Category Archives: relationship

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.

Are You A Peacemaker?

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“Make every effort to live in peace with everyone….” (Hebrews 12:14, NIV)

UN troops are often called “peacekeepers” but there is an irony in that name: they don’t keep peace at all. Rather, they go into troubled areas and stand in the middle of conflict between two factions so diplomats have time to negotiate for peace between the two sides. But since there’s no peace to begin with, there’s no peace to keep.

Mike Murphy writes this in his blog, “Rumblings“:

“Blessed are the peacemakers” someone famous once said. What if those who say they believe actually acted on those words of Jesus? Peacemaking is a dangerous, radical activity in these days of unfiltered bombast and underdeveloped impulse control. The peacemaker always pushes against the prevailing winds. Such is the way of the kingdom of God.

If we’re to be peacemakers, though, we need to figure out what a peacemaker does. Let me offer a few thoughts toward that end. First, let’s not define peace as just the absence of open conflict. The Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions calls that “negative peace,” but there is something more: “positive peace” is the absence of the causes of war. That’s the kind of peace we want.

But there’s a challenge in our striving for peace: it won’t always work. Paul put it this way in one of his letters in the Bible: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18, NIV). Two important truths are in those words: first, it’s not possible to live at peace with everyone. We live in a broken world filled with broken people, some of whom just aren’t peaceable; others are even downright dangerous. Second, it doesn’t all depend on you. Try as you might, you’ll never be able to find peace with some people, let alone make it. Do your best, but ultimately we will all live with the tension between wanting peace but not experiencing it.

In an excellent book called, The Peacemaker, Ken Sande offers these hopeful words:

A peacemaker, then, aims to demonstrate God’s presence and power in the midst of conflict. Let me suggest four ways to do that:

First, a peacemaker keeps his or her focus on becoming like Christ, the Prince of Peace. We were created in God’s image, but that image was scarred and marred by sin. God’s plan from eternity past has been to restore that image in his creation (Romans 8:29); his work today in the lives of his followers is focused on making us like Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18); and one day that work will be done and we will be like Christ (1 John 3:2).

Second, a peacemaker seeks peace with God. That comes first through faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ, his death on the cross, and his resurrection. But since we all continue to sin (rebel against God’s good design), we need to keep short accounts with God through ongoing confession and repentance. Finally, we need to accept his forgiveness (1 John 1:9), which has been freely offered through Jesus’ sacrifice.

Third, a peacemaker seeks peace with him- or herself, which grows out of faith in God, trust in his guidance, and living as God desires.

Finally, a peacemaker seeks peace with others. Too often we try to have peace with others, yet are not at peace with God or ourselves; it is a futile and frustrating aim, and we end up being more like UN peacekeepers than true peacemakers.

“Peace with God, peace with each other, and peace with ourselves come in the same package.” (Tim Hansel; quoted in Sande)

Let me leave you with a couple questions to help answer:

Are you easy to be at peace with? Or are you disagreeable, argumentative, combative?

Do you need to give up your need to be right? If you have a strong need to be right, then finding peace with others will always be a struggle. Practice saying (and meaning!) these four words: I may be wrong. Use them even—perhaps especially—when you know you’re right! Which is more important, the person you’re with, or being right? Most of the time, the answer should be the person you’re with.

So, are you a peacemaker? Will you become one?

 

NOTE: This blog is the core of the message I offered at The Journey Church, Sonora, on Sunday, June 10, 2018.

Son or Slave?

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With weary steps he trudged homeward, the twin burdens of leadership and famine weighing on his shoulders. Yet another shepherd had left, weary of the near-constant attacks by wolves and lions. Their normal prey—herds of deer and wild goats—had been decimated by the drought, forcing the predators to brave the slings of the increasingly-wary shepherds. But the hyper-vigilance took its toll, too, and many of the hired hands simply walked away, seeking respite from both sun and battle.

Yet hope grew with each passing day. The rainy season so long absent was near, and reports from the west had often included signs of increasing clouds. He had even seen a few himself when gazing toward the unseen sea. Passing tradesmen, with their stories of adventure and excitement, had made him wistful for the same. But his home was here, his father was here, his responsibility was here.

