Second sermon from Giving Up, Lent Series
Text: John 4: 5-42 (The Woman at the Well)
When I was growing up, my parents always took my sister and I to the Knoxville Ballet. We loved wearing our frilly dresses and going out for a night on the town. Sometimes, our grandmother even went with us. On one such outing, my grandmother and I were in the restroom of a nice restaurant, and a lady complimented my dress. I looked right at her, smiled, and said, “Thanks! It costs $70!” The lady didn’t even know how to respond, but my grandmother scolded me right then and there. That was one of my first lessons in life about how we should never feel that we are better than someone else for any reason or use our labels or status symbols to belittle someone else. That was my first real life lesson in giving up superiority.
And on this second Sunday of Lent, we continue our series on what God is challenging us to give up not just for 40 days, but forever. Last week we talked about giving up control. This week we are challenged to give up superiority- the kind of superiority where we judge someone as being inferior or that we feel that we are better than someone else. Today’s scripture lesson (in video form) is the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well in the middle of the day. Automatically, the woman has several strikes against her. She is a woman in ancient Palestine, she is a Samaritan, and she has a questionable past. Jews and Samaritans did not get along for a variety of cultural and religious reasons. The Jews considered the Samaritans to be unclean and unworthy people.
So the fact that Jesus, a Jewish man and teacher, was speaking not just to a woman, but a Samaritan woman broke just about every social norm that you could imagine at the time. The woman’s life and status could have easily hurt Jesus’ reputation as a holy man. Jesus could have used his superiority to ignore or demean her. Jesus could have listened to his disciples and the religious leaders who used their status symbols to judge and ridicule, but instead he laid aside his superiority and spoke words of grace and love to her. In this, he knew that she was humble enough to hear him and respond, unlike the disciples and religious people who were too self-important and busy to hear. Instead of speaking to her as someone inferior to him, Jesus spoke to her as a child of God, elevating her to superior status in his eyes.
In this story of the woman at the well, we are reminded that God doesn’t care about any of the artificial lines we draw to make ourselves feel superior to others. If we let go of our status symbols and judgmental attitudes, we too can hear Jesus’ call more clearly and respond more faithfully.
And we are all in need of this reminder to let go of our status symbols and judgmental attitudes. We live in a world that thrives on the attitude that we are better than someone else. Just look around at the advertisements and the media that tempt us to look better, live richer, and be more successful. Just look around at our world in the places where war and violence occur because one group of people believes that they are better than someone else. Just last week, a few of us went to Christian Theological Seminary for a very informative lecture on ISIS, and the main sense that I got was that here is a group who is misinterpreting the very core of Islamic teaching and law, and that they simply think that their ways are superior to anyone else’s ways, and that they are more superior than anyone else. As I walked through Auschwitz or heard the stories of people fighting to end apartheid in South Africa, I was reminded that perhaps all of this pain and death may have been avoided if people just saw people as people instead of seeing someone different as inferior to them.
And it still happens today. Whether we are talking about issues of rich or poor, racial, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or ethnicity. Just the other day I was reading an article written by a colleague in a clergy magazine about the continued struggle for equality. The pastor is African American, who recalled a phone conversation where a woman called the senior pastor of the church to talk to him about “that black associate pastor of yours.” The woman’s daughter and boyfriend, an interracial couple, wanted to ask him about interracial dating. He responded by saying that we should celebrate racial diversity as a gift, and that we live in a colorful world, and not a colorblind world. His comments provoked a complaint that “blacks are clearly inferior to us.” In this, he was reminded that social change is fragile, that we are still discerning, that we are still seeking justice and equality for all persons (Circuit Rider, Sacred Trust Issue: Justin Coleman).
When we live a life with feelings that we are superior to someone else for whatever reason, we get in the way of living out our lives as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. It is a challenge for each of us at times to give up these feelings of superiority or to let go of our status symbols. When given power or responsibility, sometimes I think it’s easier for people to abuse those things because they find themselves on a power trip. And it can be easy and fun. The real challenge sometimes is using any authority we have with humility, love, and grace. The real challenge is letting go of status symbols in order to break through the barriers that we put in place ourselves.
