The Rev. Jennifer Adams – March 19, 2017 – Lent 3, Year A: John 4:5-42
During my sermon prep this week, I came to the conclusion that there are no fewer than seventy-three sermons that could be preached on this gospel passage. Now there are Sundays when we’re going through the readings and I wonder (usually to myself,) “What the heck are we going to do with that?” This isn’t one of those.
The good news in that for me is that I’m set for my entire preaching career on this one. The passage comes up twice in every three-year lectionary cycle and so I’m good to go. The good news for you is that, as far as this morning goes, I’ve narrowed it down from seventy-three to two and I kept these two because they’re often set up as an either-or approach, and I think they belong together.
The story is this. A Samaritan woman went to the well for water. And at first glance there is nothing very uncommon about any of it at all. The well was where people went for water, where many people still go for water and often in this particular culture it was woman’s work to do it. But then we hear that the woman went at noon which was strange. This means that she went at the hottest time of the day, highest sun rather than in the morning when others went. Which highlights the fact that this woman went to the well alone. So this was a woman who couldn’t go when the other women were there, either because of her life-circumstances or history, or some other sort of societal estrangement. So for whatever reason, this woman was completely by herself.
Now Jesus met her there at the well and again, not such a big deal, right? Even Messiahs wanted a drink now and then. Except that culturally what happened there that day was unheard of. First, for a respectable, unaccompanied male to approach an unaccompanied female and enter into conversation was strictly against the rules. Remember that when the disciples came back they couldn’t believe that Jesus was speaking to a woman? That was because it was an extreme breach of both societal and religious etiquette to do so.
Now just to make things even more extreme, on top of the woman being a woman, she was also a Samaritan and Jesus was a Jew. And as the gospel said so very clearly, “Jews did not share things in common with Samaritans.” And that was putting it mildly. The two groups absolutely hated each other. And the hatred was deep, and it was fierce, and at times it was violent. The rift had to do with differences in religious-ethnic heritage and each group’s interpretation of “true religion” including what constituted for each of them the “true Holy Sites of God,” the places where God could be found.
So, by all accounts this was a conversation that should never have happened. “Jews did not share things in common with Samaritans.” And at the same time, it was a conversation that desperately needed to happen. If there was ever to be reconciliation or anything remotely resembling peace among these peoples the conversation needed to happen. Which brings me to sermon number one. (That was all just background for both:-)
For our Lenten study this year, we’re reading a book and learning a practice called “Fierce Conversations.” The approach is incredibly simple and is built on the premise that our conversations are our relationships. Period. Our conversations are our relationships. Author Susan Scott teaches business people, teachers, civic and religious leaders, that relationships don’t exist without the deeper connections that come with, very simply, yet counter-culturally being present to each other in genuine and truthful conversation. It’s not rocket science really, but we as a people are losing the skill. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his book The Dignity of Difference, a book which I’m re-reading because it ties into all of this so well goes so far as to say “The greatest single antidote to violence is conversation.” Conversations not only bind us to each other they keep us from tearing each other down or more literally killing each other.
And so here we have what is actually the longest conversation between two people in all of the gospels. And it’s a conversation that by all accounts should never have happened and yet by another account absolutely needed to.
It’s a man and a woman. A Messiah and a marginal human being. A Jew and a Samaritan. And they talk first about the very human need for water. Easy opening line, right? (Sermon on Flint fits in here.) Then they talk about the ground on which they stand and what it means to each of them and their people. (Sermon about each of us and the places we’ve lived, the walks we we’ve walked, the sacred places and times we’ve known.) “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain,” the woman says to Jesus. In other words, “This place matters to me,” she tells him.
Then they talk about personal history – “I have no husband,” the woman said to which Jesus responded, “That’s right, you have had five husbands and the one you have now is not your husband.” And then rather than judgement, he simply commended her for telling the truth. He commended her for telling her truth. (Six sermons fit in here.)
She then shared some theological thoughts, “I know that the Messiah is coming,” she said. And maybe that was as much a prayer as anything. To which Jesus then responded, “I am He, the one to which you are speaking.” And so there she was at noon, as outcast as they come, probably as thirsty as they come, certainly as articulate as anyone we have yet to meet in this gospel, (right in there with Nicodemus last week and perhaps slightly ahead of the disciples who entered at this point without too much to add but at least knowing what questions not to ask.) There she was in the presence of God in ways that neither she nor anyone else would have ever expected possible.
The conversation itself was transformational on many levels and its effects far reaching in ways she could have never predicted when she got up that morning. So it goes. When the woman left the well she went back to her people and she talked to them, which given her status, took some courage. And they listened which, given her status, was a miracle in itself. And then they, ‘Believed in him because of her testimony.”
The Samaritans then in a move that shattered the limits of what any of them would have believed possible, invited Jesus to stay with them (remember Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans! Except apparently stories, meals, hopes, homes, and presumably prayers.) And he did. And by the end of the gospel passage the people said with gratitude to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard and talked for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”
Witness the power and hope and ripples of conversations at the well.
What Jesus offered the woman was first, basic acceptance as a human being, a child of God. It didn’t matter that she was alone or a Samaritan or feisty enough to question him a bit when he first asked for water any of which could have brought this whole occasion to an abrubt end. Jesus simply met her. They received each other and their differences were acknowledged but didn’t matter until they became the basis, the means for a deep and rich conversation and eventually what I think was likely a mutual transformation. Together these two broke down barriers that had been established for generations. “The test of faith,” Rabbi Sacks writes, “is whether or not I can make space for difference. Can I recognize God’s image in someone who is not in my image, whose language, faith, ideals, are different than mine?” which is what happened at the well that day. And which can happen in our world every day.
Which brings me to sermon number two (and don’t worry it’s not as long as sermon number one.) Those conversations aren’t easy and they can at times be confusing, even exhausting. Those encounters take effort. Sometimes they even fail, or fall flat and most of the time the turnaround from initial encounter to warmly sharing meals together in one another’s homes isn’t as quick as this story’s 42 verses.
These conversations (and according to Susan Scott, these relationships) take time and intentionality, and they also take something greater than ourselves to sustain and make happen. And so, “I offer you living water,” Jesus said, “the kind of water that flows through you and others and this world because God made it… I offer you living water,” Jesus said, “the kind that runs like a living stream, a spring of water gushing up to eternity”.
And then he said a sort of amazing thing given the context, “It doesn’t really matter where you worship. What matters is worshiping in spirit and in truth.” Now that could easily lead me in to sermons three through seventy-three and I promised to hold back a bit, but what I want us to hear is that while we enter into the hard and vulnerable work, the ministry and desperately needed ministry of deep and genuine engagement and compassionate conversation, there is a well that will sustain us, guide us, heal us. There is a holy and eternal well whose water will flow through us and flow through others too coming at times from surprising places. This is the well whose hopeful stream and balm of reconciliation is woven into our and this world’s very being. “The fields are ripe for harvesting,” Jesus said which says that seeds of things like mercy and peace, compassion and forgiveness have already been planted. So go into God’s world, into your lives, into our common life – let’s help that harvest happen.
I encourage you to gather at the well on a regular basis. We need it, we all do. There is living water to be had and to be shared. In the morning, at noon, in the evening gather at the well. Be the Samaritan woman and the Body of Christ that we have been created and called to be. Receive the other as they are and be received as yourself. Stay for a couple of hours or days or weeks or years or decades. Through it all may we learn to speak and listen in ways that bring truth, healing and hope, remembering that there is something of salvation woven in, a stream of life flowing to eternity – through you, through me, through this world that God so loves.