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The Rev. James Ellis III The Rev. James Ellis, III

The Rev. James Ellis III is Chaplain of Discipleship at Hope College in Holland, MI.

Member of:

Cooperative Baptist Fellowship

Representative of:

Hope College, Holland, MI


Digging Beneath the Surface (A Sermon on John 4:7-18)

September 22, 2014

At least in my experience, Christians aren't necessarily always the most comprehensively insightful or transformed people you will ever meet.[1] Like the contemporaries we crusade to save, at times we pompously walk around with blinders on, utterly oblivious to our lack of depth. Some of us can recite scripture like an award-winning thespian, yet consistently live in ways that demonstrate that -- when you really get down to it -- this word of God we claim to believe in is simply another opinion to consider amongst many, not the standard for Christian faith and living. Perhaps we are persistent in helping the stranger, the widow, the orphan, and the poor, all-the-while refusing to address the marginalization of our own story, balking at the sheer idea that we must confront both what has been done to us and what we have done to ourselves. Oftentimes it's terribly difficult to process the joys and challenges associated with who we are or who we hope to become, and digging beneath the surface of our messiness can be dirty, backbreaking work.

Bob Pierce, founder of the Christian relief and development organization, World Vision, might be a sobering example of this struggle. Traveling the world to advocate on behalf of "the least of these," it is well-documented that he was cantankerous absentee and hostile towards his wife and children. Within weeks of his 1978 death from leukemia, daughter Marilee Pierce-Dunker penned a book, Man of Vision, Woman of Prayer,[2] in which she shared the good that her father accomplished abroad, as well as the pain that his private evils inflicted on their family. Similar comments could be issued about C.L. Franklin, R&B queen, Aretha Franklin's father. With a charismatic persona and "whooping" preaching style par excellence, he founded a megachurch (New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan) well before they were as popular and commonplace in America as they are today. According to Nick Salvatore's biographical work, Singing in a Strange Land: C.L. Franklin, the Black Church, and the Transformation of America,[3] although an accomplished pastor and singer, Franklin was also a womanizer, who would routinely comment to anyone inquiring about his multiple infidelities that he was "just a man." All of us are broken vessels in need of the Potter's duct tape and occasional Gorilla Glue to cover our multitude of sins, that much is clear. Still, however, if we are to represent Christ well, we must also embrace digging beneath the surface of our choices and predicaments, as individuals and also within our collective work in belonging to a congregation.

Having just exited Judea on his way again to Galilee, we find Jesus in the Samaritan town of Sychar. Just passing through, but justifiably weary from the journey and at the height of the scorching noonday sun, he decided to rest awhile. Whereas the disciples, Jesus' students, were away seeking lunchtime sustenance at the nearest Arabian Whole Foods or 7-Eleven, Jesus encountered a Samaritan woman who had come to draw water from what was known as Jacob's Well. As the quintessential rebel with a good cause, Jesus politely asked her for a drink of water, which was a huge no-no for a host of reasons. A Jewish man, which Jesus was, did not initiate conversation with an unknown woman -- ever. And a Jewish teacher, which only men were and Jesus also happened to be, did not engage in public conversation with a woman -- ever. And then, too, Samaritans and Jews weren't on speaking terms. A longstanding dispute began in 200 BCE over the correct location for communal worship: the Samaritan shrine at Mount Gerizim or the Jerusalem Temple. Viewed as foreigners to begin with and since the Samaritan shrine was torn down by Jewish troops about 80 years later, the Samaritans were considered less than by the Jews. To Jewish men, not to mention Jewish men who were teachers, to drink water handled by a Samarian would have rendered him ceremoniously unclean, contaminated before God. Nevertheless, even as the Samaritan woman tried to educate him on the history of all of this, Jesus persisted.

Of course, Jesus knew himself to be the king of kings and we know him now as the author and finisher of our faith, but she didn't. In her mind's eye he was a random Jewish man, a stranger, relaxing near the well. Maybe he was delusional or possessed. Maybe he was playing a sick game or meant her some kind of harm. In verse 9 and 11 we see that she is skittish about where Jesus is going with their persisting conversation. It is easy by verse 14 to be lured into thinking that a change has occurred because Jesus explains that the ultimate life-giving water he represents is not of this world. However, she doesn't yet readily comprehend how he could possibly quench her deepest thirst. Rightfully, she is concerned about reducing her workload. It's hot like the dickens and who knows how long of a trek it was from her home to Jacob's Well multiple times every day "to fetch a pail of water"?

