Tag Archives: Bible

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.

The Word: Written or Incarnate?

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Note: this post is more of a Bible study than most. If you are student of Scripture, then I would like your feedback on this. The perspective I present below is not the traditional evangelical view with which I grew up and in which I am trained, so I would like to hear from both my evangelical friends (who are likely to disagree) and with my friends from other theological backgrounds.

12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:12-13, ESV)

How do these oft-memorized verses about “the word of God” fit with the themes of entering His rest, of belief and obedience? And how do these verses connect those themes to the following passage about Jesus being the great high priest?

“The word” in verse 12 here is most often understood to be God’s recorded word, the Scripture; i.e., the Bible: God’s word (and words) revealed through His prophets, His Son, and the apostles; and written down and canonized.

This seems a too-limited view, however, in light of the words used and the context following. Certainly Scripture is sharp and piercing; it reveals our thoughts and intentions, shows whether we are truly obeying or merely acting. Yet this does not satisfy the descriptive words “living and active,” or the verb “discerning.” Verse 13, further, uses personal language: “sight” (can a written word see?); “him,” not it; and a personal direct object, “to whom” our account will be given.

I think verses 12-13 are speaking of the living Word of whom John wrote in his gospel: the Word-become-flesh, Jesus Christ. Certainly the writer here is not speaking exclusively of the written revelation (of which his own words would become a part).

Jesus Christ, the living Word of God, is alive and active, discerning, seeing, and waiting to receive an accounting of our belief or unbelief, our obedience or disobedience. It is Him to whom we owe our belief and obedience; Him to whom we will give account. He—not a book (even the Book of God)—is our great high priest, our mediator (1 Timothy 2:5) before God, and our salvation. It is through Jesus Christ that we may receive mercy when our hearts struggle to believe and grace when we disobey.

Alone With The Pigs

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(This is Part 2 in a story of the prodigal son. Read Part 1 here.)

The desert was no place for a man in silk. Blowing sand pierced the fine cloth, peppering his skin. It stung his unprotected eyes, burned his face.

Weak, hungry, alone, he cursed the sand and wind, cursed the city that mocked him, cursed the useless silk, cursed his birth. He cursed his father’s birth to the pastoral life from which he’d run. An unfamiliar odor assaulted his sand-whipped nostrils; he cursed the stench. Then, through squinted eyes he saw it: a herd of swine, their irritated squealing riding the wind toward him. He cursed the unclean beasts even as he hoped the drovers might spare him some bread.

“For a price,” they said. “Stay with this swine this night. What they don’t eat is yours.”

This night became two, then five, then a month. The famine that starved the land tore at his stomach. He watched in vain hope that the pigs would leave more than scraps, but even their rations were meager and their owner dared not feed them less; even in famine, no one wanted to buy a skinny pig.

Finally, lying awake, cold, and hungry in the desert night, sense came to him. The life he’d so longed to escape—the animals always needing care and feeding, the constant repairs to fences and troughs, the bucolic boredom—these were again his lot … minus the plentiful food on his father’s table. Even the ranch hands ate better than he ate now.

But how could he return? How could he possibly face again the father whom he had all but declared dead when he demanded his inheritance? Could he humble himself before the man he had so humiliated? Yet nothing could be more humiliating than his present state: silk rags torn and stained, body reeking of pig dung, hair and beard filthy and matted. It was decided then; he would return, fall on his knees, and beg for employment as a ranch hand.

It hadn’t been hard to leave that day, so many months before. It wasn’t hard to leave this day, either.

Part 3 coming soon….

It Wasn’t Hard to Leave That Day

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It wasn’t hard to leave that day. The conversation was awkward—”Dad, I want my share. Now, please.”—but walking away wasn’t hard. There wasn’t much to take; less to leave behind. He’d never fit, anyway. The work, the animals, the quiet but grueling life of a nomadic sheepherder. Adventure called, and the city they’d passed two days earlier. No, it wasn’t hard to leave that day.

