God and Politics — Don’t Be a Jerk for Jesus

John 4:1-30
October 11, 2020
Matt Goodale

We begin our new sermon series today titled “God and Politics”—the two topics that some of us avoid at all costs at family gatherings and uncomfortable dinner conversations. You might be thinking to yourself that I’m either very bold or very naïve to preach on such a topic during this painfully turbulent election season. Perhaps I’m a little bit of both.

The goal of this series is not to tell you how to vote. I think that would be an abuse of my role as pastor, and besides, I’d like to have a church full of people by the end of this. So whether you are Republican or Democrat, Independent, Libertarian or just plain fed up, this series is for you. I was telling someone this week that either everyone will get something good out of this series, or everyone will be ticked at me because I didn’t say exactly what you want me to say. We’ll have to wait and see!

The goal of this series is to get us thinking about how our faith informs the ways that we engage with politics, and particularly how we engage with people who vote differently than we do. You don’t need one more person standing up to tell you how to vote and how to think; we already get enough of that everywhere else. But what I think we do need is someone to stand up and remind us of the humanity in that person or group of people who vote and think differently from us. I do think we need to be reminded about what Christian love looks like during this election season that is so devoid of anything that resembles love.

A lot of Christians seem to understand the importance of voting based on their Christian values; not as many seem to understand the importance of letting those same Christian values inform how they interact with people who vote differently than they do. In short, this sermon series could be titled “How to not be jerks for Jesus.” Our nation does not need more jerks for Jesus, whether they be red or blue; our nation needs more of the love of Jesus that seeks to build bridges rather than walls.

So I begin this series by saying something that might come as a surprise and might even be controversial: Jesus was political. In fact, almost everything Jesus said or did that we have recorded from his three years of ministry was political. He was never party political. He did and said things that ticked off the right and left wings of his day. But Jesus was highly political. He told the rich that, unlike the poor who were blessed, they would face woes. He criticized the King as a fox. He spoke harsh words to leaders of the nations when they were uncaring of the needy. He associated with people he wasn’t supposed to. He overturned tables and raised trouble for the religious institutions that were married to political power. Even his death on the cross, a state tool of execution, was politically motivated by people who didn’t like the ways that Jesus never played by their politics.

Looking closely at Jesus’ life, it should be very hard to come away with the conclusion that politics are not that important. Politics mattered to Jesus; they should matter to us. They matter because politics inform policies that ultimately impact people. When I read the Bible or look at Jesus’ life, it’s emphatically clear that people matter to God—including and especially the people who are marginalized, oppressed, forgotten, or have no political power.

Jesus cared about the politics of his day, because he cared about people. Politics matter because people matter. I believe we as Christians should be informed about and engaged in politics for this reason.

On the other hand, we’re living in a cultural context in which it appears and certainly feels as if politics have consumed our lives. Politics not only fill the airwaves of our 24-7 cable news culture and our social media feeds, but they can inundate our daily lives – in conversations, marketplaces, uncomfortable family meals. “Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can become toxic if not rooted in a strong biblical and theological foundation. Why? Because the idolatry of politics is eating away at the civic discourse of our nation. But it’s not just in our nation, it’s happening in our Christian communities as well” (Eugene Cho).

You see, the problem might not be that we think politics are unimportant; the problem is that we believe politics are of the utmost importance, and so we easily get carried away trying to make sure our way of doing politics wins out.

It’s no secret that we are living through an incredibly divisive time in our nation’s history. We live in a time when all liberals are characterized as anarchists and tyrannists who care little for law and order. We live in a time when the label of “Republican” earns you the additional labels of racist and bigot. We live in a time when people openly hope for the President to die from COVID. We live in a time when people who protest unjust policies and racist actions are treated as criminals and threats to the nation.

We are a nation divided against itself. We build walls. We label. We hate and we get angry. We stop talking to friends and family. We assume that either salvation or utter destruction will be bought with votes, depending on who comes out on top in November. Last month I shared with one of my friends’ families that I don’t identify with any political party; I was quickly reprimanded for not supporting “God’s party”.

I obviously haven’t been around as long as most of you, but it seems to me that the state of politics in our nation is getting more incendiary, more polarized, and less civil.

What’s changed over time isn’t necessarily which political party is in control; what’s changed, I think, is the rhetoric. It’s no longer, “I disagree with you and think you’re wrong.” It’s, “I disagree with you and that makes you a bad person.” A person’s label, their political affiliation, carries more significance to us than their God-given humanity.

We don’t have conversations anymore to try to understand. We have debates to prove we’re right. Growing up I was told that if you’re a Christian you had to vote Republican; but now I hear the opposite in my circles – “If you’re a real Christian you’ll vote Democrat.” There’s no room in the middle. It’s all or nothing. Either you’re for me or against me; either you’re Christian and vote this way, or you’re not Christian at all.

I was at seminary in Princeton, New Jersey when the 2016 election happened. I remember the morning after the election; I sat in a pastoral leadership class with 60 classmates, taught by the president of the seminary. The room had the palpable feel of a wake, as most people were visibly shocked and upset by the election results. Our professor gave space for people to share and process what they were feeling. Classmates of color stood up and shared through tears how terribly afraid they were for their family and their children. The fear was genuine and not unfounded. But then other classmates stood up and shared their anger at anyone who would have dared vote for Trump. They had to be a racist, a sexist and a bigot. There’s no way a real Christian could have voted for Trump. Many others piped in and contributed to the general lambasting of any Trump supporter.

