Disciples Forgive (John 20:19-23)

day of pentecost

Six weeks ago, on the Sunday after Easter, we looked at this same story from the perspective that Jesus sends his disciples into the world. Discipleship is about Jesus preparing and equipping us to carry on his work in the world on his behalf by the power of his Spirit.

As we celebrate God’s gift of his Holy Spirit to his people at Pentecost, I want to look at this story again from the perspective of the work the Spirit empowers us to do.

I have had lots of conversations with Christians over the years about how the Holy Spirit works in the life of the believer. One aspect of the Holy Spirit’s work that doesn’t seem to get talked about a lot, however, is the Spirit’s work of forgiveness. Yet here, at the end of his gospel, when Jesus appeared to his disciples in the evening of his resurrection, John makes a strong connection between the gift of the Holy Spirit with the forgiveness of sins.

Maybe one of the reasons we don’t talk about forgiveness a lot is because our culture doesn’t like talking about sin. We still suffer from the effects of sin, though, even if we want to try to deny its existence. So many people that I talk to describe how they feel guilty, or have regrets in life, or carry a sense of shame. The remedy for these afflictions rests in the gift Jesus gave to his disciples in this story: forgiveness.

Another reason talking about forgiveness can be difficult is that it doesn’t come naturally to us. We tend to find it hard to believe that we can be forgiven for the wrongs we have done or the guilt that we carry. We can also find it hard to forgive people who have wronged us. That is why the gift of the Holy Spirit is so important for us. The Spirit of God works in us what we can’t do for ourselves. The Spirit creates forgiving hearts within us by giving us the forgiveness Jesus won for us on the cross and the empty tomb. Then, having experienced forgiveness, we are more likely be forgiving people. That is why Jesus taught his disciples, including us, to love others like he loves us (John 13:34). To love someone means forgiving them and not keeping a record of their wrongs (see 1 Corinthians 13:5).

This isn’t a gift that is just given to pastors, priests, or whatever your name for the professional clergy might be. Just as one of the emphases of the festival of Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit is given to all of God’s people, so all of God’s people have the authority and the privilege to lift the burdens of guilt, shame and regret by forgiving others. We all pray ‘forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us’ in the Lord’s Prayer. The sad reality is that some people never hear words of forgiveness outside of worship, so I consider it a high priority each week to tell people who live in a harsh, judging and condemning world that they are forgiven for Christ’s sake. It is my constant prayer that the Spirit of the living Christ will use these words to breathe life into people’s hearts so they can believe they really are forgiven children of God whom he loves and with whom he is pleased (Mark 1:11 etc), and they can in turn extend God’s forgiveness to the people in their lives who need it.

Obviously, forgiveness isn’t all the Holy Spirit does in the life of a believer, but it is a vital and life-giving aspect of the Spirit’s work. As we celebrate the festival of Pentecost, it is good to remember firstly that Jesus’ disciples are forgiven people and to ask the Spirit of Christ to give us a bold faith to hang on to the forgiveness he gives to us. As Jesus’ forgiven disciples, then, we are also empowered by the Holy Spirit to extend that same forgiveness to everyone in our lives, especially those who deserve it the least but need it the most.

More to think about:

  • Why do you think some people find it hard to accept forgiveness? Why do you think some people find it hard to forgive others?
  • Do you find it easy to believe that you are a forgiven person? If you are living with guilt or shame or regret, where do you think these feelings come from?
  • Why do you think John connects Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit to his disciples with the forgiveness of sins? (It might help to go back to Jesus promising the Paraclete [someone who stands beside us and speaks God’s truth to us] in John 14:16,17)
  • Who is someone that you find difficult to forgive? How might the gift of God’s Holy Spirit help you to forgive that person?
  • Who do you know that might need the gift of forgiveness? How might you be able to extend Jesus’ gift of forgiveness to them?

Jesus in You (John 14:15-21)

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Last week we heard Jesus say that we see the Father when we see him, and we get to know the Father when we get to know him, because Jesus is in the Father and the Father is in Jesus (vv1-14). From Jesus’ words we can think of discipleship as following him into a deeper and closer relationship with God the Father so we can participate with God in his work of redeeming, restoring and renewing the world.

But what about the Holy Spirit? As Christians who believe in and teach the Trinity, we believe that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one. So what is the role of the Spirit of God in this new relationship we have with the Father through the Son?

