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Rancho Bernardo Community Presbyterian (OLD)

What About Cults?

Galatians 1:6-9 and John 4:4-20

As we open our Bibles to John 4 today, I am recalling that this Bible passage was accidentally read at our friends wedding.

Unfortunately, their regular pastor was unable to do the wedding, so a fill-in retired pastor took the ceremony.  Our friends had asked that 1 John 4: 16, 17 be read for their wedding.  That passage reads, “God is love. Whoever loves lives in love, lives in God and God in them.  This is how love is made complete in us….”

The fill-in pastor opened the Bible to read from the GOSPEL OF JOHN, chapter 4, verses 16 and 17.  Imagine their horror as they heard the pastor read, “Jesus told her, ‘Go call your husband and come back.’  ‘I have no husband,’ she replied.  Jesus said to her, ‘You are right when you say you have no husband.  The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband…’.”

          What is going on in this Bible story as Jesus talks with a Samaritan woman? 

Read John 4: 13-20.

The first thing we need to know in order to appreciate what is happening in this Bible story is that the Samaritans were the cult group of Jesus’ day.  Think Jehovah’s Witnesses at the front door.  (What do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with an atheist?  Someone who knocks on your door for no reason at all.)  

Samaritans were the cult group of their day.  Samaritans were a group of northern Jews who had intermarried with pagans of other religions and then blended portions of Jewish and pagan faith together.  While the southern Jews continued to protect the traditions of Moses, and urged doctrinal purity, the Samaritans rejected these traditions and established their own.  Samaritans considered themselves as the only true believers left.  The Samaritans eventually built their own temple in the north.

Even after the Samaritan temple was destroyed, they continued to claim that the only true worship took place on their holy mountain in the north.  They rewrote passages of Scripture to support the belief that their mountain, not Jerusalem, was the true place of God’s presence.  Just a few years before Jesus, some Samaritans traveled to Jerusalem and defiled the temple there by strewing human bones on the premises.  Devout Jews avoided Samaritans, and pious Samaritans had nothing to do with Jews.  When we know this background to John 4, it helps us to appreciate Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman.

When we say the Samaritans were a cult, what is the definition of a cult?  One way to define a cult is that these are groups who have broken away from the mother religion by altering at least one major doctrine.  For instance, Jehovah’s Witnesses consider Jesus to be a separate, lesser god from the one true God, Jehovah.  However, there is a more human aspect to cults.  It more often is not so much about doctrine as about emphasis.  As G.K. Chesterton noted “truth is in the emphasis.” So cults tend to turn matters of lesser importance into core, central beliefs.

This Samaritan woman does this throughout the conversation.  When Jesus invited her to consider essential matters to her soul, she responded by trying to debate the controversial but less important topics that separated the Jews from the Samaritans. 

Let’s take some time today to walk through the story together.  The story opens by saying that Jesus sat down beside the well around noon (verse 6).  The time of day catches our attention.  This woman is coming for water in the heat of the day.  Noon.

In our mission trips in Africa you see the women of the village go out early in the morning for the water.  Getting the morning water to boil and prepare the meals as well as to do the laundry is a social activity for the women of a village.  Feeding the family and hanging out the laundry to dry means you get the water early in the day. 

This story tells us a Samaritan woman came to the well at noon. In other words, she is purposely avoiding the rest of the women from the village.  She is an outcast.

Jesus surprised her by asking for a drink.  He knew she was a Samaritan.  The gospel writer notes that this was shocking because Jews do not associate with Samaritans (vs. 9).

Jesus immediately moves from a request to drink water to a spiritual conversation.  He invites her to ask him for living water.  She doesn’t know what to make of that.  “Wow. If I had living water that kept me from having to come back to this well…. Great!” 

Notice what Jesus has done.  He has engaged her in a conversation that stirs her curiosity and invites her to engage.  Only when he has given her the safety to feel comfortable with him does he raise the issue of her immoral lifestyle.

Jesus lets her know that he is very aware of why she is at the well at noon.  She is ostracized by her own village.  She has had five husbands and is living with a man out of marriage.  We might expect her to slap him, shout at him, feel condemned and judged.  We expect the spiritual conversation to get fired up and escalate into defensiveness.  Instead, she asks if he is a prophet (vs. 19). 

Now she does what every cultist does, she gears up for a theology debate.  We can read her mind…. “Let’s debate the true location of the temple.  You think your church is better than ours don’t you?!  You think we are wrong for worshiping on our mountain instead of Jerusalem” (verse 20).

Instead of taking the bait and debating these minor differences of faith, Jesus continued to help her feel safe.  Jesus avoided labeling her.  Even though she had been through five broken marriages and was currently living a sinful, immoral lifestyle, Jesus does not judge her.  Even though she has to come to the well during the hottest time of the day to avoid the harassment of her own village, Jesus sees her first as a person, not as a sinner or a Samaritan.  Jesus offered her a connection—friendship—spiritual conversation. 

Theology, that is what Cultists want to discuss.  Not God. Not faith.  “Let’s debate theology.”  As soon as Jesus tried to talk about God, the woman tried to debate the theological fine points of difference between Jews and Samaritans.  It was as though she wanted to move the conversation away from her relationship with God onto a safer topic, the debate over which mountain was the true place of worship. 

Jesus refused to follow the bunny trails away from what is important.  He wanted to reveal himself to her.  He quickly responded that the place of worship was less important than the heart of the worshiper.  God is looking for people who will worship in spirit and truth.  When she referred to the Messiah, Jesus jumped at the chance to introduce himself to her.  Her encounter with Jesus transformed her life.

This is the best Bible story I know for learning how to have a spiritual conversation.  Jesus listened and cared.  He refused to be distracted by her theological bunny trails.  He stayed on point with her soul and her connection with God.

The story ends with the woman repeating this same approach to her own neighbors back in the village.  “Come and see.  Could this man be the Messiah?”

We are nearly ready to wind up this winter series of sermons, “Fired Up Conversations.”  Our goal has been to learn how to talk more comfortably and calmly about spiritual things with our neighbors and friends.  We don’t have to argue theology or debate religious differences.  The hope is that listening and caring helps us encounter God together.

So here is the caution.  Let’s be careful not to get a spiritual conversation mixed up with debating theology and talking about the latest hot political topic.  Such debates run the risk of winning an argument and losing a soul.

When I read John 4 and Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman at the well, I think of C. S. Lewis’ book Screwtape Letters. This series of letters involve a head demon giving guidance to a younger demon about keeping a man from fully following Jesus.  Having already lost the battle for the man’s soul (by his discovering and accepting Jesus’ love) the head demon suggests in letter seven that the next best thing is to get this Christian caught up in a worthy cause.

One of the obvious easy things to distract a Christian is to get them all charged up for the political cause of the moment.  It works well if the political cause has some high moral ground.  Start by having the person take up the cause in the name of Christ.  Then slowly move the Christian to the place where they are so caught up in the cause that they see the main value of Jesus as his support of their political cause.  Eventually they use God to support their viewpoint because the cause itself has become central instead of God being central.  Quoting Lewis’ demon, “Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours...” (letter 7).

How many of our spiritual conversations went sideways because lost focus on an eternal soul seeking a connection with God and instead debated the cause dujour.  Whenever we let ourselves get sidetracked into majoring in minors, we are acting like cultists.   Our neighbors don’t need our political or theological opinions, they need Jesus. 

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