She passed two other wells on the way to the edge of Sychar’s gates. One was near the square and one by the market. At the market, the men were gathered, talking politics and arguing religion, the men who winked or whistled when she walked by and the market would be filled with women and they were even worse, with their clucking tongues and whispered taunts. So she slipped down the alleyways, between the rows of stone houses, the sun burning through her long, hot mantle, her head scarf pulled low. She looked down at her feet, until she was sure she was past anyone who would say anything to her. She ducked out onto the quiet path that led towards Jacob’s well, by the city gates. It was a long walk, but the peace was worth every bit of extra sweat, every wet and painful step back to her little house at the other end of the village.
She looked toward the well and to her dismay, there was someone sitting on the stone wall near it—a man. She hesitated for moment, but she could see from his clothes that he was from Judea, so there wasn’t a chance he’d even speak. She’d ignore him, he’d ignore her and then, pitcher filled to the brim, she’d go back into her world of silence and pain. She looked down deep into the well.
“Excuse me, ma’am.” She kept looking down, tying the rope around the fluted top of the jar. “Excuse me, but could I trouble you for a drink? It sure gets hot in Samaria.”
She froze, the jar hanging just below the well’s rim. He’s talking to me. She lowered the jar slowly, staring down.
She couldn’t bring herself to look at him. “You Jewish, aren’t you? Why are you talking to me?”
He didn’t move. “If you knew who I was, you would have asked me for a drink of living water. And I would have given it to you.”
She finally looked at him. He was broad shouldered and handsome, with a grin both playful and mysterious. A bead of sweat hung across his brow, a drop forming a long rivulet down his cheek. She smiled back. “You don’t even have a bucket, how are you going to give me water?” She remembered the old legend about how Jacob uncapped this well, and how the water flowed up and out onto the ground. “Surely you know this is Jacob’s well, who gave it to us, his own children. You don’t think you’re better than him, do you?”
The man shrugged. “Every time you drink from this well, you get thirsty again, but the people who drink 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.”
Something in her soul stirred and she dropped the jar down into the water. “That sounds wonderful, I’d love water like that—I’d never have to come back here again. Please, please share with me.”
The man gazed at her gently, his smile never wavering. “Well, go on home and get your husband, and come back and see me.”
He heart stopped. Suddenly, remembering the jar, she pulled it up to edge. She sighed. “I don’t have a husband.”
The man nodded. “True enough. You had five husbands, and now the man you’re with won’t even marry you.” His smile faded and he sounded sad, as if he could feel the pain of her rejection.
Deep inside she felt her heart pulse, then race. She was in the presence of one of the Holy One’s prophets. She felt her knees grow weak. “Sir, I can see that you’re a prophet, so let me ask you a question: our people worship here on the mountain,” she glanced north towards Gerazim, towering over the horizon. “But your people say that we should be worshipping in the Temple down in Jerusalem.”
The man stood up. “Ma’am believe me, the time is coming when people will understand that God is not confined to holy places, whether they are on mountains on in temples. The Jews know about true worship, but the Samaritans have been away so long that you are worshipping a God you don’t even know any more—and even you know that the salvation of the whole world is a Jewish idea, not a Samaritan one. But soon enough, it’s not even going to matter whose idea it was—true worship will be done in Spirit and Truth. God is Spirit and is looking for people who understand that religion has nothing to with real worship, it’s only Spirit and Truth that matter.”
She remembered what her own father had told her, those long years ago, on the holy nights, when the Samaritans had remembered their story. “I know that Messiah will come some day and show us the way to God.”
Their eyes locked. And she wasn’t sure if he spoke to her as much as he spoke within her. “I am he.”
The world turned inside out, and her breath poured out in a rush of wind. Suddenly she was aware of the crowd of men standing behind her. She glanced at him and without a word, ran towards the village square, her water jar sitting full on the edge of the well.
The disciples knew better than to ask him why he was talking to a woman—who could ever know why Jesus did what he did? But they had lunch. “Master, we’ve got food, let’s find a bit of shade and eat.”
“I already have food,” he answered, watching the woman’s form disappear around a corner.
They looked at each other. Did the woman bring him food? Did he find something while they were gone? He turned to them. “My food is to do God’s work. And right now, in this very place, there’s so much to do. These people are hungry for what we have, and when you tell them the Good News you will see results like nothing you’ve seen in Judea or Galilee. You’re going to be too busy harvesting to eat, my boys.”
And sure enough, just as they took the first bite of their hummus, a crowd burst into the small space around Jacob’s old well. The elders, and with them, the woman, pointing, laughing, leading all the rest. Two days later, when Jesus and the disciples finally were able to tear themselves away from Sychar’s Samaritan hospitality, they heard the elders tell her: “We don’t believe any more because of you, but because of him. He really is the Savior of the world.”
A woman, with a reputation. A people, in a distant village, worshipping in a hopeless syncretism of paganism and long-forgotten Hebrew myths. A befuddled and puzzled gang of disciples. These are the ones that the Savior of the world chooses to worship God in Spirit and Truth.
To follow Jesus into the streets, looking for the harvest of souls means accepting people for who they are and where they are. Jesus doesn’t tell the woman that her lifestyle is unacceptable, he tells her He’s the Messiah. He hasn’t even told his disciples that. He doesn’t condemn the Samaritans for abandoning the faith of the Jews, he opens their own scriptures up to reveal God’s grace. And he doesn’t tell the disciples to get over their misogyny and bigotry, he leads them into a place they’d never go on their own, to see the harvest that God has planted for them.
Tony Campolo, the Baptist minister and author, tells a story about his visit to Hawaii for a conference. It was very late after the evening session, and he went back to his room, but couldn’t sleep. So, he went out for a walk, in hopes of finding a late night dive, with black coffee and greasy eggs. And, he sat down, in Harry’s diner, and ordered.
In a moment, the place filled up, as out of nowhere, with a loud, and an unruly group of women, in tight, low-cut dresses. They’d been working the streets, but as dawn approached, had stopped by for their nightly breakfast. Tony Campolo struck up a conversation with one of them, who mentioned that the next day was her birthday.
Her companions found that hilarious. “So what do you want us to do, Agnes, throw you a birthday party?” They jeered.
Agnes looked sad. “Nobody ever threw me a birthday party in my life. Don’t expect tomorrow will be any different.”
But Tony Campolo had an idea. After they left, he asked Harry, “Do they come here often?”
“Every night. But they’re okay. They never cause any trouble. They’re just girls, trying to make it, you know?” Tony knew.
And the next night he came back, with his own friends, carrying balloons and crepe paper and hand-painted banners that read “Happy Birthday, Agnes!”
And when Agnes, the prostitute, and her working girlfriends entered Harry’s greasy spoon, Tony and hius friends all shouted, “Surprise!” Agnes and her friends wept and laughed and danced for joy.
When they asked him why he did it, he told them about Jesus, and how Jesus loved them. Loved them even though they sold their bodies so they could eat. Loved them even if nobody else in the whole world loved them. Loved them so they could love him back.
Harry, the man who owned the diner, came over to Tony’s table. “You never said you was a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to anyway?”
Tony Campolo just smiled, watching Agnes dance to the jukebox. “The kind of church that has birthday parties for hookers in the middle of the night.”
Harry smirked. “They ain’t no such church. If they was, I’d join it.”
Oh, but there is, Harry. It’s right here. It’s everywhere that Christians come to worship the One they know. The One who loves the unloved and unlovable. The One who loves hookers and drunks and Samaritans and long-winded preachers and confused, bigoted disciples. The One who gives us a hope that will never disappoint us. The One who loves me and loves you no matter who we are, no matter who we’ve slept with, no matter what ridiculous things we’ve grown up believing.
When the Israelites were thirsty enough to stone Moses, they wondered, “Is the Lord among us or not?” If they visited St. Martin’s would they even need to ask the question? Or would they see us, celebrating, dancing and sharing cake with a world in need of Spirit and Truth?
I know that we are in search of a new rector, and that’s a search we must take seriously, for ahead lies a journey long and fraught with dangers. We’ve struggled and we will continue to struggle to meet our mission and our realize our vision. But in the midst of all the struggle, we must never forget the reason we are called together. It is not to have this beautiful building. It is not to have the finest music ministry in Columbia. It is not to have great Christian education or liturgy that knocks your socks off. It is to open up those doors to the people who are different from us, who worship God differently or not at all, who are broken, and tired and hungry and thirsty.
It’s up to us to show them the Savior of the world, who’s sent us to them and them to us. Grab your sickles, beloved, and look around you. The field is ripe for the harvest. Amen.
3 thoughts on “The Third Sunday in Lent”
Deacon Tim,>>I am an avid lurker of your blog for a couple of years now. I want to say that your words of sermon are truly beautiful and have greatly inspired me. I believe that you have a good bead on what I really think is the essence of our Judeo/Christian faith. >>Keep it up.
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