In John 14, Jesus continues by promising that he will ask the Father who will give us the Paraclete (v16). This word means someone who stands beside us to speak for us and to speak to us, which is why it can be translated as Advocate, Helper, Comforter, Encourager or Counsellor. This is the Spirit of Truth (v17) which, Jesus promises, is with us and will be, or is already, in us (depending on how we read the verb).

We need to pause at this point because of our post-modern culture’s difficulty with the word ‘truth.’ Our society has a tendency to want to make all ‘truth’ relative so that there is no one, absolute truth. Instead, post-modernism argues, we live with many truths, yours being different than mine, with the end result that there is no one ‘truth’ we can rely on.

I understand and agree that we need to respect and value what people hold as ‘truth’ for themselves. However, we then need to ask, what is the ‘Truth’ that Jesus talks about, and is it possible for us to find a ‘Truth’ in him that we can trust enough to build a life on?

Earlier in chapter 14, Jesus said that he is ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ (v6). One way we can think of the ‘Spirit of Truth’ that Jesus promises to give us as not an idea, a concept, or even a doctrinal theology to be discussed, debated or even defended. Instead, if Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, it is possible to think of the ‘Truth’ as a person – Jesus himself. This would mean that the Spirit of Truth that he promises us is his own Spirit, which will be with us and even in us!

This is what Jesus seems to mean when he says, ‘When I am raised to life again, you will know that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you’ (v20 NLT). The role of the Spirit of Truth that Jesus is talking about here is to bring us into the relationship that exists between the Father and the Son by living in us so as we live in him, he lives in us, and together we are one with God in perfect relationship.

There are times in life when this can be hard to believe. Especially when life is difficult or challenging, when we suffer from physical or mental illness, grief or loss of any kind, we can start to wonder where God is and why he is letting us go through pain or emptiness. This is where we need the Spirit to lead us deeper into the Truth. We can find in Christ that, even in the darkest times of life, we are one with the Father through Jesus by the power of the Spirit, and nothing can separate us from his love for us as his children whom he loves and with whom he is well pleased (Romans 8:38,39; Matthew 3:17 etc). We can understand the work of the Paraclete, then, as speaking words of grace and truth to us when we need them the most, and leading us into a deeper relationship with the Truth of God who is made a human being in the person of Jesus, so that, as people who are in the Father through the Son, we can live the life Jesus came to give us (14:19; 10:10).

As disciples of Jesus, following Jesus can mean living each and every day in this Truth, no matter what our circumstances might be, no matter whether we feel it or not. Living in the Spirit of Truth can mean that whether life is good or bad, whether we are cruising or battling, even if we struggle to get out of bed in the morning or to put one foot in front of the other, the Spirit of the living Christ gives us the ability to trust that God is with us, for us and in us. As the Spirit of Truth lives in us we share in the life of Jesus, and nothing, not even death, can overcome it.

Obviously there is a lot more we could say about the work of the Spirit of Truth in the lives of God’s people. There is good teaching on the Holy Spirit, and there are some ideas about the Spirit’s work that I struggle with based on what the Bible teaches. In a lot of ways, however, our understanding of the Holy Spirit needs to be founded on what Jesus says to us in this passage. The gift of the Paraclete is to bring us into God’s Truth – that we are one with the Father through the Son by the power of the Spirit. In this new relationship, we can find a God who loves us, that we can love in return, and we can live in ways that bring life to ourselves and to as we follow Jesus’ commands in faith, hope and love.

More to think about:

  • How do you picture the Holy Spirit? What do you think of the picture of the Spirit as Paraclete – someone who stands beside us to speak for us and to us? What do you like about it? What is difficult for you?
  • How do you understand the idea of ‘truth’? Do you believe there are absolute truths (always true, no matter what)? What might they be? Are some truths relative (different for different people at different times)? How do you work out what truths are absolute and which are relative?
  • Some years ago I came across the idea that the Spirit of Truth Jesus talks about is his Spirit because Jesus is God’s Truth. What do you think of this idea: that Truth from a biblical point of view is more about a person with whom we can have a relationship than an idea to be discussed and debated?
  • Do you find it easy or difficult to believe that you are one with God the Father through Jesus the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit? What makes it a challenge? What helps you to believe it?
  • How might you live tomorrow differently if you were to go into it believing that you are one with God through Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit? How might that faith shape what you do & say to others?

