Category Archives: faith

Who Is This Woman?

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I recently started a new sermon series at the church I pastor. The series is called Scars Have Stories* and each week we’ll look at an individual in the Bible whose life is marked by pain, grief, and loss. We’ll also see how God uses that brokenness to bring redemption to that individual and to others.

The first person we met isn’t named in the Bible; she calls herself simply, “a Samaritan woman” (see John 4). Today we often refer to her as “the woman at the well,” because that’s where Jesus met her. For those of us who have been around church for most of our lives, this woman is just one of many familiar faces: seen but not known, except by what our pastors have told us. But she may not be who we think she is.

You have heard it said: Jesus goes where shouldn’t be, meets a woman he shouldn’t meet, and talks to her (GASP!). Then he tells her what she already knows: that is, she’s a dirty rotten sinner that no one loves, but he’ll love her, anyway. As a result, her life is radically changed and all the townspeople who know her see the change, come to meet Jesus, and believe in him, too. It’s an incredible story of evangelistic grace. But what if that’s not who she was?

But I tell you: Jesus goes where shouldn’t be, meets a woman he shouldn’t meet, and talks to her (GASP!). [No change yet, right?] But instead of poking away at her as if she’s a dirty rotten sinner, Jesus responds as if she’s an inquisitive spiritual seeker^. He listens to her questions and patiently redirects them until he has the opportunity to reveal himself to her … using that ancient name of God that no one would pronounce but she would undoubtedly know: I AM. Then this seeker runs to her neighbors and asks, “could this possibly be the Messiah?” They come, meet the stranger at the well, invite him to stay a couple days, and end up also believing.

Two women. Two stories. One Savior. Either woman could be who Jesus met. Either story could be true (we’ve seen both in other pages of Scripture). But I think this second woman, the inquisitive spiritual seeker, better fits the aim of John’s gospel, which is all about believing (see John 20:31). It also fits better with the immediate context of that gospel, which includes two other encounters Jesus had with spiritual seekers. In the preceding chapter (John 3), Jesus is approached at night by a religious leader, Nicodemus, who is also asking questions – and,  because of his great learning, is a bit slow to understand the answers Jesus gives.

Earlier still (John 1:43-51), Jesus had met a doubting seeker named Nathanael; Nate had a hard time believing that anything—or anyone—good could come from the backwater town he’d heard Jesus was from … until Jesus told Nate he’d seen what he could not have seen: Nate, sitting in the shade of a fig tree (and probably eating a nice, juicy fig). That divinely-inspired insight convinces Nate that Jesus is the Son of God.

Meanwhile, back in Samaria…. Many people believe that when Jesus reveals to the woman that he knows about her five previous husbands (and the arrangement with her current beau), he’s pointing out her sinful lifestyle. Remembering his encounter with Nathanael, though, I think it’s more likely that Jesus is using that same divinely-inspired insight to convince the woman that he is the Messiah. Just as that was the kicker for Nate, so it is for the Samaritan woman.

So, what’s the big deal? I think we can take three things from this:

  • first, a renewed view of Scripture. It’s easy to look at anecdotes like this encounter between Jesus and a woman and see only what’s on the surface. But when we look deeper (context, author’s purpose, etc.), we see something very different; we get a better look into what God is doing, a better understanding of who he is and how we works.
  • second, a renewed view of women in Scripture. If we’re willing to admit it, we will see that women in Scripture are central to the advancement of God’s kingdom. In a culture (then) that devalued women, Jesus elevated them; we must, too. We are all sinners saved by grace, and this woman is no exception. But that isn’t the central truth of her story; the central truth is that because of her testimony, an entire Samaritan village believed in the Messiah — a radical, counter-cultural transformation.
  • third, a renewed view of our own brokenness and loss. Sin or no sin, you don’t move through five marriages without brokenness and loss. Whether the Samaritan woman had buried five husbands (possible), been divorced five times (possible but not likely), or some combination of the two (probable), she undoubtedly grieved what was or what might have been. But in spite of—perhaps even because of—that loss, Jesus met her and used her to draw an entire community to himself. He can do that with our brokenness, too.

