Lent 3A | John 4:5-42
You probably have heard what an exciting Ash Wednesday we had here at St. Christopher’s this year. Kind of sounds funny saying that doesn’t it? “Exciting Ash Wednesday.” Well, I think we did. It was the first official joint venture of St. Christopher’s parish and San Romero fellowship. We began at 7 in the morning – I sent one church member directly to Starbucks to pick up a couple of jugs of coffee – and Uriel Lopez and I started imposing ashes on drivers-by from all walks of life. By 9 a.m. we had placed ashes on 75 foreheads. While I had three other services to prepare for among other things, Father Lopez and his ministers continued their work until after 5 p.m. when they had imposed ashes on nearly 450 people! I think that is very exciting.
While some question the orthodoxy of “Ashes to Go,” others who affirm and support the effort, consider the notion that “instead of waiting for people to come to church; the church must go to the people.” It is, after all, intended for those who would not normally attend church, or who simply cannot because of work or other restrictions. Still, Ashes to Go is intended to be an evangelical tool; a way of making the church’s presence known beyond its walls; and our own San Romero, with God’s help and the people of St. Christopher’s great support, had a fantastic start for the new mission.
In the long gospel lesson this morning, Jesus seems to be doing the practice of “the church going to the people.” Last week, Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, but today, we hear about Jesus out and about in a foreign land, Samaria, where one of the best stories in John’s gospel takes place: the woman at the well.
Today we hear a contrast in John’s narrative, where last week, the Pharisee and teacher of the Jews, Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, we hear in this very next chapter, a Samaritan woman who meets Jesus in broad daylight. Symbols are important for John and should always be taken be taken seriously. The symbols we heard today: A woman from Samaria. Jacob’s well. Living water. An abandoned water jar.
Now the story goes that Jesus was tired from his journey and took a seat next to the well. Then, when a Samaritan woman came to draw water from the well, Jesus asks her to give him a drink, all while the disciples were away buying food.
I think it’s important to pause for a moment in this message today about the content of this passage in John. We hear today of a wonderful and significant story about the breaking in of God’s kingdom: everywhere. It is a story about a Samaritan woman, a foreigner, but about so much more. It is a story about the world being offered life through Jesus. It is about worship and it is about eternal life. It is about mission and reconciliation; not just to the house of Israel, but to the whole world. (And yes, the story eventually does lead to evangelism. That “E” word that Portia brought up last week.)
Taken at face value, we can get easily distracted by the prophetic knowledge that Jesus shares with and about this woman. There are many opinions out there about why Jesus discusses the Samaritan woman’s marital status. Opinions that assume Jesus is calling her out on a sinful life demonstrated through serial relations with many men are most irresponsible and cause us to miss the point of this beautiful story about the life and joy that Jesus offers the world. To understand the conversation about marriage, we should understand what John is trying to convey to us about what Jesus is up to.
So let’s explore the plight of our woman friend from Samaria. John scholar Cynthia Kittredge notes that wells are places of engagements. We know the woman is unmarried (which doesn’t mean she’s a horrible person), and that she has had serial marriages; but we don’t know why they ended. Perhaps she has been widowed once or twice; or maybe deserted by one husband or another. The text doesn’t say, nor does Jesus call her a sinner or pronounce any forgiveness of sin. [i]
Professor Kittredge in her book recalls the history of Samaria whose people have worshipped five false gods after the Assyrian captivity. Perhaps she is searching for religious truth, and if so, it is no wonder that Jesus tells her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. But the hour is coming and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” [ii]
In both scenarios Jesus is proclaiming good news. He is proclaiming the promise of salvation and reconciliation, security and life everlasting to a woman who needs to hear this news; indeed to a world who needs to hear it. Nowhere in this story does Jesus forgive her for any sin. Nor does he perform any miracle. There are any number of ways, in fact, that one might imagine this woman’s story as tragic rather than scandalous.
This story, as with many stories we read in the gospels, have little to do with the focal character of the story and so much more to do with Jesus. Now that we have hopefully laid to rest the story of a judging Jesus who sees an outcast, an adulteress, or a woman to be most pitied, let’s now focus on Jesus, the Savior of the world who lives out a mission of salvation and reconciliation to all the world.
