Sermons from the Sabbatical: Being a Christian in a Pluralistic World

A sermon preached by Joseph Welker, Jr.
Sermons from the Sabbatical: Being a Christian in a Pluralistic World
John 4:3-30;39-42
September 17, 2017

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by other, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.


I still remember visiting Cary before we were called to the Kirk and called to live in Cary and Wake County. We were living in Catawba County where diversity meant there were Democrats and Republicans… or people who lived in the city and those who lived in the county. Religious diversity meant that there were those who belonged to Tri-City Baptist… there were Missouri Synod Lutherans and ELCA… Catholics… Presbyterians of different stripes… Fundamentalists and Progressives… all of those groups Christian. The only Jewish person I met was a doctor in a family practice. I never met a Muslim.

Well, we came to Cary to check it out…We were visiting one of the High Schools for Joe to evaluate… and I saw a teenage girl wearing a Hijab… a sign that there were Muslims living in the area. I went to the bank and the teller was wearing a Hijab… And I turned to Sharon and Joe and said, “We are not in Catawba County anymore!”

The word used to describe what we experienced is “pluralistic”… a place of racial, ethnic, religious and social diversity…

No one on the call committee told us we were moving to a pluralistic community.Soon, after the move, we met our Jewish neighbors who are great neighbors… My friend Art introduced me to Volkan who was a friend from the Muslim-Turkish community. This has led to some wonderful friendships. When you called me to the Kirk, I didn’t understand that part of my call was trying to understand how one lives out Christian faith in a pluralistic world. One member of the Kirk was married to a Hindu.
When we moved here, I did not know this call would lead me to enter a mosque, share meals with Muslims, share a sermon on thanksgiving in a Synagogue, and even develop wonderful relationships with people of little or no faith.

I do take great comfort that Jesus and his disciples lived in a world very much like ours today. You know, don’t you? – That they were not living in a Christian nation or society… that they were very much the minority. I trust you know that. Jews and Gentiles (many of whom worshiped Roman gods) were in control. In fact, I trust you know that Jesus was a Jew. I read the Bible and so many stories are stories of Jesus speaking of people of other faiths or pagan faith.

I thought about this during the sabbatical when I visited Caesarea Philippi in the northern part of Israel. It’s a beautiful mountain setting that reminds me of Montreat. You see the streams that feed the River Jordan. They look so refreshing. You want to do some rock hopping! It is the site of the famous question of Jesus to Peter. “Who do people say that I am… who do you say that I am”… And Peter says “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”

What I didn’t know is that he was making that declaration in a place also known as Banias and it is the place where a Greek god Pan was worshiped.  Pan was a goat footed God: a God of isolated rural areas, music, goat herds, hunting, herding, of sexual and spiritual passions , and of victory in battle… he was an intimidating God… a frightful God… The source of the word “pan-ic” comes from his name. The affirmation from Peter about Jesus takes place there where another god had been worship by many in their culture.

Even more specifically, in our Scriptures, we see Jesus directly encountering people of another faith when he meets Samaritans like this woman at the well. He would even tell a story where a Samaritan is the hero of the story… not a Jew. That would be a surprise to his Jewish friends.

In the story today, we overhear the tension of how Jews and Samaritans live together… causing conflict. Samaritans were from the Northern part of Israel… after the Assyrians conquered Israel they intermarried with people still left in the land… people considered unclean by the faithful Jew.

Samaritans had their own version of what we know as Jewish Scriptures… in fact, only the first five books have authority for them. They celebrated sacrifices in a different way… they even have their own temple in Samaria.

Things got so bad between Jews and Samaritans, a Jewish priest from Jerusalem destroyed their temple in Samaria. Religious hate leading to violence is nothing new.

Which makes it interesting that Jesus lifts up Samaritans as examples to the Jews. A “good Samaritan” to the Jew was an oxymoron. When Jesus tells another story of the healing of the lepers, it is a Samaritan that returns to give thanks. A Samaritan is praised, not a Jew.

In our story today, it is a Samaritan woman that engages Jesus in conversation and that conversation leads to conversion for many a Samaritan… converted to a new way of thinking and being and faith.

I find great comfort in knowing Jesus lived in a world like ours. You may not meet many Samaritans… because there are not many to meet. But I have. One of the highlights of my trip was to actually meet a Samaritan priest who told us about the practices of their faith… he showed us a big ancestral chart starting with Adam explaining how they were the true people of God… (and not the Jews… some things never change). I had my picture taken with him as proof that Samaritans still exist… but not many… only 800 are left and they still intermarry to keep their faith alive.

Unless you go to Samaria today, you are not likely to meet a Samaritan. But you will meet people of other faith traditions in our pluralistic world around here: Muslims and Jews… you will meet Mormons who share some understanding of Christ, but not the same one as ours… they have the Book of Mormon as their holy book. We do not share the same Bible or believe the same thing when it comes to Jesus. Still, we encounter Mormons … as we encounter people of other faiths…

This pluralistic diversity elicits many responses from people of faith… of all of these faiths.

For some, it ends up in a fight… trying to make sure “my faith”—“My true faith” wins and it doesn’t matter who gets hurt… who we harm or in extreme cases—even terrorize because we are fighting for the true God. We seek to destroy people who believe in a different way. We Christians can remember when we did the same thing at the time of the Crusades.

