Sermon 3/12/23: A New Wind Is Blowing

Posted on ; Filed under News

3 Lent

Psalm 95; Exodus 17:1–7; Romans 5:1–11; John 4:5–42

God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. John 4:24

Surely, you have heard, and perhaps even used, the American idiom “to go out on a limb.”  Well, on this Third Sunday in Lent, I am going out on a limb.  I make the assumption that at some point in your life, when you have read something—a book, an article, even a brief slogan—you are overcome with the thought or feeling that you have had a similar experience, that you have been there before. 

So it is in this story on the Third Sunday of Lent of the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman.  Some years ago, I visited the Old Synagogue in Prague, in then-Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic.  What I saw there intrigued me.  According to Jewish tradition, men and women sat separated from each other by a screen during divine worship.  This was certainly not the case when I attended Friday Sabbath Services with a teenage friend.

This encounter in the City of Prague caused me to remember a similar situation from my own childhood.  This separation by gender I saw but, as a child did not question, that I witnessed during summer visits to my rural relatives in Tennessee decades ago, who were Baptists.  In that Baptist Church the women sat on one side and the men on the other.  Lacking, though was the screen.    

Today’s gospel reminded me of an incident that occurred even closer to home when, not too many years ago, I volunteered in a thrift shop.  While fulfilling “my tour of duty,” a woman from a non-western country, as was apparent from her dress, approached one of the women at the shop to ask quietly, out of my hearing if she would cash out her purchases.  You see, she had purchased items that were personal, private, that only her husband should see, and, that, if he were lucky.  I learned this after the fact, and I chuckled.  In honoring ethnic and cultural differences, we made the sale, but we had given the customer the respect and dignity which she deserved, as do we all.   

Pulled by today’s gospel back into history, into situations as fresh today as then, I recalled another, a German idiom voiced to me by one of the women with whom, during a semester break at University, I had worked at the Federal Office of Statistics in Wiesbaden, Germany.  Frau Ram, a sage who as a young girl had survived the years of Nazism and the long dark years thereafter, would remark often, when her fellow Germans would make derogatory remarks about the Turks who were guest workers in the country, “andere Länder, andere Sitten,” or “other countries, other customs.”  

And so it is that today’s gospel intrigued me.  Unlike the tales, parables, and vignettes told by and about Jesus in the other gospels that are known for their brevity, the story of the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan women could qualify as a full-length feature film presentation.  Two fronts meet and become interwoven in today’s gospel, that of gender and that of ethnicity.  This unusually lengthy story raises, at least on the surface, more questions than it answers.  And I propose only a few.  Is this story about morals?  Is this story about the superiority of ethnicity or tribalism?  Is this Johanine tale really about faith, its nature, and who is eligible to call God, God?  Is this a tale about religious purity? 

Morals: The moral police then, as today, would have us focus on the information that the woman has had more husbands.  However, I offer a word of caution.  Before we accuse the woman of “loose living,” I raise the question: how do we know that the previous four husbands had not died?  How do we know that those previous four husbands were not brothers and were simply following the expectation of the custom which mandated that the next older brother would marry his widowed sister-in-law?  After all, that was the question put to Jesus by his adversaries, the Pharisees: “Whose wife would she be in the resurrection?”

Superiority of ethnicity or tribalism: John reports, “Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.  Jacob’s well was there.” (4:5)  “’Sir,’ the woman said, ‘Are you greater than Jacob our ancestor who gave us the well and drank from it too?’” (4.12)  It is not that Jesus needed a refresher course in Hebrew history.  Rather, the Samaritan woman asserts what he knew.  She and Jesus shared a common ancestor.  Because of that background, foundationally, they had more in common than they were different.  They were related spiritually, religiously, if not through direct blood lineage.  Tribalism falls by the way.  Its value is discredited.

Religious purity: This feature-length story, as I would suggest in the classroom, is not primarily about a woman and her moral status in society, but about faith.  The Samaritan woman is the equivalent of the medieval “everyman.”  She entered this conversation with preconceived notions.  She was able, by whatever means, to establish that Jesus was a Judean.  The woman at the well, identified solely by her ethnicity, knew of existing animosities between her people, the Samaritans, and the Judeans.  And she knew also that each lay claim to a legitimate worship style.  Her people worshipped on a holy mountain.  The Judeans, or Jews, claimed that worship was valid only if held in Jerusalem.  The unidentified woman knew that despite the current geo-political climate, she and Jesus, a Judean, had more in common than the people around them, especially those in power, would like to admit and permit. 

In our efforts in sermons of previous decades to rush over to the titillating, prurient information about the woman’s marital status, to dissect it, and to bring disgrace to her, we have overlooked that commonality, sometimes knowingly, often unintentionally.  Should we allow the text to speak, what we learn, you and I, is the following: heritage, gender, identifying characteristics are inconsequential, of absolutely no value or significance, when we stand before God.  If ever there were a leveler which should remind us all—Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindi, and all those within each of those religious stripes—is that God is God, and that the God of creation is confined neither by place or format of worship.

Seemingly hidden by all the surrounding text, is the crucial one: “The time is coming, indeed it is already here, when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth.  These are the worshippers the Father wants.  God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and in truth.” (4: 23 – 24)

What this long gospel lesson teaches me, as I reexamine my own belief in God during this period of Lent, is that faith shines forth in some of the least likely of places and in some of the least likely of people.

The woman reenters the town and calls out to the townspeople and thus joins the list of believers who intone the litany found throughout John’s gospel: Come and see.  “Come and see,” said Jesus to the disciples of John the Baptist.  “Come and see,” said Philip to Nathanael.  “Come and see,” says the woman to the villagers, and, in saying these words, she becomes an unlikely evangelist. 

This woman becomes a spokesperson for something that she has not quite fully grasped.  Yet, her encounter with the Good News of Christ causes a light on her forehead and in her demeanor, strong enough to draw people to the stranger, to an enemy really at the well.  People go to see for themselves, and whatever they see and hear, is of such substance, such gravitas, that they invite Jesus to stay, and for two days he lingers with them.  Differences receded into the background when they came to know the person, the real person, and not the imagined one, not the stereotype.  Enmity created over centuries of stereotyping, faded away or got pushed aside for the common good.

In this chanced encounter, the Samaritan woman became aware of an inner thirst, a thirst that could never seem to be quenched, no matter how many trips she made to the well, until she met The One who had nothing to offer except a water that did not require an earthly vessel, the water jug that has been abandoned at the well.  The living water that is offered by Jesus the Christ requires living vessels.  Through our baptism, we become the vessels by which this water is supplied to the world.  Amen