A sermon at St. Paul’s-on-the-Hill, Ossining, NY for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, March 23, 2014
Believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.
The Gospel today is long. That’s because it’s a great story and there’s no way to break it up.
The woman in this story was a Samaritan. The Samaritans show up a number of places in the Gospels, especially in the Gospel of John and we often skip over, or misunderstand who the Samaritans are, or especially how they were regarded among Jesus’ hearers. Under kings David and Solomon there was a united kingdom of Israel which broke into a northern kingdom called Israel and a southern kingdom called Judah after Solomon’s death. The Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament, represent the religion and perspective of the southern kingdom of Judah. The capital of the northern kingdom was Samaria until it was destroyed by the Assyrians about 200 years later. It was another century and a half later that the Babylonians destroyed the temple in Jerusalem and took the leading citizens of Judah into exile in Babylon.
There is still a very small community of Samaritans who live on the slopes of Mount Gerizim and live according to the laws in the Torah and offer sacrifices there. There is a complex and interesting history of the Samaritans which I won’t go into, but they were a substantial population during Jesus’ time, not quite as large as the Jewish population, but many villages in the part of Judea between Jerusalem and Galilee were populated by Samaritans. The Jews and the Samaritans had different understandings about the origins of the Samaritans though their shared scriptures varied only in whether God should be worshiped at the temple on Mt. Gerizim or on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem.
The account that was accepted by the Jews (and supported by the biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah) was that the Assyrians had destroyed and deported most of the residents of the kingdom of Israel (thus the 10 lost tribes of Israel) and settled non-Israelites who were also idolaters in the land. Any Israelites who were left had intermarried with these idolaters—thus any of their worship was polluted, idolatrous and heretical. The Samaritans believed on the other hand, that they carried on the true traditions of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses and that the Judeans had profaned the worship by moving it from Mt. Gerizim to Jerusalem. This was very serious business; each group regarded the other as worse than other sorts of foreigners because of their betrayal of what was most holy. Of course, other characteristics were attributed to these people, as people do with groups that are despised—they were dirty, dishonest, ignorant… From either group’s perspective, not only would you not want your daughter to marry one, you wouldn’t want to come into contact with one of them at all.
So that’s the background of this conversation—Jesus asks THAT sort of woman for a drink of water. And she responds as you would expect—“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” And the entire long discussion involves all the main points of Samaritan theology and their differences with the Jews. She was so intent on arguing her points, that she couldn’t hear that Jesus was saying something completely different—as he told her about living water, and true worship, she responds with the Samaritan theological talking points: Jacob gave this land and well to his son Joseph, the ancestor of the Samaritans, and true worship is on Mount Gerizim, not Mount Zion.
But Jesus is not trying to win a theological debate—he’s talking about being alive in the presence of God. The turning point is when, in a very tight place, she asserts the Samaritan understanding of the returning Messiah and Jesus says to her: “I am the one, the one who is speaking to you.” This personal connection breaks through her defenses, and convinces her that this life he offers her is something different than the old debates between one group and another. The whole point of her being at that place was to fill up her water jar and take it back to town—but she leaves the water jar there and she goes and tells everybody in town—“Come and see…Could this possibly be the Messiah?”—in fact this makes her the first apostle, that is, one sent to bring others to Christ. One might say that she leaves her jug and brings Living Water to the town.
This story is so rich and full that it really would warrant a whole Lenten study series to fully appreciate it. Being transformed through receiving the living water of Christ directs us toward baptism and Easter which are the real point of Lent. Among the many insights that can be drawn from these lessons today, the one that I would like to point out is that this woman had some real legitimate religious traditions and theological understanding, but she was stuck—one can surmise that a lot of it had to do with personal issues, that she was trying to hide and defend at the same time. When she really met Jesus she had to give up, not the religious truth, but how she formulated them, and how she defended herself and her group. As we move forward in faith, and face new situations in a changing world, sometimes we also have to be ready to give things up and change when Jesus asks us to follow him…maybe even leaving the water jug behind.
And God said to Moses: “Strike the rock and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.
And Jesus said, “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”