a sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent [Year A]
We find ourselves today in an unprecedented situation. I don’t know of anyone who has ever been involved in such a wide-scale, long-term hunkering down as we are right now. Participating in this collective effort of social distancing in order to stem the outbreak of this coronavirus is both new and unusual. You, like I, have no doubt seen all of the memes and posts shared on social media about the empty shelves in the grocery stores and the crowds trying to get their hands on life’s bare essentials as fast as they can.
The only thing I have to compare it to is the last time we had to hunker down for a coming hurricane. I can’t remember now exactly which storm it was, but I know that it never ended up arriving and doing the damage we thought it would. I know this because we still have all the water we horded from that event. I brought one case of it today. It has been lying out in our storage shed for years. We followed the advice of “those in the know” who were telling us how to prepare, but we may have gone a little overboard. Having lived through a few hurricanes in my life, I know that you never want to be in the position of lacking drinkable water. What I find interesting is that this case of bottled water, which I estimate is probably from 2016 and Hurricane Matthew, actually has an expiration date on it. Did you know water had an expiration date? This one says—you may be interested to know—best if used by February 2020. Just missed the coronavirus by one month. We’re actually good on water this time, but apparently people are going overboard stockpiling other things: toilet paper. Go figure.
This morning we hear the story about Jesus and a Samaritan woman and water that will never expire. It is water that will never run out, apparently never needs to be stockpiled.
It’s one of the most provocative conversations in all of Scripture. First of all, Jesus is in foreign territory. He begins in Judea, which is Jewish territory, and needs to go to Galilee, but instead of going around Samaria to get there (most likely the typical path) he goes right through it. The Samaritans were a group of people the Jewish folk did not get along with. There are several reasons for that, but suffice it to say there was a long history of mistrust and animosity between the two groups even though they shared some of the same history lived geographically very close to one another.
Not only does Jesus go through this foreign territory but he visits this well and strikes up a conversation with a woman while he is there. At the end of the story this woman goes back to the village and ends up bringing everyone into faith in Jesus as the Messiah. It’s a powerful example of how Jesus has the ability to cross boundaries. It’s like the absolute opposite of social distancing! Jesus goes out of his way to connect people. Jesus goes out of his way to spread this life-giving quality that he has.
Now, a lot has been said about this particular woman throughout history, much of it made up, much of it kind of disparaging. All we know from what John tells us is that she is alone at this well during the heat of the day and that she’s had a number of husbands and is currently with a man to whom she is not married. I’m not sure we’re supposed to read too much into any of that. Perhaps she is a five-time widow. She clearly has some power and influence in her community and couldn’t have been all that shunned because her testimony alone is all her village needs to begin worshiping Jesus as the Messiah.
Whatever the case, it would have been a little unusual to be alone at a well. Wells were community places, spaces where people came together and their stories overlapped on a daily basis. This particular well had been used that way for centuries. I kind of think of wells like modern day cell-phone charging stations or maybe the counter at a pharmacy.
Recently I had to fulfill a prescription for one of our children and it required me to go to one of the few 24-hour pharmacies on our side of town. As I sat there waiting for the medicine to be ready I looked around and noticed I was sitting in the waiting area with all kinds of different people. I imagine if we had to go there every day or every week to get medicine we would end up getting to know each other pretty well. We would probably start to care about one another on a deeper level.
In Bible days there were few places you could get good water and so people tended to congregate there. When Jesus approaches this woman, he asks her for something to drink. Immediately she is aware of how unusual that is. There are at least two boundaries he is crossing he is a Jew speaking with a Samaritan and a man speaking with a woman. And throughout the course of their conversation it becomes aware that Jesus is non-threatening and that he wants to offer her a new kind of life—water that will never run out. Jesus gives living water, water with no expiration date, water that doesn’t require a continual traipsing somewhere to get, water that somehow gets in them and gushes up to life without end. Understandably, this woman wants this water always.
So, what could Jesus mean by this? Why would Jesus describe himself this way? First of all, just like water, Jesus gives life to all people. He is not just for this group or that group, for this kind of people or those kinds of people over there—the kinds who worship in Jerusalem or the kinds who adore Mt. Gerizim. Just as need for basic water is common to all living things so does God give Jesus for nurturing all kinds of people. He does come from one particular group, the people of Israel. His story arises from their story, but he is a Savior, a Messiah, for all. No one can claim him only for themselves. His love is meant to be shared and shared abundantly. The kind of love that Jesus shares for us on the cross, this total giving of self, can only be extended others. I cannot save it up, stick it in some corner of my life just for me. If I try that, then it is not the love of Jesus I am talking about. Jesus love gushes up from within me and naturally is extended to others around me.
Another thing Jesus means by describing himself as living water is that he constantly refreshes and renews and gives life to people. By nature Jesus brings life, makes things new. He is like God’s big irrigation system for the universe. It’s not a stagnant pool of water but something moving, running, cascading in some parts. His words are always going to be a source of growth and vitality. We can hear them, read them again and again, and continue to have our lives pointed towards God.
I think how some of the oldest people in this congregation have helped me understand this better than anyone else. The way they speak about their faith and their relationship with Jesus shows me that it is alive, not something they do out of years of tradition and habit or because it reminds them of the good ol’ days. About a year or so ago we produced a short video for our faith formation programs. We went around one Sunday and just randomly interview people and asked them to share something brief about their faith and how it is shaped here. One of the women we got on camera, who is in her nineties, was sitting on her rollator and without any prompting, said, “I’ve been here since 1954 and I’m learning something new all the time.”
That is what living water is like. That is a source that never leaves you thirsty when you drink from it. That is a fountain of life that just doesn’t have an expiration date. And it is all because God decides not to stockpile his love for us. God’s not going to store it away and parcel it out, bucket by bucket, bottle by bottle. His Son will be lifted up on the cross for all people and the love will just flow and flow and flow right to this very day.
I can’t help but think that this story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman comes at the perfect time. We can’t physically be gathering to hear God’s Word for the time being. It’s like we’re all sequestered in our own little Samarias while this pandemic cranks up. But Jesus, the living water, is still present through you, flowing into our community just like always. No matter where you are in these days of social distancing, no matter what kind of necessities you have to venture out to find, Jesus is still giving living water. He is still crossing boundaries, still bringing people together, still showing up to comfort the lonely, still giving life without end through his words and his love. You can read Scripture, you can listen to a podcast, you can pick up the phone and call a friend, you can write a letter to someone you haven’t heard from in a long time. You can pray. And today many of you have brought in food donations that we are packing up to distribute to school children stuck at home during this time of physical distancing. The love of Christ flows to you and through you. To that I can say, “Drink up!”
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.