Thursday, March 27, 2014

3rd Sunday in Lent

St. John 4:5-42

Most human beings feel like they are on a search for God. I am convinced, however, that most of us are trying to avoid God and avoid the truth. Most of our lives are elaborate coping and avoidance strategies. Entertainment in moderate doses can help one deal with the stresses of everyday life, but we now live in a world in which we are being entertained to death. Even religion can become an avoidance strategy. Years ago I knew a nice, devout woman who went from church to church looking for a service or Bible study every night of the week. A large part of why she was doing this however was to avoid her painful home life of a loveless marriage in which husband and wife were enemies living under one roof.

The Gospel lesson this morning is one of the longest in the modern lectionary. I elected to forgo a lesson from the Old Testament with the hope that we would not be fatigued and unable to concentrate by the time we came to this powerful narrative. The Samaritan woman in this Gospel is an example of avoidance and evasion. In this she represents humanity as a whole. Our Lord on the other hand displays perfect tact in responding to her evasions and avoidance. He leads her gently and loving yet definitely towards the truth. In this he shows us how God pursues us and leads us into the light. We tend to think in terms of our search for an unseen and invisible God, but the profounder truth is that more often God is in search of us. Not of course that God does not know where we are. Consider the scene in Genesis immediately after Adam and Eve have transgressed God's commandment. The text reads, Adam and Eve heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, "Where are you?" Here was Adam's chance to be honest, but of course, he did not step into the light to admit his transgression until God exposed it. In the Gospel lesson this morning, our Lord is essentially calling to this woman, "where are you?"

Now the first thing that needs to be said about this scene is the degree to which our Lord transcends and breaks social barriers of his age. Our Lord was a man, and she was a woman. It was severely frowned upon for a men and women to spend time alone together except for spouses and families. Further, he was Jewish, she was Samaritan. The Samaritans and Jews had a long history of antipathy and discord. Jews perceived the Samaritan religion as a watered-down, heretical version of Judaism. In contemporary idiom, she was Mormon or Jehovah's Witness. Finally, she was a woman of bad repute. To by-standers, this would look like a priest talking alone with a prostitute. To the itching ears of gossip and social propriety, this looks delightfully bad.

There is a hint of this woman's bad reputation in the detail that she comes at the sixth hour to draw water. The Romans numbered the hours of the day from sunrise and so the sixth hour would be about noon. Nobody, but the person who is trying to avoid contact with others, would come to draw water during the hottest part of the day. You might come in the morning or in the late afternoon, but not the middle of the day. Under ordinary circumstances these two would have completely ignored one another's presence. According to the mores of the time, there could be no reason nor benefit from a conversation. But our Lord approaches her and initiates a conversation.

There are two things that are remarkable about the interaction that unfolds between them. The first is that Jesus gradually leads up to this revelation of her history. It is as if he takes her by the hand and gently leads her into the light by degrees. One imagines how a zealous street preacher might approach this woman, abrasively calling attention first to her sins and short comings. Instead our Lord repeatedly mentions the call of God to transform humanity: "you would have asked of him, and he would have given you living water"; "God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth." The second thing that is remarkable in this conversation is the way this woman tries to evade and avoid the pursuit of our Lord. She understands his offer of living water literally, thinking that he is offering running water from a spring or stream rather than the standing water of a well. She also falls back on formulaic answers from the entrenched hostility between Jews and Samaritans. "our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship" "when Messiah comes, he will shows us all things." Both remarks are intended to halt the conversation as she falls back into her entrenched position as a Samaritan. It is like two people of opposing view having a debate about abortion; inevitably they fall back onto formulaic expressions and arguments and so the debate goes no where. Except, of course, in this case our Lord does not see himself as the adversary of this woman. He is calling out to her, as his Father's agent, "where are you?"

The most explosive moment comes when our Lord asks her to bring her husband; she responds that she has none. Our Lord proceeds to name her history, not in the spirit of condemnation and judgment. By naming this history, he casts his light upon it. By naming it, there is implicit forgiveness and new life. She certainly saw it as new life because at the end of her interview she goes to her neighbors--the very people she was trying to avoid in going to the well at noon--and tells them, "come, see a man who told me all that I ever did."

Most Christian people I know have two identifies. There is the public religious identity that is marked by regular devotion and piety. Then there is the private fallen identity that gives in all too easily to temptation and besetting sin. You might say that sounds like a hypocrite; am I saying everyone is a hypocrite? Well, partly, yes, but in my observation most people are quite sincere in their Christian devotion and piety. The purpose of Lent is to allow our lives--all of our lives--to be exposed to the light of the Lord, in a sense to bring those two identities together. In our special devotions, we are supposed to hear the Master calling, "where are you?"--as he searches for us amidst our distraction, our entertainment, our waywardness. Imagine what it would be like for our Lord to name your history--both the good and bad--and to know that if you did not stop him or obstruct him, there was forgiveness implicit in that naming. Could you this Lent let our loving Lord Jesus name your whole life not just the Christian part of it; could you let him name your whole history not just the parts you are proud of? Even now, God is calling, "Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light" (Ephesians 5:14).

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