During this Lenten season, we have committed ourselves to telling the stories of scripture in a number of different ways including telling them by heart, using dramatic readings, incorporating visual arts, and singing them in song. After all, we can never hear the stories of Jesus' life too often; and the stories...in and of themselves...are enough. They are all we need, in order to be the church.
This week's story, is...shall we say...almost, more than enough? There is so much in this story that it is a challenge to know where to begin. For one thing, it's really long...just ask Ben and Bailie...they will tell you...37 verses long! It also covers so much theological ground that we could probably come up with a month's worth of sermons on it. However, I promise to not try to preach them all in one Sunday! Instead, for today, let's just focus is on the what happens at the well - the place where the Samaritan woman receives much more than she ever expected.
According to John, this encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well happens shortly after his meeting with a Pharisee named Nicodemus - which was the story we heard last week. And while the message Jesus offered to both the woman and Nicodemus was similar, the two situations could not be more different. In the Nicodemus story, we see Jesus interacting with a well-known person of power and influence, one prominently situated within the religious structure. Nicodemus is a man whose name we know, and who could be called an extreme insider among the Jews. His was the story a law-abiding man who came to see Jesus under the cover of darkness.
Yet, here in this story, Jesus interacts with someone who is the polar opposite on nearly every level. First, she is a she, not he...and not just any she. This woman is unaccompanied and unwed. It goes without saying that she is of no consequence and has no power in the community. We are not told her name, which just emphasizes the fact that she sits on the lowest rung of society. And, she was a Samaritan, who at best, were considered by the Jews to be impure religious half-breeds. For as much as Nicodemus was an extreme insider, this woman is the poster-child for an extreme outsider. So it's very interesting that unlike Nicodemus, she encounters Jesus in the middle of the brightest light of day.
Together these stories are like bookends showing the extreme wideness of God's mercy. Jesus was willing to offer the truth of God's abundant grace to anyone he encountered....far beyond the borders and limitations imposed by the religious establishment: From those who believed they had already earned God's favor by their own righteous behaviors, to those who believe they could never be righteous enough, Jesus regularly stretched the corners of the tent of God's love to cover those sitting on the fringe...the outsiders....the outcast...the least expected...those who were labeled sinners, and even those of different racial, political and religious backgrounds...as was the case with the Samaritan woman.
On the surface we really don't know a lot about this woman and John certainly doesn't give us much to work with. The fact that she was at the well in the hottest part of the day, rather than in the morning or evening when most women would fetch water, might mean that she was shunned by her community...or ashamed to be seen in public. And then there's the whole multiple marriage thing. Many folks interpret this to mean she was a woman of ill-repute, but given the culture and divorce laws of the time, it could very well mean that she was a widow or had been abandoned by multiple men because she was barren. We don't know...we can only speculate. Nonetheless, the idea of Jesus talking to her would certainly raise a lot of eyebrows.
Yet, despite all the reasons for which he could have rightly chosen to ignore her, he did not. Instead of treating her with the contempt that most Jews would show toward Samaritans, or the scorn and loathing that first-century middle-eastern men would express toward unaccompanied, unmarried women, Jesus intentionally chose to notice the woman...to see her...to engage her in conversation...and to do so kindly - without judgment or reprimand. And, more importantly, he generously offers her the living water of God's grace...even though clearly, she did not quite understand what he meant.
Initially, the woman thought Jesus was offering a special kind of water with the power to quench her thirst and alleviate the need to keep coming to the well. However, it didn't take long for her to realize that this encounter was about so much more than her physical needs. It turns out that by speaking the truth about her life situation, Jesus met a much greater need in her..one that we all have whether we necessarily recognize it or not. You see, by the mere fact that God created us to be in relationships, it is both our greatest need...and our biggest fear...to be truly known by another.
It's a basic human desire to want people to see us and know us for who we really are. To no longer pretend or need to wear a mask...but to just be ourselves. More importantly, we want to be accepted and loved just as, or maybe in spite of, who we really are.
In fact, most of us are more like the woman at the well than we care to admit. Oh, we may not have had multiple spouses the way she did; but there is no doubt that we've all got things in our life that bring us shame. Whether it is something we've done, or said, or maybe just an aspect of our personality that we wish we could erase...we all have them. And, while we would give anything to not be judged for them, we often allow ourselves to be defined by them. We desperately wish we could just acknowledge our truth, and be done with it, mostly so we don't have to carry the burden inside us anymore.
