Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sermon for Third Sunday in Lent, "Voices: Woman at the Well"

Sermon 3/27/11
John 4:5-42

Voices: Woman at the Well


            To be known is to be loved and to be loved is to be known.
Today we encounter this fascinating story from the gospel of John, the only gospel where we find this passage, the woman at the well. As I was reading over this passage I began to suspect and had to check up this, and found I was right: This passage gives us the longest recorded conversation between Jesus and another person. That should peak our interest - something important happens here.
Jesus is travelling from place to place and his destination causes him to travel through a Samaritan city. The Jews and the Samaritans didn’t get along. They had common religious ancestry, but over the centuries they had divided and come to have different religious beliefs, and their differences caused prejudices on both sides, conflicts. Samaritans believed that only the Pentateuch was scripture – only the first five books of our Bible – the law of Moses. They didn’t hold the prophets and other writings as scripture. And they believed that Mount Sinai, not Jerusalem, was the holy place of worship. But Jews and Samaritans didn’t just have different views on religious beliefs. Relations between the two groups were tense and unfriendly, with Jews typically viewing Samaritans as lower and unclean. Maybe those differences in belief don’t’ seem very significant enough – not enough to cause so much hostility – but goodness knows we fight with each other over less significant divides.
But, still, Jesus travels through this Samaritan town, and stops at a well, tired from his journey. A Samaritan woman, unnamed like so many women in the Bible, comes to the well, and Jesus asks her to draw him some water to drink. The passage mentions the time of the day that she comes to the well – noon. Since most passages don’t give us a time, we can guess again that it is significant. Noon would have been the hottest hour – not usually the hour to come to the well. So this unnamed woman, coming to the well at noon – it suggests she’s an outcast, or wants to void the eyes of others. She’s surprised that Jesus even speaks to her. As a rabbi, a teacher, a man, Jesus wouldn’t have initiated conversation with a woman in a public place. And as a Jew, Jesus wouldn’t have initiated conversation with a Samaritan, as she notes. But Jesus tells her, “if you knew the gift of God, and who it is [that is talking to you], you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman is naturally confused by Jesus’ strange talk. How can he get water without a bucket, she wonders? Jacob, their revered forefather got water from a well with the help of God. Can this man Jesus do that? Jesus answers, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman responds, even if not understanding fully, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Jesus goes on to tell the woman all about herself, her history. The woman asks if Jesus is a prophet – an interesting question from a Samaritan, since they don’t hold the writings of prophets as scripture. They debate a bit, about their different religious views. But Jesus tells her, “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the truth worshipers will worship God in spirit and truth, for God seeks such as these to worship. God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman says she knows that the Messiah is coming. Jesus says he is the Messiah.
The passage goes on. The disciples show up, surprised at Jesus’ conversation partner, but wise enough apparently after long enough with Jesus to keep their thoughts to themselves. Jesus says something to them about food to eat, and they, like the woman, are confused by his talk. But Jesus says, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to proclaim his work.” He talks about the Samaritans being ready for the harvest, ready to receive the good news. Indeed, the passage closes with the woman bringing others to meet Jesus, this man who knew all about her, and they believe that he is the savior because of her witness.

            To be known is to be loved and to be loved is to be known.
            I am struck by the fact that the woman does not bristle when Jesus calls her out for her five husbands. She doesn’t deny it or justify it or get upset. Perhaps she doesn’t react badly because Jesus doesn’t say it with judgment – he just states it as fact about her. But indeed, the woman takes Jesus’ words to her and uses them as a reason to compel others to come to meet Jesus: “This man told me everything I have ever done.” Now of course, unless we’re missing a big chunk of conversation, Jesus didn’t exactly tell her about her life from birth to present – but for the woman, Jesus captured the facts that have defined her life so far.
            To be known is to be loved and to be loved is to be known.
            Do we have to change in order to be loved? If someone really knew us, would we still be lovable? Or are we only lovable in so far as we can meet certain expectations? Do we have to keep people at arm’s length from really knowing us in order to be loved? I think these are maybe the voices this woman was used to hearing. And they’re certainly voices we are used to hearing, aren’t they?
            You only need to spend about five minutes watching commercials, or drive down the highway and look at the billboards, or check out the advertisements in magazines and online, or basically just exist in this world to be bombarded with messages that all say one basic thing: You are not good enough how you are to be of value, worthy of love. But if you buy this, if you change yourself, if you put on the right mask – then, then, you might be loveable. But as you are – you’re too thin, too tall, too fat, too short, too poor, bad skin, bad hair, not dressed in the right style, in the right brands, not shopping at the right stores, not driving the right car, not living in a nice enough home, a clean enough home, not a good enough parent – and you won’t really be lovable – desirable, admirable, interesting – worth someone’s time, attention, care, or love, until you can make some changes in yourself.
            To be known is to be loved and to be loved is to be known.
            Do we have to change in order to be loved? What if we don’t? What if we are totally lovable, totally valuable, totally of sacred worth already, just because we are, just because we have already been created in God’s image, just because we exist? I think, at the well, for the first time this woman hears another voice, offering another truth than the one she has been told, has been living for so long. She’s known. And she is loved. Loved and known. Jesus knows everything about her, and he still spends time with her. Knows everything about her, and still offers her living water. Knows everything about her, and yet makes no demands of her. Jesus doesn’t say that living water is hers after she makes amends for her sins or changes something about herself. He just offers, and it is hers for the taking. He knows her. He loves her. What if we are already lovable?
            To be known is to be loved and to be loved is to be known.
            The woman at the well – she does change. She hears Jesus’ voice, she wants the living water, and what’s more, she’s compelled to share it. “Come and see” she says to those in town – perhaps the very ones who have made her feel like an outsider. “Come and see” – see the one who knows me. We don’t have to change to be loved. But love changes us – being loved changes us, being known changes us. Not into some picture-perfect Christian – but love can changes us, move us to be fully ourselves, fully disciples, fully God’s.
            God knows you. Knows your heart. Knows your nature. Knows your soul. Knows you and loves you. Does that love change you? I hope so. Real love always changes us. But God’s love is there already to ground you, to guide you, to quench your thirsting soul. Come and see. Amen. 
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