Trinity recently announced that we are suspending in-person gatherings until at least March 29th. In response, we are seeking to provide a variety of ways to worship and stay connected. Below you will find Pastor Andy’s Sunday sermon for our first at-home worship conducted via Facebook Live.
Jesus Meets Us in Unexpected Places
by Pastor Andy Twiton
Jesus meets us in unexpected places, in surprising people and encounters. In fact, the God we meet in Jesus seems unwilling to stay in the boxes we create. This God is constantly crossing the lines, boundaries, and borders we create.
I wonder: is possible you might meet Jesus in a new way during this time of crisis? Is it possible God will find a way to speak to us today in a new way even as we practice “social distancing”? Perhaps these questions awaken in you a longing for God to surprise you.
During this time, I think there’s a human inclination to respond to crisis in two different ways. Crisis either brings out the worst in us or the best in us. One way we can responding to crisis is by turning in on ourselves, hoarding God’s gifts, and only looking out for “me and mine.” The other way to respond to crisis is to open up in new ways to God and to each other.
I think thankfully I’ve seen several examples of how people are looking out for each other. There’s been a sense that we’re in this together even as we are physically apart. It’s that sense that when we hear a virus is threatening our elders in nursing homes, we say “Of course, we can cancel a basketball game if it can do something to help!” Or when we hear a disease can harm those with compromised immune systems – those with cancer, diabetes, lung conditions – we say, “Of course, we can change the way we do church for a time to protect them!”
That’s why I’ve been so careful to say that we are not canceling church. Because the church is not a building. It’s not a place. The church is wherever you are sitting right now. You are the body of Christ. The church is the people.
We are not canceling church. We are being the church in a new way in this time.
And that’s why we remain open to this surprising God. Jesus meets us in unexpected places.
I want to talk about this surprising God first by sharing a bit of my own story and then by turning to this remarkable story of Jewish rabbi and a Samaritan woman who met at Jacob’s well.
In my own call story, I encountered Jesus in a surprising way in an unexpected relationship, and the course of my life was altered because of it. Just as a bit of background, I come from a family of pastors. My dad is a pastor. My grandpa was a pastor. So throughout my childhood, people would often ask me: “Are you going to be a pastor like your dad when you grow up?” But whenever they would say this, I wouldn’t really hear them. I assumed they were affirming my dad’s gifts more than my own. I felt as though they were projecting his gifts onto me, that it wasn’t really me they were seeing.
The question kept coming up though throughout high school, college, and camp. But I always said, “No, I’ll never become a pastor.”
But after college, I went into the Lutheran Volunteers Corps. I spent a year living in Berkeley, CA and working in Oakland. I worked at Thunder Road Adolescent Treatment Center which is a group home for teenagers facing drug and alcohol addiction. While at Thunder Road, I shared an office with a woman named Ani. Ani was an Iranian-American. Her family was a Muslim family from Iran.
She didn’t know much about Lutheranism, and she didn’t know my family. And yet she would often tell me that I reminded her of chaplain. She had a favorite TV show, and she said that I reminded her of the clergy in that show. So I didn’t see it coming but through her voice I began to sense that perhaps God was calling me into ministry. And it was during that year I seriously began to consider this calling. A surprising person spoke to me and helped me hear the voice of God.
Jesus meets us in unexpected places, in unexpected people and encounters. And I’ve experienced that in my own life.
This is what happens in today’s Gospel story too.
The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced many of us to a new concept – “social distancing.” It’s the idea that viruses spread through close, social contact. Therefore, if we increase the distance between people we can prevent and slow down the spreading of the disease from person to person. This is why we’re doing things like canceling March Madness, standing six feet apart, and suspending in-person worship. We’re trying to slow down the rate of the outbreak so that it doesn’t overwhelm our health care system.
It’s an important concept, and it’s part of the reason we are taking these cautious actions. And yet I wish there was a better name for it. As some people have suggested, we need to physically distance ourselves, but we must stay connected socially. We must not let physical distancing for the sake of health become isolation or exclusion or fear of strangers. We must look out for each other – even if we are not in close, physical proximity for a time.
In our Gospel Reading, we see a form of “social distancing” that has turned into isolation. Our text notes that the Samaritan woman comes to the well at “about noon” (see John 4:5). This would have been an off time, a lonely time to visit the well. Commentators note that most people would go to the well for water either early in the morning or later in the afternoon to avoid the heat of the day. (It reminds me of the advice to go to the grocery story at “off times” to avoid the rush for toilet paper and hand sanitizer. We’ve seen a lot of this recently.) When we read the woman went to retrieve water at noon, the text is begging us to ask why.
We learn in her story that she is experiencing social exclusion and has been through a series of broken relationships. She has had five husbands and now is living with a man who is not her husband. Generations of commentators have heaped negative assumptions onto this woman, but the text itself doesn’t say she was a promiscuous woman by choice or anything like that. Instead, I think we should read this story as one about a strong woman who has been caught in a tragic and unjust system of social exclusion and shame.
So she comes to the well, and Jesus is there. And Jesus sees and hears her in a way she did not expect. They have a long and theological discussion. She leaves saying, “He told me everything I have ever done.”
The text wants us to know that there is nothing normal about this encounter. This is an out-of-the-ordinary, weird, surprising encounter.
First of all, Jesus is a Jew and the woman is a Samaritan. The narrator inserts a comment to make sure we know that Jews and Samaritans do not associate with each other. The woman herself is surprised when Jesus addresses her. “How is that you a Jew is asking a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?”
Second of all, in this culture, it is unexpected that an unmarried man and woman would be talking to each other like this. The text says the disciples are “astonished” when they see Jesus speaking with her. Furthermore, in this culture and in the stories of the Bible, the well is a kind of romantic place. It was at a well that Jacob met Rachel and Isaac met Rebekah. So when the disciples find Jesus speaking to this woman they are astonished. He is talking to her! And worse it is at a well! The text says they are “astonished” but a better word might be “scandalized.”
The final surprise is for us the audience. After Jesus has this encounter with her, after he sees and hears her story in a deep way, this unnamed woman turns and becomes the first evangelist, the first preacher for Jesus’ movement in John’s Gospel. Our text says: “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” (John 4:39). We may not know her name, but she’s a preacher!
Nothing in this story is usual. Jesus meets us in unexpected places, in surprising encounters and people. This is why I’m encouraging us to keep our hearts open in this time – open to God, open to each other, open to people who are different from us. Even as we physically distance ourselves, we must find new ways to stay connected.
Rabbi Yosef Kanesfky from Los Angeles spoke to his congregation about the COVID-19 disease and said this: “Every hand that we don’t shake must become a phone call that we place. Every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression of warmth and concern. Every inch and every foot that we physically place between ourselves and another, must become a thought as to how we might be of help to that other, should the need arise.”
May you feel seen and heard by Jesus today, because he meets us in unexpected places. Let’s keep our hearts open and our church connected. Amen.
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