Not The Right Kind of Person for Church?

Many of us cannot wait to get back to in-person worship. That being said, methinks the majority of people in Cobourg, not to mention the rest of Canada, could care less if we never get back to being in church again! There are many reasons for this, but some people don’t want to be in a church because they feel that they are not good enough, or rather they think they will be made to feel like they are not good enough. Maybe they are just the wrong kind of person, with the wrong kind of story to belong?

Maybe you feel like the wrong kind of person, or maybe there is someone in your life might seem like the wrong kind of person. There is good news in John, chapter 4, for those who feel like the wrong kind of person.

In John chapter 4 Jesus engages a Samaritan women in conversation. You can read the whole story here. People often read this story and miss the fact that this would have been a shocking incident when it happened. Keep in mind that Jesus was Jewish, and thanks to his miracles and teaching, a Jew held in high regard among many. However, when Jesus engaged in conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well he was doing something no respectable Jewish man would do in that time and place.

The Samaritan woman was not the right kind of person for a respected Jewish man to talk with. Why? Three reasons:

  1. She was a woman. A respectable Jewish man was not be alone with a woman in that day, and if he was, he should not speak to her.
  2. She was a Samaritan woman. The Jews and the Samaritans did not get along. The Samaritans were those who were left in Israel when the Assyrians invaded the Northern Kingdom and took the “important people” away to exile. The “unimportant people” were left and they were not careful to keep racial purity. They also only recognised the first five books of what we now call the Bible as Scriptures whereas the Jews recognised the writings, like Psalms and Proverbs, and the prophecies, like Isaiah and Jeremiah. The Samaritans also did not focus their worship on Jerusalem. The “respectable” Jews in Jesus day, especially the religious Jews, really looked down on the Samaritans and wouldn’t give them the time of day.
  3. She was a loose Samaritan woman. You’ve heard of the story of the Good Samaritan, well this is the story of the not-so-good Samaritan. We are not told what the circumstances are of having five men, but Bible scholars point out that the timing of her being at the well was unusual unless you wanted to be there on your own, which you might do if you have a bad reputation.

These are three reasons why, if Jesus was trying to be a respectable Jew, he should not speak with the Samaritan. But he did. Why? If the Samaritan woman was not the right kind of person, Jesus was.

Jesus was the right kind of person, a different kind of person, in three ways:

  1. Jesus was focused on what he could give, not get. The history of humankind tells us that far too many men would have tried to taken advantage of the situation. But not Jesus. He turns the conversation to the very good thing she could receive from him; eternal life. Jesus was intent on giving life, not diminishing it.
  2. Jesus was focused on building a bridge, rather than focus on a wall. When the woman tried to change the topic by bringing up religion, rather than taking the bait and talking about the walls of division between them, Jesus continued to build a bridge in conversation. Jesus saw the possibilities in the future of this woman. Looking at the overall ministry of Jesus, he built bridges where everyone else was building walls.
  3. Jesus was not focused on religion, but true relationship with God. When the woman brought up about the differing locations of worship between Samaritans and Jews, a good respectable Jew would have pointed out why the Jews had it right, and the Samaritans had it wrong. Jesus makes mention of it, but that’s not the focus of his conversation. He is focused on her relationship with God:

Jesus replied, “Believe me, dear woman, the time is coming when it will no longer matter whether you worship the Father on this mountain or in Jerusalem. You Samaritans know very little about the one you worship, while we Jews know all about him, for salvation comes through the Jews. But the time is coming—indeed it’s here now—when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship him that way. For God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.”

John 4:21-24 (NLT)

Jesus calls us to follow him, which means of course that we pay great attention to his teaching. But it also means that we pay attention to what he did. The kinds of things he did, we do. So to be the right kind of people when we are with the wrong kind of people, we . . .

  1. Focus on what we can give others, rather than take from them. We do not want to diminish people’s lives by taking, but add to their lives by giving. This can be true in any relationship including friendships, family, and marriage. It is also a way of loving our enemies as Jesus taught us to do.
  2. We build bridges where there are walls. People look at churches across North America and they see a lot of squabbles over where walls should be, and how tall they should be. Who is in? Who is out? What does a good Christian look like? Who is good enough? This is not helping us connect people with Jesus. I have a confession: in 23 years or so of being a pastor I have never really cared much for church membership, who is “in” and who is “out.”. Can we not just help people connect with and walk with Jesus, even if they might seem like Samaritans to us?
  3. We help people, not to practise religion, but to connect with God. This is done through Jesus. When we focus on connecting people with religion, we focus on the rules of the church. When we focus on connecting people with God, we help them see what it looks like to honour God with their lives. The focus is not helping people become good members of our church, but helping them become people who walk with Jesus. Those who walk with Jesus and are growing in Him make great members of a church family, wherever they may be on that journey, and whether their name is on an official role or not.