He’d sold his share of the flocks and with the silver weighing down his bag, turned his face toward the city. Soon, having traded his bedouin robe for city silks, he sought new life in the strangely solid buildings. Friends were easy to find; wine, an enticing invitation. Never again would loneliness sit heavy in his heart. Little did he know that his dark, herdsman’s skin and heavy purse betrayed his ignorance and innocence. Had he known, he would only have worked harder to win the friendship of ones already willing to drink from his bottle. He slept little, and never alone.

Far away, another man also slept little, his aloneness magnified by the vastness of the familiar night sky. At first light he scanned the horizons. Each setting sun darkened his hope a little more. 

The endless city noise grew deafening. The constant press of people—even the women sharing his bed—only magnified the loneliness he tried constantly to escape. The wine only made him forget last night; morning carried memories of home – and the love he’d never acknowledged. Day by day, his purse grew lighter. When it was at last empty, so were his bed and table. No face in town knew his; no familiar face did he see. Alone. Again.

The flocks grew, replenishing the loss of the too-soon divided inheritance. But even as the pens filled to bursting, so the father’s broken heart spilled out its last hope. Still he watched….

It wasn’t hard to leave that day. What was hard was knowing which way to go. The city spurned him, its lights and sounds betraying the emptiness of a false life—and revealing his own emptiness. No, it wasn’t hard to leave that day.

(to be continued…)

Spiritual Rhythms: The Word, part I

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Before my wife and I were married, I spent a summer in Europe while she remained in California. In those long-past days before email and cell phones, at a time when international calling was expensive and minimum wage was a fraction of what it is now, the primary way we communicated was through letters; our words would be read days, if not weeks, after they’d been written.

Growing in relationship with God demands that we read his words—his Word. 

If you want to know God, you need to read his word to his people—that is, the Bible. Seems easy enough, but considering that the Bible contains sixty-six individual books written by dozens of human authors over a period of some 1,500 years—the most recent being roughly 2,000 years old—the natural question is, where to begin?

Many people say you should start with the book of John, or perhaps one of the other four narratives of Jesus’ life: Matthew, Mark, or Luke. But if you’re new to the Bible, then I suggest following Fräulein Maria’s advice from The Sound of Music: “Let’s start at the very beginning”—Genesis and Exodus. You see, Jesus was a Jew, and Genesis tells the story of the beginning of the Jewish people. And since Jesus came as a sacrifice to save people from sin, Exodus—the story of God saving the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt—lays the foundation for Jesus’ sacrificial life and death. Then read John. Or Matthew, which was written to a primarily Jewish audience.

But another question to ask is, how do I read the Bible? The Bible is unlike any other book you have ever read. It is an anthology of sorts, with each individual book telling a complete story; yet the collection as a whole also tells a complete story, and each book contains a part of that broader story. Perhaps the best way to answer the question, how do I read the Bible?, is this: Read it the same way you would see the country. The whole country. What country? Yours or mine, whether the United States or Nigeria or India.

If you want to see the whole country, you will need to do it in different ways at different times. At times you will fly over from one corner to another; you’ll only get 35,000-foot glimpses of most of the land, but you’ll see it from a unique perspective. Other times you’ll take a car; you’ll see more than flying—mountains and rivers, deserts and oceans, cities and vast spaces of empty land—but most will still be zooming past at sixty miles per hour.

Then there are times you will just walk. You’ll never get out of the city or the forest or the desert, or wherever you started walking, but you’ll see the details; you can sit for hours on a beach and watch the tide slowly roll in, covering the rocks and tide pools you explored earlier in the day; you’ll gaze in awestruck wonder at the intricacies of a rose just before it bursts into bloom.

Reading the Bible is like that. You’ll be reading of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples, then fly back to the first Passover meal in Exodus. Or you’ll read the entire book of Romans in one sitting and you’ll see the changing topography of Paul’s treatise. And sometimes you’ll sit and soak in the creative beauty of a single verse or a paragraph, turning each word over in your mind like a rosebud between your fingers.

We’ll explore this more in future posts. For now, though, decide where and how you want to begin, then begin. If you’re just getting started, set yourself a reachable goal: read 5-10 minutes a day, three days a week.