Sermons In Time
Third Sunday of Lent
March 18, 1990
Old Testament: Exodus 17:3-7
Epistle: Romans 5:1-11
Gospel: John 4:1-26
During the past few weeks, we have had the privilege of having almost a picture-perfect season. After what seems to have been a very mild winter, there has been a series of showers which have made the countryside about the city absolutely beautiful. Having lived out the past two years with a bit of drought, to see the countryside turning so verdant is indeed, a great source of satisfaction. It is a grand reminder of how dependent we are upon water. To have a good supply of fresh drinking water is more valuable than many riches, even gold or silver. One only has to reflect briefly to understand how much we depend on "clear, cool water." The passages today from the Scriptures are filled with great stories: The Old Testament, a reminder of the wanderings in the desert, and how important it was that a source of water be found, lest a whole people die of thirst. And the gospel: set at Jacob's well, a source of water that had at one time apparently been an artesian flowing of water, now, very deep, but still filled with good water for the people of Samaria. At the center of the story is a very thirsty man, Jesus, who meets an equally thirsty woman from Samaria, and around the theme of water, the most lengthy conversation of Jesus in the New Testament is told. Having lived our lives in the midst of Kansas, where for the next few generations the issue of water is going to continue to be a major source of conversation, concern, and ultimately a major determinant in the viability of continued community here, we have an acute understanding of the setting for the Gospel story. In the Gospel of John, the central themes of his presentation are themes that relate to life-sustaining substances: Bread, the basic food of mankind becomes the story of "The Bread of Life." Wine, or the fruit of the grape was second only to bread as a source of food for the people of Israel, and these two together are presented almost mystically as symbols of the body and blood of our Lord in the sacrament of Holy Communion. When one adds water, there may not be the exotic symbolism which is portrayed in Holy Communion, but the place of water in worship becomes central as a symbol of cleansing, as well as life sustaining and refreshing, and as we have already so beautifully experience today in the baptism of Weston Goyen, the water very early and until now is symbolic of that cleansing which makes one a member of the family of God, a part of the body of Christ.
I remember some years ago at a workcamp Gloria and I were directing at the Mission Hospital for the Methodist Church in El Paso, Texas. During our time there our task was to paint the exterior of the buildings. But since there was not a day went by but what a baby or two were born, the kids wanted to work inside with the mothers and their newborn children. It happened. One of the tasks they were given the opportunity carry out was helping to clean up the children after they were born and presented to their mothers. The memory is that such a task of cleansing was neither easy, nor was it unappreciated. In the very act of doing so, helping the nurses in this beautiful experience, and then presenting the newborn child to its mother, brought a sense of participation in the cleansing of new life akin to baptism itself.
So, perhaps the meeting of Jesus at the well of Jacob in Samaria was more than just a casual conversation. And the water itself had great meaning in the mind of John as he told the story of the new birth of this woman as she and Jesus met in this holy place. We have to be reminded that the Gospel of John is known as the most theological of all the Gospels. At the same time, it is important to remember that the Faith to which this Gospel refers is one in which The Worship of God is central, and the symbols of bread, wine and water are still symbolic of the Faith we celebrate each time we gather to lift our voices in praise to God. Just this week, we were reminded again of the centrality of cleansing. For some time now, we have been working together in the country on a counterpart of the Mennonite "Mop and Bucket" brigade. We are planning to find it possible for members of our 10 churches to work together to renew life - through the physical tasks of cleansing and renewal: paint, nails, roofs, etc. life for people whose homes are devastated. We now have such a project with a family in Byers, Kansas, and are hopeful that there will be many a hand given to "drive a nail, or push a broom, or yield a brush in painting." We were in hopes that such a project would be complete before a disaster came along, and we would have a "Mop and Bucket" crew to send to a place like Hesston. Alas, not so, but not to be deterred, it will happen again in Kansas, and the dream is to have such a missionary crew ready.
So, we meet Jesus, thirsty and wanting a drink in Samaria. Even more, we meet an unnamed woman, who also comes to the well to draw water. And these two meet at Jacob's well. As we have already seen, it is no "chance" meeting for John, the author of the Gospel. But as he unfolds the story, he sets it in a wonderful context of ministry which brings hope to all, and has brought that hope to persons throughout the ages.
In a recent issue of "Alive Now" there are a series of brief "homilies" or sermons by John Chrysostom, one of the great preachers of the third century, and translated by sister Thomas Aquinas Goggin, S.C.H. In these brief sermons, Chrysostom portrays the woman of Samaria in a marvelous way. In his eyes, the woman is bright, interested, appropriate, and articulate.
Often when this story is retold, the woman who comes to the well is portrayed as questionable in character, making the encounter perhaps more dramatic. But not so for one who has been known historically as one of the greatest preachers of all time. She is treated with respect by this early pastor, and her cautious conversation is seen as intelligent, with honest interest in that which is spiritual. Jesus also treats her with respect, and one needs to understand that John is setting this story in the context of a word of mission.
She ranks here with Nicodemus, who came to Jesus as a Pharisee, and leader of Judah, and although the Jews and Samaritans have nothing to do with each other, it is clear in this story that the only way the barriers which divide people from one another, barriers of race, social class, and national origin, can be overcome is to treat persons with respect whoever they are. In the conversation, with which all of us are so familiar, there is a lot of give and take between the two persons. Chrysostom has a way of seeing her as one equal in stature with Priscilla or Lydia, or other early converts to the faith who became leaders of the church on down the way.
There is almost an invitation in the telling of the story which beckons persons, whoever they are, to come close, ask bravely, listen intently, and respond gladly to this one who will address your life wherever it is, and will do so with respect and gladness.
I suppose the important thing in this entire story for me today is the awareness that the only way to get to know another person is to come into their presence with respect and with appreciation, and with the desire to interact with them in such a way that your lives can be shared with one another.
I began to understand that those who have meant the most to me throughout the years have been those who seemed to present themselves with a kind of openness and candor that I knew in the meeting our lives would be enriched for having known one another. It has also been true that some of the greatest new understandings of Faith I have received personally have come from those occasions when I met someone who had something to share, and I was "thirsty" to receive. But more than that, in the meeting there was an awareness that no barriers to learning, no conditions on understanding were put up. Only a willingness to converse: to give and take. Such was the atmosphere of this meeting of Jesus with a new person. John, the Gospel writer seems to be saying, "If you want the thirst quenched, if you want the coolness of refreshment of soul, then let the meeting be one of openness and offering." It is in such a meeting that friendship is born, barriers are crossed, new hope is created, and joy is fulfilled. amen.
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