Editor’s Note: This post is based on a sermon written by Benjamin Weber for St. Agatha Mennonite Church and First Mennonite Church. Benjamin is one of 9 young adults currently participating in a PiE initiative called “Preach It!” that matches passionate young preachers with local congregations. The text Benjamin is referring to is John 4:1-30.
When I was asked to preach a sermon for Pastors in Exile, I was excited. You see, that combines two things I love, preaching and PiE.
In case you’re wondering, “PiE” is the acronym for Pastors in Exile, although I am also a fan of the dessert. Now I should be clear, I am not a formal spokesperson for PiE, the closest thing I have to an official title is “biggest fan” although I’m sure there are others who would vie with me for that honour. I have been involved in the planning of three different groups with PiE, none of which have gotten off the ground. I like to think that it wasn’t entirely my fault that those projects didn’t see the light of day, but I am the common denominator.
I’ve been writing a lot lately but it seems like everything I write, one way or another,veers onto the topic of populism. Poetry, a travelogue, Facebook posts, they’ve all touched on populism. When I began to write this sermon I swear I had no intentions for it to be about populism but it sneakily crept in that direction somehow. I suppose I shouldn’t fight the inevitable. As a result of the turn in direction, I was forced to discard a bunch of now unrelated content I had already written. It was mostly me moaning about how groups from the Bible like the Samaritans and the Assyrians are mostly seen in a figurative light, ignoring the fact that both of these groups of people were very real and still are because they’re still around today. So if that sounds like the kind of sermon you would have rather heard, my apologies, I won’t take up too much of your time.
Before I get to the meat of my sermon, I feel the need to include a short explanatory note. A number of times in this sermon, including in its title, I use the word “salvation.” From my personal experience, this is a word many Mennonites are uncomfortable with. To be honest, I don’t entirely know what “salvation” means, partly because I don’t know for sure what happens after we die. I know John 3:16 says we’ll have eternal life but I’m unsure exactly how to interpret those two words, “eternal” and “life.” I believe that it is essential to believe in Christ, his sacrifice and his message. But I also believe God is all – powerful and all-knowing and it is only through his grace that I am saved and nothing I can do can change that.
So it’s these two, seemingly contradictory beliefs that I struggle with when it comes to salvation. It’s a journey. In short, salvation means whatever you feel it means, but probably something to do with Jesus. After all, the Aramaic name Yeshua, from which we presume “Jesus” is derived, roughly translates as “the LORD is salvation.”
John 4 starts with a brief reference to the pharisees being made aware of Jesus’ actions. Indeed, the previous chapter recounts the story of the pharisee Nicodemus. I already preached a sermon about him. It somehow became all about freedom of speech. Some would say I get off topic with alarming ease. I prefer to think I’m just going in the direction the spirit’s calling me. Anyway. There are multiple examples in the gospels of Jesus speaking truth to power. But the Samaritan woman at the well is not one of those. Here Jesus speaks truth to the powerless. And this tactic appears to be no less effective, possibly even more so.
And there are two levels of powerlessness going on here. The Samaritans as a whole are something of a marginalized people so Jesus speaking his message to them is significant. But it goes further. It is never made wholly explicit what the woman at the well has done, but the reference to her five husbands and her cohabitation with one who is not her husband definitely provides an indication that, even among the Samaritans, this woman is looked down upon. Surely there must have been a better representative of the Samaritan people that Jesus could have selected as the conduit for his message? That reading would be, I think, a case of entirely missing the point. The very reason Jesus selects the Samaritan woman to hear his message is the same reason he selects the Samaritan people to hear his message: just because they are downtrodden, doesn’t mean they don’t deserve salvation.
Now I should be clear, Jesus’ message is definitely not a message just for the oppressed. By that I mean Jesus is not some “for the many, not the few” populist, the likes of which we see popping up all across the world these days. With apologies to Percy Bysshe Shelley, from whom these words are derived, but
true salvation, and true leadership for that matter, is for the many and the few and, in fact, absolutely everyone.
