Vital Congregations Initiative: Good News Intentionally Shared
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
August 21, 2022
Frederick Buechner, one of my favorite Christian authors, died this past week at age 96. Buechner, an American theologian, wrote some thirty-nine published books, encompassing a variety of genres, including fiction, autobiography, essays, sermons, and other nonfiction.
His books Listening to Your Life, Peculiar Treasures, Telling the Truth, and Whistling in the Dark were all important pieces that added to my formation in faith as a young pastor. John Ortberg, in reviewing one of Buechner’s books wrote that: “Every once in a while someone shows up on the planet who is word-obsessed and word-gifted; and the light and darkness get named again. In our day, that someone is (Frederick) Buechner.”
The Houston Chronicle reported that “Buechner eloquently explores the beauty of language, the joy and pain of being human, and the hope of the Gospel.” (frederickbuechner.com) Buechner’s books have been translated into twenty-seven languages and have been praised for their ability to inspire readers to see grace in their daily living. Buechner has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and has been awarded honorary degrees from eight institutions of higher learning, including Yale University and the Virginia Theological Seminary. (www.frederickbuechner.com/about-fred)
If you have not discovered Frederick Buechner in your reading, I highly recommend you to do so. I will open with a quote from Frederick Buechner on the Gospel of John:
John was a poet, and he knew about words. He knew that all men and all women are mysteries known only to themselves until they speak a word that opens up the mystery. He knew that the words people speak have their life in them just as surely as they have their breath in them.
He knew that the words people speak have dynamite in them and that a word may be all it takes to set somebody’s heart on fire or break it in two. He knew that words break silence and that the word that is spoken is the word that is heard and may even be answered. (Frederick Buechner, from Peculiar Treasures)
In our text for today from John 4, Jesus and a Samaritan woman share meaningful words, words that broke an awkward silence, words that set the woman’s heart on fire. Hear the Word of God from John 4:1-30,39-42
Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, ‘Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John’— although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— he left Judea and started back to Galilee.
But he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’.
(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The 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.) Jesus 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.’
The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but 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.’ The 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.’
Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’
Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’
Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’
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?’
Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ They left the city and were on their way to him. Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, ‘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.’
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
To be seen, to be known, to be loved, …just as we are, right where we are…that is grace, that is love. To be forgiven, to be accepted, to be given a new lease on life…just as we are, right where we are… that is good news, good news meant to be shared.
Our Vital Congregations theme this week is Good News Intentionally Shared. If we are part of the Christian Church, then good news is a part of our identity!
I do not think that most of you would be here today, in person or online, if your life had not been enriched in some way, changed, renewed, saved even by the grace of God made known in Jesus Christ.
Friends, that is good news, and good news is meant to be shared. We do not have to be trained pastors or evangelists to share good news. We readily share the good news of a new job, or a baby born into the family, or a puppy! We can’t wait to share with our friends and neighbors such good news. We want to share what is beautiful and dear to us. We even need to share that which has come into our lives and caused a hopeful disruption, or a turn toward a different direction.
Someone once wrote that: “Evangelism is nothing more than one beggar telling another where to get some bread.”
I am always amazed at how quickly word can spread on the street. If one of our churches or non-profits starts a new and helpful ministry, especially something that involves offering food or monetary assistance, it is incredible how quickly word spreads on the streets of Decatur and Atlanta. Folks who are unhoused know how desperate are their physical needs. They know how desperate are the physical needs of their colleagues, and so they quickly and willingly share information.
I have wondered if folks who are housed, who have all their physical needs met and more, know how desperate are their spiritual needs? I wonder if housed folks, well-fed folks, know how desperate are the spiritual needs of their colleagues and neighbors?
If you have received some life-giving bread in your journey of faith, if you have drunk the life-giving water of Jesus Christ, then lift up your head, look around, notice the hungry and thirsty souls around you.
They may or may not be looking for what you have received, but the thirst and hunger are there irregardless. We share good news with others not because we are trying to change the people around us, but because we are trying to love the people around us, to share the love that we have known.
Granted, the evangelism practices of the Christian Church have not always been loving, or respectful, or helpful. Just last week, NPR shared a story of a Native American tribe that had to forbid an evangelist from entering their reservation.
The man, hopefully well-intentioned, was passing out flyers, evangelistic pamphlets, that were offensive and off-putting. His flyers claimed the Creator God that the Native Americans were worshiping was a false idol.
Instead of seeking first to understand, instead of first seeking some common ground, this “well-intentioned” evangelist immediately offended those he was trying to reach. And he probably still does not understand what he did wrong.
I want you to consider a time when someone invited you to a church event or worship service, or perhaps to a youth group event or a church picnic or a mission trip? What did they say? How did you respond?
