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March 15, 2020
3rd Sunday in Lent
Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42 (you can read these scriptures HERE)
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones
What an appropriate time for us to be reading about God’s people living in fear of survival! If you have been to a grocery store in the last week you have seen the low supply of food, hand sanitizers, Clorox wipes, and toilet paper. There is an air of anxiety and frustration everywhere. How bad is it going to get? We wonder. The Apostle Paul tells us in our Epistle reading from his letter to the Roman church “suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character.” Let us all pray that this health crisis will produce more character than suffering.
We all have a friend of a family member for whom we worry. I have checked in with our three children. The oldest and the grandchildren are actually looking forward to more family time. (We’ll see how that goes at the end of the month). My son-in-law works at a college that is closed for the next three weeks. My daughter can work from home and will have some respite from the hour and a half commuting time to and from her office each day. Our daughter in New York City, a major hotspot for the Covid-19 virus has fled the city and gone to North Carolina. She and her boyfriend, who both work in theater, which is all closed now, plan to quarantine themselves, but what about all the other people leaving the city? None of these people are required to be tested before they leave and travel through other states. Our character is being tested. We will see how well our society acts toward keeping others safe.
Like many of us, our son, in college, is dealing with the social isolation of living alone and having his normal classroom activities canceled. Fortunately, those in his social circle are used to communicating online. For the elderly population, this is not always the case. Now is the time to use that old-fashioned telephone to check in on elderly folks who live alone. It is difficult to be a community of faith that cannot come together to worship and have fellowship. Reach out to one another in ways that do not require physical contact.
Though they traveled together, the Israelites were isolated. They put their well-being in their leader, Moses, and in God who had promised to be present with them in their sojourn through the desert. The bible tells us they were traveling through the Wilderness of Sin. Here Sin is an actual place rather than a theological construct. Sin was the name of a Semitic moon goddess, widely worshiped throughout the Middle East at that time. The area was between Elim and Mt. Sinai. God put the Israelites through ten tests, corresponding to the ten plagues inflicted upon their Egyptian oppressors. We can find solace in the fact that the Israelites failed every one of those tests, but God still allowed them to reach the Promised Land, though not in the time frame they had expected.
The Israelites had just revolted over the lack of bread to eat and God had sent down manna from the sky. They were told not to hoard the food. The manna would rot after 24 hours. They were to trust God to provide enough for everyone. But, sin reared its ugly head, and some of them tried to hoard the manna. Another test failed, but they didn’t quite learn the lesson because here they were threatening Moses over the lack of water to drink. A parched throat is physically uncomfortable and the threat of dying of thirst in the desert is very real. All of us with the underlying condition of being over 60 can relate to their fear. Even Moses was getting scared, fearful that he would be attacked by an angry mob. God comes to the rescue once again. With the same staff, Moses was instructed to strike the Nile to poison its waters, he was ordered to strike a rock and clean water rushed out for the Israelites to drink their fill. Like us, each divine intervention was quickly forgotten when the next crisis came along. As with all relationships, our relationship with God requires trust.
In his letter to the Roman congregation, Paul addresses the issue of trust to a people that experienced or were threatened by, persecution and isolation on account of their faith in Christ. Paul assured the congregation that God was not punishing them; and, whatever hardship they faced, God would turn their bad experience into something good. We are now faced with this same challenge — to trust that God will redeem our suffering, whatever happens.
Our gospel reading depicts Jesus in his role as a boundary-breaker and reconciler. Though she is not given a name, this Samaritan woman Jesus met at the well, has the longest recorded conversation with Jesus in the bible. Last week we read, also from John’s Gospel, the story of Nicodemus, the respected church leader, a Pharisee, who came to Jesus in the dark of night to find out more about him. These two stories are a paired reading; John intentionally put one after the other. Both Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman want to learn more about Jesus, yet there is cognitive dissonance within and between the two scenes that makes the readers take notice.
Nicodemus was an insider. He was a Jewish religious leader. He was a male in a patriarchal society. He came intentionally to see Jesus, but in the dark of night so as not to be seen. The woman at the well was an outsider, a woman, and a Samaritan Jew– ethnically different and considered inferior to a “real Jew.” She did not come to the well seeking Jesus. She met Jesus by accident — I’ll say by providence. She met Jesus, not in the dark of night but at noon, the fullest light of the day. Jesus challenged both Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman with double-meaning words. Jesus used a Greek word that can mean either “above” or “again” to tell Nicodemus he must be “born from above” before he can be a disciple. Likewise, Jesus used the Greek word that could be translated as either “moving” or “living” when he tells the Samaritan woman he could give her a different type of water from that she was seeking. Both Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman picked the meaning of the words in the question that were not the ones Jesus meant. And, they each took the words literally. Nicodemus thought Jesus was telling him he must be born again from his mother’s womb. The Samaritan woman thought Jesus was offering moving water from a spring rather than the still water of a well. The author of John makes a strong theological statement with these plays on words. At the end of these two stories, the Samaritan woman got it, Nicodemus, the learned Jewish teacher, did not.