Who is this woman? We only know what the Bible tells us. But we can be sure of this: God’s promise remains:

You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:13)

CREDITS:

*Thanks to Dr. Dan Allender for that phrase, “scars have stories.”

^Thanks to Dr. Lynn Cohick, Dean/Provost of Denver Seminary, for introducing me to this different view of the Samaritan woman … and for generously sharing her research and writings.

Memories of a Mountain

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Recently I returned to a place I hadn’t been to in 34 years: Forest Home, a camp and conference center in the San Bernardino mountains. I’d worked there for two summers after high school, first as a groundskeeper, then as dishwasher at the high school camp.

Much has changed around FoHo in three-plus decades: the pool was moved, the teepees of “Indian Village” have been replaced with yurts in what is now simply, “The Village,” and ongoing maintenance has upgraded most of the buildings. But much is the same, too, or at least similar. The Clubhouse, Roundhouse, and dining halls are all in the same places. The lake is still full and wet and green. Black bears still wander the grounds at night, threatening any food or garbage left by unaccustomed city folk!

As I walked throughout the camp, memories flowed from rocks and buildings and the creek running down the valley. In the dining room, I recalled the day we heard that Christian musician Keith Green had died. Outside the kitchen where I washed dishes, I remembered my conversation about faith with a Catholic co-worker. Faces and names came to mind – people who spoke into my faith, challenged me, encouraged me, built me up. The leadership retreat I was part of that weekend opened the door to these memories of God at work not only in my own life, but thousands of other lives over the years.

Throughout the Bible, God tells his followers to remember:

Remember who he is (Exodus 3:15). Remember his commandments (Numbers 15:40). Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy (Exodus 20:18).

When the people of Israel finally crossed the Jordan River and into the promised land, they were to collect twelve stones from the riverbed and place them where they camped next to the river. When their children in future generations saw the stones and asked about them, they would remember how God had led them across the river on dry ground

Jesus told his disciples to remember him whenever they shared in what we now call Communion or the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist.

Sometimes life gets hard: Jobs are lost. A spouse gets sick. A child wanders. A parent dies. And in the midst of the hard, we don’t always see God at work, don’t hear his voice, don’t feel his presence. We forget.

We need help to remember. We need a friend’s eyes to give perspective. We need a counselor’s ears to hear what God is whispering. We need a spouse’s arms to feel God next to us. We need a pile of stones—or a trip back up the mountain—to help us remember what God has done in the past…and what he promises to continue doing.

Are you having a hard time remembering? Who can help you? Where can you go where God worked before? What stone can you touch?

Remember….

Whatever This Is

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He didn’t even spare his own Son –
	He’s not going to let that sacrifice go to waste!
What accusations? The answer is already
	on the table.
What condemnation? The penalty has already
	been paid. Over and done.
And now he’s at God’s side – has God’s ear.
	[Every mistake, every failing, every sin
		filtered through the prism of
		Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice.
	Over before it’s done.]

So what!
	So what? So this:
		Nothing.
			NOTHING!
				NO-THING
		can come between me-and-him!

Hard stuff – really hard stuff?
		Nope.
Tears – piteous wailing – agonizing desperation? 
		Nope.
Faith-haters – faith-hurters – stone-hurlers? 
		Nope.
Empty stomach? Empty closet?
	Not those, either.

READ THIS:
	Because of You
		Death is daily, moment-by-moment
			Slow, torturous.
		We’re in line for the slaughterhouse.

But – however – nonetheless – yet…
		WAIT! Hold presses!
	Fooled ya’!
		We win! We win! We win!
			We won! You won!
	Your love — death-to-self, us-before-you,
		climb-up-on-the-cross-and-die-for-me love…
Your love won the fight, the battle, the war
	long before I even knew there was an argument.

And so, I know this — with every ounce of knowing,
	every fiber of my being,
	beyond the doubts that hide in shadows:

	Ain’t nothin’ comin’ ‘tween me and your love!
		Death – life
		Angels – kings – congress – presidents
		Now – not yet
		Enemies of the state
		Unclimbable mountains – unfordable valleys
		Stuff that's made

Nothing at all can come between
	me-and-your-love.

[Guess I can handle this*, huh?]



			*whatever “this” is

(Based on Romans 8:31-39.)

