Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
The following story is inspired by Pastor Teber Hill whose legacy I hope to appreciate in some, small way today along with our Gospel lesson from John the 4th Chapter. This story is a retelling of how the story of the Woman at the Well in the town of Sychar might look if it were to take place today.
I want to tell you the story of a church not unlike one that you know that sat in a small, sleepy Minnesota town named Sundsvold.
A woman named Shelley had recently moved to town. Shelley was a single mom with an 8 year old son named Tucker. Shelley came to Sundsvold as a way to escape her past. Shelley had been previously married to Tucker’s Dad Craig who worked as an over the road truck driver.
Shelley had met Craig in High School and Shelley was really taken in by Craig. Yet once Tucker was born, and being awaken at 3 in the morning became a common occurrence, Craig started to grow distant by spending more time on the road. Craig claimed it was for the money, but Shelley started to suspect something else was at work.
Shelley’s heart was broken as she eventually discovered that Craig was cheating on her when he was away from home. Shelley met other men after Craig left her life, men that she wanted to believe could actually love her, but once these men got what they wanted from Shelley then the phone calls stopped coming, and the men would quietly drift from Shelley and Tucker’s life.
Shelley was not raised in a real religious home. Her parents weren’t into what they deemed to be “god-stuff”. Shelley had only been to the occasional church service with her grandparents on Christmas or Easter.
Yet when Shelley moved to Sundsvold, Shelley wanted a fresh start for herself and Tucker. Shelley was fearful for Tucker’s future. Shelley dreaded more than anything that Tucker would end up like her in life.
Right down the block from where Shelley lived was Saint Martin’s Lutheran Church. Shelley didn’t know the difference between a Lutheran, a Methodist, a Baptist, or a Catholic.
Shelley saw that there seemed to be a lot of kids around Saint Martin’s Sunday school every week. So Shelley decided that she wanted Tucker to join Saint Martin’s Sunday school program. Shelley decided that she should also get involved down at Saint Martin’s.
Shelley was nervous about all this to be sure. Shelley didn’t really think that she would fit in. Most of the people who Shelley knew well weren’t really all that religious. All Shelley remembered from the few church services that she did attend was not being quite sure when to stand up and sit down.
Shelley decided that she wanted to put herself out there. Shelley didn’t know how the church crowd would respond to her as a single mom. Shelley ultimately decided to show up at Saint Martin’s because through all the issues in her life the pain, the trouble, the mistakes, and the heartache what she had been doing wasn’t working. Shelley was started to be convinced that nobody in the world really knew her, that anybody possessed the ability to really understand what Shelley was struggling with on a day to day basis.
So as Shelley stopped by Saint Martin’s one day, she saw a sign that read “Sunday School Teachers Needed”.
Shelley had never attended Sunday school as a child, she really had very little idea what Tucker might be learning, so Shelley figured if she signed up to teach Sunday school it could be beneficial for both her and Tucker.
Saint Martin’s Board of Education sat down one day to plan the upcoming school year. The Board was made up mostly of young mothers full of energy and new ideas. These woman had husbands with good jobs and well-behaved, honor roll students for kids. These were the type of young mothers that any church would love to have involved.
The one exception to the Board was an old lady named Emily who sat alone and quietly in the corner. Emily had been on the Board of Education for years and years. She had been the Sunday School Superintendent of Saint Martin’s for decades. Everyone would have just preferred that Emily stepped down from the board years ago. Emily would often be forgetful with projects, and was starting to have a struggle taking care of even herself.
Emily knew the scriptures like the back of her hands, yet the other women on the Board thought that Emily was incapable of understanding how today’s kids learn with all their tech gadgets as they thought Emily to be living in the past.
As the Board of Education met that August night they looked down at the names of signed up teachers where they saw Shelley’s. No one in the room really knew Shelley all that well. They had seen Shelley around town. Shelley on account of her youth and good looks seemed to be popular with the men around Sundsvold. Yet seeing Shelley around you would think she was anything but polished. Shelley’s breath would smell of cigarettes. Shelley’s wardrobe wasn’t always stylish or neat. Shelley’s job working as an aide down at the local nursing home barely allowed her to live check to check with Tucker.
The women on the Board of Education didn’t know if Shelley teaching would be a good idea. They feared what the people of Sundsvold would think about Saint Martin’s if they knew that this Shelley lady was teaching, only for Shelley to stumble home from the Bar some night with a sleazy gentleman.
Emily had tended not to say much at these meetings, as she felt her input would often go ignored. Yet as the Board of Education was discussing how they could allow Shelley to teach, Emily felt compelled to speak up.
Emily didn’t have any idea who this Shelley woman was that the women were describing, yet Emily knew that Jesus’ whole ministry was centered on reaching outsiders.
Jesus’ whole ministry was based on going outside the bounds of the type of people who were going to make good Sunday school teachers. Jesus reached out to sinful women like the woman caught in adultery in John 8, he reached out to the lepers that had been cut off from society, and he reached out to the Tax Collectors like Zaccaheaus who were hated by society.
