Sermon, March 19, 2017 – Third Sunday in Lent, Year A
Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.
In today’s Gospel reading we heard a great story of how Jesus interacted with a Samaritan woman, leading not only to her own conversion but to the conversion of her village. And unlike some Sundays, today we get to hear the whole story – from beginning to end. Like most stories from the Gospel, there is so much there for us if we slow down and read it carefully.
As I was thinking about this story and what it might say to us today, I recalled something I had read by Bishop N.T. Wright, a bishop and noted scholar in the Church of England. Bishop Wright speaks of how Bible stories can be authoritative for us, even if they are not creeds, rules, or clear theological statements. He says that the Bible contains “an authority that is wielded and exercised through the people of God telling and retelling their story as the story of the world, telling the covenant story as the true story of creation. Somehow, it is wielded in particular through God’s people telling the story of Jesus.”
Bishop Wright suggests that we might think of the Bible’s authority like a five act play by William Shakespeare, in which we do not have the fifth and final act. Suppose that the first four acts provide us with “such a wealth of characterization” and “such a crescendo of excitement within the plot” that we can draw from this how the final act should unfold. The first four acts would act as our authority for how the final act must come out, yet within that authority, we have the responsibility for producing the final act.
Bishop Wright refines his idea by suggesting that the first four acts of our play are “(1) Creation; (2) Fall; (3) Israel; (4) Jesus.” And as for the fifth and final act, the bishop says that the “New Testament would form the first scene in the fifth act, giving hints [to] how the play is supposed to end.” We as the Church would then live under this authority to perform the final act through how we live our lives on earth.
This is an excellent and useful framework within which to think about our Gospel lesson today. Our story is both interesting and compelling but it is a story. Jesus isn’t teaching us in a parable nor is Paul making a theological argument about what we ought to believe. No, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman, they have an interesting and peculiar conversation, after which she convinces her village that Jesus is the promised Messiah. So what can this tell us about ourselves and how we should live?
As we think about this story, let us reflect on how Jesus came to meet and converse with this woman; what sort of person this woman was; what Jesus offered her; and how the woman responded.
What is amazing in this story is that Jesus was able to speak with her despite the social barriers that would normally have blocked any conversation between them. She was a Samaritan woman. As our passage tells us: Jews do not associate with Samaritans. The Samaritans were descendants of the rebellious tribes of Israel which had broken away from the Jewish kings of David’s line. They had their own unique take on Judaism, rejecting both much of the Old Testament and the Temple in Jerusalem as the center for the true worship of God. Jews looked down on Samaritans as being heretical, unclean and racially inferior.
Another barrier was that she was a woman. In ancient near eastern culture, it would have been considered highly improper for Jesus to have spoken with her. But it was even more pointed for this woman as she apparently had a reputation for being sexually immoral. But nothing is too great for God. Consider the story and how the scene is set.
In the first four verses in John chapter four, we learned that Jesus needed to get out of Judea quickly and go to Galilee. Wouldn’t you know it, but that meant that he needed to travel through Samaria. And then he stopped at noon near a well. He sent his disciples to the nearest town to get some food. Now, in Israel, it usually was pretty hot in the middle of the day, and the women in the area would have all come to the well to get their water much earlier, when the day was still cool. And they would have all come together as a group.
But the woman in our story had to come alone, and at a time when she didn’t think anyone else would be there, most likely because she was the target of gossip and mean comments from her neighbors. And so she came when she wasn’t expecting anybody to be there. But Jesus was waiting to meet her. Jesus did not let the social barriers prevent her from encountering him.
What of the woman herself? What kind of person was she? Well, to begin with, she was someone who had some relationship problems. The story tells us that she had been through five husbands and the man she was currently with, wasn’t her husband. Commentators wisely caution us against assuming that this was all her fault. They remind us that in the Jewish and Samaritan culture, it was the husband who had all the control over divorce, not the woman. And we also don’t know whether any of her husbands had died.
But what I think we can recognize is that this was a woman who had some serious relationship scars and was quite probably someone who had suffered from abusive or mean spirited men in her life. It seems that she had become so fearful of making yet another relationship commitment that she had decided against marrying anybody else. In the ancient world, this would have made her an outcast and someone to avoid.
