a sermon on justification

Third Sunday in Lent
Texts: Exodus 17:1-7 | Romans 5:1-11 | John 4:5-42

A woman in Chefchaouen, Morocco walks down the street with a bucket.

All week I’ve had this song stuck in my head that comes from the Taizé community, Il Signore ti ristora. You know Taizé because we’ve been singing songs that come from Taizé during the season of Lent, both on Sunday mornings and on Wednesdays evenings – these simple, repetitive melodies that begin to sink into our bones as we sing them over and over.

The song I’ve had in my head is appropriate for a week spent preparing a sermon on the doctrine of justification. The English translation of the lyrics is something like:

God is the one who restores you.
God never pushes you away.
The Lord comes out to meet you,
comes out to meet you.

Reconciliation – with God and with one another – are central to the mission of Taizé. Taizé is an ecumenical monastic community in France that was founded during the Second World War, just miles from the demarcation line between the French state and the occupied zone. At that time, it served as a place of refuge for people terrorized by war. Now, it is a site of pilgrimage for thousands of young people every year from around the globe.

Thousands gather for Taizé prayer in Austin, Texas.

The community that came into being on the border of warring political and military powers is now an epicenter of ecumenical, multilingual, transnational prayer that draws young people in and then invites them back out, returning to their homes to carry forward in their own lives and vocations Taizé’s worldwide “pilgrimage of trust.”

God is the one who restores you.
God never pushes you away.
The Lord comes out to meet you,
comes out to meet you.


The story of the Samaritan woman at the well is also a story of reconciliation in a place of alienation. You don’t need a preacher to help you understand why it was unusual, even transgressive, for Jesus and this woman to be having a theological conversation in broad daylight – maybe as transgressive as offering shelter to Allied and Axis soldiers under the same roof. The gospel writer makes it very clear:

Men and women to not typically find themselves alone, together. (“The disciples had gone to the city to buy food” (4:8) is the gospel writer’s eager effort to reassure the readers that Jesus was alone for only very practical, non-scandalous reasons.)

Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans. (4:9)

“Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you people say that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” (4:20)


But the conversation that Jesus and the woman share moves them from standoffishness to curiosity:

-Would you help me get some water?
-Why would you ask me for something; you’re not supposed to be talking to me.
-You don’t know me, but I have something to offer you too: living water.
-You have no bucket. But I’m curious about this living water.

And the conversation moves them further, from curiosity to relationship:

-The water I’m talking about doesn’t leave you thirsty again later on. It multiplies and gains momentum and gushes up to eternal life.
-I want that.
-Go get your husband and come back.
-I don’t have a husband.
-Yes, that’s the partial truth. But I know your whole story.

And the conversation continues, from relationship, to a changed perspective:

-Okay, so I get that you are a prophet… But our people have a theological disagreement about worship.
-Real worship is bigger than the question of whether your people or my people have got the location right.
-I know the Messiah is coming and will proclaim all things to us.
-I am.

This conversation so changes the woman that she leaves her jug and brings her whole village to meet this man who knows her whole story. And the conversation also changes Jesus: From now on, it is clear that his ministry will not be only for his own people. It is clearer now what Jesus meant when he said to Nicodemus in the gospel reading from last week, “God so loved the world,” and, “sent the Son not to condemn the world, but to save it.” (3:16-17) This world includes even Samaritan women. The salvation that Jesus brings as Messiah is bigger than ethnic – or even religious – difference.


The story about the woman at the well is a story about God’s relationship with us. God disregards the boundaries that typically alienate us. God is about creating relationship. God sees your whole story, the good and the bad. God makes disciples out of unlikely people.

This is a story about justification. This story proclaims: These are the lengths to which God goes in order to be reconciled to you! Today’s text from Romans adds: While we were still sinners Christ died for us! While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God!


I remember the first time I heard a Lutheran say that justification was a free gift. I didn’t really know what justification meant. (This tendency to use unnecessarily big words to describe such important things is something Lutherans need to work on, I think.)

Justification is being made right with God. Justification sounds like, “You aren’t perfect; you are broken. But it is okay; you are beloved.” Justification feels like, “I forgive you. You and I, we’re good.”

While I may not have been able to tell you exactly what justification meant in that first conversation with Lutherans, what I did know was that this news – that it is a free gift – was a big deal. It was life-changing.

You see, I’d heard the relationship with God described in many different ways in my life up to that point. I heard it compared to a box with an amazing gift inside: it’s gifted to you, but you can’t experience what’s inside unless you unwrap it. I’d heard it talked about like a great chasm, a huge space separating me from God, that can only be bridged by accepting Christ. I’d heard the life of faith described as walking upstream against a strong river: it’s a struggle, it’s against the current of the world and of sin, but God calls you to endure in seeking God.

In each image, there is an emphasis on the human’s action, the human’s choice to pursue a relationship with God. We must choose. We must accept. We must struggle and seek and endure. These images make some sense to us – at least, they made some sense to me – because they actually fit really well with what we learn from the world around us.

The world around us teaches us, consistently and powerfully, that it’s on us to make ourselves right.

BeFunky Collage.jpg

We learn this lesson – that we musty justify ourselves – in different ways. I learned it by the way my friends and teachers talked about “bad kids” and “good kids” at school. Can’t be bad, gotta make myself good.

I learned it when I heard sayings from my family growing up about laziness and hard work: Working hard is moral and makes you a good person.

I learned it when I got actual material benefits from striving to make myself right – like when I received scholarships for good grades.

And I learned it in the public sphere too, in political speech. Bootstrapping! If you just try hard enough, you can make yourself right in this world.


This dominant narrative – that we must make ourselves right, and that it’s up to us to do it alone – are a product of our broken economic system, and are NOT of God.

The dominant narrative is the opposite of justification by grace. It sounds like, “You aren’t perfect; you are broken. Now fix it; get better.” It feels like, “Don’t mess up. One misstep and there’ll be consequences.”

Think about the places and people that taught you these lessons.

Really, think about it, now.



Where did you learn that it was up to you to make yourself right?

Who made you feel like you were never enough?

What experience reenforced that if you just try hard enough, if you only work hard enough, if you can manage to do the right thing…

Notice how that feels in your gut.



Now, hear these words and notice how that feels:

God is the one who restores you.
God never pushes you away.
The Lord comes out to meet you,
comes out to meet you.

Go back and read them again. Read them slowly, out loud.

Perhaps these words feel like a sweet reminder. Perhaps they sound new today, in some way. Perhaps they are difficult to believe… or maybe they bounce off you, numb, instead of sinking in. I invite you to practice believing them. Sing them, over and over, until they sink into your bones. Keep coming back here, so that we can remind each other of these words when we forget.

And this morning, in the space we’ve been leaving after the sermon for reflection, consider quietly or speak aloud:

When is it easiest to trust that you are right with God?

When is it most difficult?


One thought on “a sermon on justification

  1. Thank you, Erin. I couldn’t agree more that it could be a good thing if we Lutherans could talk about what we believe with language easier to understand. Thanks for doing that with, justification.
    I appreciated the chance to think about the reflection question too.
    It’s easiest for me to trust that I’m right with God, when my relationships with the people in my life are whole and loving, and hardest when relationships feel broken.

    Liked by 1 person

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