Tag 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.

It’s High Time…

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system-failureThis is not a political blog. If you look right below the title, The Rushed Contemplative, you’ll see the subhead, “Musings on Life and Faith.” But during this election season in the U.S.—perhaps as much as at any other time in my life—our nation’s politics intersect powerfully with “life and faith.” And it’s high time I took a stand.

I am surprised by the number of Republicans supporting Donald Trump. Many of the same people who cried out for Bill Clinton to be impeached twenty years ago are now defending Trump in the face of a pattern of affairs, lewd comments, and lascivious behavior. “But Clinton was president,” goes one defense. “He apologized,” goes another. (Ironically, we’re talking about the same man who said he has no need to ask God’s forgiveness.) “Talk is talk,” suggested one person.

If we thought Bill Clinton’s actions—not only his actions with Monica Lewinsky, but the lies he told to cover it up—rose to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors” that warranted impeachment and possible removal from the presidency, then why in the world would we even consider electing a man with a long history of similar actions? At the very least (and it is certainly least) Bill Clinton didn’t proudly boast about his “conquest,” as Donald Trump has. (I recall one pagan ruler in the Bible whose arrogance resulted in a God-ordained mental illness.)

I am appalled by the number of Christ followers throwing their support behind Donald Trump. Yes, I am well aware that we are not electing a “pastor-in-chief.” But that doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to the significant character flaws Mr. Trump displays daily. We need not expect him to demonstrate all the fruit of the Spirit, but how does he measure up against the “works of the flesh” Paul outlines: “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, enmity, strife, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, orgies, and things like these” (Galatians 5:19–21; ESV). That’s quite a list—and I deleted several of the most arguable ones.

Look for a moment at the words in that list that have nothing to do with sex. Mr. Trump’s god is money. Or himself; that might be a close race. His talk has consistently increased the enmity of other nations against the U.S.—including some of our allies. He has in no way been the uniter of the Republican party that he claims to have been, as evidenced by the number of Republican stalwarts who have vowed not to vote for their own party’s candidate.

The arguments for electing Donald Trump ring hollow. The single most compelling argument I have heard centers around Supreme Court justices; the next president is likely to have as many as three appointments. As profound an impact as that may be, a president’s legacy goes far beyond the Court; it is formed in the relationships with other nations, both allies and adversaries; it is formed in his/her leadership of the armed forces; it is formed in national and global economics.

Next to the Supreme Court question, the most compelling argument I have heard is that by electing Trump, we will not have another President Clinton. It is the “lesser of two evils” argument. Some have countered by saying that at least with Hillary, we know what we’re getting; that’s actually pretty good thinking – because we really have no idea what a President Trump would be like, other than loud, arrogant, and belligerent.

If not Trump, then who? Donald Trump would be not just a bad president, but a dangerous one. He is patently unqualified, by reason of his character and demeanor, to lead what is still the most powerful nation on earth.

Hillary Clinton is by far the most qualified candidate, as she has been almost since day one. But I cannot support her politics and have serious qualms about her ethics—as I have since her time as First Lady.

Many people say that any vote for someone other than Trump or Clinton is a vote for one of them. In other words, if I vote against Trump, then I might as well vote for Clinton, and vice versa. In reality, it is almost undoubtedly true that one of the major-party candidates will be the next president. I have had a growing concern for a dozen years about our nation’s two-party system, how we do primary elections, and the electoral college. (I wonder what conversations we would be having today if we could have multiple candidates from each party.)

Many people say that to vote for a third-party candidate is to throw away my vote. There’s some truth to that. Some of these candidates are not even on the ballot in all 50 states—another massive systemic failure. But even if, somehow, a third-party candidate were to get more of the popular vote than either Clinton or Trump, I suspect that the electoral college would give the vote to one of them—and we’d have an even bigger uproar than in 2000.

So who will I vote for? I will vote for a third-party candidate. I will vote for someone whom I believe is capable of guiding our nation, of leading our military, of working with Congress, of exercising diplomacy with our allies and adversaries. I will vote for someone who can surround him- or herself with wise advisors and cabinet members. I will vote for someone whose character is honorable (the biblical term “above reproach” seems sadly unreachable) and whose politics are as closely aligned with mine as possible.

I’m not sure yet who that person is. I’m not even sure if there is such a candidate, or if I will have to write in a name (it would be Paul Ryan). But in so doing, I will have both confidence and hope: confidence that I will not have cast my vote for someone whom I cannot support for president; and hope that the millions of people who share my concerns will join me and at least begin the process of changing how we elect our president.

Another Prince, Another Pauper

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prince and pauperTwo men came to Jesus, each with a request. One man was blind and poor, and wanted to see; the other was rich and sighted, and wanted eternal life.

Both requests were good and right, and Jesus offered answers to both. So why did one man walk away praising God and the other walked away sad?

The difference between the two men was not in their wealth, but their heart. Yes, the blind man was poor; unable to see, his only income was the coins he begged from passersby at the city gates. Yet his poverty went deeper than his wallet. Downtrodden and outcast, all that his blind eyes could see was the rejection of those walking past him each day. And it was in this poverty of spirit that he cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” His request was both simple and impossible: I want to see.

The rich man may well have been one of those who tossed a few coins at the nameless, faceless beggars he daily rode by. Doubtless honored both for business savvy and his commandment-keeping righteousness, his request was no less honorable than the blind man’s: What must I do to inherit eternal life?

Though both petitions were good, the difference between them was stark. Where the blind man knew he was could do nothing to bring about his own healing, the rich man believed his prayer could be answered by some good deed, some noble gesture, some further mark of his own power and wealth and righteousness. His perfect eyes and fat money-purse blinded him to the poverty of his own soul.

