A sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, March 19, 2017
St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California
“The water that I will give them will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
Today’s Gospel is long, because it’s a great story and there really isn’t any way to break it up. There’s so much fascinating detail that we could look at and discuss for a very long time, but we are going to focus on the path of preparation for baptism as the ancient lectionary takes us through Lent.
The woman in this story was a Samaritan and it was a Samaritan village. The Samaritans were not Jews, though they shared the first five books of the Bible with them. To an outsider, they might look quite similar, but the bitterness between the two groups at that time would make the current feelings in our country look mild by comparison. Of course, we tend to hear that term as “Good Samaritan,” but when Jesus told that other story involving a Samaritan, the effect was similar in his context to what it would be in some quarters in this country if he had described the “Good Radical Islamic Terrorist.” The woman was a Samaritan, and each thing she said to Jesus was an essential part of the outline of Samaritan theology and belief. What I notice is that she uses her theological arguments to keep from engaging with Jesus, or facing the truth.
Just as in last week’s lesson, there is a comic misunderstanding. One of my professors once remarked that the woman thought Jesus was a plumber. The Greek phrase that we translate as “living water” means running water, like a stream, or a spring, or an aqueduct. “Give me this water, so I don’t have to pull jugs out of the well anymore!” But the Living Water that Jesus was talking about was refreshment from God that takes us out of all of our defensive arguments and crafty evasions. Life in humble freedom, not in winning arguments. When Jesus shows that he sees through her evasions, she says, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.” And then she again dives into the theological argument, advancing the Samaritan view of what the great prophet Moses, had taught them. Then Jesus says it directly: “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” We learn here that it is not subtle or forceful arguments that connect us to God, but living in truthfulness. And it is not having the right prescribed formulas or activities, but living in the compassion of God.
The woman is still debating with Jesus about the nature of the messiah, when the disciples return. We should note that they misunderstood Jesus in just the same way that the woman had. She had misunderstood about the Living Water and when Jesus told them, “I have food that you do not know about,” they were looking around for a secret picnic basket. Though they had been with him, they still did not understand; they were still confused. So he said it again, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” Our food and drink are the love of God and flourishing in his Spirit. As Jesus explains that “one sows and another reaps,” and that “others have labored and you have entered into their labor” the woman returns from the village with a bunch of other Samaritans. She has heard Jesus, she has understood, and she has shared his word with others. In this case, it happens that those others were exactly the last people in the world that Jesus’ disciples were expecting; least of all expecting to become one with themselves.
The woman was indeed the apostle to the Samaritans. What she shared with them was what she understood, “he told me everything I have ever done.” In other words, Jesus knew her, and she knew and understood that she was known. She was converted to truth. She had been thinking of the hard work of drawing and lugging water and she had the fantasy of running water. But Jesus gave her the transformation of Living Water, the water of baptism, of dying and rising with Christ, of being sustained and refreshed by God’s spirit, of swimming in that water without fear of drowning or worry about going thirsty. She told her fellow villagers the truth that she knew, but they learned the truth from Jesus—they asked him to stay for two days, to share with them the Living Water and the Food of Eternal life.
Living the Christian life and preparing for baptism are not things that we do individually, by reading books or gazing at our computers. We learn Christian life in community, we prepare for participation in the death and resurrection of Christ by learning to be generous and courageous by living with others who are also learning courage and generosity. “Then they said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.’”
Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen