15. The Place of Adjustment

Wilderness Meditations: 15. The Place of Adjustment

Acts 8:5  Philip went down to a city in Samaria

But:  OK, so I said that study no.14 was the last one in this series, but one thing about the Internet is that it allows you to add further material to what you have already put there. I thought it was, until two thoughts appeared on the horizon of my mind today which called to have a place here, that seem to speak strongly into the present day. Then came another; I think the Lord wants to say something to us. So, we’ll extend the series and I will be wise enough not to say they are the last ones. I think they are, but who knows……

Knowing the Times: It was the men of Issachar, who were described as those “who  understood the times and knew what Israel should do,” (1 Chron 12:32) so perhaps we should start by looking at the times we are in. It is the Autumn / Fall of 2020, and the Pandemic has come, gone, and come again. We experienced lockdown, it was eased, and now as numbers of infections are rising again, lockdown is occurring in various towns and cities around the UK. It’s happened in England, Wales and Scotland. The future is as uncertain as ever. We have characterized this time as a wilderness, a place where we would not naturally wish to dwell, a place of unknowns, a place of limitation.

Watching Church: And it has been a place where Church has had to change. The Internet has played a bigger role in church than ever before. Someone asked me only the other day what I felt about the uncertain time ahead where scientists and the government (behind closed doors) are speculating on the number of deaths doubling in the months running up to Christmas. Concern is rising again. In the US the pandemic news has been submerged by rumblings about the Presidential election in November and more recently by the horrific fires down some of the western states. Uncertainty continues to reign in many places, it seems.

Unexpected Changes: So the first of these two additional thoughts focuses in on the accounts of Philip in Acts 8.  That chapter starts, “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.“ (v.1) I see a number of my Christian friends in the States getting wound up about not being allowed to hold services indoors. That anti-authority outlook, that also ignores the science of the pandemic, has the privilege of not being in a part of the world where authority says it is illegal to be a Christian! But it was persecution that got the church moving – all except the apostles and they nearly got left behind in what God was about to do within that situation (see later when Peter and John had to go and see what God had been doing without them – v.14!). Let’s not say that God made the persecution happen, and I won’t say God made the Pandemic, but let’s simply note that He carried on working despite it and, yes, maybe within ways that the persecution / pandemic brought about. Jesus had, after all, said that that they were to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” (Acts 1:8) So step one is that persecution has the church fleeing from Jerusalem into Judea and further north into Samaria.

A Wilderness Place:  Now there is nothing in the text about Samaria being a wilderness as such, but for the average Jew, the Samaritans were definitely off the grid of acceptability. I don’t have time and space to cover this in detail but simply to remind us of the surprising conversation Jesus had had with the Samaritan woman at the well (see particularly Jn 4:9). Think of whatever group of people you don’t feel comfortable with and there is your equivalent. The only reason Philip went there is the persecution in Jerusalem. He and many others had been forced out of his comfort zone. It wasn’t ‘his land’, these weren’t ‘his people’ and they didn’t believe the same things he believed and didn’t act like good Jews (even now Christians, even more different) acted.

Bang! So here he is in this ungodly place but something in him has him sharing with some of them about Jesus being the expected Messiah (v.5). He attracts a crowd and then, pow, stuff starts happening. “When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said.  For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed, or lame, were healed. So there was great joy in that city.” (v.6-8) We aren’t told initially what the ‘signs’ were that he performed or how it came about – that is irrelevant, and God will do it in a different way with you – but it is spelled out as the verses continue. Healing and deliverance ministry in a big way! No wonder there is great joy in the city! Now here’s something. If I was a betting person (and I’m not) I would bet that no longer does Philip feel this is a wilderness experience. Now he will be so caught up with what God is doing through him that he’s just filled with joy and, I suspect, praying, ‘More Lord!’ He no longer cares about this being a different land, an alien people!

And Us?  Can you see the parallels? The Pandemic has pushed us out of our comfort zone. We have been rubbing shoulders (well at a social distance!) with people we’ve not been comfortable with before and doing things we had never thought about a year ago.  Many of us have viewed the Pandemic / Lockdown as an alien time, and so it is, but that does not make it a time when God cannot move. We need to adjust our thinking, especially if it carries on through Autumn and Winter. Persecution or Pandemic? It doesn’t matter. Give God your space and dare to cross spiritual boundaries while still adhering to the Law, and then watch out, God might be turning up!

4. Location, location, location

CHAPTER 4: Part 2A: The Samaritan Woman   – Contact & Questions

Short Meditations in John 4:  4. Location, location, location

Jn 4:4    Now he had to go through Samaria.

Understanding geography and indeed history in scripture is helpful. Roughly speaking, the land we call Israel was, in Jesus’ day divided into three main areas. In the south Judea, with Jerusalem, the capital of Israel being the all important centre in the land, a city with walls and gates and a massive temple inside. It was the administrative centre for Judaism. In the far north was Galilee, Jewish by all means but with accents of its own, distant from Jerusalem and therefore a land where dissidents could exist without too much interference from the rulers in Jerusalem.

And then, there in the centre of the land was this block simply known as Samaria. The residents of this central province historically were mixed race, only part Jewish, and who were therefore despised by the pure Jews. That is to be born in mind in what follows.

The city of Samaria had been built by king Omri, one of the kings of the divided ‘northern kingdom’ following the split after Solomon’s reign. A little under two centuries later, in 722BC, Samaria fell to the Assyrians which was, essentially, the end of the northern kingdom. The leading citizens were deported and others from other parts of the Assyrian empire were imported.

Worship of the Lord appears to have been continued in some measure by this people but when Jerusalem eventually fell and was then rebuilt, opposition came from the ruling classes in Samaria. The Jews returning to Jerusalem under Ezra and Nehemiah, sought to re-establish their racial purity and objected to the now mixed ancestry in Samaria. In the years that followed the fortunes of the Samaritans waxed and waned and by this time that we are now observing, there were distinct divisions in national feelings in the different areas and generally the Jews of Judea or Galilee looked down on these ‘mixed-breed’ Jews of Samaria.  We will see more of their history as we read on in this chapter and so suffice it to say for the moment, that making their way north to Galilee they had to pass through this central province that was seen as very much a lesser part of the land, whose peoples were considered by the Jews as very much racially inferior.

We need to bear this in mind to understand the significance of some of the things that will follow shortly. Without this understanding we will fail to catch the wonder of what takes place. This is just another of those places in scripture where we Westerners need to spend a little time checking out the background to understand history, geography and culture of those we are reading about.  Without these things we will fail to understand the significance of what is going on.

25 Samaritan Woman

People who met Jesus : 25 :  The Samaritan Woman

Jn 4:4-10 Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar …..  tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well….. When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

As we come to consider the lady in our verses today her very designation is what makes her stand out. Like the crippled lady we considered previously she is someone who Jesus approached, not someone who came to Jesus. The first part of her designation is quite natural. This is the province of Samaria and so anyone who came from the little town would be likely to be a Samaritan. Nothing strange there! The emphasis is made because Jesus was a Jew and the Jews and Samaritans never got on. There is not space here to go into their history; sufficient to say there was hostility between them. We see Jesus here crossing racial, cultural and social divides in approaching this woman and her response to his request confirms this.

Now Jesus doesn’t simply say something like, “Oh, racial divides mean nothing to me.” Instead he drops an enigmatic bombshell in front of her. There are two areas where you are ignorant, is what he is saying gently. First you don’t know what God wants to give you and, second, you don’t realise that I am the one who can bring you that gift! If you had realised these two things, you wouldn’t be questioning me about social niceties, you would be asking for the gift that I alone can give you.

I think if Jesus had said that to me out of the blue I would have stood there with my mouth open wondering about it. What is he talking about? This woman ploughs in where angels fear to tread and takes what he says literally and starts questioning him about the practicality of him drawing water for her. Jesus doesn’t respond to that but declares, Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (v.13,14)

Now she may not understand this for her answer seems to suggest that she is still thinking in material terms, but who knows, she might be glimpsing what he means: “The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” (v.15) Now she may be unclear but Jesus decides to take her on in the process. To receive eternal life, something else has to happen first so he asks something (even though he knows the answer), “He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.” (v.16) to which she replies, “I have no husband.” (v.17). Well that’s the first sign of honesty, of willing to face her situation.

But then Jesus reveals that he knows all about her: “Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.” (v.17,18) When we come to Jesus, when we start thinking about becoming a Christian, coming to God, however else you might express it, we need to realise that He knows all about us already, so there is no point in trying to hide anything from Him. To this she responds that he must be a prophet and in the dialogue that follows the subject of the Jewish Messiah comes up and Jesus declares, “I who speak to you am he,” (v.26) one of his most specific claims. Her response was to go and tell the people back in the town what had happened.

As with so many of these encounters, they often reveal more about Jesus than they do about the person meeting him, yet there is more to be considered about her. Yes, she may be summed up as a lady with a less than stable background. The fact that she’s had (and been rejected by five husbands – for that is how Jewish divorce took place) indicates that here is a lady who either feels rejected by life, or who doesn’t care what people think anyway.

We make that latter comment because, of course, another reason for her being divorced five times is that she could have been found guilty of adultery. Now according to the Jewish law that should have resulted in stoning but it seems fairly clear from the Gospels that the moral state of the land was not good when John the Baptist came, so it is not unlikely that that was not followed. Her willingness to dialogue (argue) with Jesus almost suggests that the latter is more likely. She does not appear to have low self esteem, which would follow from being rejected five times. It seems more that she is forthright and has actually been in control of her destiny. It is her folly, therefore, that has brought her thus far – where she is living (as it used to be said) ‘in sin’ with yet another man.

