Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Third Sunday of Lent – March 23, 2014
May the wells of God’s grace be found beside our path, Jesus meet us in unexpected places and the Spirit be with us wherever we walk. Amen.
A woman and a man were involved in a car accident on a snowy, cold night. Both of their cars were undriveable, but neither of them was injured. After they crawled out of their cars, the man began yelling about women drivers, how they shouldn’t be able to get a license, what a menace they were on the roads. No chance for a budding romance here.
The woman, seeing what she was up against, says, “Wow, just look at our cars! There’s nothing left, but we’re unhurt. This must be a sign from God that we should meet this way and be friends and live together in peace for the rest of our days.”
Taken back by her spin on this, and beginning to wonder what he had gotten himself into, the man replies, “Oh yes, I agree with you completely; this must be a sign from God! But you’re still at fault…women shouldn’t be allowed to drive.” The woman continues, “And look at this, here’s another miracle. My car is completely demolished but this bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon didn’t break. Surely God wants us to drink and celebrate our good fortune.” Then she hands the bottle to the man who nods his head in agreement, opens it, takes several good swigs out of the bottle, and hands it back to the woman. She immediately puts the cap back on, and hands it back to the man. He asks, “Aren’t you having any?” “No,” she said, “I think I’ll just wait for the police….”
The Gospel today presents us with a very different encounter between a man and a woman. Jesus is asking for and offering something to drink. This woman has no idea what she is in for. The context is very different and the long story we heard has been fodder for many kinds of sermons.
The woman he meets at the well is a Samaritan regarded by the privileged as a half-breed and a pagan, yet even women associated with the religious leaders of the day were not permitted to worship with men and had no place or voice in public life.
She would have been suspect to her Jewish peers. 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.
This is a story in which we see the epitome of countercultural, radical, and revolutionary Jesus—a single Jewish man, a rabbi no less, having an intimate conversation with a thrice divorced Samaritan woman, asking her to give him a drink of water. Spectators, including his disciples, were outraged. Wrong gender, wrong race, wrong social class, wrong religion. And here’s the rub—he doesn’t hand her his own personal mug or expect that she will give him a twelve ounce Polar Spring. He knows that she will give him her pottery dipper—the same one from which she drinks. Appalling. Disgraceful. Taboo.
Many preachers play up the details of this woman’s personal life and emphasize the fact that she was a loose woman, a fallen woman, even a prostitute. I’m not going there today. It’s been done far too often and simply plays into the belief that religion is mostly about morality, that is to say sex and its vices and depravities. We can probably frame every story we find in the Scripture in terms of sin and depravity and many fundamentalist preachers do it so well.
Misogynist preachers should take notice that this passage represents the longest conversation Jesus had that is recorded in the New Testament and it was with a woman, whom the Eastern Orthodox did name her Photina (meaning “the Enlightened One”) and canonized her a saint. She is the very first evangelist.
Today’s story of the woman at the well is not about immorality and debauchery. It is about identity. Last week we heard about the encounter between Jesus and a male Jewish religious leader who could not figure out who Jesus was. Today we meet a woman at the complete opposite of the power spectrum who not only recognizes who Jesus is but what he has to offer her. In a word: Dignity. Jesus does not define her by her personal circumstances, her gender, her religion, her class, or her past. He offers her an identity that rises above all of that and lifts her out of the mire.
In Hebrew stories, wells are places where romance blooms. It is at a well where Jacob meets Rachel. Moses meets the daughters of Jethro at a well and one of them becomes his wife. Jesus offers this woman the chance for some romance with God—not the kind she knew in her past but rather the embrace of the One who created her and loves her just as she is.
That is the “living water.” It is new life in God. It is seeing oneself as made in God’s image and as God’s beloved. If we can cast aside the misogyny and exaggerated emphasis on morality that permeates so much of our theology, we are able to tell this wonderful story for what it is: evidence of the transforming power of acceptance and love and our ability to receive the living water of a new identity. It’s not just a story about a nameless Samaritan woman two thousand years ago. It’s a story about us.
We may not be in the mainstream. We may have a skeleton or two in our closet. We may not be part of a favored group. We may even feel like we’re living in the margins of life. Maybe we’ve been trapped by oppressive social systems? The one truth we all share is that, no matter what our class, gender, education, sexual orientation, age, or marital status, we all have a past—just as did the woman at the well. And God knows it better than we do.
So here is the Good News: Samaritans, saints, schlemiels, shlemazels, klutzes, putzes, and shmoes—they’re all welcomed at the well. We are all welcomed. God’s love is as underserved as the sunrise, but it is freely given for everyone—without exception. And there is more Good News: Jesus does not just offer restoration and redemption to the well-behaved but to those who have given up all pretense of personal virtue. That emancipating living water he has can bubble up where we least expect it.
Wells are places where romance blooms. What keeps you coming up thirsty, longing for that living water Jesus promises? Where might you need some romance with God or romance with life? In what way do you long for a new identity? Not a denial or repudiation of who you are or of your past, but rather a new sense of what God is calling you to, a place of transformation and dignity through the power of God’s acceptance and love.
Maybe we need to examine the cups we bring with us. Maybe we need to see if they are too full of our own opinions, impressions, ideas, and suspicions. Is there any room left in our cups for Jesus to fill us with that living water? What might we need to empty out of them first?