Know the Son, Know the Father (John 14:1-14)

babushka dolls 02

If you were to draw a picture of God, what would it be? An old man with a long, white beard sitting among the clouds? A nature scene? A burst of light? Or something else…?

I think Philip, one of Jesus’ Twelve Disciples, must have been a visual person, because asking Jesus to show him the Father (v8) could have come from a desire to have some sort of picture about what the Father looks like. Instead of drawing him a picture, though, Jesus points to himself as the visual representation of the invisible God.

This is consistent with other parts of the New Testament that points to Jesus as the visible face of the invisible God (for example see Colossians 1:15, Hebrews 1:3). What they are saying is that if we want to see God, the best place to look is at Jesus.

However, this is more than a picture of God. In Jesus we see the character and nature of God. Especially when we follow Jesus to the cross and empty tomb, we see the depth of God’s love for us and the power of his love which is stronger than death.

In seeing God in Jesus, we also get to know him (v7). Jesus says the Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father (v10,11). The relationship between the Father and Son is so close that they exist in perfect relationship with each other. One way we can think of this relationship is like a mystical babushka (or matryoshka) doll. The mystery of the relationship between the Father and the Son is that not only is the inner doll nestled within the outer doll, but the larger outer doll also exists within the smaller inner doll. It defies logic and messes with my head, but this is basically what Jesus is saying – the relationship between himself and the Father is so close and intertwined that we cannot separate them from each other.

Jesus tells us this so that we can know the Father through the Son (v7). In our current culture, we usually think about ‘knowledge’ as an intellectual activity based on information. From a biblical perspective, however, knowing someone was a lot more than an intellectual exercise. Knowing someone meant having a relationship with that person. For example, there is a big difference between knowing about the Queen of England and knowing her well enough to drop into her palace for a cup of tea and scones with her and the corgis. Through Jesus, we can know the Father in a close and intimate relationship where we are participating with Jesus in God’s work of redeeming, reconciling and renewing the world (v12), and where Jesus promises that he will give us whatever we ask for to do his saving work and bring glory to the Father (vv13,14).

So, how is your relationship with God? One of the challenges we face in our time and place is that we can tend to over-intellectualise our faith. God want us to love him with all of our heart, soul, strength, and mind (Luke 10:27 etc), and so our intellect plays a part in our faith. However, the language of faith that Jesus uses in this passage is about relationship. As we follow Jesus, he leads us deeper into a relationship with the Father. The more we get to know Jesus, the more we also get to know the Father. And the more we get to know God who is the author and sustainer of all life, the more we get to know his life in us (see John 10:10).

We’ve talked a lot about the relationship between the Father and the Son, but I’m guessing there will be people who will be pointing out that a Christian understanding of God is Trinitarian, and so we need to include the Holy Spirit in this relationship as well. Jesus goes on to talk about the role of the Holy Spirit in the next few verses, which we’ll look at next week…

More to think about:

  • How do you picture God? Spend some time drawing how you visualise God…
  • How does your picture of God compare with Jesus, given that he says that those who see him also see God (v9)? In what ways is your picture similar to Jesus? In what ways is it different?
  • This isn’t just about the way God looks, but his character and nature which we encounter in Jesus, especially when we follow Jesus to his cross & empty tomb. What does Jesus’ cross & empty tomb say to you about the character & nature of God?
  • Do you tend to think of faith is more an intellectual activity or a relationship? What might it look like to have ‘a personal relationship’ with Jesus? (think about other significant relationships you have in your life; what keeps those relationships strong? how can you do those things with Jesus to keep your relationship strong with him?)
  • What do you think about the idea that discipleship is following Jesus into a closer & deeper relationship with the Father? What do you like about this idea? What might be challenging or uncomfortable about it for you?

Leading to Life (John 10:1-10)

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Many churches around the world last Sunday observed what is known as ‘Good Shepherd Sunday.’ Some Christians don’t like identifying with sheep because they don’t want to be identified as stupid animals who mindlessly go along with the crowd. However, the purpose of Good Shepherd Sunday is to focus on one of the more common images for God in the Bible, and especially of Jesus in the New Testament, as the shepherd of his people.

