Some of you will remember Harry Golden. He was an author who became very popular in the early 1960’s, I think. He was a journalist author whose books such as “For 2 Cents Plain” told the tale of his growing up on the east side of New York, and what it was like to be a Jew in North Carolina. Since he disturbed the prejudices of many of his neighbors he was something of a controversial figure. Somebody decided, therefore, to see what he could dig up out of Harry Goldman’s past. He discovered and passed the word around that Harry Golden had spent time in prison. He had been convicted of some crime like forgery and had gone to jail for it, and you know what people began to say about that. But one of Harry Golden’s friends who had not known about prison, and who was probably just as surprised as anybody else, wrote him a letter. It consisted of only six words. It said, “So what else is new, Harry?” Now that’s a friend.
Carmen Trippe told me the other day that he read somewhere that there are two kinds of friends. Most of us have two kinds of friends. There are material friends and there are emotional friends. Material friends are those who can do something for you. Your banker is your material friend. Your doctor is your material friend. And for $65 per hour the psychiatrist will be your friend. Material friends are important. You need people who can do things for you. The other kind of friend is the emotional friend. That’s the person whom, if you have some time free to spend, that’s the person you want to spend it with, and he wants to spend it with you. That’s the person who likes you if you are rich or poor, and who if you get in jail, would come down and bail you out and say, “so what else is new, Harry.” Most of us, if we are lucky, have two or three friends like that in a lifetime, at the most two or three. And some of us never have a friend like that, never. And the meaning of the story of the woman at the well is that Jesus is a friend like that, and the church is a place of friends like that.
John 4:27-42 27 Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?” 28 Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” 30 They came out of the town and made their way toward him. 31 Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” 33 Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?” 34 “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. 35 Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. 36 Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. 37 Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. 38 I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.” 39 Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. 41 And because of his words many more became believers. 42 They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”
Today and last Sunday we have read what seems to be the same story in two parts (editor’s note the referenced sermon was posted on March 16, 2011) I wondered about that , why not read it all together? As I studied it, though, it seemed to me that the answer is that it is two different stories really. The first is the story about a Samaritan woman, the second a story about the town of Samaritans. The first is the image of water, the second the image of the harvest.
John’s Gospel is a study told in many levels, almost layers. He has a way of slipping in little things that mean something more than they seem to mean on the surface. If you have your Bibles look at the story with me again. Like a good playwright who does not want too many characters on the stage at the same time, John says the disciples come back and the woman leaves. But as she leaves, she leaves her water jar behind. Why do you suppose she did that? Well, we will come back to that a little later. She goes into town, not back home, and tells the people “Come see a man who told me everything I ever did.” The most significant thing about her encounter with Jesus was that he told her everything she ever did. We will come back to that, too. Now, you could easily move from that point in the story to the conclusion about the Samaritans, but there is a kind of interlude with the disciples. And the interlude tells the same story. If the woman didn’t understand about the water the disciples didn’t understand about the food. They urge Jesus to eat, he tells them he has food that they don’t know anything about. He means that what keeps him alive is doing the will of God. They think that some sort of vendor has come by selling sandwiches while they were off in town at the grocery store. Jesus says, it is his “food” to finish the work of God. (It is the same word as he spoke from the cross when he said. “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and died.)
There are these curious words about the harvest, and the fields white unto harvest. We usually read them to mean that we who are in the church are harvesters and all those outside the church are the wheat just waiting for us to come gather them in. “Bringing in the Sheaves” and all that. In fact, there are people outside the church who see it that way too, as if the church were the grim reaper, come to do something to them, as if the church were always looking for material friends, as if the church always has something up its sleeve. The church does not always live up to its calling, that’s true, but when it lives up to its calling, it is called to be the people who are emotional friends. And what’s more, the story really speaks about Jesus, whose coming is itself the sign of the harvest. He has come to be like as we are, to be our friend, to deal with our loneliness, outcast as we are, “So what else is new, Harry?” Let me point out a couple of things in this story.
I said I wanted to come back to this part about the water jar. John says, “So the woman left her water jar and went into the city.” Why do you suppose John puts in that detail? It may be, of course, that somebody was there and told about it. She was so surprised and so flustered that she just walked off and left her water jar sitting there. Maybe she left it behind for Jesus to get a drink. It seems more likely that John puts this detail in because it fits his purpose. Here is a woman who had come to get water. Jesus promises her the water of life. She says give me this water that I may not have to come here to draw. Jesus gives her the water of life, a well of water springing up into everlasting life, so she has no more need of the water jar and she leaves it behind.
