Third Sunday in Lent March 19, 2017
Scripture readings: Exodus 17: 1-7 and John 4: 5-42
Sermon: “Coloring Outside the Lines, Part One: God’s Ways Are NOT Our Ways”
To “color outside the lines” means to work a problem in a way that has not previously been tried – or to introduce a new strategy for dealing with a problem.
For the next few Sundays, each sermon I give will discuss various approaches in which our Lord – and sometimes even His followers – attempt to serve the Kingdom by coloring outside the lines.
In all my years of working with young people, I never tired of encountering someone who could attack a problem in a completely new way. This happened so often with children that I can’t even remember all the instances in which it occurred. I noticed that children were good at this for one big reason: they weren’t old enough to know that there was only one true way to solve a problem; therefore, they would try strategies that most people had never even thought of. In other words, because they didn’t know they couldn’t do something, they went ahead and tried it anyway.
I think I observed this the most often during science lessons. Good science instruction is done with information AND experimentation. Good old-fashioned hands-on experiments were something that truly gave me a great deal of joy in my classrooms. To set up various experiments with the proper equipment and the proper safeguards, and then to ask a question for them to solve was to let children have permission to color outside the lines.
And it was fun to watch! When my former students got something to work – no matter HOW they did it – they just had to invite me: “Mr. Plunkett, c’mere! C’mere! LOOK!!!”
To give yourself permission to try something completely different is to experience a level of joy and freedom that others often miss.
I wonder if the Lord feels the same way when he deals with us…
Take the story from Exodus that we heard today. Let me give you a little back story that might help with today’s reading. First of all, recall that the Lord told Moses to lead the Hebrew nation out of Egypt. That event right there was an amazing example of coloring outside the lines. To just LEAVE one of the most powerful nations in the world, to walk away from 400 years of brutal slavery, to just get up and leave…isn’t that amazing? That’s not the way it’s supposed to happen! I would imagine that if a huge enslaved group of people wanted freedom, they would have to fight for it. Instead, the Lord sent a series of terrible plagues against Pharaoh and against Egypt until Pharaoh ordered them out.
Then these newly freed people, these Hebrews, go into the desert led by Moses.
But where will they go?
And how will they survive?
Most folks avoid the desert because it’s easy to die there. But Moses led these folks out of Egypt and right into the desert. First, they came upon bitter water that would make them sick. But the Lord turned it sweet. Then they got hungry, so the Lord sent them manna each day to gather and to eat. (By the way, the literal Hebrew translation for “manna” means “what is that?”). And in today’s reading, they need water again, but this time there is no water in sight. Of course, they panic and complain…because that is the normal thing to do when you are in the desert and you run out of water.
But again…the Lord colors outside the lines and brings water gushing out of a barren rock in the middle of the desert…because that’s how the Lord decided to do it.
The problem was the responses of the Hebrews. Each time things got hard or difficult or challenging, they panicked and complained to Moses. Each time they quickly forgot how the Lord had delivered them in the very recent past. Each time they set aside the fact that the Lord – THEIR Lord – was capable of amazing things, wondrous things they had never even thought of. They also conveniently forgot that the Lord may test the people of Israel, but the people of Israel must not test the Lord.
Each and every time…how often did they have to be reminded?
How often do WE need reminding?
And it would seem that the lesson of the Lord coloring outside the lines faded in the years between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Because Jesus gave numerous examples of doing exactly the same sort of thing.
Look no further than the reading from the Gospel of John that we heard today.
Now you wouldn’t think that Jesus talking with a woman would be that big of a deal. It seems to certainly pale in comparison to him overturning the money-changers’ tables in the Temple courtyard; it can’t compete with his healing of the blind and the sick – even on the Sabbath; it couldn’t possibly be in the same league as his numerous confrontations with the chief priests, the scribes, and the teachers of the law. Each time those encounters occurred, all of us get opportunities to see how to color outside the lines of faith and belief and practice – and instead live our faith more fully.
So this seemingly chance encounter with a woman at the well couldn’t be that big of a deal…could it?
Except for several things:
- Jesus was talking with a Samaritan woman. Jews and Samaritans hated each other.
- Jesus addressed a woman who was alone. Even if she was a Samaritan, this was just not done!
- The woman was at the well in the middle of the day instead of early in the morning, like the other women would have done. Why do you suppose this happened? Could it have anything to do with her being married five times already, and the man she currently lived with was not her husband? Could it be that this woman was already marginalized because of her behavior and actions?
- The Apostles were set aside when they returned because Jesus was having a conversation with this…woman. They were the followers of Jesus. They had already set aside everything in their lives to follow Jesus, and now he was shutting them out in favor of a Samaritan woman.
And look what happened when Jesus and this woman finished their conversation: Jesus stayed there for two more days. Jews usually made haste when they passed through Samaria. To go around Samaria was to add 25 miles to the trip from Judea to Galilee, but Jews made it quick if they passed through. The last thing they did was to LINGER FOR TWO DAYS.
But the reason they lingered was that the Lord had some coloring to do outside those “Jew vs. Samaritan” lines that had been in place for more than 700 years! A setting such as that needed more than just a brief conversation at Jacob’s Well in the middle of the day.
It is an old lesson, and yet we ourselves still need to learn and relearn it all the time: There is no such thing in life as an impossible situation for the Lord.
And perhaps another lesson is here also…the words spoken by the Samaritan woman: “Come and see,” she told her fellow Samaritans, and they came, saw, and believed. Do we all need to see for ourselves BEFORE we believe?