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Finding More Than Expected
by Susan Russell
based on John 4:1-42
There seems to be a theme to the gospel passages for Lent so far -- where do we find salvation/transformation ? Where do we meet God? The first week we saw Jesus place himself -- in response to the Spirit's call -- in a wilderness setting, where something could happen: and it did. Next we had Nicodemus actively searching it out in the person of Jesus: finding more than he expected to find and being transformed as a result. This morning -- in the story of the Woman at the Well -- we see that God may come to us - when and where we least expect it -- even if we don't believe it's possible anymore.
First of all, a little context. This was not just A woman at the well: this was a SAMARITAN woman. To our cultural ears, that doesn't mean much. Related to the "Good Samaritan" perhaps? Isn't there a hospital named after him downtown?
But for the hearers of John's gospel -- the audience for whom he wrote -- these were code words for the bad guys, the worst of the bad: lowest of the low. It was an old feud between the Jews and Samaritans ... the worst kind: between relatives. Cousins. Inheritors of the same covenant -- children of the same Yahweh.
What divided them? Whatever had started it, it had become about the he burning question of where to find the divinely appointed site for the central worship and sacrifice of the religion Israel. It all hung on how certain passages of the Scripture were interpreted: the Samaritans believed the temple should be at Mt. Gerizim ... Jews, in Jerusalem. Samaritans pointed to verses, which made a case for their argument: Jews to ones, which did the same for theirs. Further, the Samaritans accepted only what we call the Pentateuch as BEING scripture -- they rejected all the rest of what we know as the Old Testament: the later revelations of God to the people of Israel through the prophets.
Samaritans considered themselves the purists: the traditionalists. It was the Jews who were the revisionists.
So, in the time of our Lord, both Jews and Samaritans firmly believed their own form of the text was the right one: and the vested interests on either side were fiercely defended.
[I hate it when these "old Bible stories" having nothing to do with the challenges we face in the 20th century, don't you?]
So what John accounts for us in this morning's gospel was a scandalous conversation from the get-go: - a Jewish man should not speak to a Samaritan woman - it was "unclean" to drink from a Samaritan vessel - Such things were simply not DONE
But Jesus continues the pattern of, as Alan put it last week in talking about Nicodemus, "unraveling the world view" of those he encountered. Transcending what the culture taught as natural boundaries between male & female; "chosen people" and "rejected people", Jesus models -- once again -- that God's transforming grace is available to all.
So let's look at the transformation that happens in the interaction between Jesus & the woman. After sparring back and forth a little they have the same kind of "he said/she said" conversation about the water that Jesus & Nicodemus had about being born again. Just as Nicodemus misunderstood Jesus ("No, I'm not talking about getting back in your mother's womb -- I'm talking about SPIRITUAL rebirth.") the Samaritan woman answers, "Give me your water, then, so I can quit trekking out to this darn well."
The change comes when Jesus confronts the woman's questionable marital history/status. Does she become defensive or offended? Tell him to mind his own business and get his own water? No.
She immediately acknowledges that he must be a prophet -- and the woman at the well becomes the first person in the gospel of John to engage Jesus in serious theological discussion: so what's the deal? Who's right about this temple thing ... us or the Jews??? And in response, Jesus again responds not to the question asked, but to the yearning within -- lifting up the conception of true worship far above the rival claims of local interpretations or arguments about scriptural canon.
Listen to his response, quote from a contemporary paraphrase of the gospels called "THE MESSAGE":
"Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you Samaritans will worship the Father neither here at this mountain nor there in Jerusalem ... the time is coming -- it has, in fact, come -- when what you're called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter. It's who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That's the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. God is sheer being itself -- Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being -- their spirits, their true selves -- in adoration."[pg. 195]
Their "true selves". To know your "true self" you have to see it -- and that's part of what Lent is about. Just like Jesus in the wilderness: figuring out who he was before he would resist the temptations of Satan -- before he could go out to do the work he was called to do. We are called to spend some time -- intentional time -- reflecting on both who we are and what we're called to do. Note the order of that process!