The picture of Jesus as our shepherd helps us as we continue to explore discipleship. In John 10:1-10 we hear discipling language: the shepherd calls his flock by name, leads them, and they follow him (vv3,4). By reading this passage from a discipling perspective, we can hear the Good Shepherd calling us to follow him in order to lead us into a new life (v10).

The life that Jesus describes in v10 is understood in a variety of ways. The New Living Translation calls it ‘a rich and satisfying life.’ The New International Version translates the end of v10 as ‘life … the full.’ The Message describes it as ‘real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.’ The English Standard Version has Jesus saying that he ‘came that they may have life and have it abundantly.’ I’m left wondering what this life that Jesus promises to lead us into look like?

This text is often misused by people who promote a prosperity theology and teach that the more we give to their organization, the more Jesus will give them in return. Becoming a Christian doesn’t make everything sunshine and rainbows, and you can’t deal with God for a more comfortable life. The Bible is clear about the reality of suffering, especially for followers of Jesus (for example see Matthew 5:11,12; Luke 21:12ff). However, Jesus is still promising to lead us into a life that is ‘abundant,’ ‘rich and satisfying’ or ‘to the full.’ The Greek word used here can give the implication that something is so full that it is overflowing. So what is this life that Jesus promises so full of that it overflows?

Maybe our discipling journey is actually about exploring this overflowing life that Jesus leads us into. To offer a definitive answer to what this life looks like would, therefore, kind of defeat the purpose. However, Jesus does give us some hints about the nature of this life in the previous verses.

This is a life where we are known, because he calls us by name (v3b). In the ancient world, if you knew someone’s name, you had a connection or a relationship with them. Because our Good Shepherd calls us by name, he knows us, so we can find who we are in relationship with him.

This is a life where we find salvation (v9a). This is more than going to heaven when we die. If we think about the image of a shepherd watching over his flock, then being ‘saved’ is more about being protected, rescued, and kept from harm. We can begin to experience this ‘salvation’ in this life through faith in our Good Shepherd.

This is a life where we find good pastures (v9b). The Good Shepherd provides for his flock because he cares about them. In the same way, this overflowing life Jesus promises is one where we can trust that he will provide for all of our physical, emotional and spiritual needs.

Imagine what this kind of life could be like: where Jesus, our Good Shepherd, knows us, protects us and provides for all our needs. When Jesus promises to lead us into an overflowing life, he is asking us to believe that by following him in faith and love our lives can be better than they are today. This won’t necessarily remove our suffering, hardships or difficulties. However, as we follow Jesus into the overflowing life, we can find the hope of a better tomorrow in relationship with our Good Shepherd whose life is stronger than death. Whatever our circumstances might be, as Jesus calls us by name and leads us into his life, we can find hope, peace and even joy that overflows into the lives of the people around us.

This makes discipleship about much more than following a new set of rules or a moral guide for us. Discipleship becomes about Jesus calling us to follow him as he leads us into a new kind of life, a life that overflows with God’s goodness. This doesn’t happen immediately. It will take time because it is a journey. However, it is a journey that our Good Shepherd has already walked before us, and into which he calls us as he knows us, protects us and provides for all our needs. It is a life in which we encounter the overflowing goodness of God in Jesus, as it grows in us and spills out into the lives of the people around us.

More to think about:

  • What do you think of when you hear Jesus describe himself as the ‘Good Shepherd’? What images or ideas come to mind?
  • How have you heard the ‘abundant life’ or ‘life to the full’ that Jesus talks about in v10 explained? What are your thoughts in the ways different people explain it?
  • What do you think Jesus meant when he said that he came to give us ‘a rich and satisfying life’ (NLT)? What do you think this kind of life looks like?
  • Is this the life you are living now? In what ways are you experiencing God’s abundance now? In what ways do you need Jesus to lead you into the life he promises?
  • One way we can think of this life is that God’s goodness overflows from us into the lives of the people around us (see John 4:14). Do you think that following Jesus more closely can help you in your relationships with other people? Explain why or why not…

Disciples are Sent (John 20:19-31)

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I often hear Christians talk about what we have to do to get people into our churches. The discussion might be about evangelism, outreach, mission, fellowship, programs or any one of a large number of topics. The general focus, however, usually centres around what do we have to do to get people who are ‘out there’ so they can be ‘in here’ with us.

