Immanuel Lutheran Church
                     of Almelund, Minnesota


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Pastor Marla Amborn

Immanuel Lutheran Church 

February 4, 2018

John 4:1-42


Have you ever had a conversation that changed your life? What did it feel like? Was there an openness? Mutual respect? A willingness to speak truth, even hard truth?


Our scripture for today recounts such a life-changing conversation. The woman at the well speaks with Jesus, in a conversation marked by mutual respect. Truth is spoken, hard truth. Identities are revealed at deeper and deeper levels. Through it the woman comes to faith. She is so energized by the discussion with Jesus that her testimony brings many others to faith.


Such conversations are rare, but oh so powerful.  Such conversations are needed today. We live in a time when respectful conversations across religious difference are hard to find.


We see in the public sphere people talking past one another, shouting at each other, totally missing what the other has to say. We see people so eager to prove they are right that they don’t listen. We see people assuming the worst motives in the other, not bothering to find out what they really believe. Often people cite religious beliefs as the reason for their opinions. These yelling matches are upsetting and exhausting. They produce anger and frustration. There’s got to be a better way.


Let’s take a closer look at Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well as a model of a respectful conversation.


The woman was surprised that Jesus struck up a conversation with her. In Jesus’ day, men and women just didn’t do that. And there were also ethnic and religious barriers. Samaritans and Jews were enemies. There was a lot of prejudice and animosity between them, so you wouldn’t expect them to strike up a conversation. The best example I can think of is the Jim Crow South. Blacks and Whites didn’t interact as peers. They kept separate, and had separate accommodations, like “colored” drinking fountains.


When Jesus asked the woman to give him a drink she responds, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” And our text adds: “(Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)” As Jesus asked for a drink out of her cup, it was like Jesus was asking to drink out of the colored drinking fountain. That just wasn’t done.


Then Jesus starts sharing things about himself, giving clues to his identity. “If you knew who you were speaking to you’d ask me to give you living water."


He piques her interest. She asks, “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob?"


Well, actually, yes, he is. But he responds by telling her about living water – the power he has to bring eternal life. She asks him to give her some of this water so that she may never be thirsty again.


Then Jesus get’s personal. He has revealed something about himself, now he gets her to reveal something about herself. He tells her to bring her husband. She says she has no husband. That’s when Jesus recounts her marital history. He doesn’t shame her or blame her for her five failed marriages or the live-in relationship. He accepts her for who she is and treats her with respect.


She doesn’t make excuses but says, “I see that you are a prophet.” As she is trying to make sense of who he is, she asks a faith question about where the right place is to worship – in Jerusalem, where the Jews worship, or on this mountain, where Samaritans worship. Jesus responds, “The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.” God is bigger than the divisions between the Jews and Samaritans. God is not limited to the boxes that either the Jews or the Samaritans would like to put him into. God is big enough for everyone.


Jesus goes on to describe who God is saying, “God is spirit, and those who worship him                                    must worship in spirit and truth."


She takes that in and tells what she knows to be truth “I know that Messiah is coming (who is called Christ). When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us."


Then Jesus reveals his identity to her saying "I am he, the one who is speaking to you." He has not yet told his disciples who he really is, but he opens up to this Samaritan woman telling her he is the Messiah. As they listen to one another, they share truths at deeper and more personal levels.


Then his disciples arrive. They are shocked to see Jesus speaking with this woman. She quickly takes off and goes into town telling everyone about her conversation with Jesus. Through her witness, the people meet Jesus. She opens the opportunity for him to come into her community to preach and teach. He stays for two days. People come to believe in him as they experience him for themselves.


What a life-changing conversation! A very casual exchange became very meaningful as each of them shared things about themselves at a personal level. Hard truths were spoken, but in a respectful way. Neither of them lets cultural biases come between them. Instead, they speak in ways that break through assumptions and uncover truth. This is not only life-changing for the woman but ultimately for her whole community!


Can we have such conversations? Can we talk about matters of faith, by letting go of old assumptions and opening ourselves to new truth? I had an experience that gives me hope.


