A sermon preached by Rev. Adam Shoemaker on his last Sunday at Christ Church, the third Sunday of Lent, March 27, 2011
Sermon for Lent III (Year A)
Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42
After listening to the Gospel reading that I just read, I doubt any of you would be surprised to hear that the conversation Jesus has with this Samaritan woman is the longest recorded exchange that he has with anyone in any of the four Gospels. This means that Jesus takes more time to speak with her than he does with any of his own disciples or any of his accusers or even any of his own family members, and this fact alone is noteworthy because his mere willingness to speak with this woman would probably have been very surprising to the Jews that John’s Gospel was originally directed towards. For Jewish men like Jesus, as this woman points out herself, wouldn’t normally want to have anything to do with Samaritans like her and not just with Samaritans but with strange women and not just with women but with women like this one who seems to have a very messy past. This woman that Jesus encounters at Jacob’s well was even a social pariah amongst her own people – amongst her own Samaritan community – because of the perception that those around her had of the kind of person that she was.
This woman’s situation is symbolic I think of countless other individuals that we all might be able to name or give a face to given our own experiences of life – of people, perhaps even including ourselves, who have been made to feel, for one reason or another, that they are somehow not worth being around. Although it has often been assumed, because of the reference in the passage to this woman’s many husbands, that she is an immoral person, she could just as easily have been the victim of a series of tragic circumstances – the text that we have today doesn’t really tell us one way or the other. Particularly given the time and place in which she lived, it may be the case that she had been widowed five times over and yet, as is sometimes true, even those who have simply had to deal with tragic life circumstances that were not of their own choosing, can sometimes still be treated as outsiders. There is just something about the irregularity or difference in one’s situation from whatever the perceived norm might be that, regardless of the reason, can still make one to feel ashamed and isolated just as it seems this woman at the well had been made to feel by those in her own town.
And yet, despite all of this, she is the first individual that Jesus chooses to reveal himself to in John’s Gospel and this very real and honest encounter is nothing short of life-changing for her.
It has been said that “the Messiah is the one who shows you who you are by showing you who He is.” I think this Gospel story today is a great illustration of that saying.
For here we have this socially ostracized woman who has probably had a pretty difficult life up to this point and who has probably been pretty beaten down by all those difficulties. She’s tired and worn thin and maybe even depressed by the sheer weight of all that she’s had to overcome and, perhaps, all that she’s worked so hard at trying to conceal. She is seemingly in a moment of utter darkness as this Gospel story begins and yet Jesus comes into her life right there in the midst of the darkness. Jesus comes to her at a time when nobody else would have wanted to be anywhere nearby and he not only makes the time to listen – to really listen and be attentive but, more importantly, he respects her fundamental worth and dignity as a beloved child of God. He treats her as someone whose story is worth being told.
And he doesn’t shy away from the messiness of her life either. He doesn’t look at her as unclean or impure or somehow unworthy because of anything she has done or because of what others might think she has done. Instead, he speaks to and acknowledges the deepest parts of her own truth while also being willing to share with her the deepest parts of who He really is, and in so doing helps to give this weary woman a new spirit and a new sense of self.
She is absolutely transformed by this encounter and is so inspired by it that she bravely decides to go and share the experience with others beginning with those in her own community – those who had previously shunned her. And, amazingly enough, they believe her. They come to trust in what she has to say and take seriously her invitation to “come and see” what God is up to in this man named Jesus. They come to trust in her perhaps because they are so impressed by the change that must have been easy to see in her after her encounter with this man of God. As such, this tired and weary woman, whom we meet at the beginning of the story, ends up not only being the first person that Jesus chooses to reveal Himself to in John’s Gospel but becomes the first evangelist as well and, as is so often the case in the Gospels, a woman ends up once again looking far more engaged and in tune with what Jesus is trying to do and say than any of the men around her.
Whether it be this moving story of Jesus with the woman at the well or whether it be the Exodus story that we also heard read this morning, in which God provides for the struggling Israelites out in the wilderness of the desert, the message for us this morning seems to be that no situation in our lives will ever be so dark or so desperate that God will not be able to find a way to enter in. Again and again, God will seek to meet us right there in the midst of our struggles and in the midst of our own messy, everyday lives no matter what we might be trying to tightly hold on to in our hearts.
If anything, the invitation today is to ever more readily come to acknowledge our brokenness and woundedness and need for God’s presence in our lives – to let go and acknowledge our own vulnerability as difficult as that might be for many of us. We are to try and meet God right where we are because each time we do so, the promise is that God will find a way to transform us and heal us and make things new (from the inside out) in ways that we could have never before dreamed of or imagined.
God invites us to be honest about who we really are as human beings with all of our foibles and frailty – to not run from this most basic part of our humanity but to embrace, for just as was the case with the woman at the well, this is ultimately how God is made known to us in ever deeper and more profound ways. The Lenten truth of our Gospel reading this morning is that the journey towards the light – the journey towards Easter – happens only when we are ready to acknowledge the dark in the same way that this Samaritan woman comes to honestly acknowledge where she is in her own life in her encounter with Jesus.
It has been my privilege to journey with all of you over these past four years – to be a part of the joyous moments and the many celebrations that we’ve shared together but also to be with many of you in more personal moments of struggle; in times in which things may have seemed pretty dark. Again and again, I’ve been touched through these experiences and forever changed, perhaps even more so from those moments of struggle than from the moments of joy.
For I feel as though I’ve also been touched and transformed by God in such moments and been encouraged to be more honest about my own struggles and my own difficult and dark places. And this opening up inside me has made a better place for God to dwell in my heart.
I leave this community today a very grateful man for having been even a small part of your lives – for having been a member of this parish church – for each of you have surely helped to make me a better person and the priest that I am today.
I will continue to pray for you, albeit from Burlington, NC, and hope that God will continue to bless and keep each and every one of you now and always.