Lectionary Sermon for 3rd Lent A, March 27, 2011 on John 4:3-52

About Everything and Nothing

John 4:5-42

I’m sure you have heard many times this famous story of the “Samaritan Woman at the

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Well.” Have you ever noticed that this is a story about hunger and thirst in which nobody eats or drinks anything? The disciples leave Jesus to rest at a well that has no rope or bucket. They go for food, and when they return, Jesus doesn’t eat any. A woman shows up with a bucket, Jesus asks her for help getting a drink, but she never does.

This is also a travel story: Jesus and the disciples start out in the South, in Judah, and want to get back up to Galilee where they are from. But at least by the end of this story, they don’t get there.

Nobody Gets it

This is also a “nobody gets it” story. The woman doesn’t get what Jesus means about living water, and the disciples don’t get what Jesus means about the food that nourishes him. At the beginning, the nameless woman is a bit put-off that Jesus, a Jew, is speaking with her, for two reasons: she is an un-accompanied woman, plus she is a Samaritan and he is a Jew. At the end, the disciples are put-off that Jesus is sitting there with this foreign unaccompanied woman – but they can’t bring themselves to speak of the scandal out loud.

This is also a story about worship; about the proper place of worship – is it our mountain or their mountain? But in the end, we hear it is not about mountains. It is not even about worship places.

Man and Woman at a Well

For those of you with a literary interest: this is also a “man meets a woman at a well in a

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foreign land” story in which, contrary to “how it always goes” – like with Isaac’s servant and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, and; Moses and Zipporah, nobody ends up engaged to be married.

Everything about this story subverts our expectations. Nothing goes as planned. Nobody (except Jesus) knows what is going on.

Who are we in this story?

Let me give us one more conundrum. Who are we to identify with in this story? Most often in a “Jesus and his disciples” story we identify with the disciples. We are with them in the boat in a storm on the lake, or we are with them in the the upper room at the last supper and in the garden on the night of his arrest – that’s normal. But what about in this story?

In one sense, we identify with the disciples in their role – they are with Jesus to learn from him, to observe him, to accompany him in ministry – that’s what we do. But on the other hand, we aren’t Jews, and this story is specifically about Jesus crossing that iron-curtain border and bringing Good News to non-Jews. For the folks reading this story first, right after the ink dried on John’s parchment, who were not Jews, like us, this is a story about the Good News coming to our kind of folks. We identify then with the Samaritans who received this very Jewish story from this very Jewish person, and found themselves all caught up in it.

Why do we need it?

Besides being a reversal of expectations story, what else is here? Why do we need this story? I believe this powerful story is like the well that Jesus came to that day: it has way more depth than we could ever manage to get to without a long rope and a long time. So we will have to just pick some crucial features and leave the rest for another time.

Us and the Woman

First, let’s look at the idea that we identify with the Samaritan Woman. Like her, we gentiles were outsiders to God’s long-standing promise to bless the world through Abraham – but we are so used to the idea that gentiles like us are included in God’s grace that, maybe unlike John’s first readers, that is no big deal (though it should be).

At least we should note that this is God’s characteristic: to bring good news to outcasts and marginalized people – and he is still crossing our borders in that mission.

But let us notice some other aspects of this encounter. Who initiated it? Jesus did. Behind

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the scenes, God did. Did you notice that the reason Jesus and Co. went through Samaria on their journey northwards was because, it says, “he had to”(v. 4). Well, geographically, he didn’t have to go that way, but maybe there was a reason Jesus had to go that way. Maybe God was at work behind the scenes, making sure that Jesus would meet that woman that day.

In fact, one of the themes of this story is that the surface level is not the one that matters most. Jesus and the disciples are on a trip, tired, hungry, thirsty, and making logistical arrangements. But behind the scenes, God has them on a mission with a purpose. It’s not about physical water and literal bread, and it’s not a coincidence that they came to that well.

Our mission

You are going to leave church today, to go home, or out to eat – your choice. Monday will come as all Mondays do and you will do what you do on Mondays. All of our days are like that. On the surface. But behind the normal routine of our lives, God is at work. There is a purpose for you being where you are. God has a mission, and we are all involved. There are people God will bring you in contact with, or has already brought you together with, for his purposes.

