Interrupting the flow of Lenten meditations, here is my sermon from last Sunday:
A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday in Lent, March 23, 2014
By the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Curate of Christ Church Greenwich, CT
Texts: Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42
May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.
She didn’t expect to find anybody else at the well in the middle of the day. She didn’t expect to see anyone on the hot and dusty roads. She didn’t expect to meet anyone as the noontime sun beat down relentless and unforgiving. She didn’t expect to find anybody else at the well in the middle of the day, and that’s precisely why she came when she did. She didn’t want to find anybody else at the well.
The other women of the village came to draw water at dawn and dusk, warming the slight chill in the air with their stories and laughter and gossip. But the Samaritan woman we meet in today’s Gospel came at noon. She preferred the burning silence of midday to the social hours of morning and evening, because she knew that so much of the talk and laughter and gossip would be about her. She chose to face the cruel gaze of the blazing sun rather than the cruel gaze of her neighbors and acquaintances.
Five husbands, and now living with a man to whom she wasn’t married! Think how people must’ve talked. Think of the looks she must’ve received in the streets and in the marketplace. Faithful Jews of Jesus’ day were allowed only three marriages. Though the Samaritans may not have observed the same rule, this woman’s five marriages would still have been scandalous. And her choice to cohabit with a man who wasn’t her husband would have been unthinkable. So it is that we find her walking to the village well in the very heat of the day, an outsider and a pariah. She didn’t expect to find anybody else—she didn’t want to find anybody else.
Imagine her surprise, then—imagine her annoyance, even—when she arrived at last at Jacob’s well and found a man sitting there. A Jewish man, no less. We must not miss the significance of their distinction. As St John tells us in an aside this morning, “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” But in fact, the relationship was much worse than that. Jews and Samaritans did indeed share something—they shared all the antipathy, mistrust, and hatred of separated brethren.
To the Jews, Samaritans were blood traitors—mixed-race mongrels whose Israelite ancestors had inter-married with the heathen settlers of the land. To the Samaritans, Jews were heretics—people who, after returning from captivity in the distant land of Babylon, had edited the ancient texts and corrupted the old Hebrew religion (most egregiously represented by the demand that all worship should center on Jerusalem). The shared heritage of the two groups added a layer of theological disagreement to an already tense mix of political and historical disputes.
This, then, is the acrimonious background for today’s encounter at Jacob’s well. The Samaritan woman probably hoped that the Jewish man sitting there would simply ignore her. Perhaps she feared that he would berate her, or worse. She had come to the well when she did to be alone—to be alone with her shame, to be alone with her guilt, to be alone with the strange mess that was her life. The last thing she wanted was an unpleasant encounter with a hostile stranger.
And yet the Jewish man at the well did not abuse or degrade the woman. Neither did he ignore her. Instead—against all convention, and contrary to every expectation of both their communities—he spoke to her. “Give me a drink,” he said. That simple request began a conversation that went right to the heart of her hardships, right to the very center of her sins and even into the depths of the dispute that divided their two peoples.
For there, at Jacob’s well in the heat of the day, the Samaritan woman who wanted only to be left alone found and was found by Jesus of Nazareth. There, when in pious hopefulness the woman spoke of the Messiah, the anointed one of God, she heard Jesus reply with the astonishing declaration: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
The woman ran back to Sychar, her city, and became the first evangelist to the Samaritans. And not to the Samaritans only. For today, beloved, this Samaritan woman has become an evangelist—a bearer of the Good News—to us as well. You see, the deep truth that we are called to face this day is that we have made that same journey to that same well in the lonely heat of the noonday sun. Each of us has walked that dusty path of shame and fear. Each of us has gone to that same deep well of stale water again and again and again.
To be sure, our paths bear different names. Ours is not the village road from Sychar. For some of us, our path is called lust—a dark and secretive road leading to a well of degradation and exploitation. For others, our path is called greed—a grasping and a grimy path at which we clutch and cleave, lonesome but afraid of companions. For others, our path is called gluttony—and it is a broad and easy path, abounding with every creature comfort, all tending towards a certain over ripeness. In our community, especially, the unforgiving path trod by so many is pride—and on its scorched ruts shines the relentless sun of perfectionism; of keeping up appearances; of making the world think that all is good and happy and healthy when we know the reality inside is very far from that indeed.
Beloved, the paths bear many names. I cannot know what yours is called. But I do know where it leads. For whatever path of shame we walk, whether we walk them under the searing noonday sun or in the dead watches of the lonely night, each of us is winding his or her weary way to the same deep well. It is a well given to us not by Jacob, who was the father of a nation, but by Adam, who is the father of our race. It is the well of our fallenness, the well of our sorrow, the well of Sin and Death. That is where our lonesome roads are carrying us. As the Samaritan woman before us, we walk those paths ashamed and afraid that others should find us out—ashamed and afraid that we should meet anyone on the way—ashamed and afraid to admit our own weakness, our own helplessness.
But the great Good News announced this day is that we have not been left to wander those paths alone—to drink from that well without hope. For what today’s Scripture declares is that at the end of all our roads of sorrow and shame; by the side of that rank well of Sin and Death; in all those places we are afraid to show to others and unwilling to admit to ourselves, behold! Jesus sits waiting.
He has not come to mock or to scorn us. He has not come to whisper and to gossip. He has not come to degrade us and abuse us. He has come, instead, to ask of us a drink of water. He has come to share in our guilt, to take to himself our sin, to drink deep a draught drawn from the fetid well of our shame.
Jesus has found us—we who are his enemies, we who are his foes, we who will cry “Crucify him!” with bloodthirsty throats in just a few short weeks. Jesus has found us, and he finds us neither in our pretended perfection nor in our feigned faithfulness. No, Jesus has come to us by the well at the end of the hot, dusty road. He has come to us in the secret places of our souls. He has come to us in the very depths of our brokenness, and at the very source of our fallenness.
Hear the great and mighty wonder as Paul the Apostle announces it in our reading from Romans this morning: “God proves his love for us, in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.”
Dear people of God, can we begin to see how good this Good News really is? While we were yet sinners, Christ came to us. While we were yet Samaritans, Christ spoke to us. While we were yet slinking and scuttling in the slime of our shame, Christ met us in our lowliness. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
He did more than meet us in our lowliness—he shared in it. He did more than seek us out by the well of our deep shame—he tasted its poisoned waters for us, and drained it forever. He did more than promise us a wellspring of living water gushing up to eternal life—he opened his side on the Cross of Calvary, and has poured the pure water of the Holy Spirit into our hearts.
We come this week to the middle of the season of Lent. It is a bitter irony, though a natural one, that this season can so easily mutate into a prolonged chance to prove our worthiness, to show our faithfulness, to earn God’s love through our various acts of sacrifice, devotion, and study. It becomes a time of striving and struggling for so many.
But may it never be so for us, beloved. Rather, may this season be for us a time of true repentance—a time to revisit our pathways of sorrow and sin, no longer walking them alone and ashamed, but in the triumphant company of the redeemed Church and by the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit. May these forty days be a season of self-reflection—a season when we see more clearly the hard truth of this morning’s collect: that “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” May this Lent be a real Lent, a genuine Lent, which is to say a Lent that readies us in body and spirit to follow our various paths to the place they lead—to the hill of Calvary—and to see the great sign of God’s love for us written in the blood of Jesus, to glimpse the new creation springing into life by the power of his Resurrection.
May we heed the call of our nameless sister, the woman of Samaria, and follow her to meet the Jesus who seeks us in our shame. And may our encounter with him in this season be such that we might say with the ancient people of Sychar, “It is not longer only because of what others say that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”