Sermon: Lent Three Year A
March 15, 2020
The Rev. Eileen Weglarz
Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42
John Ruskin writes in his book, The King of the Golden River, “The water which has been refused to the cry of the weary and dying is unholy, though it had been blessed by every saint in heaven; and the water which is found in the vessel of mercy is holy, though it had been defiled with corpses.”
The scene is Jacob’s well. Jesus encounters a woman of Samaria. And the unfolding meaning of the Gospel races beyond the Nicodemus level, if you remember from last week, to break even further barriers and cultural taboos. Societal conventions fly out the window.
But, are we really surprised? Isn’t this what Jesus does time and time again as he breaks down religious barriers, and breaks in with the Kingdom of God, or as we might say, God’s vision for the community of faith? Here was a Jewish man striking up a conversation with an unknown woman in broad daylight, even boldly asking her for a drink.
How could a respectable Jew, a teacher of the Law no less, risk such familiarity and potential scandal? To make things worse, she was a Samaritan, considered ritually impure by the Jews. And so, even a seemingly innocuous social interaction under these conditions would have rendered him ritually contaminated.
Jacob’s well lay at a crossroads. One road continued west to Galilee, and the other led north to Bethshan. A deep well at a crossroads can be likened to a fuel stop along the interstate. Not only human beings, but also camels would need “refueling.” Also, at these wells, women came to draw water for their households in the cool of the early morning. They normally came as a group, never alone. A woman by herself in such a situation was vulnerable and considered suspect.
There is a good reason why this particular woman came at noon in the heat of the sun. She was an outcast, a loose woman, we might call her. She would have been shunned by the other women, so she came at a time when she wouldn’t be ridiculed and sneered at, and she could draw water in peace. Nonetheless, Jesus asks her for water.
To give him the drink he asks for, the woman will take her pottery dipper, the one she herself drinks from, and give him a drink from it. And she knows the way things are—Jesus isn’t even supposed to talk to her, let alone drink from the same vessel as a strange woman, or worse, a strange woman who is ritually unclean, and of all things, a Samaritan.
Apart from the male/female issue, and the Jew/Samaritan issue, we need to understand that sharing food and drink at the time was considered such an intimate act that eating and drinking would normally be shared only with those with whom one was in agreement on all matters. It had nothing to do with germs. It had everything to do with religion, class, and assumed position in God’s order of things. To eat and drink with someone was to accept him or her completely.
What was Jesus trying to prove? Didn’t he know the kind of woman she was? Didn’t he know he was breaking the rules? Didn’t he care that his reputation as a religious teacher and leader would be tarnished? Or, is Jesus’ gospel so expansive and his love so radical that it reaches beyond conventions, rules and expectations, to reaching out to all people—all human beings who are thirsty?
It’s all about water. The symbolic understanding of water has strong roots in the Old Testament. References to water were often used to describe the fresh and flowing action of God’s Spirit in people’s lives.
For instance, Jeremiah compares running water in a cistern: “Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jeremiah 2:12-13)
The more water that is removed from a cistern, the less it has. But when water is taken from a “stream of living water,” the water in it simply abounds all the more, as in Isaiah, chapter 12: “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted.” (3-4)
Jesus, in this instance, draws from the traditions of his people, and threads these symbolic meanings into his conversation with the Samaritan woman. He uses the word “water” in two senses. The first was a material, normal reference to water that one drinks. But he also uses it in an expanded sense as the source of Life and of the Spirit. He employs a language that people could understand and, at the same time, awakens in their hearts the desire to go deeper and to be personally changed by their growing understanding.
We understand this and are changed—no, more than changed—we are transformed, when we come to the waters of baptism and are cleansed, refreshed, and filled with God’s life-giving Spirit. However, the well or cistern of Living Water doesn’t dry up after our baptisms. Jesus’ life-giving Spirit continues to quench our thirsty souls and refresh our weariness as we continue in our spiritual journeys. But, we must come to the well…
Right now in our country and in the world at large, we are going through a health crisis and response that most of us have ever experienced in our lives. The coronovirus has changed life as we know it. People are panicking, they are hoarding hand sanitizers and toilet paper. Store shelves are empty. Peggy Armstrong, who is a department manager at Walmart, was telling me before the service that one customer came into the store and bought 80 rolls of toilet paper! Why? Jamison told me a story about two men who bought up 76 cases of hand sanitizers and large boxes of toilet paper right at the beginning of this plague. Then they posted the merchandise on Ebay at an exorbitant price to make money. Thankfully, Ebay shut them down.
To get through this pandemic we don’t need loads of hand sanitizers and toilet paper. We need to cling to Jesus, the source of Living Water. We need to spend less time watching CNN or MSNBC from morning to night, and becoming anxious, and spend more time praying, reading our bibles, following healthy guidelines, and letting the Holy Spirit guide, keep, protect and inform us. We need to cut back on our excesses and obsessive consumerism, as well as overly anxious responses.
I was moved by what John E. Lawrence has written: “We are like the Samaritan woman. We find ourselves seeking water that doesn’t quite seem to satisfy. There are the more obvious wells of alcoholism, overeating, and the forever-running sluice of poverty and hunger. We may take long drinks in the pool of labor only to find ourselves suddenly in the desert of neglect; neglect of our health, neglect of our families and relationship with the rest of humanity, or even worse, neglect of our relationship with God.
“There are some who come honestly to dip their buckets in the well of their ancestors or the well of the Church, only to discover they are in a wilderness of self-serving righteousness—or worse—the wasteland of social pride…Caught up in nothing more than religious responsibility or holy revelry and fascination, just looking out the window as the world goes by, they find themselves wandering in the barren, rock-strewn country of spiritual doubt and despair.
“Jesus responds to the woman, ‘those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.’ He offers more than a cup of water—He offers himself—Living Water from the well that can’t run dry.
Jesus is also responding to you, to me, and to the Church. What becomes so liberating about today’s lesson is that the offer not only stands for the alcoholic (or drug addict) on the street, but also for the spiritual guru in the pew.”
In God’s Beloved Community, everyone is invited to worship together in spirit and truth—both the chosen and the rejected people, both male and female, rich and poor, educated and simple, social leper and social hero, both good and bad. All barriers to divide are broken down.
Most surely the intimacy associated with eating and drinking is one reason why, on the night in which he was betrayed, as his parting gift and command to us, Jesus left us a meal to share: Bread to break together and a cup to share together. Eating the same bread and drinking from the same cup is a powerful statement that nothing separates us from one another, just as nothing separates us from the love of God in Jesus the Christ. We are all equal before God—all equally needy and all equally accepted.
When Jesus asks this woman for a drink of water, he was breaking with a tradition of separation and religious elitism. When the Samaritans heard the woman’s testimony and believed in Jesus as Messiah, they were breaking the same tradition. It is a tradition of separation that you and I are called to keep on breaking. If Jesus would drink and eat with anyone, we will, too.
The Samaritan woman runs to town and invites others to come and meet the Lord. She is, actually, the first apostle to her own community. “Come and see,” she tells everyone she meets. And, that is what we are called to do. Draw them to Jesus, the Living Water that gives Life eternal and abundant.
Come and see! Because we are called as was this woman to invite those we know who need a refreshing drink of living water—people who need to experience love and acceptance and spiritual nourishment and loving community.
Come and see! Because we are called to bring them to the Church, to introduce them to Jesus the Messiah who knows everything they have ever done and yet receives them with open arms.
Come and see! Because we are called to share the living water that washed us and transformed us. Called to eat and drink together the bread and wine that are the very presence of Jesus.
Come and see! Because in this time of great stress in our country and in the world, with the coronavirus pandemic, we have never needed the Living Water, that only Jesus can give, more than now—for peace, for hope, for love, and for faith in our future.
Come and see—this one who knows who we are to the core of our being, and yet he gives us himself that we may never again thirst—so that we can live forever in the love and presence of God, and help others do the same. Amen.
*Source material: Synthesis, Year A, February 27, 2005: “Lent 3—Tradition,” Julian Gordy, copied; and “Lent 3—Postscript,” HKO.