Did they share anything that let you know that it would be a good and safe place? Did they say something like…I love it there. The people are so nice. I feel very welcomed. They don’t judge you.
Ben Campbell Johnson taught evangelism at Columbia Theological Seminary when I was there. Ben taught that it is not up to Christians to save other people. Salvation is God’s terrain. It is not even up to Christians to convince other people, or to change minds. t is simply the holy and sacred task of Christians to be a witness to their own experience, to share what the love and grace of God has meant to them, or what the love of fellow church members meant to them in a troubled time, or how the words and notes of a hymn or anthem or even a sermon spoke God’s grace to them in a time of confusion or need.
In our text from John, the woman had an encounter with Jesus that she simply had to share. Wouldn’t you have loved to have been a fly buzzing around that well that day listening to the conversation between the Samaritan woman and the Jewish rabbi, the unusual rabbi who was not even supposed to be talking with an unknown woman in public?
After their conversation, the woman went back to her village and became an evangelist. She told her fellow villagers about her encounter with Jesus and many believed because of her testimony. She offered the invitation “Come and see”, and many people responded to that offer. They came and they saw; they listened to Jesus’ intriguing and challenging and wondrous words.
They felt welcomed and accepted and loved in his presence. And the Samaritans invited Jesus and his friends to stay with them for several days, which was likely transformative for all of them, including Jesus.
The subject of sharing good news, the subject of Christian evangelism, is a huge topic that we could, and probably should, explore for weeks on end. We could spend a whole sermon series on what faithful Christian evangelism is not. We could share story after story of how Christians did more harm than good in their evangelistic efforts.
But we could also share story after story of lives transformed, of whole communities renewed, by the spread of the good news of Jesus’ love and forgiveness, by the teaching of Jesus’ words and the reflections upon his death and resurrection. In the end, however, any discussion of evangelism, any discussion of sharing the good news of Jesus, comes down to our own stories, of how we were lost but then were found, of how we were blind but then could see.
In the fall of 1989, I had only been married for several months. We were living in an apartment in Vinings, double income, no kids. I was working for an international accounting firm, but had been loaned out to United Way of Atlanta to help run the annual fundraising campaign. And I was searching for what my future would hold. I had discovered by that time, after several years, that I probably would not be an auditor forever; I enjoyed helping people through the non-profit work far too much.
I was wondering what my life’s journey would hold. And my father was preaching a sermon series that fall that had me thinking about my life’s purpose. Sometime in that season, I discovered a quote by Frederick Buechner:
“Vocation is the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”
Vocation comes from the Latin vocare, which means “to call”. Your calling is the place where your deep passion meets the world’s deep need. Later that fall, I visited a house on Kirk Road here in Decatur where I spent two days in vocational testing.
Bob Urie was the administrator and interpreter of the tests. At the conclusion of my two days, Bob sat me down, asked a few questions, and then said, very clearly, to me: “Son, you need to go to seminary.”
At first, I was shocked, then strangely comforted, then genuinely afraid of what the future might hold. On the way home, I was pondering all of this in my head – the vocational tests, the Buechner quote, the words of Bob Urie, my own inner quandaries, what my wife was going to say….
I was driving up I-285 somewhere past the Stone Mountain exit, and I looked up and suddenly saw a large billboard sign: JESUS is the answer. It was your typical billboard sign, paid for by some evangelistic group, I suppose, but I had never seen it before, and I never saw it since.
For me, at that moment, it was a gift of grace, cutting through all the fogginess and lack of clarity. For me, it was one of the several confirmations along the way that I should leave my well-paying job and enter three years of divinity school, and take a very different course in my vocational and family and financial life.
As you might say, for me and for my family, the rest is history. But the truth of it is, the good news of it is, that in the late fall of 1989, the God that I had known since childhood, the One whom I probably was holding at an arms’ distance at the time, called me by name, claimed me, and set me in a direction that was not fully of my own choosing.
In Frederick Buechner’s third memoir, Telling Secrets (1991), he notes that:
My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours. Maybe nothing is more important than that we keep track, you and I, of these stories of who we are and where we have come from and the people we have met along the way.
Intentionally sharing good news is simply telling others a bit of the story of my life and of your life – who we are, where we have come from, and the person of Jesus that you and I met somewhere along the way.
Chances are that others – no matter what faith or background or nationality – will recognize a bit of their story in our stories, and that we will recognize a bit of our stories in their stories.
And the truth is that whole world will be a bit richer for the sharing of our common stories, the stories of grace and hope, of love and forgiveness, the stories of courage in the face of temptation and faith in the face of despair, the stories of unexpected roads taken, and the people who stood as signposts along the way for you.
These are the stories of God. These are your stories, And these are stories that are meant to be shared.
To God be the glory as you share your stories. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
August 21, 2022