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John 4: 5-26


Long before modern pop psychologists like Dr. Phil McGraw or even Eckhart Tolle, and long before classical psychiatrists like Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung, people walked through life had to deal with moral burdens and the consequences of their ethical choices in a hit and miss kind of fashion. Perhaps one of the most helpful activities of the burdened soul was and is confession: confession of sin to one who is sometimes called a Confessor. The Roman Catholic Church gives that role to priests. Mystic Teresa of Avila had a confessor in whom she confided: Fr. Diego Yepes. About her he was later permitted to write: “[God] showed her a beautiful crystal globe, made in the shape of a castle, and containing seven mansions, in the seventh and innermost was the King of Glory, in the greatest splendour, illumining and brightening them all…. While she was wondering at this beauty, which by God’s grace can dwell in the human soul, the light suddenly vanished. Although the King of Glory did not leave the mansions, the crystal globe was plunged into darkness ….” These words were included as the introduction to St. Teresa’s masterpiece work called Interior Castle.


Certainly there are times when people plunge into emotional darkness, sometimes leading to clinical depression. And other times people just need to confess burdens, or even talk with a perceptive person such as a counselor or a pastor. For centuries through the act of confession, the Roman Catholic Church has done something that helped people transform their sin sick souls. The old spiritual declared: “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole; there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul. The balms in Gilead were known to be medicinal, but healing a soul was the work of legend. Taking your burdens to Jesus, instead, can heal your soul! Encountering Jesus in a heartfelt prayer can change the trajectory of your life! To carry unconfessed sins for an extended period of time can overly burden your soul. Several years ago our Body, Mind, and Soul ministry had a seminar on posture.  We learned that plenty of people go around with an unhealthy stooped over posture. Sometimes it is caused by genetic issues. But other times, the presenter suggested, such posture is an indication of emotional issues. Yes, emotional issues have a measurable impact on one’s body and mind too!  We can be burdened by our inability to cope with the world around us; we can be burdened by unconfessed sins. Many people today think that if what they are doing does not break a law, or even worse, it breaks a law but they are never getting caught, then no infraction has been committed. They think it doesn’t hurt anybody. But unlawful activities,  acts of emotional torment of family members or neighbors, bullying under the radar of a school, or tempting others to start down a dark path indicate, in biblical language, that the Tempter is at work in those person’s lives.


Today we will look at a woman Jesus’ encounters at a well in Samaria. The story tells about three ingredients that can have the power to heal the sin-sick soul: confessions, forgiveness, and unconditional love. John’s gospel and his letters are filled with the message of God’s unconditional love. Let’s look at our text today. Verse three says: “Jesus left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria.” Had to? When did Jesus have to do anything that was not part of the Father’s plan?  It makes one think: did Jesus cut through Samaria as a geographical shortcut, or did he go for a theological necessity? We are made to wonder if this journey home for Jesus going through an area that might be called “the other side of the tracks” was an intentional choice that he made. People of Samaria were shunned and avoided by Jews. They believed that God lived on their mountain, Mount Gerizim, instead of on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The Jews thought it was blasphemy. The Samaritans, they said, also polluted their bloodlines by marrying people who worshipped other gods. If a Jew touched a Samaritan, a Rabbi would declare that the Jew was ritually unclean, and he would be cut off from communion with God. The story of the Good Samaritan throws us off because Jesus praised a Samaritan. But no Jew would have thought of a Samaritan as “good.” Nowhere else do we find this amazing encounter described of Jesus’ ministry.


Our Presbyterian Women are studying a book this year called Twelve Women of the Bible. In Session 11, author Lysa TerKuerst writes this about the woman at the well:

We never learn her name. She is simply called a Samaritan Woman. But this amazing individual whom we meet in the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel teaches us a very important lesson. Three things are obvious, but very important to remember. First, she was a woman. In her world and time, this was one strike against her. Women were not trusted, invited into religious discourse, or even spoken to in public by rabbis. In addition to being a woman, she was a Samaritan—strike two! The Jews looked down on the Samaritans because they had intermarried with the nations around them and were no longer pureblooded enough to be considered true Jews. Finally, the woman had a sinful past … and her present circumstances were questionable as well—strike three! We learn that she had been married and divorced five times and was now living with a man who was not her husband. [p. 132]


