Living water

Sermon, Third Sunday in Lent, 15 March 2020, St. David’s Episcopal Church, DeWitt, NY

Dan Handschy

Lent 3A (RCL), Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42

     Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink.  Have you ever noticed that in this story, Jesus never gets the drink of water he asked for?  That, if nothing else, should clue us in to the fact that this story isn’t really about water.  Something else is going on.

     I contend that this is a love story.  We have a woman and a man at a well.  If you’ve ever read the stories of the patriarchs, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – and let’s throw in Moses for good measure – you know that they all met their wives at a well.  When Abraham sent his servant back to his home land to find a wife for Isaac, the servant said to himself, the first woman I ask for water, and who gives it to me, that will be the woman for Isaac.  That woman was Rebekah.  Jacob said the same thing, and that woman was Rachel.  Moses met Zipporah at a well.

     In John’s Gospel, we’ve already had the miracle of changing water to wine at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.  And last week, we heard Nicodemus asking how one could be born again.  Something weird is going on here.  And about Nicodemus:  he was a Jew, a Pharisee, he had a name, and came to Jesus by night.  This woman has no name, is a Samaritan, and meets Jesus at noon.

     Hmmm.  Jesus asks for a drink of water, and our unnamed woman launches into a speech about Jews and Samaritans.  They hated each other.  Jews considered Samaritans half-breeds, ethnically defective, worse than Greeks.  So, she is a bit surprised.  Jesus replies, “If you knew who was asking, you would ask for living water.”  Remember, Jesus has already changed water to wine, so we’re not talking about water here.

     She wonders if Jesus is greater than Jacob, whose well it is.  We know, of course, that the answer is “yes.”  Jesus tells her to go and call her husband.  She replies that she has no husband, and Jesus says that indeed, she has had five, and the one she has now is not her husband.  Many commentators have a made a great deal about her marital history.  She must be a woman if ill-repute.  That’s why she is at the well and noon.  But remember, there is more to this story than meets the eye.

     Samaria was the capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  It had been conquered in 722 by the Assyrians, who had deported 27,000 Israelites, and resettled a bunch of foreigners in their place.  That’s why the Jews (from the Southern Kingdom) consider Samaritans half-breeds.  The Babylonians had then conquered the Assyrians, and the Persians had conquered the Assyrians.  Then came the Seleucids, and finally the Romans.  Each of these empires had put images of their own gods in the Temple on Mt. Gerezim.  Count them.  That’s five different gods:  Israel, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and the Seleucids.  The Old Testament often uses the image of God as Israel’s husband.  Five husbands.

     And finally comes Rome.  And Caesar is not really a god, despite his statue in the temple.  Now the picture is starting to get clearer.  In the middle of all this, the disciples come back and offer Jesus something to eat.  He points to the fields ripe for harvest.  What?

     Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, and was not convinced about being born from above to enter the kingdom.  This unnamed Samaritan woman has a conversation with Jesus about water, Temples, and husbands, and wonders if he might be the Christ, the savior of the world (Caesar’s title, by the way).  John’s little beleaguered community had gotten itself thrown out of the synagogue, and now finds itself on the verge of welcoming a bunch of Samaritans!

     The book of Acts tells us that some of the first non-Jewish converts to the Jesus movement were Samaritans.  Here we have a story about how that happened.  And it’s a love story.  A man and a woman meet at a well, and she – the Samaritan woman – ends up marrying Jesus, accepting him as God.  And in the end, the people of the village believe for themselves.

     What does that mean for us?  Jesus’ disciples were startled that he was talking to a Samaritan woman, but no one dared ask him why.  They would have been shocked to hear the story the way we can hear it.  We’re the disciples in the story, I think.

     I love that our Presiding Bishop has asked us to think of the Church as the Jesus movement.  I’m not a real Jesus-y sort of person.  I grew up in a fundamentalist tradition, and people used to ask if I had a personal relationship with Jesus.  Being the snarky teenager I was, I used to answer, “I haven’t shaken the man’s hand, if that’s what you mean.”  Jesus as my personal lord and savior just doesn’t do that much for me.

     But what the disciples discover is that Jesus is already out there talking to unnamed Samaritan women who have had five husbands, while they’re worried about what to eat.  And Jesus meets her at the well, just like all of the patriarchs met their wives at wells, by asking for a drink of water.  Last week, we heard that famous verse, John 3:16:  For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever should believe in him should not perish, but have eternal life.

     For God so loved the world.  Here’s the evidence.  And maybe that water is love.  Jesus turned 180 gallons of it into really good wine at a wedding.  That will keep the village buzzed for weeks.  And this poor woman hasn’t had a lot of it in her life.  Not enough to even return to Jesus a short sip of the stuff.  If she knew who Jesus was, he would give her unending streams of the stuff, gushing up to eternal life.  That’s loving with wild abandon.  For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son.

     That’s the content of our Gospel.  Love profligately.  Throw it away in great quantities.  Let it gush up to eternal life.  Bishop Curry, by calling us the Jesus Movement is reminding us that Jesus is out there asking the questions about God’s love, rather than worrying, like the disciples, what we are going to eat, how we’re going to pay the bills, can we keep the doors open.

     Look around you, says Jesus, the fields are ripe for harvest.  The trick is to throw God’s love all over the place, not worrying about they’re acceptable or not.