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Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Third Sunday of Lent – March 27, 2011

May the wells of God’s grace be found beside the road, Christ Jesus meet us in unexpected ways and the Spirit be with us on ever hill and in every valley. Amen.

If I were to give a quiz on the text just read, I wonder how many of us would know the answers.

  • What was the name of the well?
  • At what time of the day did the woman appear?
  • What were the disciples doing at the time?
  • How many husbands did the woman have?

This is one of the longest Gospel passages we will hear on a Sunday and it is just full of information. One might even say “TMI.” The text contains enough fodder for at least a dozen sermons so it is a challenge for the preacher to craft a message that hits on all the salient points—unless I were to lock the doors and keep you captive for several hours. No worries. I’ve chosen plan “B.”

Today we are introduced to a woman whose story has been told to congregations of believers for over two thousand years—a woman whose name we don’t even know. The scene is Jacob’s well where Jesus encounters this woman from Samaria. A woman.  Strike number 1.  In her day, women were to be seen and not heard. Men did not speak to their own wives in public and women were not permitted to worship with men. They had no place in public life. As a Samaritan, she was considered a half-breed, ritually impure, a pagan. Strike Two. His seemingly harmless conversation with her would have made Jesus ritually contaminated.

Jacob’s Well lay at a crossroads with one road leading to Galilee and the other to Bethshan—kind of like a fuel stop along I-95. Camels don’t run on gasoline but they do require water. And they transport   men—lonely, maybe decadent men. Respectable women made their trips to the well to draw water in the morning—and in groups. She, however, shows up at noon—evidence that she was not welcome among the ladies who gathered earlier, probably to gossip about her for she had a rather sordid life story. Strike three.

Jesus, of course, knew all this.  He knew her diminished status as a woman and the contempt that the Hebrews had for her as a Samaritan. I am sure he also figured out why she was at the well at noon and not in the company of other women. But she was no fool either. She sized him up as well. Why is this well-groomed, well-spoken male stranger talking to her. “Why is it that, you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a Samaritan woman?” She knew how outrageous this was.

I wonder if we really “get” what Jesus is up to when he does this kind of thing—when he breaks all the rules and social mores. I wonder if we really understand just what a radically countercultural character Jesus was. Jesus talks longer to the Samaritan woman at the well than he does to anyone else in all the Gospels.

It’s difficult for us to get the full impact of what this story meant for the first Christians who heard it but if we could get inside the head of a thirty-something, successful, religious Jewish male hearing it for the first time I am sure we would be surprised at his reaction.

Last week we heard another story about someone meeting with Jesus—an insider name Nicodemus, a teacher and leader of the Jews. But this meeting is with an outsider and, truth be told, the Gospels are heavily slanted towards the outsiders.

In fact, Jesus usually has better luck with them. The insiders go looking for Jesus, asking questions, trying to figure him out, but Jesus is the one doing the searching out when it comes to outsiders. He comes to them before they have the chance to go to him. And they usually end up following him and spreading the Gospel. This is, of course, a story about God’s boundary-less, unconditional love. For this woman at the well, Jesus is the living expression of that love just as he is for us.

Some years ago, the Episcopal Church adopted a slogan from former Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning: “In this Church there are no outcasts.” That is the truth Jesus reveals to us again today. In his church—this church—there are no outcasts—Samaritans, saints, sinners, schlemiels, shlemazels, klutzes, putzes, and shmoes—they’re all included. God’s love is as underserved as the sunrise, but it is freely offered for everyone—without exception.

At Jacob’s Well that noon day, societal and religious conventions flew out the window. In spite of the prohibition that a single man not speak in public to a woman, a woman with her past history, a half-breed Samaritan to boot—what does Jesus say to her? “Give me a drink.”

Now he doesn’t hand her his own personal monogrammed mug or expect that she will give him a sanitized twelve ounce bottle of water. He knows that she will give him the water from her own pottery dipper—the same one from which she drinks. What he is, in effect, telling her is that he accepts her completely—just as she is.

He will let her minister to him, in spite of the sordid past of which he is also aware. He will share her cup just as we are invited to share the common cup at every Eucharist. For the religious righteous of his time, this was a most disturbing God.

What about this ‘living water’ that he offered the Samaritan woman? Or, more to the point, what about the living water he offers us?  References to water in the Old Testament were metaphors for the fresh and flowing action of God’s Spirit in people’s lives. Jesus used the word “water” as a material reference to what we drink to quench our thirst but also as the source of Life of the Spirit—something that awakens in us the desire to go deeper and be personally changed by our growing understanding of God’s enormous love for us and the surprise of what God is up to in our lives.

What in your life—jobs, obligations, routines, gadgets, people, organizations and relationships keeps you coming up thirsty, longing for the living water—God’s sustaining grace that Jesus promised to the woman at the well?  We can be very much like the Samaritan woman—seeking water that never seems to satisfy. Whether it is food or money or sex or alcohol or our obsession with the workplace or the internet, we may take long drinks—even jump into the pool—only to find ourselves in the desert.

Where is Jacob’s Well for you?

Where is Jacob’s Well for you?

Where is Jacob’s Well for you?

How and when do you experience this living water? And, having discovered it, do you pass around the jug of living water—to the teenager struggling with peer pressure, low self-esteem and bullying; to working persons who defines themselves and their value by the hours put in at the job—or how much they earn; to the elderly who have no one to pass on their important stories and, therefore, wonder if their life has lost meaning; to anyone who has been excluded from the life of the church because of gender, class, race, sexual orientation, or divorce; and to anyone who believes that they just don’t much matter or are not valued in God’s eyes.

You and I are the vessels by which the living water is served up, the conduit of God’s grace for one another—by our words and witness, our caring and hospitality, our community and fellowship, our touch and forgiveness.  Our family pedigree, education, advanced degrees, titles or wealth do not matter. Our past history is of no particular concern. All that God requires is that we become willing vessels carrying the living water of God’s forgiveness and mercy in our lives.

A nameless woman from Samaria who went to Jacob’s Well that day at the noon hour over two thousand years ago walks before us. She comes round every few years in Lent telling us what she knows. Let’s listen and learn from her. She has much to teach us about God’s radical love.

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