I once heard the great Australian mission leader Michael Frost tell a story of how he had once spoken to a gathering of six hundred Christians. He had retold to them one of the Gospel stories about Jesus, and invited them to imagine themselves as one of the characters in the account. Afterwards, he asked them which characters they had taken on.
To his disappointment, only twelve of the six hundred had imagined themselves as Jesus.
Now I can see why many Christians would be reticent to identify themselves with Jesus. We feel unworthy to do so. But Michael Frost’s point was this: aren’t we called as Christians to imitate Jesus? Isn’t Jesus supposed to be our example? That was how he was hoping people would take his invitation.
And that’s what I hope for us this morning, too – that we shall take Jesus as our example from our reading. Specifically with John chapter four, we are going to take Jesus as our example on the question of mission. We hear a lot about the importance of the church to emphasise mission these days – well, where better to take our model than from Jesus himself? One passage won’t give us an exhaustive treatment of how Jesus models mission for us, but it will give us a good start.
Firstly, Jesus operates by the wind of the Spirit. I don’t suppose that’s a contentious claim, but let me justify it from the passage. The Lectionary this week starts officially at verse 5, ‘So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar’, but I asked for the reading to begin at verse 4, where John writes, ‘But he had to go through Samaria.’
Did Jesus have to go through Samaria? No. If he were a devout Jew, he could have avoided Samaria. Yet he felt a compulsion to go there. I can’t help thinking back to last week’s Lectionary Gospel reading from John chapter three, where Jesus himself tells Nicodemus that ‘The wind blows wherever it wills. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’ Jesus has said that his true followers are blown by the wind of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit takes them on all sorts of adventures, detours and strange, unexpected directions.
But Jesus doesn’t just say this about his followers. He lives that way himself. He had to go through Samaria – when really, he didn’t. I suggest to you that Jesus is living out what he had taught Nicodemus – the life of discipleship is one of being led by the Holy Spirit. It is not predictable, it is not conventional; discipleship is not about accepting the norms by which the rest of society lives. It is not about adopting the expectations of wider society in the way we set the course of our lives. It is about being open to the ‘God of surprises’ who may well want to do unexpected things with us. Paul, the great expert on the Jewish Law, becomes an apostle not to the Jews but to the Gentiles. John, nicknamed by Jesus one of the ‘Sons of Thunder’, becomes the apostle of love. And so on.
Could it be, then, that one reason why we have not been effective in Christian mission in today’s church is that we have not allowed ourselves to be blown into places we would never have anticipated by the Holy Spirit? Could it be that we have so swallowed our culture’s norms that that we have not been in the places God intended us to be? Isn’t it so easy to be sucked into the regular expectations of everyday Surrey? I must get the best education. I must get the best paid job. I must live in the nicest neighbourhood. Not that these are always bad things in themselves, but to default to them without being open to the leading of the Holy Spirit is a huge spiritual mistake with potentially massive consequences.
So – is God challenging any of us not just to accept the expectations of our culture but to be ready to go wherever the Holy Spirit leads us?
Secondly, Jesus conducts mission in the world. The action happens at Jacob’s Well – and I don’t mean the location near Guildford where you might pick up the A3. Jesus is weary and sitting by the original Jacob’s Well (verse 6), and that is where the story unfolds.
How remarkable is that? Remember that Jesus conducted much more of his mission in the world than in the synagogue. And then contrast that with us. We conceive of mission in terms of people coming to us, attending our events at church. We’d rather not get out into the world with our faith, because that makes us nervous. If we really do have to engage in Christian mission, then can we at least please cajole people into coming along to something we’ve arranged ‘at church’, where we feel safe?
Jesus would never have got the woman to a synagogue. She wasn’t a Jew. She was female. She was probably regarded as a ‘sinner’. There was no hope. Operating by the strategies we adopt where we hope people turn up at church would never have reached this woman with the love of God. And increasingly, as fewer and fewer of our population are used to the church environment, the hope that we might just get people along to the place where we feel safe is more and more a misplaced strategy that has more to do with our fears than it has to do with our desire to overflow with God’s love.
Jesus is again acting out something from earlier in John’s Gospel. Not simply the previous chapter, as with following the wind of the Spirit, but the first chapter, with its great Prologue about the Incarnation, where we read that ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (1:14). Jesus is dwelling not in the safe religious space but in the world. And if we are to imitate him, then we must do something similar.