Jesus answered both men’s requests just as they wanted him to: He did for the blind man what he knew he could not do for himself; and he gave the wealthy man a very simple task – a good deed that was very do-able yet proved impossible for the seeker of life.

There is a deep irony in these two encounters (read them in Luke 18:18-43): a penniless blind man sees his poverty, and purchases by his faith the new eyes that no king could ever afford. Across town a wealthy man, blind to his own destitution, refuses to trade his affluence for the only thing that could make him truly rich.


It is easy to read these stories in the Bible, to celebrate the healing of the one and groan at the obstinacy of the other. But God does not want us to merely read, cheer, and groan. He wants us to see ourselves in His Word, to decide how we will respond. Who are you?

Are you the man without eyes, convinced of your unworthiness and the impossibility of your situation? Or are you the one with both eyes and money, wondering what else you can do to earn God’s favor and presence?

Will you come to God in helpless faith, pleading for mercy first and sight second? Or do you come with wallet open, looking for yet another spiritual tax deduction?

Will you walk away with Jesus, glorifying God? Or will you just walk away, sadly looking for an easier way?

Going It Alone

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Ethiopia vista

Jordan is the type of separation where there is no fellowship with anyone else, and where no one can take the responsibility for you.1

How many years had Elisha walked with his mentor, Elijah? Seven? Eight? How many times had he witnessed the power of God come down through the words and deeds of the great prophet? Countless times. And now….

For days now, Elisha has known the time was at hand. Three times the prophet had told his young protege, stay here while I go into the city. Three times, Elisha has refused, insisting that he stay by his side. And in each city, the locals remind him that his master’s days are numbered. I know, he says. Shut up and don’t remind me! And now….

Now Elijah has disappeared, taken up miraculously from before his very eyes. Chariots. Horses. Fire. A whirlwind. And when the tumult dies down, Elisha is alone. Alone on the banks of the river they had crossed together only moments before.

The thunderous drama of the prophet’s exit only magnifies the deafening silence in which Elisha now stands; Elijah’s billowing cloak, now lying in a dusty clump on the parched ground, the only sign that he’d ever been there. And now….

Such spectacles do not come frequently in our lives, but the times of aloneness are all-too-common. We leave the spiritual height of a mission trip and, on returning home, find that no one really understands, and too few even seem to care. We meet God at a mountain camp, only to return to the doldrums of daily life back at sea level. We are fêted well as we say goodbye to a ministry we have loved and prospered, then find ourselves alone and waiting by the Jordan for some sign that we are not really alone.

And there on the banks of our own Jordan, as Chambers says, “you have to put to the test now what you learned when you were with your Elijah. … If you want to know whether God is the God you have faith to believe Him to be, then go through your Jordan alone.

Think about that for a moment: Do you want to know whether God is the God you think He is? You can only know it when you get alone. No one can know it for you. Friends, mentors, a spouse… they can all tell you it’s true… that God is true. But only you can know it.

In order to know he was not alone, Elisha had to pick up the prophet’s cloak and put it around his own shoulders. What is that cloak for you? Perhaps a Bible that has sat too long untouched. For me it was a Jacob-like wrestling match with God (see Genesis 32:22-32).

Pick up the cloak and know the truth of what you believe.

1 [Oswald Chambers, My Utmost For His Highest, Aug 11. See 2 Kings 2:1-25.]

How Many Loaves?

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BrotchenJust looking at this picture makes my mouth water for the Brötchen I gobbled down during my high school days in Germany. I’ve never found them anywhere else—certainly not as good. Crunchy crust (but not too), tender inside…and always best first thing in the morning, fresh out of the baker’s oven.

Bread figures prominently in the Bible; numerous stories in both Old and New Testaments center around people who want bread, and how God miraculously provides it. Maybe that’s why Jesus is called “the Bread of Life.”

The Gospel of Mark (chapters 6 and 8) records two such bread-related miracles. In both, crowds of people—multiple thousands—have come to Jesus for healing and to hear him teach. Jesus’ disciples keep looking at their watches and finally suggest gently that it’s getting late and shouldn’t we send the people home for dinner? But Jesus has a different idea.

How many loaves do you have?

What?! The question is ludicrous! But Jesus keeps a straight face, just a hint of a knowing smile touching the corners of his lips. And the disciples—trying hard not to show their disbelief—offer the count: five loaves and two fish on the first occasion; seven loaves and a few small fish the second time.

You’ve probably heard the stories. Jesus asks the crowds to sit, says a prayer of thanks, and starts breaking the lunch into pieces. Basket after basket is filled, passed around, and brought back for more. And still Jesus sits, quietly breaking the bread. Seconds are passed around, then thirds. Soon the full baskets are passed and no one can eat another bite. Twelve full baskets remain; seven on the second occasion.

We read these stories and our immediate thought is, “Wow! Jesus did an amazing miracle! The disciples must have been stunned by that display!” Maybe. But did they learn anything? Not much—just a few verses later, Jesus has to ask, “Do you not yet understand?” The answer is clear: No.

But there’s something different we need to read in these passages, too: a difference of perspective. Notice the disciples’ thoughts: we obviously can’t feed these people; they should leave so they can find dinner. They look at the need, the lack. It’s what you might call “a poverty mentality.”

Jesus, on the other hand, had a Kingdom perspective; a power mentality. He didn’t look at the need, but at the resources: the bread, his own compassion, and God’s power. And with gratitude, he put those resources together to feed the crowds.

It’s so easy for me to look at what I don’t have: my weaknesses, the strengths and experience a would-be employer wants that I lack, a dwindling bank account. And my response is like the disciples: I go off on my own to try to find what I need.

But what if I had Jesus’ perspective? What if I looked at the little I have—my seven loaves—and gave them to Jesus to pray for, bless, and multiply. What might he do with them?

How many loaves do you have?