One Righteous Act

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Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” (Matthew 16:13-14, ESV)

If Jesus were to ask that same question today, the answers might be, a religious leader, a healer, or even a fake. He is often put on a level with Mahatma Gandhi as an advocate of peace; with Mother Teresa as a bringer of love; with Mohammed as a prophet. Most people who have any understanding of the historical Jesus say that he was, at the very least, a good teacher.

C.S. Lewis, of course, seeks to dispel that misconception by his famous “Lord, liar, or lunatic” argument (see the Preface to his book, Mere Christianity). His basic argument: given the incredible claims Jesus made about himself, he could only be a deluded lunatic, a pathological liar…or exactly who he said he was: Lord.

There is no doubt that Jesus was what so many believe of him: a good teacher, a prophet, a healer. He epitomized love for the outcast and spoke wisdom that shut the mouths of religious and political authorities alike. But if that is all he was, his impact on the world is all but over and done. Sure, his followers (most, anyway) continue to promote his message of love and peace, continue to seek the good of their communities and the world. But that’s about it. Hope ends there.

Recently I came across this verse: “…through one righteous act there is justification leading to life for everyone.” (Romans 5:18, Christian Standard Bible)

For some reason, those three words—one righteous act—stopped me in my tracks. Just one thing made the difference between a good but ultimately meaningless life, and a life of ultimate purpose and eternal impact.

What was that one righteous act? His death. The cross. 

Sit with that thought for a few moments. It is, after all, Good Friday—the day Christians around the world remember Jesus’ sacrifice. We look forward to Easter, of course, but you can’t get to Resurrection Sunday without going through Good Friday. Or silent Saturday, a day of grieving, wondering, waiting…for God knows what? So just sit with the reality of the cross, of a torturous death.

Sit with the truth that, but for Jesus’ sacrifice, we would have no hope beyond this life (which, you have to admit, has been challenging the past few years). Just one righteous act made possible justification leading to life for everyone. Life. Justification—a big word that simply means the slate has been wiped clean.

Jesus’ one righteous act demands just one righteous act in return. To lay claim to that gift—life, justification—you need only believe.

If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:9-10, CSB)

Just one righteous act.

Drought Resistance

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But blessed are those who trust in the LORD
and have made the LORD their hope and confidence.
They are like trees planted along a riverbank,
with roots that reach deep into the water.
Such trees are not bothered by the heat
or worried by long months of drought.
Their leaves stay green,
and they never stop producing fruit.
(Jeremiah 17:7-8, New Living Translation)

What does it look like to “trust in the Lord”? What does it mean to make him your “hope and confidence”? I’ve been wrestling with those questions over the past couple days – ever since my Dad reminded me of Jeremiah’s words.

Part of the answer lies in the alternative: trusting in “mere humans” and relying on human strength. Do that, Jer’ says, and you’re cursed. Not necessarily damned, but certainly doomed. Like a “stunted shrub in the desert… in the barren wilderness, in an uninhabited salty land.” With “no hope for the future.” Dismal words. Dismal picture. Dismal life.

“But,” he says, it doesn’t have to be that way. You can be like a riverside tree, “with roots that reach deep into the water.”

Look at the picture above. The landscape looks pretty brown and barren. Lots of weeds, but no crops. But the tree is flourishing. Green, leafy, healthy. Why? Because down to the right of the trunk, below the canopy’s shade, is a river. Not much of a river here, but water, nonetheless. And the tree’s roots reach through the brown soil deep into the ground where the water sits.

This particular tree, a few miles west of Ethiopia’s capital city, is a prayer tree. Christians from nearby villages meet here to pray in its cooling shade. In the midst of a dry and weary land, they come together to put their trust in the Lord; to make him their hope and confidence. And they—like the tree—aren’t afraid of the drought, but stay green and fruitful.

I’ve been through some wilderness times. I feel like I’m in the wilderness now. But there’s something different this time. More than ever before, I know I can trust in God. I know he is worthy of my trust, hope, confidence. It’s not easy; I’d really like to be able to just move forward, to pop out one more resume and get the job I’ve been waiting for, to be done with the waiting and wondering and wandering.

But he’s faithful. And even when I can’t see it, he’s growing fruit in me…and maybe even through me. And I don’t have to fear the drought.