On Ash Wednesday, I shared with you some questions to consider during Lent that were posed by author and Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner. If you’re anything like me, even with the questions given to me in paper form, you considered the first of those six questions with the intention of engaging the others later in Lent, only to find that perhaps you misplaced the piece of paper. Or maybe you haven’t given them much thought after that first one. Or life has gotten busy, and even though it’s Lent here at church, it hasn’t really felt like it in your daily life.
A Lenten Sermon on John 4.
So I’d like to explore the rest of those questions with you in my sermons during Lent, and invite you to ponder them with me. With lengthy gospel lessons for the rest of the season—they get progressively longer each week—my sermons will be a bit shorter offering you a little time to think about your answer to these questions as well. A reminder that Buechner says that Lent gives us 40 days—or about a tenth of the year—to ask what it means to be most ourselves. By answering faithfully we get to see to both the person we hope to become and the ways we’re being beset in that endeavor. While such work is not easy, Buechner encourage us to see that it can indeed lead us to new life.
So those Lenten questions. The second one posed in that list is this: When you look at your face in the mirror, what do you see in it that you most like, and what do you see that you most deplore?
I’ve heard all sorts of speculations about the Samaritan woman that meets Jesus at Jacob’s well. Much of that speculation is about her shame. As a five time married woman who now wasn’t even married to the man she was living with, certainly there was a lot about her that we could find deplorable. The fact that she was out getting water in the heat of the day—a time when no other person would be at the well—sealed it. She was an outcast and a sinner, and it’s in that state that she encounters Jesus.
Except that isn’t what the text says. We don’t know how she came to be married five times and was now in a sixth relationship. Had she been an unfortunate widow married to five different brothers, each of whom died leaving her childless with the next brother in line marrying her out of obligation? Or had she been put away by each of these other husbands due to fertility issues? Men in that society had the right to divorce just such a woman. Or maybe she was taken advantage of by a string of men, when all she was hoping to find was some stability and care in life. Whatever it was, it wasn’t sin on her part. Jesus is more than willing to encourage people to go and sin no more—for example, he’ll do it in his an encounter with a lame man in John’s gospel—but with this woman he is simply stating a fact about her life.
And it does something pretty amazing. She recognizes Jesus as a prophet. She engages in a theological conversation with him, and her perspective shifts. She seeks to receive living water from him—water that can sustain her soul even in the midst of difficulty. She then she goes off to share that good news with others in her village; something she likely would not have done if she were an outcast. “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done,” she tells them. Theologian Anna Carter Florence highlights “the unfinished nature of that sentence,” suggesting that the woman didn’t give voice to four words that are implicit. Florence suggests the woman says, “Come see a man who told me everything I ever did… and loved me anyway.” “Come and see this one who looks into our souls—who sees the real us—and offers us love and acceptance and peace. Could not this be the Messiah?” And with her testimony, the people start flocking to Jesus.
The disciples who arrived late on the scene are flummoxed, both by Jesus associating with the Samaritan woman in the first place, and also because they offer him a sub they got at the local Kwik-E-Mart, and he turns it down. He tells them he has food that they don’t know about, and they keep thinking he’s talking about real food rather than the metaphorical spiritual food of bringing people the good news about God’s unfailing love. By then the rest of the villagers arrive, and they ask him to stay with them, and he does for a couple more days. Simply because he looked into the hidden places of that woman’s life and offered her love.
Which is good news for us as well as we ponder Buecher’s question about what we find most likable and most deplorable in our own lives when we look in the mirror. While Jesus was able to look deep in that woman’s soul with out flinching at all, it’s hard for us to do the same. And I suspect that our flinching might come from either part of that question. I’ve known some for whom admitting their successes is a challenge, eschewing even a moment of praise and labeling it as prideful arrogance and simply wrong. Others have difficulty voicing the worst times in their lives when they did something they regret. I think it’s important for us to name both sides of that question—to acknowledge both those things that make us proud and those that we wish we could do over. To take a long hard look in the mirror and to speak honestly about both our achievements and our failings. To name fully who we are.
And then it’s important to know this: that Jesus looks into our hearts and sees all that too. He knows all about us, and he loves us. He doesn’t seek to condemn us, but invites us to the next stage in our journey, toward the person God has called each of us to be. What he offers us, of course, is salvation. New life. The opportunity to become more ourselves. People dedicated to sharing that good news with others, inviting them to come and see this one who offers love regardless of what our past might involve, and invites us to relish in that love too.To know without any hesitation that Jesus sees us just as we are and loves us without fail. And because of that love, because of Jesus’ abiding grace and mercy and forgiveness, we can know without a shadow of a doubt that God will not reject us.
So let me ask the question once more: When you look at your face in the mirror, what do you see in it that you most like, and what do you see that you most deplore? And how might you begin to see yourself just as Jesus does?