Sunday, February 02, 2014

if you see something, say something--a sermon for 2 February 2014

Rev. Teri Peterson
If You See Something, Say Something
John 4.1-42
2 February 2014, NL 4-22

Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, ‘Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John’— although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’
 Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’
 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ They left the city and were on their way to him.
 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, ‘Rabbi, eat something.’ But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ So the disciples said to one another, ‘Surely no one has brought him something to eat?’ Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, “Four months more, then comes the harvest”? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.” I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour.’
 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’

iconographers at work--Ayman is the seated man on the right.

Pentecost icon in progress
Eight years ago around this time, I left my classroom at the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo and went upstairs to a room I’d heard about but never seen: the icon workshop. The windows were open though it was chilly outside, and half a dozen people were scattered around tables, huddled over panels with varying states of images drawn or painted on them. In this room, artists carried on a centuries-old tradition of putting theology into image. Contrary to popular protestant belief, icons are not objects of worship, they are windows to the divine. When we look at an icon, it is supposed to direct our attention to God, and to open a new avenue for us to experience God’s presence and story. The artists who make icons are not called painters, they are called iconographers—literally icon writers. They write God’s story into every image. At the Coptic Orthodox icon workshop, they begin with a pencil drawing, then add colored paint, and then finally they painstakingly apply tiny pieces of gold leaf until the story shimmers off the panel.

The most common icons are of course of Jesus by himself, often holding a scroll or a book. The holy family is also a common scene, and in Egypt, an especially popular image is of the flight to Egypt, complete with pyramids and palm trees in the background. Lots of other stories also make great icons, of course: the crucifixion, Pentecost, Old Testament prophets.

When I went into the workshop, I was hoping to get a traditional Coptic icon of a woman other than Mary. As I looked at the pieces in their varied states of work, and flipped through the book of traditional images, I started to despair a bit. Not a single woman to be found, besides the Virgin. But then, on the next to last page of the book, I happened upon an icon depicting this story, of the Samaritan woman at the well. I immediately knew it was perfect—what better image for the office of a soon-to-be-preacher than that of the first female preacher of the gospel? When I told Ayman, whom I had commissioned to write my icon, what I wanted, he hesitated and then asked why I would want an icon of a woman who was a sinner?

My Arabic was not good enough to explain to him that nowhere in the story does it say she was a sinner. But it was good enough to explain that I wanted an icon of the woman who first told people the good news of Jesus and brought people to see him for themselves. He was unconvinced, but he took the commission, and a few months later I went upstairs after class once again, to pick up my shiny new icon. Ever since, I have looked at it every day and prayed for the courage to go out and meet Jesus, to come back and tell what I have seen, and to encourage others to go out and meet him themselves.

The idea that she was a horrible sinner, or a prostitute, or in some way an outcast shamed by her community, persists even though it is not written in the text. In fact, this is one of the few stories where there is no mention of sin or forgiveness at all. Instead we have here a woman who continually pushes on Jesus’ answers, asking more and more questions, refusing to go away until she understands. Here we have a woman who is so excited by the encounter she has had that she leaves her jar by the well when she runs back to town. Here we have a woman whose story is so compelling that her whole town comes out to the well to see for themselves. Here we have a woman who refuses to keep her God-moment to herself.

There’s no juicy sex scandal in this story, the way John writes it. When Jesus says she’s had five husbands, that does not imply that she’s been unfaithful—women did not have the right to leave a husband, nor any standing in the community without a man to protect and provide for them. Instead it implies that her husbands have divorced her or died, and now she lives with another male family member who offers her protection from being used yet again.

The real scandal in this story is actually much simpler. But it’s only obvious if we think about last week’s reading too. Last week we heard the story of Nicodemus, a Pharisee—which means he was a legal expert and a leader in the religious community. Nicodemus comes to see Jesus at midnight, under cover of darkness. In the course of their conversation, Nicodemus never understands, and his questions lead him deeper into his own circles of confusion. He goes away disappointed, with the words of Jesus following him: “this is the judgment, that the light was coming into the world and the people preferred darkness.” Now here, in the very next chapter, is a woman who meets Jesus at noon, the lightest point of the day. In her conversation with Jesus, she probes a little deeper until she understands, and then she immediately goes away to tell the others to “come and see.”

