seal upon the scripture. It’s why Jesus says, “Do this remembering me.” The “this” is sharing the table story. Paul says, “We proclaim his death until he comes again.” No less than scripture and sermon, the sacrament proclaims God’s Word.
For the past two years I have been brought to Jacob’s well at noon to reflect upon the painful episodes of my childhood. It is a dry and lonely place. But it is my story. There Jesus has said to me as he said to the Samaritan Woman: “What you have said is true. That has been your story.”
But then Jesus continues to speak with me and shows me that the painful episodes of my childhood are only PART of my story. And that my story is only part of GOD’S story. And through hours of counseling, prayer, and friendship, I am experiencing healing. Some of the greatest moments of healing, however, have occurred at the Lord’s Table. For at this table we rehearse God’s favorite story—the story of creation, providence, and redemption.
Our stories are God’s story; and whether you believe it or not, God’s story is our story. But if you believe it now, you don’t have to wait to have your old story transformed towards a happy ending.
Questions for Discussion or Reflection
- If you thought of the Samaritan Woman more as a victim of a religious system and less as an immoral person, how much more closely can you relate to her? What new things does her story teach you now?
- What parts of your story need to be transformed before they can have a happy ending? Do you keep them isolated, or can you let Jesus incorporate them into God’s story?
If we could ask Paul his opinion on mega-churches and rock-star pastors, he might refer us to this passage of scripture.
- Paul’s problem with “super apostles”
- The purposes of the old creation: humility, stewardship, praise and thanksgiving
- The purposes of the new creation: revealing something new about God and empowering us for a new way of life
Paul had reason to be discouraged about the Corinthian church. After he founded it and left to start other churches, other missionaries came in and began troubling the congregation. They were dynamic, eloquent speakers and philosophically sophisticated. They claimed to have had out of body experiences and boasted in other things Paul characterized as “outward appearances.”
These “super-apostles,” as he called them didn’t suffer the kinds of self-denial that was the hallmark of Paul’s ministry. He had denied himself a spouse and family. He didn’t receive financial compensation for his ministry. He suffered physical abuse, poverty, and homelessness.
And yet people in Corinth were saying to Paul what people today say about popular pastors and churches: “They must be doing something right.” To Paul, though, they were selling the gospel short. They resembled too much the old creation.
The old creation is wonderful when it fulfills God’s intent for it. These purposes are outlined for us in Psalm 8. The old creation is supposed to put us in our place. First, it humbles us: “when I look at the heavens, what are humans that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:3-4) But then it calls us to stewardship: “You made us a little lower than God, and crowned us with honor, giving us dominion over creation.” (Psalm 8:5-6) So the old creation humbles us without causing us to despair; it dignifies us without evoking pride.
But the primary purpose of the creation is to inspire us to praise and thanksgiving: “O LORD our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8:1, 9) The old creation is beautiful in this purpose. It reveals a God of power, of providence, and of magnificence, glory, and beauty. It makes us humble and grateful stewards.
But to Paul, a new creation was revealed with Christ. And with this new creation, Christ revealed something new about God.
From Paul’s perspective, we live in two places at the same time. On the one hand, we inhabit an earthly tent. But we also have a heavenly house. He says we can be at home in the body while longing to be at home with the Lord. We can be beside ourselves, and in our right minds. In a memorable statement, Paul says we walk not only by sight, but by faith as well.
This dual existence is possible, Paul says, because “one died for all, so all have died.” Because of this dying, the old creation is passing away and everything has become new. In this new creation, God’s people live no longer for themselves, but for Christ. The super-apostles appear to Paul to be living too much for themselves.
Paul goes on to describe how God has prepared us for living in the new creation. God has reconciled us to himself, and does not count our sins against us. God has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. And now, Paul says, we are able either to do good or to do evil in our bodies, so we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ and answer how we lived in the old creation given the existence of the new creation.
In the new creation what is mortal is swallowed up by life. We are clothed with this body, but we are also further clothed with our heavenly dwelling. From the new creation, we see not just a God of power, providence, and beauty, but a God of reconciliation. This is a God who knows us not only from a human point of view, but who knows us through Christ.
And Paul calls us to do this same thing—to look at the world through the new creation in Christ. When we do, we will be further clothed with our heavenly dwelling, and thus we will not be found naked when we take off this tent of an earthly body. We will become, Paul says, “the righteousness of God,” for we will have done good works in this body by living as Christ lived: forgiving sin, accepting those who are different, welcoming strangers, and serving the needy.