First, confession is at work in this encounter. Without accusing, but by asking, Jesus gets the woman at the well to unburden herself. Jesus said “Go, call your husband, and come back.” Our Lord suspected more than he was letting on. The healing begins as she replies: “I have no husband.” He replies, “You are right; you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.”  In her confession she felt no condemnation, perhaps for the first time in her life. The pieces of her puzzle were coming together for Jesus. She was likely poor; wealthy people sent servants to get water. She was also likely judged and outcast by her town. It is widely believed she came at noon to draw water intentionally. Other women came in the morning, when it is cool. Perhaps her society led her to be the lone person at the well at noon. In those days a woman could not divorce a husband. That meant five had divorced her! If she had been arrogant she could have been beaten or killed. Instead her spirit may have been broken, burdening her heart as she was found unacceptable time and time again. Jesus did not attach a scarlet letter to her garment; there was no apparent sin, (sin would likely have ended in her death.) Others in her town, however, may have decided on her guilt. Perhaps someone you know is just looking for acceptance. They carry around the baggage of unforgiveness. They may long to meet Jesus at a well of living water. If you know people who are causing hurt, harm, or anguish to another person by their deliberate heartless actions, imagine how their lives might change if they knew unconditional love, like the endless supply of living water. If you are the one who is hurt, Jesus truly loves you endlessly; he will go out of his way to meet you, and to offer you living water.


Second, forgiveness is at work here. The disciples are astonished find Jesus talking to a Samaritan woman. [verse 27] Without even hearing Jesus say “you are forgiven,” the woman seems to gain the energy of a child and the message of a convert. This new evangelist goes back to her city, telling people that she had met a prophet, one who made her feel so different she wondered if he could be the Messiah! That encounter with the woman at the well was so profound that John says: “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” [verse 39] Here’s the unbelievable thing the Samaritans did:  They found Jesus and “asked him to stay there two days. And many more became believers.” [verse 40] Jesus had crossed a cultural line. Here’s a cultural line crossed in 2017:


In Victoria, Texas, on January 28th—

Early on that Saturday morning, members of the Victoria Islamic Center were notified that that their mosque had been destroyed by a fire overnight.

The small town of 62,000 immediately came together, with leaders of different faiths sharing their support.

Members of the one Jewish temple in the town, the Congregation B’Nai Israel, were the first to offer their house of worship. They handed their synagogue’s keys to one of the mosque’s founders.

“We were very happy to do this,” Melvin Lack, treasurer of Congregation B’Nai Israel tells USA TODAY. “You feel what’s happening in the community and everyone reacts.”

Soon, a how to order Pregabalin online page was created to raise money for        reconstruction. Within only a few days, over $1 million

had been donated, far surpassing the initial goal of $850,000.


Grace still changes lives today, as it changed lives in Samaria.


Finally: unconditional love is at work here. Preacher Patrick Willson once wrote:

If we read the right stories, we know what kind John is telling. We have been to the well before. A man meets a woman at a well. It was at a well that Abraham’s servant, sent on a mission to find a suitable wife for Isaac, met Rebekah. At a well, Jacob met Rachel. Zipporah comes to a well to water her flocks and is rescued by dashing Moses….All the cues tell us that this is a love story, [but] certainly not the kind we expect. This isn’t the kind the movies give us, nor the kind in paperback novels. This love story has a different author…an author who loves people, but not because they are beautiful maidens or handsome princes by the world’s standards. No; this author, like a loving Father, looks at his daughter through the eyes of love. She is beautiful, no matter how she looks to the world; she is loveable, no matter what she’s done; she is redeemable no matter how many husbands said she wasn’t. This is a love story in many ways; about a Father’s love for his people, ….


We too have done things that need confession; we too need to be forgiven; and we too need unconditional love, not conditional love based on our performance, our bank account, or on what we give to get it. We need love, like God’s love, that is never withdrawn: not in judgment, not in disappointment, not in brokenness. The only way you may not experience God’s love and forgiveness is if you turn away from it. But God seeks us out, crossing over barriers of religion, culture, gender, and hostility, like a prophet who deliberately went by a well in Samaria…Samaria… and encountered that broken woman.  Finally, finally …it was well with her soul.

Is it well with yours?


Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           March 19, 2017


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John 3: 1-17

One year ago this month I began meeting with a monthly Task Force whose purpose was to look at the future of our Presbyterian Counseling Center when our Director, Dr. Lex Baer, announced he was going to retire last June 2016. We ran close to the bone every month, sometimes in the red, as we tried to cover the costs of doing good therapy with people who had various means of payment. Today, a year later, I am pleased to tell you that we are not only operating in the black, we got a $10,000 support grant from Central Florida Presbytery. We also now take credit cards and are on most insurance panels, plus we accept Medicare and even Medicaid. We have nine providers on our clinical staff with various specialties, including a Doctor of Psychiatry and three people on our administrative staff. We now have our main office at First Presbyterian Church and two satellite offices at Christ Presbyterian in Ormond and at Port Orange Presbyterian. Our Center is back on its feet and even better than before! But today I want to credit Dr. Lex Baer with giving me the title of this sermon. One day I ended up following him in his Mazda Miata convertible and noticed his bumper sticker: “Less Judgment; More Curiosity.” For him it worked like this: anytime a client was sharing information, or a story with him, one that seemed unusual, he would not say “Why did you make that choice?” in an accusative tone. He would say something like: “Hmm. That’s interesting! Tell me more about that.” Less judgment; more curiosity.


The Gospel of John, among other books in the Bible, begs to be read in that manner. My New Testament Professor at Princeton, Dr. Bruce Metzger, spoke to my Disciple class on videotape. One thing he taught about that book was this: “Revelation doesn’t mean what it says, it means what it means.” By that we learned that fierce creatures didn’t represent literal Godzilla-like monsters, they represented tyrants in the Roman Empire. So the book had to be read with a light touch, not taking the images literally. The late Dr. Marcus Borg, in his book Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, advocated for “Taking the Bible Seriously, but not Literally.” Writers in the Bible, especially Jesus, often used allegories, metaphors, similes, and parables to describe the Kingdom of God. Therefore it is helpful to approach Bible from that perspective. Here’s an example of the kind of question and answer we can expect in John. A tourist in New York City asks a man on the street, “Excuse me; how do I get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice” is the answer he gets. Now if you get the two meanings of that answer, turn to your neighbors and explain it to them. I’ll wait! …………There is no book where that is more true than the gospel of John. Today’s text is a great example of how Jesus descriptions went way over the heads of many of his listeners; those who want to understand Jesus today need to adjust your receivers.  Let me describe one more reason people can miss the answers to questions. Traditionally people said to be Left Brain thinkers value logic, analysis, sequencing, linear thinking, mathematics, facts, and so on.

Traditionally people said to be Right Brain thinkers value creativity, imagination, holistic thinking, intuition, the arts, rhythm, non-verbal communication, feelings, and visualization.  I, as a traditionally Left Brained person, am stretching myself to take in the world through my Right Brained receivers. In so doing, I’ve found whole new ways to understand Jesus!  For example, today Nicodemus, a Pharisee, sounds like he is a Left Brain kind of man. “He asks a Left Brain question of Jesus: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” In response, Jesus gives him a Right Brain answer: “Truly truly I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again. (Our text says born from above, but if that were the case, Nicodemus would not have misunderstood him. Born again is more accurate as Nicodemus, listening with his Left Brain, doesn’t understand.) Here’s Nicodemus’ reply: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born?” Do you see the problem with literal interpretations of Scripture? The words, so many times, are meant to be figurative, or metaphorical, or heard in a different way than the way a child would hear it. As I told the children today, if you tell a young boy, “You need to clean up your act,” he might go to the sink to wash his hands, not change his attitude or actions!  In 1960 my wife Mary Ann was in second grade. Her father was in the Marines all her life, and on November 10th each year, he had a cake to celebrate the birthday of the Marines. The Marines began in 1775 so in 1960 they were 185 years old. Well it just so happened that her mother’s birthday was also November 10th. She went to school that day, after seeing the cake that day, and told her teacher that it was her mother’s birthday, and that she was 185 years old! “Now Mary Ann, tell the truth, your mother isn’t really 185 years old.” “Yes she is!” insisted Mary Ann. “It’s on the cake.” So Mary Ann’s teacher called her parents to report her for lying to a teacher; except she didn’t lie to a teacher. She had yet to learn that the cake every year was a Marine cake, not her mother’s cake. She was thinking like a child. Even the Apostle Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, told them, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, thought like a child, reasoned like a child. But when I became a man I gave up childish ways.” [1 Corinthians 13:11]


