- Parish House
Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Lent
Year A, John 4.5-42
The Rev. Scott Walters
As junior high approached, my parents were understandably concerned. They’d heard the grisly stories. Seventh grade sounded so terrifying that they considered enrolling me in a Christian school in Springdale, a school that even had, I kid you not, a carpeted gymnasium floor, suggesting that every possible effort had been made to cushion the impact of the world on its students.
Mom and Dad didn’t send me there. But I felt their worry. So imagine how relieved I was that the upperclassmen of Siloam Springs Junior High did not flush our seventh grade heads or run us up the flagpole by our belts. But not only was junior high less dangerous than I’d imagined, it was far more wonderful too. Because the prettiest girl I’d ever seen had apparently been going to Southside, the other elementary school in town, all these years. I had no idea. And now we were classmates.
Her name was Jane Doe. Actually, that’s not her real name. It occurred to me while writing this that, in the Facebook age, it’s not impossible for a junior high classmate to end up reading the sermon in which she appears. So Jane she is. I fell for Jane hard. Of course, I knew she would have exactly no interest in a scrawny little Northside kid with glasses. And she didn’t. At least not for a few years. And then, miraculously, she did.
I got word at my locker one day that Jane Doe officially “liked” me. Not Facebook liked. Genuine 1983 high school liked me. So within the week we were dating. My impossible dream had somehow come true.
What “dating” meant was that on a Friday night, I might pick Jane up in my parents’ car and take her to Fayetteville for a movie and dinner at Bonanza. Well, by “might” I mean that’s pretty much exactly what we’d do. Every time. And I always ordered the chicken fried steak. But for some reason, for all my careful planning and gentlemanly execution, over the several months of our relationship, something essential was missing: conversation. We had no idea how to actually talk to each other. Jane was kind of quiet. I was too. Plus, I seemed to be going out with one of Charlie’s angels, so that will tie up a guy’s tongue right there.
I don’t know. Maybe a couples counselor would have suggested we mix things up and try Western Sizzlin. But we didn’t. And eventually Jane strung together enough sentences to say that this just wasn’t working. She put me out of her misery. And that was that.
Funny how this works. The way into a relationship always seems to involve conversation. And if people can’t make conversation, we can’t make much of anything together, can we? Not anything pleasant, at least.
It’s fair to say that graceful speech, truthful speech, speech that bridges differences, is in short supply in our world, don’t you think? Sometimes it seems like we don’t know how to talk to each other anymore. I wonder if Jesus might help us with that.
In a world that is even scarier than a junior high school in places, and in a world in which we encounter human beings who are stranger to us and more frightening than the object of a first adolescent crush, can Jesus help us learn to talk? Really talk. To speak truthfully and graciously. Not just mumble anxious nonsense until we finally break things off and walk away.
I don’t know why, but I’d never thought to look in on Jesus’s exchange with the woman at the well as a model for other human interactions. As a model for how to speak to one another. But it’s a beautiful and a challenging one. So let’s just pay attention as the conversation unfolds and see what we see.
First, there’s the Samaritan woman. No, I wouldn’t expect Jesus to be as intimidated by a female as I was by young Jane Doe. But he was violating all kinds of social conventions to speak to her at all, much less to ask for something as intimate as a drink of water.
Samaritans were religious enemies of the Jews. They actually tried to keep the Jews from restoring Jerusalem after the exile in Babylon. Samaritans had fought alongside the Syrians in their wars against the Jews. These weren’t friendly neighbors.
But also, since Samaritan religion was so different, there was good reason to believe a Samaritan woman would be ritually unclean. The great scholar of John, Raymond Brown, found a Jewish regulation from the time that warned of the impurity of Samaritan women, claiming they had been menstruating from the cradle. Pretty sure that wasn’t true. But that’s the kind of foolishness that emerges when your fears and revulsions about a people go really deep, isn’t it?
And such was the Samaritan woman’s world when she said, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask me for a drink? I’m supposed to be your religious enemy, your military enemy, your cultural enemy. I’m supposed to be physically revolting to you.” What she really can’t believe is that this Jewish man needed water so badly he would ask a Samaritan woman for a drink.
That’s how the conversation starts. Jesus presents himself to an unclean outcast as someone who needs something from her. He doesn’t have a bucket, and the well really is deep.
