A Stranger No Longer
Topic: Christ's Love & Power Scripture: John 4:1–4:30
In the summer I told you all about Trinity Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, Washington. A close friend of mine named Rod is a pastor there. I want to tell you how our friendship began. I was in Dubuque, Iowa for a seminary orientation. I hadn’t had a class yet and hadn’t formally met any of the other students in my cohort. Honestly, I didn’t care about that. I wanted to put my head down and get through seminary as quickly as I could. I wasn’t looking to make friends. But the University of Dubuque Seminary didn’t care about what I wanted. They value community and connection, so for a few days, our newly-formed cohort went through orientation courses and team building exercises, including a lower ropes course. In other words, the last thing I wanted to do.
We were doing an activity where we had to lift each other one at a time through a rope spider web without letting the person touch the rope. The moment I knew Rod and I would become buds went something like this. Our group of about 12 people was lifting one of our new classmates through, and someone said we had to raise them higher. Me, being the Star Wars nerd that I am, immediately thought of Billy Dee Williams’ character Lando Calrissian and a scene from Return of the Jedi where he says, “Just a little higher. Just a little higher.” And I think I must have said it out loud in imitation of Lando and Rod immediately knew what line I was reciting, the character, and the movie. He, too, is a Star Wars nerd. Our eyes locked in a very bromantic fashion and – boom- instant lifelong friendship. It was a chance encounter that left a mark and hopefully by now you know where I’m going with this.
For the past several weeks we’ve been going through our series on Chance Encounters and each time we’ve come into some pretty unique situations. From miraculous healings to exorcisms into pigs. But when you take away all the incredible details of each account, there is one compelling truth in each story: Someone met Jesus and walked away utterly different for it. That’s what this entire series has been about, Jesus changing people, changing us. So it’s fitting that we finish off our series this morning by looking at one of the most familiar and resonant chance encounters that Jesus had during his time on earth.
It doesn’t focus on someone extraordinary or, really, even distinguishable in any way. This person wasn't known by the community like the demon-possessed man from last week. The person we’re looking at isn’t a well-known public figure like Zacchaeus. And they don’t suffer from a disease or paralysis. In almost every sense of the word, average and unremarkable. But like every person, regardless of fame or position or predicament, they have a story. A story that Jesus enters and proceeds to profoundly rewrite. We’re in John 4, and we’re going to look at verses 1-30. It’s a more extended passage, but hang in there, it’s worth it.
* Read John 4:1-30 *
Alright, so we come into what appears to be a pretty casual conversation on the surface. Jesus and his disciples are traveling to a town called Galilee and, while they are making the trip, Jesus stops at well for a drink while his friends go into town to buy some food. They are in a region called Samaria. It might not jump out on first reading, but Samaria was not a place folks wanted to be, especially Jews. The historical context for this permeated racial culture at the time and dated back centuries to long-ended wars and conflicts. And while I’d be happy to sit down with you another time and give you that history lesson, I want to tell you the impression I got concerning Samaria through all my research. It’s that bad part of town you don’t want to be alone in.
Many of us can probably visualize such a place from our own experience. It might not be here in Bloomington-Normal. Maybe it’s a section of Chicago or another city. Maybe it’s a certain intersection or a couple of blocks from the town you grew up in. This is a difficult thing to talk about and hard for us to admit, and this may not be the experience for all of us; but when I thought back over those periods in my life, I found something troubling as a common factor. Race.
I remember my dad warning me to avoid “that part of town” or having an RA from college encourage us not to go to “so and so” (unless in a group). Even when I think back on the urban environment within the rural, suburban paradise that is Lancaster, PA, each place was an area where I would encounter people who were racially different from me.
I’m not saying that my dad or the resident assistant at Eastern University were racist. I don’t believe they were. But the truth is, I would come in close contact with people who were visibly different than me. And that is the type of situation that Jesus encounters.
Samaria is a place saturated with people who were different and the region had a history for violence. Many Jews would add almost three days to their travels, just to walk around and avoid Samaria. Because they feared it, because it had a reputation because it was a land filled with strangers. Before Jesus speaks a word in our passage, he teaches us something critical, both then and especially now; people who follow Jesus have to be ready to go to unfamiliar and possibly uncomfortable places if they want to truly follow Him.
And then we get the chance encounter with the woman who is commonly called the woman at the well. Now the timing of when this happens is important. We’re told it’s noon. And that means it is the absolute hottest part of the day. Folks would go to draw water in the early morning hours or after the sun had set, never when the sun was beating down on them. But this woman is at the well alone at this time. The consensus is that our woman at the well had a reputation in the community and wasn’t welcome in any social gathering – even drawing water. We can gather more from her conversation with Jesus.
So Jesus begins this chance encounter with a request. He’s thirsty, and he asks her for a drink, but the woman at the well doesn’t respond because she’s so shocked. No doubt, she thought she’d be alone at the well in the first place. And now this stranger is talking to her, something she wasn’t accustomed to. And even more, Jesus is a Jew and she’s a Samaritan. And we’re told the two do not mix. Think of any movie you’ve watched that dealt with the theme of racism. The Help, Hidden Figure, even Remember the Titans. In all of them, at some point, you see an uncomfortable interaction between two people with different skin colors. That is not far off from what we see happening in our text. Jesus is breaking the rules and crossing the lines of societal norms, and Jesus doesn’t care.