When Jesus assesses the situation, what does he see? Does he see Samaritans around an ancient well? Or does he see fields, white with ripe grain that unseen forces have planted and watered and prepared for harvest? The harvest is all about the way God overcomes all kinds of barriers to get to people with his love, just like he did that day – overcoming their initial resistance, overcoming the guilt they feel for their histories (like her – 5 men and now a man who isn’t a husband!) and even overcoming pre-conceived ideas about religion.

In our ordinary days, God has a purpose for us. You don’t have to have it all figured out before you are involved in it. Just believe that divine encounters happen all the time. You have a chance to be an “instrument of God’s peace” bringing love where there may be hatred, pardon where there has been injury, hope to people in despair, and light to people in darkness.

Our Times

There is one last conundrum to notice. Jesus looked up at the fields and proclaimed an abundant ready-to-go harvest. All we need is more workers, so pray for more people to go out there and bring it in. But the opposite seems true today, doesn’t it?

Decline in mainline religion

Never, in America, has there been less interest in the church. Attendance in all of the old

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Protestant churches is in rapid decline. Look around: where are the young families? Where are are the college kids? Where are the youth? Yes, it’s true that some churches are doing fine (mostly the contemporary ones that most of us would not find familiar nor comfortable). But nationally, the church is not doing well. And its worse in Europe.

No decline in spiritual interest

The odd thing is that interest in God and in spirituality is not in decline. It is now common to hear younger people say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” Usually what they mean is that they have a sense that God exists and they have a desire to connect with him personally, but they do not expect that will happen inside a church building behind stained glass. They have a sense that God is Spirit, but they do not think that the religious forms they see around them, are going to help them. Many of us here today have grandkids who share that opinion.

This amazingly on-target text

This text is amazingly on target for them. The Samaritan woman wanted to discuss religion. She was concerned about places – which mountain was the right temple on? Which religion has got it right? Amazingly, Jesus did not get drawn on that question. For him, it was not about Mountains.

Yes, it’s true that Jesus knew that the rescue of the world that God wants to accomplish has its roots in the Jewish world – “salvation is from the Jews” (v. 22) he said; the story is the story that started with Abraham and God’s promise to bless the world through him. But the point is that the main thing is not now (and actually never has been) about a mountain or a temple. The main thing has never been about the surface level skin – the religious stuff – the forms, the music, the building, the windows.

For the post-religious and us too

This amazingly powerful text addresses everybody who is bored with religion, offended by religion, abused by religious people, and who expects nothing spiritual to come from any of it.

But this text also addresses people like the woman that day, people like us, who are thoroughly caught up in “religion.” To both of us, it says, God is out there, behind the scenes, at work, seeking people . He is seeking us in order to to rescue us from our self-absorbed, materialistic, sinful conditions, to help us find true food that nourishes the soul and living water to quench our deepest thirst. Listen to what Jesus said again:

23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

True Worship

True worship is about responding to God’s seeking with everything. Mountains and temples

Pierre Mignard (French, 1612-1695)

have nothing to do with it. Religious ritual may be helpful to some, but it is not the main point at all. True worshippers worship God, who after all, is a Spirit, in “spirit and truth” – with all they have, from the heart.

And when they do worship God in spirit and truth, when we worship God with our whole beings, what do we find?

That the material world that we get so caught up in and think is so important for our happiness; the bread and water of this world, are not nearly so important as the spiritual bread and living water by which God nourishes and satisfies his people. Are you hungry and thirsty at a deep level this morning? That ache is spiritual: God is Spirit – look no further.

Practical Implications

There is a very practical direct implication of this that we should not miss as well. This is not just about us, finding the true spirituality of God in our lives. This is also about the way this frees us from our attachment to our material possessions so that we can bless others in need.

I love the way one of Jesus’ disciples, James, puts this point:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (1:27)

Religion is not about mountains and temples; it is about loving God, who is Spirit, and because of that, reaching out to people in need of practical, tangible care. This is one of those purposes that God has put us here for.

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