This sermon was delivered on January 3, 1999 at Trinity United Methodist Church in Youngstown, Ohio.
It is based upon Scripture from the Old Testament – Genesis 33, 18-20 and the New Testament – John 41, 7-10.
One of the more memorable accounts in the Bible takes place at Jacob’s well near the town of Sychar in Samaria. Jesus and His disciples had a strong and meaningful ministry in Judea. His followers were many. But, there were those who were jealous of Jesus because of His growing band of believers. Some were followers of John the Baptist…some were the Jerusalem officials – the Pharisees. They all murmured against Him and some became outright hostile.
So, Jesus decided to return to His home territory of Galilee. There, He thought He could carry on His ministry undisturbed. The shortest route from Judea to Galilee was north, through Samaria. However, Jews traveling through Samaritan territory ran the risk of harassment, even death. Or they could turn east and cross the Jordan River into Perea which was predominantly Jewish. There they could turn north and then west, to recross the Jordan near their destination. Jesus and His followers chose the direct and shortest route north through Samaria.
A Samaritan, according to the Jewish view, was an ethnic mixture resulting from the intermarriage of local Jews with pagan colonists brought in when the territory was overrun by the Assyrian conquest around 720 BC. The Samaritans shared some of the religious beliefs of the Jews. They worshiped one God. They accepted the five books of Moses as The Law, and they observed the same holy days and festivals.
The Jews, through the teachings of the prophets Amos, Hosea, Isiah, Jeremiah and others, had come to a fuller knowledge of God than the Samaritans, who did not accept these teachings.
When the Jews returned from Babylonian captivity around 520 BC, the Samaritans offered to help them rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. They were rejected by the Jewish leaders because of their mixed blood and mixed beliefs. Their offer of friendship and help rejected, the Samaritans then tried to hinder or stop the rebuilding. From that time on a deep-seated antagonism grew and festered between Jews and Samaritans.
So Jews and Samaritans had this deep hatred of one another. Samaritans believed that they were the true followers of God the Father. The Jews believed that they were the true followers. Usually a Jew and a Samaritan would not speak to each other if they could avoid it. Some Jewish rabbis claimed that Samaritans were more pagan than Gentiles.
The road from Jerusalem in Judea to Galilee was hot and dusty…especially when the wind was blowing in from the desert. After Jesus and His followers had walked all morning from about 6AM until noon, they came to the village of Sychar in Samaria. Sychar is thought to be another name for Sheekem. The village was famous because it was the place where the Samaritan’s revered ancestor, Jacob, had built an alter to God. The deep, ever-refreshing well nearby was named after Jacob. It was large as wells in that area go … seven feet across and over 100 feet deep. Today, the area is a bustling transportation hub with buses and other vehicles rumbling in and out. The water in the well is still cold, sweet and refreshing. It was a sacred place for the Samaritan people. Jesus sat down to rest beside the well while His Disciples went into the city to buy food. Then they would return to Him.
As He rested there, thirsty and tired from the long morning’s walk, a Samaritan woman came to the well to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” And, with this simple request, hundreds of years of hatred and suspicion came tumbling down. And then began an encounter with Jesus that would change the woman’s life…and the lives of many Samaritans.
Jesus was always direct and to-the-point. He was thirsty. The woman had a water jug with which to draw water. Small wonder the woman was astounded. A Jewish man had actually spoken to her! She was willing to give him water, but first she wanted to ask Him some questions.
First, she asked him why he, a Jew, would even speak to her, let alone ask for a drink. He had no bowl or vessel to drink from, so he would have to drink from hers, and this was unthinkable because Jews would not even touch a Samaritan eating or drinking utensil let alone eat or drink from one. Jesus answered her with a puzzling reply. He said, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is who is saying to you ‘Give me a drink’, you would have asked Him and He would have given you living water.” Very puzzled, she asks him, “What is this living water and where do you get it? Are you greater than our ancestor, Jacob who gave us this well?” Jesus answers by saying, “Everyone who drinks from this well will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Now, the woman wants the water that Jesus has to give. If she has this kind of water she won’t have to come to the well ever again…a long trek on a hot day.
Now begins the part of the conversation that causes the woman to ponder. Jesus tells her to go and call her husband to come to the well. She tells him she has no husband. Jesus tells her that she speaks the truth…in fact she has had five husbands, and the man she is living with now is not her husband. Now the woman sees Jesus as a prophet of some kind and decides to change the conversation to theological matters by questioning the Jews contention that the place to worship is in Jerusalem while her Samaritan forefathers worshiped with nationalistic rites and ceremonies in their temple on Mount Gerizim. Jesus answers her saying, “Woman, believe me the hour is coming when neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know. We worship what we know for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for such the Father seeks to worship Him in spirit and in truth.”
The woman is enthralled. She answers, “I know the Messiah is coming. It is He who is called The Christ. When He comes He will show us all things.” Jesus answers, “I who speak to you am He.” About this time the Disiples return from the village with food, and the woman rushes off into the city telling all who would listen to come and see a man who told her all that she ever was and did, and they followed her out of the city and came to him.
The Bible says that many Samaritans from that city stayed for two days and many more believed because of His word. Jesus didn’t say that He was on a trip and had to get to Galilee for a meeting, or was on a busy schedule and maybe they could “do lunch” sometime. No! He stayed with them filling them with the “living water” He had promised them.
“The Samaritan Experience” is something that many millions of people are searching for today, but do not know where or how to find it. They yearn for a more meaningful life. They seek solutions to their problems by embracing strange cults and religions in their quest for personal happiness and relief from the pressures of daily living. This could describe the people of Jesus’s day…the Samaritans and the Jews. But some of them had “The Samaritan Experience”. They met Jesus. They accepted Him as their Lord and Savior. They heard the Gospel…the Good News, and they believed in Spirit and in Truth. Some, like the Samaritan woman, went out and shared their new-found Gospel with others and led them to Christ.
