The Third Sunday in Lent, Year A - March 19, 2017

Preacher: 
The Rev. Amelie Wilmer Minor
Sermon Text: 

The Third Sunday in Lent

Year A

March 19, 2017

The Reverend Amelie Wilmer Minor

 

Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.

Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” (John 4:5-42)

 

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The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep.  Where do you get that living water?”

Have you ever been so thirsty that you would do almost anything for a drink of water? Most of us have rarely been that thirsty.  We don’t live in a desert climate, we have running water in our homes and in public buildings, and whenever we get thirsty we just grab a glass of water.  We take long showers, we wash clothes, we cook with water, and we waste it.

I was never more aware of this than during my trip to the Nevada desert to attend Burning Man last summer.  Not only was I responsible for bringing enough gallons of water to satisfy my drinking, cooking, cleaning and showering needs, I was also required to lug all of my waste water away.  You wouldn’t believe all the contraptions my camp pulled together to do this – evaporation tanks, pumps, kiddie pools.  Not an ounce of ground water was to remain on the desert floor – which made me keenly aware just how much I take for granted where our water comes from, and where it goes. 

In first century Palestine, water was a luxury.  Getting enough water was hard work. And getting the water was women’s work. Every day the women had to walk to the local well, fill a clay water jar with water, and then carry the heavy load back home.

Another thing about wells in that time is that they were often gathering places. In fact, Jews hearing today’s story would have immediately been reminded of all stories that took place at a well. Boys met girls at the well.  Isaac met Rebekah, Jacob met Rachel, Moses met Zipporah.  The plot was always the same – the future bridegroom journeys to a foreign land in search of a wife, encounters a girl at a well, and one of them draws water.  Afterward the girl runs home to tell her family of the stranger’s arrival in town.  There is a meal, and then an agreement to marriage.

Our story today follows a similar pattern.  Jesus travels to a foreign country and meets a woman at a well. Only this woman is not a maiden but has been married five times, and Jesus is not looking for a wife, but for worshipers in spirit and truth.  The woman does rush home, but there is no betrothal meal.  Rather, Jesus says that his food is to do the will of the one who sent him and complete God’s work.  There is no marriage, but an entire community comes to have faith in Jesus as the Savior of the world. So what exactly happened between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well?

First of all, it is good to note that this is the longest recorded conversation that Jesus has with anyone. Second, it was a conversation that never should have taken place.  It would have been unthinkable in the first century for a man to speak to an unknown women in public, and Jews did not speak to Samaritans. There were all kinds of rules and regulations about that, but this is a story that breaks rules and transcends them, it is about freedom and transformation.

And yet, the kind of transformation that happens here has been subject to interpretation - and misinterpretation.  Over the ages, it was usually assumed that this was a story of transformation from a life of immorality to one of morality – in other words, the Samaritan Woman had some kind of shady past, and her encounter with Jesus transformed that past. 

But that is an assumption that projects a lot into the story that just isn’t in the text.  There could be any number of reasons why this woman had five husbands, the most likely being that she was caught in the system of Levirate marriage where, when a husband died, the wife then married the brother of her husband. Families were large and mortality rates were high. The fact that this law existed supports the likelihood that it was a common occurrence.  

Jesus at no point calls this woman to repentance or, for that matter, speaks of sin at all.  She could very easily have been widowed or have been abandoned or divorced. Five times would be heartbreaking, but not impossible.  There are so many ways you could imagine her story as tragic rather than scandalous.

Jesus sees this Samaritan woman in the midst of her difficult life.  He knows everything she has ever done. He has recognized her, spoken with her, offered her something of incomparable worth. He has seen her – she exists for him, has value, significance, and all of this is treatment to which she is unaccustomed. 

Jesus speaks of her past both knowingly and compassionately, and through her encounter with him, the Samaritan woman is transformed – but not necessarily the way that has often been thought.  She leaves her water jar at the well, which may be symbolic, not so much of her sins and scandals, but of all the chores and burdens and difficulties of her life.  She leaves the jar behind to live a new and different life, and she shares with others what God has done for her.  

Take a minute to think about all that you have ever done - things you have done and even things you have only thought about doing.  Can you imagine that God already knows all of that, knows every single thing about your whole life?  Then, imagine leaving those jars of past wrongs, pain, and tragedy right here – by the font of living water that Jesus offers to all of us. I would guess we, like the Samaritan woman, could have a whole pile of water jars up here.

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? Last week during our formation hour we listened to what the brothers of SSJE had to say about telling our stories of transformation and the hope it brings to us and to others.  We were invited to consider what gets in the way of that – things like fear of rejection, alienation, caution, suspicion.  Think about which of those things you might be lugging around with you.

And then, what are the jars you’d like to leave behind, trading past tragedies and current challenges for the so called living water that Jesus offers? Perhaps it’s a dead-end job or the difficulty of finding one. Perhaps it’s an unfulfilling relationship or no relationship at all. Perhaps it’s a past wound or fear about the future. Perhaps it’s an illness of the mind, body, or spirit. Perhaps it’s grief or anxiety or guilt or sadness.

What are your water jars?  Take a minute to choose one of them, and maybe you need to start with a small one.  The Samaritan woman had so many things stacked against her. Yet she was able to set them down long enough to share the story of what God had done in her life. She did this tentatively at first, truly marveling and just a bit uncertain, as she questions her neighbors, “He can’t be the Messiah, can he?”  And yet those first tentative, perhaps even anxious, steps take her away from her past and into a future she could not have imagined.

So also, I pray, with us. We may not trust that God knows our challenges let alone will change them. But I believe as we practice letting go, practice handing over whatever past trauma or difficulty continues to weigh us down, we can begin to experience the joy of release, the freedom of living into the life of God, the life God created for each of us, unencumbered by our past.  I am convinced of this, I have seen it in my own life and in yours. It’s the kind of transformation that lies at the heart of our faith, and where we do find the confidence to tell our stories…stories that can set others free, one water jar at a time. 

So, as you come for communion this morning, bring one of those “water jars” you carry in your heart – even if it’s a small one – bring it here and leave it by the font of living water.  [You might want to symbolize that by dipping your hand in the font and making the sign of the cross.]  Then receive Christ – the holy food and drink of new and unending life.  Accept the gift of freedom and transformation offered here, in this community gathered around the wellspring of God’s love.  Then, go and offer that gift to another; tell someone what has been done.  I know I will.

 

Amen.

 

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