A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday of Lent – John 4:5-42
I confess there are some bible stories that are particularly moving for me, and this morning’s gospel account is one of them. The story describes a deep yearning and profound thirst to be welcomed, accepted and loved. It is a story about the beginning of a love affair, a relationship that exemplifies St. Paul’s familiar words, “To see in a mirror face to face; to know and to be fully known.” (1 Cor. 13.12)
In John’s Gospel, both a nameless Samaritan 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 lunchtime at a local well. The well is abandoned, because everybody is home eating their mid-day meal and hiding from the sun. A woman is there alone with no friends, helpers or companions. She is at the well with her buckets in the heat of the day because she is not welcome in the cool early morning hours when all the other women are gathered.
A stranger is sitting by the well. He is dirty and dusty from long days and nights on the road. He asks for water. The woman looks up from her labor and responds, “Don’t you know better than to be talking to me a lone woman, and a Samaritan.” In first century Palestine, men and women weren’t supposed to talk with each other alone, and Jews didn’t associate with Samaritans. Without hesitation, the stranger replies, “Why not? If only you knew with whom you were talking.” Sounding a bit like a flirt, a bully, or a big man on campus, Jesus continues: “I want to give you something – water that will quench your thirst forever.”
At first, the woman retorts in either an irritated or flirtatious manner, “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 and more profound question: “Where do you get this living water?” The stranger 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 about which the stranger is speaking; but in naming her basic wants and needs, she is sincere and down-to-earth. Like so many impoverished women around the world, this woman has to carry gallons of water from a common tap, well or river back home to feed and wash her family every day. The Water Project reports that women in Sub-Sahran Africa carry an average of 40 pounds of water on their backs at least once a day.[i] It is no wonder that the Samaritan woman saw endless, clean, flowing, living water as a real life-giving gift. That is still the case for millions of people on this earth.
Seeming almost rude, 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). Now we know why she’s at the well in the middle of the day. She’s a suspect woman. “Sir, you must be a prophet.” It was a good diversion tactic, if only it had worked.
They have a brief exchange about religion, and the woman shares her messianic expectation. And then Jesus again 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 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 look on their faces that tells all. 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 stranger 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 instead, having met a stranger at the well, having offered hospitality to him, and then having been quenched by the living waters of acceptance in Christ, she was willing to pass it on. In doing so, “The Woman at the Well” (as known to us) became the first witness to testify, the first evangelist to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ in the Fourth Gospel.
The other villagers 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 unconditional love and acceptance, and when she shared her experience with the invitation, “Come and see,” her community followed. They went out to the well, met Jesus. They offered him hospitality; he taught; they followed; and the gospel 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 Alexandra 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.
As my theology professor Dorothee Soelle taught: 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 God’s inward and invisible grace. Through her simple but direct words, “come and see,” this once-rejected but now-affirmed woman led others to faith.
People are thirsty for God in their lives, and all we need to do is turn on the tap. At its best, the church is an open door that says, “Come and see.” And, when people arrive in their dusty boots, the church is an inviting fountain that shares the refreshing water of life to all who are thirsty. And then the church invites, encourages, and equips road-weary pilgrims to share our experience of the living waters with other thirsty sojourners and seekers. The Gospel truly is a gift that keeps on giving, and the church is its delivery system.
The clergy and lay leadership of Trinity Cathedral are curious about how you experience the living waters at Trinity. We want to know what brought you here, what were you looking for and why did you stay. We are interested in learning more about what feeds your soul and quenches your thirst, and how can Trinity support your spiritual journey. So we are undertaking a listening project, and we’re calling it, “Listening to the Heart of Trinity.” Over the next couple of months, members of the Vestry and Cathedral Council will be calling members of the cathedral congregation to initiate a conversation with you, and perhaps your partner or spouse. We will not ask for you money or to volunteer for a project. We want to hear about your experience of the living waters at Trinity Cathedral. At our annual meeting on Sunday, May 4, we’ll talk together in small groups about these questions.
When your fellow parishioner calls or emails you, I hope that you will answer the phone or return the email, and make the time to talk. You have nothing to lose, and together, we have so much to gain. If you don’t get a call and want to have such a conversation, please let us know. Your perspective is important. For the heart of Trinity comes from that well, and we need to make sure that it is deep and its living waters are flowing.
In the meantime, if you’re feeling unloved, why don’t you try meeting Jesus, if not for the first time, then as Marcus Borg suggests, “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.” You have nothing to lose and they have so much to gain.