Today’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.
The text is John 4:5-42.
Over the past few decades a lot has been said and written on the topic of church growth in North America. Most sources agree that there has been a tremendous decline in membership for older, mainline congregations like ours. Many popular sources are selling the idea that the key to reversing this trend lies in imitating the worship style and the theological leanings of evangelical mega-churches. However, I’m not convinced.
Here’s why: I heard about an Episcopal church in Colorado. This was a small, traditional parish. Their numbers were dwindling. Almost all the members left in the pews were grandparents or great grandparents. There was nothing about this parish that fit the popular model for church growth. Closure seemed inevitable.
Several of these aging church members felt led to start a youth group. They were praying for an opportunity to start one. But even their priest was telling them not to hold their breath over it. Their big opportunity came one day when that same priest was sitting in a local coffee shop. He was wearing a clerical collar, which clearly identified him with his profession.
The priest looked up and suddenly, there was a teenager was standing in front of him. This rough-looking young man was clad in leather and had piercings in every conceivable orifice. “Hey.” He said, “Are you one of those ministers who can do funerals without the body there?” After taking a second to compose himself, the priest asked the teenager to sit down and talk. As it turns out, he had a friend who had recently died of a drug overdose. His family lived out of state and had shipped the body back east for burial. None of his local friends had a chance to grieve their loss. The priest said yes, their church could certainly have a memorial service for this young man.
The members of the church wanted to get involved too, but they were at a loss as to how to do it. They had nothing in common with this group of hard-edged, punk rock teenagers. When they prayed for a youth group, they were thinking of a cadre of nicely-dressed, well-behaved high school students who attended Bible studies and held bake sales. What were they supposed to do with this motley crew?
After giving it some thought, they could think of only one natural way to relate to these youth: they were all grandparents. Why not act like it? On the day of the memorial service, they made their fellowship hall as warm and cozy as possible. They made tea and hot chocolate. They set out fresh-baked cookies on hand-crocheted doilies. And when the youth arrived, everyone agreed to pretend they were their own grandkids.
Most of the youth stuck around for the reception. Amid a sea of black leather and glinting lip rings, one could see an entire rainbow of artificial hair colors. The event was such a success, they decided to invite the teenagers back at the same time next week. To their surprise, most of them came back! Week after week, the most unlikely relationships formed between these folks in their eighties and this scary-looking group of punk-rock teenagers. They got the youth group they had been praying for, but it looked nothing like they expected! Moreover, it bore no resemblance to the trendy programs that are supposed to attract youth to a congregation.
This kind of thing has happened before in Christian history. In today’s gospel reading, we read about Jesus’ unconventional model for church growth in the most unlikely places. It happened among a group of Samaritans.
This was the last place where Jesus’ disciples expected to find a warm welcome. Samaritans and Jews shared common ethnic and religious roots, but the Samaritans were regarded as heretics and half-breeds. No self-respecting Jew would be caught dead with a Samaritan in public. Some Jews traveling from Galilee to Judea would go almost a hundred miles out of their way in order to avoid Samaritan territory. It was bad enough that Jesus had decided to go through Samaria instead. Did he have to talk to them as well?
As it turns out, these Samaritans gave this Jewish rabbi a warmer welcome than any synagogue. Even in Jesus’ own hometown, they had tried to throw him off a cliff! But these half-breed heretics had opened their doors and welcomed Jesus and the disciples with open arms. When the members of the village heard Jesus speak, they all believed in him. A church sprang up overnight in this Samaritan village.
What’s even more surprising is that the catalyst for this explosive church growth was not the local mayor or clergyperson, but the village pariah. It was almost unthinkable that Jesus would even talk to her in the first place. First of all, she was a Samaritan. We already talked about the inborn hostility there. Second, she was a woman. Nice Jewish boys didn’t talk to women in public (not even their own wives). Finally, she was even outcast from her own people. The text tells us that she met Jesus by the well at noon. In that world without air conditioning, it was ridiculous to go to a well at noon, when the sun was beating down. Most people would go at sunrise or sunset, when the weather was cooler. The village well is where people would gather to chat and gossip. The only reason to go to the well at noon was if you didn’t want to bump into anyone else.
