Br. Joseph Brown, n/OHC
RCL - Lent 3 A - Sunday 24 February 2008
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded.” Exodus 17:1
So begins today's readings. Wandering in the wilderness, the people of God want water. A few thousand years later we are still wandering in the wilderness wanting water. Why are we so thirsty? Why is it that we have more than any civilization before us could even have imagined and yet millions die for lack of water. And not only actual water, but even more “Living Water”. Why are we still so thirsty? A gallon of coca cola, a mountain of chocolate, this car, that partner, this much in the bank, this handbag, that celebrity, this degree, that position, why does it not quench the thirst?
Well, maybe if I prayed like "that", or did this course, or practiced this yoga, or went to that church, or lost weight or gained weight, or went to the gym or quit smoking, or meditated more or medicated more, then, then the craving would leave. I would fill this hole in my heart and have a happy, content and successful life. But, when that still does not ease the ache, when I have done everything that I that I thought would fix it, and I still hurt, what is it? What is the problem? I know....it is them. It is their fault. If they would only do what they are supposed to do, if they only believed and know they are supposed to, then it would all be okay. It's them. The Other.
We all have “an other”. The one or ones who we know to be wrong, bad and sinful. It's not hard to find them. All you have to do is to look at the paper or read the news on the Internet. It is the Islamists, the republicans, the democrats, pro-abortion, anti-abortion, liberal Christians and Bishop Jefferts Schori, conservative Christians and Pope Benedict XVI, Serbian, Croats or Kosovars. For some of us, it is our neighbor, our ex-spouse, or even the one in the pew next to you. At this point in this sermon it could even be me. And the litmus test for if they are the other is if that designation is followed by: yes, but they ARE really bad. They really ARE hurtful, exclusive and evil. I know, because they are not like me.
One of the Others for the Israelites was the Samaritans. To Jews, the Samaritans were half-breeds, they had intermarried with the pagans of the Northern Kingdom. They did not worship at the Temple at Jerusalem and used only the Pentateuch as their holy text. And just like today, the hatred was the most intense because they were really of the same family and tribe. We have to keep that idea of the intense hatred in mind when exploring the rest of this text.
Jesus is out in the wilderness. And not in any wilderness, but in Samaria, the land of the Other. We are told that it is noon, so the sun was high and the desert was hot. He stops at the well to get a drink. And in doing so he begins to do the unthinkable: He talks to a woman. A man, especially a rabbi of Jesus' time would never speak directly to a woman unless she was a relative. And this is not just any woman, but one of "them", a Samaritan. The woman is shocked. She also sees him, a Jew, as the other, the enemy. She acknowledges this by saying we have no dealings with each other.
But rather than Jesus engaging in a political or theological discourse, he totally disarms her: "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, `Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water." I am sure her response was said rather mockingly: “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?" This is a jab at the Jewish belief that the Samaritans were not really decedents of Abraham and Jacob. Again, Jesus does not fall for the baiting.
"Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life." The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water." The woman is asking for magic water. Water that will never have to be drawn again from this well. Water that will magically alleviate her thirst. Before we scoff at her for her magical thinking, how many times have we looked for that magic person, pill, practice or profession that will magically alleviate our thirst or emptiness.
Jesus then keeps her off balance - Call your husband. We have to give the woman great credit for her honesty in answering truthfully. The last thing most of us ever want to do in the presence of the other, the enemy, is to admit our own shortcomings or sins. It is Jesus' response to this honesty that changes the whole dynamic of the conversation. Her admission of her sinfulness and his acknowledgment that he knows all about it, and is still there talking to her, begins a chain reaction. First she saw him as the enemy, then as a man and now she sees him as a prophet, and before it is all over she will see him as Lord.
But right now, she doesn't know what to think. He knows all about her. How could he? Who is this man, this Jew, who has the audaciousness to speak to her and make these cryptic comments? The next line of questions she ask is familiar to any of us who are “professional” religious. When there is the recognition that someone is a religious teacher, minister, priest or even (maybe especially) a monk, the “God questions” start flying. It is an occupational hazard.
And usually the questions begin with a “biggie”: Is Hitler in hell, are all the other religions wrong? Do you worship Mary or a piece of bread?”. For her it is The Question: Jews worshiped in Jerusalem, Samaritans on Mt. Gerizim. Who is right? Jesus answers her question but not as expected. He says that salvation comes from the Jews, and so seems to negate the Samaritan claims, but then he says that the time is coming, and even now is here when “true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
I will not even get into what this text might mean other than to say it was just as mysterious for her as it is for us. She acknowledges her confusion by exclaiming “I don't know what to make of what you are saying. But I know that there is one to come, the Messiah and he will explain it all to us.” Then Jesus delivers the most unbelievable, incredible thing that has ever passed by human lips: I AM HE. The woman runs into the city to tell what she has seen and heard. One little line implies that even she was still grappling with the idea that how the One to Come, could be the other: “He couldn't be the Messiah...Could he? A Jew?” Through this dialog between others, through this conversation between perceived enemies, salvation comes to this woman and her people.
And just in case we don't get the point, the disciples who have been away gathering food, return to find Jesus talking with a woman. And not just any woman, but a Samaritan. Good thing they didn't know about the five husbands part. But in contrast to the woman's honesty, they don't say anything. They don't engage in a conversation. They are hungry for the food they have brought. For - you see - conversations are dangerous.
Conversations that are honest and open, that don't try to dismiss differences or cover-up long pent-up feelings, like the one Jesus just had with the woman, have power. Conversations along those lines may result in conversion. Because the truth is that we don't know the truth about the other. Really, we don't want to. To talk to the other and to really listen, requires that we have to drop our defenses. We have to see the other, the person, behind the mask that they have made or that we have made for them. We have to be honest with our own feelings. We have to share our own wounds, we have to be ready to tell them how what they do hurts us, and be ready to hear about how what we do hurts them. I must be ready to question my own assumptions about why they do what they do.
Doing so does not mean that I have to give up my personal beliefs. I do not have to engage in behavior I disagree with and I do not have to agree with those who do. Some people do do bad things, evil things. Love does not mean that I brush those things aside, and do not confront evil. We are in the wilderness and just as Jesus was tempted and fought back against evil, so must we. But let us all remember who we are really fighting against. And that one truly is the other.
Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and all of your mind and all of your soul. And the second commandment is like it: Love your neighbor, the other, as yourself.” That is the living water that Jesus gives. That is what is foreshadowed in the water from the rock in Exodus. It is our selves, our very hearts that are rock and they must be broken for the living water to flow.
This Lent, go into the wilderness, go into Samaria, go to the land of the Other, and talk to them. Take the risk to talk to the Samaritan. Be honest, be loving, treat them with the respect and dignity that you expect for yourself. And you will find the Living Water. You will find the food sent by the Father. You will find that this is the acceptable sacrifice, this is worshiping in spirit and truth, this is the beginning of that Easter joy, the joy that knows no end. Come to the well and drink.