Below is the sermon I gave.
What Makes a Person? (John 4:7-30)
Rob Tennant, HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Sunday, March 27, 2011
3rd Sunday of Lent, 3rd week in Church-wide emphasis
When we think of Kobe Bryant, what do we think of? Basketball Player. Some may remember his legal trouble from a few years ago.
Roy Williams: basketball coach. That’s very different than basketball player. And he’s not just any coach. He’s the Tar Heels Coach.
Justin Bieber: teen idol, pop star. Many of you are saying “Jusin who?” But the teens know exactly who he is.
Barak Obama: President. Depending on your politics, good thoughts may come to mind, or angry, disgusted thoughts. Everyone would agree he is our current president and from there the opinions go their separate ways.
What makes a person? Is there more to Kobe than scoring 35 points, or more to Roy Williams than leading a team? Is there more to Mr. Obama? Is there more to Justin Bieber than … well, … anyway.
What person? What defines someone? What defines me? My sermons? My wife or kids? What defines you?
Methodist scholar William Willimon says in baptism, the church defines a person (Peculiar Speech, p.7). The baptism shows that the individual is washed clean of sin, spiritually gifted, chosen by God, called by God, and named by God.
Baptism is an expression of what God has done in Jesus Christ in the life of a specific individual. Here’s the gospel in general terms : Jesus is God in human flesh. He came because God loves us, but sin separates us from God. So, in Jesus, God came, forgave our sins, died our death, rose, and invites us to resurrection. Everyone who believes in Jesus Christ and acknowledges Him as Lord is saved from sin, preserved for eternal life.
Then it gets specific. It’s not everyone. It’s Alexis. Brandon. Rob. In my baptism, Jesus died for me. In his baptism, Brandon acknowledges that Jesus forgives his sins. In her baptism, Alexis proclaims that her hope of eternal life is in what Jesus did for her.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal says, raised a Hindu, he spent several years reading the Bible and reading books by authors like Chuck Colson and C.S. Lewis before Christianity became his own. He’s very much an intellectual. He understood Christianity. But in a movie about the crucifixion and he saw the actor portraying Christ on the cross. It sunk in. He said, Jesus was on that cross because of Bobby Jindal’s sins (Christianity Today, March 2011, p.51).
The baptized individual was first baptized in the spirit of Jesus Christ. Jesus washes each one who comes to him in faith. We are washed clean of sin, spiritually gifted, chosen by God, called by God, and named by God.
Willimon says, “When you join the rotary club, you get a handshake and a lapel pin. When you join the church, we throw you in the water, and half drown you” (Peculiar Speech, p.32). On a more serious note, he says, “Baptism represents a radical break – the one baptized has left the powerful cultural context of her former life and entered a new life in new surroundings and a new community” (p.58). In baptism, we enter a lifestyle that does not come naturally; rather it is a “submission into a project greater than our own lives” (p.65). Jesus is the one who does it. The literal trip to the pool is recognition of what Jesus has done in the heart of the one being baptized.
The story of the Samaritan woman shows the baptism journey, from separation to joining the family of God. The story begins with brokenness.
Drawing water from a well is tiring, hard word. Most students of ancient culture assume groups of women would do this in the early morning when the day was still cool. It was a social time, a way of starting the day as a part of community, a group of people sharing life together.
One woman wasn’t part of that. She came alone, with the noon time sun beating down on her. Maybe she had come earlier also and now she had need of more water so she came again. Maybe she wasn’t a social outcast at all. Then again, maybe she was. John leaves it for us readers to decide.
The gospel does tell us she was a Samaritan woman in a Samaritan town. And Jews did not share things with Samaritans. This parenthetical notation hints at what other writings openly state. Jews hated Samaritans and vice versa and everyone in both cultures knew it. Furthermore, in both cultures, men alone, did not speak with women alone in public.
This is how far Jesus was from this woman. They were a solitary Jewish man and a solitary Samaritan woman at the well when people did go to the well – the hottest time of day. This is the longest single conversation Jesus has in the gospel. Why? Jesus came to demolish the hateful rules humans devise to separate and keep certain individuals down, in the dust.
Jesus and the woman did not discuss baptism but they talked about water. Jesus offered living water. She would never thirst again. Eternal life would burst forth in her. Jesus pours out his life for all who will drink; for all who will see him as who he is – God, savior, Lord.
The woman couldn’t see everything about Jesus – no one in John did. She saw enough to say, “Sir, give me this water.” She asked for what Jesus offered. She listened as he spoke because he, a Jewish man simply speaking to her an outcast Samaritan woman was unusual. She listened and said, “I see that you are a prophet.” Eventually, she ran to the village, the people who left her to go to the well alone. She wasn’t avoiding them anymore. She evangelized. She said, “Come and see. Could this man be the Messiah?”
The woman was in the process of being baptized in the Spirit. As an overarching theme that includes Spirit baptism, water baptism, and new life in Christ, Baptism assumes that people are broken. She had had five husbands, most likely had no children in a culture where a woman’s worth was tied to the sons she bore, and now depended on a man who was not her husband for all her needs. She was broken.