Jesus had a very different focus. As we hear in this reading from John 20, when he appeared to his disciples on the evening of his resurrection, Jesus did not give them instructions on how to move people from ‘out there’ to ‘in here.’ Instead, listen to what Jesus said to his followers in verses 21 and 22. Jesus sent his disciples ‘out there’ in the power of the Holy Spirit to forgive sins.

As we talk about simplifying the work of our congregation by developing an intentional discipling process and aligning what we do with that process, we need to listen what Jesus is telling us. As Jesus’ disciples, he is calling us to participate in God’s mission in the world by sending us out into the world. This continues the same movement our Father in heaven began when he sent Jesus into the world to redeem the world. The Father sent Jesus, and Jesus sends us on the same mission.

This gives us a totally different way of thinking about the work of our congregation. Instead of running events, programs or courses to try to get people from ‘out there’ to ‘in here’, if Jesus wants us to be sending people into the world to continue Jesus’ work in the world, then, as a congregation, we need to be preparing, growing, and equipping each other for this work. Paul says in Ephesians 4:11 & 12 that God gifts his leaders as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers ‘to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ’ (NLT). Paul recognises that if Jesus sends his followers into the world to participate in God’s mission to the world, then we need to be equipping each other for that work.

What might our congregation look like if we started re-thinking who we are and what we do from this perspective? How might things be different if we thought less about how to get people into our church, and instead thought more about how we can send you out to be part of God’s mission in the world in your families, among your friends, in your workplaces, schools or universities, or wherever God leads you during the week? This is really the key to our Simple Church conversation. If, as Jesus’ disciples, his intention is to send us into the world in the power of the Holy Spirit in the same way that our Father in heaven sent him, how do we prepare and equip you for that mission?

As we continue our conversation about simplifying our congregation’s activity with a strong discipling focus, this text becomes critical to that conversation. As the risen Christ meets us, breathes the Holy Spirit into us and gives us authority to be forgiving people, he sends us out as his representatives to participate in the mission of God. Disciples of Jesus follow him to participate with him in God’s mission of redeeming the world.

How do we as a congregation prepare and equip you for this mission? It starts with a change in thinking from trying to get people ‘out there’ to join us ‘in here’, to Jesus sending us out just as the Father sent him.

More to think about:

  • Has your experience of conversations in the church been more about getting people from ‘out there’ into the church, or sending God’s people into the world? Why do you think that is?
  • What is your reaction to the idea that Jesus sends you out to be part of God’s mission in the world? What is challenging, exciting, scary about it?
  • Sometimes people understand Jesus’ words about sending us as a call to overseas mission or church planting, but we can also think about Jesus sending us into our everyday lives as his followers to make a difference where we are right now. How might you view your home, work, school/uni, sporting club differently if you saw it as the place Jesus is sending you in the power of his Spirit to be a forgiving person?
  • When Paul says that ‘Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service’ (Ephesians 4:11,12a NIV), what do you think these ‘works of service/ministry’ might be? How might our activity as a church be different if we thought of ‘ministry’ as what happens outside of our congregations (in our homes, paid & unpaid work, schools/unis, community, etc) rather than inside?
  • What do you need to be prepared & equipped to be sent into the world as Jesus’ followers to participate in God’s mission? How can we as the church give you what you need?

Sight for the Blind (John 9:1-41)

John 9v25

I have really struggled with this text this week.

On the surface, John 9 tells a simple story about Jesus healing a man who had been born blind. The religious leaders want to know who did it because the healing happened on a Sabbath, and so investigate the circumstances of the healing in a way that almost becomes comical. Eventually, they expel the healed man from the community of the synagogue for saying that his healing shows that Jesus must have come from God. Jesus catches up with him and then gives one of his paradoxical statements about the blind being able to see and those who can see being the ones who are actually blind (v39).

It is this statement of Jesus that has sat in the back of my mind all week, making me wonder if I really see what this story is about, or whether I’m blind to what Jesus is trying to teach us.

I know I’m reflecting my post-modern culture, but we all come to Scripture with our assumptions about the message of the Bible and what God is trying to tell us through the Bible. That makes us no different from the Pharisees whose assumption was that the Law of Moses gave them their best understanding of who God is and how God is at work in the world. One of the reasons they rejected Jesus was because he worked this miracle on the Sabbath. He broke the Law of Moses and so, the Pharisees concluded, he couldn’t be from God. The assumptions the Pharisees worked with prevented them from seeing Jesus as the one through whom God was working in the world.