Our soul longs to be open and transparent...for a life where we would never need to hide our situation, our beliefs, or our mistakes...ever again. To be known and loved, just as we are. It is the deepest desire of our heart - to gather at the well of God's grace - to find the unexpected healing and wholeness Jesus offers. And folks, the greater our shame, the greater our need.
Listen to how Libby Citaldi wrote about this in her blog earlier this week. Libby is the mother of a recovering heroin addict, Jeff. These are her words:
Jeff and I talked about what helps people stay in recovery and he said, Getting sober is just the beginning; learning to live in abstinence is the goal. As human beings, we have a hunger to be seen and to feel connected with those around us. And when we don't, so often we use drugs to cover the feelings of loneliness - but drugs only isolate us even more. In time, we move further into addiction and further away from the people we love. In groups like AA, we find connections, people who know our walk and won’t judge us. They ‘see’ us, they celebrate our victories and they know how imperative fellowship is. These connections prove to us that we are not alone. My reflection: Family groups like AA and Al-Anon work. Not only do recovering addicts find a safe space to grow strong within a community of understanding peers, but we, parents, can find a similar environment in Al-Anon. The loving members of Al-Anon saved my sanity when my son’s addiction took me to my knees. There I found people who knew my pain. Today’s Promise to consider: The family groups of AA and Al-Anon prove to us that we are not alone. When we feel raw and wounded, it takes courage to reach out and allow ourselves to been ‘seen.’ Today, I will pray and hold out my hand in faith and vulnerability. –Libby
Friends, this is the work of the church. It is our job to gather with people at the well of God's grace. Now do not hear what I'm not saying. I'm not criticizing the work of twelve programs. I'm not saying they are infringing on the church's role. In fact, remarkable things happen at twelve step meetings. Repentance and redemption happen there. Encounters of love and mercy happen there. Hope and accountability happen there. Twelve step programs gather people at the well and in their own way, offer living water. So no, I'm not being critical...quite the contrary. In their own way, the borderless hospitality and unconditional acceptance found in twelve step programs is just another story of Christ at work.
Whether it is by intention or divine providence, these ministries bring people... people of all ethnicities, socio-economic statuses, races, religions genders, sexual preferences...people with varied levels of education...various professions...differing politics...people who are broken, suffering, lonely, desperate...people in need. They draw them to the well...where they are seen and heard...where they realize they are not alone...where they will find the love and mercy they seek.
If that's not the work of the church, then what is?
When Jesus came into Samaria, he was tired and needed rest. It would have been much easier for him to just avoid the woman, to give into the urge to take care of himself, to not get involved. It would have been convenient to succumb to the social norms that said, "Do not converse with her." She was used to being ignored. This time would be no different. Yet, something about her was different. Maybe it was the sadness in her eyes, the weight on her shoulders, or the loneliness that enveloped her - something caused him to speak up and ask her for a drink of water...to start the conversation that he knew would lead to the discussion of living water. This encounter at the well would become a chance for Jesus to share the good news of God's mercy and love...and to reveal himself as the Messiah.
I wonder, how many times do we, his church, have opportunities like this? I wonder how many have we missed?
Friends, an amazing story was written at that well. A story to which we can relate. A story that connects to our own lives. And yet, there are still many other similar stories waiting to be told. That's where the church must get to work. Christ calls his disciples to gather with others...all types of folks...at the well of his grace. We never know what transformation God has planned for us when we cross the boundaries of division and the norms of security, when we set aside our fears and preconceived notions, to open ourselves to untold stories of sharing and receiving the living water of grace.
This morning we have a sister in Christ, Allyson Willhoite, of Safe Families for Children, with us to share another story of gathering at the well of God's grace. Her visit is part of our commitment to learning continually about how we can serve Christ in the community. Allyson represents a Christian ministry which has at its heart the desire to create opportunities for Christians in our community to be bearers of grace...bringing the love and mercy and compassion of Christ to families in need. As you will see, Safe Families for Children is, truly, the church at work.
VIDEO and Allyson Willhoite
Now, sharing your home may not be something you, specifically, are ready to do right now. However the spirit of this ministry...the community coming together in Christ's name to help those in need should always be at the forefront of our lives. Using Mr. Norton's words...it is love, Jesus style. As he also said, there are no boundaries for hurting people...and there are no boundaries for loving hearts. This is the church doing what it is designed to do...gathering at the well of grace to changes lives. And like the original woman at the well...it is our calling to take the good news of Christ to our community. Safe Families is one story...what others need to be told?