She gets it. In one question, in one single, timeless question, this woman at the well encapsulates the two-pronged problem Christianity is experiencing in America today: the increase in church closures coupled with the continual decline in churchwide attendance. This woman at the well may not have known she was SO forward thinking, but she asks a two-thousand-year-old question we at First Congregational-UCC need to consider. What's the question she asks?
It's found in verse 19. "Sir," the woman asks, "you must be a prophet. So, tell me, why is it that you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place of worship, while we Samaritans claim it is here at Mount Gerizim?"
Let me modernize her question. Here is her present-day question raised by millennials, postmodern thinkers, and Baby Boomers who, with arms folded, look at "church" with disdain, frustration, or apathy. She asks, "Why should I, an outsider, have to come to your church, your space?" There's an underlying question which is just as important as the first. She is asking it to you here today. "What makes your space different? Holy?"
How will we answer? Fortunately for us, Jesus answers the woman's question the way we can, too. First, Jesus speaks with her. Standing with her face to face, He's not hanging out in the worship center; He's on the move. He's not holed up in some cloistered room, i.e., a Lecture Hall, he's out there pounding the pavement—or—okay, there was no pavement then! It was a dirt path!
Part of the problem with lack of church interest and investment today is that, unlike Jesus, we are not out there enough. We may be at the craft fair, the ball game, the library or the restaurant, but, said simply, we are not face to face—and more importantly, we are not heart to heart—with those who are at our modern-day wells, the places where people gather socially.
Let's get this. Jesus goes to her. She's not knocking on his door. She's not conveniently wondering about the Temple doors ten minutes before worship begins looking like she has nothing better to do than be invited somewhere. No, He meets her where she is. Are we doing the same? To do the same, there's something we need to lose. Here is what we need to give up—our superiority complex. That superiority complex is something we wear, yes, but it is also something put upon us by people like the woman in our scripture today.
The superiority complex is something we wear when, in front of a non-churched person, we have this air of knowing more than we do, or we project perfection over ourselves. Here's what I mean. When someone comments on how balanced and content you are—when they see in the storms around you that you are calm, cool, and collected—and they mention how peaceful you are, you don't refute them.
Here's an example. I'll call her "Claudia." Claudia does have it together. Sure, there are some sidesteps or back steps now and again. Life moments. Not every day is perfectly smooth—she may have a big bill to pay or a health issue that goes beyond the need for aspirin in the medicine cabinet, but overall, here's the truth: she's a churchgoer. She's GOOD. She has her God. She has her faith. She has her relationship with Christ. She knows her Savior. She sings of the deep, deep love of Jesus—and means it.
She, like many of us, encounters someone who doesn't have the deep, deep love of Jesus. Rather than show her humanity, rather than quickly and openly saying the truth that she'd be a train wreck without Christ, rather than living out in the moment that God alone is our strength and our shield, and that to Him alone our spirit's yield, she takes on an air—an "I have something you don't have" quality. It's not intentional; she is no snob; but her reaction is a 'go to' when meeting the non-churched, especially when they complement or voice an admirable quality within you.
Said simply, when someone compliments your faith, how often do you share the right words that enable the person with you to feel as if they are with you not below you?
A story will help us lose a sense of superiority because there are people here who, with great humility, or at least some humility, would not call themselves superior. You are definitely here in this church. When someone compliments your faith, you are honest. Perfectionism is not a color you wear.
Let me explain this dynamic of Jesus and the woman at the well—the haves in the same space as the have nots—a little differently. I am going to use a real-life story to do it.
Travel back in time with me to my college days. As an undergrad, Grove City College required its students to attend chapel at least sixteen times a semester. In beautiful Harbison Chapel, there was weekday chapel at 9 AM, and there were Vespers each Sunday evening. To make sure you met your sixteen required worship experiences, we were given "chapel cards" made from beige card stock. You turned one card in after each service you chose to attend. More services were available to us undergrads—but what was significant about these church services is that they didn't count toward your sixteen. In the town of Grove City, a short walk from the campus, several large churches held Sunday morning worship.
Now one of the things the Grove was known for was Sunday brunch. Sweet holy sausage, the staff went all out each week with delicious wonders. On the weekends, only one of the two campus dining halls was open, so it was pretty crowded. If you were early for a good seat, say around 11:30 AM, you'd be munching along in your sweatpants and sneakers while the church flow came back from town. The church crowd was actually a parade, marching in single file from the entry doors to the serving area. When the Jesus crowd arrived in their Sunday best—and Grovers did dress—there was always this higher/lower deal going on. Those who had come from church seemed to have an air about them.
At least that is what those already seated and sticky with an icing from a sticky bun on their fingers thought. I was in the first group, the sweatpants and sneakers group, and while no one who entered later ever said a condescending remark, or looked down at me or my fellow slough-filled dining mates with disdain, we had THAT moment. We thought those people were better, higher.
We have to be careful how we are seen. We have no control over how we are seen or perceived, but listen. There can be a whole lot of interiority going on with the 11:30 sticky bun people out there. Worse than inferiority, there's guilt.
Yes, we have to be careful how we are seen. Let me share another story. I posted early this morning an experience I had yesterday at the Parable Bookstore in Johnson City. At the book signing, I met Marla and Chris, a couple in their forties. As we were talking, Chris shared that he attended Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy (Boston). He told me at one time he met a homeless soul and fed him. Chris also shared that he invited this new acquaintance to church with him, but the homeless man was unwelcomed because of the way he dressed. Superiority!
As I wrote the lead into today's sermon online this morning, I wondered then what I'll share with you now. How true is Chris's story? Did this really happen, or is this a dramatization?
What I do know is the conviction in Chris's eyes as he told me this. He felt that pain from that church all over again.
We may not feel superior, but others see us as such. Let us go to people as Jesus did with that woman at the well.
In closing, here are verses I found that speak to humility. Take to heart and to practice the one (or ones) that speak to you.
When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.
Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
Your beauty should not come from outward adornment... Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight.
1 Peter 3:3a-4
Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.