Set Free: A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent
Here’s the link to the audio for those who prefer listening to reading. It runs 19 minutes. Starts at about the 30 second mark.
John 4: 1 – 42
Third Sunday of Lent, March 12, 2023
Guemes Island Community Church
I am impressed that so many of you made it on this “spring forward,” lose an hour, Sunday. Heck, I’m impressed I made it!
It is now the third Sunday of Lent. Our text, the encounter of Jesus with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, is the longest conversation that Jesus has with anyone in the entire New Testament.
He has it with a surprising — and surprised — conversation partner. A Samaritan woman. The Samaritans were neighbors of the Jews, living north and west of Jerusalem and Judah. They were even sibliings of a sort, tracing their spiritual roots to the same patriarchs, claiming the storied well of patriarch Jacob, the son of Issac, the son of Abraham.
And yet, as sometimes happens between neighbors. and between siblings, there was no love lost between Jews and Samaritans. In fact, the Jews despised Samaritans. They Samaritans were guilty, in Jewish eyes, of having watered down the true faith, mixing it with a grab-bag of pagan deities, and thus being both ignorant and idolatrous. Which is the often missed element in the famous parable of “The Good Samaritan.” For Jews, there were no “good Samaritans.” For Jesus to make a Samaritan a hero of his story wasn’t just surprising, it was offensive.
So you can imagine how shocked the disciples were when they found Jesus engaged in conversation with a Samaritan, a woman to boot! Self-respecting Jews did not talk with Samaritans, nor did Jewish rabbis talk with women — any woman. If that were all not enough, drinking from the same cup as a Samaritan? Just not done.
So the woman Jesus met at the well was stunned when he asked her for a drink. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Nor is she just any woman. As we will learn as the story unfolds, her past is a checkered and painful one, which is the reason that she is at the well at noon, in the heat of the day. That is not when women went to the well. They went early in the morning or in the evening, when it was cool. This woman was not only a Samaritan, thus despised by Jews, but a Samaritan who was despised, shunned, by her own people, including her fellow Samaritan women.
Pondering the story of the Samaritan woman this week, I remembered something that happened long ago in the neighborhood where I grew up. I was maybe 10 or 12 at the time, so it was the late fifties or early sixties.
My school was having a fund raiser. We students were supposed to sell chocolate bars to our family and neighbors. These chocolate bars were shaped like gold ingots, and were substantial, maybe 12 oz. each. No 3 oz. Hersey’s bar this. Twenty-five of them came in a box which I lugged around our neighborhood.
I made the rounds, with little success, and was headed home when I noticed that at the house directly across the street from ours, two teenage girls who lived there were out in their backyard. I didn’t know them, in fact hadn’t ever spoken with them, but I was desperate to make a sale and — how shall I say it? — were both on the large side and thus, I thought, good prospects.
I headed, a little timidly, up their driveway and into the backyard where the two girls were hanging out. I explained my mission. They were interested, but I think they were also pleased to have the attention of a boy. After I dispensed my chocolate ingots, I stuck around chatting, actually — to my surprise — enjoying my visit.
But I need to back up a bit to say that the reason I had not previously spoken to these girls, or to anyone in that family, is that my parents found these neighbors to be wanting. Maybe they even sort of despised them.
The girl’s mother was, so far as we could tell, a single-parent, which was still sort of scandalous back then. This mother not only had the two portly girls, but two skinny, long-haired, teenage boys. The boys always seemed to tearing apart a car in the driveway, except on the rare occasion when they actually got the car going. Then they roared up and down the street, the car belching out a blanket of exhaust over the neighborhood. Not only that, since they had moved in, the house had gotten rundown, the yard a mess of weeds and debris.
And — and this really got under my parents skin — they left their garbage cans out in the driveway for all the world to see. You didn’t do that. You were supposed to keep your garbage cans tucked discreetly out of sight. So these were pretty much our Samaritans.
Now I should say that my parents were hard-working, church-going — a Congregational church — and politically liberal people, who were otherwise friendly to their neighbors, except that is for the Samaritans across the street. I kind of knew this, but I knew it in the way that you just know stuff, when you are a kid, even though it isn’t ever really talked about.
So I’m in the backyard chatting up the girls, at this point my best customers, when their mother came home from work. She looked just completely beat, which she no doubt was. But she joined the three of us and we continued talking as the sun set and the temperature began to drop with the onset of evening.
