A sermon for the 3rd Sunday in Lent: Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42
The Jewish-Samaritan rivalry dates all the way back to the 7th century under Assyrian occupation. Temple was built at Gerazim and became the center of worship in the 4th century under Persian occupation. The Samaritans worship at this Temple, but the Jews believed that worship must be in the Temple in Jerusalem. Although Gerazim was destroyed in 128 BCE, the schism continued at least to Jesus’ day. (Ellingsen, O’Day, Sakenfeld). It is part of the reason that the Jews avoided Samaria. When Jesus leaves Judea and heads back to Galilee, the typical route would be to go around Samaria. Jesus goes through Samaria. It has long been held it was simply a short cut. But if we listen closely we hear that John writes “[Jesus] had to go through Samaria” (John 4:4). In truth, it becomes Jesus’ first venture into the rest of the world (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner).
I hope you have heard the contrast between Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus as you listened to the John’s Gospel story of Jesus meeting a woman at a well. They are many, and they are interesting.
We have been so well (pardon the pun) taught all about the social dynamics between the woman, men, and Jews we overlook the scandal of the well. In the Old Testament, a well is an archetype for marriage (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). Moses meets his wife Zipporah at a well in Midian (Exodus 2:21). And Jacob meets his beloved Rachel at this very well (Genesis 29:1) (O’Day). We all know Jesus does not marry. However, the marital implication hints at the depth of intimacy in the story to come.
The encounter begins with Jesus’ polite request for water. The woman asks him Why are you asking me for water? Jesus answers If you knew me, you would ask me and I would give you living water. The term ‘living water’ has two meanings; it can be flowing water like a stream, or it can mean life-giving water. The woman misunderstands what Jesus is saying; sound familiar.
After their convoluted conversation and she asks for the water, that Jesus is really offering, Jesus, asks her about her husband. She says she doesn’t have one, and Jesus goes on to tell her all about her history with men. But note; there is not a single word of judgment; there is not a single word of forgiveness; because there is no need for one. The woman is likely barren, and her husbands have simply divorced and abandoned her. Jesus reveals that he knows all about the tragic story of her life, which she confesses is true. Jesus also knows she has been abandoned, again, and again and again and again. He knows she is lonely. And perhaps in the greatest gift of all, Jesus sees her; a beloved child of God made from the dust of the earth. Jesus values her (Lewis, O’Day, Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). Thus, far their story has progressed from protest to misunderstanding to confession to divine recognition and love (Harrelson).
Now knowing that Jesus is a prophet, the woman risks asking him if the proper place to worship is Gerazim or the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus replies “Gods is seeking those who worship him in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23) Revealing more of her theological knowledge and understanding, the woman goes on to say I know the Messiah is coming. Jesus replies I am he. (John 4:26).
“I am” is an intentional referral to the revelation of God’s name to Moses (Exod. 3:14) (O’Day).This is Jesus’ first “I am” statement, the first full revelation of who he is, is to a rejected, abandoned woman, in a foreign land (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). And in doing so, Jesus encourages her role as a witnessing disciple ~ before she even begins to act. As for the rest of the world, in doing so, Jesus crosses boundaries of gender, and race, and religious traditions (Vena).
This morning’s Gospel story opened with a lonely rejected woman coming to the village well to get water at high noon, hoping to meet no one; and she runs into a Jewish rabbi. She leaves the well having abandoned her water jar, her source of life, to go share her story (Hoezee). In her absence, the disciples arrive.
Jesus’ discussion with the disciples is quite cryptic. The language is all agricultural; you plant, and you wait for the harvest. The Messianic implications are that you wait for the Messiah. Jesus message to the disciples is that the waiting is over. Jesus is prompting his disciples to open their eyes and to see who the harvest is, that is already being gathered; in part, this is a reference to the woman who is in the village sharing her story at that very moment. Here we learn from John, the mission to the rest of the world is not after Jesus’ death or any other marker, the mission for the rest of the world beings right now (O’Day).
As this conversation is going on the woman has gone to town and is telling the villagers everything. She invites them to come and see, which is my favorite evangelical invitation. I suspect to everyone’s surprise they believe her, at least enough to follow her back to the well of life. When they get there, the villagers’ experience with Jesus expands their faith and believe because of their own experience (Vena). They invite him to stay, and that invitation has implications that they are seeking a relationship with Jesus (O’Day). What more could a witness ask for?
The story of Jesus meeting a woman at the well is the story of the making of a disciple. It begins with both the witness’ and the audience’s mutual vulnerability. Jesus risks talking to the woman. The woman risks accepting Jesus’ invitation. It grows as the audience lets go of their or our most precious traditions as we realize they do not nurture our relationship with God (Lewis). Discipleship grows as we as we are released from our fear of overcoming old prejudices and are willing to break the social conventions that dehumanize us (Vena). We see traits of being an effective witness. The woman offers her experiences as they are. When she is, tentative or isn’t certain of the answer, she shares them as that; for example, she asks “Jesus really the Messiah?”; she shares that as it is. Curiously enough, it adds to her credibility. The woman brings the villagers to Jesus, and her job is now done, and her witness decreases, as did John the Baptist’s, as the villagers’ have their own personal experience with Jesus. If we can have our personal experience with Jesus, which we share with others, certainly these villagers can. A witness cannot replace an immediate experience with Jesus; a witness leads others to it. An effective witness knows salvation is offered on God’s terms and often is not in the terms a witness may have preconceived (O’Day).
It is a reasonable Lenten discipline to examine our witness of Jesus. It does not matter what our life’s experience is, whether we have been planted in the best soil or on the rocky path, either way, Jesus will nurture us. It does not matter the depth or certainty of our theological knowledge, and if you are here you have some theological knowledge; even if you don’t know what you know, Jesus will lead you into bearing fruit, which is continuing to do the work of God given to Jesus. It does not matter how long it takes, different fruit and crops mature at different rates. It does not matter how magnificent our story is; it only matters that we know our story, in Jesus’ story, well enough to share it.
Last week I invited us to consider Nicodemus, a leader with rank, education, and influence, to be our Lenten guide. Today I invite us to invite a woman, of unknown birth, without rank and without status, to join our team (Gaventa and Petersen). It seems our Lenten journey seems to be led by unexpected guides, showing us surprising directions to living waters.
Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 19 3 2017. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/>.
Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 19 3 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly>.
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel John 4:5-42. 19 3 2017.
Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 19 3 2017.
Kesselus, Ken. “Trust in God’s Love, Lent 3(A).” 19 3 2017. Sermons that Work.
Lewis, Karoline. Holy Conversations. 19 3 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.
Lose, David. Lent 3 A: Living Water, Living Faith. 15 3 2017.
O’Day, Dail R. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of John. Vol. VIII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.
Vena, Osvaldo. Commentary on John 4:542. 19 3 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.