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Healing Relationships -- John 4:5-26 (Third Sunday in Lent)

Our Lenten theme this year is “In the Desert, a Healing Spring.” When we came up with that theme back in January, we had no idea that, just six weeks later, when we moved into Lent, we would encounter so many desert places. We had no idea of all the ways, right now, that we would be searching so earnestly, with all our hearts, for a healing spring – longing for healing in so many ways – healing for our bodies, healing for our troubled and worried spirits, healing for our world.

What better way to think about all that this morning than with this Scripture where two people – Jesus and the Samaritan woman – encounter each other – in the desert – at a well – a spring. In the desert, a healing spring. Let’s bring all our desert places into theirs, and see how they approach each other, and what they make of their world. Let’s look with them, for some Living Water, for us, and for the world, today.

Now the first thing to notice is that this really is a desert scene. Literally. Jesus and the Samaritan woman encounter each other at a well in a desert world, in the middle of the day – high noon – the sun is blazing hot – and they are each likely weary – Jesus from his travels, and the woman from lugging a big clay jar down from her home in the village to the community well. In the heat of the desert, they’ve both come for some life-sustaining water.

And there’s another type of desert at work here too. You see, Jesus and the Samaritan woman live in a world of separation. They live in a world that is structured to keep them apart, two people separated by categories of gender and nationality and religion. Jesus is Jewish and a man. The Samaritan Woman is (obviously) a Samaritan and a woman. The Jewish leaders and people of the time generally view the Samaritans as apostate and unclean – they have chosen the wrong way to worship God – on a hill in Samaria, rather than a hill in Judea. And so the Jewish people of Jesus’ day have nothing to do with the Samaritan people. And the Samaritan people return the favor.

Add to that – Jesus and the woman have different genders in a world that is shaped by patriarchy – where it is scandalous in this context for a man to deign to speak to a woman.

Even so, here they are, Jesus and the Samaritan woman, together, on their own. Here, in this desert of barriers and boundaries, we have this long glimpse of just the two of them together. (This is one of the longest one-on-one conversations that Jesus has with anyone in the Bible.) It’s just Jesus, and the Samaritan Woman, and us.

Look at what they do.

Jesus is travelling through Samaria; he is exhausted, and so he rests at this well, as his disciples go off to find some food. It’s just Jesus sitting there alone, tired out, in the heat of the noonday sun. And along comes the Woman, also alone, coming to the well at the hottest time of day.

Now Jesus knows the rules. He knows who he is; and he knows who she is. He knows the barriers, and the boundaries, and the prohibitions that should keep them apart. And Jesus ignores them all – he doesn’t just ignore them, he smashes through them. Jesus talks to this Samaritan Woman. He engages her in conversation. He takes her life seriously. And he offers her the gift of Living Water – on the very same basis that he would offer it to someone who was Jewish or who was male -- on the same basis that he offers Living Water to everyone else.

Here, at the very start of the Gospel of John, Jesus encounters this Samaritan woman, and announces and lives out a new expansive and inclusive order: We’re not playing this “in and out” game anymore – no more talk of “clean and unclean” – of anyone being somehow “less than.”Jesus says, “Everyone who drinks this living water that I give will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give – to everyone – will become in them a spring of water, welling up to eternal life.”

Now usually, we just stop there, and celebrate. And we give Jesus all the credit. And you know, I’m all about that – if you’ve heard me preach, you know I’m all about how Jesus welcomes everybody. That is Good News. Jesus approaches the woman, and welcomes her.

And. I’m just as interested in how the woman approaches Jesus and welcomes him. Because in some ways, it’s easier for Jesus. He’s the one here with all the power and the privilege. Jesus knows the boundaries that give him privilege, and he can set them aside. It’s not so easy for her. She doesn’t have the luxury of that choice – she doesn’t get to wake up in the morning and say, “Today, I’m not going to live in a patriarchal world.”

What does it mean for her in their world of separation to encounter this other who holds all the power and the privilege?

The Samaritan Woman arrives at that well, in the heat of the day, when she expects that no one will be there. But there is this man, a non-Samaritan man, a Jewish man. She slows her pace a bit, takes in the situation, and moves carefully to the well, and goes about her work of drawing water. And then the man speaks, and he says: Give me a drink of water.”

Now, look at the first thing the Woman says: She names the power differential – she speaks plainly what is going on. Sir, you are a Jewish man. How can you ask me – a Samaritan and a woman for a drink? I thought y’all didn’t have anything to do with Samaritans. She does the power analysis for both of them – and she says it plain: You have the power and the privilege; your people have nothing to do with us; you treat us as unclean; and you ask me for a drink. Before we start talking, let’s just get that clear.

And then Jesus names it too. Jesus says, “Go get your husband”; She says, “I have no husband”; and he says “ You’re right you’ve had 5 husbands.” Now for centuries, that little exchange has been used to claim that this Samaritan Woman is somehow a loose woman, somehow sinful in these marriages. The problem with that reading – and it has been the dominant malereading – is that it’s not anywhere in the Bible. This text doesn’t support that. At all.

We’ve talked about this before, whenever we are talking about marriage in the Bible we are talking about what was then a property transaction. Marriage in the ancient world was about property; the woman was included in the man’s property; and she was the main vehicle for transferring a man’s property from generation and generation. So when Jesus says, “Go get your husband,” and the Samaritan Woman says, “I have no husband,” she is really saying, “No man owns me. If you want to talk tome or aboutme; talk to me.”