While we want to follow Jesus and model our lives on him, we also want to ask; have we received the water Jesus told the Samaritan woman about? Do we have a relationship with God through Jesus? It is not about being perfect by our own efforts so that we can become the right kind of person to be accepted by God and so begin walking with Jesus. It is about experiencing God’s acceptance, then walking Jesus, as He changes us from the inside out. It is not about repenting from sin, and then when you have a good track record and you think you are good enough, turning to Jesus. It is not like being addicted to pop and saying, “when I stop drinking pop for thirty days, then I will start drinking water.” It is about seeing the water Jesus offers you now and realising it is so much better than what the world offers. It is about saying “I’d rather be with you, God, than with all that separates me from you.” It is about repenting from sin and turning to God in the same moment, experiencing forgiveness for all that separates us from Him.

We might feel like we are the wrong kind of person with the wrong kind of story. God is the right kind of God.

Have you trusted in Jesus? As the Psalmist says “O taste and see, that the Lord is good.”

But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.”

John 4:14 (NLT)

(The full reflection can be seen as part of this “online worship expression”)

Surpassing Righteousness in Spiritual Disciplines

People who pray are righteous, right? People who give to people in need are good people, correct? We will be considered righteous if people see us fasting, worshipping in church every Sunday, reading the Bible regularly, and practicing all the spiritual disciplines, correct? According to Jesus, not necessarily:

Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 6:1 ESV

We have previously considered a deeper kind of righteousness, a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness Jesus saw in the scribes and Pharisees:

For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.(Matthew 5:20 NIV

We do not reach this deeper righteousness by merely being meticulous about the rules, a skill the scribes and Pharisees excelled at, but through a transformation of our character.  It is not so much “do this, don’t do that,” but rather “become the kind of person who . . .” Previously, we looked at examples Jesus used for morality and love in Matthew 5:21-46, which we might summarize as; become the kind of person who does not harm others, gives their spouse and marriage their best effort, is honest and has integrity, handles offence with grace, and who extends grace and love to everyone. Whereas in these things Jesus was teaching about the kind of people we should become in our ethics, in Chapter 6 Jesus is now speaking to the kind of people we should become in our spiritual disciplines:

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standingc in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. Matthew 6:1-6 NIV

Jesus is not giving us new rules here to get all legalistic about. We are not to be Christian versions of the scribes and Pharisees and so apply these rules in a legalistic manner. If we did there should be no more prayers during church services, and prayer meetings would all be cancelled. I think we would benefit from more prayer in worship, not less, more prayer meetings, not fewer! Instead, we are to become “the kind of people” who do spiritual and religious activities in a way that honours God. What is that way which honours God?

Jesus calls us to be a people who engage in spiritual disciplines for the right reasons. Drawing attention to ourselves is not the right reason and does not honour God! Jesus calls those who do this “hypocrites” which is a term for “actors” who put on masks in order to appear to be one thing while actually being another. Jesus is picking on the scribes and Pharisees here who were the prime examples of those who loved to flaunt their righteous activity in front of others to be seen and praised by them. Jesus calls us to have a righteousness that surpasses theirs. According to Jesus, their reward was the praise they received from others. They did not look forward to reward from God. In contrast, God rewards those whose religious activity is done in secret.

What about the idea of reward? Isn’t reward still the wrong reason to practice spiritual disciplines? For example, should we not give alms for the sake of people in need rather than for our own reward? Perhaps we don’t have the best idea of reward here. Our minds may jump to a final judgement-seat scenario when we hear the word “reward.” However, the idea here is more “wages” for your work, the consequence of your efforts. If our purpose in practicing spiritual disciplines is to receive praise from others, we will get that. If our is purpose is to draw closer to God and grow in character, that will happen. If our focus is on God, the practice of spiritual disciplines will be rewarding indeed and we will be happy to practice them quietly without drawing attention to ourselves. Others may not be impressed, but will benefit.

In conclusion, let’s not be that guy; the person who has a need to appear religious, spiritual, righteous, or better than everyone else. That person is like the scribes and Pharisees who often put on a good show. We are to be a people who practice a better kind of righteousness in our spiritual disciplines. The spiritual life in Christ is not a show, it is an opportunity to grow in Christ and become a difference maker in the world.