In 2012 I served as a facilitator for the Respectful Conversations project sponsored by the Minnesota Council of Churches. At that time the Marriage Amendment was being debated as to whether Minnesota should allow gay marriage. Feelings were strongly held on all sides of this issue. Religious faith was central to people’s perspectives. The goal of the conversations wasn’t to change anybody’s mind, but to foster deeper respect and understanding for one another.


About 80 people met at Redeemer Lutheran Church in White Bear Lake. As I learned who was at my table I became very concerned that this was going to be a tough group.


v There was a Lutheran pastor who had led his congregation out of the ELCA because he disagreed with the ELCA’s vote to ordain gay clergy.

v There was a Methodist pastor who thought that gay rights is the Civil Rights issue of our day. He believed that all people should have equal opportunity to marry the person they love.

v There was a Catholic priest whose was from India. He converted from Hinduism to Catholicism. He said that as a young man he felt same-sex attraction and the only way he knew how to be faithful was to be celibate, so he became a priest. 

v There was a retired missionary who had spent most of his life in Madagascar.

v And there was a retired lay person who was a life-long Lutheran.


How would this conversation go? I was worried!


Guidelines were offered how to have a respectful conversation.

1.       Speak for yourself, using “I statements,” saying what you believe or what you have experienced but not speaking for anybody else. 

2.       Listen to understand, especially when something is hard to accept. Seek first to understand then to be understood.

3.       Accept that others may have different views without debating them or trying to set them straight.


Each person spoke in turn, responding to prepared questions. After a person spoke there was a 1-minute pause to think about what the person had said. Then the group could ask clarifying questions about what the person said, but not to dispute or challenge them.


We went through a 1 hour discussion in that format. The discussion went amazingly well. People’s comments were thoughtful. Questions were respectful. Everyone listened to one another.


Each person had a view about the Marriage Amendment, yet at various points each person expressed some doubts about their own view. For example, the Methodist minister who believed that this is a Civil Rights issue said he really did believe that all people should be given equal rights but then he said: “But what if I’m wrong? Society has never sanctioned marriage between same-sex people before. What if there are unintended consequences?”


The pastor who had led his congregation out of the ELCA over gay clergy expressed the concern that if the Marriage Amendment passed (prohibiting gay marriage) it might be interpreted by the public as a “hostile act of evangelism” blaming the church for being bigoted. That could be harmful to the church, maybe even doing more damage than allowing gay marriage.


The missionary from Madagascar said that in Madagascar all marriages are done through civil ceremonies. It is only the state that can perform a marriage. So, all marriages happen before a justice of the peace and church’s role is blessing marriages. Maybe that could work here. Let the state do the legal part, and the church bless it.


The Catholic priest, who chose a life of celibacy, asked questions like: “What is the nature of love? What is God’s plan for that? Is God doing something new in our time? God is bigger than any of us. We need to notice God’s Spirit at work today.”


The retired lay person said he grew up all his life believing that homosexuality is a sin, but he also believes there is need for compassion. He wasn’t sure this issue should be addressed by an amendment to the constitution, but he felt there needed to be a way to give same sex people ways to be in relationship with one another and have their rights protected.


I have never had the opportunity to participate in a discussion on such a charged topic that remained so civil. At the end of the evening, the group all agreed that they would be comfortable talking one-on-one with any member of this group and be confident that the conversation would be respectful.


It showed what is possible when we are at our best. We were able to share differing perspectives about faith and God’s will and do so in loving and respectful ways. Rather than draining energy and leaving everyone exhausted and upset, it left the group energized and hopeful.


In our scripture when the disciples return to Jesus they have brought him food, but he turns it down. Although he had been tired and hungry from the journey when they left to get food, now he’s not hungry. He says “I have food that you don’t know about… My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” Doing God’s work is energizing. Doing God’s work is life giving. It seems that the discussion with this woman gave Jesus energy that filled him up.


When we listen to one another and share our faith at deep levels, when we seek to understand and risk letting others know who we really are, God’s will is done. It is not easy, but it is possible.


So today I life up this discussion with the woman at the well as an example of the kind of respectful conversation that can make a life-giving difference for us and for others. Jesus modeled it for us. May we find the courage to follow his lead. Amen.