The evening shepherds on their way to the fields were silhouetted by the sun as it dipped into the distant Jordan River valley. They were just slipping on their outer cloaks against the gathering dark and cold as he came upon them. Their voices were unusually animated, but in a brief space between words, a breeze from the east carried the faint music of … celebration? He asked what it was about.

“Your brother has returned!”, said one with unmasked wonder.

“They’re starting to party!”, said another. “They even butchered the fatted calf!”

Brother? Returned? He stood staring after them as the shepherds hurried on their way, then he stared down the path toward home. The old anger rose again in his heart. Venomous words gathered in his throat as he started once again, his pace quickening with every step until he was almost running. More than once he stumbled over an unnoticed stone as the blinding resentment returned.

Suddenly he was outside the house, his whole body shaking with adrenaline and the anticipated confrontation. The pungent aroma of leeks and peppers mixed with roasting beef and insulted his nostrils. Joyful sounds of lutes and lyres, cymbals and drums, struck discord in his now-raging breast. A servant passing just inside the window noticed him—noticed the reddened face—and found his master.


“My son! Come celebrate! Your brother is home!” The old man came running, as breathless in his enthusiasm as the son in his anger. His brow glistened in the lamplight, wet with the perspiration of the dance.

“Brother? I have no brother!” Spittle flew from his lips, spraying his father’s face and tunic. “That lech is dead to me – dead to you!”

“Yes, he is dead – was dead. But he has returned. He lives again!”

“Yes, he lives – lives with whores and rakes! He lived it up on your hard-earned money. What he didn’t throw away on women, he guzzled until he awoke in his own vomit. You’ve heard the stories as well as I have. He dragged your good name through the mud and dung and threw away your life’s work.”

The father looked down in shame-filled remembrance. A tear coursed down into his beard, mingling with the spit that still clung there. He knew all too well the bitter truth of his son’s words, and gathering both thoughts and feelings, he quietly acknowledged that truth. “Yes. He did.” Then, looking up again, he continued. “Yes, he shamed me, humiliated me. He buried me that day: told me I might as well be dead. But that’s not the half of it.”

“And this is how you reward him?”, the son interrupted, anger rising with his father’s admission. “You squander the fattened calf just as he squandered your estate? And here I’ve worked for you—slaved for you—all these years and you’ve done nothing for me! I’ve done everything you’ve asked, never left your side. I even did your work while you sat all day on that rock looking for him. And you never so much as offered a goat for me to enjoy with my friends.” Wrath and spit dripped from his mouth.

“Yes, you have been with me. You have been faithful and wise and industrious. You have managed the flocks far better than I could have in this drought. You have even managed to increase them; no one does that in a famine! You saved us. And I have been lost these past months – as good as dead myself. But your brother was dead, too. And his was a death worse than death itself. Like Cain of old, he killed another but was condemned to walk among the living. The stench of death clung to him, overpowering his drunkenness, his vomit … even the pig slop. The shame he brought to me hung from his shoulders everywhere he went; as he lay naked with each prostitute, the one garment he could not remove was that shame.”

“He deserves the pigs!” The son spat.

“Perhaps. You said you slaved for me these years. That is all your brother has asked now to do: to live here as a servant, to sleep in their quarters and eat their meager portions. But he is no servant, he is a son. My son. My blood flows in his veins just as it flows in yours. And today he has come home. Today he has come alive.

“If you would be a slave, then I free you from all obligation. If you, like your brother, would be free to live as you wish … all I have is yours. But you are no slave in my eyes. You are my flesh and blood, my son – my dear son – my first-born. And I love you, just as I love your brother.

“Come. Eat. Dance. Celebrate. Rejoice in resurrection.”

The Prodigal Father

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When the long-expected words came, the sting of them stole his breath.“Father, I cannot stay any longer.” The boy was a delight: free, adventurous, always joking, always smiling. But those traits that made him so easy to love—and to like—were the very things that now pulled him away. “I want to live,” the boy said, dragging out and emphasizing the live. “I want my inheritance. Now.”

