March 19, 2017: May God’s words alone be spoken, may God’s words alone be heard. Amen.
It’s amazing how fast time can fly…or in some ways, how slow. The last time we heard this gospel narrative, we were having our first worship service in the parish hall. Remember? We have grown a lot these past three years, so for the many who were not around then, we voted to support the vestry’s decision to restore our very worn floors of the nave – the part of the church in which you are now sitting. This included fixing broken terrazzo, sanding down the wood part of the floor and refinishing it, and we also made our labyrinth a permanent part of our worship space. To do all of that, we had to get out of here, because all of these pews had to be removed, and while the restoration was going on, there was no way for anyone to be safely in here. So, talk about bringing the altar out into the world, we quite literally did that, as we pushed this one out the door, down the sidewalk, and into the parish hall. If you haven’t seen the before/after pictures they are online.
From the third Sunday of Lent until our entry back into the space on Palm Sunday, we worshipped away from our spiritual home…but, not away from God. As I said then “God is not only present here with us, but rejoicing in our ability to move beyond the walls, and to understand that we have, from the very beginning of our relationship with God, been a people on the move….” So, Lent 3 in Year A will always be a reminder to me of our own journey – one that we needed to make together – one that is present in this gospel today.
Now, if you have ever been to an Adult Forum where I am covering something from scripture, like the past few weeks on the Gospel of Matthew, you know I can get all “bible nerdy,” right? You also know why. See, until the last couple hundred years in the US, the bible was not something read literally (or at all before the introduction of the Guttenberg press that put the bible in the hands of the people). Sacred texts were studied with an eye to their historical context, the source, or the literary form. Then there was the rise of literalism here in the US, adopted primarily by what is commonly referred to as fundamentalists, and we not only lost the richness of the texts, we also began to place our own meaning into it. The result has been that stories like this one in the Gospel of John become something they were never meant to be.
How many of you have heard this story about the Samaritan woman at the well with Jesus as being about one of forgiveness for her sins – the supposed sin of having 4 husbands and living now with a man who is not her husband? Even for a literalist, it doesn’t make sense, because no where in this story is condemnation or forgiveness even mentioned. Talk about infusing our own misogyny into a text. This is why I’m gonna get a little bible nerdy on you this morning, because what some of you have been told is a load of nonsense, and this passage has so much to tell us – especially in this time.
So, if that isn’t what this story is about…what is it, and why should we care? Always two great questions about any text, right? Let’s get going…
First, this is what is called a “type scene” – the original listeners or readers were being set up to expect something. You’ll hear more about this in the Adult Forum later, but how many of you, when Jesus approached the well, thought – awesome – there’s gonna be a marriage and a little hanky-panky (or in today’s parlance – “nobody told me this was gonna be a chic-flic”). Did any of you think the Jesus and this woman were going to maybe have a thing? Yeah, likely not. But those who heard it told in the first century definitely would have thought that – man in foreign country, encounters woman at a well, they will get married and have many children. Why? Well, it’s the modern day equivalent of say…Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan meeting up in Seattle or a New York bookstore. See, this scene had happened before with several other similar stories in our bible. Now, here’s the tease – want to know more about that… come to the Adult Forum.
Now that we know that we have lost some of the original meaning of the text, let’s also rescue the woman from the misogyny of misguided scriptural interpretation, and restore her to her rightful place as an intriguing interlocutor with our savior. Because once we have done that, we can really get to what this means for us today.
First of all, there was nothing wrong in being married a lot in those days. Folks just didn’t live all that long – which means it is possible she was in some sort of Leverite marriage situation, where she was made to marry her dead husband’s brother to produce an heir – yikes, right? Or, if not a widow, we need to remember that a woman could not divorce under most laws (save for free Roman women), so if divorced, this is something that happened to her. So, she has either seen husbands leave through divorce or death, and a woman alone can find herself in danger very quickly. Add to that her drawing water at noon – nobody usually did that, so likely she is not welcome during the normal times in the early morning or evening – and we can only surmise why – perhaps she is unable to produce children (which would explain the divorces – the tossing her aside), and others might not want to “catch” her infertility. Who knows really. What we do know is this woman was a victim of circumstances.
