3rd Sunday in Lent
Preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Williamstown, MA
Has Christian culture or religious tradition left you with the impression that today’s gospel is about the sin of divorce? If so, you are in good company.
Early Church Father Kontakian offered this commentary on the Samaritan woman leaving her home to head for the well, “She departed in filth; she entered into the figure of the Church as blameless.” (Ancient Christian Commentary).
However, nowhere in the text is the woman depicted as filthy. Nowhere does Jesus shame the woman. Nowhere does she confess sin.
So what picture does the text actually paint?
Jesus meets a woman at a well. Did you know that two people of the opposite sex meeting at a well is sexually charged and associated with betrothal? When I heard this in seminary I was like, why can’t a well just be a well?
But there are scriptural precedents. In Gen 24, Abraham’s son Isaac prays by a well for a wife when Rebekah arrives with a jar on her shoulder.
And in Genesis 29, Jacob is watering his sheep at a well when he meets Rachel. (Today’s Gospel scene occurs at that same well.)
In Exodus 2, Moses flees justice after committing murder and sits down to rest by a well. And there he meets Zipporah, who will become his wife. And it is relevant that in the chapter prior to today’s gospel, Jesus is described as the Bridegroom.
Talking to a person of the opposite sex at a well in scripture is today’s equivalent of texting with someone on a dating website. We know why we’re there.
Or if we go back to my generation, it’s talking with that guy you don’t know at the young adult retreat. Or like our rector, chatting up the brunette from Minnesota at choir practice.
And when Jesus asks the Samaritan woman for a drink of water, it’s not just a drink of water. Even that seemingly innocent cup of water is laden with biblical symbolism: the imagery of water, fountain, and well all have sexual overtones.
Regarding chastity, Proverbs 5:15:
“Drink water from your own cistern,
running water from your own well.”
Regarding seduction in Song of Songs 4:12:
“You are a garden locked up, my sister, my bride;
you are a spring enclosed, a sealed fountain.”
And unfaithfulness in Jeremiah 2:13:
“My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me,
the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
broken cisterns that cannot hold water.”
To add more tension, Jews and Samaritans were rival religious groups, whose animosity hinged on the right place of worship. (We hear the woman banter with Jesus: My ancestors worshiped on this mountain; you say we have to worship in the temple.)
AND it was inappropriate for a Jewish man to initiate a conversation with an unknown woman. And a Jewish teacher who spoke with a woman in public was considered to be bringing evil upon himself. (New Interpreters Bible).
But this woman HAS HAD 5 husbands. What do we make of that? Nothing. We make NOTHING of it. She had no choice. In the ancient Near East at this time, a woman had no free will to divorce.
She was the property of her father or her brother until she was the property of her husband.
Deuteronomy 24 reads, “Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house.”
During this period, only a man could initiate divorce for such things as his wife’s unchastity, or more seriously, if she burned a meal, or in the case of that perennial woe, if the man found someone prettier (Encyclopedia of Judaism, 217).
I can’t pretend to know the mind of a first century Samaritan woman retrieving water. But most of us know something of societal constraints.
I was raised secular, in a family who required me to be beautiful and thin, qualities perilously dependent upon genetics that were working against me.
I was raised to be unfailingly kind whether or not kindness called for, to be agreeable when being assertive would have spared my digestive system and my emotional wellbeing. I was raised to be perfect.
Were you? There’s a one sentence test for perfectionism. “Are you constantly amazed at the incompetence of others?” Perfectionism is a prideful, pretty crust over a hot mess of pain.
I’ve mentioned my late spiritual director, Fr. Doug, before. I remember speaking to him, sharing my anxieties and fears and self-doubt. Suddenly Fr. Doug interrupted me rather impatiently and said,
“When are you going to accept that you are a good person?” I was speechless. No one had ever offered me that possibility. And also I felt seen– not as thin or beautiful or perfect, the person I had been trying to be my whole life, but as a child of God.
The truth Fr. Doug preached was not that I was particularly good, but that I was not particularly bad. Humility is truth. Jesus says in today’s gospel, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
So I will say to all of you, in whatever worries you may carry today, in whatever illness or despair weighs down your body, whatever striving and perfectionism exhausts you, I ask, “When are you going to accept that you are a good person?”
Does this sound like pop psychology? Right now I’m taking a course on Medieval Preaching. In the Middle Ages, preachers used a lot of cautionary tales called Exempla, stories of lawyers whose eternal punishment was to bath in molten gold,
or of a nun who was snatched from the yard by a demon for the sin of gluttony. Her indulgence? Eating some lettuce from the garden during her leisure time.
Reading these exempla has making me nervous that my preaching is a bit too fluffy. I worry— What if the road to hell is paved with Episcopalian sermons? So let me back up the sentiment about your goodness with scripture.
In Psalm 139 verse 14, the Psalmist addresses God: I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; wonderful are your works.
This idea is no progressive Protestant innovation. These words are over 3000 years old. Let me repeat,
God sees you; You are fearfully and wonderfully made. You are one of God’s wonderful works.
Back to the well. Today’s scene is ripe with sensual overtones, otherness existing on the edges of impropriety (she is a Samaritan, she is conversing alone with a stranger in the middle of the day, Jesus is propositioning her with water.)
H￼owever, in the presence of Jesus, the Samaritan woman is no longer a commodity, no longer seen as child bearer or homemaker or rejected spouse or potential spouse.
She is no longer seen as what she is in relation to another human being, her social value, but who she is in relation to the HEAVENLY BRIDEGROOM, to God.
At this betrothal spot, Jesus is not offering the Samaritan woman temporal marriage which has proven so fragile and conditional. Jesus is offering living water, salvation. He is answering her challenge where to worship God…neither in the Temple nor on the mountaintop but in Spirit and in Truth.
Theirs was a mutual gaze between God and God’s child which reveals Jesus as Messiah. And when the woman understands whom she sees, and who she is within God’s gaze, within truth,
she is empowered to preach the Gospel to strangers. The scripture reads, “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?”
And many from that city believed in Jesus because of her testimony.
Do you know who you are in Christ? Then preach the gospel. Use words if necessary. Invite others to come and see.