Yet, this was the area that Jesus focused on. Jesus identified the area in her life most in need of healing when he brought up her relationship issues, right after he offered her living water. This is an important thing to note in the story. First Jesus offered her living water, then he brought up the area in which she had the greatest need of healing. The two go together.
Listen to what Jesus says when he asks her for a drink and she initially deflects his question. “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.” “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Jesus is, of course, offering her himself, that is to say, an everlasting relationship with God himself. This is the living water that will keep you satiated for all eternity.
The Samaritan woman, of course, doesn’t fully understand right away what Jesus means by living water. Bishop Wright points out that in that time, the term that Jesus uses for living water referred to running water, like water in a stream or river, as opposed to standing water in a well or pool. Living water was more likely to be fresh and clean. But Jesus goes further and says that this living water will become a spring within us, welling up to eternal life. Bishop Wright notes that if you want to take Jesus up on his offer of living water bubbling up within you, you will need to get rid of the stale, moldy, stagnant water that you are currently living off of. For the Samaritan woman, her stagnant water was her relationship issues. When we decide that we want to accept the offer of Jesus to heal us, we need to be prepared that he will actually heal us.
How did the Samaritan woman respond? Like us, she tries to stall for more time. “Okay Jesus, that sounds great, but now isn’t a great time. Maybe later.” Initially, she tries to deflect Jesus by bringing up religious controversy. She says “Yes, I see that you must be a prophet. But what about that religious issue that stands between Jews and Samaritans. What about that, Jesus?” But Jesus will have none of it. Jesus tells her quite plainly what the truth is, which is that she has gotten the issue all wrong. Jesus points out to her that it really doesn’t matter where God is worshipped, but rather that God is worshipped in spirit and truth.
The woman then tries one last diversion. She says “I know that the Messiah will come one day. I’ll just wait till then and ask him.” Well, this diversion didn’t work either, since Jesus responds both simply and effectively by saying “Yeah, that Messiah guy? That’s me.”
At this point, it clicks for her. When the disciples return, the woman leaves and goes to her village. She was so emboldened by her encounter with Jesus that she tells everyone in her village about him. Remember that this was the woman who Jesus first encountered because she was avoiding her fellow villagers. Now she is among them enthusiastically telling them about Jesus. And she was so persuasive that many of the Samaritans from that area came to believe in Jesus.
So what does this story teach us? To begin with, we read that no matter how seemingly insurmountable the barriers might be between a person and Jesus, Jesus can still reach them. No matter how insignificant or marginalized a person might seem, Jesus still will reach out to them and offer the living water of himself. As Paul writes in Romans “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
We also learn that when Jesus reaches out to us, he is reaching out to heal and transform us. Each one of us has an area in our lives that is in need of healing. Probably many areas if we are going to be honest. Jesus promises us that he will give us a stream of living water to well up within us to eternal life. As Bishop Wright says, when we accept the living water, we must get rid of the stale and stagnant water that we cling to. What this means is that Jesus comes to transform us. He wants all of us. Imagine that you have broken your leg and you go to the hospital. But what if you refused to let the doctor do what she needs to do to heal you? What if you said “yes, I want to walk again, but you may not do anything to my leg.” That wouldn’t make sense. And so if we truly want the living water that Jesus offers, we must be ready to let him wash away the stale and stagnant sin that infects our lives.
Finally, we see what the woman does when she lets down her barriers and embraces Jesus. Her life is transformed. She is full of joy and can’t be contained. Instead of the woman shunned by and gossiped about by her neighbors, who sneaks to the well when she knows nobody else will be around, we see a woman enthusiastically telling her neighbors about Jesus. And she is so full of life and the Spirit that many are convinced by her.
This story tells us that every one of us can be a follower of Jesus. Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t be. But don’t for a minute think that following Jesus doesn’t change everything. It does. But if that scares you, ask yourself this – is the stale, stagnant water of your old life preferable to the fresh, bubbling living water that Jesus promises? I think we all know the answer. Come, let’s drink deeply together.
Let us pray.
We thank you and praise you, O God, that however we may thirst, whatever we may need to satisfy our souls, you offer it freely and abundantly in Christ; So we drink deep of the living water and, as we draw from your wells, we seek to pass the cup to others who, like us, are thirsty for your grace. Amen.