Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent

Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 1:16-32; John 4:5-26, 39-42

Sometimes the most moving and affective thing in the world is a simple conversation. There is something in the relationality of human beings, our need for each other, for shared words, gestures, and looks, something in our relational natures that sustains our souls. Conversation can uplift us, tap into reserves of inner strength, or draw out our true selves into the world. Conversation, in other words, humanizes us. 

So it was when Jesus sat at that well 2000 years ago and simply spoke to this woman. It is a vivid scene, all the more when we know something about the setting. Jesus was traveling north, from Jerusalem to his home region of Galilee. To do so, the straightest path was through Samaria. It was not necessary, and many Jews would quite intentionally go around Samaria even though it took longer. This is because of the perceived idolatry and impurity of the place.

700 years earlier, the land that became Samaria was taken by the Assyrian Empire, deported en masse from their home, and people from other areas of that empire brought in to settle what was once Israel. Those people brought their gods, and yet over the course of years eventually took on a version of the Jewish faith. They were, to put it shortly, despised, and despised the Jews in turn.

But Jesus takes the path through Samaria. Noon, on that day, Jesus sat at a well. Noon would be very hot; he would have been dusty, grime caked on to sweaty skin, and very thirsty. And there he meets this woman. We are not told why she comes at the hottest part of the day, when the rest of the women stayed in, but based on their conversation we can guess. At any rate, she comes to gather water, and Jesus asks her to draw him some. ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ she asks. Jews, as I said, despised Samaritans, saw them as impure. A Jew wouldn’t be talking to her, let alone asking to drink water out of her bucket.

Jesus responds in a way to draw her in, to change the focus of the conversation. ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ Think of the difference of the types of water: one, the standing water that simply sits in a cistern, underground, to be gathered; or lively, moving water, fresh out of a stream. She still thinks the conversation is about water, but of course, Jesus is using it as a metaphor for what he is really there to bring her, and humanity.

The impression I get is that up through this point, the woman is not really taking this conversation seriously. There is a literalness to her answers that comes off as if she is humoring Jesus, but not deeply invested in what is said. Then Jesus takes a sharp turn, asking her to get her husband, and she answers truthfully that she has none.

Jesus notes that, ‘What you have said is true!’ but that of course the man she is living with is not her husband, and that she has had five husbands. Now this is, I think, clearly drawing out the circumstances of this woman to highlight a less-than-ideal life, to be sure. Five spouses is a high number for anyone, and cohabitating outside of marriage in their time and place was very much frowned upon. Why has her life taken that course, we may ask? Was it her mistakes? Is she a victim? What we are meant to do is not judge her, I think, but identify with her; what mistakes do you have? What choices have you made, or what sins have others committed against you, to bring you to where you are now? We are to imagine, I think, the shame and sadness that sits beneath the surface of this woman’s face, deep in her heart, the brokenness we all have felt or do feel.

She recognizes that this is no ordinary man, but a prophet, a man of God. So she asks a logical question for a Samaritan to ask, especially since this prophet is offering her a way to eternal life: “we worship on Mt. Gerizim, but you say we have to worship in Jerusalem; which is it?” And so here, we see tied up in her personal circumstances also the ethnic and religious complications; this woman is in every way an outsider, not a Jew, not a man, and likely seen as lesser by her own people. She lives under the crushing weight of being an exile from God and humanity.

“‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth…God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’” In a moment, Jesus dispels her concerns, and makes clear: In me, you have no restrictions standing between you and God. We know that it is with the coming of the Spirit that God’s Presence we carry with us, and that every person of every nation can call upon the name of the Lord. It is in spirit and truth that we worship God. Our spirit, the animating power within us, directed through our bodies towards the God that is Spirit, and the source of all life, the active and living God. And this is not to be done in just any way that we please, but is a response to the Holy Spirit who frees ours to worship this God, so that our worship is done in truth. God’s Spirit calls ours, and respond and are drawn into that divinely gifted life.

The woman believes, and so do many in her town as she proclaims the gospel. A conversation turned this woman around, freed her from concern over ethnicities, freed her from shame and the judgment of others. Jesus spoke to her out of compassion and love, drawing her out by acknowledging her life, but also by telling her how the grace of God embraces her and would raise her up. And that is what God’s grace does for each of us.

Jesus meets each of us where we are, but the fundamental word he speaks to each of us is that we too are not to languish under the weight of judgment, under the weight of our mistakes, sins, or evils done to us. We are to receive the living water, his Word and Spirit, which is everlasting life, bought by his work on the Cross and won by his Resurrection. In Jesus, we each, regardless of who we are or where we came from, can worship God in spirit and in truth, and we each are called God’s children, transformed by the Holy Spirit, made able to live now in true freedom and peace. All are invited; none are refused. 

That is the power of a conversation, and that is the power of Jesus. Amen.


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