I’ve read a number of comments and posts and news stories about Fred Phelps who died this week. He’s the angry guy from Westboro (KS) Baptist Church. It wasn’t really a church at all, but an angry hate filled group that picketed outside funerals, schools and churches (including the church I served in Colorado, albeit before I arrived there). He couldn’t see people as children of God, but rather as things.
I’m sad on two counts: 1) For the pain he caused so many and 2) For the narrow life he lived due to his hate. I don’t mention Mr. Phelps here in my sermon, there’s not much to say really except that I hope he finds true mercy and love in the age to come. But this idea of seeing or not seeing others plays a central role.
A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent —Based on John 4
Way back in Mrs. Rumohr’s 11th grade English class which she called “man’s search for identity,” I remember learning about one of the great themes of literature: Appearance verses reality. We read Death of Salesman and talked about how poor Willy Loman couldn’t face the reality of what life had become for both him and his sons Happy and Biff, so lived in a fantasy world he concocted. We read many other books as well, and each time Mrs. Rumohr would remind us to look at the way the author described reality and whether the protagonist or other characters saw that experience in the same way.
In short the question became what is seen and what is not seen? Do the characters really see? Do they get it? Or are they so blinded by their circumstances that they cannot see the truth?
John’s gospel picks up just as Jesus has finished his nighttime conversation with Nicodemus. We heard one of the most famous passages of scripture last week in that exchange, “For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” And then, John writes, Jesus leaves Judea and the area around Jerusalem in order to head north back to his hometown region of Galilee. “But,” John pens, “he had to go through Samaria.”
This is not at all what it seems. First, let me remind you that good Jews avoided Samaria like the plague. Samaritans were half Jews, “half-bloods” if you’re using terminology from the Harry Potter series. Because of this, Samaritans and Jews hated each other, dodging contact with each other at every turn. Good Jews would circumvent contact when they had to travel north from Jerusalem, often taking the longer road to the east into the desert rather than going straight north on the shorter road which took one directly into Samaria. But, John writes, Jesus had to go through Samaria. He had to.
And once he draws near to the city of Sychar, Jesus rests at Jacob’s Well while his disciples head off to find food since it was lunch time. At this point, a Samaritan woman appears walking from the city in order to draw water. Jesus asks her for a drink and an interesting dialogue follows.
She’s a bit taken aback by his boldness as a Jewish man asking her a Samaritan woman for a drink. Spoken and unspoken taboos about gender and nationality pop up all over in this setting, and the alarm bells ring inside the head of this nameless woman. She asks, “How is it that you, a Jew, asks a drink of me, a Samaritan woman?” And our Gospeler, not wanting us to miss the intricacies of what takes place, adds an aside “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” Sharing a cup would have been out of the question.
But Jesus then tells her that if she knew who he is, she’d be the one requesting a drink. He had living water to give. Thinking he’s still talking about the physical wet H2O, she comments on the reality that he has no bucket, and the well goes down a long way before you get to the water. He again claims to have water that would quench every thirst, and she finally asks him for this living water. Jesus requests that she go call her husband, and she replies that she doesn’t have one. Jesus, in a moment of knowing the inner workings of her life, tells her she’s right, because although she has had five husbands in the past, the man she’s with now is not technically a husband.
At this point, I’ve heard a number of sermons go off the rails (and probably some of my own too), making a case that this woman had to be a sinner. Certainly she’s engaged in serial flings—much like an Elizabeth Taylor type—that don’t last long before she gets unsettled and moves on again. Of course, this logic continues, the fact that she comes out to draw water at high noon, in the heat of the day, shows her status as a societal outcast; women would be out there in the morning or late in the evening after the heat had subsided. And then there’s the dodgy way she responds, turning the topic from water to religion in a matter of seconds. Surely she’s not wanting Jesus to delve any deeper into her soul so she puts up a smoke screen about both religion and politics.
But that’s not what the text says. Jesus never says to her—as he does to many others—“Go and sin no more.” He doesn’t indicate in any way that she has done anything wrong. (Now, what these men have done, that may have been a sin, especially this last one who refuses to marry her.) A number of things could be going on: she was the wife of a number of brothers, each marrying her in turn while not producing any children, with the last refusing to marry. Or it could be that she was married and cast off by these men who could easily divorce her without cause, and since women had no standing and no way to earn money, she had to find another man to support her. And this kept happening, her being cast off, no longer loved, and her need for support and protection has lead her to this relationship now which has no legal standing. She’s almost certainly lonely, with little to no self-concept and certainly no standing.
And Jesus converses with her. He offers her living water to quench all her thirsts. He sees deep inside her, recognizing that which she needs most of all, and he asks if she wants this water. Upon recognizing that he is a prophet, she asks Jesus a burning question, not in order to change the subject, but to learn more, to ask if the Samaritans would always be outsiders according to the Jews because of where they worshipped the living God. “Believe me,” Jesus tells her, “that the time is coming when you’ll neither worship on this mountain or in Jerusalem, but in all places which will become sacred simply because God cannot be contained. God is a spirit, and those who worship must worship in spirit and truth.” Put another way, “For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son to bring eternal life.” God loved the world. All of it. All of us. Not bringing judgmental eyes about who’s in or out, who’s worthy or not. Jesus sees our thirst, our deep longings, and offers us water.
Ten days ago our family spent time at the Mall in Washington DC, visiting some of the Smithsonian Museums. We all had been at the National Air and Space Museum when Melissa and Olivia had gone ahead to see Dorothy’s shoes and the First Ladies’ gowns at the National History Museum while Noah and I got one last exhibit in. As Noah and I walked on that cold bright day to meet them, we passed a homeless man with a sign sitting in front of one of the galleries. After going maybe 30 yards, Noah leaned over and said to me that he wanted to give the man some money to help him. Frankly, when I saw him, I put my head down and held Noah’s hand a bit tighter, and kept going. I looked at Noah and saw the tenderness and concern in his eyes, so I took out my wallet and give him two bucks.
I watched as he doubled back and put the money in the man’s outstretched cup. After a moment with words being passed, Noah came and joined me again, and we started walking once more. “What did he say,” I asked. “God bless you.” And then Noah, without missing a beat, said, “I hope he gets enough money so he can rent a place soon.”
No such thought had ever crossed my mind. I figured he just wanted money for a vice or two or maybe for a cheap meal. I had judged him unworthy of receiving my help. I hadn’t seen him for what he is, a child of God.
The reality clearly is that we are all so very thirsty and needing the living water of Jesus. The Samaritan woman ran off at this point to share the good news about Jesus. “This couldn’t be the Messiah, could it?” she asks the others in the town. All the while the disciples come back and try to force Jesus to eat something. “I have food to eat that you know nothing about,” which makes them wonder if they missed the pizza delivery guy somehow, although there’s no box nearby. They don’t get that there are hungers deeper than a rumbling tummy. But the woman does. She’s able to convince the rest of the town to come and see what Jesus is all about.
And he, a Jewish man, stays with them, “abides with them” in the Greek, for a couple of days, even though they’re Samaritans. He gives them water and food that sustains them. Jesus sees them as beloved of God, and he, the savior of the world, the great I am, feeds them. They come to believe his words, and their lives are changed, forever. He didn’t judge them, nor ignore them. He didn’t walk by them while they sat by the sidewalk. He stopped, and treated them with dignity and respect and offered them his true living water. “For God so loved the world.” All of it. Every single human being that has walked, is walking and will walk the face of this planet. God loves them, loves us, and offers us nourishment in order to satiate the deep yearnings within our souls. We only need to see, truly see, that he is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Amen.