Third Sunday in Lent, Year A ‘17
John 4: 5-42
19 March 2017
Take my lips, oh Lord, and speak through them; take our minds and think with them. Take our hearts and set them on fire, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
On this third Sunday in Lent I want to ask: How is Lent going for you this year? What are you learning in this season? I find it interesting that the observance of Lent began in the fourth century. That seems so long ago. And yet, it was almost 300 years after Jesus lived, died, and rose to new life. Lent began as a time of special discipline for those about to be baptized at Easter. For them it was the culmination of a several years long time of study and preparation. Almost inevitably the season came to be associated with Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, his preparation for his ministry. For the church Lent has always been associated with the spiritual disciplines of preparation and penitence. Lent, however, is just a part of a larger cycle which includes all the time from the beginning of Lent through Pentecost. It’s worth asking then, what are we preparing for exactly? That the season from Ash Wednesday through Pentecost sharpens our focus on Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection goes without saying. But it’s important to remember that we are focusing on events in the spiritual world even more than those held in historical time. Our focus is on those mysteries that, in their depth and power, nudge at us around the margins of our conscious lives. At our very best, during Lent, we share our Lord’s suffering and we confront the grace of that empty tomb. With God’s help we are changed as we confront, and live into, those mysteries of our Christian faith. With God’s help we grow as people of faith and learn to share that faith as well.
Today we heard about an encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman. It’s a long story, the longest recorded with a single individual in all the Gospels. It’s a rich story with many themes we could focus on. Today I want to focus on how that Samaritan woman grows in faith through her experience of Jesus. Initially it would seem that there is just too much between Jesus and the woman for them to have any meaningful contact, they are widely separated by race, by gender, by religion. But this is Jesus that woman encounters and all bets are off. One thing all the Gospels make clear is that Jesus reached beyond human boundaries to include those generally pushed out beyond the margins of what it meant to be a “good” Jew in that time and place. Use your holy imagination to see that woman by the well. She has come to draw water for her household. Then a stranger appears at the well. Despite the fact that his is clearly a Jew, despite the fact that he is male, he asks for a drink of water. And we, hearing the story all these years later, remember that in this Gospel, The Gospel According to John, words often have a double meaning. This is one of those times. The woman and Jesus both use the word water but the word they use means different things to each of them. They are poles apart and the woman has no clue who exactly Jesus is. The conversation continues and the meaning of it deepens. That Samaritan woman likens Jesus to a common ancestor. Jacob was able, with God’s help, to draw up water that was bubbling, seething with life. Living water. Now that woman asks Jesus for the water he can give. She asks for the gift of living water, bubbling over with hope and possibility. The conversation deepens again as Jesus apparently knows much more about the woman than he, a complete stranger, possible could. Our Samaritan woman recognizes Jesus’ special powers. She recognizes him as a prophet. Again, her faith deepens. Still, she does not yet see Jesus as he really is; a revelation of God for humankind. Who among us might not be uncomfortable at that point? That Samaritan woman tried her best to avoid a new truth. I don’t know about you but I suspect my response in the situation would be the same. When challenged with something new and unexpected, when asked to make a real change in my deepest beliefs, it is the most natural thing in the world to try and start an argument. And there was a lot to argue about given the historical tensions between the religion of the Samaritans and that of the Jews who worshipped at Jerusalem. They were siblings after all and siblings argue.
That woman’s ploy fails though, something changes in her in response to Jesus, as she grows in faith she voices her faint hope of a Messiah. Did you hear Jesus’ response? “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” Even now, it is a simply breathtaking statement. Imagine what it was like for that Samaritan woman. After all, for her, as for most people of faith back then, the notion of God’s messiah had changed over time. It had been corrupted. To say that Jesus was that Messiah would have been both true and false all at the same time. To say that Jesus is God’s presence with us when we long for a Messiah, now, that is powerful. It is as though Jesus is the beginning of God doing a new thing to bring humanity back into harmony with God’s plan for creation. Again, that woman finds her faith is deeper than she knew. She leaves the well only to ask an important question. “Can this be the Christ?” What a wonderful thing. She has not yet come to fully mature faith. But she does witness to the extent she is able. The result is that her question draws others to Jesus. Might hers be a good question to hold in our hearts in this Lenten season? Who is this Jesus? Can he really be the Christ for us? Can we let her question deepen our relationship with Jesus? Can we be drawn to grow in our own faith through her faith? Listen to what happened to those who first heard that woman’s testimony spoken even as she asked her question. What if that woman had waited until she was sure, until she had no questions at all, to tell others about her encounter with Jesus? Her faithful testimony, however unsure, is such a powerful thing. It would seem that no small acknowledgement of faith, however hesitant, is too small for God to use. In this case the woman’s question brought others to Jesus. They asked him to stay a while. Now, I have to say, generally I really like the New Revised Standard translation of the Bible, but I think in this story something is missing. The text tells us that the people asked Jesus to stay with them and he did stay. Other translations use the word “abide” in place of the word “stay”. And “abide” seems to fit the meaning of the Gospel better. Here’s the thing.
In this case the word “abide” indicates the strongest, the deepest, level of faith. So, Jesus abides with those people; and just listen to their response. “We know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” In this Gospel, and in all people at all times, there are different kinds of faith and different qualities of faith. This is certainly true for me. Faith is less a static state or a place than it is a journey. How is it for you? Again I will issue the invitation. “I invite you to a holy Lent.” I invite you to bring what questions you hold, what hopes you have, what faith you cling to. I invite you to abide with Jesus, the one we name as Christ. I invite you to the kind of growth that Samaritan woman experienced, growth that deepens and strengthens your own faith most especially as you share that faith with others. Amen