Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent

This weekend my travels take me on a return visit to Trinity Church, Milford for their Saturday night Eucharist, and then on Sunday morning to St. Matthew's, Worcester. I preached the same sermon (more or less!) in both places. (If you have never been, check out the stained glass windows at St. Matthew's. The gospel reading, from the fourth chapter of John's Gospel, can be found here.

It is very difficult from our perspective to appreciate just how radical this gospel reading today is, Jesus’ encounter with an unnamed Samaritan woman at a well in the middle of the day. Notice these three qualifiers: she is unnamed, she is a woman, and she is a Samaritan. These are the keys to understanding just how powerful this encounter is. So let’s try to unpack all of that.

Let’s work backwards: what exactly is a Samaritan anyway? You probably all know something at least of that parable Jesus told about the “good Samaritan.” But here’s the thing: Jesus himself never put those two words together, which for a first-century Jew would have been an oxymoron in the same league with jumbo shrimp or government organization or Microsoft works.  

John’s Gospel is written much later—like fifty years or so after the death and resurrection of Jesus, to people who are less directly aware of all this. So John sort of whispers to his readers parenthetically, just to be sure we get the point: when Jesus asks the woman for a drink of water and she seems surprised by the request. (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)

So who were these people and why wouldn’t they share a cup of water? 722 years before Christ, the Assyrian army had marched into the northern kingdom of Israel and conquered it. Jews began to intermarry with their Assyrian invaders. Jews to the south looked down on them racially and religiously and saw this as an act of betrayal to the covenant. In addition to that, the Samaritans didn’t see Jerusalem (and more importantly the Temple which was located in Jerusalem) as central to the way they worshipped God. They worshipped God on Mt. Gerizim, a holy place in its own right in the Bible. In the book of Deuteronomy we read:

When you have crossed over the Jordan, these shall stand on Mount Gerizim for the blessing of the people: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin. (Deuteronomy 27.12)

And then in Joshua 8.33:

All Israel, alien as well as citizen, with their elders and officers and their judges, stood on opposite sides of the ark in front of the levitical priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, half of them in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded at the first, that they should bless the people of Israel.

Now this isn’t intended as a little history lesson or a study in cultural anthropology. The point here is that
there is no hatred like religious hatred and usually the more similar you are, the more you can’t stand the tiny little differences in those whom you believe have veered from the true faith. One only needs to look at the some of the “recent unpleasantness” in our own denomination and the ensuing battles over buildings to get a sense of that.

So to very honest, from our perspective it would be impossible to tell the difference between a Jew who worshipped in Jerusalem and a Samaritan who worshipped on Mt. Gerizim. But by Jesus’ day almost seven hundred years of mistrust and religious bigotry had developed between Jews and Samaritans, and these differences were accentuated.

OK, so are you still with me? Jews just don’t like Samaritans and the feeling is pretty mutual. Even more interesting, however, is the verse immediately before where our gospel reading began today. It says this: Jesus had to go through Samaria. (John 4:4)  

What would you say if I told you that geographically he didn’t have to go that way at all? He could have Google-mapped it and found an alternative route and in fact normally that is what a good Jew would do. I grew up in Pennsylvania and when I head home to see my mother I travel on Route 84 west. At certain times of day you’d prefer not to go through Hartford because it can be a mess so it’s easy enough and often preferred to bypass it by taking 91 South to 291 which then leads back to 84, west of the city. Well let’s just say a first-century Jew had a similarly well-traveled by-pass route to avoid setting foot in Samaria. And everybody knew about it.

But John tells us that Jesus “had to go there.” So he clearly doesn’t mean he had no other roads he could take. For John this is code-language for God’s plan.  In last week’s gospel when we heard that the Son of Man “must be lifted up.” (John 3:14) In Greek it’s the same verb: Jesus just had to go through Samaria—he just had to talk to this woman , just has he had to be lifted up on the hard wood of the cross and stretch out his arms of love so that all the world might come within the reachof his saving embrace. He had to do it, because it is who he is. Because God so loved not just Jews or Christians, but because God so loved the world. The whole world.

