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Lent 3 March 19, 2017 - The Rev. Janet Campbell
Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:4-45
Christ Episcopal Church
Tacoma, Washington
Sunday, March 19, 2017
The Rev. Janet Campbell
Another of the great baptismal stories
we hear from John’s gospel . . .
today’s unlikely conversation
between Jesus and the woman of Samaria.
It starts with water and thirst
and ends with transformation of life.
A woman comes to her neighborhood well
to draw water –
John makes a point
          that she comes at “about noon,”
even though,
in that culture
where genders did not mix
          in public,
women’s proper times
at the well
          were morning and evening . . .

The woman,
who has lived a scandalous life
in the eyes of her neighbors,
(she has had five husbands
and now lives with another
          who isn’t her husband)
comes at noon
hoping to avoid
the scorn and censure
of the other women who use the well,
who will almost surely not be there  
          at that hour.
Seated at the well, however,
is a man,
a stranger,
and alone,
and she is
an unaccompanied woman –
For propriety’s sake
she ought to leave,
but she doesn’t.

Then he asks her
for a drink of water
          and that is even worse,
for a man
ought not speak in public
          with an un-chaperoned woman.
But she who has had five husbands
and now has one who is not her husband
is hardly bound
          by convention.
She responds with some spirit . . .
“How is it that you, a Jew,
ask a drink of me,
a Samaritan woman?”
How is it, indeed,
for Jews and Samaritans
are at odds with one another.
And so the unlikely conversation
They both have a part
in breaking through
the cultural barriers
          that separate them.

She, questioning Jesus  
on political and religious topics
          reserved to men:
                   the Messiah, Temple worship.
He, hearing her questions
          and responding
with the same seriousness
          he would accord
          to a conversation with a man.
Their conversation quickly moves
from the earthly realm to the spiritual,
and thirst come
to have deeper metaphorical meaning.
As Jesus carefully
draws the woman
toward understanding and
it becomes clear
that she is the one who is desperately thirsty,
and he, the one who asked her for a drink,
          has the only water,
                    the living water,
          that can satisfy her thirst.

For what is she thirsty . . . ?
acceptance, surely,
freedom from the self-destructive
          of her past.
Those who drink from this well
will thirst again,
says Jesus,
but those who drink of the water
          that I give will never be thirsty,
for it will become in them
          a spring of water gushing up
                   to eternal life.
Who is worthy of this water?
Biblical scholar John Pilch
points out that this woman
“is the most carefully and intensely
          catechized [meaning instructed] person
                   in this entire gospel.”                           [Pilch, The Cultural World                                                                                                                                                  of Jesus, Cycle A, p. 56]
“. . . the most carefully and intensely
          catechized person
                   in this entire gospel.”

A woman –
worthy of such attention!
A woman whose past
is one of sadness and shame –
worthy of such attention!
Jesus already knows everything about her –
which perhaps is why
he waits at the well
at that hour . . .
and why he initiates
their conversation.
In the eyes of Jesus
all who thirst
are worthy
of the water he will give.
He sees and calls out
          in the woman
her thirst for
her thirst for a new chance
          at goodness.  

How quickly
in this encounter
we see her understanding
of Jesus growing . . .
by the words
she uses for him
in their conversation:
“Jew,” (an alien to Samaritans)
“Messiah” . . .
He chooses her
to be his ambassador
to her city . . .
For what better witness
to his power to transform
          could there be
than the change
in the woman
whose story the whole city
          knows only too well.

Through her,
they, too, come to recognize
who Jesus is:
“We know that this is truly
          the Savior of the World.”
As in last week’s story
of Nicodemus
and his question
“How can one be born again?
Can one enter into the mother’s womb
a second time . . .?
encounter with Jesus
expands the understanding
of his questioner
from the literal to the metaphorical,
from the rational to the trans-rational,
          (that which is beyond reason’s
                   capacity to grasp).
Of course one cannot enter again
into the mother’s womb
but one can nonetheless be spiritually reborn,
born from above
by water and the Spirit.

Of course the woman will have
to keep coming to the well to draw water;
physical thirst will always return . . .
but spiritual thirst can be satisfied,
one can be transformed, made new,
by drinking of the living water that Jesus gives,
          the spring of water gushing up to eternal life.
In Nicodemus last week,
in the Samaritan woman this week,  
encounter with Jesus
leads to enlightenment.
A Pharisee,
          a religious leader of the Jews,
A Samaritan woman
          with a checkered past,
Both are found worthy
by the God who loves them.

Baptism is often called . . .
These stories in John’s Gospel
chosen for Lent
evoke and proclaim baptism’s power:
baptism . . .
through which,
          by water and the Spirit,
followers of Jesus
die to the past
are reborn into risen life in him,
baptism . . .
through which,
          by water and the Spirit,
followers of Jesus
are led to worship God
          in Spirit and in truth.
Stories worthy of our contemplation
in these weeks of Lent,
as we anticipate
the renewal of our baptism
          at the Great Vigil of Easter
and prepare with joy
          for the Paschal Feast.