“When You Can’t See the Forest …” was a sermon preached by Pastor John Valentine on the 4th Sunday of the Epiphany Season, January 30, 2022. The text upon which it is based is John 4:1-42 — John’s recounting of Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman at a well. To access the worship bulletin, click this link: Worship Order.20220130.print
“When You Can’t See the Forest …”
Epiphany 4 (NL4) John B. Valentine
John 4:1-42 January 30, 2022
“WHEN YOU CAN’T SEE THE FOREST FOR THE TREES”
How many of you have ever heard the phrase “Can’t see the forest for the trees”??
How many of you have ever used the phrase “Can’t see the forest for the trees”??
How many of you have ever had to explain the phrase “Can’t see the forest for the trees”??
I’ve always loved that phrase ....
• Loved it because it’s a picturesque bit of elocution ....
• Loved it because it evokes thoughts of people who focus on details and miss the big picture ...
• Loved it because it seems so applicable in so many contexts....
• Loved it because it applies so often to everybody else ... and so rarely to me ....... right!!!!
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Actually ... I was reminded this week that it DOES apply to me ... even if I’d like to think that it doesn’t.
And that it particularly applies to the way that I have understood this morning’s Gospel lesson for as long as I’ve been a student of Holy Scripture.
You see ... this morning’s Gospel lesson ... that extensive reading we heard from John 4 ... is that of the so-called “Woman at the Well” ...
It’s the story of Jesus’ encounter with a woman in this Samaritan city called Sychar ... and it has long struck me as a fascinating story because of the details it contains.
In fact ... I’d venture to guess that the story of “The Woman at the Well” is the most detail-oriented account of ANY of the stories of ANY of the encounters that Jesus had with individuals in the WHOLE of the gospel narrative.
Heck ... I’ve preached whole sermons on the tiniest details of this text ...
From the line near the beginning that asserts Jesus “had to go through Samaria” ...
When ... at least physically ... geographically ... he didn’t ...
To the beautiful line right at the end that has the Samaritans declaring “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world”
Which is my go-to text for understanding and explaining ‘Confirmation’ ... about appropriating for ourselves the confession that Jesus is “truly the One who saves the world.”
As John records it ...
• There’s all sorts of details about the woman whom Jesus encounters ...
• There’s all sorts of details about the community in which she lived ...
• There’s all sorts of details about her verbal exchanges with Jesus ...
• There’s all sorts of details about how the disciples – and the locals – react to Jesus interaction with this woman.
And ... I hate to admit it ... but all of those details ... those fascinating little nuances in this story ... have left me not seeing the forest for the trees!
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You see ... when one goes off to seminary school ... as I did back in the day ... when we had a class in one of the books of the Bible ... we mostly looked at it ‘little chunks at a time’.
That’s the way you deal with preaching texts on Sunday mornings ...
That’s the way most Bible study curricula lay out ...
So it’s seems only logical that that’s the way pastors should learn to approach it.
And therefore ... whenever I’ve looked at the text of John ... chapter four ... I’ve always looked at it specifically as the story of “The Woman at the Well” ... a stand-alone unit.
But what if ... rather than diving down into the details of John 4 to begin with ... we were to take a step back??
What if ... rather than looking at the particularities of the tree ... all the little details in the story ... we tried to look at the story of “the Woman at the Well” as part of the larger forest???
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Imagine ... if you would ... a Venn diagram ....
You know ... Venn diagram ... two circles ... hopefully overlapping circles ... that is used to highlight similarities and differences ...
That thing of which Penny on the Big Bang Theory once noted “Oh, that’s a Venn Diagram, and I remember because I thought to myself ... venn is he gonna stop talking about this diagram?”
Venn diagrams are used — by scientists and philosophers and second-grade teachers — to compare and contrast things and help us bring some things into sharper focus.
So do the mental gymnastics with me here and try to draw a Venn diagram in your mind as a way of comparing and contrasting this encounter in John ... chapter four ... with ... say ... John ... chapter three ... the text we looked at just last week.
I mean ... last week we looked at the story of Nicodemus which Pastor Pam preached on ... and this week it’s “The Woman at the Well”.
• Nicodemus has a name ... the woman at the well has no name.
• Nicodemus is a male person ... the woman at the well a female person.
• Nicodemus is a Jew ... the woman at the well a Samaritan.
