3rd Sunday in Lent
March 23, 2014
John 4: 5-42
This is a story we think we know. The church has been telling us for a long time that this woman was nearly a prostitute and that her conversation with Jesus was about her conversion and reinstatement into her community. I’d like to offer a little different view. In the arc of these stories we have during the season of preparation for Easter, we get a view of who Jesus is and how Jesus saves that will open our eyes to our own relationship with Jesus.
Jesus is on his way south, from Galilee to Jerusalem. Going through Samaria was the most direct route, but instead, faithful Jews went way out of the way to go south along the Jordan River instead. The religious division between Jews and Samaritans was as old as the exile that began in the 8th Century BCE. Not everyone was carried off to Assyria, and those remaining worshipped where they were and built their own temple. The exiles who returned were more committed to worship at the Jerusalem temple than they had been when they left – as they had longed for God’s house all the years that they were keeping their faith in a foreign culture. The returning exiles demanded allegiance to the Jerusalem temple for anyone to be called a Jew, and the ensuing hatred and religious strife was nearly a thousand years old by the time Jesus sat down beside Jacob’s well in the town of Sychar. You can hear the defensiveness in the woman’s reply to Jesus’ request for water.
After years of moralizing speculation about this woman from our 20th and 21st Century point of view, I’d like to suggest a different picture of her. She is obviously smart and has a keen theological mind, not afraid to take on this Jewish guy sitting at this well that harkens back all the way back to the time of Isaac and Rebekah and Jacob and Rachel. Whereas we see her five husbands and unmarried state as shady and morally suspect, people in Jesus’ day would see her as vulnerable. She had been married off to man after man, none of whom was able to take care of her, and the man with whom she currently lived had not offered her the security of a marriage contract. She has had a hard and disappointing life. She, like Nicodemus, begins by underestimating the person to whom she is talking. After their first exchange, she raises her opinion of Jesus to call him a prophet.
Jesus does not seek to shame her or try to reform her alternate view of the Jewish tradition, he steps completely beyond the boundaries of both to invite her to into something wider and larger than she can imagine. “The hour is coming, and is now here when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” God is on a quest, he says, to build a new human community beyond all entrenched religious and ethnic tribal identities.
“I know that the Messiah is coming,” she says, “and he will proclaim all things to us.” Maybe she could have said “even to us.” Her longing for that day becomes so clear to me. Her longing to be included instead of excluded by her religion, by her gender, by her lot in life catches me every time I read this story. And it makes me tear up to hear Jesus say, “I am he. I am the one you are waiting for.”
Not only is this woman a keen theologian, she is the first evangelist in this Gospel, as she grabs this truth and rushes to share it with the whole city. “Could this really be the One for whom we’ve been waiting? Come and see!” Many come to meet Jesus because of her testimony of his wizardry, but they ask him to stay so that they can ask their own questions. Beyond all expectation, suddenly there is a community of followers of Jesus in Samaria. Jesus has already staked a claim on hearts and minds that are not part of the assumed line of believers.
It’s a good thing that God sent Jesus to open the hearts and minds of people outside of the customary and expected tribe. Otherwise we would not be here, either. Sometimes the church has not been very good about telling us that God loves us and forgives us. It’s been busy telling us what we should be doing if we are really believers. Sometimes the church has not been very good at reaching beyond the expected to share the news that God is looking for people that have lots of questions and doubts; that Jesus is the gift that opens the door to new life, and that God has been looking to love us into new life even before we were born. In this story we can see how God invites us to come and see past our expectations into the deepest truths of our lives.
What are your longings? What are your fears? What are the insecurities that keep you from embracing the invitation to worship in Spirit and in Truth? How have you been invited to step into new understanding of God’s love for you and the world? How are you telling that story? Amen.
Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.