A Sermon preached at Christ Church, Episcopal on March 23, 2014.
The Scripture texts for the 3rd Sunday of Lent, Year A:
Exodus 17:1-7 | Psalm 95 | Romans 5:1-11 | John 4:5-42
Here we are in the midst of Lent, and I don’t know about you, but I am still very aware of what I have given up for Lent and what I’ve taken on. Contrary to what many might think, seminary isn’t the most conducive environment to take care of one’s self. My discipline this Lent has been to give up something that isn’t good for me (Diet Dr. Pepper) and to take on an awareness of what I am putting into my body in both quantity and quality. Like any resolution I’ve ever made, I am not completely successful, but in this third week, I realize that my awareness is growing, and my desire to do this has become not only for myself but also for my family. I want to be around for them as long as possible, and I want my kids to have healthy attitudes and practices around one of the most basic aspects of our human life. There is also a clarity of well-being that comes with treating one’s body well, as a creature of God. I can’t help but think that this clarity swirls around an increased awareness of my appreciation and love for God and desire to do God’s work. So, maybe my very temporal, seemingly superficial disciplines this Lent do have a spiritual nature, a deeper meaning.
What if what we’re really giving up in Lent is our oblivion? Letting go of our favorite temptations, we take off the blinders that allow us to sink into ruts and dim the Light that is the wisdom of Spirit, the love of God. We take this journey into the wilderness together, though we are all at different levels of understanding, different levels of awareness of God in our lives. We do this year after year because we are human, and while it is inevitable that we will sin, sometimes we turn farther away from God than we care to admit. In our blindness we might echo the Israelites’ cry, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Today I ask, where are we in our awareness now?
Are we standing at the well, bantering with Jesus in cynicism, defensive by nature to protect our inward vulnerability or seeking temporary fulfillment to keep our greatest desire out of consciousness?
The unnamed woman in today’s gospel went to the well for the very earthly, practical purpose of drawing water. It was routine for her. As unusual as it was that she went at noon to a well away from the town, it’s still an ordinary day until this strange Jewish man speaks to her. In their exchange, I can imagine the woman’s sarcastic playfulness or mockery at the one who travels through the desert without a way to collect water.
In speaking to her, Jesus ignores social barriers. A Jewish man, especially a teacher, did not speak to a woman in public; some wouldn’t even look at a woman in public. What is more, they are in Samaria. The mutual resentment between the Samaritans and Jews is epic. As if this weren’t enough to impart the significance of Jesus’s radical action, this woman has been married five times, though we know not why. But we know the customs of her time were complex and treated women as property. What reason does she have for thinking that Jesus is any different than any other man she has encountered? She has her ways of survival, and thus she engages in one of the longest conversations with Jesus that is recorded in the Gospels. Jesus doesn’t let her stay at a surface level for long. She truly doesn’t know who she is dealing with.
Consider again our own awareness. Are we wide-eyed with sudden realization that we are incredibly thirsty for the wellspring of eternal life in love and Spirit?
Jesus needed to quench his parched mouth and lips from the noonday sun along his hasty journey to Galilee. The woman had the means to quench bodily thirst, and she doesn’t turn away from Jesus, who acknowledges and recognizes her. What the woman did not know was that she, too, was thirsty. The misunderstanding and banter regarding the well and living water turned into the woman requesting water from Jesus, and when Jesus gets personal, her demeanor turns serious at the realization of how important this moment is. Whatever her past and present situation, Jesus knows the woman’s heart, as he does everyone’s. Her story is not ours to know at its greatest depth, nor is it for us to judge. This Samaritan woman doesn’t turn away from the Light of Christ that illumines all her shadows. As Jesus speaks, she becomes aware of something she lacks. She now knows deeply that she needs that which Jesus reveals to her—the living water. She also turns the conversation toward her people, their worship. Suddenly, she embodies an eager, child-like faith that yearns to learn, to know. The Samaritans expected the Messiah to come as a teacher, after all. It is in her openness to receive that Christ reveals himself.