After about thirty minutes of this, one brave classmate stood up and timidly, yet courageously, shared that he voted for Trump. He shared that he was not a racist, a sexist or bigot. He cared deeply for people of color and women. He shared how he was hurt by the ways his classmates characterized him without getting to know him. He offered up the reasons why he voted for Trump and there was only silence for a time afterwards.

Then someone else spoke up and shared how he did not vote for Trump, but his parents did, and he was struggling with the anger he felt and the desire to love and understand his parents. The conversation took a more empathetic turn after that as others shared the similar conflict within them as they sought to love and understand their family and friends, while dealing with their own emotions, hurts and fears.

It was easy to lambast the abstract Trump supporter. It was much harder to do that with the flesh-and-bones human who stood in front of them and shared his own pain, his own thoughts, his own humanity.  

What ails our nation is not that Donald Trump is in office or that there’s a real threat a Democrat will get elected this year. What ails America is that we’ve lost all empathy, all desire to understand and to see the God-given humanity in the other side. Regardless of who ends up in office in January, if we don’t begin reaching across the aisle, then we will see much worse heartache and division to come. It’s only going to get worse.

It is at this point that we turn to our passage for the day, as we seek guidance from Jesus and his political engagement.

Our passage opens with Jesus telling his disciples that he would be passing through Samaria. I suspect his disciples were very concerned about this suggestion because, simply, well-knowing Jewish people did not travel through Samaria. Why?

Starting from a conflict hundreds of years prior, Samaritans began to be dehumanized and thought of as “less than.” They were perceived as dirty, inferior, half-breeds, contaminated, and as a result, were vilified and “otherized.” They used to be part of Israel, but political and theological differences won out, creating misunderstanding and animosity that has now had generations upon generations to fester. This is why there was such ill will between Jews and Samaritans, which explains why Jesus declared his intent to walk through Samaria.

On this journey, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at a well, and with his commitment to both grace and truth, he engages this woman with such humanity and dignity. You can hear the disbelief in her voice as she asks him, “How is it that you, a Jew, is asking me, a Samaritan, for a drink of water?” Jews and Samaritans did not interact with each other this way! And Jesus continues to engage her with dignity and compassion. They discuss first her long history of marriages that made her an outsider to her own people. And then they talk politics and theology, discussing where the true center of worship was (Jews believed it was on their mountain, Samaritans believed it was on their own mountain).

It is clear that Jesus disagrees with her lifestyle choices, as well as her theology, but he never stops treating her with compassion and dignity, as an equal. In fact, he has come exactly for this. Don’t miss it: Jesus is declaring his politics here. Jesus went through Samaria with a determined and resolute mind to break down barriers of hatred and cultural, ethnic and racial prejudice to replace them by building bridges of forgiveness, reconciliation, peace, love and hope.

Jesus’ actions shock his disciples and everyone else who is there to witness them. This would be like witnessing a Democrat attend a Trump rally to make a good friend, or like a Republican joining a “Defund the Police” protest in order to find someone to grab coffee with. This just doesn’t happen. His disciples and everyone who reads this gospel account are supposed to be shocked. This is a political statement by Jesus.

And the woman also has her part to play. Even after Jesus politely disagrees with her assessment of where the true place of worship is, she seeks to find common ground with him. She tells him, “I’m not so sure about all that. But one thing that we do agree on is that the Messiah is coming, and when he does we’ll get the full story.” She recognizes that even though their theology and politics differ greatly, that they still have a common bond that unites them: they are both God’s people who are eagerly awaiting God’s return to set all things right.

Both Jesus and the woman affirm in their actions and their words, the God-given worth of the person sitting across from them at the well. They affirm what has come to be known as the Imago Dei, which is the affirmation that every single human being bears the image of God. No matter if they are Republican or Democrat, ISIS or neo-Nazi, more sinner than saint, we believe as Christians that every human being is fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God.

To choose to see every single person as a beloved child of God (and yes, that includes Biden and Trump, Republicans and Democrats) is an act of love that has the power to change our whole nation. This type of love is the living water that Jesus refers to—living water that forever gushes forth in a spring that heals and gives life. And friends, we are desperately in need of some springs of water for our parched and thirsty nation. We are desperately in need of love and forgiveness to overcome hatred and division.

To love our Trump-supporting or Democrat-voting neighbor isn’t to say that politics don’t matter. They matter greatly because politics affect people. And as Christians we are called to take care of the people around us, especially the hurting, the marginalized and those without power. But if on our way towards caring for our vulnerable neighbors we find that have nothing but anger and contempt for our neighbor who will vote differently than us, then we are not full of the love of God. If we assume that our candidate needs to be in office in order for God’s will to be done, then we think too little of God.

Jesus was highly political. But he did not transform our world by overturning the Roman government or the religious elite who had all the power. He transformed our world by the ways he loved, by the ways he built bridges rather than walls, and by the ways that he affirmed the God-given worth and humanity of every single person he came in contact with.

I have a homework assignment for you this week: Reach out to someone you know (family, friend or acquaintance) who has a different political opinion than you. Tell them that you want to understand them and their political views better and ask if they would be willing to share about their political values. And just listen. Don’t argue or share your own opinion unless you’re asked to. Just listen and seek to understand. Your mind probably won’t be changed, but the simple action of listening is an act of love and compassion. To listen for the purpose of understanding someone better, even if you disagree, is to humanize them and to recognize that they too bear the image of God.

You are a beloved child of God, and so is your neighbor, your family member or friend who votes differently than you do. We don’t need more jerks for Jesus; we need more of the love of Jesus. Jesus loves Jews and Samaritans, Republicans and Democrats and everything in between. We are called to embody this same radical love, because it is only this type of love that can heal our nation. Amen.