March 19, 2017, Nobody Doesn’t Need to be Known – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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I want to start today with a story that happened just this past week, when I had the privilege of delivering a gift on behalf of our Women’s Guild. We had voted at our last meeting to help out a young family, a hard-working mother and father with two young children, because we had found out that they were going through a very rough time. The ladies had decided to send a gift of $200, and Sharon added in the donation money we keep in a little box in the Thrift Shop for special occasions, that comes from the ‘little bit extra’ that kindly people sometimes give when they pay for their purchases. That happened to be $30, so $230 in all. I sent a message to the family, to let them know we wanted to make this gift to them, and when the Mom wrote back she was both thankful and amazed. “I can really see the hand of God in this,” she told me, “because we had figured what we needed to get through this coming week, and it came to exactly $230!”
I was so moved by this sign of God’s presence in this family’s life, moved to tears, and I have been thinking about it a lot since then. When something happens that we know we can’t explain away as just a happy coincidence; when, as this young woman said to me, we can really see the hand of God in our own daily life, what is it about that that touches us so deeply? And I know first of all that it has nothing at all to do with God impressing us with his omniscience, as if it were a kind of divine parlor trick, like a magician who amazes the audience by correctly identifying every card the volunteer pulls out of the deck. Because we know, if we believe in God at all, that he knows things. In fact, for some people that is more a source of discomfort than comfort, because a lot of times people seem to think God is like the Santa Claus in the song, who “sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake and knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.”
That notion of God might keep us on our best behavior, but it would hardly move us to tears. No. What touched my heart so deeply; what touched the heart of my friend, wasn’t that God was telling this young woman that he knows things about her; he was telling her that he knows her. “When you put the kids to sleep that evening;” God was saying. “and the two of you sat down together at the kitchen table with a pad of paper and a pen and tried to figure out how on earth you were going to make it through the coming days; and when you finally had to admit to each other that the paycheck just wasn’t going to stretch far enough; I was there. I knew. I knew your need. I knew your fears and your worries about your children. I have known you since were children yourselves.” That was God’s message to them in the homely guise of a check for $230: I know you. And that is what touched our hearts so deeply. Because there is nobody, ever, in the whole history of mankind, who doesn’t have a desperate need to be known.
The story we read from the gospel of John today is a meeting between Jesus and a Samaritan woman. Now, Samaria was right smack in the mid-section of Israel, with Judea to the south of it and Galilee to the north of it, and yet Jews and Samaritans had nothing to do with each other. It was a long-standing alienation, something like the racial disconnects in our own country, but this dated back seven centuries. The Jews considered the Samarians half-breeds and not real Israelites anymore, and for time out of mind, Israelites and Samaritans had had nothing to do with one another. But Jesus never cared about being conventional.
It was the sixth hour, noontime, and Jesus was exhausted from his travels. His disciples had all gone into the village to get something for lunch and Jesus was alone, resting beside Jacob’s Well, when a local woman came to draw some water from the well. And he struck up a conversation with her by asking for a drink of water. This was doubly surprising for the woman, because not only was it unheard-of for Jews to chat with Samaritans, but it was also not the done thing for men to chat with women – John tells us the disciples were pretty shocked to come back and find the Lord talking with a woman, though nobody had the nerve to question him about it.
At first, Jesus’ conversation with the woman is all about water, kind of like the conversation he had with Nicodemus that Helen talked about last week. Sitting by the well, in the heat of the noonday sun, it was a perfect place to use the cool, life-giving well water as a symbol for the spiritual life he had come to offer. He tells the woman, “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty forever. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” He’s talking about the Holy Spirit, but the woman, who clearly has no idea what Jesus is driving at, answers him, “Great, give me some of that water so I won’t have to come here to this well every day.” It almost sounds to me like there might be a hint of sarcasm in her words, though that might be reading too much into it.
And then Jesus makes the conversation personal. “Tell you what,” he says to her, “why don’t you go get your husband and bring him back here?” And trying very hard to be truthful without revealing a lot of sordid details to this complete stranger, the woman says, “Oh, I don’t have a husband.” And here’s where Jesus really catches her attention. “You’re absolutely right,” he says, “when you say you don’t have a husband. You’ve had five men in the past as husbands, but the man you live with now isn’t your husband. What you said was true.” It is at this point in the conversation that the woman begins to take Jesus seriously because what he is saying to her is, “I know you,” And think how he has said it. He hasn’t condemned her; he hasn’t made her feel afraid or even unworthy. She’s more engaged in the discussion than ever, as the almost unthinkable idea begins to form in her head – could this man really be the Messiah God promised to send all those centuries ago?
Here is a woman whose life seems to have been a bit of a mess: five husbands, five divorces or deaths, and now she’s living with number 6 out of wedlock as if she’d given up on the whole thing. But notice that Jesus doesn’t reproach her or pass judgment on her. He says nothing to her about getting her life cleaned up. His message to her is just this: I know you. That is what touches her heart. And she becomes the first missionary to the Samaritans, leaving her water jug by the well, forgetting in her excitement what she had come to the well for in the first place, and running back to the village to call everyone she saw, “You have got to meet this man. He told me everything I ever did. He knew me.” And the people come pouring out from the village – out of curiosity at first, I’m sure – but when they came face to face with Jesus, when they spoke to him themselves they believed in him as well. John tells us that Jesus spent two days among the people of that village, and we don’t know what he said to them, but we know what the villagers said to the woman: “It’s not because of what you told us anymore. Now that we’ve heard him ourselves, we know, we believe it too – this is the One! This is the Savior of the world.”
Human beings were created for relationship. We were created by the Holy Trinity, who is in itself a circle of knowing; Matthew writes: “no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son” And Paul writes to the Corinthians, “no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.” And when the Bible talks about “knowing” it isn’t talking about knowing facts like he’s a kind of giant database – the word “know” in Scripture is used of the most intimate relations between a man and a woman. To know someone is to really see them and relate to them in a deeply personal way. The relationship of marriage, where a man and a woman love one another and become one flesh in knowing one another, that is a dim reflection of the way the members of the Trinity know each other. And so we, as human beings created in the image of God, we, in our very nature, have a need to be known.
Nobody, no human being, doesn’t need to be known.
And that is why God’s message to us is this: I know you. He reassures us over and over in the Scriptures. Isaiah wrote: “The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name…Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands… ” No matter what the circumstances of your birth and childhood might have been, God the Father knew you – knew you by name – when you were the tiniest organism in the darkness of your mother’s womb. He has engraved you, indelibly, on the palms of his hands, he tells you. Can you even imagine a woman forgetting the child she holds at her breast? Even if that might happen, God says, I would never; I will never forget you.
The prophet Jeremiah, who is often called the ‘weeping prophet’ because he was born into such a terribly sad and painful time in Israel’s history, wrote this: ‘God said: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you…”’ In the greatest sufferings of our lives, our anchor is this: that our Father has not forgotten us. We are not alone. Our suffering is not unseen. Our lives are not without purpose. David was holding on to that assurance when he wrote psalm 139: “You formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.”
Before God heals us; before he teaches us; before he shows us where we’re messing up; before he humbles us; before he changes us; before anything else, he knows us. It is the first step of his love for us, the foundation of the unconditional-ness of his love for us, because the Father doesn’t love you for who you could be or should be or will be – he loves you exactly for who he knows you to be. And like Paul says in his famous chapter on love, God’s love is the one thing that never comes to an end: “Now we see it in a mirror dimly,” Paul wrote, “but then we will see it face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Come and see the man who can tell you everything you’ve ever done, who has known you by name from the moment of your conception. Jesus. He’s the One.