Monday, March 13, 2023

Sermon, Third Sunday in Lent

' This woman, you see, has been searching,

not for water, not for love, not even for forgiveness, but for truth.

And Jesus, by revealing the truth about her,

has given her the hope that he might be able to reveal the truth

about other things as well.'

Could there possibly be two more different people

as Jesus’ conversation partners

than the ones from last week’s and this week’s Gospel lessons?


Last week it was Jesus and Nicodemus the Pharisee,

well-versed in God’s law, well-respected among his peers,

talking of earthly and heavenly things.

This week it is Jesus and an unnamed woman,

not only a woman but a Samaritan,

untaught in the Law, or at least very unobservant;

for these three reasons at the very opposite pole of Nicodemus.


But there is one more difference between the two conversations.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus in secret, by night,

and Jesus encounters the woman at high noon.


These little details –

the season of the year, the time of the day, the location of the meeting – are always included in the Gospel of John.

Of course, it could very well be

that John is simply adding descriptive detail to his story,

telling us the facts of what happened.


But it’s never that simple with John.

You remember the five ‘W’s’ of journalism:

Who, what, where, when, why.

Whenever John tells us who, what, where, when

he’s never just telling us who, what, where, when.

He’s telling us why.

Why Jacob’s well? Why noon?

Why does the woman leave her water jar behind

when she goes back into the city?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. 


Let’s start with the facts. The woman is a Samaritan.

Samaritans and Jews shared a long and tortured history.

The Samaritans were descendants of the ten Northern Israelite tribes

who had not been taken away to Assyria at the time of their exile.

They believed their interpretation of the faith of Israel

to be the correct one.

And so there was conflict between the two groups.


But Jesus the Jew and the woman of Samaria

encounter each other at Jacob’s well.

If you remember your Old Testament, Jacob was renamed Israel,

‘one who strives with God.’

Jacob was the common ancestor of the twelve tribes.

A very appropriate place for representatives of the two groups to meet.


The fact that Jesus speaks at all

crosses boundaries in at least two ways:

a Jew talking with a Samaritan,

and a man speaking with a woman in public.

Jesus asks water of the woman,

but promises something else,

to give her living water so that she will no longer thirst.

Just like Nicodemus last week,

the woman takes Jesus’ words literally,

asking Jesus to give her this spring of water

so that she will no longer need to drag her water jar to the well each day.


Then Jesus tells the woman that she has had five husbands.

But we ought to be careful before we assume what is going on.

Although the woman does have sins to be absolved,

this is not simply a standard call to repentance and an offer of forgiveness.

There is something more going on.

Jesus, by revealing the woman’s history, reveals himself,

and the woman understands the opportunity she has been given.

And so she goes right to the heart of the matter –

who’s right, his people or her people?

Where is the right place to worship,

at her people’s ancestral mountain, or his people’s?


 This woman, you see, has been searching,

not for water, not for love, not even for forgiveness, but for truth.

And Jesus, by revealing the truth about her,

has given her the hope that he might be able to reveal the truth

about other things as well.


The disciples show up,

and suddenly the woman up and runs back to the city,

leaving behind the water jar.

Why does she leave the water jar?

Perhaps she was so excited by what Jesus told her

and so eager to share the news with her family and friends

that she simply forgot about it.

She could have thought that it would have been a hindrance,

slowed her down.

Maybe she decided that she would leave it so the Messiah to get water

and would pick it up when she got back.

These are all very interesting theories,

none of which are in the text.


She goes away, without giving Jesus any water,

but Jesus must not have been too thirsty.

Apparently he wasn’t hungry either,

for when his disciples showed up with food, he didn’t eat anything.

His food was to do the will of God and to complete his work,

and what he was thirsty for was faith,

and he found it in the woman of Samaria.

The woman leaves behind her searching questions,

because she’s found what she’s thirsting for,

the truth about God she’s been seeking.


We haven’t really been talking about water, have we?

It’s never just who, what, where, when with Jesus in the Gospel of John,

it’s about why.

Here at Jacob’s well, Jesus shows Jews and Samaritans

that they may find common faith and fulfillment in him.

It’s no longer a matter of where we worship, but whom we worship,

for God’s Spirit is among us

wherever we gather in Jesus’ name and hear Jesus’ word

and receive Jesus’ body and blood in faith.


 Oh, I almost forgot.

Why does Jesus meet the Samaritan woman at noon

but Nicodemus by night?

We can come up with a prosaic answer,

that Nicodemus came to Jesus in private

because he was not Jesus’ disciple,

and the woman could only come to the well at noon

because her notoriety made it impossible for her

to come in the morning with anyone else.

These may be true, but John would not be satisfied with those reasons.

Rather, when Nicodemus meets Jesus,

he is still in the darkness of doubt,

and the woman is illumined with the light of faith.

Though we hear no more of the woman or her community,

Nicodemus’s story is not over,

and there may well be enlightenment for him too.


And finally, I may ask this. Are you still carrying your water jar?

You may say, I don’t carry around a bucket –

I’ve got a tap in my home,

and bottled water when I want it and can afford it.

But remember, we’re not talking about water, are we?

This Lent, those who around the world

are preparing for their Easter baptism

hear this story and see in themselves the searching one

who finds in Jesus the living water which quenches her thirst for truth,

and who leaves behind all that did not refresh and satisfy.

And we who are baptized are recalled again to the promise

that in Jesus we have received all that we need.

There is no further revelation we need search for,

and we may leave behind anything in our lives

that would keep us from life in the Spirit.


Too often we have picked up that water jar again,

seeking that which was not life.

living in doubt though we have been consecrated in faith,

Jesus invites us, again or for the first time,

to the promise contained in him,

to live in the Spirit which springs up inside us,

to drink deeply of the life and peace he gives us.