A sermon preached at the Church of the Epiphany, New York City
Third Sunday of Lent
March 19, 2017
I am frequently asked what does the Bible really mean to me? My answer is simple: The Bible has shaped my life. I have found and continue to find my story within “The Story.” I think of the Bible as a family photo album for people of faith, with a complete and complicated cast of characters, some whose stories inspire and others that make us cringe, but all of which are instructive. I understand the Bible to be a mirror that helps us to see how God has worked with our ancestors and is working with us today.
I confess there are some bible stories that are particularly moving for me, and this morning’s gospel account of the Woman at the Well is one of them. This story describes a deep yearning and profound thirst to be welcomed, accepted and loved “just as I am” by both God and another person. It is a story about the beginning of relationship, exemplifying those familiar words of St. Paul, “to see in a mirror face to face; to know and to be fully known.” (1 Cor. 13.12) It is also the story of the beginning of evangelism – the invitation to “come and see.”
In John’s Gospel, both a nameless woman and Jesus are confronted and exposed, accepted and affirmed, nourished and quenched, welcomed and received, known and loved. Through our Lord’s brief encounter with an anonymous, lonely woman, God is revealed as an unbounded and indiscriminate lover and seeker of souls.
Imagine the scene. It is noon at a local well. The well is abandoned, because everybody is at home eating their mid-day meal and hiding from the sun. A woman is there alone – no friends, helpers or companions. She is at the well with her buckets in the mid-day heat because she is not welcome in the cool early morning hours when all the other women and children are gathered.
Jesus was also at the well, tired and resting. He asks the woman for water. She looks up from her labor and responds, “Don’t you know better than to be talking to me, a Samaritan woman.” Without hesitation, Jesus replies, “Why not? If only you knew who you was asking.” Initially, not knowing who he is, Jesus sounds a bit like a flirt, a bully, or a big man on campus. “I want to give you something – water that will quench your thirst forever.”
At first, the woman retorts, “So how are you going to give me water? You don’t even have a bucket or a rope.” And then she asks a deeper question: “Where do you get this living water?” Jesus does not really answer her question, but he tells her more about the water. The woman responds in a reasonable manner: “I want what you have to give. Then I wouldn’t have to come back to this lousy well in the hot, noonday sun.”
This woman appears to misunderstand the water that Jesus is speaking of, but she is sincere and down-to-earth in naming her basic wants and needs. Like so many impoverished women around the world, this woman has to daily carry gallons of water from a common tap, well or river back home to feed and wash her family. It is no wonder that the Samaritan woman saw endless, clean, flowing, living water as a real life-giving gift.
Jesus abruptly changes the subject and dismisses the woman with the command, “Go and get your husband.” The woman responds a bit defensively, “I have no husband.” Jesus, acknowledging this fact says, “That’s right; you’ve had five husbands, and you’re not married to the guy with whom you are now living.” Now, she’s been outed (so to speak). “Sir, you must be a prophet.” (Nice diversion tactic, if only it had worked.) They have a brief exchange about religion, and the woman shares her messianic expectation. And then Jesus catches her off-guard: “Lady, I am the one you’ve been waiting for.” The Samaritan woman at the well probably wonders, “Could this man be for real, or is he just coming on to her?”
At that moment, the disciples (another set of characters in the photo album) return from their grocery shopping in town, and they certainly don’t’ understand Jesus’ encounter with this woman. While they don’t say anything, I can only imagine the looks on their faces. The woman departs from the well, leaving behind her bucket, and returns to her village to tell her family, friends and neighbors of the extraordinary man she encountered at the well.
In John’s Gospel, this unnamed, outcast (a woman who had been married five times and was now “living in sin”) became the first person to proclaim the simple evangelical words of invitation – “come and see.” “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done.”
This woman, usually shunned by her neighbors, took the risk and shared with them the gift of her encounter with Jesus. She could have kept her meeting with Jesus to herself, but no – having received divine love incarnate, she was willing to pass it on. In doing so, she became the first witness to testify, the first evangelist to proclaim, the first apostle to share the good news of Jesus Christ in the Fourth Gospel.
The other villagers (both men and women) actually believed because of her testimony, “He told me everything that I have done.” Jesus penetrated one woman’s soul with words of truth spoken in love, and when she shared her experience with the invitation, “Come and see,” her community followed. They went out to the well and met Jesus. They offered him hospitality; he taught; they followed; and the gospel (good news) spread.
This is a remarkable story about being seen, given what you really need, accepted “just as I am,” coming to see with eyes of faith, and then inviting others to do the same. The 19th century Swiss theologian Alexandre Vinet once said, “Faith doesn’t consist in the belief that we are saved; it consists in the belief that we are loved.” Jesus offered the gift of unconditional love and acceptance, and the Samaritan woman reluctantly but gratefully received it.
My theology professor Dorothee Soelle taught that faith is a two-way street we call grace: a gift freely given and the decision to accept the gift. Jesus spoke truth in love to the Samaritan woman, accepted her life with all its hope, promise and brokenness, and she received this gift of grace. And then she, the outcast, the woman who had been married five times and was presently “living in sin”, became a living sacrament – an outward and visible sign of this inward and invisible grace. Through her simple but direct words, “come and see,” this once-rejected but now-affirmed woman led others to faith. That’s what evangelism is all about – sharing your story about God with friend and neighbor.
At a conference of the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes a number of years ago, former Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori shared a story about modern-day evangelism at the well. She told us about a priest who went Starbucks regularly, bought a cup of coffee, and put a tent sign on a table saying: “Tell me your story about God. He then waited for people to sit down with him and talk. If after talking with them, he sensed they might be searching for a spiritual home, he invited them to “come and see” the Episcopal Church. As a newly retired priest, I’ve been thinking about do the same. Can you imagine what might happen if we all spent more time talking about God in coffee shops and restaurants, and on golf carts and park benches?
God’s love made known to us in Jesus is a radical, all–inclusive gift of abundance. It is water that will always quench our thirst and food that will always satisfy us. It is a gift that genuinely keeps on giving to all who are willing to receive it. People are hungry and thirsty for God in their lives, and we need to open the pantry door and turn on the tap.
I received a gift like the account we heard this morning at a McDonald’s on 42nd Street one cold January afternoon. Jesus met me as he did the Samaritan woman, a young woman feeling unworthy and thirsty. I had a similar conversation. He told me all that I had ever done, naming those innermost wounds. He told me who he was, and he instructed me to tell my brothers and sisters, that God is there for each and every one of us. God loves all of us – no strings attached.
That conversation changed my life once and forever. And like the Samaritan woman, I was a new woman eager to return to my community and say to all who would listen, “Come and see whom I’ve met.”
If you’re feeling unloved, why don’t you try meeting Jesus, if not for the first time, then as Marcus Borg used to say, “again for the first time.” If you’re feeling lonely and misunderstood, why don’t you try reaching out to Jesus and asking for some conversation and companionship. And if you’ve met Jesus, maybe you could share that story with others, perhaps over a cup of coffee. If nothing else, invite your friends and neighbors to “come and see.” What do you have to lose? What do they have to gain?