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Christian Cliché: "Hate the sin, love the sinner"

October 28, 2018

“Hate the sin, love the sinner.” I can’t lie – this is one that I used to use. And I do think it’s one of the better ones on our list. But the biggest problem is that the underlying logic is flawed because it begs the question of what exactly “sin” is. Put another way, it assumes a certain understanding of sin in order to advance its agenda. And today we will be turning that definition on its head and trying to understand it a different way. But the important thing to realize, at thispoint, is that our cliché this morning assumes sin is a category into which certain actions fall. It’s a classification; it’s a label which we put on certain actions and not on others. I’ll explain why I think that’s problematic in a little bit.

Now, Jesus is returning to Galilee from Judea and stops at noon to rest at a well which happened to be owned by Jacob, the great patriarch of the faith. And along comes a Samaritan woman to draw water. Bear in mind, though, that coming to the well at noon is not an arbitrary decision. I guarantee, no one decides to go draw water at such a scorching hour of the day in Palestine if they can help it. So, the question is what is preventing this woman from drawing her water early in the morning with everyone else? No doubt she has been the subject of many, many days’ worth of gossip at that well. In this culture, being divorced and remarried once was considered a little too risqué. Now imagine someone having done that five times. Imagine the social shame and degradation and humiliation this woman would have to withstand every single day just to draw water; the wandering eyes and fervent whispers she would elicit just by walking through town to buy food. One can’t help but wonder how long it had been since she interacted with anyone other than the man she lives with.

Now, when she approaches the well, and Jesus asks for a drink, she automatically recognizes Jesus as a Jew. And, like I mentioned last week, the history of Jews and Samaritans is a long and arduous one but it is centered on a series of disputes and disagreements before and after the Babylonian exile. It is, no doubt, a feud which goes back hundreds and hundreds of years by this time. And the first thing she says to Jesus is something out of shock: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Now this seems kind of like a harsh response to Jesus’ question, right? I mean, it’s noon! It’s Samaria. It’s kind of hot. All Jesus wants is some water. 

But think about what this woman has been through. She’s experienced so much judgement that it’s probably become kind of comfortable to hang out in that space. She’s probably happy to engage in this debate because it keeps the focus off the things in her life that really matter. Now, you might be thinking: “well, that sounds a little far-fetched.” Is it though? Is it really so far-fetched to believe that we would rather stay in our routines and habits because they’re familiar than risk changing them? People complain about stuff all the time, but it doesn’t mean they’re actually willing to change it. More often than not, we would take misery over mystery any day of the week. We would rather take the misery that’s familiar to us than have to risk taking a chance on the mystery of what would happen if we’d try to change. 

Are there any fans of The Office in here? I don’t understand why every single hand in this church isn’t up right now. Office fans – look around, see who’s not raising their hand and find them after the service. Anyway, there’s a scene in this show where these two characters, Jim and Pam, like each other but Pam is engaged to this guy who is kind of a jerk and, for whatever reason, she’s not willing to break it off. And all of this tension comes to a head in one of the episodes, and Jim says to Pam: “You have to take a chance on something, sometime.” And, in the moment, it’s harsh, but it’s the truth. And we need to hear the truth, because it hurts to get better. Rehab will always be much more painful than hospice. In our minds, misery isn’t so bad as long as it means we don’t have to change anything and we can keep doing what we’ve always done and being what we’ve always been. But that’s not what it means to be disciples of Jesus.  

Just look at what Jesus responds, here: “If you only knew who was talking to you right now, you would ask him and he would give you living water.” This is obviously pretty perplexing for the woman, especially considering this term “living water” typically meant nothing other than a natural spring. But she’s unsure of this “living water.” “This is the well that belonged to Jacob! I can’t just abandon it!” she says. But Jesus responds saying, “You'll always be thirsty as long as you stay here. I have something so much better.”

A good way to talk about this is to talk about the differences between Super Bowl Sunday and Thanksgiving dinner. I know, it’s a little weird, but bear with me. So, first of all, let’s just get this out of the way now, praise God for both. That should go without saying. But you know how when you’re at a Super Bowl party you eat and eat and everything is fried and covered in some kind of melted cheese. And in the moment, it’s incredible. But afterward you feel kind of gross; like you need a shower? Meat-sweats. I get it. And then you inevitably get up and go back for more, like, five minutes later? Okay, now compare that with Thanksgiving dinner, where you eat and eat and everything is covered in gravy and when you're done you just feel utterly satisfied? This is kind of what Jesus is trying to explain to the Samaritan woman, right? If you stay here, you will never stop being thirsty. You’ll keep going back and forth to this well the rest of your life without ever feeling satisfied.