Now, the Jews and Samaritans are related peoples. Both are Hebrews. The Samaritans are from the old northern kingdom of Israel, while the Jews are from the old southern kingdom of Judah. The Samaritans inter-married with non-Jewish peoples and lost much of their ethnic identity, while the Jews maintained theirs. Each group ended up with their own temple, the Samaritans on Mount Gerizim, the Jews on Mount Zion. And so it is a strange choice Jesus makes to travel through Samaritan territory. That he strikes up a conversation with a Samaritan is even stranger.
There’s something additional that makes this conversation beside the well a surprise. In that place and time, men and women are not to talk to one another in public. It is not considered proper. Especially when the man is, like Jesus, a rabbi, a teacher, someone looked up to and revered. And thus the disciples, when they return, are astonished that Jesus is speaking with a woman.
Like Jesus, we are called to break down barriers and divisions to speak God’s word of life to others. How often do we allow ourselves to be surprised? The work we are to be doing within the life of the church is the work of transformation: for others and ourselves, from life lived in the world, to that of the spirit. (Remember Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus? “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”) Jesus now has two conversations in a row about living life in the spirit. He finds a woman who has been searching, and he knows this because the conversation he has with her keeps her attention.
He asks her for water – she says, “but you have no bucket”. He offers her water and when she drinks of it she will never be thirsty again; as the water that Jesus gives will become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life; and she pleads for this water - “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
And after the personal conversation they have, the nameless woman runs back to her village, leaving her water jar behind, and tells everyone that she has found the Savior of the world. Our lady friend here is not a sinner who needs fixing. She, as Professor Kittredge claims, is the hero. She is the first missionary in John’s Gospel and the first woman to proclaim the Good News.
And here, I believe, is the part of the story that witnesses to her transformation. In terms of John’s story and world, this nameless woman has pretty much everything stacked against her: she is a Samaritan in this Jewish story, a woman in a male-dominated world, has lived a challenging and probably tragic life, and is very likely dependent on others.
And yet after her encounter with Jesus she leaves her water jar behind -- perhaps symbolic of all the difficulties and let-downs of her life – and of the physical world rather than spiritual - to live a new and different life and to share with others what God has done for her.
What, I wonder, holds us back from living into the future God has prepared for us and sharing the news of what God has done? What, that is, are the jars we need to leave behind, trading our past tragedies and present challenges for the living water Jesus offers?
Perhaps it’s problems in a job or the difficulty of finding one. Perhaps it’s an unfulfilling or difficult relationship or a painful one. Perhaps it’s a past wound or fear about the future. Maybe it’s an illness of the mind, body, or spirit; or grief or anxiety or guilt or sadness.
It could be any number of things. But the woman left her water jar and ran back to the city, telling the people, “Come and see this man…” Perhaps she comprehended life in the spirit more quickly than Nicodemus did and realized she no longer needed the burden of doing things her own way and on her own terms, that is, clinging to her own water jar, because she now has everything she needs after her encounter with Jesus.
Last week we heard the story of Nicodemus who came searching for Jesus at night. Today we hear the story of the woman at the well who in broad daylight was found by Jesus. Jesus in this gospel is inviting us into a new reality, a new community, a new family. The person sitting next to you is your gift from God in this Jesus community. You did not come to St. Christopher’s on your own accord. Listen to the stories: you either came searching for Jesus in darkness, or he came and found you in his light. This place, this parish, this community, this family is God’s. Paid for by Jesus. It is Jesus who creates our fellowship and our community. So whatever reasons you have for being part of this faith community, always remember who called you into it; and remember that each one of us is a gift to each other. This is the identity of Jesus: the family of God, working together for the purposes of God’s kingdom.
The stories are written so that you get the feeling that you too are at the well listening to Jesus’ lessons and insights into your life, so that you too will abandon your water jar, then run and tell others of this Savior and invite them to “come and see”.
May you find and be found by Jesus again. May you come to the living waters. May you drink into your lives the ever-changing, ever-cleansing, life-giving and sustaining water that Jesus offers; then go and tell others what God in Jesus has done for you. Amen.