Monday, March 20, 2017

The Third Sunday in Lent [Year A] - March 19, 2017 (John 4:5-42)

The woman at the well walks the journey, worships the Christ, and witnesses with joy.

First, she walks the journey. The particular details of the journey she walks remain a bit unclear, but we know at some point it leads her to the well outside of her city. It is Jacob’s well, a historical location that was important to both the Samaritan and Jewish people because he was a common ancestor. Jacob actually met his future wife at a well several centuries earlier, and although it may not have been this particular well, it does calls to mind the fact that wells in the time of the Bible were typically places where people could intermingle and gather. However, there appears to be no one else here that day. This woman journeys alone. Maybe because it’s noon and most of the water-fetching—a back-breaking, tiresome daily task undertaken almost exclusively by women—is done in the morning before it gets too hot.

From the conversation she has with Jesus it emerges that her personal life’s journey might be a bit complicated. However, Jesus doesn’t judge her and neither should we, and we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about her or what decisions she’s made. The fact that she has had five husbands and the man she is with now is not legally her married partner does not mean that she has morally questionable character. She may be a five-time widow, in fact, stuck in a type of Levirite marriage, where she is obligated to marry her first husband’s brothers until she produces an heir, which she hasn’t, so she feels useless. She may have been dismissed unfairly by these men, left to fend for herself, and walk the lonely and vulnerable journey of a woman who has no legal or social status in society. No matter what the case is, her life has been a journey and it’s probably left her with a lot to reflect on.

We all are walking a journey, aren’t we? Maybe it involves some of the pain and alienation that this woman experiences. Maybe, like water jugs that must be repeatedly carted back and forth, the journey involves carrying burdens that no one else knows about. On the other hand, perhaps it is a journey of relative privilege and blessing one that hasn’t included too many times of loneliness or disappointment. Whatever the case, this woman’s experience at the well goes to show that our journeys may encounter God’s holiness at any time and in any place. If God can hallow Jesus’ journey to the cross, then God can turn up in our dark valleys too. The journeys we undertake—the ones we choose and the ones forced upon us—are bound to intersect with the God who loves us. We do not judge others’ journeys or the decisions that may have got them there. We view them as fellow travelers who are seeking, learning, searching, waiting for a Savior.

"Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well" (Guercino)
The woman at the well worships the Christ. It certainly doesn’t start out that way that day—as a chance to worship. It starts out as a request for water from a Jewish man who should really know better than to speak in public to an unknown woman. It starts out, then, as an admission of vulnerability, as request for help, not as a demand for obedience. It starts out with a crossing of boundaries, with a refusal to let ethnic or racial or social boundaries influence or deny the formation of a relationship.

I remember the lunch area in my high school and how although on the surface, to an outside observer, it looked like everyone was mingling, the reality was that everyone was sitting and eating in distinct groups that did not really mix. People from one group could not just get up and go sit down and talk with another, unless they wanted to risk being laughed at or looked at funny.

The man she meets at the well doesn’t mind being laughed at or looked at funny. He ventures into the hostile part of the high school cafeteria…the part of town no one likes to drive through…the political rally that you don’t want to associate with. It’s almost a habit of his, crossing borders, disregarding conventions. It’s how he helps connect people. It’s how he helps draw people in closer to himself and, therefore, to God.

For this woman, worship begins in conversation. It doesn’t start out with a bright, shining light or a voice booming from the heavens saying, “Worship me.” It starts with a request for water and then questions, a discussion, a sharing of ideas. Over the course of several minutes she comes to realize that the Messiah—that is, the Christ—she and her people have been waiting fo is sitting with her. No longer must she face Jerusalem to seek God, or Mt Gerezim, which is what her people, the Samaritans, believed. God’s presence was with her in this Jewish man who talks about living water.

Right now our family is in search of the perfect sippy cup. We’ve tried about four different kinds. A perfect sippy cup is one that will hold the water in, even when it is slammed on the floor multiple times, but which will also freely release enough water when someone puts it to their mouth. It’s one that will always give running water—living water, if you will—not trap it inside somehow. This woman will find in Jesus the perfect sippy cup, spring of life, a nourishment that will dependably flow for her.

This woman’s encounter with the living Lord shows us we have a God who takes our questions, who leaves himself open, who honors our curiosity, who doesn’t force the issue. This God desires our worship, desires our obedience, but this God wants it to rise out of relationship, not out of compulsion. This Spirit and truth so often comes carefully and gently, not at the tip of a sword.

I don’t know about you, but I find this so difficult to remember this and to model it for others. So often Christ-followers, especially religious authorities, can come across so rigid, so doctrine-driven, so full of all the answers all the time. We think people need a guidebook when really they want to hear a story. We resort to issuing commands when God favors dialogue. The woman at the well worships the Christ and we see how her life is changed by the living water she discovers worship to be.

The woman at the well witnesses with joy. She is so full of joy and excitement that she actually leaves her jug at the well to go back to the city to tell the people about Jesus. It sits there as a reminder of the change he has created. She’ll need literal water again, for sure, but her searching for a word, a relationship that truly satisfies is over. She won’t have to lug her hopes for that around anymore. The source of new life has found her.

So full of joy and amazement she is that she runs back to the very place that has likely ostracized her, the very community that has let her fetch water alone. Jesus has transformed her view of herself as well as her view of other people and the world around her. She now sees herself as a person who has something to offer, something to share. This living water is truly gushing up in her, the joy of eternal life is so vibrant others can taste it, see it.

Her message to them is very interesting, probably not what we would first guess a missionary would use. She doesn’t run back and say, “You’re all wrong! Listen to what I know!” or, “I’ve accepted the Lord and you need to, also.” Her witness is contained in one simple line: “He told me everything I have ever done.” It’s a very personal message, one that really can’t be argued with. To be honest, I’m not really sure I know what her message means, or if my own faith could be summed up in such a way, but I know if I were in that village I’d want to hear more from her.

I like the idea of a God who really knows people—even the parts they’ve hidden or been ashamed of—and still claims them and wants to be in relationship with them. When she comes back to the city and says, “He told me everything I’ve ever done,” it’s like she says, “Here’s what the Messiah is like, people. He knows our story. He knows the journey. He gets it.” Faith in Jesus helps us put things in our own lives in their proper place. It may not happen all at once, but it comes over time. We find our own story, with all of its ups and downs, wrapped up in his. We find our own journeys with all their brokenness and beauty, contained in his journey to the cross. And there we realize a well of life that can never run dry, a fountain that will always runneth over, a grace that will never be exhausted.

The woman at the well walks the journey, worships the Christ, and witnesses with joy. It is as if she is a member of Epiphany Lutheran Church and knows our mission. And I believe she is. This woman is really any one of us: Curious. Searching. Tired, but open. At any given point we can think we’re too lost or too marginalized to matter, traveling to the well alone, and God will encounter us once again.

We can begin to think worship is all about knowing which direction to face, which religious pieties to adopt and practice, and Christ will transform that again, too, reminding us that faith is about trusting in him.

And we can wonder about how to witness, how to share, how to find the right words or the right strategy, but we learn it’s really just about sharing our story, talking to others about our relationship with God, allowing questions and dialogue to happen.

We’re thirsty, Lord Jesus, and we thank you, for visiting that well and speaking with that woman. And we praise you for the privilege to walk, worship, and witness alongside her.


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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