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… he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria. -John 3b-4
God so loved the world… That famous verse, John 3:16, the verse that folks put on signs at football games. I will admit: I don’t entirely get it. It’s a beautiful verse, yes, but there are a lot of beautiful verses, especially ones about God’s love. Why does this one get all the attention?
Reading Carol Howard Merritt’s new book, Healing Spiritual Wounds, gave me a hint. In the book, she tells a story from her time in conservative Christianity. She went to Bible College, and one of the assignments was to go out and convert people – to get them to say the sinner’s prayer along with the student, and thereby accept Jesus in their heart. The version she prints says:
Jesus, I know that I have done bad things. I want to change. Please forgive me. I invite you to come into my heart and live there for the rest of my life. Amen.
That’s it. A conversion could be done, as Carol attempted, at an airport, in the time between getting coffee and getting on the flight. Just these few words – this brief profession – could mean salvation from an eternity of fire. Just these few words, without any real context – no real preparation, no real follow through – are sufficient in order to be “born again,” in order to cross the line of belief.
I want to be clear: these words are fine, there is nothing wrong with them. These words could be very meaningful, in the right context – they could be just the words that a person needs to say as they step into a life of faith. But airport conversions, like John 3:16 signs, point to a thread in modern Christianity – and not just in the conservative parts of it – that hold belief as the most crucial element ; that hold an individual’s direct connection with God, or Jesus, as the clearest indication of their salvation. It’s the idea that God loved the world enough to save believers, the ones who had made a choice – in an airport, or on a street corner, or in church – to accept Jesus, to be born anew, to get right with God.
It’s a compelling idea that there is a formula, that there is a key, that there are a few words that can turn everything around. It’s a compelling idea that belief is all we need: belief in one who loves, belief in one who does not condemn. It’s a compelling idea, possibly because it’s an achievable idea; because professing belief doesn’t really require much of us except, perhaps, acknowledging our imperfection and inviting Jesus to love us anyway.
It’s almost a shame that John’s gospel doesn’t end right there, with this lovely verse.
But it doesn’t.
Jesus tells Nicodemus, this learned religious man, about God’s profound love for this world, about God’s promised kingdom and our place within it. Jesus tells Nicodemus that God so loves the world that God’s own flesh will bring rebirth, renewal, salvation.
And then it goes on.
And then it goes on through Samaria.
We are told that Jesus, returning to Galilee from Jerusalem, had to go through Samaria. But that’s not geographically true. Really, no practicing Jew would have willingly gone through Samaria, would have risked encountering the enemy, or becoming ritually unclean, when it was just as easy to go up far side of Jordan River and into Galilee that way. But Jesus had to go through Samaria because no one loved Samaria. Jesus had to go through Samaria because everyone knew God loved Judeans and Galileans best, these ones who worshiped correctly, in Jerusalem. Jesus had to go through Samaria, not because of geography, but because of theology. Jesus had to go through Samaria, this land the despised and demeaned, to remind us that it’s not all about us, to remind us that belief is just the first step. Jesus had to go through Samaria because God so loved the world, not just our little corners of it.
These early verses in John 4 are a needed corrective, then as now, to the desire for a simple faith, to the desire to think that God loves us, took on flesh for us, and that our acquiescence – our acknowledgement of that – is sufficient. These early verses in John 4 are a needed corrective that points us from what Dietrich Bonhoeffer termed “cheap grace” (or, perhaps in John’s parlance, cheap love) which is that grace, that love which allows us our weaknesses, our prejudices, our failures, our animosity. Cheap grace tells Nicodemus it’s okay to despise Samaritans because God will forgive him. Cheap grace tells us that it’s okay to prioritize convenience over justice, because God will forgive us. Cheap grace justifies our actions, our human weakness, by telling us God understands – God was human too, once! – so we can just keep on keepin’ on. Cheap grace holds up the sign for John 3:16, but doesn’t move on to verse 17, and certainly doesn’t feel the need to go through Samaria.
Cheap grace doesn’t follow Jesus, once we know he loves us.
The grace that follows, that takes us beyond those stadium signs, is costly. The grace that speaks the words of the Sinner’s Prayer from the heart: that invites God’s love to come through us, as through Samaria, is going to ask something of us in return.
It is not uncommon, in reading this passage, to be a little condescending to poor Nicodemus: to think he doesn’t get it – of course Jesus isn’t talking actual rebirth! – to watch him walk away from the faith that we profess so easily on any given Sunday. But I wonder if that’s fair. I wonder if maybe he didn’t understand quite well what was being asked of him, the cost of the love that was being offered. I wonder if, perhaps, Nicodemus didn’t see the breadth of the world he was being asked to love, the need to expand his heart and change his perspective entirely? I wonder if Nicodemus didn’t understand that belief in one individual heart is a great starting place, but that it will necessarily compel us away from individuality, into relationship, into community, into the world? Maybe Nicodemus walked away because he understood better than we do that belief in a God who loves the world will make us go through Samaria, will make us love those we have been taught to despise, will make us choose compassion over sectarianism, will make us risk our status in polite company, will render us “unclean”, uncomfortable, and often unwelcome.
Belief in God is not for the faint of heart. Because believing in God, and the only begotten Son leads us out into the world that God loves… even into Samaria, even into Syria, Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Yemen, even into the neighborhoods in our own nation where we drive with doors locked and windows up, even into cheap motels and encampments of our own city – these shelters of last resort, these unshelters of no resort. Belief in God and the only begotten Son leads us to see God’s love for the world reflected in those we despise, in those we fear, in those we shunt to the margins and exclude from “polite company.” Belief in God demands our hearts be broken, demands that our failings not become our excuses. Belief in God requires that that Sinner’s prayer become, not the words of our lips, but the deepest desire of our hearts, the one that impels us out into this beloved world. Belief in God calls us to salvation, but we have to go through Samaria.
This is the grace that will cost us, that will change us entirely, that will plunge us, not once but over and over into the waters of rebirth, into the spirit of renewal. This is the love of God for the entire world that will call us, again and again, from a faith we profess to a faith we live and to a belief that lives through us. This is the faith that will call us out into the Samarias of our world where Christ is present, if we have eyes to see. This is the faith that reaches deeper than stadium signs and airport conversions. This is the belief that reaches into our hearts and pulls us outward into the kingdom that awaits.
We just have to go through Samaria