Sermon Preached by the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh
March 19, 2017; Lent 3 A: Exodus 17:1-7; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42
Today’s gospel gives us the story of Jesus and the woman at the well. The first thing we learn is that the woman is a Samaritan. Most of us have heard the story of the Good Samaritan. But who and what are the Samaritans? For this, we have to go back in the history of Israel to the time of David and Solomon. Under David and Solomon, the tribes of Israel were united into one kingdom. After Solomon died, Israel was divided into Northern and Southern Kingdoms. Samaria was the capital of the North and called itself “Israel.” Jerusalem was the capital of the South and called itself “Judah.” The Northern Kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians, and the northern tribes were assumed to be lost. Not too many generations later, the Southern Kingdom was conquered by the Babylonians, and the southern tribes were taken away in exile. When the Persians conquered the Babylonians and let the them return home, the returning exiles discovered that some the lost tribes were still there. Because the temple at Jerusalem had been destroyed, that remnant of the people had built their own temple at Mount Gerizim in Samaria. There they continued the traditions and practices of Israel, calling themselves “Samaritans.” The problem was that the religion of the Samaritans had been so changed under the Assyrians and the religion of the exiles had been so changed under the Babylonians that the two had become significantly different, with both considering the other wrong and ritually unclean. To the Jews of Jesus’ day, the Samaritans were a class of untouchables. Yet it is a Samaritan that Jesus used to explain what it meant to love your neighbor and it is a Samaritan that Jesus chooses to visit this morning. To make things a little more messy, this Samaritan is a woman. More than that, this Samaritan is a woman who has been divorced or at least gone through several marriages and is currently living with a man with whom she is not married! She has been so ostracized by her community that she is drawing water at noon — the hottest part of the day when no one else is there. It is to this wounded, hurting, and lonely woman that Jesus came. By treating her with respect and compassion, Jesus broke through her defenses and helped her know that she was loved and accepted for who she truly was deep down inside. The dialogue becomes even more significant when we realize that this whole scene is happening at Jacob’s well. This is the same Jacob whose name was changed to Israel, the same Jacob whose sons became the 12 tribes, and the same Jacob who saw the angels ascending and descending on a stairway to heaven. This is the Jacob who was the father of both the Samaritans and the Jews. The Samaritan Woman went to the well of the great salvation history of Israel, a well from which local custom said she was forbidden to drink. Today Jesus met her — at that well — and tells her that the water can be hers. “Everyone,” he says, “who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water I give them will never thirst.”
Jesus knew that the woman needed far more than that well could offer. He knew that she was stuck in a dry and barren place. He knew that she was repeating a self-destructive pattern and trapped fifth bad relationship with someone she called a husband but wasn’t a husband at all. He knew that she was literally dead inside, surviving only because of a rock hard shell she had created to protect herself. He knew that, buffeted by the winds of life, theological and political struggle, pernicious racism and sexism, and a host of personal issues, the Samaritan woman was completely dried out. He also knew she was an intelligent, caring, woman who had in herself what she needed to heal. Like Moses striking the rock with his rod in the wilderness, Jesus used words of truth to break through her defenses and let her drink. After Jesus finished speaking, a small but wonderful thing happened. Notice that when the woman went from the well to go and tell her family what had happened she left her water jar behind. She left the water jar there because she didn’t need it anymore. She left the water jar there, because at the side of the well she had been filled with the water of life.
The night of the blizzard, some neighbors invited me to join them in a cross country ski adventure through the woods. Skiing in the dark with headlamps through virgin snow was an incredible workout. When we paused, my neighbor pulled a water bottle out of his pocket and asked if I wanted a drink. I was really thirsty but was embarrassed to ask and said no thank you. The story of the Samaritan woman makes me wonder how many other times I have done that, how many times I had reacted by blocking people or relationships or saying no to something I wanted or needed. Have you ever done that? Like Captain Kirk of Star Trek, we sometimes direct all of our energy into our defensive shields. Like Samaritan woman, we sometimes suffer from spiritual dehydration as a result. It could be that like the Samaritan woman, our shells may be the result of rough relationships or rejection by others. Like her, we might think that if people knew who we were, there’s no way they could possibly love us. Like her, we are not quite ready to hear the truth of Paul’s words that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope. As she discovered, however, this is what comes from the power of Christ working in our lives. Many of us fall into the Samaritan woman’s trap, unable to admit that we might need a little help and open ourselves up to that power. To stop and drink is an act of humility, a recognition of our need for God. Spiritual denial, like spiritual dehydration, can sneak up on us and catch us unaware. Spiritual denial, like spiritual dehydration, can be fatal – unless, like the Israelites we can let God break through our defenses and let the water flow.
Did you know that Poland Spring originally sold its water in what were called “Moses bottles,” hoping that customers would remember this story and connect it to their own? The big secret is that if you live in Portland that the same water bottled by Poland Spring is already coming through the taps in your homes. Not long ago I read an article that suggested that geothermal heat as a good option for Maine because so many Mainers already have their own wells, which could be also used for geothermal piping. The Samaritan woman tells us that if we let God break through our defenses, we will discover that we have our own spiritual wells that can warm our hearts and give us life in the same way. Remember Jesus came to the woman, not the other way around. He came to her right where she was and offered her hope and healing. If God did that for her, God can do that for us. As Paul writes the Romans, while we were still sinners, God’s love was literally poured into our hearts — not just from the well of Jacob but from the well of life itself. Like the water of baptism and the water that flowed from Jesus’ side as he hung on the cross, the water of life is water of a new creation and resurrection — hope and promise beyond our comprehension. God loves you and Jesus is coming to you, just as you are, today. Have you ever noticed that in the preparation of communion, water is added to the wine? That’s not done by accident. Are you thirsty? Come to the water and drink. Drink and never be thirsty again.