What was the thirst that kept her coming back to the well? It was the thirst for someone who would just love her. She had had five husbands and five failures. We don’t know anything at all about her except that something kept driving her, maybe this one, maybe this one, and now she was living with a man who was not her husband.
I dare say there are some of us here who know people like that, who keep looking for love and never seem to be able to find it. I dare say there are some of us here who know what that loneliness is like. We wish we had a friend, just one, not tow or three, just one, who really cared about us, but we only experience alienation, alienation between husband and wife, parent and child. And we want to flee that alienation because it hurts so. We want to go somewhere and do something. Children want to move out and get away. So we keep going to the well everyday with our broken water jars trying to satisfy our thirst, when what we really need is the water of life. In Jesus, she found the love she had always been looking for, and she left her water behind.
And I said I wanted to get back to this part about “he told me everything I ever did.” That was the most significant thing about Jesus to her. Now, it was not that she was dazzled because he was a mind reader. It was that she was delighted that he saw right through her, that he knew everything she ever did, and he loved her anyway.
God is like that. He did not choose Abraham to be his friend because Abraham was a good man. Abraham was a liar and a coward, but God chose to be his friend anyway. He did not choose Israel to be his material friend. If the banker does something for you he expects you to appreciate it. Israel never seemed to appreciate it. If the psychiatrist befriends you he expects you to pay him for it. God brought Israel out of the slavery of Egypt, across the Red Sea, but when they got thirsty those ungrateful people, said, “Why did you bring us out here to die of thirst in this God-forsaken place?”
Exodus 17:3-7 3 But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?” 4 Then Moses cried out to the LORD, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5 The LORD answered Moses, “Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 And he called the place Massah[a] and Meribah[b] because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the LORD saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”
So you have a friend, and you transgress on that friendship and they come to get you, and put you in jail, and you don’t dare call your friend because you know it will hurt him deeply to know you are in jail, and it will give you great pain when you see him, but he finds out anyway, and he comes down and pays your bail and he says, “So what else is new, Harry?” God is like that. He knows everything you ever did and he loves you anyway. What a friend we have in Jesus.
Now, one more thing about his story. This woman did not go home, did you notice? She did not go home, she went into the city. She had a new home. It was among the people of the town, who came out themselves and begged Jesus to stay with them, and who said, we now know for ourselves that this is indeed the saviour of the world. Her home was among these who had become the church.
Why does anybody go to church? I’m not really taking a poll, but why does anybody go to church? It is to worship, surely, to acknowledge the presence of God with us, that he is indeed the saviour of the world, my friend. Now there are some folks who may say, “I don’t need to go to church. I can worship God just as well on the golf course, and I can in Church”. That may be, but most folks go to the golf course to play golf, not to worship God. You don’t come to church to play golf.
Why does anybody go to church? It is because they also know that the church is the place of friends. Henri Nouwen said, “You become like the group you associate yourself with. The church is an island of friends in a sea of alienation.” The church is an oasis of living water in a desrt of people who only want to use you. And if you say, but the church can be less than loving, even less than kind. I say to you, do not judge the church by its human reality. Judge the church by its intention. Gaze not at its human face, gaze on the face of its Lord. For he came to be a friend even to the Samaritans.
There are two kinds of friends, material friends and emotional friends. Material friends are those people who can do something for you. The banker is your material friend. The doctor is your material friend, and it is important to have material friends. The emotional friend is somebody that you just like to be with, if you have a little time to spend. He is the one who likes you if you are rich or if you are in jail. If we have two or three friends like that in a lifetime we are lucky. There are some people who have no friends like that at all, like the woman at the well. But the Bible says in Jesus, God has become like as we are and he says to us to all Samaritans like us, “So what else is new, Harry?”
Romans 8:1-3 1 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you[a] free from the law of sin and death. 3 For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh,[b] God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering.[c] And so he condemned sin in the flesh,
This sermon was preached by Bill Crouch on March 22, 1981 at First United Methodist Church in Denton. It was part of a Lenten sermon series title “Like as we are”. If you would like to receive emails of new postings from the Rumors of Angels blog, free subscription information is available at the top of the right column of the blog home page.