And in living, the father thought, he puts me in my grave. Like a butcher’s razor-sharp knife, his son’s words cut deep into his soul. He gasped for breath, steadying himself on the table as strength nearly left his legs. The labored pulsing of his heart masked the shame he ought to have felt at his son’s rejection. With his free hand, he reached for the boy’s shoulder and drew him close. No arms encircled the broken, weeping man. Weakly, he called a servant and gave the order to divide the flocks. The servant, feeling his master’s shame, did not look in his eyes.


Dark nights passed in sleepless misery. With each new dawn, he stood scanning the distant horizons, hoping beyond hope the nightmare was over and he would see his son’s silhouette against the sunrise. At dusk, he stood again — staring, wishing, longing.

The boy had run away once before, when he was young. Scarcely taller than a ewe, he’d wrapped a few loaves and some fish in a bag, scrawled a note, and set out. He was gone some hours; but before dinner his mother found him, sitting on a rock with his arms around his knees, looking over the swollen Jordan. “I can’t swim,” was all he’d said, before walking home, hand in hand with her.

Now the father sat often on that same rock, staring across the fabled waters. As the days drew into weeks and the weeks to months, he’d sent messengers throughout Judea in search of his youngest. Always they’d returned, unable to meet his hope-filled eyes. East, across the Jordan, in the land of Perea…perhaps this is where his son had gone.

Meals were quiet now. His wife and younger son had always made the table a lively place, but she had died long ago and now… now it was just he and Reuben, his older, ever-faithful son. Reuben reported on the condition of the flocks, where the best grazing lands were now, where the wolves were attacking lately. He’ll do well when I’m gone, the father thought. He choked on the final word. Gone? I am already gone; my boy has taken my life. It was right for Reuben to keep account; after all, all that remained was his—or would be, when his father was at last buried next to his wife.

Buried. A final resting place. A place to mourn, but also to remember. He had sat Shiva for his wife—the seven days of mourning Moses had commanded—but had returned often to her tomb when being a single father to two boys had gotten the better of him. There he remembered her smile, her gentleness, her wisdom. There he found the grace to love when the boys fought, to forgive when they wronged him.

He’d gone often, almost daily, these past months. Now his son, too, was dead—must be dead—but there was no tomb for him, and so no place from which to remember. And it was from there that he looked up and saw the specter in the distance: an emaciated and tattered figure, empty handed and bare footed, head hung low.

And the old man ran….
This is Part III in a series looking at the story of the Prodigal Son. Find parts I & II here:
Part I: It Wasn’t Hard to Leave That Day
Part II: Alone with the Pigs

Walking With God

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220px-hannah_whitall_smithMy knowledge of God … advanced slowly through many stages, and with a vast amount of useless conflict and wrestling, to the place where I … discovered to my amazement and delight His utter unselfishness, and saw it was safe to trust in Him. –Hannah Whitall Smith (emphasis mine)

I opened a new (to me) devotional book this morning and read these words from 19th-century Quaker Hannah Whitall Smith. Though I know very little of Smith’s life or spiritual journey, her description of that journey jumped out at me. How often have I wrestled with God? How often have I felt conflict in my relationship with Him, convinced God wanted nothing more than to squelch my enjoyment, my desires, my dreams?

Of course, none of those feelings of mine are rooted in the truth of Scripture that I have so long read and studied. My accusations fly in the face of such promises as “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4) and “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11). Still, in the dark, discouraging days, it is too easy to blame God.

Learning that “it [is] safe to trust in Him” is a lifelong process. It is a journey of discovery that involves both pain and delight – just as we learn to love, know, and trust a husband or wife. Smith puts it this way:

“I simply mean becoming acquainted with Him as one becomes acquainted with a human friend; that is, finding out what is His nature, and His character, and coming to understand His ways.”

Learning to know and trust God can involve “useless conflict and wrestling” or it can begin by believing He is trustworthy, then proving it over the course of a journey taken with Him and “finding out His nature and His character, and coming to understand His ways.”