Lent 3A Sermon (1996)

3rd Sunday in Lent
Texts: John 4:5-42;
Ex. 17:1-7; Rom. 5:1-11


Greetings in the name of Christ! I am here this morning from a village in Samaria to give you my testimony. Yes, I greet you in the name of Christ, because I now count myself as a follower of this Jesus of Nazareth, who I have come to believe is the Christ sent from God to save us. But how I came to believe, well, that’s the surprising part–shocking, really. For this Jesus chose the most startling way to bring us God’s message of love, and he chose the most unexpected source. Perhaps that’s why so many of us came to believe in my village. Everything this Jesus did was so new and singular that he must be from God.

But I better not get ahead of myself. I need to start from the beginning. The first thing you need to know is that it was highly unusual for a Jew like Jesus to even visit our neck of the woods. Jews hated Samaritans, and vice versa. I think I could compare it to your time, in which the Jews and Arabs have such a hard time getting along. They each have their own towns and villages, and they just don’t mix. It was the same for my people when it came to the Jews. So surprise number one was even that Jesus and his disciples would bother to come to our region and ‘give us the time of day,’ so to speak. Sure, he was tired and needed something to eat and drink. But he could have satisfied those needs with a minimum of contact. He chose neither. He didn’t choose to avoid our region, and neither did he choose to keep his contact at a minimum.

But that was just the first surprise. The next unexpected turn was who Jesus chose to make contact with. It begins with the fact that this person was a woman. In our culture, men did not speak to strange women. This was especially true of great teachers with a reputation like Jesus’. Great rabbis were to reserve their words for men, since women weren’t allowed to learn from rabbis–only from their own fathers and husbands. There were also customs and expectations that went with speaking at a well. For a man to go to a well and meet women there was a bit like you going to a singles bar today, like going to your favorite ‘watering hole,’ as they say. We were all very aware that many of our ancestors had met at wells: Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, Moses and Zipporah all met at wells. For a man to go to well and strike up a conversation with a woman was a bit like going out to find a wife–to put it nicely. There are more crass ways to put it that you might think of!

So what do we have so far? Jesus wasn’t supposed to be in Samaritan territory, but he was. He wasn’t supposed to talk to Samaritans when he did encounter them, but he did. Etiquette, especially for a respected rabbi, dictated that men shouldn’t talk to women, especially at wells, but that’s just what Jesus did. And we haven’t even gotten to the biggest shock of all. Just what woman did Jesus choose to talk to? Why the one with the worst reputation in town! To be frank about it, this woman had the biggest reputation for sleeping around. She had been married and divorced several times. The last couple men she lived with she didn’t even marry. She had four children by four different fathers. I don’t know; would you want a woman like that in your church? We sure didn’t want her around us, and she knew it. That’s why she came to the well at noon, at the hottest time of the day! All the other women came at daybreak when it was cool. She was least likely to encounter anyone else at noon. Her reputation among us was so bad that she basically had to try to sneak to the well to get her water. This woman, of all people, was the person that Jesus chose to speak to, offering her the gift of salvation, no less. Can you believe that?

And Jesus wasn’t just being naive. He wasn’t just being a nice guy. He knew exactly what he was doing. He could figure out why this woman was coming for water at midday. In fact, he seemed to know everything about her. That’s why we listened to her at all when she came running into town to tell us what happened. Most of the time we just ignored her. But she was so excited, not her usual self, slinking around town trying to go unnoticed. No, she was changed! Somehow alive again! This woman who had been dead to us, buried under a load of shame we heaped upon her, she boldly ran into our midst with a spark of life in her eyes once again. And she proclaimed to us, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, the Christ, can he?” The Messiah! Before we even thought about it, we found ourselves running to meet this person to. If we had thought about it, we would have wondered why she was so excited about someone telling her about her miserable life. Yes, we went to see and hear for ourselves and came to believe that this Jesus was indeed the Messiah.

Why? Why did we believe? And why did we respond to this woman we had shunned for so many years? I don’t even know if I can say for sure. One thing is certain: it must have been the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus had told the woman and later came to tell us, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (Jn 4:23-24) He explained to us that the Holy Spirit is the Paraclete, that is, the Spirit of truth, the Defense Attorney who helps us to understand that we have been offered an acquittal by a gracious and loving God.

If I had to find one way to explain it, though, I might choose the words that St. Paul uses in your other reading today. Listen to what he says: “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” “While we were enemies” God sent Jesus into the world to save us. That’s the shocking revelation we came to understand through this woman of ill-repute from our village. Think of what I have told you about her so far. Jesus had every right to count her as an enemy: ethnically and religiously, because he was a Jew and she was a Samaritan; socially, because he was a man of high standing and she a woman of low station; morally, because his life was a paragon of virtue and hers was a mess. He had every right to treat her with the same kind of contempt that we did, to judge her as an untouchable. Jesus and this woman, by every human measure, were enemies. Yet he came to show us a completely different way, the only way that will ultimately save us from all the suffering we endure because we divide the world between friends and enemies. He came to show us how to love our enemies until they aren’t enemies any longer. We had looked at this woman with nothing but scorn. But Jesus looked at this woman and saw suffering. He saw someone dying of spiritual thirst. And his love for her was able to bring her alive again. It was like he transformed that stagnant old well water into a fountain of spring water, bubbling with life. You had to see it to believe it! We saw it, and we came to believe it, too. And we experienced that same water of life for our parched and barren lives, because we had participated in that same desert world of dividing between friends and enemies. Jesus’ love for this woman helped us to love her, too, breaking down all the barriers of hate and contempt–all of them, between Jew and Samaritan, man and woman, socially high and socially low, righteous and unrighteous. Jesus showed us the barrenness of such a world and quenched our thirst for being able to truly live in peace.

Where can you meet this Jesus, you ask? He has promised to meet in the word and the sacrament done in his name. He has promised to meet you in this place. But one word of caution. If what you do in this place is…is…well, let’s just call it ol’ time religion, then what you may have might be something more like Jacob’s stagnant old well. Isn’t good ol’ time religion one of our best attempts at dividing the world between friends and enemies, righteous and unrighteous? Think of some of your politicians right now who call us back to religion. Do you think they will help to unite everybody or divide?

There’s another way to see this point about religion, and that’s to conclude by looking at one aspect of St. John’s telling of this story. You’ve heard enough of my version. Notice which story St. John tells it with. You heard it last week: the story of the righteous Pharisee Nicodemus, who just couldn’t understand what it is that this Samaritan woman came to understand. Notice all the contrasts between these two stories: one is at midnight, the other at midday; one is with a man, the other a woman; one is with Mr. Rectitude, the other with Mrs. Prostitute. But the most important contrast is that Mr. Rectitude, Mr. Good Ol’ Time Religion, just couldn’t grasp what Jesus had to say, while this Samaritan woman was grasped by what Jesus had to say. Yes, my caution to you is that good ‘ol time religion might be more of an obstacle than it is a benefit. You might say that religion itself is the game of erecting barriers of dividing the world between friends and enemies. The truth I came to see and hear that day is that Jesus comes to tear down such barriers with a divine love that’s too shocking not to believe. But don’t just take my word for it. The invitation to you, as it is to every generation, is to come and see for yourself. Meet this Jesus yourself, and see if he can’t quench your thirst. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, March 9-10, 1996

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