Together, they are naming the power and privilege at work in their world. They are naming all the things that separate them. Then – and only then – after being honest about all that – can they choose a better way. They name all the things that separate them, and they move towards each other anyway.

We know the things that separate us in our world – particularly those based on power-over and privilege. We’re talking about that in our ongoing Reparations work. We are working hard to say true things – about how racism is at work in the world – about how those of us who are white participate in and benefit from racism – about the systems and structure that need to be dismantled. That is our ongoing work.

And, we also find ourselves confronted now with what feels to some like a new kind of separation – this physical separation that’s thrust upon us as we engage together in “social distancing” to slow the COVID19 epidemic. That’s true right in this moment, and we should name it. It’s part of our desert place. All around the world, communities that usually thrive by gathering in the presence of each other, we can’t all be in the same room – for our common good in one way. It’s the right thing to do. And in another way, it’s painful separation. Faith communities have postponed in-person worship. Schools are closing. People are working remotely.

And then there’s this other thing that’s true: The epidemic has made it clear in ways we haven’t fully acknowledged before that, for better and for worse, we are in this together. The health of the Bay Area community is connected to the health of the New York City community, and the Alabama community, and communities all around the world. We’re in this together in the sense that this is a pandemic, and we are in this together in the sense that concerted action is essential – the only way that we can try to slow the disease, as the medical community builds capacity to response. We are working together, for the common health, for the common good.

We’ve got to name those realities, but it doesn’t stop there. Jesus and the Samaritan woman name the realities that keep folk separate in their world. And look what they do. They then create entirely new ways to be in relationship. In a world that says they shouldn’t even speak to one another, they choose to enter into this amazing conversation of mutuality. We see this clever, engaging banter – person to person:

· Give me some water./ Wait, you’re people think my people are unclean; how can you ask me for a drink?

· If you knew who I was you’d ask me for water./ Um, you have no bucket, and the well is deep.

· Whoever drinks the water I give will never thirst./ Well then give me some of that water, so I don’t have to lug these buckets of water back and forth.

They enter into this conversation – this relationship of mutuality – and you know what – I think Jesus actually enjoys it. And you don’t see that much in the Bible.... Jesus actually enjoying a conversation. And through this conversation of mutuality: The woman is the first person to whom Jesus says, “I am the Christ,” and she becomes the first person to share that good news with the world. In their world of separation, they are creating entirely new ways of being in relationship, of being free and together.

We’re doing that right here and right now. Now, this isn’t the first time anyone in the world has streamed a worship service. But it’s new for us, and for many communities across the nation this morning. By Thursday, it had become clear that, for the well-being of our community and the world, we needed to stop meeting in person. And with that decision, we then had the question how do we worship? How does a congregation congregate and worship without being in the same room? And here we are.

We’re going to need to keep doing that. The deacons are already on the job, contacting their deacon flocks by phone. All of our meetings are going to be by phone or video conference. And on Thursday, we’ll be launching a video conference so that we can all check in. And I’m not 100% sure how that will work. But we’ll figure that out on Tuesday.

And that’s just this week. We are also going to need to figure out and create new ways to serve in the world. How will homebound folks get food? How will we be fully present to each other in a sustained way in times of quarantine? How will we continue to participate in the feeding and shelter of those living outside? How will we continue our Reparations work? (Raqel Nelson is working on that right now – so you can expect to see some homework this week). How will we continue our work for justice – our work for the dignity and well-being of all people in a world where the need for activism has never been more clear?

Communities are doing this all across the Bay Area, and our nation, and the world. How will we continue to live all of life? Everything that God has created us to be and to do in the world and for each other?

As Jesus and the Samaritan Woman create this new way of being in relationship, they become for each other Living Water. Of course, that’s true in the God sense. In Jesus Christ, God comes with an embodied word of healing and of life – Jesus the Word made flesh who brings living water that springs forth to eternal life – a healing spring for every desert place.

And it’s also true in a very human sense. Jesus, fully human, sits with this woman, also fully human, offers her living water, and she gets up, lowers her bucket down into the well, and offers Jesus a cup, and gives him living water too. Together, human to human, they become for each other living water.

Last week, we reclaimed John 3:16 as a message of God’s love for the whole world. “For God so loves the world.” From last Sunday to this Sunday, and all the life that we have lived in between, here is what we know: God loves the whole world. And God loves you. God has loved you from the beginning of time, from before you were born, and God will love you – and the whole world – on out into forever.

And God has created us to embody that love to and with and for each other – in a world of barriers and boundaries – to create with each other entirely new ways of living in relationship – to be for each other streams of living water for all the world’s parched places.

That’s what we’ll need to keep doing in the coming weeks – in ways we haven’t yet imagined – but in ways that we will imagine -- that we will create -- that we will birth together.

In a world fraught with power and privilege, and barriers and boundaries, where people live in deep division – in a world of separation and isolation – in a world not unlike our own – Jesus and the Samaritan Woman meet at this desert well – in the noontime heat – and they talk, and they say true things, and they laugh, and they encounter each other, truly and deeply.

They create entirely new ways of living in relationship,

and they share cool sips of water on a dry dusty day.

In their encounter, they give each other life.

In the desert, they are for each other, a healing spring.

© 2020 Scott Clark

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