That is one response to pluralism. You engage others but it ends up in arguments and fights with everyone on the defensive and few minds or hearts are changed.

Others respond to the pluralism by retreating –you will simply have nothing to do with people of other faith. This was the Jewish approach to Samaritans at the time of Jesus. People of other faiths are heathens to be avoided. That’s another way to deal with it.

But as I read the Gospels, it was not Jesus’ way. Jesus shows me another way to live faithfully with others in this world. He doesn’t fight the Samaritans or take up arms against Gentiles who still follow their Roman gods… Neither does he follow the prevailing practice of his people to stay separate from people of another faith and culture.

No, as usual, he enters into conversation with them. Our story of the woman at the well today is an example. Jesus is in Samaria… sits down by the well because he was tired… where he must know he will meet Samaritans… because the well is like the water cooler…a gathering place for conversation. When the Samaritan woman comes to draw water, he initiates the conversation: “Will you give me a drink of water?”
The question surprises her because everyone knows that Jews and Samaritans don’t even talk to one another… everyone knows this is especially true of a Jewish man who meets a Samaritan woman.

This story has scandal and controversy all over it. But that first question leads to other questions… and a deep conversation about faith and theology and what really matters… Before you know it they are not talking about the kind of life giving water that comes from a well… but the life giving water that comes from Jesus… He is offering her water… which leads to her to a new understanding of faith… a faith which she shares with friends… and many come to believe that Jesus is the savior they have been looking for in all of their lives.

But note it all begins with Jesus being willing to cross boundaries of race and religion and culture… it begins with a conversation… with Jesus talking and listening… He does not push or force or coerce, rather he invites… He doesn’t avoid her because his Jewish friends and the disciples might criticize him for sharing a drink with a Samaritan of all people. No… he knows that she is also a child of God… he won’t let certain religious or cultural norms get in the way of talking with her.

In other words, the way Jesus lived in his pluralistic society – a society so divided by religion, race and culture… the way Jesus lived was to reach out and share in a conversation that led to a transforming relationship with him…

So as I seek to live in this pluralistic world, I take my cue from Jesus.

After meeting my friend Volkan… I was invited by our Muslim friends to go to Turkey where I would share meals and conversations with Muslim families… I think about what Jesus would do and it is clear… Jesus would go!

In Israel, I was invited to share a meal with a Palestinian Muslim family during Ramadan. They lived in a refugee camp. Like many of you, I have shared meals with Muslim friends during Ramadan as they invited us to come join them. I accept because Jesus would have accepted.

I have come to realize all Jesus asks of me is to accept invitations… to love as he loved people… to be prepared to engage in conversations about my faith as they share conversations about their faith.

In fact, what I find interesting is this: no Muslim has ever tried to convert me… all they have done is ask me about my faith in Jesus… and what we believe about Jesus… all they have done is ask me “what I believe and why I believe it”… and I’ve asked the same of them.

By the way, if you are ever asked and not sure what to say, you could start with what you know from the Apostle’s Creed. That’s a good place to start.

My conversations with others have been rich conversations. In fact, I’ve learned more about my own Christian faith because I’ve been in conversation with Muslim and Jewish friends. Being in conversation with people of other faith forces you to take a deep look at your own faith. That’s not a bad thing! My faith in Jesus has only been strengthened by encountering people of other faiths.

And I pray that I have, in my offering and accepting of hospitality, been a witness to the grace and love of Jesus Christ for all of God’s children regardless of race, nation and religion. And I pray the Kirk will be that place for others in this world.

I know this is happening among Christians in Israel. One of my favorite places I visited this summer was a place called “Neve Shalom… Wa Hat Al Salam” – Oasis of Peace community. A man named David told the story.

David has lived there for 20 years. The community was started by a Monk named Bruno Hussar who had been born Jewish… but converted to Christianity. He went to Israel in the 1970s to study… He was led to start an interfaith dialogue group which was hard because at the time there was a law against a Jew or Christian even meeting a Palestinian. But they met and they talked about scriptures and holy books and it attracted many people. The gathering moved from an apartment… to land owned by the monastery.

As they continued to talk and develop relationships, someone wondered what it would be like to live together in one village. The monastery liked the idea and leased them land… and people pulled up buses and converted them to live in. Jewish and Arab families moved into this community. Today there are equal numbers of Jewish and Arab families… There are 70 families with 30 more completing applications… they each own their own homes (as we do)… They share everything else: In 1984 they started an elementary school. The school today has 230 students but they have inspired other communities to start schools like this one. This little village does not have a place of worship—they go outside for worship…but they do have a center for religious dialogue where people can gather not to fight about their faith but to share their faith. It really is an oasis of Peace in Israel… an oasis of peace in a very conflicted and pluralistic world.

Jesus must have seemed like an oasis of peace for many people in his world of religious conflict and cultural tension. He provided living water – and all who followed him would continue to share that living water with everyone they met. In Acts we see how they shared the living water in the city of Samaria and people were glad.

May people be glad as we share the living water in our world… May Christ be our guide and lead us to be faithful witnesses to his grace and love in our lives… may we live up to our name: The Body of Christ… in and for the world. When we do, others will be blessed. And we will too! Amen.