John Wesley was a superlative communicator. He was the nerve center, the vital human force in that 18th century effort at church renewal. There was seldom any doubt as to where Wesley stood on matters personal, ecclesiastical or theological. But Wesley was no thoughtless Bible thumper. He was profoundly and unapologetically rooted in the massive themes of the Scriptures. That was the central source of his prodigious power. His authority and captivating clarity can be traced time and time again back to his intoxication with two Biblical themes: REPENTANCE – I am a sinner. God please forgive me…and GOD’S GRACE – I love you and accept you without condition or reservation says our God.
But where is that message in the United Methodist Church today?
Today, the church that John Wesley founded – the United Methodist Church – world-wide loses an average of 245 members a day. This has been going on for over 20 years. When you factor in leap years that comes to a total of 1,789,480 souls! Is it any wonder that laity and clergy alike – at the local church level at least are concerned. With little substantial, meaningful, appropriate help from the national bureaucracy of their denominations they are working in their local churches to help spread the true Gospel of Jesus Christ. More and more it is lay people who are witnessing to their individual and collective experiences of the energizing, spirit-filling of the Good News…the saving grace of the Gospel.
The dynamic church growth and renewal efforts of the church today have been and are largely led by lay people. The 1960s and 70s saw a dramatic impact of the “Lay Witness Mission” movement. Thousands of people came to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and the saving grace of the Gospel message. All done through the evangelistic crusades of lay people.
In the 1980s and into the 90s we have have seen the “Emmaus Walk” program bring more thousands of lay people and ministers to a closer walk with Jesus and a clearer understanding of the Gospel. As a result of this effort an international fellowship has developed among those who have shared the “Emmaus Walk” experience.
Perhaps the most revolutionary renewal of our time has been The Promise Keepers. Hundres of thousands of men have renewed their faith or found new faith in Jesus Christ and have become better husbands, fathers and church members due to their association with The Promise Keepers.
I would submit that these three evangelical efforts led by lay people has had far greater impact on local church renewal than any of the unwieldly and cumbersome efforts of the National Council of Churches and the main line church bureaucracy combined.
All across America in local congregations of the main line churches there is a growing disinterest among the laity and clergy alike in what’s happening in the national and international governing bodies of their denominations. Young adults especially are not greatly concerned about what goes on in the world-wide spectrum of their churches. Their interest is with their families in their local congregations.
In our own United Methodist Church the governing bodies still hold on to the notion of itineracy where pastors are moved around to different charges periodically. This was fine during the frontier days and it worked very well – then. But, we have changed. Congregations that have good, caring, faith-emphasizing, Gospel preaching pastors want them to stay with them. Church growth experts tell us that long-time pastoral assignments are much more effective and meaningful. Today the average length of a pastor’s stay in a United Methodist Church is less than three years.
Now, what I am about to say, and have said, should in no way be interpreted as referring to our pastor, Dr. Kline. He and I share the same views. What I am about to say comes from 32 years as your delegate to the East Ohio Conference. It comes from serving on Conference commissions, committees, task forces and study groups. It comes from almost 20 years as a special consultant to the Communications Directors office in the Conference.
There are many dedicated, caring Christians working in your East Ohio Conference. Led by our brand new Bishop Keaton, they are as concerned as they can be about the future of the United Methodist Church. Our new Bishop Keaton shares the belief that going back to the basics…preaching the unadulterated Gospel is the only way to spread the word…and then the numbers will begin to take care of themselves.
I agree with our Bishop and the hard-working people at the Conference office. They receive the concerned comments and pleas from the local churches and are trying their very best to respond to them. They have positioned themselves to provide hands-on experience and assistance to the twelve districts and 860 some churches in the conference.
I submit that when the system of theological thought abroad today quits reflecting on what might be believed about Jesus Christ and proclaims Jesus as a personal Savior and Living Lord, then the numbers will begin to take care of themselves. It is interesting to note here that Trinity is one of the few churches in the East Ohio Conference that has shown a net gain in membership every year for the past six years.
I submit that when the boards, agencies, task forces, committees, commissions and study groups of the United Methodist Chirch bevcome more interested in presenting Jesus Christ as one to be encountered…to be experienced in a deep, personal way, the numbers will take care of themselves.
Jesus said that He would be lifted up, He would draw people unto Himself. This is an age-old fact that made the church grow in the first place, across the ages, and today it is still the way to effective church growth.
We must center ourselves upon the affirmation that Jesus is Lord. We must share His saving Grace and affirm the scriptures with others within and without the church. This will go a long way toward bringing a renewal and revitalization to the United Methodist Church. And then the numbers will being to take care of themselves. The world needs to hear the clear, un-garbled work of Gods Grace and God intends that WE be the messengers!
I submit that if we go out and share our “Samaritan Experience” … share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with others and invite them to join with us in our “Samaritan Experience” the numbers will continue to take care of themselves here at Trinity. We can’t expect our pastor to do it all. We can’t expect our Evangelism Committee to do it all. We can’t expect it to be done by the women’s Society or the Men’s Club or the Council on Ministries or the Administrative Board. We must ALL join in the invitation. When we all work together with others, the numbers here at Trinity will continue to take care of themselves. It’s happening this very day in churches all over the country. It is happening here, as we have and share “The Samaritan Experience.”
Father, grant that we may feel the excitement that the Samaritan woman felt when she met Jesus. Give US the fervor, the will and the boldness to go out of this Sanctuary today ad share the Gospel – the Good News that you are our Lord and Savior – with others – one on one, in a group or to the masses as our talents provide us. Let us invite them to joins us in this Gospel.
In Jesus name we pray. Amen.