So when a person tells me that they aren’t playing any part in the life of the church because they don’t have a job in the church, I don’t believe them. They are being sent to practise their faith in the world.
I say this as a minister where the expectations of many church members in various churches I have served would cage me inside the church. I have to work at making my connections outside the church. For some while now, that has been in our children’s school community, but that is lessening as the children get older. It is increasing on a Saturday morning as I stand on the touchline watching my son play football, and as I talk with other parents. But as the children’s independence increases, I shall have to be quite intentional about finding my contacts outside the church.
What of us, then? Are we willing to spend time outside the safe environs of the church community for the sake of the Gospel? Some of you have ready-made communities in the work place. Others of you will have to look harder. But please don’t build your whole life around this building.
Thirdly, Jesus goes to the weak and the marginalised. Why did the Jews despise the Samaritans? Go back to 2 Kings 17 and you see. Samaria was more or less the northern kingdom that had so betrayed the faith of Israel that it had been conquered by Assyria in the eighth century BC. After that conquest, Assyria had placed members of other races and faiths there. As a result, faith in Samaria became no longer concentrated exclusively on Yahweh but a compromised mixture. They included idol worship in their religious practice. Anyone with a devotion to ‘pure’ Judaism would find these elements distasteful, if not horrifying.
And not only is Jesus talking to a Samaritan, he is talking to a Samaritan woman. Remember that the pious daily prayer of many a devout Jewish man went like this: ‘Blessèd art thou, King of the universe, who hast not made me a slave or a Gentile or a woman.’ Second class just doesn’t seem to cover it.
Furthermore, this particular Samaritan has a reputation. She has had five husbands, and is now living with a man outside marriage (verses 17-18). Now I used to think this meant John was painting for us the picture of a deeply immoral woman – I remember preaching on this passage as a young Local Preacher and saying she was someone who would go for anything in trousers. But later I realised that wasn’t fair on her – not in a culture where only the men could initiate divorce. She is a broken woman. Men have treated her like an object to be tossed away when no longer required. She can have no reasonable expectation that this devout Jewish man will treat her as anything more than dirt. She is socially and religiously unacceptable.
Except this is Jesus we’re talking about. Jesus, who did not live in fear that he would be contaminated by those who did not meet the highest standards of ritual purity. Jesus, who knows that his following the wind of the Spirit and his commitment to mission in the world have on this occasion led him to this woman – this broken, hurting, rejected woman.
And here is the application for us. Isn’t it easy for us to stay with the nice, clean, safe people – the good churchgoers and if not that, then the pillars of the community? Isn’t it simpler to mix with people from Horsell but not those from Sheerwater?
Actually, no. It isn’t a question of it being ‘easier’ to mix with the ‘right’ types. When we do that, we’re not simply taking the easy option, we’re giving in to temptation.
And neither do I want to see us succumb to patronising other people. This is, after all, the week in which the Chancellor of the Exchequer has told us that ‘hard-working people’ (that favourite expression of politicians) like beer and bingo.
What I’m calling for is genuine love for those who are different. I’m saying that Jesus went to the wounded with a message of God’s love for them. To the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well he offers ‘living water’. She is dry, and he offers her divine refreshment (verses 10-15). She is interested in worship God aright, and he promises the help of the Holy Spirit (verses 20-24). She longs for the Messiah, and unlike many other people he meets, Jesus is open with her about who he is (verses 25-26).
While we accept the conventions of society rather than allowing ourselves to be blown by the wind of the Spirit, our faith will atrophy, just like muscles in our body that are never used. While we stay safe and warm, huddled up in the church community, rather than venturing into the world that God loves, we shall never encounter the people God has called us to serve in his name. And while we ignore or despise the weak and the troubled, we shall not have the privilege of encountering many people whom God loves so dearly that his Son Jesus Christ was born, died and was raised from the dead for them. In short, without following the example Jesus sets for us in John 4, our faith is dead, and our churches wither.
But when we are open to being led by the Spirit, God will take us to new, surprising and fruitful places for his mission. When we are willing to go into the world and meet people where they feel secure, God has us beginning to act in faith, and he can use that. And when we are willing to share and demonstrate God’s love in Christ with people who don’t meet our standards of respectability, then God may well be taking us to the very people he has prepared to respond to the Gospel.
So – which of us is willing to follow the example of Jesus?
And to do it this week?