Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Woman by the Well: A Lenten Sermon

This sermon was given on Lent 3A (Sunday, 23 March 2014) at the Episcopal Chaplaincy at Harvard by the Rev. Luther Zeigler. The readings for the day can be found here.

The Samaritan woman said to Jesus, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’”  John 4:15

One of the most meaningful parts of my recent trip to the Holy Land was the experience of just being in those places where Jesus had been.  We visited Nazareth, the utterly nondescript town where Jesus was raised as a little boy and, before that, where the archangel Gabriel greeted both Joseph and Mary to announce his arrival. We traveled to Bethlehem, and tried to imagine the location of the manger scene and the field of shepherds and angels off in the distance. We walked along the Sea of Galilee, where the brothers Peter and Andrew, and James and John, were called to be disciples.  We toured the ruins of the synagogue in Capernaum where Jesus taught.  We climbed the Mount of Beatitudes from where Jesus is believed to have preached the Sermon on the Mount.  We waded into the Jordan River, letting its water run through our fingers, just so we could touch the same living water into which Jesus himself was immersed.

Being in these various places – experiencing their sights, smells, and sounds – has reframed these pivotal biblical stories for me in profound ways.

One place that we did not get to visit was Sychar, the home of Jacob’s well, and the scene of today’s gospel story.  Sychar (today known as Nablus) is a small town about 40 miles north of Jerusalem in the region of Samaria in what is now known as the West Bank. 

As our group was traveling from the shores of the Galilee south toward Jerusalem, I asked our Israeli tour guide about whether we were going to stop at Jacob’s Well. “No,” Danny said, “that is not an easy place for us to see.”  “Why not?,” I asked innocently.  “It appears to be only a few miles off the main road.” 

“The ancient town of Sychar,” Danny explained to us, “is now one of the areas controlled by the Palestinian authority and the Israeli government won’t allow its citizens, even tour guides, to travel there.”  He explained that we, as American citizens, could visit, but that we would have to stop at the border crossing and then hire our own Palestinian guide to take us from there to the monastery that now houses the well.  Danny further explained that the town has been the site of a fair bit of violence over the last decade between Israelis and Palestinians and that it isn’t today the safest of places. And so, we just passed on by, not wanting to take that risk.

Danny’s decision to skip this holy site out of concern for his guests’ well-being was, of course, an understandable one, and probably a prudent choice.  But as I sat on the bus continuing our journey toward Jerusalem, I couldn’t help but feel the intense irony of this situation.

Some two thousand years ago, when Jesus traveled between the Galilee and Jerusalem, this region of Samaria was every bit as dangerous a place as it is now.  And yet, as John tells us in our gospel story today, when Jesus was making this same journey, he chooses to stop in this risky place, even though the Samaritans and Jews of his day were just as wary of one another as Palestinians and Jews are today.

And not only does Jesus enter this Samaritan town, but he goes to its very heart, the well in the center of town, and sits there in the noonday sun.  If we didn’t know better, it would seem as if Jesus is looking for trouble, daring some Samaritan boys from town to heckle this wandering rabbi, apparently so far from home.

But instead, Jesus is approached, not by a gang of Samaritan boys, but by a lone woman, who seems to match Jesus’ courage by coming toward him in plain public view, even though the moral standards of the day prohibited a woman from engaging so publicly with a man to whom she is not related. Perhaps she thinks she has nothing to lose. She is, after all, a woman with a complicated history.  But then again, perhaps she is drawn to Jesus because she senses on some deep level that he is different from other strangers wandering into town. For whatever reason, she comes forward.

As she does, Jesus asks her for a drink.  Surprised, the Samaritan woman immediately recognizes the social boundaries designed to keep her in her place, saying to Jesus, “how can you, a Jew, even be talking to me, a Samaritan woman, much less be asking me for a drink?”  When Jesus responds, somewhat opaquely, that she does not know to whom she is talking and that he is himself a source of living water, the woman doesn’t back down, but instead challenges Jesus:  “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob who gave us this well?”  She yearns to understand who he is and what he is claiming.

And that is when Jesus opens himself to her, sharing the good news of his life-giving presence:  “Everyone who drinks of this well water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water I will give them will never be thirsty.  The water that I give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

It is no accident, of course that in John’s gospel this story comes immediately after Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus over the meaning of baptism and the purifying power of being bathed in the living waters of the Spirit. The Samaritan woman comes to this well in the middle of town thinking that it will quench her body’s thirst for water, but Jesus wants to offer her water from another source, a water that will fill her Spirit rather than her belly.

She bravely accepts his offer, saying:  “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty again.”  And as she opens herself to Jesus in faith, her whole previous identity comes spilling forth, this woman with five prior husbands, who is now with a man to whom she is not married.  In dialogue with Jesus, she acknowledges the emptiness of her past, and expresses a desire to find that which will give her life meaning. 

But notice this: Although Jesus knows everything about this woman's past, as indeed he knows each of us and the secrets we seek to hide, there is no mention of sin or sinfulness in this text, or even a gentle insistence that she change her life.  Jesus shows no interest in judging her.  He only wants to know her and to offer her his life-giving Spirit. And this, she gladly accepts.

The Samaritan woman demonstrates what can happen when we take the risk of encountering Jesus, when we approach him with our deepest questions and desires.  This woman by the well shows us that the life of faith, like the life of prayer, thrives on honest dialogue with God, and that it is in such vulnerable and real conversation that true growth and change comes. She teaches us that faith is about questioning, not about having all the answers. Indeed, if we think we have all the answers, if we are content with our own clever doctrinal formulations and pious practices, if we believe more in our own convictions than the possibility of revelation, it is then that we are at the greatest risk of fooling ourselves.  God comes to us in our seeking, when we strip ourselves of pretense and false piety, and are willing just to express our truest and simplest desire: “Lord, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty again.”

But notice this too:  the Samaritan woman doesn’t stop there, content with having been known and accepted and nourished by this holy man.  Even though she is not yet certain that he is the Messiah, she leaves her water jar by the well and runs into town so that she might share the news of this life-giving encounter with all of her townspeople. And, John tells us, they came to believe because of her testimony. This unnamed woman from Samaria is in so many ways a model of what the Church should look like:  unpretentious, courageous, questioning, vulnerable, trusting, and a humble witness to all.

I have very few regrets from my recent trip to the Holy Land. But one small one is that I did not summon the courage that day, as our bus was making its way from Galilee to Jerusalem, to say to Danny, our tour guide:  “I know it might be risky.  But why don’t you just drop us off at Sychar, let us cross over all the borders and boundaries we broken people have erected around this holy place, and see if we might not find this well of Jacob’s on our own?”  Who knows what, or whom, we may have discovered there.


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