Conversations Before the Cross 3: Samaritan Woman<
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Third Sunday in Lent/A • March 19, 2017
I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody too?
– Emily Dickinson
Those words were written in the nineteenth century by Emily Dickinson but I wonder if they might not stand for the thoughts of the Samaritan Woman as she trudged down the hot dirt path to Jacob’s Well and saw a strange man sitting there. One more man who would by his averted glance, his sitting aside, demonstrate his contempt for her and all she was. One more person who would demonstrate indeed that he believed she was nobody.
She’s walking down the path at the middle of the day, the sixth hour. It’s an odd time to fetch water; water is usually fetched at the beginning and end of the day by young women who gather happily at the well. This woman has set herself aside and comes at the middle of the day for reasons about which we can only wonder. She is a minority in a culture of disdain. She is nameless even here in the Gospel. She is a woman in a patriarchal society, she is a casualty of relationships.
All these things are like boundaries around her. The boundary of Samaria: as much a psychological boundary as a national one, one of those boundaries human beings create which seems to outsiders artificial and yet to those who observe it is crucial to identity. How many years have we heard about the troubles in Ireland and yet which of us could distinguish between an Irish Catholic and an Irish Protestant? But the distinction is life and death there.
Years ago the television program Star Trek had a show in which the crew of the Enterprise visited a world of enormous conflict between two races who were half starkly white and half deeply black. Captain Kirk, trying to make peace, arranges a meeting between the leaders of the two factions. He says, “I don’t understand, you’re both half white, half black.” But both combatants look at him in amazement. “But Captain!”, one replies, “He’s white on the right and black on the left; I’m black on the right and white on the left!”. Jesus asks the woman for a drink and she’s amazed!
How Would You Respond to a Stranger?
“You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” There she is with all her boundaries and someone enters her space. What do you think she expected? What do you expect when you, as a woman, walk into a public place and there is a strange and threatening man? I asked this question in Bible Class and every woman there said the same thing: “I’d avoid him”. She expects to avoid him, she expects to endure his silent contempt, she expects to be nobody. But he asks for a drink. And before he’s done, she’s begging him for living water.
There’s nothing more basic than a drink of water. Jesus asks for a drink and the woman asks for living water, the woman who was nobody, the woman who was nobody. The church is looking back and this is what they are remembering: once I was nobody. “I once was lost and now am found”, we sing. I once was nobody and I had living water poured on me and I became someone. One by one Jesus crosses the boundaries that have isolated this woman. He asks for water as if she were a friend; he offers living water as if she were family. He makes the well again a place to share for her, though she had been alone. Jew, Samaritan—we’re both thirsty, he seems to say. She wants to talk theology: a way to put the boundaries back. “What about where we worship”, she asks; “worship in spirit wherever”, he replies—that’s what God really wants.
Finally, something happens that saves this from being theoretical and that’s the moment when he asks about her husband; that’s the moment when it becomes concrete, there’s a moment when it becomes personal. There’s a story about a woman in an evangelical church who was very judgmental. One day she got the Deacons to invite a noted fire and brimstone preacher to visit. He said, “God is going to judge everyone! Everyone who has take the Lord’s name in vain, you’re going to have God’s judgment!” “Amen!”, the woman shouted. “Everyone who has looked with lust is going to have God’s judgment!” he shouted. “Amen! Preach it!”, she said, rocking in her pew with her enthusiasm. “Everyone who gambles and plays bingo is going to have God’s judgment!”, he yelled. And the woman stopped rocking and said to her neighbor, the one who had won $5 just last night with her at bingo, “Well, now he’s stopped preaching and gone to meddling.” It’s one thing to talk about theology; it’s another thing to talk about personal things, private things.
“Call your husband”, Jesus says. That’s personal. “I don’t have a husband”, the woman replies. Whatever this woman’s history, and the church has imagined all kinds of histories for her, we know this: she has been dumped. We know it because the text says she has had five husbands and under the law of the time, she couldn’t divorce anyone, women couldn’t divorce their husbands, so five men husbands have left her. What does Jesus say to her? We don’t know; the text doesn’t t tell us but it is clear that whatever he says, she comes away from the encounter with a tremendous sense of acceptance, a deep feeling of having been heard and cared for, because her response is to ask, “Can this be the Christ?” He knows her: from his knowledge, she takes the courage to know him
When the Lost Are Found
It is the experience Paul talks about:
You see at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrated God’s own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
God didn’t wait for us to get right, God came when we were sinners, when we were a mess. God already knew us.
That affirmation about God is at the core of what it means to be Christian. Christian life doesn’t start when we know God nor is it founded on what we say about God. Christian life begins when we know God already knows us and loves us
The church has all too often forgotten that we come from God’s knowledge of us to our knowledge of God. We have fenced the communion table, we have created boundaries which kept people like this woman out.
I want to say this one thing about the communion table: the invitation is for sinners. This table is a symbol that God is coming to us where we are, to give us the possibility of going to what God hopes for us. This table is a place to receive the food that can nurture us. And what is that food? Not just bread and grape juice. These are just symbols. They are symbols of God’s nurture, they are symbols of God’s call to move beyond the boundaries, beyond what we are, to what we can become.
Who Do You Meet?
Just like Jesus with the Samaritan Woman, every day we encounter people who don’t expect much from us. They don’t know you are a Christian; they don’t know you at all. In every one of those encounters, there is the possibility of someone being nurtured. In every one of those encounters, there is the possibility to share the well, to share the living water.
God has for each one of us, for me, for you, this plan: that you will be a blessing. And everything you need to be a blessing is right there if you will look around and see it. That looking around begins with the woman’s question. When she leaves Jesus, she says, “Can this be the Christ?” What do you think? Can it? Can you believe this is a Christ who can care for you despite all the boundaries?
What this finally means is: can you believe in hope? It’s frightening to believe in hope sometimes; it’s scary to believe in a hope beyond reason.
The movie Shakespeare in Love is the story of the young Will Shakespeare writing a new play he calls Romeo and Ethel, which you may know more familiarly as Romeo and Juliet. The movie has a romantic subplot and several conspiracies which all gather momentum near the end, as the play is put on stage. There are all kinds of obstacles and as they occur people keep rushing up to the stage manager and wringing their hands. To each in turn he replies, “It will all work out”. “How”, they ask. “I don’t know” he says. It will all work out—How?—I don’t know: over and over again.
That’s the hope Paul talks about; not a hope founded on reason, a hope founded on the faith that there is a God whose love is so powerful it can break the boundaries, there is a God whose love is so powerful it can call out of nothing creation, there is a God whose love is so powerful it called Jesus Christ from death back to live, there is a God whose love is so powerful it can call you to the same life. Share it, live it, offer it, as living water, as you share the well this week.