So what was it that flipped the switch for her, drawing back the veil of sarcasm and wit that had probably served her well throughout her life? Was it one thing? Jesus spoke to her, and in speaking, acknowledged her presence, her humanity. Jesus was honest with her, both about who she was and who he was. He revealed to her the truth about who she was so that she could fully know herself and her true need for God. He doesn’t ask her to take the water, she has a personal revelation and asks for the water herself. Knowing herself, she is open to knowing more about God.
We ask ourselves: Do we know who Jesus is, and being so filled with awe and wonder and amazement, do we run out to tell others what we have found?
The woman doesn’t just learn of her need for eternal life in Spirit. She also learns that Jesus is who he says he is. She says he is prophet and Messiah or Christ. He affirms her statements, and he has told her that true worship is different from what she has known before. He is making proclamations before her, saying among other things that the presence of God isn’t confined in one place. Then the disciples appear on the scene, returned from fetching food or supplies from the town. The woman is so focused on what Jesus has revealed to her, that she leaves her jug. Her focus at this moment is no longer on the well-water but on the living water of Christ.
I imagine her running to the city to rouse the town’s folks, boldly and loudly witnessing about the one who has told her everything she has ever done. “He can’t be the Messiah, can he?” she asks. Meanwhile the disciples are with Jesus, worrying about whether or not he’s had anything to eat, but they don’t question his actions, perhaps getting used to his unorthodox ways by this point. I can’t help but think about Jesus waxing poetic here, a calm in the midst of the storm, knowing what the woman is spreading and biding time until the townspeople arrive. Jesus is doing exactly what God means to do, from the moment Jesus chose the path through Samaria through the days he spent with them. The woman, too, is participating in Spirit, though her belief is still taking shape.
Do we doubt ourselves, our knowing?
We don’t have a response to the woman’s question about whether or not Jesus is the Messiah. He has told her he is, but has the full revelation and belief taken place, or is she still wondering? We are told that through her testimony, many more came to Jesus, and so this one woman’s testimony opened a way for others. Her invitation to “come and see” for themselves paved their path to Christ. Like John the Baptist decreased so that Christ would increase, so, too, does the woman decrease as the direct experience of Christ, the Savior of the world, increases. Her story fades into the background.
In our season of Lent, we are asked to consider our worldly ways, to think about giving up something that distracts us from realizing who Christ is for us. Like the earliest Christians who had to fast in their 40-day-long preparation for baptism, we are asked to realize our thirst for the living water, to recognize our need for God. For with every choice we make, we are given the opportunity to go with the will of God or against it. The woman at the well did not have to respond to Jesus. She certainly did not have to run into town and witness to others.
So, what do we need to give up to see the Lord among us, to awaken full awareness? What can we take on to show ourselves and others that God is creator, redeemer, sustainer?
It is the thirst for God, the living water, that we so frequently displace. We turn to our temptations and seek fleshly fulfillment however we can find it. A comforting meal, the latest gadget, the newest clothes, a drink. We justify ourselves with various rationalizations—that we deserve it, that it’s for someone else, that we’re doing a good thing. For the moment, maybe, but for eternity? Like Jesus waiting for the Samaritans to come and see for themselves, God is ever-present, waiting for us to realize that God is here all along. We’ve just been drawing stagnant water from the wrong well. In our haste and blindness, we’ve missed the cues to attend to our souls and to seek out the living water that is Christ.
Opening our lives to awareness of God’s eternal presence hinges on something critical. It hinges on our choosing to live spiritually, being fed by the living water while doing God’s work. Yes, we need food and water to thrive physically—preferably healthy foods in sensible portions. But our true, whole well-being also depends upon our conscious living as one created, redeemed, and sustained by God. How we do this exactly will depend on the various gifts we were given when we first partook of the living water in our baptism, but it will ring of compassion and truth.
If we lose our way in the wilderness, become dehydrated and blind, surrounded by darkness, the presence of God is still here. Our awareness of God’s presence does not affect God’s eternal presence: unconditional love is patient and enduring like that. We journey together through this season, looking to rekindle for ourselves and for each other the new believer’s enthusiasm of that first taste of soul-quenching love.