Nicodemus had all the right credentials to meet Jesus, the Son of God. But, the Samaritan woman that met Jesus at the well did not. Her pedigree was not acceptable. Samaritans were considered “half-blood,” underclass Jews. When Assyria conquered Israel, they were considered too lowly to bother capturing and taking to the land of their conquerors. Their religion was more simplistic and rudimentary than that of traditional Jews like Nicodemus. The Samaritans only accepted the Torah, the first 5 chapters of the Hebrew Scriptures, as canon. Samaritans had intermarried with non-Jews, thus making them “impure” to traditional Jews, particularly Pharisees. The animosity between them reached the level of a declared feud when the Samaritans built a shrine on Mt. Gerizim during the Persian exile and claimed that the shrine, not the fallen temple in Jerusalem, was the center for Jewish worship. After that, other Jews were not allowed to even talk to a Samaritan Jew without becoming ritually unclean. Furthermore, Jewish men were forbidden to engage in conversation with unknown women in public places (The New Interpreters’ Bible, vol. IX. p. 563). Jesus, ever the boundary-breaker, once more defied societal rules to bring people into his circle of love and acceptance.
We easily fall into a pattern of life in which Jesus becomes an outsider to our lives. We’d like to makeover Jesus into a middle-class, white American with the same values we have, but he’s not. He’s different from us. Jesus is deeply and profoundly different. His values and ambitions, the way he conducted his life, the things Jesus cared about, and the people for whom he cared, are all very different from us. He is an outsider to our way of life. Do we dare to associate with, become close to, those we see as outsiders in order to follow Jesus, the ultimate outsider? We are wise to remember that sickness and death are the great equalizers for humanity.
What we can know with a great deal of certainty was that this particular Samaritan woman was an outcast, even in her own community. We can surmise this because women did not draw water from the community well at noon, the hottest time of the day. Only someone who wanted not to encounter others would come at that time. A popular interpretation of this story from the earliest accounts we have assumed that this Samaritan woman, who had had 5 husbands, must be a woman of ill repute. But there is nothing in the scripture that supports this interpretation; and, this is important, Jesus says no words of judgment about the fact that she has had 5 husbands. No matter what the readers want to think, it just isn’t there.
This Samaritan woman was astounded that Jesus knew all about her. But, even more astounding was that he crossed all the cultural boundaries to speak to her, that he engaged in conversation – even theological debate – with her, and that he did not judge or condemn her. Instead, he offered her the living water of a relationship with God.
Jesus did speak words of judgment against religious insiders, who were hypocritical in their behavior that followed the letter of God’s law while ignoring the spirit of God’s law. Or, more to the point, the Pharisees succeeded in observing the law, but followed God’s law with the world’s values. He spoke words of condemnation against those who failed to love their neighbor by neglecting to provide food for the hungry, water for the thirsty, and clothing for the naked. He judged them to be guilty by failing to welcome those they perceived as outsiders into the community. As in our own society, people were marginalized and further oppressed by refusing to free those who had been imprisoned unjustly; and by failing to aid the sick and disabled who could not afford to pay for the help they needed.
The Samaritan woman demonstrated herself to be a much more promising disciple than Nicodemus in another very important way. After meeting Jesus, Nicodemus crept off into the night to keep anyone from witnessing his encounter, lest he lose the status and privilege he enjoyed as a Pharisee. The Samaritan woman went out and told everyone in her community about meeting Jesus and invited them to “come and see” for themselves. These outsiders did come and see; and, they asked Jesus to stay with them. Jesus stays for two more days, preaching and teaching before a group of people who had opened their hearts and minds to quench their thirst for “living water.” We, who have begun our faith journey with the water of our baptism poured freely over us, are called to share that same living water without reservation.
Jesus comes to meet us in expected and unexpected places and ways. Jesus meets us at the communion table, the baptismal font, our worship services, Sunday school classes, bible studies, our prayers, our mission projects, and our fellowship events. Jesus also meets us in unexpected encounters and conversations with people outside these church walls. Living water runs through us when we listen to God’s Word and attend to God’s holy presence in every facet of our lives — the failures, the joys, the sorrows, the blessings, and the hardships. When that living water is allowed to spring up and flow freely from us, others will also want to learn about the source of that living water.
We are in a “time of trial.” But God always offers redemption and promises to remain present with us. Remember those whose livelihoods are threatened by the consequences of the viral threat. The people with the least always suffer the most when the economy takes a downturn. In these uncertain times, watch for unexpected blessings and keep alert for ways to be a blessing to others.
Amen. May it be so!
© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2020, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church | 1420 W. Moss Avenue | Peoria, Illinois 61606
WestminsterPeoria.org | 309.673.8501
“Throughout the week, there are many worldly things pulling me away from my commitment to God. I come to church on Sunday at Westminster to reconnect and renew my relationship with Him. Part of my worship is to ask him for forgiveness for my lack of faithfulness. I leave, reminded that he loves me, forgives me, and walks beside me every day. What a profound blessing that is!”