The key to seeing what this story is about seems to lie in verse 3b when Jesus says that this man was born blind ‘so that the works of God might be displayed in him’ (NIV). What Jesus seems to be saying is that the man born blind encountered God working in the world through Jesus because of his disability. The Pharisees didn’t see it because they didn’t recognize their need for God’s grace or healing. The blind man needed it because he couldn’t see, and it’s because of his lack of physical sight that he gained spiritual insight into Jesus doing God’s work in his life and in the world.

Maybe that’s the point of the story – seeing Jesus as the One who does God’s work in the world to bring us grace which makes us whole.

I’m always cautious about drawing parallels between us and the Pharisees because, let’s face it, none of us like to be called a Pharisee. However, like them, we can look for God to be working in lots of different ways in the world – for example, through nature, or a personal experience of some kind, or a miraculous revelation, or doing good things, or even a set of rules or religious tradition. I know that we can encounter God in ways such as these, and I don’t want to discount them. What this story seems to be saying, though, is that the one place we can see most clearly the way that God is working in the world is through Jesus.

This can become a real challenge for us because Jesus doesn’t fit in with the way we expect God to work. When we look at Jesus, we see God at work in humility, in weakness, in suffering and in the cross. We can look at the man born blind and see God working in his life through Jesus who meets him in his disability. In the same way, when we are being humiliated or shamed, in Jesus we can see God meeting us in our humility or shame to give us honour and dignity, like we saw in last week’s story of the Samaritan woman at the well. When we are weak, in Jesus we can see God meeting us in our weakness to make us strong in faith. When we are suffering for any reason, in Jesus we can see God meeting us in our suffering to give us the hope that he is with us, will give us a better tomorrow, and somehow even use our suffering for good (see Romans 28). In the cross, we see God meeting us in the worst circumstances of life to pour his self-giving, grace-filled love into us which makes us whole and gives us what we need to live in peace and joy now and forever.

I don’t see a God who works like this anywhere else but in Jesus. That’s why, first and foremost,

Discipleship is … Jesus opening our eyes to see God at work in him.

We are all like the blind man in one way or another. We all need to have our eyes opened by the Holy Spirit to see God at work in the person of Jesus, meeting us in our need, showing us grace, carrying our brokenness, and raising us to new life through faith in him. Only then are we able to live as God’s people and glorify him in what we say and do like the man born blind in the story did.

It’s worth asking: where do we look for God? What kind of God do we meet there? And how is that God similar or different to the God we meet in Jesus? We will all come to the Bible with our different assumptions, and they will shape our understanding of God and how God is at work in our lives and in the world. When we think we can see things clearly, maybe that’s when we are actually blind to God’s truth. When we admit we can’t see him, but need the Holy Spirit to open our eyes, maybe that’s when we start to see God at work in Jesus.

More to think about:

  • Where do you look for God at work in the world? In your life?
  • What does that say to you about who God is? What might be some problems with looking for God there?
  • What do you think about looking for God at work in Jesus? What might be helpful in doing that? What might be some challenges about it?
  • When you look at the way God was at work through Jesus in the life of the man born blind from John 9, what does it tell you about God?
  • How might it help you in your life if you could see God at work in humility, weakness, suffering or the cross?

Jesus Knows (John 4:5-42)

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All of us have probably done things in our lives that we would prefer other people didn’t know about. They might be things we have done, or things that have been done to us. Whatever these secrets might be, we tend to keep them will hidden. The only times we might confide in another person about what we have done is when we trust that person won’t use our secrets against us, think less of us, or reject us because of what has happened.

The Samaritan woman in this story was experiencing a lot of shame. Jesus gets to the source of her disgrace when he asked her to get her husband (v16). Her reply, that she didn’t have a husband, was only the tip of the iceberg. Having had five husbands, and living with a man who wasn’t her husband, meant that this woman was outside of how ‘respectable’ women lived in that time and place. She had to come to the well in the hottest part of the day because her shame prevented her from mixing with the other women of the village. Her relationships with men had made her an outcast from her community.