But in spite of it all, the two keep talking, don’t they? And the conversation does get a little strange. We are in the gospel of John, after all. People have wondered what the living water that leads to eternal life really was. Was it the Holy Spirit? Was it saving grace? Whatever it was, though, it was the heart of what Jesus had to give the world. It was clearly some crucial aspect of the gift of life his life was meant to bring.
In other words, Jesus is offering the essence of what he has to offer the world to this woman. “Ask me for it,” he says. “I want to give it to you.” And the woman says, “Please do. I’m tired of coming to this old well.”
But they are still not finished talking. Jesus goes deeper yet. Set aside the mystery of how Jesus knew the woman’s history, and sit for a minute with the simple fact that he did. He knew who she was and he kept talking to her, kept offering her the divine gift, even knowing the worst.
And what may be even more astonishing yet, is that the woman won’t let her sin and shame drive her away either. She stays too. They talk. They get personal. And Jesus says, “I know all this about you. And here we are. Still talking about the living water that God wants to pour into our lives. Into your life, Samaritan woman of five husbands and a live-in boyfriend. I know all this. And I’m still here. Still offering this gift to you.”
“So am I,” says the woman by her actions. “The truth about me didn’t send me away either.” She had the rare courage to accept the terms of grace, and to stay, in spite of her failures.
On and on they talk. They talk about more differences in their religions, about which mountains their ancestors worshiped on. They don’t just talk about what they agree on. This is meaningful, trusting dialogue. And Jesus says, “You know, a new time has come. We used to understand ourselves according to where we come from, what religion we adhere to. True worshipers worship in spirit and truth. The old distinctions won’t matter at all when your heart opens up to the Spirit of God, and lets the living water wash in.”
And the conversation ends as Jesus discloses to this strange, sinful, foreign, heretical woman the deepest truth about himself. That he is the anointed one, the messiah, the one the whole world had been longing for.
It is astonishing what deep, truthful, vulnerable, personal conversation can accomplish, is it not?
There’s one more important thing to say about the scene, which is how different the disciples are from the woman. Did you notice? The disciples happen upon the conversation and can’t believe Jesus is talking to a woman. They don’t know the half of it, do they? But what do they say? How do they engage Jesus? Well…like a tongue-tied teenager on a date with his dream girl. They say nothing. They stew and they wonder and they raise their eyebrows and avoid the topic.
In the meantime, the Samaritan woman is off telling everyone who will listen that she’s just had a life changing conversation with a Jewish man who might just be the messiah. Faith and the spirit of God spread through the grace filled speech of a sinful Samaritan woman who isn’t quite sure this Jesus is the messiah, but thinks he might be. That’s the extent of her faith. She stayed present, honest, open, and engaged with a man she thought might be messiah. And that was enough.
The way into relationship and growth and change always involves conversation. Even for Jesus. Even for enemies and outcasts. And the deepest transformation seems to require us to not play our conversation safe. Not to stick to polite topics and the things we agree upon with people who see the world mostly like we do. The conversation Jesus calls us to goes deep. It pushes through our prejudices and fears and insecurities, it doesn’t avoid sex or sin or what we really believe or don’t believe about God. It involves, as Jesus and one remarkable woman showed us, the courage to be real and transparent, trusting and trustworthy, honest and vulnerable and kind.
And sometimes what’s required is that we, like the woman from Samaria, accept the terms of grace. Accept that we are invited to stay in the conversation and go deeper, whatever the state of our lives and our loves. Accept that it’s not our goodness, but God’s acceptance that makes space for the conversation to go on, and on, and on.
Surely it is time for us, as Jesus’s church, Jesus’s people, to learn how to speak again. To say our public discourse had become adolescent is an insult to seventh graders everywhere. Too often we speak in order to inflame people’s anger, we lie in order to make people afraid, we invent divisions among us, instead of learning the patient, discerning, reconciling speech of Jesus. Speech that reaches across the deepest differences among us—political, national, religious, emotional, moral, physical, the deeper they go the more they look like the ones Jesus took on—speech that reaches across difference and estrangement and becomes not only a means of human relationship but the way divine grace comes into the world.
That’s what the story says, isn’t it? Living water was at stake, or dammed up. Because living water burst forth and flowed even into Samaria because Jesus and an outcast woman at a well took up the patient work of real conversation. What might come of it, if Jesus’s people really set themselves to doing the same thing in our lives, and in our world, today?