Sunday 15 March 2020
The Third Sunday in Lent
I know for a lot of us, it feels like there is nothing else in the world except for the COVID-19 pandemic. Obviously, it is a huge thing. It’s effecting people all of the world. It is a matter of life and death. It is effecting the basic ways that we function and depriving us of social interaction. And I do want to address it.
But I also want to acknowledge that it’s probably not healthy for us to fixate on the pandemic. We need to be wise. We need to take proper precautions, like washing our hands and avoiding crowds. But if we tune all of our attention, all of our bodies, our minds, and our spirits on to the public health situation, we are going to drive ourselves crazy. So let’s be wise. Let’s be safe. But let’s also try to avoid endless fear and anxiety and paranoia.
I thought about writing a new sermon for today just based on the pandemic. But after thinking it over, I decided to go with what I’ve already prepared for this Sunday. Because we don’t need to spend every waking moment obsessing. It’s okay to think about something else for a while. So that’s what we’re going to do this morning.
Over four of the Sundays in Lent, we reading these very long gospel passages from the Gospel of John. Each one focusses on Jesus’s encounter with a particular person, and the way that these encounters reveal Jesus’s identity. But they’re not the big-name characters we might expect. It’s not Peter, James, John, or Mary. It’s more marginal characters. Last week heard about Nicodemus and Jesus’s message to him about being born again, born from above. This week, we have the story of the woman at the well.
If John were writing his gospel today instead of nineteen hundred years ago, no doubt he would have included hyperlinks. Hyperlinks are those bits of blue text in a website or a social media post that link to something else. You click on the blue text and it takes you somewhere else, somewhere that is related to the words you clicked on. Many of us are familiar with a red letter edition of the bible. It uses special red font to showcase which words are actually spoken by Jesus. With the Gospel of John, we could really use a blue letter edition, something that magically transports us to the other parts of the bible that John is making reference to. Because you’d have to be incredibly familiar with the Bible to recognize them, much more familiar than I am.
Nearly every word of John refers to some other piece of scripture or contains some deeper, hidden meaning. John expects his readers to take seemingly innocuous statements and to see in them all kinds of hidden connections, hidden connections that deeply affect the meaning of the text. It’s what makes John so hard to understand; in the Gospel of John, things are almost never what they seem.
In the passage we have today, the first major connection is with Genesis and the multiple stories of courtship at the well. Abraham and Sarah send a servant back to their old home in Haran to get a wife for their son, Isaac. He meets Rebekah in the middle of the day at the well, and asks her for a drink. She gives him a drink and also draws water for his animals. A generation later, Isaac and Rebekah’s son, Jacob, goes back again to Haran to find a wife. He meets Rachel at that same well in the middle of the day, and he draws water for her flock. Both of these meetings of a man and a woman at the well result in a marriage.
So when Jesus shows up, alone, at a well, in the middle of the day, with a woman, everyone is supposed to know how these sorts of meetings usually end. Over and over, John tells the reader that this is Jacob’s well, that Jacob dug it and gave it to the woman’s ancestors, just in case we missed the connection the first time. When the disciples show up, they confirm our suspicions, because they are scandalized by Jesus’s behavior. Everyone knows what happens when a man and a woman meet at a well like this.
This meeting is made all the more scandalous because Jesus is a Jew and this woman is a Samaritan. Now, Jews and Samaritans are both descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. When the kingdoms of Israel and Judah fell to Assyria and Babylon, most of the important, prestigious people were hauled off into captivity, but the ordinary people were left in the land. Seventy years later, some of those important people came back from Babylon to reclaim their land. When they met the Jews who had been left behind, they treated them like Canaanites, pushed them out, marginalized them. Many of the ordinary people who had been left behind became the Samaritans. They also read the books of Moses and followed God’s law. For certain periods, they had a temple on Mt. Gerizim. But the Jews considered them to be heretics, outside the love of God. Jews and Samaritans were cousins, but they didn’t associate with each other, and they didn’t get along.
