"A man and a woman meet by a well"
Sermon given by the Rev. Clare L. Hickman on March 19, 2017
Texts: Exodus 17:1-7; John 4:5-26, 39-42
Clare L. Hickman
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
March 19, 2017—Lent 3A
Exodus 17:1-7; John 4:5-26, 39-42
A man and a woman meet by a well, and the biblical story promises that love is in the air. As the water is drawn, Isaac and Rebecca look on and smile … Jacob and Rachel steal a quick kiss … Moses and Zipporah renew their promises. Two people meet by a well, and everyone who hears knows that “some kind of irrevocable bonding will take place there” (Suzanne Guthrie, http://edgeofenclosure.org/lent3a.html).
Jesus and the woman of Samaria meet by the well. Unlike Nicodemus, a leader of the synagogue who came secretly by night, this meeting takes place in broad daylight. Out in the back of beyond, for sure, and we never get to hear her name, but still: things are seen this time. Things are known. Things are understood.
A man and a woman meet by a well, and that is scandalous, but never fear: love is in the air. Just, not that kind of love. Then again, not that kind of scandal either. It’s scandalous mostly because a woman should not be alone with a man, but she is alone with him, well, because she is alone. History has cast her as a wanton woman for having that long string of husbands, and not being married to her current man. But truly, it’s far more likely to have been a story of abandonment than loose living. She has been left by these men, left first and foremost unprotected in this world, but also, we might imagine, left feeling unwanted and unloved.
It leaves her lonely. It leaves her not only without the security of a husband, but outside of the company of respectable women-folk. And so here she is, coming to the well in the heat of the day, finding herself confronted by this strange man.
A man and a woman meet by the well. In broad daylight, with the sun beating down, there is no place to hide anything. So they jump right in with an expression of need. “Give me a drink,” Jesus says, which admittedly sounds more like an order than any kind of vulnerability. But the fact remains, he was asking for something he needed, and it opened him up to her response, which was (let’s face it) challenging: You shouldn’t be asking me for that.
That can happen, when we bring our needs into the light, when we make them plain. We not only acknowledge our interdependence but we risk rejection or challenge. We become more connected, at the price of being less shielded and self-contained.
She pushes back on his request, perhaps angry at the knowledge that he is endangering both of them with this interaction. Or, hey, maybe she just enjoys the sparring. Either way, Jesus sticks with the conversation, steering into the spin, into an interaction that opens both of them up more and more, moving them beyond any kind of self-protection.
“You have had many husbands, and the man you are with now is not your husband.” Ah, there he goes, right to the cause of her isolation, right to the heart of her pain. And yet, though he knows all this about her, still he sits with her by the well. Still he asks her, a Samaritan woman, for a drink of her water. Still he willingly falls in love.
They are sitting by a well, after all.
Her pain, her shame, which she would (surely!) rather have kept hidden, is spoken in the bright light of day. And (here’s the miracle!) she is not destroyed. He knows. He knows, and yet he does not shun her.
And she can tell that this is a holy moment. It does not happen in the Temple; it does not take place on the Samaritans’ holy mountain; but it is an encounter with the living God nonetheless. This vulnerable moment, in which people expose their pain, their fear, their need for each other, and yet survive: it is sacred space.
That is GOOD NEWS. That is gospel truth that she longs to run and tell to everyone who will listen. Her deepest wound, her past that she probably longed to make disappear, has instead been transformed into the thing that brings her to salvation … that will bring others to salvation!
This, this is the economy of God, in which nothing will be wasted. Those things we thought were barriers, those things that brought us shame: God will use them as the very things that bring us to him. God will use them to bring others to the kingdom. God will apply the principle of divine repurposing to the most astonishing and surprising things!
Barbara Crafton describes her delight in discovering that the highly heated power pack from her laptop fits perfectly in the hollow of her aching back, transforming her guilt over the energy waste into appreciation for the relief. This is true of so many things, she notes: things you were downright ashamed of can be turned into something else.
“Try this with something stupid you did in the past,” she suggests, “or with something you don't even talk about because it embarrasses you. What else might its function be in your life? Has growing up poor given you a permanent sympathy for people who don't have a lot of money, and helped you to know that you can find a way to manage on whatever you have, no matter what happens? … I was a teen-aged single mother” she admits, and “whatever anyone else says, I know that a youthful mistake doesn't mean one's life is over, and I know that the presence of obstacles does not mean there is no hope for something better.
“A bad mistake, a run of bad luck: they don't have to set your course. Our past doesn't have to be our future. It will, though, unless we are willing to approach it with a creative eye and a resolute heart. But we are not alone in doing so -- God specializes in such things and scripture is full of setbacks turned around…. The abandoned find a home, and even care for others. The forsaken triumph and do not forsake, the betrayed prove faithful. And often, the triumph arises from the very spot of the injury” (Barbara Crafton, April 22, 2008, http://www.geraniumfarm.org/dailyemo.cfm?Emo=981).
We just need to bring it to the table. Just need the bravery that Jesus and this woman had with each other, as they sat beside the well and prepared to fall in love. They laid out their needs, laid out their wounds, and recognized that salvation is found in relationship. That’s the central message of the gospel of John: that your salvation will be found, (where?) in abiding in God, in abiding with God, in God abiding in you. This is love. This is salvation. This is eternal life.
And it will be your need. It just might be the part of you that you thought you had to hide, or fix, or deny, that will become the gateway into that new life.
So the question is, my friend, what is that gateway for you? What door can Jesus open inside you, to walk into your heart? What is it that Jesus could know, and name, and yet remain with you, that would transform everything?
Two people meet at a well, in the bright sun of noonday. They open themselves to each other, and the world has never been the same. May it be so, Amen.