When Jesus reveals her shame, though, something happens to her. Whenever I read this story, I am always surprised about the message she takes back to the village to tell people about Jesus. In verse 29 we read that she returned to the village saying, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did!” This doesn’t sound like good news for a person whose life resulted in her experiencing social shame. However, in the presence of Jesus, her shame was changed to joy because Jesus knew everything about her, but he still valued her enough to talk with her, to give her time, and to value her as a person. Jesus knew everything about her, but instead of experiencing shame, this woman found grace in the presence of Jesus.

In a lot of ways, we still live in a culture of shame. People are regularly shamed on social media for the ways in which they break the rules and expectations of our media-driven culture. Even if we are not on social media, people experience shame for a whole range of reasons. We all tend to keep secrets from others because we can be afraid that if people really knew who we are or what we have done, then they might not want to know us anymore. I regularly talk with people who are reluctant to tell me things about their past because they worry that if I knew, then I would see them differently, or judge them, or condemn them, or reject them.

What the story of the Samaritan woman at the well says to me, though, is that Jesus already knows. He knows the wrongs we have done, the wrongs that have been done to us, our wounds, our grief, or mistakes and regrets. He knows everything, and like the Samaritan woman at the well, he doesn’t judge us, condemn us or reject us. Instead, like the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus gives us his time, talks with us, embraces us in a relationship and gives us a value that overcomes all sense of shame or embarrassment. As we continue to journey to the cross during this season of Lent, this story is a reminder that Jesus embraces our shame as he suffers shame like we could never imagine. When Jesus was beaten, mocked, stripped naked and hung on a cross for all to see and laugh at, he knows our shame. In his resurrection, however, Jesus raises us out of our shame as he gives us a new life as honoured, loved children of God. In his suffering and death, Jesus takes our shame and then raises us to a shame-free life in his resurrection. Like the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus knows everything we have ever done, but in his love for us, he speaks grace and love into our lives.

The challenge and opportunity we have as Christian community, then, is to give people an experience of grace in the same way that Samaritan woman at the well experienced grace. When we reveal what shames us to other people, when we confess the cause of our shame to others, and when we embody the grace of God in Jesus to each other by forgiving sin and embracing each other in relationship, then we become the means by which the grace of Jesus is made real in the lives of people around us. Imagine what it would be like to have such trusting relationships with others in our congregation that you could be honest about your deepest, darkest secrets, your most hidden cause of shame, and only experience grace, forgiveness and love? This is the path to healing and a shame-free life – being vulnerable enough to allow trusted Christian brothers or sisters into the shame we experience so we can experience grace in our relationship with each other.

This would mean that we could think of discipleship as …

… finding freedom from shame in our relationship with Jesus
and then extending that same grace to others.

Jesus gives us the opportunity to free others from their shame by accepting them in the same way that Jesus has accepted us (Romans 15:7) and the way he accepted the Samaritan woman at the well. He knew everything she had ever done, and all he gave her is grace. In the same way, Jesus knows everything we have ever done, even those things which cause us shame and we would prefer others didn’t know about. He knows, and still he accepts us, loves us, and embraces us in a shame-free relationship with himself. Jesus knows, and he still loves us enough to give us grace.

It changed the Samaritan woman’s’ life, and it can change our lives, too.

More to think about:

Putting this into practice can be difficult & risky. On the one hand, we can find a lot of freedom by confessing things that we carry & try hard to keep hidden to another person. However, we need to be sure that the person we confide in can be trusted & will respond with grace.

If you are carrying something you don’t want to share with another person, maybe consider beginning by writing a letter to Jesus about what you’re carrying, and then give it to him by burning it. As the paper is destroyed in the flames, so our shame is destroyed in Jesus’ death & resurrection for us.

Another way to find freedom from shame is to consider confessing what you’re carrying to your pastor or priest. The practice of private confession is a time-honoured way of giving what we’re carrying over to Jesus and hearing words of forgiveness & healing for that specific sin or wound. That’s what Jesus authorised his followers to do, so it makes sense to receive what he gives us (see John 20:19-23). It would be good to discuss how your pastor or priest views confidentiality before you talk with them if there are legal issues connected with what you want to discuss. Sometimes clergy understand what happens in confession differently (eg the need for mandatory reporting to police or other authorities).

In the end, I believe the story of the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 points to the way Jesus wants to restore us by removing our shame. This takes trusted & grace-filled relationships which take time to grow. I hope & pray that you will find these relationships in Christian community, and you will be able to provide these kind of relationships for others…