• Nicodemus is highly respected in his community ... the woman at the well is highly suspect in hers.
• Nicodemus ... by the purity codes of the day ... Mister Clean ... the woman at the well ... by the same measuring stick ... is a walking cess pool.
But it doesn’t end there.
• Nicodemus initiates his encounter with Jesus ... Jesus himself initiates the encounter with the woman at the well.
• Nicodemus’ encounter occurs ‘under the cover of darkness’ ... Jesus’ encounters the woman at the well in broad daylight ... under the heat of the noonday sun.
• The encounter with Nicodemus reveals that this fellow who is presumed to know everything about the things of faith reveals that he knows nothing ... while the encounter with the woman at the well reveals that this woman of questionable character who is presumed to know nothing at all about the things of faith ... she ends up knowing more than anyone else in town.
The point being ... in our Venn diagram ... there’s a whole lot about these two encounters that is different ... and precious little which is the same.
It’s easy to throw lots of words and ideas into the “unalike” crescents ...
Not so much so with the space there in the middle.
In fact ... it would seem safe to say that one would be very hard pressed to identify two more dissimilar people in the whole of society than Nicodemus and the woman at the well.
BUT WHAT IF THAT IS PRECISELY JOHN’S POINT???
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You see ... at the end of John’s gospel ... after the story of the resurrection in John chapter 20 ...
John writes: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
By his own admission ... John isn’t writing a comprehensive daily diary of everything Jesus ever did or said ...
No ... he’s focusing on telling the story of Jesus’ life so that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ ... and that ... through believing ... we may have life in his name.
And I think that John highlights these two stories .... lays these two stories up against one another ... to make a very particular point ...
A VERY PARTICULAR POINT ABOUT THE BREADTH OF THE ARMS OF JESUS.
And that point is simply this:
IF Jesus is willing to engage in conversation with the Nicodemus character ... this ultra-religious ... this ultra-privileged ... this extraordinary “three standard deviations above average by society’s scorecard” ... individual ... and
And IF ... at the same time ... Jesus is willing to engage in conversation with this woman-at-the well ... this patently un-religious ... patently under-privileged ... this extraordinary “three standard deviations below average by society’s scorecard” ... individual ...
THEN by what grounds could you possibly think that Jesus isn’t willing to engage in conversation with you???
By laying these two stories back-to-back ... John is telling us something pretty radical about the breadth of the arms and the embrace of Jesus.
THAT IT IS BIGGER THAN MOST OF US CAN POSSIBLY CONCEIVE!
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The fact of the matter ... folks ... is that WE are hardwired for exclusivity.
Social psychologists aren’t always eager to admit it ... but human beings are hardwired to make distinctions between people ...
And the more unlike us someone else is ... the more hesitant we are to accept them.
Which goes a LONG way toward explaining how and why this tribalism that seems to have gripped our nation in recent days is so pervasive.
• Red states ... blue states.
• Pro-guns ... no-guns.
• Liberals ... conservatives.
• Democrats ... Republicans.
• Fox News ... CNN.
• Niners fans ... Rams fans.
• People that dress like us, speak like us and look like us ...... people that don’t dress like us, speak like us and look like us.
• People who agree with our morality ... and those who don’t.
We are hardwired to make distinctions like that ... it’s just who we are!
But John ... the gospel writer ... and ... I guess by extension ... John the preacher ... is telling us that that’s NOT who Jesus is!
No ... John the gospel writer is telling us:
• That Jesus is one who disregards our distinctions ...
• That Jesus is one who blows past our boundaries ...
• That Jesus is one who is willing to invite anyone and everyone to participate in the Kingdom of God.
That ... while we may be hardwired for exclusivity ... Jesus is hardwired for an inclusivity that we can even imagine.
Now I KNOW that some of you ... some of us ... may hear that as a challenge ... because it may force us to do some self-examination ... and ... honestly ... it SHOULD force of to do some self-examination and self-reflection ...
But in that challenge is hidden a promise ...
IF the embrace of Jesus is big enough to include an ultra-religious ... ultra privileged ... fellow like Nicodemus ... and
IF ... at the same time ... the embrace of Jesus is big enough to include this patently un-religious ... patently under-privileged ... woman at the well ...
THEN don’t you dare go believing that the embrace of Jesus isn’t big enough for you!
Otherwise ... you’re missing the forest for the trees!