In John chapter 1, John the Baptist sees Jesus and says to his disciples, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” What did they think? Yes, a lamb was sacrificed at the Temple each year, but how can a man be a Lamb? Or a door? Or bread? Or a gate? We have drifted into our Right Brains to understand that, and actually, into our mature brains. Mature people need to be able to listen and process with their full minds. But an unusual phenomenon has been discovered, according to Dr. Rodger Nishioka, former professor at Columbia Theological Seminary.  By nature, our brains should mature into minds that can hear things metaphorically or symbolically and around the age of 24 to 28. But astonishingly, some in our day have never “made the jump to light speed.” See, that’s an analogy from Star Wars, but it’s not about Star Wars! It’s an expression that some people never gain a fully functional adult brain; so they can only absorb things literally and actually. Many such people love Christian fundamentalism because it spells things out in black and white. But more things in adulthood are shades of gray.


Here’s one more example: In John chapter 2, Jesus says this to those in the Temple. The Sadducees asked him, “What sign have you to show for [overturning the tables of the moneychangers?] And Jesus responded saying: “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

(It’s a mature, metaphorical response.) Here is the literal response from the Sadducees: “It has taken forty-six years to build this Temple, and you will raise it up in three days?” (That’s literal thinking.) But John, who thinks like Jesus did, rescues the readers when he explains: “But Jesus spoke of the Temple of his body.”


The Bible is the inspired Word of God. To take it literally can lead one’s mind down some confusing paths. But to take it seriously, and to believe Jesus said these words, invites us to follow the master, and to listen to him, not as 21st century listeners for our best interpretation, but as first century listeners, imaging what Jesus, or John meant, not just what they said. When you invite the other part of your mind to interpret your world, you will gain new insights and find less objection from film, literature, and particularly from the Bible, where stories are rife with metaphors. Why not take Marcus Borg’s suggestion to heart, and with new openness, read the Bible again, for the first time.


Let us pray:

God of Wonder: how can mortals describe Heaven, or your wonders, without using disciplined imaginations? How can we think of Jesus as a door, a gate, or a lamb without engaging our full minds, hearts, and souls? Help us to hear the Bible afresh, perhaps for the first time, so that we can avoid the stumble of a Nicodemus response. Thank you also for Jesus, who reached people on many levels, with many messages, all of them wrapped in love. In His name we pray. Amen.


Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          March 12, 2017




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I always find the transition from Christmas to Lent to be an abrupt one. Even when Lent starts in March it still feels like a bit of a whiplash when it comes to subject matter.


Because during Christmas the focus is on the divinity of Jesus: his Godness. We have a miraculous conception. We have angel choruses in the sky. We have mysterious strangers following a star to worship the child. Sure, any of us who have been around babies can guess that this child nursed and spit up and messed his swaddling clothes. But that’s not the focus of our stories at Christmas time. It’s all about angels and stars.


Then, in just a few short weeks, Lent comes along. Now it’s thirty years later and Jesus is getting dunked under the water and thrown into the wilderness where his humanity is painfully evident. And just so we know how human Jesus is, the writer of Matthew assures us that after fasting for forty days, Jesus was very hungry. Lent is about Jesus human side.


And part of being human is being tempted. Tempted to take the shorter path, the easier way. Tempted to cut corners. Tempted to reach for what we shouldn’t. Tempted to behave differently when no one else is watching. Our old testament lesson begins humanity’s story with us falling to temptation. “You will be like God, knowing good and evil.” And so we reach out, even when we know we shouldn’t.


I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for Jesus, throughout his life, to wrestle with these two natures inside of himself. To have all of the insights, abilities, power of God. And yet to have thoughts, emotions, and the limitations of humanity.


In today’s passage, Jesus knows he has a divine nature. He knows can turn rocks into food. That the angels would catch him if he fell. He could easily claim military and political power over the empires. Satan is only reminding him about what he knows when he tempts him.


So the test is about Jesus’ faithfulness to who he is and what God is calling him to do: not to ask for special privileges or place or relief, but to enter fully into this human condition of want and need and pain. The temptations attack him in those places, F. Dean Lueking writes, “where humans expect the best: daily bread, sacred spaces, the devotion of the heart.” Or, in other words, at his core.


