“Invitation to Change: From Fear to Trust”
John 4:5-30, 39-42
In case anyone is keeping score, you are correct:
The sermon title in your bulletin—“From Fear to Trust”—is not what has been listed in numerous Lenten schedules. To be honest, I’m not sure exactly what I was thinking when I was developing our Lenten theme and first settled on “From Closed to Open” for today.
But one of the many great things about be willing to change and ready for change, one of the wonderful things about being open, is that I was able to change my mind (and the sermon title) and correct my mistake! There was a time, back in the day, when I would have felt obligated to stick with what I had originally said, but now—having grown just a wee bit—I realize that makes no sense. Baby steps.
Of course, making a change is only part of the challenge; one also has to decide what to change to. Other titles I considered include “From Demanding to Receiving,” and “From Entitlement to Gratitude.” Each of those framings had something going for it, but I wanted to drill down beneath behaviors and outcomes and try to at least begin getting at what is behind all that.
And so it was that I landed on fear—a universal human emotion that, shared though it is, is behind so much of what divides us from others, so much of what separates us from God and ourselves, so much of what presents as aggression, violence, entitlement, discrimination, anxiety, anger, isolation, many other unhelpful behaviors, and much pain and suffering.
Recently I saw an interview with the British actor Hannah Waddingham, who plays Rebecca Walton, owner of the Richmond Greyhounds in the television show “Ted Lasso.” Speaking of her character’s desire to destroy her ex-husband’s beloved soccer team, she said, “She’s not vengeful, she’s lost.”
And so it was, I think, with the ancient Israelites, wandering in the wilderness after generations of slavery in Egypt. They weren’t so much rude and unreasonable as scared; they were less bossy than just plain terrified.
At least when they were in Egypt, they had food, they whined to Moses, suggesting that they preferred predictable slavery to uncertain freedom.
It would be easy to criticize the people for being stuck in their ways. It might even be reasonable to judge them for apparent ungratefulness.
But do you know what God did? God heard a deep fear in their complaints, and God responded to their fear with abundance.
“I’m going to rain down bread from heaven for you,” God said.
From then on, every morning the people filled their stomachs with a breakfast of manna they had neither produced nor prepared. It just appeared, sure as the sunrise. And every evening the camp was covered with quails, and the people had meat for supper.
But it turns out that complementary Heavenly Door Dash is not enough to heal a people from generations of oppression, trauma, and fear. It takes time to build trust.
So when the people arrived at a place with no water, their fears took over. Again, they started complaining and blaming. Again, they attacked their leaders and doubted God, saying, “Is God among us or not?”
And do you know what God did? God heard their cries and saw their fear. And the same God who provided food from the sky provided water from a rock, saying, “Wherever you go, I will be there.”
I would like to tell you that everything changed after that. I would like to tell you that, slowly but surely, the people began to trust God’s ever-presence, God’s goodness and graciousness. That they stopped blaming each other for whatever worried them. That they came to know God as the shepherd who would protect them from want, walk with them through dark valleys, and prepare a table for them in the presence of their enemies. That they feared no evil.
But we all know that’s not what happened. We all know how hard it is to trust a force we cannot see for the needs we need to be able to see and touch. We may even have some sense of the particular fears that keep us from trusting, the fears that keep us from accepting the invitation to change our ways to God’s ways.
Indeed, it may be that the change from fear to trust, the change from living out ourfearstoliving in trust, is the hardest change of all to make. Perhaps even more than other changes in attitude and character, it takes time. It requires desire and intention. It challenges us to examine ourselves instead of blaming others. It calls for a willingness to live by faith rather than sight. It demands of us a love that reaches out in tenderness, understanding, and compassion to the very people whose fears-turned-policy-and-persecution may threaten us.
Are we willing to change in that way? Are we committed to seeking Spirit’s power in making that transformation? Are we willing to give up the fear that keeps us bound and divided from one another? Are we ready to consider trusting God and other people in ways that would enable us all to begin to heal and come together? Are we willing to be vulnerable enough to make trust possible? Are we ready for the peace and joy such a change might bring us?
I want to suggest this morning not only that Jesus shows us the way to move from fear to trust, but that an unnamed, possibly disgraced Samaritan woman—which is to say: an outcast among outcasts—does too.
Consider for a moment the cultural and situational realities framing their interaction, the bottom line being that there is no rational reason for them to trust each other. By the time Jesus and his disciples decided to take a shortcut through Samaria, the Jews have looked down on Samaritans for hundreds of years. So deep was the religious discrimination and ethnic racism that Jews were all but forbidden from having personal interactions with Samaritans. On top of that, religious teachers were not supposed to speak to women in public.
But here’s the thing: Jesus was tired and thirsty and, while he was sitting at a well, he had no bucket with which to draw water. He was in need.
I would suggest that the Samaritan woman was also in need. Oh, she had a bucket, but given that she had come to the well all by herself, she seemed to be in need of friends and social acceptance. She needed to believe that she had something to offer.
But where there is need, there is hope.
I’m going to say that again: Where there is need there is hope. Where there is need, there is a willingness to be more open than we might otherwise be. And where there is need-based openness, there is hope for authentic engagement and healing. And where fear is overcome as needs are met, there is the potential for life-changing, world-changing trust.
Because Jesus needed real water, he had to ask a Samaritan woman for help. And because she needed acceptance, living water, and maybe just someone to talk to, she ended up discussing theology with a man who came out to her as the Messiah. And then, because she needed to share the joy she had found, she left her water jar and ran back to tell her people about Jesus. And because the people needed good news, they ran to see Jesus and invited him into their homes. And because Jesus needed to share the good news of God’s extravagant love, he crossed longstanding boundaries of difference and distrust and stayed with them for two whole days.
Given our modern context, it is next to impossible for us to fully comprehend just how remarkable this encounter was—less so because Jesus asked a Samaritan woman for help than that he engaged her in compassionate conversation. And even more so that a woman divorced and/or widowed—which is to say, abandoned—by five different men and could have found some sliver of self-respect in refusing the request of a Jewish man, chose instead to make herself even more vulnerable.
By the grace of God, beloveds, we can change. We can change our behavior from blaming others to grounding ourselves in blessing. We can open our minds and be changed from certainty about things and people to a wonder-based curiosity. We can even let God’s love change our hearts so that instead of acting out of fear we are living in love.
This is God’s invitation to us, today and always.
Will we accept it?