Later in the story, we learn a little more about this person. We find out that she’d been married five times and was currently living with a man outside of wedlock. Even today, two millennia later, most people who read this story assume that she was a serial divorcee who hopped from relationship to relationship. But here’s an important detail about ancient Semitic culture: women were not allowed to initiate a divorce. A husband could divorce his wife for any reason (even if she burned his supper) but a wife had no rights. She may have been abused and discarded by man after man until she landed in her current situation, where the man she was with didn’t even have the decency to make the relationship legitimate. We don’t even know that this woman was divorced at all. In a country with such a low life-expectancy, it’s entirely possible that she was simply widowed five times over. It seems that she could have landed in her situation through no fault of her own. Nevertheless, she was still considered “damaged goods” by her neighbors. Her story would provide ample fuel for the local gossip engine.
Yet, in spite of all these barriers, Jesus chooses this woman to be the agent of transformation in her village. He engages her in theological conversation. He effectively ordains her as an evangelist to the village. Through her, the entire village comes to faith in Christ and opens their arms in welcome to this band of strangers. Jesus’ model for church growth makes use of the most unlikely people in the most unlikely places. But, apparently, it works.
What did the disciples think of all this while it was happening? Well, we read in the text that they were “astonished” at Jesus’ incessant boundary pushing. It was bad enough that they had to go through Samaria at all, but then Jesus starts talking with this woman, and then they end up spending two days there: eating and sleeping with these untouchable, half-bred heretics! If their old rabbis ever heard about this, they’d all be kicked out of the synagogue for sure!
Jesus interrupts their astonishment with an invitation. He tells them it’s time to let go of their expectations and their pre-conceived notions about other people. Jesus says, “Look around you. You think the harvest is still a few months off, but I’m telling you that the time for the harvest is now! So, get out your sickle!” Jesus tells them it’s time for them to open their eyes and see what God is doing around them (even in this least-expected place). He wants them to “enter into the labor”, to be part of what they see God doing here and now. For Jesus, this is the key to effective church growth, not a bunch of fancy programs. Jesus gets it. The Samaritans got it. The disciples were starting to get it. The Episcopal church in Colorado got it. What about us?
In spite of what popular sources say, I’m not ready to pronounce our church dead yet. I think God still has a harvest for us here in Boonville. It won’t look like the “good old days” all over again. 1955 has come and gone. Likewise, it won’t look like these evangelical mega-churches. That’s not who we are as a church or a community (besides, we don’t have the parking space). It will involve letting go of our old expectations and pre-conceived notions. The good news is that this is already happening. You’re already doing it. When you started your search for a new pastor over a year ago, who would have thought that you would be interested in calling an Episcopal priest with a pony tail? But here we are!
What other “astonishing” surprises does God have in store for us? Where is the harvest happening here and now in Boonville? That’s the question we have to ask ourselves as a church. I have a few of my own ideas about how we might answer that question. I see this church as a haven for people who, for whatever reason, have been made to feel unwelcome at other churches in the North Country.
I’m thinking of people like intelligent skeptics who are interested in faith, but have a lot of honest questions about it. Too many churches out there tell people to “shut up” and “get in line” with traditional doctrine. I see this church as a place where people can ask their honest questions without fear of rejection. Maybe we won’t even know the answers, but we can ask those questions together.
Likewise, I also see our church as the kind of place where people who are gay or lesbian can find a welcoming church home. Too often, people in our society face exile from their churches, their families, and their homes when they “come out of the closet” (which means being honest and open about their attraction to people of the same gender). Among youth, it’s one of the top causes of suicide and homelessness. I believe that our church can be a place in the North Country where that doesn’t need to happen.
I envision this church as a haven where people can come, with all their doubts and their differences, and be welcomed as one of “us” rather than one of “them”. I see this church as a place where people can come looking for belonging, and through that, find themselves believing. This is the gospel harvest that Jesus has prepared for us. Are we ready to “look around us” and “enter into the labor” of this harvest? I think so.