So if anything, we need to understand her to be someone who through difficult times has stood tall and survived. She is a woman to be admired, not scorned. And for his part, Jesus never condemns her for her relationships, nor pronounces any forgiveness. If he didn’t, why should we condemn her now. No, the truth of the text is that this is a person who has a lot to teach us.
Remember last week from John 3 we heard the story about Nicodemus, the Pharisee, coming to Jesus at night. It’s a story that takes place near Jerusalem – the center of teaching and worship for the Jewish people.
Today we have a Samaritan woman in Sychar. And yet in this story, it is Jesus who comes to her, far from Jerusalem (but still near a place of importance to the Hebrew people). He meets her in the brightest part of the day, and she not only goes toe-to-toe with him in a theological dialog, but gets who he is and proclaims it in her town. Suffice it to say that it is no accident that these two narratives are placed back to back in the gospel of John.
One is a man, an insider, a person of privilege in a place of power, who seeks out Jesus at night, and yet still doesn’t get who Jesus is – he can’t see the light of Christ, even when it shines brightly in the dark. The other is a woman, of low status, an outsider without access to power, whom Jesus seeks out in broad daylight, and she does get it – she is able to see the light of Christ even amidst the brightness of the sun. The community who wrote this gospel is trying to tell us something about who Jesus is, and what we are to do if we are to follow him – something we need to hear today. These narratives are not about condemnation of anyone, but about unlocking the meaning for our lives as followers of Jesus.
See – bible nerdy stuff can be fun, right?
As I did with our buddy Nick at night, I want to just the dialog we heard, but first…let’s give this woman a name. Let’s call her Sophia, because she is full of wisdom, the meaning of that name. So, here we go:
Jesus is walking along by himself and goes to sit by a well, the infamous well of Jacob, for a bit of rest (his disciples had gone to the local ShopRite in town for some food). There a woman comes to draw water from the well, and when she does, Jesus says “Give me a drink” (let’s just add a “please” in there – I mean really, you may be the savior of the world, but still let’s be polite). So “Give me a drink, please.” Sophia says “Are you talkin’ to me? I mean, are you talkin’ to me? You do know I am a Samaritan, right? Don’t you want to run off so you don’t get cooties or something?” Jesus smiled and said “If you knew who I really am, you might think this was funny – because it is you who should be asking me for a drink.” Sophia looks him up and down thinking the hot sun got to this guy, and so she said “Say what? I’m the one with a bucket, how possibly are you going to draw water from that deep well without one?” Jesus answered “If you drink water from this well, you will have your thirst quenched…for awhile, but then you will be thirsty again, right?” “Yeah, okay, go on…” “But the water I give quenches for all time the thirst you have, because once you drink of this water, you yourself become a well that springs forth water for all time.” Sophia thinks for a moment and says “Sir, give me a drink of your water
Now, this is where it takes an interesting turn. See, Jesus says “Go get your husband and come back.” But Sophia says “I don’t have a husband.” This is when Jesus affirms her “What you have said is true – you’ve had five, but the man you have now isn’t your husband.” Now, I like to think she had hooked up with the gay guy in town for a union of convenience – to protect one another, or she could have been still living in the home of her last husband with her father-in-law…see, it isn’t good to assume is it. Truth be told, it may not really be about men at all, for that matter, this woman might also not have existed – all of them may be a metaphor for nations or the gods they worshipped (more on that at the Adult Forum). But even if these were actual people, none of it seems to matter to Jesus – he doesn’t give a…well, you know…about any of that. So much for this being a story about her sinfulness. Now, let’s get back to the dialog, because this is where she shows just how different she is than our buddy Nick.
