Unbound: Failure

Unbound: Failure
John 4:5-42
Rev. Michael F. Bailey
March 26, 2017

John 4:5-425So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ 11The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ 13Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ 15The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’

16 Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ 17The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ 

27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ 28Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ 30They left the city and were on their way to him.

39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ 

A number of years ago, I was in a leadership program led by Presbyterian minister, Leighton Ford. One of the speakers we learned from and interacted with was Bobb Biehl: a great leadership coach and consultant for both the church and secular world. In one of his books he shared an amazing story, which, given the recent calls to end animal acts in circuses might soon become a thing of the past. Bobb was invited behind the scenes at a circus held in Arizona. He started chatting with the man who trains elephants for the circus and movies. He reported this conversation: 

’How is it that you can stake down a ten-ton elephant with the same size stake that you use for this little fellow?’ I asked, pointing to a baby elephant who weighed three hundred pounds.

’It’s easy ... ’ the trainer said. ’When they are babies, we stake them down. They try to tug away from the stake maybe ten thousand times before they realize that they can’t possibly get away. At that point, their ’elephant memory’ takes over, and they remember for the rest of their lives that they can’t get away from the stake.’

"Humans are sometimes like elephants. When we are teenagers, some unthinking, insensitive, unwise person says, ’He’s not very good at planning,’ or ’She’s not a leader,’ or ’Their team will never make it,’ and zap, we drive a mental stake into our minds. Often when we become mature adults, we are still held back by some inaccurate one-sentence ’stake’ put in our minds when we were young.


And for many of us a mental, emotional and spiritual stake we always remember is failure. It seems that most of us, at some point in our lives, are captured, bound if you will, by mistakes and sins of our pasts. 

Today, in our sermon series on how we can be “un-bound” by Jesus, we’ll look together at how Jesus’ grace, love and forgiveness can unbind us from our failures and even more, send us in a new life-giving, Kingdom building direction! This is good news!

And the woman in our passage needed some good news. Her life was marked by much failure and rejection. 

Let me set the context. At this point in his ministry, Jesus was being pressured by the religious authorities in Judah, the southern portion of Israel, and he decided to move his ministry to Galilee in the north. Between Judah and Galilee lay the territory of Samaria. Now, Jesus could travel around Samaria, adding three days to his journey, or through it, adding three days to his ministry. He chose to travel through it. 

Some of us may discern how radical it was for a rabbi like Jesus to travel through Samaria from facts we’ve learned around the parable of Good Samaritan. For Jesus to tell a story about a Samaritan being good and kind was nothing short of shocking for his hearers. You see, Samaria was the region where some of the lost tribes of Israel originally dwelt. The Samaritans had been conquered and exiled into captivity. While in captivity, unlike the Jewish people in Israel, Galilee and Judah, the Samaritans intermarried and even took on some of the religious practices of their conquerors. Many returned home, and in a subsequent occupation by a foreign power, intermarried more and took on more occupiers’ religious ways. For the Jews, who “kept the faith” in exile and occupation, the Samaritans were to be totally rejected. As a matter of fact, when the Temple was being rebuilt in Jerusalem, the Samaritans offered to help and were snubbed by the religious authorities. Miffed to no end, the Samaritans built their own Temple for the worship of God, referred to in our passage. The hatred of the Samaritans was so great by the orthodox that some of their commentary on the law said it was morally fine to let a Samaritan drown in a well, and if you helped get in the well, that was ok too! So, for Jesus and the disciples to travel through Samaria on the way to Galilee was a bold act. 

They’d arrived at a cross road that was rooted in Jewish history, the place where Jacob had a well and sacred land had been purchased and deeded. Jesus, showing his humanity, rested while the disciples went into the Samaritan town for provisions – an act that showed Jesus’ affect on the disciples in and of itself. While resting near the well, a Samaritan woman arrived for water drawing. Jesus stuck up a conversation with her, which again, doesn’t sound odd to our ears but was totally against the “ways” of those days. First, he was a rabbi and she was a woman! Some strict rabbis would cross the street so that a woman’s shadow wouldn’t touch them; women were considered so possibly unclean and “low” in those days. But more, she was a Samaritan, one considered to be of the folks who had watered down the ways of God and were to be shunned and even hated for their background. 

And then, there is another clue, more important perhaps to our learning together: she was alone. In the days of ancient Palestine, gathering at the community well was an activity that women did together! It was the ancient equivalent of women in a beauty shop or men in a barbershop. It was a time for connecting and catching up, of being community, and it occurred everyday. For this woman to be alone meant something. But even more than being alone, scholars tell us there was a well in Sychar, her home town. This woman was so rejected, she was forced out of the community of women in Sychar for water drawing, and they didn’t even want her bucket in the same well as theirs! She had to use a segregated water fountain, if you will. As a woman, rejected from other women, forced out of town for a basic need and a Samaritan to boot, in the presence of a rabbi from “true believing” Israel, it’s no wonder she and the disciples were astonished. In a social interaction between Jesus and another person, perhaps no other story pictures the long bridges Jesus was willing to risk and build out of love for people. 

