This morning, I want to share a great story from the Bible—from the Gospel of John, Chapter 4, verses 5-30 and 39-42. It’s a story that appears only in John’s Gospel, and it tells us so much about Jesus, and about God’s desire to be close to us.
Jesus and the Disciples have already traveled all the way from their homes in the Galilee region, in the north, down to Judea and, especially, to Jerusalem, but thing have gotten risky for them down south—John the Baptist has been murdered and there are complaints about Jesus, so He decides to head back home and to work there for awhile. But, unlike most of the Jewish folks, who would go east before they go north—not risking the more direct route, that would take them through Samaria—the home of the hated Samaritan people—Jesus refuses to bypass Samaria, but walks right thru it and, in a little town called Sychar, he meets a woman at the well—a Samaritan woman—and their conversation changes not only her life, but the lives of all who live in the town. Listen to how John describes it:
So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’
Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’
Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ They left the city and were on their way to him.
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.’
-- John 4:5-42
Everything I Have Ever Done
Goodness and mercy were never more evident in a passage of Scripture than in this one today. Goodness in all the people. Mercy flowing back and forth. Conversation, challenging and, at the same time, filled with grace. An amazing display of what we talked about last week—a new approach by God to the humans of God’s creation, the offer of faithfulness and friendship in the loving Person of Jesus. A willingness to draw near and to stay beside us for life.
Life. I may have shared—I don’t know—that one of my professors in seminary—my professor of preaching—told me that he thought my forte in preaching would be in leading funerals and sharing homilies. I wanted to be a preacher of great sermons, inspiring congregants, moving people to tears, changing lives with sweeping rhetoric and leading guests, by droves, to come to the altar. Being good at funerals seemed a dubious “strength.” But my teacher’s theory has been put to the test and, though I may not be gifted at leading funerals, it is true that they lift up in me a desire to do the best I can and to be prepared for the final celebration of the life of one of God’s children. And so it was that, this past Tuesday, we found ourselves together—some of us, along with about a hundred guests—sharing in grief and joy as we took note of the passing of a dear friend, Saundra Brown. As I prepared—in truth, even as I stood to deliver the homily for Saundra—the stark and compelling message I was feeling the need to share was that we were constrained, in the celebration and in the mourning by how little we knew of someone we called “friend.”
Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can He?
The woman had come to the well. So much has been read into this encounter, this interaction, this seemingly-odd pairing of Jesus and a Samaritan woman that what is really happening has been obscured over the years. To clear the misunderstanding, let’s start by listening to the words that the woman, herself, used to describe the encounter when she went back into her village: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” How many times have you heard this woman referred to as a loose woman, a prostitute, a sinful creature; how often has it been said that Jesus’ words were a harsh reproach? Her own words tell a different story. Are these the words of someone who has been condemned, or reviled, or scorned, or shamed? “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” No! No; these are the words of someone amazed—amazed—at being known, being heard, being recognized.
Jesus was on a journey; His ministry could be described as a series of journeys, and this one, heading north from Jerusalem back toward His home in Galilee, took Him through Samaria. He could have avoided Samaria by staying to the east, as most of the Jewish people would have done, avoiding contact with the hated Samaritans. but Samaria was a more direct route and an easier road and, besides, Jesus obviously sought out this meeting. Jesus wanted to encounter these people, for His presence would change their lives. Where better to encounter someone than at the community well?
Jesus sent His disciples—all of them—into the village to buy food while He waited, alone, at the well—waiting for an encounter. And this woman is the one who came; was it by chance? We can’t know, but she was the perfect foil, for their exchange began sharply and ended with her rejoicing. Let’s listen in:
Jesus: ‘Give me a drink’.
The woman: ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’
Jesus: ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’
The woman: ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’
Jesus: ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’
The woman: ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’
Jesus: ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’
The woman: ‘I have no husband.’
Jesus: ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’
The woman: ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’
Jesus: ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’
The woman: ‘I know that Messiah is coming’. ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’
Jesus: ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’
It is Jesus, the one who is speaking to you. Speaking into your heart. Touching you in unexpected ways, guiding you, moving you, reassuring and inspiring you. Because He knows you. He has chosen to know you.
In response to the coronavirus, the concept has been raised of “social distancing.” Social distancing. As if…. Does anyone really think we don’t know social distancing already? We are the authors and perfecters of social distancing. We have turned it not into an art form, but into the ultimate defensive weapon, preventing the encroachment into our lives of true understanding of others. We have refused to know and be known. Social distancing has been our watchword for decades.