It's how Jesus called his disciples: first he called them, then he TAUGHT them, then he sent them. We have a tendency to skip, at our peril, that all important Step Two. I remember being a new mother, fresh back to regular church attendance. On my third Sunday at St. Paul's, I was approached by a well meaning parishioner who said, "I notice you've been here three weeks in a row. Would you like to be on our vestry?" Skipping Step Two.
I so often tell stories about my son Brian, today I'll break the pattern and tell one on his brother, Jamie. When he was in kindergarten, he had a wonderful Sunday School teacher named Olivia who loved to tell Bible stories. A southern lady, she had great dramatic flair and was a real hit with the kids. One Sunday, I asked the customary "what did you learn in Sunday School today" question, only to be told "We heard about Jesus and the whale." "No, honey," I said, "it was JONAH and the whale." "Nope, Mom -- Olivia told us about JESUS and the whale." I was clueless, so I tried, "Tell me the story, then." And he began, "Jesus was thirsty and he went to the 'whale' for some water ... and there he met this woman."
The Tennessee accent provided some confusion for the California boy, but in considering this today, I think of another "large animal" metaphor. I think of the "elephant in the living room" so many have discovered in 12 step programs: the "elephant" being the un-named addiction or dysfunction sitting in the midst of us which we deny rather than deal with. Sounds like the Samaritan woman didn't have a whale, but it sounds like she had any number of elephants in HER living room ... and Jesus offered her the gift of seeing that -- recognizing "everything she ever did": and yet she was loved. And he offers to do the same for us today. What elephants are sitting in our living rooms? In our pews? Sanctuaries? Sacristies? What do we leave un-named rather than offer to God to be healed? The profound reassurance I hear in this text today is that no matter what is sitting in our "living room" it's not too much to deal with -- as long as we trust that Jesus is there to deal with it with us. Can we trust Jesus enough to be open to the healing of the light he brings into our lives? Into our families? Our churches, our world?
I know a "woman at the well." She spent years wondering why her life wasn't working - why she kept making unhealthy choices - making the same mistakes over and over again - wondering why she felt so bruised and broken all the time. Her friends and community worried about her. Prayed for her. Finally, through what she attributes to the power of prayer and the gifts of a good therapist, she said, "It was as if the light suddenly turned on and I could see. My life looked like a ransacked room: I had been banging into the furniture all those years - knocking things about. No wonder I'm bruised." She continued "It's a mess, all right -- and it won't get cleaned up overnight. But no matter how much work there is left to do, I wouldn't go back to banging around in the dark for anything."
Like the Woman at the Well, we are called to not settle for the darkness but trust the light.
Listen to the verses that form the bridge in John's gospel between the Nicodemus story we heard last week and the story of the Woman at the Well:
"... people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true, come to the light." [John 3:19b]
Come to the light -- even if what we see isn't all we hoped would be there. Even if what we find out is stuff we've been hiding from most of our lives. The same Spirit that called Jesus into the wilderness -- that urged Nicodemus into the dark streets of Jerusalem -- allowed the woman at the well to see that what Jesus had to offer her was of God. And she responded by returning to the village and proclaiming: He told me everything I ever did -- he must be the Messiah!
She was Called -- by the Spirit into the light. She was Taught -- by Jesus at the well She was Sent -- back to her village and, we are told, "many believed."
She followed Jesus' pattern of discipleship: remember her the next time someone says, "But Jesus didn't call women disciples." Remember the Woman at the Well. She didn't "skip step two" and neither should we. My prayer for this Lent is that God give us the grace to hear what we need to learn. Grant us light to lighten the darkness which in our blindness we may not even know is there. Give us the courage of the woman at the well - courage to embrace the light and accept the gift of Living Water.
For Jesus does give us living water. Living water wells up like a refreshing spring within us. Living water liberates us from the whatever keeps us in darkness. Living water liberates long-dormant resources within us of peace, joy, compassion, strength, gratitude: so that we are called to help rather than driven to fear.
Jesus gives us living water. An unnamed woman of Samaria, in spite of her hesitation and misgivings, was drawn to Jacob's well to encounter Jesus, who gave her a drink of living water. So we also, whatever our hesitations and misgivings, are drawn by story and sacrament to encounter Jesus, wherever our own thirst needs quenching, that we too might drink of living water and never thirst again. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Frank Schaefer, for JavaCasa Resources and the Desperate Preacher's Site, 1999