Lent 3A Sermon (1999)

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


Greetings in the name of Christ! My name is Amos of Sychar. 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 in my village came to believe. 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 a 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. 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 can’t be the Messiah, the Christ, can he?” The Messiah! Before we even thought about it, we found ourselves running to meet this person, too. 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.

Pastor Mary and Pastor Paul, when they invited me here today, wanted to be sure to tell me that you, the disciples of Emmaus, are starting to reach out into your neighborhood. You are trying to follow Jesus’ example of not minimizing your contact with those who are different than you. They asked me to make sure you realize that, when you go out into your neighborhoods, you are bound to encounter a number of folks like this Samaritan woman, people who are different from you in more ways than one. Yet that is the example that Jesus constantly set for us. How is it that the church of Jesus has gotten so locked into being more like a club for like-minded people? Your pastors confessed to me that that is even the kind of ministry they were trained for at the seminary: a ministry of running programs that would simply attract the people most like you. Following Jesus’ example of reaching out to people who are different is scary to them, too. It pushes us all beyond our comfort level, because we tend to be most comfortable with those who are like us.

But there’s a couple things to keep in mind here that’s helpful. First, and most importantly, is to remember that you are not Jesus. You are a disciple of Jesus, like me, but you are not yourself Jesus. This is freeing to the extent that you don’t have to expect that you will do these things perfectly. It is even more freeing to the extent that the entire business of being one of Jesus’ disciples begins with being forgiven. For me, I had to recognize all the ways in which I had helped to make that poor woman’s life miserable. I had been among those who had heaped shame upon her all her life. It was Jesus himself that finally broke through that, with a forgiveness and love that gave her new life, and then, through her, gave me new life, too. No, you and I can never completely take the place of Jesus. It is only Jesus’ love that comes to us through the Cross that has the power to change us and to make us disciples.

Having said that, I don’t want us to be shy about being disciples. We are not Jesus himself, but we are his body, his hands and feet and mouth and eyes and ears. We are called to bring Jesus to others. We are not Jesus, but Jesus needs us. Look at what happened in our town! The person who was seen as the lowest of the low, she was the first person in our town to become a disciple! It was she who ran into town to spread the word, to tell others and show others how Jesus had given her new life. We saw and believed and then came to encounter this Jesus for ourselves. Yes, it was Jesus’ love and forgiveness which ultimately changed me, but it happened because and through this sister of ours whom we had shunned and had basically given up as dead.

So be bold! Reach out into your neighborhood. You’ll find some folks who you might otherwise have given up on as dead, spiritually dead. They have seemingly died of thirst, desiring after so many dead-end things that could never satisfy their thirst. Yes, you’ll find addicted people, for example. Addiction is the exact opposite of what Jesus came to give that woman at the well. He came to give her a living water that would forever satisfy her longings and desires. Addiction is the process of getting hooked on things that will never satisfy us. They only get us hungering and thirsting for more until we have a famished craving, until our spirits die of thirst. Jesus came to give us something that will finally quench our thirst, satisfy our hunger.

What is it? you ask. Well, Jesus later said it very simply to us: (John 4:34) “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work,” he said to us. In other words, he came to show us how to do God’s desire. It is God’s desire, God’s love, that can finally quench our thirst and satisfy our hunger. This is what Jesus offered to the Samaritan woman. It is what he offered to me through the Samaritan woman. It is what he can offer through you to those who hunger and thirst in your neighborhood. And I dare say that some of the people you meet in your neighborhood, some of those untouchables like this Samaritan woman had been to us, yes, even they will begin to offer that life giving water right back to you. Don’t go out into your neighbor hood without expecting to be changed yourself. Don’t go out there not expecting miracles. Go out there with the promise that you will often times receive the same life-giving water that you are there to offer. And do you know why? Because Jesus has promised to go with us. Just as long as you are his hands and feet and eyes and ears and mouth, he has promised to go with you with a fountain of life-giving water for everyone. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, March 6-7, 1999

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