Homily preached by the Reverend Cindy Stravers
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Third Sunday of Lent – March 27, 2011
If you’ve been attending church for any length of time, you’re probably familiar with the Gospel story I just read. As a child I learned lots of songs about the Samaritan woman and living water. Most of them were based on the assumption that the story is about morality – or more precisely, the immorality of the woman at the well.
This is what I heard as a child: a woman who has had five husbands and is now living with someone to whom she is not married, goes to fetch water from Jacob’s well. She goes in the middle of the day, avoiding the rest of the villagers who would wait until the sun started setting and the air got cooler to carry their water jugs home.
She was one of those women who played fast and loose – and when she meets Jesus, she spars with him verbally until she is unmasked by his brilliant ability to see through her – kind of like Santa Claus who keeps track of who’s naughty and who’s nice. Yes, the preachers used to say, Jesus knew what kind of woman she was – a sinful wretch who was easily admonished by a little of that of the social control mechanism we call “shame.”
That’s how the story went in my past – and the living water Jesus offered? That was forgiveness.
This week, however, while studying and praying and reading the story more closely, I’ve wondered if the moralists haven’t gotten a little carried away – if they might have missed something important hidden by their initial desire to distance themselves from such a character and find an easy way to paint the story in black and white.
Here’s what got me to thinking:
While having five husbands and living with yet another man might seem to our ears like a woman in some rather deep moral depravity, the cultural code of conduct at that time may explain her situation in another way. She may have been barren and tossed aside by a string of men who wanted children; she may have been widowed and then, according to custom, given to her last husband’s brother for good-keeping. We just don’t know. Another thing that struck me was that Jesus never said anything to her about sin – or her need for repentance. We know he did have that kind of conversation with others – but it is not in this story.
So, what’s happening here? Jesus engages a person others think he ought to be avoiding. Jesus breaks the cultural norms and has a rather interesting – back and forth conversation with this “outsider.” This unlikely conversation may have gotten a little awkward at times – hitting awfully close to home. But I’ve been imagining some laughter bubbling up between the two of them as well.
At the same time, we read that Jesus “saw” her – he understood something about her situation, her dependence, not her immorality. She exists for him, she has worth, value, she is significant.
In some ways, Jesus may have met his match – a feisty woman who herself has “seen” something. She has “seen” Jesus – understanding something about his worth, his value, his significance.
Together, in conversation, they find a place where earthly things meet heavenly things. Earthly needs find their spiritual counterpart – flesh and blood thirst collides with the thirst of the soul. Water to quench physical thirst becomes a metaphor for the kind of soul-water that Jesus offers – living water to quench the kind of soul-thirst all human beings carry with them: a thirst for recognition, a thirst for belonging, a thirst to be taken seriously, a thirst to be loved.
Poet Thomas Moore once wrote, “Heaven is not some impossible, idealized world; it is ordinary life made brilliant by a philosophy of mutual respect.” Mutual respect. Could that be the at least one of the molecules in this substance Jesus called “living water?”
Just imagine what our lives might look like if we regularly gave and received respect? What would that mean for the people with whom we share our homes, our neighborhoods, our country and even those who live on the other side of the planet if they could count on us to take them seriously – to honor them, to listen to them, to not only validate their existence, but to rejoice in their otherness? What if others did that for us?
My guess is things would be radically different. Children would be heard rather than shushed; women would know their worth; the dignity of the elderly would be kept in tact; the smugness that so often accompanies self-sufficiency would be replaced by humility; hungry would be fed.
As we continue our journey through this Lenten season, I wonder if we could offer to an other the same kind of living water Jesus offered the Samaritan woman – perhaps there is someone in your life who needs to be “seen,” someone who needs to know their true worth, their value, their significance.
Let’s drink deeply of the living water Jesus offers – his loving respect – and then let’s share it – bringing a bit of the brilliance of heaven to this thirsty earth. Amen.