7 Words for Pastors – #3 “Sinners”

oldest fragment of John

oldest fragment of John

III.  Sinners   John 4:16

 Here are two Chicago stories.

A group of us joined with others to make a bus load of men to go the  Chicago Promise Keepers.  There we would be challenged, as we well knew, to practice racial reconciliation.  As we were traveling through Chicago to our hotel on the lake front, the bus driver took a short cut through the South Side.  We traveled along 58th Street, in a pretty rough part of town.  All along the trip to this point the men in the bus had been talking and laughing.  But as we traveled along 58th Street the bus became silent as we looked out at the boarded up stores, the graffiti, the empty lots and the peculiar people standing about on the street corners.  I could feel the tension in the bus.  Many had never traveled though a place like 58th Street.  Many were silently praying, “Lord, please don’t let this bus break down.”  As soon as we got close to the lake and the neighborhood changed again, the talk and the joking resumed.

 Years before on the South Side of Chicago my urban seminary class took a tour of one of the high rise public housing buildings.  We were led in this by a powerful black woman preacher named Hattie. She took us into a few apartments of people she knew.  I remember one scene in particular.  Hattie saw a man she recognized on the street.  His looked told all that he was an alcoholic and his staggering gait told us that he had been drinking.  She hailed him by name, and when he came close, she said, “John, when are you going to quit ruining your life and come back to the Lord?” And she prayed for him right on the spot.


 The Third word is John 4:16

“Jesus told her, ‘Go, call your husband and come back.’”

 We know the text well.  Jesus did not bypass the bad neighborhood of Samaria as most of the Judeans did if they had reason to travel to Galilee.  Just as we bypass 58th Street by taking the outer loop around Chicago, they could take the outer loop on the other side of the Jordan.

We know that we need to quit hiding from sinners in the church.  Samaritans were from the Judean standpoint polluted people.  Their race was polluted by intermarriage with gentiles.  Their faith was polluted by the addition of false beliefs and practices from their splintered-off religion.

We have heard that we should go where the sinners are.  But when a bus takes us unawares through 58th Street, we are nervous.  Those people are polluted by drugs, gambling, city politics, crime, and who knows what else.

That is why we take the bypass around the city.

There are those who defend the city and it’s people.  These are the liberals or those hard to categorize evangelicals who are called by God to S. 58th Street.  (“And thank God we are not”, we say to ourselves.)

But here is the word.  How did Jesus meet sinners?  We have seen that he confronted and made uncomfortable Nicodemus, the seeker.  Will he affirm and comfort the sinner?

It looks that way at first.  Jesus chose this route through Samaria on purpose.  He anticipated this appointment.  At the well, alone with the woman, He asked for water.  He told her about “living water” and she was interested in it.  She asked for it.

What did Jesus do?  He made her uncomfortable!  He said, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

Like his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus’ style was both complicated and confrontational.   It was complicated in that it was an allegory about water, and it got into the theology of worship.  It was also complicated because Jesus turned quickly from his simple truth to her complicated life.

Jesus confronted the woman with the question about her husband.  He knew the full story.  Why did he get into this?  Didn’t he know that we should offer the living water without conditions?  Why would he say something that might drive her away just when he had her interest?

Jesus is like Hattie, or Hattie is like Jesus.  Both go comfortably to the places where sinners walk about openly.  South Chicago was not fearful to Hattie.  Samaria was not fearful to Jesus.  Both engaged in personal evangelism.  Both showed a warm heart and personal concern.  Both confronted.

We follow trends.  Once preachers went to the city at the Soup Kitchens and preached the gospel to the hungry, the dirty and the down and out.  Listen first, they instructed, and eat second.

That is old style evangelism.

Now Christian workers go among the people and offer understanding and sympathetic outrage.  They offer a helping hand and a bag of groceries.  At the holiday season they bring toys for the children.

This is the new evangelism.

Jesus’ evangelism was to go to sinners, to love sinners, to speak to sinners by name, and to confront sinners with the truth.  He confronted the women with the truth of the living water, and with the truth of her own life.

It seems that for John, seekers like Nicodemus and sinners like the Woman at the well need the same approach.

It is seen again in John 8, where Jesus first rescued the woman caught in adultery from her accusers, and then he said to her, “…neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.”  There was grace to forgive and grace to confront the sin that bound her to a degrading life.