Living Water, Living Story

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

I’m pretty sure you’re not going to want to try this. But I’m going to ask you to consider it just the same: get your people talking about the gospel reading today — it could change their faith lives and rejuvenate your preaching and ministry! (Even if you’re doubtful, read on — you’ve can at least give 5 minutes to consider my proposal!)

Here’s the thing: By and large, our people don’t know the Bible. Some do, no doubt; but the vast majority don’t. They don’t know its overall plotline or many of the individual stories. Why does this matter? Because stories are the everyday currency through which we make sense of and share our lives. And if we don’t know the Bible well enough to draw from its stories to help us think about our lives in the world, then after a while we will simply stop reading it and give our attention to the stories that matter to us.

And here’s the second thing: they’re not going to learn the Bible as long as we are the sole interpreters of Scripture’s stories. While it may have been alright, even helpful, to have preachers take sole responsibility for handling the Scriptures when people learned the Bible at home, at school, and from the culture at large, it won’t work to persist with this model now that the times have changed.

So am I suggesting that we involve our people more directly in the preaching of the Word?  You bet! That may take many different forms, but today I want to explore one: inviting our people to talk about the passage they’ve just listened to during the sermon.

I know, I know, they might hate it. But who knows, they might like it, too. Here’s the key I’ve discovered that usually makes the difference between those two reactions: give your people the confidence that they really can read the Bible.

Let me say a little more. Most adults — including you and me — precisely because we are good at many different things become very uncomfortable when we’re asked to do something we’re not good at, including something new. (This is why most of us don’t learn a second language or pick up a new musical instrument when we’re adults — it’s not that our brains can’t make new connections, it’s that the idea of doing something new freaks most of us out!). So the prospect of interpreting the Bible actually makes most Christians (who know they don’t know the Bible and are embarrassed by that!) quite anxious. So let me suggest a quick and easy way to begin to reclaim this important skill.

1) Explain that all stories work through details and gaps. Details highlight what is important to the author and so guide our interpretation. Gaps invite us to use our imagination and fill in the blanks and, by doing so, become invested in the story.

2) Give a little bit of background to the Gospel reading for today, the story of the Samaritan woman who meets Jesus at the well. (And, by the way, read only the gospel this week; people will get a lot more out of it if it doesn’t come as the fourth biblical reading they hear.) Here are a couple of things I’d lift up:
The contrast between last week’s reading and this week’s couldn’t be stronger — Nicodemus is male, Jewish, and a religious authority (an “insider”). The woman is, well, a woman, a Samaritan (it might be useful briefly to explain the enmity between Jews and Samaritans), and an outsider (which probably explains why she came to draw water a noon, the worst time of day to draw water but the one where you are least likely to encounter others).
Jesus is not uncovering a shameful past or exposing her life of sin when he says she has had five husbands and the man she is living with now is not her husband. Rather, she has most likely been widowed or divorced/abandoned (much the same thing at this time) five times and is now likely dependent on another for subsistence. Jesus, then, is not chastising her or calling her to account; rather he sees her, compassionately naming and understanding her circumstances. This is why she calls him a prophet and risks asking him the central question that divides Samaritans and Jews: the question of where it is proper to worship.
While she came to the well to get water, now that she has met Jesus, “who told me everything I have ever done,” she leaves her jar — the token of her present difficult and dependent life — behind to go tell others. She has, indeed, encountered living water, has been freed by her encounter with Jesus, and wants to share this living water with others.

3) Now, with just that little bit of background, invite folks to turn to others (maybe 3-5 people) to pay attention to the details that grab their attention and to the gaps that they want to fill in. Also have them note their questions, as our questions also draw us into the story. Here are several additional prompting questions: In what way can you identify with the woman at the well? What is the one question you would ask Jesus if you could? What token of your difficult life would you leave behind?

4) After giving people 5 minutes or so to do this, invite a few folks to respond, sharing their insights and their questions with the group at large if possible. (If that doesn’t work, think of an adequate substitute for your context.)

Okay, so how do you end a sermon when you’ve opened it up this way? I don’t think you have to “end” it — in fact, the hope is that people will keep talking about this passage as they leave. But to draw things to a close, you might share how you’d answer one or two of the questions you’ve just asked. You might talk about the promise that God in Jesus also sees us — our challenges, problems, doubts, fears — with compassion and frees us to leave our jar behind. You might proclaim that the Jesus who is willing to break all boundaries to share living water with this woman — who, interestingly, becomes the first evangelist, leading others to meet Jesus through her testimony — continues to break boundaries in order to reach us.

I can’t promise you this will “work.” It sometimes takes a few weeks of a new practice before people become confident in trying it out. But that’s precisely the point — we need to give our people practice in reading and interpreting Scripture so that they will, in fact, believe that this book is their book and that they can, indeed, read it, understand it, enjoy it, and even share it with others.

I know this means taking a risk, Working Preacher. And I appreciate your courage in trying this or some other ways of helping our people find themselves in the pages of Scripture. Blessings on your proclamation!

Yours in Christ,