When we are able to let go of superiority or judgmental attitudes, that is when real ministry, discipleship, and healing can occur. Jesus laid aside his crown for the woman at the well and lifted her out of inferior status to superior status of beloved child of God. He lays aside his crown for each of us as well, and challenges us to tear down those things that divide, and those high places where we tend to stand and look down upon someone else. When we set aside our judgments and simply see people as people, amazing things can happen. When self-important feelings are set aside, powerful relationships can form.
I had the opportunity to witness this firsthand when I was in South Africa and visited an AIDS hospice, which was the fulfilled dream of a Catholic Bishop named Kevin Dowling. The AIDS hospice was a place where people in their final stage of life could come and be loved and cared for by those at the hospice. It was also a place where people were sent out into the surrounding communities to provide healthcare, education, and prevention of HIV/AIDS. Bishop Dowling explained to us that he had been reprimanded by the Catholic church on several occasions for his belief that condoms were necessary and were, in fact, pro-life in his context where protected sex often times meant life instead of death, especially for the young women who felt they had no choice but to sell their bodies to survive.
What was humbling to me is that Bishop Dowling could have used his status as a Catholic Bishop to serve anywhere in the world, perhaps in a large cathedral with beautiful stained glass windows and all of the church finery you could imagine. He could have spent his time with people deemed important by society with riches and fancy clothes, and could have had a very different life style. He could have listened to the perhaps self-important religious people who wanted to stick to their beliefs against contraception instead of understanding the real issues and needs. Instead, he chooses to live his life as a Bishop with what Jesus would call, “the least of these,” the sick and dying, the poor and helpless.
As our bus pulled off of the main road and into the location of the hospice, we immediately noticed the red dust on the ground. It was nothing like any of us had ever seen before. And it wasn’t just any dust- this red dust stuck to our shoes and came with us long after our visit to this serene and humble place. In fact, the shoes I wore that day still have a red tint on the bottom of them as a reminder of our time spent there with the Bishop who laid aside his superiority and status to care for the hurting and dying.
We had the opportunity to visit with some of the hospice patients- the women went into the women’s wing, and then men went into the men’s wing. When we met back up several minutes later, the men in our group all said that they had witnessed one of the most holy and sacred moments they had ever seen as they watched Bishop Dowling minister to one of the patients. They had seen the face in Christ in the way the Bishop cared for and treated a young dying man with the utmost care and respect, honoring his life as a human being. Setting aside any labels of status or superiority, Bishop Dowling meets the patients at the hospice face to face as they are, for who they are, and sees them through the eyes of Jesus Christ. That is, after all, what we are all to do.
If we let go of our status symbols and judgmental attitudes, we too can hear Jesus’ call more clearly and respond more faithfully. If we work to truly give up superiority this Lenten season and throughout our lives, we will be able to embrace more fully the humanness and the giftedness of others. For many of us, if we’re honest, it’s a daily struggle- especially for those of us who have worked hard throughout our entire lives to get where we are today, who have responsibility over other people, or who have the power to make decisions that affect the life and future of someone else. Giving up superiority doesn’t meant that we don’t do our jobs or that we are being asked to hand over our credentials or not use the training and responsibility that we are given. But it does mean that we give up feeling that we are better than someone else. We give up abusing our power or superiority for the sake of the other person. We give up our judgmental attitudes and replace them with fresh eyes to see the humanity of another person, despite their flaws, despite the fact that we may not understand them, despite the fact that we might disagree, and especially despite the fact that we all are simply different.
The good news is that Jesus invites us to the table of grace and forgiveness in order to help us break down these walls that hinder us from seeing value in the other. He lays aside his status symbols and superiority to come face to face with the woman at the well and names her not as inferior, but as a child of God. He gives up his superiority for each one of us as an example of how we are to live and treat others in this world that thrives on being superior. So as we come forth to receive communion this morning, I invite you to ask yourself to give up superiority and to leave this place ready to respond to the call of Jesus more faithfully. What is holding you back from doing so? Come and lay it down at the table this morning. Amen.