Emily did not want to condemn Shelley, because she knew that Jesus had a very similar encounter in the Christian Gospels with a Woman at the Well in a town called Sychar.
The thing that really stood out to Emily about the story of Jesus and the Woman at the Well from the town of Sychar was that Jesus loved that woman in the midst of her great sinfulness and made her the biggest priority of his outreach once he encountered her.
Emily then asked the Board of Ed. what Jesus might do if she came across this Shelley?
Emily pointed out that Jesus would seek to free her, forgive her, and ultimately change her existence. Jesus would have offered Shelley living water from which she could receive nowhere else.
Emily knew and admitted that there were probably things in Shelley’s past that could have justified her fellow board members in being harsh with Shelley, yet she knew this wouldn’t have been Jesus’ approach.
Emily knew that what they were going to discuss that night at the Board of Education was much more important then what other people might think of Saint Martin’s Lutheran Church, Emily was rather fighting for the soul and character of Saint Martin’s which was the soul of the Gospel.
Emily pointed out at that meeting that:
A church that doesn’t risk being embarrassed really isn’t much of a church at all. How she would rather that Saint Martin’s gets burned by being too gracious to those in the community, to be the type of church that gives out money even when they know they might not be paid back, rather then the type of church who is completely jaded by the possibility of God’s grace coming through to other people.
Taking in Shelley as a Sunday School Teacher could lead to a Scandal, no different then Jesus asking a Samaritan woman for a drink could lead to a scandal.
Yet Jesus had been a much higher priority then caring what people might say as he interacted with the Jews’ natural enemies. Jesus instead cared about offering living water to the most hurting of individuals.
Shelley was going to be wanted by Saint Martin’s because Jesus would have reached out to Shelley were she was at this point in her life, not where the religious crowd thought she should be. Jesus would have promised to Shelley the type of water that would leave her never thirsty again.
The reason why the story of the woman at the well in the town called Sychar was so important to Emily is because the Sychar Woman’s story is the story of most of us. The reason this story of the woman at the well is included in John’s Gospel is because John knew that living water could be offered in not only the midst of the Woman at the Well’s pain, not only in the midst of Shelley’s pain, but rather all of our pain.
As the rest of the woman on the Board of Education heard Emily speak they knew that Emily had won the argument. As they heard Emily speak, they were reminded about all of the things in their own life that they feared being exposed in the light of the day. They then understood that Shelley was really no different from any of them.
Shelley ended up teaching Sunday school that year and the year after then the year after that. Shelley and Tucker would start attending church more frequently, and eventually get baptized together. Shelley came to believe that the “living water” of forgiveness of which Jesus spoke was really for her.
The women who were initially skeptical of having Shelley teach Sunday school were changed overtime in their perspective. Shelley was outgoing, funny, and the kids loved having her as their teacher. Shelley was eventually taken in by Saint Martin’s as one of their own. This meant the world to Shelley. Shelley would come to become as valuable as any member of Saint Martin’s Lutheran Church.
Shelley ran in a different circle then the typical church crowd. Shelley started talking to her co-workers about her faith and what a change it led to in her life. Shelley had morphed from someone who knew very little about the church to its most effective evangelist. What made Shelley so effective was that she had come to Saint Martin’s from within the midst of a deep burden helping her relate to others that were going through their own issues.
As Shelley became more involved in Saint Martin’s, she started reaching out to other people in the pews. People who were going through more in their life then they care to admit to their fellow church members or their Pastor. People would open up to Shelley like nobody else, because Shelley got those people because she had been where they were.
Shelley had no religious training. Shelley’s life had been transformed. The Living Water that she had received from Saint Martin’s had opened her eyes, and began to heal her wounds.
Shelley had only walked through Saint Martin’s doors because her life up to that point had been so screwed up; she wanted something better for Tucker.
Yet in the midst of all the brokenness of the Board of Education, Shelley had received grace. Shelley had received this word of grace at the very moment when she most needed it. This led to Shelley having an enthusiasm about her faith that was so rare it almost became contagious. Many people would come to believe because of Shelley.
As for Emily, she would not be long for this world. Emily worried greatly about the future of Saint Martin’s Lutheran Church. Perhaps that was why she spoke so forcefully in Shelley’s defense. Emily and Shelley had never met before that Board of Education meeting. Yet they soon met and became fast friends. Shelley looking up to Emily’s grace, and knowledge and Emily being taken in by Shelley’s youthful energy and empathy. Saint Martin’s was richly blessed because God had led both Emily and Shelley into their midst.
Perhaps you know a town like Sundsvold. Perhaps you know a church like Saint Martin’s. Perhaps you know a lady like Shelley. Yet what you don’t know is where living water might spring, just as it sprung up for the Woman at the Well of Sychar. Amen