Nicodemus the leader comes at night and goes away in the darkness. The foreign woman comes at high noon and brings others into the light. Here is the real scandal—that the woman (a woman!) who represents all that is hated in Jewish culture is the one who lives in the light and brings others to see.

But, just as in our culture today, while scandal sells, it is not the whole point of this story. There are at least two other pieces of this gospel puzzle.

painter: Lavinia Fontana,
16th century Italian,
at the Museo e Gallerie Nazionale di Capodimonte,
Naples, Italy

Love how Jesus rolls his eyes, LOL.
One piece is this: she asks questions, and keeps asking—and she really listens to Jesus’ responses. I don’t know about you, but I’m often more like Nicodemus—I ask God my question and then wait to hear the answer I want. But this Samaritan woman asks, and then follows up, and keeps in the conversation, even when surely either she or Jesus must have wanted to just roll their eyes and give up…and through this conversation she ends up knowing Jesus for who he really is, just as he knows her for who she really is. What an amazing promise for the rest of us who have lots of questions!

The second piece is the crucial one: The woman’s encounter with Jesus doesn’t end at the well. Sure, she could have kept coming back, hoping to find him here again, maybe she’d sing the same song as she walked, or say the same words when she got there, or sit in the same spot every week, all the while enjoying the memory of the previous encounter while not wanting to push her faith on others. But she runs off and tells everyone she sees that she has met a man who just might be the Messiah.

Notice that she doesn’t say “I’ve found the answer to where we should worship” even though that was the question that had kept Jews and Samaritans apart for centuries. She doesn’t say “I met a nice young man who seems to know a lot about his field of study.” She doesn’t say “I’ve figured it out, listen to me.” No arrogance or even certainty here. Instead she says “I encountered someone…I think he’s the Messiah…come and see.”

She offers her experience, and invites others to have an experience.

That is the woman I want to be. She loves to tell the story, to anyone who will listen. Hopefully it is the kind of disciple you want to be as well. This is the core of the scary words “evangelism” and “testimony”—If you see something, say something. When we see the movement of the Spirit, say so. When we sense the presence of God, describe the moment. When we see Jesus in the face of another, share the story. Not to give an answer, not to tell someone they are going to hell, not to insist that everyone see or feel or understand the way we do, but to invite them to look for themselves, to ask for themselves, to know and be known for themselves. Evangelism and Testimony mean simply to say “Here’s what I have seen. Will you come and see too?”

Take a moment to think about the most recent time you have experienced God’s presence, or seen Jesus, or felt the movement of the Spirit.

Now that you have that moment in your mind, take just a moment and turn to someone seated near you and tell them about it, briefly.

And now that you’ve practiced, be on the lookout this week for a chance to tell that experience to someone else, and invite them to come and see what God can do.

sing: I Love to Tell The Story

May it be so. Amen.


  1. Yes...these words...thanks!

  2. I love every word of this, as well as the practice at the end. Thanks!

  3. I love so much of this too! Thanks for the precious insights. I particularly resonated with the way you dealt with the 'noontime" visit of the woman to the well in contrast to Nicodemus. The only reluctance I have about it is this-- "the woman (a woman!) who represents all that is hated in Jewish culture..." Is this true? I think it isn't. Maybe it reflects an old sense that Judaism was a repressive religion? Maybe needs reexamining.

  4. This is REALLY GOOD. I like the contrast with Nicodemus and I like the talking to one another at the end. I might do that this week.

    Last week at a session retreat we had them pair off and talk for 30 minutes. At least 1/3 of the people cried and all of them found a connection they didn't know they had. Heidi and I are wanting to move our congregation into telling its own story/stories. I think this might be a seed planter.


    PS I been thinking about Nicodemus leaving disappointed and The Rich Young Ruler leaving disappointed. Not sure where that's connected but it seems to be in my brain.