Chores of that nature get old really quickly, so to her, if this talkative stranger had some mystical, magical means by which to help her bypass the stress and strain of life's daily grind, well, then they will become the best of friends. In verse 15 she says, "Sir, please give me a drink of that water! Then I won't get thirsty and have to come to this well again." So here Jesus was trying to have a deeply spiritual conversation with this Samaritan woman, offering himself as the key to eternal life, and she wants him to give her the "hookup" with a free supply of water like a flowing fountain. Jesus decides to approach the moment from another angle. This is a spoiler alert -- but we see from verse 19 onward that Jesus' message begins resonating with her. She sees him less and less as a quirky stranger and more as a prophet, and finally as the Messiah. But the prelude to that revelation is what I want us to highlight in verses 16 through 18.

After realizing that he needed to get the woman's attention in an abundantly more dramatic manner, Jesus abruptly instructs her, "Go and bring your husband," in verse 16. Again, being God, Jesus is already intimately familiar with the peculiarities of her private life, but he wants her to know that he knows. Knowing that he knows will then help her to know that he is God; and that the Christ, not just some random, potentially suspect stranger, is inviting her to become a true worshiper, one who, across any manmade divisions, worships God in spirit and in truth. But what got her there to that point was Jesus being rather blunt about his power and candid about her past and present.

Her reply to Jesus' initial instruction was, "I don't have a husband." And in verse 18 Jesus says, "That's right. You're telling the truth. You don't have a husband. You have already been married five times, and the man you are now living with isn't your husband." Scholars are divided on exactly what this exchange reveals. For some, Jesus' words clearly illustrate that the woman is a harlot or an adulteress, either way living a life well outside of God's standard. Others, however, say that whatever her less than desirable circumstance, it may not have been voluntary, since she could be a victim of levirate marriage (where the brother of a deceased man is obligated to marry his brother's widow) or rape, or she could have been forced into a life of sexual roulette in order to survive. From the text, however, at the very least, we know for certain that Jesus succeeded at getting her attention from that point forward, as she was able to see that he was not a scraggly, thirsty outsider trying to kick religious game to her.

No matter where you land on the point of the Samaritan woman's lifestyle, it was clearly not an enviable one. And say what you want about biblical pundits and armchair theologians, easily labeled sexist, out-of-touch patriarchs, but in his comments, Jesus, himself, offers what I think is at least some shred of an emphasis on personal responsibility or free will in saying to the Samaritan woman: "You don't have a husband. You have already been married five times, and the man you are now living with isn't your husband." (emphasis mine) These are declarative statements about morality that Jesus is making. If you flip ahead quickly to John 8 you can read of his encounter with another unnamed woman. After protecting her from a potential death by stoning because of the fool-hearted hypocrisy of a bunch of fanatical men, Jesus didn't bypass the violation of her adulteress lifestyle. He said, "You may go now, but don't sin anymore." Shallow spirituality is attractive because it doesn't require us to confront our baggage, not to mention to address both the controllable and uncontrollable parts of our personal narratives.

Based in Queens, New York, Dr. Peter Scazzero shares in his book, The Emotionally Healthy Church: A Strategy for Discipleship That Actually Changes Lives: "For the first fifteen years of my life as a Christian, I rarely took time to look deeply into my interior, my heart, my depths, or my soul."[4] He says that his life was like an iceberg -- with, like an iceberg, only 10% of his incongruences visible to himself, but the remaining, more destructible 90% of those troubles existing beneath the surface. He goes on: "Most leaders shipwreck or live inconsistent lives because of forces and motivations beneath the surface of their lives, which they have never even considered." I am not encouraging you to be anyone's judge and jury, nor am I suggesting you to play that role in your own life. But, quite firmly I hope, I am urging you to be real about your life -- the good, the bad, and the ugly. I am advising that you allow God and others to help you undue the brightly colored cellophane wrap of life's comforting, superficial clichés, and appropriately unearth the true joys and pains you have experienced in the past, are working through presently, and might endure in the future. You may not like all that is uncovered when digging beneath the surface, but it's worth it if it leads you to rely more deeply on Jesus as the unending well of living water. If we don't do the hard work required to confront our own private demons, then how, pray tell, can we ever publicly identify and overcome demons within our congregation, community, and world?


[1] This sermon was preached by yours truly, the Rev. James Ellis III, on September 21, 2014 at Peace Fellowship Church in Washington, DC where I serve as senior pastor. The Contemporary English Version (CEV) of the Bible is referenced throughout.
[2] Tim Stafford, "Imperfect Instrument," Christianity Today, February 24, 2005.
[3] See Nick Salvatore, Singing in a Strange Land: C.L. Franklin, the Black Church, and the Transformation of America (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005).
[4] Peter Scazzero, The Emotionally Healthy Church: A Strategy for Discipleship that Actually Changes Lives (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 71. See also Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality: Unleash a Revolution in Your Life in Christ (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2011).


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