Monday, February 25, 2008

Third Sunday in Lent

3rd Sunday in Lent
February 24, 2008
John 4:5-42
Thomas Arth

Neil Alexander, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta,
tells a story about something that happened to him one day
as he was walking down the street in New York City.
"It was early on a weekday morning
and even though spring was just around the corner,
the night had been cold and the morning air still had a bite to it.
As I was walking to the church
to get there in time for an early morning celebration of the Eucharist,
I encountered a homeless man who had slept the night
on an old piece of cardboard.
He made his bed over a sidewalk grate
near the steam exhaust of an apartment building.
"It was the best he could do.
He was still shivering from the cold;
his clothes were thin.
He had no gloves, no hat, no topcoat.
I suspect he had not eaten in several days.
As I passed him on the sidewalk, our eyes met,
and when they did, I knew I would have to stop for a moment
to speak to him and ask if there was anything I could do.
He didn't ask for much.
He didn't want a coat or a better place to stay.
He didn't even ask if I had any food vouchers
from one of the neighborhood delis.
I reached in my pocket,
thinking I would give him a couple of quarters for a hot cup of coffee.
But he seemed not to want anything
that might make his life more comfortable
on this cold morning on the streets of the city.

"‘No, Father,' he said,
‘all I need for you to do is to give me a blessing.'
‘Give you a blessing?' I asked,
somewhat surprised by his request.
‘Yes, that's all,' he said, ‘a blessing.'
So I knelt down beside him on the sidewalk,
said a prayer with him and laid my hands upon his head
and gave him a blessing.
With a peaceful look upon his face,
like he had received a gift that he had been waiting for
for a very long time, he picked up his cardboard bed
and a little bag of belongings
and walked haltingly down the street in the opposite direction."

It wasn't a chilly early New York morning,
instead it was noontime under a hot sun.
Jesus sat near a well just outside a Samaritan town.
Noon on a hot day is no time to be out and about in that part of the world.
If you're going for water,
which meant lugging some heavy jars back and forth,
then you go in the cool hours of the morning.
That's what everybody does.
You meet all your neighbours around the well,
catch up on the latest news.
But at noon, you don't want to be doing that kind of hard work
not at that time of day.
That's the time for a siesta somewhere out of the sun.
At noontime on this day there are only two people at the well.
Jesus has been walking and he sits to rest while the disciples go
to replenish their provisions for the journey.
And there's a woman.
Why is she coming at noon?
Maybe she's tired of the way people talk to her
and talk about her when she approaches.
She'd rather suffer through the noonday heat
than suffer through their insults anymore.
Maybe she's not welcome in the circles of conversation
around the well in the morning.
We hear in the gospel reading that she's had five husbands already
and the guy she's hanging with now isn't her husband at all.
Ashamed. Shunned. It's just her and Jesus this day.

She wouldn't be too surprised if he avoided her like all the rest.
You see, because of certain Jewish purity laws most men and women
didn't have much contact with each other,
and certainly not if they were strangers.
Women of a certain age were considered unclean
for about 7 days out of a month
and if a man came into contact with her during that time
he'd become unclean.
The woman who came to the well was a Samaritan
and Jewish men considered Samaritan women unclean
the whole month long, their whole lives long.
Also, this man was a rabbi
and women weren't considered worthy of any sort of discussion
with a learned man like him.
But Jesus doesn't shun her, doesn't avoid her,
he asks her for a drink of water.
"You're a Jew," she replied, "and I'm a Samaritan.
How can you ask me for a drink of water
when Jews and Samaritans
won't have anything to do with each other."
Then this Jewish rabbi starts a theological discussion
with this Samaritan woman.
"You don't know what God wants to give you,
and you don't know who's asking you for a drink.
If you did,
you'd ask me for the water that gives life."

The disciples come back from their shopping
and find Jesus talking with this woman
and are surprised.
They don't say anything but surely they're thinking,
"This isn't right."
"What's he doing?"
But Jesus is always surprising them.
Does he surprise us anymore,
or do we have Jesus all figured out?

Pastor Kevin Powell who's a friend of mine
wrote this on his weblog this week:
I've met the woman at the well, several times.
Once, it was a woman in a dirty, smoke-filled apartment.
She had called the church for help and I went to go see her
armed with a bag of groceries.
As I was leaving she said,
"I want to go to church, can I come to your church?"
Those were her words but that wasn't what she was asking.
What she was really asking was
"Will someone like me be welcome in your church?"
I pictured her in our pews,
her gray greasy hair, her yellowed fingers, soiled skirt,
and her booze and nicotine stained breath,
mingling with men in ties and suit jackets,
women in dresses and children in jeans.
Nice, middle-class folks.
Nothing wrong with that.
It's who we are.
And I thought that like the woman at the well was to the disciples,
she'd be a challenge to our congregation.
But a challenge our congregation would definitely step up to.
"Yes," I told her,
"we'd love to have you worship with us."