We are broken. We are unmarried. We are divorced. Our spouses have died. We are orphans. We have children who do not come to faith in Jesus. We have children who are diseased. We are unhealthy. We have parents who have Alzheimer’s disease. We have parents we’ve been mad at for 20 years. What does baptism assume about the world? Baptism assumes the people in the world are broken and in desperate need of Jesus.
What does baptism assume about the way the world should be? Jesus knew the conventions of the day. Men with his background dare not speak to women of her background in public. Why did Jesus so flagrantly violate propriety? Jesus did not come to live in the world, but to change the world. He started a conversation about water for one reason; he wanted to give her living water. He wanted her to be saved from sin, saved from a life of rejection. He wanted her to enter the community of the baptized.
When the woman goes off to the village to tell everyone the Messiah is right there among them in Sychar, Jesus says to disciples, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. … Look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting” (4:34a, 35b). He wanted to rewrite that woman’s life story and he wants to rewrite ours, yours and mine. In baptism, Jesus begins a new narrative, and we are invited to enter the story he’s preparing for us. What does Baptism assume about the way the world should be? Baptism assumes that we are broken, but brokenness is not meant to be our story. There is another story we should be living.
What does baptism make possible? First, baptism makes the new story possible. Do we define the Samaritan woman as a ‘Samaritan’ or as a woman or as one who failed at marriage five times and now goes to the well alone every day? Not any more. Now, she is the one who talked with Jesus. It is to her Jesus said, “God is looking for true worshipers who worship in him spirit and in truth.” Now, she is the one who evangelized an entire village with an excitement not often seen in people who have been in church so long they take God for granted. Baptism makes a new story possible.
Baptism also makes a witness possible. The new story is only good news when it is told. She said, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!”
Alexis says, “Let me tell you about the day I was baptized at HillSong. More importantly, let me tell you what Jesus did in me that led to my baptism.”
I say, “Let me tell you about everything my Dad and Mom and Grandparents and Sunday school teachers taught me in 1978, 1979, 1980. It all came together in the compassion a counselor showed me at the Detroit Baptist Camp in the Summer of 1981. Let me tell how somehow in my 11-year-old mind, I knew that camp counselor was being used by Jesus to call me to himself.” And you tell your story. Baptism gives us a testimony.
What does Baptism make impossible? Who could possibly be farther from God than an outcast Samaritan woman? How about an intellectual writer raised in abusive fundamentalism by oppressive, hateful preachers that him to doubt the existence of God? Or, an Egyptian, an Islamic intellectual? Jesus reached that Samaritan woman by violating conventions and talking to her. Jesus reached the Christian author Philip Yancey in spite of the fact that Yancey’s biggest doubts about God came from his childhood church experiences. Jesus reached Mark Gabriel in Egypt when a Christian pharmacist slipped him a copy of the New Testament and Gabriel read the whole thing in a night. He was imprisoned and almost by his own father, but Gabriel renounced Islam, accepted Christ and escaped Egypt. And he had no missionary or pastor leading, just the Word and the Holy Spirit.
What does Baptism make impossible? Baptism and the stories around baptism – people being born again – show that it is impossible for us to be out of God’s reach. Someone can choose to reject Jesus. We this often in the Gospel of John, highlighted with the betrayal of Judas Iscariot. But, we are never out of Jesus’ reach. Even after Peter was arrested in his own depression for denying Jesus, the resurrected Lord reached out to him. Baptism shows the extent to which God will reach for us in our brokenness. It is impossible to be out of his reach.
What new culture does Baptism create? Baptism creates the born-again culture. Throughout out Paul’s letters we find references to putting on the new self; clothing one’s self with Christ; in Christ we are new Creations. This is the movement from lonely Samaritan woman at the well to “Sir, give me this water.” From “I have no husband” to “Could this be the Messiah.”
My movement from cultural Christianity that has more to do with where I grew up than what I believe; from that to Jesus is mine, and I am his. I am not defined by the name “Tennant” or the state of Michigan or my English heritage. I am defined by Jesus on the cross, Jesus resurrected, leaving the empty tomb behind.
You are not divorced; failure at marriage; dying of disease; beleaguered parent of a wayward child. Those realities may be aspects of your life but you aren’t defined by them. You are child of God. You are one of the baptized, those washed and made clean of sin. You are a new creation.
The verse to hold on to as we close is a part of the Samaritan woman’s testimony to us. In John 4:15, she says, “Sir give me this water of eternal life.” That is our prayer as we go.
If you have never been through the water baptism, step out today. Today, receive Jesus for the first time. Ask him into your life, and His Spirit will come and wash you clean and make you new. Let today be the day everything changes as in Christ you are born again. Say, “Lord Jesus, I need this Living water. Lord Jesus, I want to be defined this way: I am a child of God.”
If you have been baptized, this is your prayer. Many are baptized, but continue living the old life, settling for water and things and pleasures and security and answers that do not satisfy. So today, my fellow baptized one, step out. Pray, “Lord Jesus, I need living water. I don’t want to be defined by my role in the family or my job title or the church where I have my membership. I want to be defined this way: I am a child of God.”
Pray this way continually – every day of life. God will give us a story to tell and when we tell it we are witnesses and through our witness, the Holy Spirit draws people to Jesus into the community of the Baptized.