Sermon: “Inviting Questions”

March 19, 2017: Third Sunday in Lent

John 4:5-42

Among the marvels of the Internet is a web site called, “How It Should Have Ended” (caution: there’s some four-letter words sprinkled throughout that site), which offers alternative endings to popular movies. For instance, the characters in the Lord of the Rings might have flown to the fiery mountain to destroy the evil One Ring on the backs of giant eagles instead of walking all the way. In fact, they say to each other, “Imagine if we’d had to walk all the way!”

So here’s an alternative ending for this story of Jesus and the woman at the well:

Jesus waited by the well for his friends while they went into town to buy food.

When the woman appeared, he didn’t speak to her, even though he was thirsty. She was a woman and a Samaritan, and a good faithful Jewish man didn’t speak with Samaritans, and didn’t speak with a woman who wasn’t a relative or someone formally introduced.

She got her water from the well and went home.

Jesus’ friends came back with food. They had lunch together by the well.

And since nobody had a bucket to draw water, they drank wine.

The End.

Honestly, I think the gospel version is better.

John sets this story right after telling us about Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, which we read last week, and it’s no accident. The two stories offer us a comparison of opposites. Nicodemus came at night. Jesus saw the Samaritan woman at noon. Nicodemus was a respected religious authority. She was a hated Samaritan. He was a man. She was a woman. And his name was remembered. Hers was not.

Nicodemus went away and disappeared, at least until the end of the gospel.

But the Samaritan woman, despite lacking a remembered name, returned to town and told her story. Oh, and one other little detail: When she went, she left her bucket behind, which meant that Jesus and his disciples could draw water from the well and drink.

Her witness brought a village full of people out to meet Jesus and become aware that something amazing was happening. They could marvel at the emergence of grace that God had brought into the world.

How did this happen?

Well, there are plenty of possible answers. Here’s mine:

Inviting questions.

Jesus started it. His very first utterance was a request: he asked for a drink of water. It’s the Samaritan woman, however, who really asked the questions, one after another: How does a Jew dare to speak to a Samaritan? How are you going to get water without a bucket? Can you get me this living water?

Karoline Lewis writes: “Questions are critical to conversation… The woman at the well is full of questions, thoughtful questions, questions that matter and lead Jesus to reveal to her who he really is. Jesus affirms questions, even invites them. God wants us to ask questions because it is questions that strengthen relationship.”

Her questions went to the heart of the religious division between Samaritans and Jews. As soon as she realized that Jesus was someone special – “Sir, I see you are a prophet” – she asked about worship. Samaritans believed that it was proper to worship God with the ancient sacrificial rites on the summits of mountains. Their ancestors had done so for generations. Elijah offered a famous sacrifice on Mount Carmel. Jews, however, said that there was only one mountaintop that was proper for the sacrifices defined in the Law: the summit of Mount Zion in Jerusalem, where Solomon had built the temple, and where a temple had stood again for some hundreds of years.

She did not ask a random or meaningless question. She went to the heart of her faith, and of Jesus’ faith. It doesn’t get any more crucial than that.

Later on, she had another question, but this one was for her neighbors, not for Jesus. She had had a profound experience of God’s power, grace, and compassion in this encounter with Jesus. So she told her friends the story of that experience: “I met a man who told me everything I ever did,” she said.

And then came the question: “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

It’s to answer that question that her neighbors accepted her invitation to “Come and see.”

I cannot think of a better example for inviting people into a closer relationship with God than the one she set:

First, let yourself be aware of an experience that touches you deeply in the soul. It might be in worship, or in study, or in prayer. It might be in a conversation with a stranger, or with somebody near and dear to you. It might be on a mountaintop, or on the beach, or in the woods, or in the town. It might be among a great crowd of people, or it might be just you and God.

The experience could be nearly anything. Allow yourself to be aware of its depth, and its height, and the way it works within you.

Next, tell your story. Describe that experience, as best you can, to people you care about. That isn’t easy. Spiritual experiences are personal; they’re notoriously difficult to describe, and it’s entirely rational to fear rejection when telling it. People aren’t always kind. And having such a deep experience questioned or rejected hurts a lot. So this takes effort to craft the story, and courage to tell it.

And the third step: Ask a question. Invite the hearer to consider how such an experience might work in their life, what it might mean to them, what it might mean about the world. What question would invite them to seek to learn more?

And finally: invite them to come and see.

That’s how the Church grows in faithfulness and in the faith-filled.

What a powerful conversation that was, there by Jacob’s well. What amazingly inviting questions they both asked.

And it could so easily not have happened at all.

Karoline Lewis says, “We are living in a time when conversation needs to be cultivated and valued. Practiced and pursued. Longed for and lived. Without real conversation, we lack intimacy and understanding; connection and empathy. Without real conversation, we risk detachment and distance.”

And as Anna Carter Florence asks so pointedly (in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2): “What rules is Jesus breaking to talk to us?”

That’s a stunning, and inviting, question itself.

What are the inviting questions for you?

What questions can you ask of yourself, or of God, or of someone you love, that might deepen your awareness of grace?

What questions can you ask, and of whom, to invite our neighbors and our island and our state and our nation to justice, peace, and compassion?

What questions can you ask, and of whom, to invite someone you care about to a richer life of the soul?

What are your inviting questions?


The photo is of Jacob’s Well in Nablus, taken by Bishop John Selders just the week before this sermon and used here by permission. He’s one of a series of friends to visit the Holy Land these last three weeks, and I confess I’m feeling rather jealous!

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , , | Posted on March 19, 2017

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  1. Inviting Questions | ordainedgeek

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