That's what that pastor wrote about his congregation.
Could we say the same for ours?
When I came here, nearly 6 years ago, I couldn't have asked
for a warmer welcome from the people of this church
and so far nobody is showing me the door.
But the reception a new pastor and his family receives
isn't always the same one
that another person coming into the church might receive.
In the meantime we've welcomed a few new people into our church family
and I've heard from some of them
that they felt just as warmly welcomed
by the people of this congregation
as I felt when I came here.
But when you look at our congregation
they're not all that distinguishable from the rest of us.
"Nice middle-class folks,"
as Pastor Kevin described his congregation.
But what if the woman at the well came among us?

Who might the woman at the well be for us?
Might it be the guy with the wild hair
who passes you on the street talking to himself?
You think to yourself, "What does he want here anyway?"
And since you've grown up in the same town
and know the kind of things he's been involved in
during his life you also know
that he's not the kind of person
that we normally get in this place.
Would he really fit in?
Maybe this is the only time he'll come here.
He'll soon see that this isn't the place for him.

Who might the woman at the well be for us?
Might it be the teenager who's never been in a church,
who doesn't understand the order of service
the way it's printed in our bulletin,
and who fidgets through the entire service
disturbing the people sitting behind her?
She probably didn't know that we have a traditional style of worship.
Maybe she was thinking this is one of those churches
with drums and a praise band.
Surely that's what she's looking for in a church.
She won't be back.

Who might the woman at the well be for us?
Might it be the gay couple who try to be inconspicuous,
but everyone can tell?
They've been shut out or have been made to feel totally unwelcome
in some of the other churches they've tried.
They're hoping that this church might accept them.
What do they want with our church anyway?
They're just going to stir things up and anyway,
their kind make a lot of people uncomfortable,
and the Bible is very clear that their lifestyle is sinful.
If we give them the cold shoulder
they'll move on soon enough.

Who might the woman at the well be for us?
Might it be the woman of questionable morals?
The last one out of the bar on many a night.
The one who's not too choosy about who shares her bed.
The one whose skirt is too short, whose blouse is too tight,
whose make-up is too bright, whose jewelry is too flashy.
This is no place for her.
She'll soon be back to sleeping in on Sunday morning.

Who might the woman at the well be for us?
Might it be the kid who's been suspended from school a few times
for bullying?
He's got no manners, doesn't respect his elders,
always talking back to teachers.
Do we want a kid like that in Sunday School with our sweet kids?
What kind of influence will he be
when we're trying so hard to raise good and polite children?

Who is the woman at the well for you?
How do you look at her?
Jesus could have seen a woman, an unclean woman,
a woman unworthy of conversation with a rabbi,
and left it at that.
But he didn't.
He saw a daughter of God.
He saw a troubled soul.
And he couldn't help but share living water with her.
"No one who drinks the water I give will ever be thirsty again.
The water I give is like a flowing fountain that gives eternal life."
After her conversation with Jesus
the Samaritan woman forgot what she even came for.
She left her jar by the well and ran back to her village
and told everyone about this Jesus.
This Jesus who didn't just follow rules.
This Jesus who showed love, showed compassion.
This Jesus who had the gift of eternal life to give,
to give even to a sinful Samaritan woman.

Bishop Alexander was on his way,
on that cold spring morning,
to serve as a priest, to preach the gospel,
to give Holy Communion to the people.
On his way a homeless man asked him for a blessing.
That's what priests do. It seemed so normal.
But the priest discovered that he was the one who received the blessing.
Instead of a well in Samaria, it was a steam grate in New York City,
but there the priest met Jesus who quenched his thirst
and gave him a taste of eternity.
Who is your woman at the well?
Could it be you?
Maybe you're the sinner
and maybe Jesus is the man with the wild hair,
the teenager who's never been to church,
the gay couple,
the woman in the short skirt,
the schoolyard bully.
When you think you've got Jesus figured out, think again.
He might just surprise you.
Jesus comes to us, Jesus meets us, and our lives are changed.
Then we might say,
along with the people from that Samaritan village,
"We have faith in Jesus because we have heard him ourselves,
and we are certain that he is the Saviour of the world!"

1 comment:

Kevin said...


A bold sermon! Excellent!