And upon hearing this the woman decides she's ready. She wants the water Jesus has to offer, but first, Jesus asks her to go get her husband, knowing full well her past. And when she says she has no husband Jesus rattles off what he knows of her history with men. This makes the woman angry. She opened up in vulnerability and placed her trust in this Jew, if only for a moment, and then he begins speaking about her spotty past with men. It shouldn't be surprising where she goes next. This debate she brings up, about the proper location to worship, is the crux of the disagreement between Jews and Samaritans. For any other Jew this would have been like a torpedo in the water. The woman is looking for a way out; a reason to break away from this conversation. But Jesus doesn't take this bait.

Instead, he tells her that a time is coming, and is already here, in which God will be worshipped not in a place, but in spirit and truth. A time in which both this mountain and Jerusalem are irrelevant and these walls between you and me and us and them are completely and utterly obliterated. And what does the woman respond? “I know the Messiah is coming.” And I am convinced she said this like a woman who has been married five times and shunned from society. I imagine her looking down at the ground, a slight tinge of doubt in her voice, her eyes beginning to swell with tears. Think of how many times this woman prayed for the Messiah to come and how many times she felt disappointed. Think of how desperately she is trying to hold onto hope but can’t help but feel like it’s always slipping away.

When I was in junior high I had to watch Fiddler on the Roof for one of my classes and, in case you've never seen it, it’s about a small, poor village of Jews living in Russia who get forced out of the only place they've ever known. And I remember after they've just been told they have to pack up and leave, a man turns to the Rabbi and says “Rabbi, we’ve been waiting all our lives for the Messiah. Wouldn't now be a good time for him to come?” This is how the woman feels every single day. And, no doubt, she is exhausted from waiting.

If we want to make sense of the cliché we’re talking about this morning, maybe we should stop thinking about sin in such a way that it condemns people like the woman in our story this morning. The culture, the way of the world, the circumstances of survival for a woman in first century Palestine is what forced this woman to be married 5 times. Women’s value, in this culture, was based on the ability to marry and bear children. So, women could either be married and survive or not be married and basically be forced to live on the streets. This woman’s five marriages are not the sin in question here. The sin in question here is the state of the world which plunged her into that situation. Sin isn’t a case-by-case, act-by-act thing. It’s the underlying disease of the cosmos. It’s the reality we live in which is, very clearly, not defined by love and grace and mercy. 

As individuals, we’re the sum of our circumstances, of our relationships, and, among other things, of our decisions. We can’t really pull apart our actions from our individual existence, so when we say “hate the sin, love the sinner,” what we’re really trying to do is love the part of you we want to love. A few weeks ago, we talked about Jesus and how we need to love ALL of him. In our marriages and relationships, we need to love ALL of one another. It doesn’t mean we like every decision someone makes. It doesn’t even mean we have to have relationship with everyone or like everyone. But it means that, when push comes to shove, you’ll create a space in your life where you can say “my love for you is bigger. I know you did this thing and it’s a part of who you are now, but I love you anyway.” Think of how radical it is in this world to affirm that every single person is deserving of love. This is what Jesus affirms when he reveals himself and his true identity to her. 

The woman says “I know the messiah is coming, and when he comes he’ll proclaim all things to us.” And Jesus simply responds: “I am — the one speaking to you.” Imagine how this woman’s heart leapt at hearing this; all those strings of hope which once dangled loosely are suddenly connected again and she knows, in this sacred event-of-encounter, that this is the savior of the world and everything in her past isn't so intimidating anymore. And so, upon hearing this, the woman leaves her water jar and runs into the city — the city she was hoping to never have to go into again, full of people she never wanted to see again to proclaim what Jesus had done in her life.

Just like the city was for this woman, I’d be willing to bet that we all have places we never want to go to again. We all have someone that we stopped talking to a long time ago because of some disagreement or maybe a place we don't want to walk into because it’s so haunted with pain and regret. So, we avoid them. We build little sanctuaries around ourselves with no intent to leave. But this story shows us what that existence looks like from the outside. And it also shows us how Jesus completely blows it apart when he comes into our lives.

Please hear me friends when I tell you that Jesus does not want you walking back and forth to that well for the rest of your lives. He does not want you to constantly shudder at the thought of finally laying down your baggage and walking away from it because it feels awkward. Jesus is the only one who can dismantle every fear and anxiety surrounding our past and it’s time, right here, right now, to allow him to do so. There are always as many reasons to not do something as there are moments to keep looking for them. There are always as many “sins” to hate about ourselves and others before we finally start to love. But I’m here to tell you that you’re free. You’re free fromyour past and you’re free foryour future. You’re free from the obligation to hate, and you’re free for the opportunity to love. 


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