by Rev. Joseph Connolly
“The Samaritan woman replied, ‘You are a Jew. How is it you ask a drink of me, a woman, a Samaritan?’ (That was because Jews had nothing to do with Samaritans.)” — John 4:9— Words from the Gospel According to the School of John.
There are some who accuse me of relating everything to baseball. Yes, the Dodgers did bear the Diamondbacks twice yesterday in Perth, Australia.) My wife would be among that group who accuse me of relating everything to baseball.
While that’s not really true— I do not relate everything to baseball— frankly, I do think some sound theology can be found in the game. Or rather there are some sound lessons for life and because of that some sound theological lessons to be found.
There is one lesson in particular in which I take great comfort. The best hitters in the game— the best hitters in the game— fail seven out of ten times. I think that statistic gives us a lesson about the nature of sin.
You see, we have an inaccurate idea when it comes to the definition, the nature of sin. We think sin, by its nature, means some kind of misdeed, doing something wrong. Therefore, we also believe that we, largely, do not sin. But sin is not about misdeeds nor about doing something wrong.
As I have often said here: the Biblical definition of sin is not some kind of misdeed or doing something wrong. The Biblical definition of sin is missing the mark.
But what is that mark? That mark is being in a right relationship, even a constructive relationship with God at all times and in all ways. Here’s another way to put that: being in right relationship, a constructive relationship with God at all times and in all ways means being perfect all the time.
If there is anything I know, I know I am not perfect. As I also like to say, if anyone here is perfect, please leave right now. Church is a place imperfect people gather. Needless to say, if we are not perfect according to the Biblical definition we do sin, both knowingly and unknowingly.
Which brings me back to baseball and why I find great comfort in the game. As I said, a batter is not perfect. A batter fails seven out of ten times. In fact, in baseball failing seven out of ten times is so good, that average might get you into the Hall of Fame. When it comes to perfection, I suspect we fail at least seven out of ten times, probably more.
Now, despite the fact that baseball is sometimes called America’s National Pastime, failure— especially failure seven out of ten times— does not jibe well with American theology. Please note: I said American theology as opposed to Christian theology.
Americans think of failure as unacceptable. It’s part of our national psyche and, hence, a part of our theology. After all, the motto of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during World War II was this (quote:) “With willing hearts and skillful hands, the difficult we do at once; the impossible takes a bit longer”— American theology— failure is unacceptable. How about that— very different than Christian theology. (Slight pause.)
We find these words in the Gospel According to the School of John: “The Samaritan woman replied, ‘You are a Jew. How is it you ask a drink of me, a woman, a Samaritan?’ (That was because Jews had nothing to do with Samaritans.)” (Slight pause.)
Wednesday evening, when we met for Bible Study and looked at this passage, one of the things we noted was it seemed to be kind of all over the map. While there is an overriding story, it also feels like there are a number of brief anecdotes being told.
That is also the nature of the entire Gospel— the structure seems a little scattered. And scholars have puzzled over that peculiarity in this narrative for a long time. They have come up with explanations— some plausible, some questionable.
One explanation suggests John was recorded in the era a new form of preserving writings was taking hold. It was called the codex. A codex looks similar to what we would call a book. Sheets are stacked in the right order and then bound together.
This explanation says some scribe was walking with the first version of the complete manuscript [the pastor leaves the pulpit and pantomimes the action of a scribe carrying a codex and tripping], that scribe tripped, the codex hit the ground and the pages scattered about. The scribe then put them back in the wrong sequence. It’s a funny story, but not likely.
Another story says there was a room full of scribes copying different sections. A scribe came in started to collect the pages in the right order from each section, got distracted, skipped over sections, realized the mistake and came back for the missed sections. But some pieces did not get exactly where they belonged. It’s also a funny story, but not likely.
Given the internal evidence in the language and the flow of story detail, I think the most likely explanation is a good portion of the manuscript was complied by one person— perhaps even someone named John. Then that person died and the disciples of that person added some things, removed some things, moved some things around and that is the version which has been handed on to us— a little scattered but readable.
You probably noticed that when we introduce a reading from this Gospel these words are often said: “The Gospel According to the School of John.” And that’s why we say “the School of John.” It’s likely there are a number of hands involved in this work.
That having been said, I think one question needs to be asked of this reading, in particular. Is there an overall theme which holds it together, which makes it feel like it belongs together? (Short pause.) The short answer is ‘yes.’
Pastor Bruce Epperly says this about the passage (quote:) “We all need living waters. We need spiritual and relational resources that refresh and transform our lives. God is willing to give us what we need for spiritual transformation in challenging times; we need to be open to God’s care, trusting God will supply our greatest needs.”
“There are no absolute guarantees of success— let me repeat that again— there are no absolute guarantees of success— or a cure for every ailment, but there is refreshment for the pilgrimage of life. This deep relational refreshment enables us to respond with grace to what is beyond our power and summon the reserves for a second wind in facing difficult challenges.”  (Slight pause.)
You see, God’s loving care is constant and universal. God’s gentle providence supersedes imperfection. The love of God embraces everyone at all times.
The love of God is all inclusive. In fact, the love of God is perfect and, thereby, allows us to not only see what perfection looks like but to feel embraced by it. (Slight pause.)
In a couple of minutes we will dedicate the quilts made by the Chenango Piecmakers Guild on Super Sew Sunday. Ask any quilt maker about perfection in a quilt and they might point out where each quilt has an imperfection.
After all, a quilt maker knows about each and every stitch and each and every mistake in a quilt they make. But do you know what I have never heard a quilt maker say? I have never heard a quilt maker say ‘I made this quilt intending that it not be used, intending that it not be in some way useful.’ (Slight pause.)
What makes the love of God perfect is God intends that love to be used, intends us to be useful to one another, to love one another, to be useful to the world around us. The love of God is so perfect that God embraces us for who we are.
And that, my friends is not just perfection. That is the real, inclusive, amazing love offered by God. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational
ENDPIECE— It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits, proposed a daily exercise, an exercise in discernment. Rather than focusing on what went right or wrong, what you did right or wrong, how you failed or how you succeeded throughout the day, this exercise encourages a person to reflect on moments in the day when you were aware of God— when you were present to the Presence— and those times when you were forgetful or distracted. I want to suggest this is a useful daily practice.”
BENEDICTION: Let us rest assured that God is among us and travels with us daily. Let us know that God’s Spirit empowers us to do things in the name of God we did not think possible. Therefore, let us share our love for God with others, confident that God will provide if we are faithful. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be in awe of no one else and nothing else because we are so in awe of God. Amen.
 Note: these words have been slightly edited for use in this sermon.
The Adventurous Lectionary: The Third Sunday in Lent, March 23, 2014 ~ By Bruce Epperly.