Satan tempts Jesus to settle his identity crisis the easy way: by acting out of his divine nature and leaving behind that pesky human stuff. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, Jesus’ options come down to this: he “could play God, or he could remain human.” And playing God is so much easier than being human.


And yet, over and over again, Jesus stays with his human self. Remaining human is a tough call, but a necessary decision for Jesus to make if he is going to fulfill his role as Messiah, savior, the one who will reconcile God and humanity. If he can’t say no to power and the avoidance of suffering now, how will he ever make it through the crucifixion and death that is coming? So no. I will not turn the stones to bread.  No, I will not tempt God.  No, I will not take on power.


We have a habit of equating the temptations of Jesus with various types of temptations we face today. I will admit there are some parallels to be made, because we are all tempted. But let’s be honest, we do not face these types of temptations. The temptations of Jesus are unique to Jesus. Tempting me to turn a rock into bread would be like tempting me to play “Ode to Joy” on the piano. It’s no temptation at all, because I simply can’t do it.


The temptations Jesus faced were about remaining human when he could embrace his divinity. He doesn’t have to suffer. He can choose to change it. The fact that he doesnt, shows us just what kind of a person our savior is.


We are not fully divine, as Jesus was. We are human and we really have no choice but to remain human. So we don’t have to deal with the temptation to eliminate our suffering and take up power. Instead we have far more insidious temptations.


The great CS Lewis wrote a book called the Screwtape Letters about our temptations. The story is two demons, young Wormwood and his uncle Screwtape, writing back and forth about the best way to tempt people into falling. Uncle Screwtape advises his nephew on such things as keeping a person self-involved, and clueless. Keep him spiritual and not practical. Make sure he thinks he is doing better than those around him. Have him pray for tangible things and let him boast.


Because Screwtape and Wormwood aren’t trying to create a group of raving, evil madmen. They don’t have to. Instead they are creating people who are defined by selfishness and insincerity, pettiness, fear and a need to control the world. That is all they need to cause good people to become theirs.  


And that is what our own temptations are.  Very few of us agree to fast for forty days and know that sort of hunger. We are never dangled off the top of the empire state building and told to tempt God to save us. And most people are never offered the powers of all the people in the world bowing down to us.


Instead we are tempted with the things that Screwtape is so familiar with: vanity, selfishness, pride, and indifference. In many ways they are worse, because we meet those temptations on a daily basis and must keep rejecting them.


As Maryetta Anschutz puts it: “Temptation comes to us in moments when we look at others and feel insecure about not having enough. Temptation comes in judgements we make about strangers and friends who make choices we do not understand. Temptation rules us, making us able to look away from those in need and to live our lives unaffected by poverty, hunger and disease. Temptation rages in the moments when we allow our temper to define our lives or when addiction to wealth power, influence over others, vanity or an inordinate need for control defines who we are. Temptation wins when we engage in the justification of little lies, small sins: a racist joke, a questionable business practice for the greater good, a criticism of a spouse or partner when he or she is not around. Temptation wins when we get so caught up in the trappings of life that we lose sight of life itself.”


It’s easy to say no to the big things. It’s easy to know what to do when it comes to the clear cut right and wrong. It is much harder to say no to the little things we run across every day. The things we do when no one else will know.


So how do we deal with temptation?


We begin by knowing that we will be tempted. And chances are good that temptation is not going to come in the form of Satan offering us the world. Instead it will come in the choices we make, or do not make, every day. Knowing that we are going to be tempted allows us to be prepared to say no.  


And we know that sometimes, we are going to make the wrong choices.  God doesn’t expect us to be as perfect as Jesus. God does expect us to try.In the end, it is God’s grace that saves us, and not our perfect ability to resist temptation. We are saved by the saving work of God in Christ Jesus on the cross.


But that doesn’t get us off the hook.  It doesn’t make it so we don’t have to even bother trying to be good and righteous people. One wrong choice is no reason to make more of them. When we slide, we go right back to trying again. We look to our Lord, who said no every time. We turn to scripture to give us strength.


As we begin our Lenten journey, we voluntarily enter into our own sort of spiritual wilderness. We take time to contemplate, or pray, or fast. We turn our attention to the temptations we might face and prepare ourselves to do as our Lord did, and chose God’s way instead. As we journey to Jerusalem, ask yourself: what temptations are you facing? What choice will you make? Amen.