Bible Text: John 4:5-42 | Preacher: Rev.M. | Series: Giving It Up | Today we are venturing into the third week of our Lenten sermon series, “Giving It Up,” where we are looking beyond some of the things that people typically give up for Lent, and instead are focusing on some of the things that God wants us to give up. While there is value for many people in giving up things like coffee, or candy, or the like, God also gives us spiritual practices like prayer, fasting, in addition to the denial or ego or luxuries.
Now last week we talked about giving up expectations, and how when we do that, God or other people or even ourselves may surprise us. We talked about how sometimes, even when it’s hard, we need to put aside and give up our expectations of people disappointing us, or us disappointing ourselves. Today, using our reading from the Gospel of John, we are going to talk about the somewhat controversial and difficult topic of superiority, and our need to give it up.
Everyone knows at least one person who we think has some kind of superiority complex. Someone who not only acts like they are better than others, but also truly believes that they are better than others. And it may be a feeling of superiority of a variety of topics or skills or what have you. For some, intellectual superiority is above all else. For others, physical superiority is most important. Still others pursue a moral and spiritual superiority over others. And then of course there are those who believe themselves to have a complete superiority over others, in every facet of life and their very being and existence.
And this reality of a desire for superiority exists pretty much everywhere in our world, from business to politics. As Mexican businessman Daniel Lubetzky once pointed out, “As a society, we’re failing to recognize something my dad knew to be true – that kindness is the greatest show of strength. Too often, we are led to believe that strength is best demonstrated by exerting dominance or superiority over others, while kindness is portrayed as the opposite – a sign of weakness.”
And them, in maybe the saddest reality of all, we find this very problem in the church. We have denominations that act and believe themselves to be superior to others based on what they claim in their doctrines and beliefs. We have churches within the same denomination who believe that they are somehow superior to their fellow churches because of how much outreach they do or money they put towards missions.
And then, in what might be the truly saddest reality, we have members and attendees in our churches who believe themselves to be superior to other members or attendees. This feeling and acting superior may come from financial contributions, regular attendance, active participation in outreach and mission, or family history within the church. We have people who will act as though they are superior to others in the one place above all other places in this world that we should be seeing each other as equal, beloved children of God.
And what really gets to me, what really upsets me, with this feeling of superiority over others within the church is how people live it out and what it does. Is gossiping a problem in a church? Guess what, that comes from a feeling of superiority. Is someone spreading lies about another person? Again, the problem stems from a presumed sense of superiority. Is someone sabotaging the ministry efforts of the pastor or a group of laity? Same thing, again and again – a feeling of superiority over another.
And you can call it righteous anger or just being fed up with this kind of behavior, but nothing breaks my heart more and drives me to frustration faster than when I see this kind of thing in the church. And I am not calling out specific people here or excluding myself. We are all guilty of this at some level. After all, as American author, Eric Metaxas, once shared, “Thinking about the sins of others give us a feeling of moral superiority. But thinking about our own sins is a humbling experience, which is generally much less fun.”
But another truth of this problem is that it is not anything new in the world, or in the history of humanity’s existence. This has been an ongoing issue back to the time of Jesus’ ministry on earth and much further back than that. If we look at our reading from John’s Gospel we find a rather interesting exchange between Jesus, a Jew, and a Samaritan woman, someone a Jew would not be likely to interact with to begin with, but they she also was someone who had a troubled past. She was not a likely candidate for someone like Jesus to be talking with, especially in public.
Here we have Jesus taking a rest from his journey, sitting by a well, when this Samaritan woman comes up to draw water. Jesus asks her for a drink. This completely throws her off as this was against the social norms between these two people. The second part of verse nine tells the reader that “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” You see, Jesus was breaking all kinds of social conventions by speaking to a woman in public, a Samaritan woman to less, and one whose life was such a mess by the standards of the society she liked in that this interaction could have really challenged Jesus’ reputation as a holy man.
But, in true Jesus fashion, he didn’t let that kind of thing stop him from his mission and ministry. Jesus still brought his message of grace and freedom to this woman. And he knew that when he did, in her humility, she would actually hear and respond to what she was saying. This Samaritan woman would hear the words of this Jewish man, while the religious people of his own race were too busy and self-important to hear.
And not only does she hear him, but she goes and spreads the Good News! You can make the argument that this woman is one of the earlier evangelists in the Bible. Verse twenty-eight and twenty-nine tell us that, “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?’ 30 They left the city and were on their way to him.”
The impact of her words is further demonstrated in verse thirty-nine through forty-two, “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there 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.'”
You see the real truth of all of this is that God doesn’t care about any of the artificial lines we draw to make ourselves feel superior to others. Just like I say every Sunday when we celebrate communion, that Jesus doesn’t care about all the different ways we try to divide ourselves like age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical or mental ability, and so on. We are all beloved children of God, all equal in the eyes of God.
And while we all suffer from this situation, on both the end of those feeling superior to others and those who are oppressed or harmed by others who feel superior to us, it is not all bad. American journalist, Charles Kuralt, reminds us that, “There are a lot of people who are doing wonderful things, quietly, with no motive of greed, or hostility toward other people, or delusions of superiority.”
But we still need to be honest about this reality of feelings of superiority, especially in the church. We hear so many complaints and laments about how there are no new people coming through the doors, looking to join up in the ministry work God calls us to. But can you completely blame people? When they look in and see how we treat each other, how we sabotage each other, how we act as though we are better than each other…well, it’s all sunshine and rainbows is it?
But what if that wasn’t the way, if it wasn’t the reality we are in? What if we let go of our status symbols and judgmental attitudes? What if we stopped and we too, just like the Samaritan woman, what if we too could hear Jesus’ call more clearly and could respond more faithfully? What if we could just look at each other as equal, beloved, and worthy of love? What if we could give up our feelings of superiority? What if?
Now I am not saying this is simple, or instant for that matter, like turning off a light switch. This kind of change takes some time and a lot of intentional effort. It requires us to work together, to call on God for help, to look at ourselves and maybe find some things we don’t like that much. But Christianity is not always easy. In fact, Christianity if often challenging. Following Jesus is not just a walk through the park. There may be times of walking along the beach or through a wooded acre. But there are also times of climbing mountains, traversing raging rivers, and crossing great divides.
Thankfully we are not on this journey alone. We are on this journey of growth, relationship building, and love with not only God, but also each other. When we take the time to see each other as God sees us – as equal, beloved children of God – that is when we help to push away the feelings of superiority. That is when the gossiping and lies stop. That is when the sabotaging stops, and the support begins. That is when real change begins.
When we turn our lives over to God, when we stop with the feelings of superiority, when we finally start treating and loving ALL people – regardless of their lives and histories, that is when we will truly see God’s kingdom in the world and God’s grace flow throughout creation. That is when we will finally be able to do come together as the body of Christ for the world and make a real difference in lives of others. That is when love, God’s love, will win in the hearts of all humankind and all creation.
It can be so easy to get caught up in the negative things in this world that lead to feeling superior to others. It can so easy to get swept up in the rumors, the gossip, the need to feel important. But we have to try. We own it to each other as children of God. We own it to God as part of the creation that God called good. We own it to ourselves as beings that need each other and need compassion and grace. So, I pray, I pray with all my being, that this Lent, and far beyond, that we might be able to give up the feelings and actions of superiority that plague our world and our hearts. Amen.