But Jesus, the master storyteller and story author of transformed human lives stretched the divide between them even further. After some conversation about living water, from which no one will thirst and deflecting an argument about God’s desired place of worship, Jesus revealed the “why” of her isolation: five marriages that had ended and presently a relationship with a man who wasn’t her husband and could’ve quite possibly been someone else’s. And yet, Jesus still reached out; his love overcame her mountain of failures. And through his love and grace, acceptance and chance for a new life, she came to the realization that he was the Christ. And in a hurry, she left behind a symbol of her failures and her rejection, her water vessel. It stood there all by itself as an emblem of the life she’d left behind. She became one of the first evangelists of the Good News in the Bible, sharing with her home town and inviting. Some believed from her testimony. Some came and heard for themselves and believed. More than one soul was saved through that encounter at the well. 

And here’s the Good News: the same Christ is with us today, inviting us to leave behind the water jars of our failure and engage in a new, freed forgiven life of sharing the good news of Jesus with all. 

This means going to the very core of the Christian faith: you are forgiven and a new person in and through Christ. 

One preacher told a story of a woman who was his and most other preachers, nemesis. She opposed everything he suggested. She spread nasty rumors. She cloaked all she did in opposition to the church’s loving desire to serve in a kind of piety. She was bitter, angry and never smiled. One day, her company transferred her to a new city. There, she had a deep renewal in Christ experience. This led her to reflect on her past, toxic ways. She wrote a deep, heartfelt letter to her former pastor seeking grace for all the harm she had caused the congregation and him. Later, she received a 3-word email from him: Forgiven. Forgotten. Forever. 

That’s the very core of our faith. Through Jesus our failures are forgiven, forgotten, forever.  

And, we must remember this core of the faith, receive it and pass it on! Some of you know of the great British Methodist preacher Leslie D. Weatherhead and his famous and still relevant book, “The Will of God.” In one sermon he spoke of the legend of the flute of Moses. In his work, Weatherhead tells us that the flute Moses played when he was a shepherd for his father-in-law on the hills of Midian became a treasured relic. At his death it was a simple, cane flute of a simple shepherd. But the “powers that be” decided that since it had once belonged to Moses, it should be beautiful. So, artisans were commissioned to “dress it up” with gold, jewels and intricate metal work. It was stunningly beautiful, but there was only one thing wrong – the flute could no longer make a sound or be played. The decorations and additions had robbed the flute of its beautiful music. Dr. Weatherhead went on to say we sometimes do that to the basic, core message of Jesus! We add so many modern concerns, creeds, ways of doing things, off-target issues to fuss and fight over that we miss or mute the basic message! And the basic message of Jesus to that woman long ago and to us today is that our pasts, our sins and our failures, don’t define us now and won’t define our futures.

Here’s the point, no matter what your failures, with Jesus, today can be the first day of your eternal life. That’s the very, core reason for Immanuel, God with us, God loving us, shared his son Jesus. Jesus came to give us the way to become “unbound” from failure in all its dimensions. 

But more, the life unbound from failure is a life that unbounds others through forgiveness; this is living the good news! In some ways, I like to use my religious imagination about the proclamation of the woman who left her failure at the well. We know that she proclaimed, “come and see” Jesus. But could it be more than telling folks of how he knew her past and had forgiven it? Could it be that she also put “flesh on those words” by forgiving those who she had clashed with? I like to think so, because in my experience, those who truly know they have received grace are the most graceful among us. 

One of my best friends in Greensboro was laid to rest recently. I will miss him so much and with some 10 or so funerals since my own father’s, it’s been tough. But one I’ll especially miss is Bob. Bob was raised in tough circumstances. He used to say that in his mill town the cops would stop you coming in and ask if you had a gun. If you didn’t, they’d give you one. He was in heavy combat in Vietnam and came out a wounded warrior in days before we recognized PTSD or did anything about it. Bob self-medicated for many years. Once in a treatment center, just as he reached the time to check himself out, a nurse gave him a Gideon Bible. He read it and received the grace and forgiveness of Jesus for his past. This set him on a course of sharing Christ with people who were imprisoned. You see, Bob could relate to those folks in a way that I never could. But the point was, he was grace-filled from his own forgiveness, from his past failures, and could share a message of forgiveness for others for their failures. Grace-filled people are grace offer-ers to others. That can be us in our own contexts. 

Finally, letting Christ “unbind” us from our past failures and our unbinding of others through forgiveness is the heart of discipleship. Often we think of the word disciple as being merely a student who learns from a master. Actually, it means that through a disciplined way of life, offered by our master, we become like our master. When we are unbound from our pasts through grace and unbind others through lifestyle and action, we are on the disciples’ path. We become more and more like Jesus. 

Here is our aim: On a wall near the main entrance to the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas, is a portrait with the following inscription: "James Butler Bonham--no picture of him exists. This portrait is of his nephew, Major James Bonham, deceased, who greatly resembled his uncle. It is placed here by the family that people may know the appearance of the man who died for freedom." No literal portrait of Jesus exists either. But the likeness of the Son who makes us free can be seen in the lives of his true followers.

So how about you? Will you let Christ unbind you from your past failures like the woman at the well? Will you accept today his forgiveness forever? Will you let him re-direct your life to one of proclaiming him as Messiah and Lord of forgiveness? Will you be filled with grace to the extent that you set others free? If so you will resemble Jesus. 

Discussion Questions for March 19: Failure
Share about a time when you felt “left out.”
Share about a time you received comfort in loneliness from Christ or Christian friends.
Share about a time of being “restored” or “renewed” by Christ or Christians after a failure in your life.
Share what you might do for a friend who feels alone or is in the midst of a failure.