Year A Lent 3 John 4 2011
Living Water for a Thirsty Soul
The 1998 senior class heard the unvarnished truth from the Rev. Peter Gomes, minister at Harvard and the author of several books on the Bible, including The Good Book and Sermons. In his gentle ringing tones, that call to mind a cross between a Shakespearean actor and the TV sitcom character Frasier, the inimitable Doctor Gomes took no prisoners as he began:
"You are going to be sent out of here for good, and most of you aren't ready to go. The president is about to bid you into the fellowship of educated men and women and," - and here he paused and spoke each word slowly for emphasis - "you know just - how - dumb - you - really - are."
The senior class cheered in agreement.
"And worse than that," Doctor Gomes continued, "the world - and your parents in particular - are going to expect that you will be among the brightest and best. But you know that you can no longer fool all the people even some of the time. By noontime today, you will be out of here. By tomorrow you will be history. By Saturday, you will be toast. That's a fact - no exceptions, no extensions."
"Nevertheless, there is reason to hope," Doctor Gomes promised. "The future is God's gift to you. God will not let you stumble or fall. God has not brought you this far to this place to abandon you or leave you here alone and afraid. The God of Israel never stumbles, never sleeps, never goes on sabbatical. Thus, my beloved and bewildered young friends, do not be afraid."
What Doctor Gomes did for the senior class at Harvard, Jesus does for the woman at the well. Before we take a look at the story let me let you in on a fascinating fact. You can go to Israel today and take a journey to Samaria to the town of Sychar. A place the passage of time seems to have forgotten. Not many people live there, about 300, and they still consider themselves Samaritans.
The primary structure in town is a kind of cellar, which houses a well, the only source of water for miles. Archeologists estimate its date upwards of 4,000 years. Weary travelers have quenched their thirst there since the time of Jacob. But even more fascinating than its archeological significance is the fact that this place historically validates for us the precise location where the Samaritan woman had an encounter with the Christ. It's hard to believe but the authenticity of the well is undisputed. Samaritans, Muslims, Christians, Jews all agree that this is the place where the story took place.
It was noonday at Sychar. The disciples went on into the village, we are told, to buy food. Someone has suggested that they were seeking out the stores that gave the clergy discount. Jesus stopped at the well on the outskirts for a brief respite from the sun's blistering rays. When a woman of the village walked up Jesus addressed her: "Woman, give me a drink."
She was taken back that Jesus spoke to her for two reasons. First, men did not publicly speak to women. Two, she was a Samaritan and Jews had no dealings with Samaritans. They considered them unclean — ritualistically speaking and probably in terms of personal hygiene as well. They were dogs. Thus, Jesus had crossed both a gender and a racial line by speaking to this person. She replied: "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of water from me, a woman of Samaria?" Jesus ignores her question, ignores the racial issue, and gets to the heart of the matter. He said: "If you had known who was asking you for water you would have asked him and he would have given you living water." Jesus is, of course, speaking theologically, which is the only significant way to speak, but the woman cannot get beyond the literal. "Oh, go on," she snips. "This is a deep well and you haven't even got a bucket.
The woman appears to be poking fun at Jesus: "You have nothing to draw with and this well is deep. Just how did you suppose to drawn this living water of yours? Our father Jacob drank from this well. Do you think that you are better than he is?" You can't miss the irony in her sarcasm. Here she is speaking to the Master of Life about depth, when her own life was so miserably shallow.
In a sudden change of direction, Jesus startles the woman and asks her to go get her husband. With this one question he has exposed her dark side. We all have a dark side. You see, by any standard of ethics this woman was living an immoral life. Of course, we already have a hint of that because she has come to the well by herself at noon.
Now the woman is in quite a predicament. Jesus has talked here into a corner. She can walk away with her earthly water or she can stay and receive lasting water. What steps must be taken for her to find the latter:
- First, she is honest and admits the truth about her life.
- Second, she is open and accepts the truth about Jesus' life.
- She is enthusiastic and tells others about the truth she has found.
Living a Well-Storied Life
When you were a child, how many times did you beg your mom or dad "Please give me another list of rules and regulations."
But how often did you try to put off bedtime by begging to hear "Just one more story. Please!?"
What do we do at family reunions and holiday celebrations? We trot out the same old stories, initiating each new generation in the stories of the ancestors. In their telling and re-telling, we make them living history, not just dead facts.
Stories are how we learn who we are, where we've come from, and where we are going. A mature human being lives a well-storied life.
There are stories that teach us about our identity as Americans — George Washington stories, covered wagon pioneer stories, North and South stories, Great Depression stories, December 7, 1941 stories, hippy-dippy sixties stories, 9-11 stories, Katrina stories (add some stories from your own community here).
There are still other stories that teach us about our family identity. Ellis Island stories, proud moment stories, scandalous secret stories, celebration stories, triumph and tragedy stories, new love stories, old grudge stories.
Christians are more than just our country's stories. Christians are more than our family's stories. Christians have the "greatest story ever told." We have the story of Adam and Eve. We have the story of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We have the story of Jesus.
Our most basic identity as Christians? We tell the story of Jesus to the world.
But do you KNOW the living story of your faith?
The truth is that we Christians are woe-fully under-storied. A few months ago a Pew study of religious knowledge (http://religions.pewforum.org/reports) found that our knowledge of the Bible, world religions and what the Constitution says - about religion in public life is embarrassingly low. How low?
Atheists and agnostics scored better than evangelicals or Catholics. Bible belt Southerners who scored the worst. Those who believe the Bible is the literal word of God did slightly worse than average, while those who say it is not the word of God scored slightly better. A lot of Americans think Deuteronomy is a rock group. More Christian than you'd care to imagine think Joan of Arc was married to Noah.
In today's gospel text Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman as he rests in the shadow of Jacob's well. According to tradition and culture, these are two people who should not speak to each other. In fact, except for Jesus' initial request for a drink of water, he and the woman do not really "speak." Did you catch it when we read the text this morning?
You say, well if they didn't speak, what did they do?
They told each other stories...