So Jesus and this Samaritan woman are acting out two different scripts at the same time. One of them has cousins meeting at a well and getting married. The other declares that these two peoples, who are cousins, should never associate with one another.
Jesus asks the woman for a drink, just as Isaac’s servant asked Rebekah, and the woman responds with surprise that this Jewish man would ever choose to associate with her. Jesus replies that she should be asking him for a drink of water, like Jacob had given to Rachel. The woman questions if Jesus is really greater than Jacob, who not only gave Rachel a drink, but also provided her people with water by digging this well. Jesus says that he can provide water that will quench one’s thirst forever, and the woman asks him to give her this miraculous water, but Jesus shames her by asking her to go home and come back with her husband. The conversation soon moves from her personal life to the divisions between Jews and Samaritans. Jesus, while affirming that Jews are superior, says that soon the divisions will be wiped away, and all God’s children will worship God in spirit and in truth.
The woman has become enthralled with Jesus, and she is responding to his message better than any of his disciples ever do. She asks if the Messiah will explain all of these new things when he arrives, and Jesus responds with the divine name: I Am—the one who is speaking with you. He reveals his divine and Messianic identity to her.
Then the scene changes. The disciples arrive, and, as I mentioned earlier, they are scandalized. The woman heads back into the city and starts to tell everyone about Jesus. While she is gathering up all of the people of the city to come see Jesus, the disciples begin to worry about whether Jesus has eaten recently or not. That was the reason they had left him, to go into the city and buy food. But just as Jesus had said he had access to an unending supply of water, now he tells the disciples that he also has an endless supply of food; whenever he does God’s work it is like food to him. Like a crop ready to be harvested, God’s work stands ready to be done by Jesus’s disciples, and if they do it, they will experience it like a great harvest of sustaining food. Jesus brings both eternal drink and eternal food to those who would follow him.
The Samaritans of the city show up. They are so impressed with the woman’s testimony that they want to hear more from Jesus. He stays with them two days, and after that, they believe not because of the woman’s testimony, but because of their experience of Jesus. Two days he stayed with them, and on the third day they believe. Two days Jesus will stay in the tomb, and on the third day he will rise.
In this short episode, Jesus breaks down all kinds of barriers. Even though he is a Jew, he is willing to defy social norms and reach out to Samaritans. Even though he is a man, he is willing to bring scandal upon himself and reach out to a woman.
And what is interesting about this is that these people on the margins, these folk who normally would be excluded, end up believing and following Jesus. The Samaritan woman hears about Jesus’s living water, and she believes and wants to hear more. The disciples hear about Jesus’s endless food, and they do not understand at all. The people of this Samaritan city spend two days with Jesus, and they believe. The disciples and the people of Jerusalem will see Jesus dead for two days and then risen, and they will not understand.
God does not always choose the likeliest people. Isaac was chosen over his older brother, Ishmael. Jacob was chosen over his older brother, Esau. Here in this story, a woman believes when twelve men cannot. A city of heretic Samaritans believes when God’s chosen people cannot.
And it’s often the same for us today. Sometimes the people we would most expect to understand, do not, the people we would most expect to be Godly disappoint us. But this does not mean that God is not faithful. Because often the people we are most sure are outside of the grace of God are the ones who are the most faithful. Often the people we think are the most foolish are the ones who understand the best. God finds strength in weakness. God finds wisdom in foolishness. God honors those who are not honored by the world.
And if we are going to understand the way God is working in our world, we may have to change to the way we look at things. If we are going to see God working, maybe we should start looking in the unlikely places, among the people we normally would not be caught dead with, in the places where we would prefer not to go. Because if there is one sure thing about God, it is that God is never done surprising us. God always seems to show up in the unlikeliest places. But if we are lucky, and if we are humble and open enough, then we may just see a miracle, we may just see God acting in the place we least expect. Thanks be to God.