Now what is remarkable about all this is that Jesus clearly knows all about her and is not in any way put off. Indeed, to the contrary, he seeks to minister to her need and show her the way to eternal life. This is Jesus who not only steps over racial and cultural boundaries but who steps over all boundaries to seek the lost. He will not do or say anything that makes him like the people he seeks to reach, but he will love and accept them just like they are as he reaches out to them. Only thus can they receive God’s love and be changed.

However ‘bad’ our life, Jesus loves us and desires to reach out and save us. That must be one of the primary messages of this account. The challenge to us who are his disciples is, will we do the same?

Walk of Assessment (2)

WALKING WITH GOD. No.42

Neh 2:11,12 I went to Jerusalem , and after staying there three days I set out during the night with a few men. I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem.

Earlier on in this series we considered a walk of assessment in the light of Joshua’s encounter with the commander of the Lord’s army, but the ‘assessment’ that we now consider is very different. With Ezra’s people we considered the significance of the restoration of the Temple , the place of encounter with God. Years have passed and another phase of restoration is in the Lord’s mind, the restoration of the city of Jerusalem , or to be more precise, its walls.

When Nehemiah had heard of the state of Jerusalem he had felt anguish and had wept (Neh 1:4). Subsequently he prayed (Neh 1:5-11) and then petitioned the king (Neh 2:1-8) and gained his approval to return to Jerusalem to restore the city. The only problem was the presence in Samaria of Sanballat the governor and his Ammonite associate, Tobiah, who were opposed to the Jews returning and re-establishing themselves. They seem to have had a lot of say in what went on in this far flung tiny province of the empire. First of all he checks in with the ‘governors of Trans-Euphrates‘ (2:9), those in overall charge of the whole area, under whom he will work as governor of Judah. Next he makes his way to Jerusalem and, note, he has so far kept the true purpose of his arrival from anyone in the locality, because he is aware of the political setup and doesn’t want to antagonise anyone and create opposition to his plan to rebuild the city walls.

After he has been there three days, he quietly goes out at night to survey the walls. So far he has shown no interest in them, but if he is to do anything about them he has to see the extent of the task. Initially this was a mounted ride but it appears that because of the rubble he probably had to dismount and it turns into a walk of assessment. Now what is significant about this particular walk, why are we considering it at all? Well the Temple was the sign of the permanent establishing of a place of encounter with God, but for there to be encounter and for there to be Temple service, there needs to be people. For there to be people there needs to be a community and for there to be a community there needs to be security – walls and gates! The significance of Nehemiah being there is that he is there to establish a secure community of God’s people in the place of encounter with God. Walls also delineate the edge of the city and the beginning of the world outside. They establish the size and shape of the community. What Nehemiah is doing is assessing the present state of the security of the community so as to be able to formulate a strategy for restoring it. This is all about restoring and establishing the people of God. Yes, they have been there a number of years since Cyrus sent the first ones back to restore the Temple , but no one has taken the trouble of establishing the security of the community.

How can this possibly have any application to us in the twenty first century? Well the people of God, and that may include my own family, are still in a world where there is a spiritual war going on and where Satan seeks to deceive and pull down. There is still a question of security that is both individual and corporate. Ask the question first of all, “How secure am I?” Well first of all am I secure in the certainty of God’s love for me? “For I am convinced that (nothing!) will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38 ,39). Paul was so sure that with God being for us (8:31) then no one and nothing can snatch us out of God’s hand. But there is another aspect to this. Remember Jesus told a parable of two house builders (Mt 7:24 -27), the point of which is that you will only stand firm if you obey and do what Jesus says. Oh yes, God will do everything to protect us and make us secure, but our role is to obey all that Jesus says to us through his word and his Spirit.

How about my family? What do we do to ensure they know the Lord and are secure in Him? This is about teaching our children the truths of God’s word, being an example for them, encouraging them into the life of the church where they can encounter that living truth? What about our church? Are we a Bible-based, Spirit-led community of God’s people? It is only as we are fed with the word of God and allow the Holy Spirit to lead us and fill us, will we be secure in God. Are we the community of love that Jesus commanded (Jn 13:34 etc.)? Is there such a bond of love between us that it builds us together so that we are secure? If it is so, if one member is attacked the others will be there for them.

Part of our walk with God is to be a walk of awareness – a walk aware of the enemy, our vulnerability and our resources in Christ. But a part of our walk is to be a walk of assessment, to ‘check the walls of security’ to ensure we are doing all we can to be established and secure in Him. Have you walked that walk of assessment recently, have you checked yourself out, you family and your church? Check it out.