Now “populist” can be a complicated term and sometimes even a positive descriptor.Make no mistake though, when I use the term, it is a universally negative one. Populists create an “us vs. them” narrative and proceed to condemn “them” as “other” and bad. Modern examples of this include narratives of the “good” white people vs. the “bad” minorities and the “good” poor 99% vs. the “bad” wealthy 1%. Anyone who seeks to divide society into groups and demonize one of those groups, I have little time for.This is not to say that there aren’t people who do bad things. There certainly are and in those cases, justice must be applied. It’s when you apply collective demonization that it’s a problem. When you hate all Americans due to the behaviour of some rude tourists. When you want to boycott all things Israeli due to the discriminatory policies of their government. When you fear all Muslims due to the terrorist activities of a handful of them. During my lifetime the government of the People’s Republic of China massacred thousands of people and hasn’t so much as said “sorry” for it. Should I be chucking my Chinese made laptop out the window?
The archetypal populist comes from shortly before the time of Christ and that figure is none other than Julius Caesar. Caesar sought to unite the Roman people against the corruption of the elites in the Senate. A seemingly noble goal. And what did that lead to? The autocratic Roman Empire, the very same empire that killed Christ. Populism left unchecked, no matter who it claims to represent, will lead to authoritarianism. And Christianity has already walked hand in hand with tyranny for far too long. Whether that’s tyranny from above, like the mass expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, or tyranny from below, like the Christian mob that lynched the pagan philosopher Hypatia in 415, it does not matter.
Tyranny is tyranny.
Listen to Jesus’ words: “the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.” Did you hear that? “Neither on this mountain nor inJerusalem.” In other words, don’t worship God like the Samaritans do or like the Jews do. Don’t worship God like the oppressed do or like the establishment do. He continues, “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.” I repeat, “true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” “Spirit and truth,” that is what God seeks from you.
That is what you need for salvation. Not power, not wealth, not humility, not poverty. “Spirit and truth.”
So when you approach the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, keep in mind Alexander Pope’s famous couplet, “A little Learning is a dang’rous Thing; / Drink deep, or taste not Pierian Spring.” In other words, part of the truth can be worse than no truth at all.Quoting Bible verses free of their surrounding context can certainly lead to oppression. The Samaritan woman at the well could be a such a piece of dangerous scripture. I feel it has been frequently overlooked or at least misunderstood, as can be seen in the symbiotic relationship between the church and various political powers over the years. This relationship dates back at least to AD 301 when Christianity became the state religion of Armenia and continues to this day in places like Russia where the Orthodox Church maintains a cozy relationship with Vladimir Putin. I can’t think of anything more ridiculous than Christianity as a state religion. Christianity is not the religion of the rich and powerful.
All that being said, embracing the story of the Samaritan woman out of context is just as bad as ignoring it. Get the whole truth. Don’t pick and choose. So, yes, of course I’m not in favour of establishment, prosperity theology, “palace” Christianity, but I also don’t much care for the militant, liberation theology, hoi polloi Christianity that could be drawn from the story of the Samaritan woman at the well.
Jesus’ message was for the powerless. Also the powerful. And everyone in between. Salvation is for everyone.
Salvation is for everyone. Great. What next, you may ask? That’s a good question. The Samaritan woman has been described as the first evangelist because she took Jesus’ message and spread it to other people. Me, personally, I’m not much of an evangelist. My social skills are limited and among the friends I have, they’re either already Christian or they’re the type of people who would find being evangelized very irritating. Then they would likely not be my friends anymore. So I struggle with sharing my faith. In fact, I struggle a lot with sharing anything that is very important to me. For example, I love to watch movies but I have a rule that I never watch my favourite movies with other people. Sure, I would like them to share in the joy that I get from those movies but I don’t want to risk watching a favourite movie with someone who doesn’t enjoy it because that is a supremely uncomfortable situation for me.
My faith in Christ, my Mennonite faith, is similar. It’s an awesome thing and naturally I think everyone should share in it, but they don’t, so I largely keep it to myself. I’m not advocating this as an example for all to follow, rather I’m illustrating my shortcomings. If anyone knows a way of evangelizing without being annoying, I’d love to hear it. Until then I will wear my faith on my sleeve and do good works in the world and hope that my small contributions get noticed.
Because whenever I help people, I don’t do it for them. I do it for him.
Benjamin Weber is a graduate of Rockway Mennonite Collegiate, and Religious studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church is his home base, where he was baptized in 2010 at the age of 23 and actively supports youth faith formation. This past October he went to Wittenberg, Germany to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Odd jobs help pay the bills and support his hobbies like watching movies and collecting books of poetry and vinyl LPs.