March 23, 2014 – Third Sunday in Lent

Lent 3 March 23, 2014 (Genesis 29:1-12, Exodus 2:15-21) John 4:4-42

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John 4:4-42

But he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)

The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”

Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.”

The woman answered him, “I have no husband.”

Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!”

The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”

Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”

Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?”

Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.

Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?”

Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word.

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.”

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A man and a woman meet at a well three times in the first two books of the bible. Each time, marriage results. First Abraham, late in life, sends his servant to Abe’s home country to find a bride for his son Isaac (Gen 24). The servant arrives at the village well. He stops and prays to God that he will meet the God-appointed right woman quickly.  While he’s still praying, here comes Rebekah – who fulfills exactly all the signs the servant has prayed for – as she gives water, first to the servant himself, then his camels… And soon she becomes wife of Isaac.

A generation later, Jacob, son of Isaac, returns to the same well, where he meets long-lost cousin Rachel, and waters her sheep. Once again, marriage results. (Not to spoil the story if you don’t know or remember it – but there’s more than one bride involved in that wedding.)

Then in Exodus (ch 2) Moses visits a well in the land of Midian where he meets seven sisters shepherding sheep. Like Jacob, Moses helps water the sheep, like Jake again, he ends up marrying one of the shepherd girls. Through these stories people familiar with the bible now have expectations about what happens when a man and woman meet at a well.

Now here’s Jesus and a woman meeting at a well. And we too have expectations about what comes next. Though exactly what we expect depends of course on what we bring with us into our hearing of the story.

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I’m remembering a story of a teacher explaining the concept of gendered language to her Spanish class in their first session. In Spanish, unlike English, she says, all nouns have gender – they’re either masculine or feminine. ”House” for example, is always feminine: ”la casa.” ”Pencil’‘ is always masculine: “el lapiz.” One student asks, ”So what gender is ‘computer‘?” And to make the concept come alive, the teacher, instead of answering directly, splits the class into two groups, male and female, and asks each to come up with its own list of reasons why ”computer” should be categorized either masculine or feminine. Which should it be, she asks – la computer? Or el computer?

The men’s group meets together and quickly decides: ”computer” must surely be feminine – ”la computer” – because – no one but their creator understands their internal logic – because – even the smallest mistakes are stored in long-term memory for later retrieval – because – as soon as you make a commitment to one, you find yourself spending and spending for all the accessories. So it’s got to be la computer, they say.

But the women’s group has their discussion going at the same time, and they decide computers must be masculine – ”el computer” – because – they can hold a lot of data, but still can’t think for themselves – because – they’re supposed to help you solve problems, but so often turn out to be the problem – because – as soon as you commit to one you realize, if you’d only waited a little longer you could have had a better model…

How we hear the story always depends on what we bring… to the story…

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Jesus and his disciples are traveling from Jerusalem and Judea in the south, heading north to their home country of Galilee; passing through Samaria by the most direct route – the road less traveled by Jews – because Jews and Samaritans had a lot of bad history (family feuds bordering on civil war). There were alternative routes – more frequently chosen roads, in fact, Jesus could have taken – but the gospel says “He had to go through Samaria.” Letting us know Jesus is on a mission trip, as we pick up the story in the heartland of Samaria, near it’s religious center, Mt Gerizim. The disciples have gone to town to buy food. Jesus is alone and tired from the journey, resting at the well.

Wells are centers of village life and community gathering places still throughout much of the world today. I was blessed to be able to be part of my mother’s bible study group last week in metro Seattle. We were talking about this same story from John.  One of the women in the group had been a missionary teacher in the Mideast for decades. She said wells throughout the region often carry an inscription saying “from water comes all life.” People who carry water home from a well… don’t tend to take water for granted.

A Samaritan woman comes to the well, carrying her water jar. Jesus says, “give me a drink.”  The woman says, “What’s a Jewish guy like you doing, asking a Samaritan woman like me for a drink?” Jews and Samaritans wouldn’t normally drink from the same cup or water bucket. They worship the same God, they live next door to each other, they’re cultural cousins. But like those debating the gender of a computer, they’ve figured out lots to disagree about.

So we notice when we see some common ground. This well carries the names of Jacob and Joseph, common ancestors of Jews and Samaritans alike – cousins in faith, who’ve been estranged for many centuries. Thinking back on the biblical well scenes from Genesis and Exodus, today’s meeting of a man and woman at a well isn’t looking very promising in this first exchange of words. But we know true love’s path is never straight. And by now we also probably know…there maybe some spiritual courtship going on here… but this is not a Hollywood romance movie.

Last week we overheard a conversation in the dark of night between Jesus and a religious leader of Israel named Nicodemus. This week we’re listening to a conversation in broad day light between Jesus and a woman of a tribe unfriendly to Israel who lacks any apparent spiritual credentials.

Nicodemus the Pharisee was baffled last week by Jesus talking about our need to be born again – born anew, of water and Spirit. He has such a hard time understanding, it’s as if he and Jesus are speaking entirely different languages.

This week’s conversation starts out sounding like a repeat, with Jesus and the woman again speaking different languages – one talking H2O, the other talking living water – an expression which can mean spring waters, as in Jeremiah ch 2 – or – as in Jeremiah 17, living water can be a metaphor for the presence of God. (Along these lines, later in John (ch 7) Jesus makes living water a metaphor for the Holy Spirit.)

Jesus doesn’t always make it easy to unpack all he’s saying. (Probably this is one of his ways of letting us know we need to pay close attention – no multi-tasking, talking with Jesus.) But unlike Nicodemus in the night last week, who just doesn’t get it – this woman at the well in broad daylight stays right with Jesus in the conversation… And a teacher of Israel who ought to be in the know can’t fathom what Jesus says – while a cultural outsider whose resume doesn’t sound at all impressive… reaches a whole village with the good news of Jesus. What’s going on?

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Many interpreters over the centuries have assumed this woman is a (quote-unquote) “sinful woman” – a woman of loose morals (even maybe a prostitute). Why else, they say, would she have so many men in her life, and be at this well in broad day light? In hotter countries people usually go to the well early or late in the day, when its cooler. And yes, we learn from listening to Jesus, she’s been married five times, and the guy she’s with now isn’t her husband. But does this give us the right then to make assumptions about her moral character?

Maybe this woman was married and widowed five times, through illness, war, calamity, or misfortune – all relatively commonplace in those days. In the book of Tobit (part of the popular Greek language edition of the Bible of Jesus’ day and still part of Catholic and Orthodox bibles), a woman is widowed seven times because of a demon that plagues her family, and it’s not till husband number eight arrives, accompanied by a guardian angel, that we get to biblical Mr Right. It could also be that this woman was married five times and divorced and abandoned by all five husbands. Jewish women weren’t permitted to divorce husbands, but husbands could divorce wives for virtually any reason, including burning the toast.  Maybe she was divorced for not producing male babies… or for being too willing to think outside the box of her culture. We really don’t know the rest of her story.

We do know… In John’s gospel almost every detail is linked to larger themes. Mention of Jacob’s well reminds us of the biblical well scene in Genesis 29 we’ve read today, where Jacob meets his wife, Rachel, at a well in broad day light. We remember also that Jacob (later known as Israel) was married four times, concurrently, all at once. (Be very careful who we call immoral. In this biblical family, we’re all related. Often much more closely than we recognize.)

Unlike Jesus – we don’t know the whole life story of the woman at the well – because the bible doesn’t tell us. We don’t need to know; it’s really not our business. Yes, of course, she’s a sinner – like all the rest of us. The bible gives us no reason to think she’s any worse of a sinner than the rest of us. Indeed, we should be noticing – this woman is the first person in the gospels to whom Jesus reveals his identity as Messiah.

Yes, she starts off misunderstanding Jesus. Who doesn’t? But notice again how quickly she’s able to move on, change her mind. Her understanding keeps deepening, as the conversation with Jesus continues… Soon she leaves her water jar behind, and goes off to spread the news of Jesus to all her neighbors. (If only all God’s people were so quick to share the Good News.)

And when all’s been said, this dialogue at the well is the longest conversation anyone has with Jesus, anywhere in the bible. This woman listens to Jesus – asks all her questions of Jesus – grows in faith in Jesus – then goes and tells others about Jesus. One conversation with Jesus is enough for her to start to change her mind, change her heart, change her life around… She’s a poster child for faith in action…

Yet even so, we overhear disciples thinking to themselves,  “what’s he doing talking with her?” When we’re talking with people Jesus wants to reach, we’ll also sometimes overhear people saying, ‘what’s he or she doing – talking with someone like him or her?

Jesus says – never mind what people say. Keep listening and talking with Jesus, like this woman at the well. She may not understand everything Jesus says at first hearing. No one ever does. But she understands now – true worship can’t be confined to this place or that place, these people or those people – true worship, like true love – is always about Spirit and truth and true commitment to God and neighbor. She may not understand everything Jesus says at first hearing… But she’s the first one we meet in the gospels who calls a whole village to Jesus, saying, Come and see!

And the whole village comes and sees – comes and listens – sees and hears and believes.

By the time Jesus moves on most of the village is believing Jesus is Savior of the world. Because now she’s introduced them all to Jesus – now they know Jesus for themselves. Now they can’t help believing because of what they’ve seen and heard. Now they’re also ready to tell others about Jesus…

Just like us. Like the woman at the well – we don’t have to have it all figured out before we start sharing the good news.

From our first encounter with Jesus we can be saying –

Come and see – Meet this Jesus I’ve met.

Come and see. Have a talk with Jesus.

Come and see – drink his living water.

Come, meet the One who knows all about me – and loves me entirely, all the time, anyway.

Come and see

Come and see…