What Jesus is about is reconciliation, which begins by breaking down social barriers that separate people and keep them apart. He just had to do it because it is who he is. So they aren’t just anyplace—they are at Jacob’s well: at the place where Rebecca was “recruited” to marry Isaac and then in the very next generation the place where Jacob met Rachel. Not only do Jews and Samaritans not share things in common but good Jewish boys like Jesus aren’t supposed to be talking with single-women (let alone divorced women) at the well. Jesus is violating all of the cultural norms here and if we don’t notice that from our distance of two thousand years then we completely miss the point.

So this text needs to be read in tandem with the encounter that precedes it. Were you in church last weekend? On the second Sunday of Lent, Jesus encounters a respected Jewish man, Nicodemus, in the middle of the night. Here Jesus encounters a suspect Samaritan woman, who is not named, in the middle of the day. We are meant to notice these differences—this yin and yang. But we are also meant to notice that they seem to make no difference to Jesus. His encounter with this unnamed woman goes along very much the same as his encounter with Nicodemus. He meets each of them where they are. He takes their questions seriously. He engages each of them in theological discussion. That is expected with Nicodemus—a teacher of the Law. But it totally shocking for a male rabbi to be talking with a Samaritan woman in this way. And that is why the disciples are so blown-away when they return to the well.  Astonished, John tells us. But no one had the guts to say, “what do you want?” or “why are you talking with that woman?”

We are at this famous well and Jesus and this woman are talking about living water, water that quenches not just your body, but your soul. Jesus is that living water. I’m sure there are thousands of really good sermons about the content of this theological conversation and wonderful illustrations and funny stories that a really good preacher could parade out. But for me the real power of this particular story is discovered by peeling it back to get at the core of the encounter itself: to watch Jesus and this woman sitting together at Jacob’s well and having a normal conversation in a world where they aren’t supposed to even come into contact with each other. For me that is more than enough. Jesus normalizes this encounter. It’s just two people talking. And in the full and utter humanity of this encounter we glimpse God at work in the world. The energy of this meeting invites transformation and healing because worlds collide here. But instead of violence, what we see is how old barriers can be broken down if only we are willing to take some risks. And in the process new worlds and new possibilities emerge. And I think that is very good news.

Very often when our worldviews are challenged, our initial reaction is one of fear. When people started marching in Selma, Bull Conner got the fire hoses out. Now I don’t know all that much about Bull Conner, but I suspect he went to church on Sunday, although I’m certain it was an all-white church. I imagine he sang the hymns and said the prayers. But he was way too comfortable in his own little world and he and so many others were scared out of their minds about what would happen if that world was blown out of the water, scared of what would happen if black women were allowed to sit down in the front of the bus, scared of what would happen if black men were allowed to sit down at the same lunch counter and order a BLT, scared of what would happen if little black children and little white children were in the same schools and reading the same textbooks and simply judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.

So I think that this encounter between Jesus and this Samaritan woman has everything to do with us. Because I think Jesus just has to seek us out too, wherever we are, and he has to go to those places where there is still separation because as Paul Tillich rightly pointed out, sin is separation. Sin is all that keeps us separated from ourselves and from one another and from God. Jesus keeps finding people like us in the middle of Lent, in the middle of the day or the middle of the night, whether we are powerful or powerless, whether we are young or old, black or white, gay or straight in order to call us into something deeper, into the Kingdom of God where the first are last and the last are first but where all are welcome. No exceptions. Jesus seeks us out to insist that we don’t have to live our lives in such small boxes. We are invited to see the face of God in the face of the other—the stranger, the one who is not like us.

Oh and one more not-so-little thing: we ought to notice as well that this unnamed woman preaches the gospel. She goes and tells her friends about Jesus—offering her personal testimony in a compelling and life-giving way. She bears witness to them about the truth she has discovered in Jesus, proclaiming by word and example the good news of God in Christ. She strives for justice and peace among all people and respects the dignity of every human being—imagining a day (if you will) when little Jewish children and little Samaritan children are judged not by where they worship God but by the content of their character.

You and I are sought out to continue that work. Our encounters with Jesus—in Lent or anytime of the year—aren’t mean to leave our old worlds intact. They are meant to challenge us to enter and create new worlds and to live more fully and more faithfully into the meaning of our Baptism. By God’s amazing grace we re-discover God and neighbor in the process—a God worthy of our love, and a neighbor in need of it. 

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