Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Woman at the Well

I haven't posted a sermon on this blog before, but here, approximately, is what I'm going to say tomorrow...

The gospel story—Jesus talks to a woman of Samaria – has to be the focus of our attention this morning. To start with, it’s the longest single conversation that Jesus has with anybody in the Gospel…that alone would make it significant. Something of major importance is happening here.

For one thing, Jesus and this woman are and are NOT strangers to each other. They’ve never met before…this is true; so they are strangers. And they’re very different from each other – they’re even, in a lot of ways, on “opposite sides” – not only strangers but potential enemies, too. But, amazingly, there is a good deal that they share, and part of what they share is STORY. Now sharing a story doesn’t necessarily make people friends. Sometimes it just makes them more dedicated enemies! As so often happens when you read Scripture carefully, you will hear that this morning’s gospel story seems to contain this morning’s reading from the Hebrew scriptures – it’s as if the reading from Exodus was right there in both Jesus’ mind and the mind of the Samaritan woman, all the way through what they say to each other. Of course there are a lot of other stories from Hebrew Scripture just under the surface here as well – we’ll get to them in a moment. Those other stories were shared also. And the conversation is easier to imagine if you keep that in mind.

The situation is odd. Picture it. A lone woman trudging toward the village water supply…in the middle of the day, the heat of the day, which is odd behaviour. Better to come in the early morning or early evening, when the sun isn’t so punishingly hot. And she’s alone – which is odd behaviour. Other women come together: fetching water is a social occasion. Labour is shared, toil is eased, news is passed along, advice, sympathy, joy may be shared, hard work is leavened by basic community. None of that for this woman. She’s an outsider, and her work is all the harder because of it.

She gets within sight of the well. Oh rats…here’s trouble. There’s somebody there already. And it’s a man, a stranger, and he’s sitting down, not just passing through. Better ease the jar down off her shoulder, in case she has to run for it. There’s nobody to protect her except herself. Does she also remember at this moment – maybe with part of her mind – that the ancestral well is the place, in the old stories, where women meet potential husbands? Abraham’s servant finds Rebekah there; Jacob meets Rachel there…hunh, very romantic, that was then, this is now.

When she’s close enough (because, stranger or no stranger, the household has to have water—and of course that’s women’s work, always has been, don’t look for HELP with this chore)…she sees that the stranger is a Jew. Probably one of those lofty-minded holier than thou Pharisees, to whom she is the scum of the earth. Maybe at least though she’ll get away unscathed…maybe he’s one of the fancy ones who shuts his eyes when a strange woman appears (you can tell them because they have bruised faces from walking into things with their eyes shut)…and then, into her anticipation, he speaks.

But it’s not an insult. It’s not contempt. It’s a request that makes her feel he must have read her mind…right out of the old stories in Genesis. “What does a man have to do to get a drink around here?” She could hardly be more shocked. She stammers …”You don’t want a drink from ME…don’t you REALIZE? I’m a Samaritan?” and he says the most amazing thing in reply… “if you knew the gift of God, if you knew who I was…you’d be asking me” (in that moment we hear the reading from Exodus, the people’s thirst, the people’s demand of water from God, the people’s “not knowing” who is in their midst…all the predicament of the human creature face to face with the Creator). And I would give you such water – running water, living water, water that comes to meet you, that doesn’t have to be hauled up out of the dark, who knows how far… Well, she says, I don’t see how you’re going to manage that with no bucket…who do you think you are, greater than our ancestor who gave us this well?
By now she’s beginning to guess he’s talking about more than just well-water, but when he says that he would give her water that would keep her from every being thirsty again, the weariness of carrying water overcomes her – “THAT, I could go for, she says. Please give me that.”
But Jesus gives her something better than water you can carry in a jar. This too he does in an indirect way. “go fetch your husband,” he says…and this is a challenge…she has asked him for something, she is looking to him for something…and he asks something of her. Not a great feat of courage or faith…just the truth. And the way you can sometimes do with a total stranger and nobody overhearing, she tells him the truth…now THAT ought to make him draw back. But it doesn’t. Instead, he corroborates what she has said and names it, commends it as truth.
This is too much to absorb, she has to make some kind of distance between them, so she tries to run and hide in theological debate…”don’t you remember that we don’t agree? That we are at ODDS with each other?” (Just stop for a minute and think about all the things that can divide one believer from another, one Anglican from another in our time, and then try to hear what Jesus says in that kind of division”… true worshipers are neither the one nor the other but something else entirely…and look at what sneaks by…
THE FATHER SEEKS SUCH…isn’t it the business of worshipers to seek the divine? What kind of world is this where the divine goes and hunts up worshipers? And of course this is exactly what Jesus has been doing ever since she hove into view on the path to the well…and even before.

In case you miss the point…it’s all there summarized in general terms in the reading from Romans… while we were enemies, while we still were sinners…God came looking for us, God SOUGHT US OUT…in spite of all our backing up, our attempts to run and hide in the comfortable certainties of our “religious knowledge” (one of the great puzzles, how do we get from RK to FAITH?!)…as the Samaritan woman does. “Well, she says (make space, make room, give me air, give me a moment) “what we need here is the Messiah, and then he will tell us what’s what, won’t he, and until he comes we just have to remain as we are….” And Jesus says…can you hear the grin? “The Messiah? Actually…that would be me.”
He hasn’t said that before, not to anybody. This is the long, so long deferred answer to that tormenting question in Exodus, “Is the Lord among us, or not?” and the answer, when it comes, is “YUP!”
He tell us who we are. And he does it without projection and without judgement, but with tremendous challenge. And because he tells us who we are, we can believe him when he tell us who he is. And we can know that this is, truly, the Saviour of the world.


Unknown said...

I love the way you paint the picture of their conversation. Thanks!

Crimson Rambler said...

Thank you songbird -- and thanks for the Preachers' Party this morning. A happy and blessed Sunday to you!

RevDrKate said...

Love the connecting points with the three readings all woven together.

Crimson Rambler said...

Thank you, Kate!