“Sir,” she says to Jesus, “I see that you are a prophet, so let me ask you a question. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain – I mean, we are standing at Jacob’s well – a place that is sacred to Samaritans and to your people, the Jews. Why is it then that they abandon this place, and say that everybody has to worship in Jerusalem? What’s up with that?” Jesus replies “There is going to be a time when none of that matters, because what is important is not where you worship, but that you worship in spirit and truth – that your worship is genuine.” Sophia says “I know that there is one who is coming, the Christ, that will proclaim truth to us…are you…” “I am” (I am being known to all in that time and place as a a proclamation only a God would make). The rest of the story is about her becoming a disciple, a prophet of her people, spreading the gospel. This woman, this foreigner, this outcast & victim – the one who heard the same proclamation of divinity given to Moses – “I am” – this woman had a dialog with Jesus about what it means to worship, and who he is – we owe her our gratitude, not our condemnation.
This is a gospel proclaiming important truth for us. Three years ago, what resonated most for us was the second part of the narrative – that it is not important where we worship – the nave, the parish hall, out in the glen across the street…but that we gather together to worship in Spirit and in Truth. But now, it is the first part that is calling to us, and we need to pay attention.
Jesus tells Sophia “If you drink water from this well, you will have your thirst quenched…for awhile, but then you will be thirsty again, but the water I give quenches for all time the thirst you have, because once you drink of this water, you yourself become a well that springs forth water for all time.”
Three years ago, we were trying to figure out who we were as a parish, and what future lay ahead for us. We needed to look inwardly, care for our buildings, care for our people, and begin to build a new relationship of parish and priest. We were thirsty ourselves, and trying to find the water that would nourish us as a congregation. We opened our hearts to drink the water together – the water of our baptism mixed at the Eucharist with the wine. Nourished in Christ in this way, we grew stronger.
Three weeks ago, we held an Outreach Fair, where we were prayerfully looking beyond our doors to where the Spirit is calling us. Out of that meeting came inspiring ideas for ministry, including working with our Greater Bloomfield Interfaith Partnership in sponsoring a refugee family from Syria, hosting pet adoptions, establishing a lay ministry team to visit our homebound parishioners, providing resources to the homeless, sending notes of support to our Muslim and Jewish neighbors, ensuring that the LGBT people in our community know they are loved and welcomed here, and engaging in public policy – locally and nationally – around issues of justice
Jesus said “…once you drink of this water, you yourself become a well that springs forth water for all time… Or put another way, “once you come to know me, you become me in the world to quench the thirst of others.” Once you know Christ, you become Christ in the world for others.
The story of our parish these past few years is a gospel story. You know, the thing about wood, wood like we find in our nave, is that when it is neglected for a time, and then you put oil on it, it literally sucks it up like a person dying of thirst. Three years ago we quenched the thirst of these floors, which, in a very real way, were a symbol of the spiritual thirst we had as a parish. And since that time, so much has changed. We are growing, yes – in the numbers of people in our congregation, 42% growth is certainly not to be ignored (with baptisms 16, 17, & 18 coming up on Easter and Christmas). But we have also grown in our faith – the way we experience it here, and the way we live it outside these walls. Our thirst quenched, we look to be the well that springs forth water for others. We seek to be the eternal well of life we are called to be – to be Christ in the world. This is a critical time to be a part of this faith community, or any church, because this is a time of tremendous need in the world – so many thirst for love, thirst for inclusion, thirst for justice – and we are stepping out toward them as waters of grace to sate, strengthen, and change the world. You cannot be a Christian and purposely stay at home, because we are called to wells of the Eucharist in worship, and called to be wells of life to the world. There is no other way to be.
This gospel is a reminder to us that we are not here to nourish ourselves for ourselves alone, but that we might nourish others, as Jesus did. And that means, we must leave here to go to the places they would be. We must leave the centers of worship, to find the Jesus standing at the margins beside the poor, the oppressed, the lonely, the forgotten. It is there where we will see the Christ in them, as they see the Christ in us – and in that encounter, we are nourished as much as they.
That is the eternal well of life found in the waters of baptism.
That is what it means to be part of the Jesus movement.
That is who we are.
So, drink up, and spring forth!
A thirsty world awaits.
For the audio from the 10:30am service, click here:
Rev. Diana L. Wilcox
Christ Church in Bloomfield & Glen Ridge
March 19, 2017
1st Reading – Exodus 17:1-7
2nd Reading – Romans 5:1-11
Gospel – John 4:5-42