Verses 10-15 give us a discourse on the living water Christ gives. That’s material for another sermon but reveals to us something important about Jesus. Jesus knows our needs, and He knows what we need. He knows this woman needs literal H2O to drink, but Jesus also knows that what she needs is a lasting spring of life and peace. It’s silly for us to think for a moment that Jesus isn’t aware of our desires and our hearts greatest need. But, if Jesus knows what our hearts need, that means He knows our very heart. And we see that next.
Jesus asks this woman to get her husband, and from that question, we learn a likely-shameful element of her story and a better than good guess at why she chooses to endure the scorching sun to draw water alone in the middle of the day. She admits that she has no husband and then Jesus, someone who she thought was a stranger, reveals his knowledge of her story and her heart. And then she begins to get it and sees that this man is a stranger no longer, but instead, just might be the real desire of her heart.
And she ends us leaving with her life utterly changed. Where once she was afraid to be seen by others, now she is running into town to tell everyone to meet the man who told her everything she had ever done. Her fear was replaced with excitement, her anxiety with anticipation. Her focus wasn’t fixed on herself anymore but instead on the one who knew her better than she knew herself.
In truth, this story is so packed with a richness that it could merit its own series. But when we stop and look at it in its most basic form it is merely a chance encounter. As random as striking up a good conversation with someone on a plane or in line at the store. But this chance encounter with Jesus, like all the others we’ve looked at, offers us a revealing look at the person of Jesus and also a mirror-like reflection into our own stories.
You see, whether we like to admit it or not, to many of us and at different points in our lives Jesus feels like that stranger that shows up at an unexpected and, honestly, inconvenient time and place. We’re trying to just get through whatever is in front of us. If it’s not drawing water from a well than it’s that hard semester at school or a brutal stretch at work or being in the middle of some tough family stuff or insert anything you’re going through right now. Things are hard enough as it is without this Jesus character walking into our story and asking something of us. But there He is. Or, I guess I should say, here He is.
I wasn’t looking for friends in seminary. In my head, seminary was merely a stretch of road God set before me to travel so I could live into my call to be a pastor. I wanted to take my classes, get good grades, and learn how the lessons I’d need to be a good pastor. But then Rod popped into my story. And he wasn’t the only one. Beau Pugh, Nic Merchant, Cori Rigney. These four people are some of my closest friends now. Honestly, I think we talk in some way every day. At one point, they were strangers I had to take a class photo with. No longer. But I could have missed all of that and these precious relationships if I had dug my heels in and said that I was just too busy or my life was just too complicated at the moment. And we risk losing something much, much more precious if we ignore the moments when Jesus walks into our story.
Friends, the story of this woman drawing water from a well is our story. In the ordinary moments of life, we experience a chance encounter with Jesus. Drawing water, finishing high school, striving through a career, honoring our marriages, loving our families, enduring the impossible moments, and celebrating the exceptional ones. All of us are doing life just like this woman in John 4. We have a task set before us, a schedule to keep, expectations to meet…a life to live. And just like with this woman, Jesus knows all of those parts of our story. He knew she wanted water. He knows the things we want and the things we are striving for. But, more importantly, Jesus knows what it is that we truly need and who it is that we need. And it is Himself. He is the living water. He is the Messiah. He is the one who knows us.
I hope that, over the past few weeks, you’ve found a chance encounter that resonates with you. The power of Jesus transformed the woman who had suffered years of pain and isolation. The man Zacchaeus, scaled a tree because he had an overwhelming curiosity about Jesus. A group effort to bring healing to a man with only one hope. A man so consumed and twisted by a darkness that he had ceased to be who he truly was. And even an entirely average woman just doing the everyday tasks of life.
These chance encounters reveal the power, love, and the truth of Jesus, but they do more than tell us about Jesus. They tell us about ourselves. They show us reflections of who we are, who we no longer want to be, or who we pray to become. They are stories of transformation, but first, they are stories of an encounter. Of being met by Jesus Christ at a specific moment of their life and being changed, being put on a new path, being given new hope and meaning and identity.
You might have had your first chance encounter decades ago when you were a kid. It doesn’t matter how long ago it was that you first met Jesus. It doesn’t matter how much time has passed. Because regardless of where that relationship has been, today you can decide to make it something truly meaningful to you. At one point in time, our spouses were just people with names we didn’t know and stories we had no investment in. And then, after a chance encounter, something changed, and a relationship was formed. Some choose to renew their vows because they want to publicly and proudly proclaim that regardless of what has happened since, that from that day forward the will love and honor their spouse.
Chance encounters are wonderful, inspiring moments. And we have them with Jesus throughout our life. But maybe what we need is something more akin to a renewal of the vows, to picking up the phone and calling that old friend we haven’t spoken to in some time. Life happens, and it keeps happening. Schedules only grow, responsibilities multiple, stuff happens. And sometimes we lose the commitment and intimacy with Jesus that we once knew. And he becomes something of a stranger to us. These stories remind us that that isn’t the way it needs to be. We are reminded that Jesus seeks us out and offers us hope and purpose. That if we would just seek him that perhaps he would be a stranger no longer.