Jesus knew this woman; He told her everything she had ever done. She was not aggrieved, offended, threatened or intimidated, but joyous. So joyous was she that she called to the people of her village, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done.” If you encountered someone at the mall, or the theater, or the park who stood and told you everything you had ever done, what would be your response?
Another trendy expression, like “social distancing,” is “lived experience.” I understand it; it’s a perfectly good expression, but its use is almost always in the negative statement that we do not share someone else’s “lived experience.” We don’t know what their life has been like, or what it is now. We have not walked a mile in their shoes and we certainly have not been beside them each and every day of their lives. The truth is that we can walk beside someone every day of a lifetime and not know them—truly know them—and their lived experience, for we have mastered social distancing, even when we are up close and personal. We may be socially-distant even from our BFF’s. How ironic. How sad. How unlike Jesus.
I stood to deliver the homily at Saundra’s celebration and I realized, as I looked into the eyes of those who had gathered, that even as I had tried so hard to discover the essence of my dear friend, parsing through our conversations of the past, and the things she had given me, and reading about her and discovering, in print, paragraphs of her own words, and talking to others—even as hard as I had tried in the days since her passing, I could not relate her “lived experience.” Worse, perhaps, was that, in my haste to prepare, I had assumed that those with whom I would share this message would have more in common with me and with each other—sort of a homogenous, collective “lived experience” among those of us confessing that we had not shared in Saundra’s lived experience. Instead, I looked out and I saw diversity; Saundra’s life had crossed boundaries mine can only dream of. Saundra had touched and shared life and blessed so many people, black and white and old and young and rich and powerful and un-rich and powerless, and I had not seen it or, if I had seen it, I had failed to consider what that might look like and what it might mean as I would stand before them and share Scripture intended to capture Saundra and to relate her “lived experience” to the call of God on her very-rich life.
Goodness and mercy. We crave these; we hope they are following us all the days of our lives. And, yet, they are at our command. As the song says, “just one key unlocks them both.” It is for us to dispense them—goodness, and mercy. We are called to help others to know goodness and mercy; they are not ours to have and to hold and to keep to ourselves. We are to share them with others. But we cannot do so from a “social distance.”
Jesus came—God, incarnate on the face of the earth of God’s own creation—Jesus came to know us and to be known by us. Jesus came so that we might know that there was—is—no distance which God will not travel, no barrier wall God will not overcome, no morass into which God won’t march, no disease which God might fear so that God would not come near; God is with us. Jesus is here, today. The Holy Spirit winds Her spirally way around us, even in this moment of invisibility. It is the season of Lent, a season we have devoted to understanding and appreciating goodness, and mercy. Sister Joan Chittister says that, “Lent is about becoming, doing and changing whatever it is that is blocking the fullness of life in us right now.” The fullness of life is found in the certainty of goodness and mercy. So, what is blocking the fullness of life in us right now? Is it worry, or fear? Is it busy-ness and the pursuit of more, and better, and even more? Is it poverty, or sickness, or loneliness, or grief? Why is no one helping us through this? Why am I alone?
Jesus knows. Jesus knows. In fact, Jesus knows the power of fear, the agony of pain, the deep, deep abyss of loneliness, the sickening sense of betrayal, the embarrassment of being mocked and the shame of being powerless to respond. And Jesus knows you—everything you have ever done.
Do you know anyone that well? How will we come to know one another, and the guest, and the refugee, and the immigrant, and the stranger, and the one we call, “enemy”?
I’m not recommending that we violate the rules of good sense and hygiene and the advice of experts and the needs of others to be protected from illness but, at the same time, I am recommending that we find ways to reduce, rather than to increase, our social distancing. Let us model Jesus in and to this broken world. Let us go into the strange—even the hostile—places. Let us seek out the ones who might confront us, reject or, even, revile us, and let us look into their eyes and tell them truths and expect to hear truths in return. Let us be vulnerable, as Jesus was, in the presence of the Samaritan woman, who did not revere Him or worship and adore Him or bow down, but asked why she, a Samaritan woman, should bring a man such as He a drink of water. Let us be vulnerable, as Jess is vulnerable in the world today, following those—even those who ignore Him, even those who have rejected Him—those who, in a moment or in a year or in a hundred years or never, ever, may turn in a moment of pain, or fear, and look into His wanting eyes and say, “Yes.” Let us, in this time when social distance is the coin of the realm, and when lived experiences are left unshared—let us reject what is safe and take the risks of vulnerability to others.
Come, and see a man who told me everything I have ever done. Come—come and see—the One who will tell you everything that you have ever done. And who will love us, anyway. Amen, and amen.