Sunday, March 19
Third Sunday in Lent
Enduring Presence, goal and guide, you go before and await our coming. Only our thirst compels us beyond complaint to conversation, beyond rejection to relationship. Pour your love into our hearts, that, refreshed and renewed, we may invite others to the living water given to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacobs 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.
Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, "Rabbi, eat something." But he said to them, "I have food to eat that you do not know about." So the disciples said to one another, "Surely no one has brought him something to eat?" Jesus said to them, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, 'Four months more, then comes the harvest'? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, 'One sows and another reaps.' I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor."
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."
All readings for this Sunday
1. How are Nicodemus and the woman at the well similar? How do they differ?
2. If "salvation" is healing, what is the role of listening and acceptance in this story?
3. How is this story particularly meaningful during Women's History Month?
4. What are some of the stories that form who you are?
5. How and where do you find refreshment for your soul?
Reflection by Kate Matthews
Not long ago, I listened to my very first TED talk and NOW I finally understand what all the fuss is about: it was amazing! I listened to the wonderful writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, talk about "The danger of the single story." Somehow, she was graceful, funny, insightful and wise--all in twenty minutes of sharing experiences from her own life, as she learned about the power of stories, and about the many different stories that make us who we are.
Like her story about growing up in Nigeria, comfortable and middle-class on a university campus where her father was a professor: her family, like many others, had "domestic help" who came from a nearby village, a boy named Fide whose poverty moved Adichie to pity whenever her mother offered his family extra food and old clothes. That was how Adichie thought of Fide: as "a poor boy." So when she visited Fide's home, she was shocked when his family showed her a beautiful patterned basket made by Fide's brother. That didn't fit into the "single story" she had in her head about Fide's family: she didn't think they could do anything but "be poor."
And then, when she came to school in America, she was dismayed that her roommate asked her how she learned to speak English so well (English is Nigeria's official language), and when her roommate asked her to play some of her "tribal" music, it was her turn to be dismayed when Adichie played a Mariah Carey CD.
Single stories are so much simpler
Adichie describes her roommate's "default" position as "patronizing, well-meaning pity" because she had only one single story of Africa, the one our culture tells us about "beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner." For her roommate, that single story was easy to understand, and she didn't seem to know how to encounter and engage Adichie as an equal, as someone who was like her in many ways, as a complex person shaped by many different stories (http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story).
Of course, life is so much simpler if everyone has a single story, as Adichie says, that shows them as one thing, as only one thing, and we tell that story over and over, and then they become that thing. This is about power, of course, when somebody else decides what your story is and, therefore, who you are because of it. That's where stereotypes come from, and we all know how helpful stereotypes are.
Engaging all our stories
Adichie says that to engage a person properly we have to engage all the stories that have made that person who they are. So I was thinking about that when I read this story about Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well in today's reading from John's Gospel. I've read this story so many times; it's one of my favorites, and the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in the Bible.
I just love that such a noteworthy conversation is with a woman. (And I'm particularly happy that we read this story about a woman in the Gospels--although, like many biblical women, she's nameless--during Women's History Month.) This isn't just a woman, but a Samaritan woman, one with many husbands--but let's just boil it all down to the single story: she's an unclean sinner. Jesus, as a Jewish male, is not supposed to be talking with her, let alone accepting water from anything she has touched. Those were the rules, and life is simpler when the rules are clear.
So much for the rules
So much for the rules: thirsty Jesus asks for water from this stranger who has come to the well alone in the heat of the day, long after the other women have left. She's surprised because already this story isn't going the way it's supposed to, and then Jesus starts talking about living water and never being thirsty again, which must sound pretty good to someone who has to carry heavy clay jars every single day--in the noonday sun--back up the hill to her home. She says, "Sir, please, give me this water! That would be so great!"
But then Jesus changes the subject and asks her to go get her husband, which suggests to me that he knows she's had a rough time in life; maybe her husbands have divorced her or died; maybe she had to marry her husband's brothers as the law required, or she's living with a man to avoid what happened to an unattached female in that society, with no male to protect or provide for her. Jesus seems to understand that this is a woman of many stories.
A woman unfazed by the request
My favorite part is when Jesus says that he knows she's living with a man who's not her husband, but the woman, she is unfazed. Maybe it's because Jesus doesn't judge her or tell her that she's only welcome to this living water so that she can repent and change her sinful ways. No, he's just sitting there with her, sharing a cool drink in the hot noonday sun, and listening to her, too. Now that I've finally watched a TED talk, my next frontier is reading the popular Lemony Snicket book series by Daniel Handler. I decided that after I read this quote from one of the books: "Someone feeling wronged is like someone feeling thirsty. Don't tell them they aren't. Sit with them and have a drink."
Obviously, the woman at the well doesn't feel the need to explain or defend herself; instead, she's so impressed by this prophet, she thinks that this is the perfect opportunity to ask a theological question that has been nagging at her for some time, the hot-button religious issue that divides and alienates the Jews and the Samaritans from one another: where is the proper place to worship God, up on the mountain, or in the Temple in Jerusalem?
People with many rich stories
That might not be the first question I want to ask Jesus when I meet him face to face, but his answer, as Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message, says something really powerful about what it feels like to know ourselves and one another as people with many rich stories, complicated and beautiful and each, in its own way, full of grace: "the time is coming," Jesus says, "it has, in fact, come--when what you're called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter. It's who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That's the kind of people God is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before God in their worship. God is sheer being itself--Spirit. Those who worship God must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration."
Our true selves. Not the simple, one-dimensional story that someone else uses to describe us, or as Adichie says, that flattens our experience, because it makes things easier for them that way. Not the stereotype that sits so uncomfortably on our hearts and minds that sometimes we can hardly breathe. No. We come before God, who knows our every thought and our every hope, our every gift and our every broken place, every single beautiful thing about us, every wonderful story and even the ones that aren't so wonderful, we come before God, and God offers us a cool drink of water, and a place to rest, and listens to all those stories, and all our questions, once again. What a lovely way for persistent, wondrous grace to come into our lives!
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the retired dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
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For further reflection
Barbara Pine, 20th century
"Sometimes being listened to is so much like being loved, it is impossible to tell the difference."
Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 20th century
"There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you."
Ernest Hemingway, 20th century
"When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen."
Henry David Thoreau, 19th century
"It takes two to speak the truth--one to speak and another to hear."
Virginia Woolf, 20th century
"If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people."
Hafiz, 14th century
"I wish I could show you, when you are lonely or in darkness, the astonishing Light of your own Being."
Mother Teresa, 20th century
"If you judge people, you have no time to love them."
William Langewiesche, 20th century
"You should not see the desert simply as some faraway place of little rain. There are many forms of thirst."
"The fool is thirsty in the midst of water."
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