After a while the mom looked at me and said, “Can I ask you a question?” “Sure,” Mr. Affable now. “How come your parents don’t talk to me, how come they never say a word to me?” I could see the pain, the hurt, and the anger, in her dark weary eyes. And though it was kind of news to me that my parents gave her the silent treatment, I also knew exactly what she was talking about. But what could I say? ‘Uh, because your yard is a mess, and your garbage cans are out front, and you’re a single mother with four feral teenagers?”
I don’t know what I did say. Maybe I said something stupid like, “Gosh, I don’t know. I’ll ask them.” But I did know.
Nevertheless, I did ask them. That night at dinner, all in our places, my sister to the right of my mother, me to the left of my Dad, I felt like I was sitting on a bomb. Finally, I blurted out, “I talked with the neighbors today, the ones across the street.” Now my mother looked wary and uncomfortable. I said, “They were actually nice.” Pause. “And the woman, the mother, wanted to know why you don’t say ‘hello’ to her, why you don’t talk to her at all?” Awkward silence. Very awkward silence. “Well, I think I’m finished. May I be excused?” I said. After that my parents did offer a terse “Good morning” to the Samaritan woman across the street. After a while she and the pack of teenagers all moved out, and we didn’t mention it again.
But I didn’t forget. I didn’t, maybe couldn’t, forget the pain in that woman’s eyes. The pain of being ostracized, the pain of being looked down upon, the pain of a daily silent judgment from the folks who kept their yards trimmed and their garbage cans tucked out of sight.
Now I could tell you that the point of this story is that we should all be more like Jesus, breaking down or simply ignoring the invisible but hard-as-steel barriers that we erect between ourselves and other people, sometimes people who are our neighbors, sometimes our family members. But we all already know that, don’t we?
What I would say is a little different. That woman held up a mirror to me and to my family. And the picture wasn’t pretty. She exposed, for me, just how judgmental we were being, how we too, in our own, upright way were terrible sinners.
Now don’t get me wrong. My parents were good people. My Dad was the kind of guy who would shovel the snow off the walk of the elderly woman next door. My mother was a librarian who was good at her job, who would go out of her way to be helpful to library patrons. And unlike many of our neighors there in Northern Virginia, they would never use the N-word and they supported integration of the schools.
And yet . . . we could treat a single mother, who was no doubt struggling just to get through the day, let alone parent four teenagers, as a sort of pariah. When she held up the mirror for me, I could see that it was maybe we who deserved judgment, we who deserved punishment for our cold shoulders and hard hearts.
In this world, there’s the sin of those who are pretty obvious and visibly failing. Maybe the guy who drinks too much, or the woman who has had — like the Samaritan woman — a string of husbands. Or the person at work who everyone agrees doesn’t pull his own weight. Or the person so overweight that you are praying they aren’t in the seat next to you on an airplane.
Then there’s the sin of those of us who look like we’ve pretty well got it together, who aren’t like those other people and feel a sort of not-so-secret pride that we aren’t.
We all get trapped in these judgments, the barriers between us though invisible as real as a Berlin Wall. We lose or risk losing family, church members, neighbors because of the judgments we bear, even if not spoken, toward other people. And there may be some reason, no doubt there is a justification, for our judgments. Someone does drive us crazy with their loud music, or their ill-placed garbage cans, or their tendency to talk on and on.
We all know what Jesus said, “Judge not, lest you be judged.” I don’t think he just meant that you might discover that you have done the very thing that you have recently damned someone else for doing — say cutting someone off in traffic. I think he also meant that when we judge others harshly we trap ourselves too, imprison ourselves by those very judgments. My parents, giving that neighbor the silent treatment, acting as if she didn’t really exist, were also trapped, in bondage, certainly in pain in their own way.
Just as that poor woman held up the mirror of truth to me and to my family, so Jesus held up the mirror to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. He knew — how we don’t know— her story of failure, of having had five husbands. We tend to assume that her marital history meant she was a loose woman, though the text never really says that. Whether it was her fault or not, she had a past checkered enough, to be an outcast. She had her failures and though they were out there for everyone to see, she was still hiding. Jesus somehow knew that she was hiding the truth, just like she was hiding from the other women by coming to the well when no one else was there.
Jesus knew her secrets, and he knows ours too. But here’s the difference. He didn’t condemn her. He didn’t pretend she didn’t exist. He didn’t give her the cold-shoulder. He gave her mercy. He gave her himself.
Still, in the face of his knowing, or him getting so close, she tried to dodge and distract. She shifted the conversation to a tired old debate about which mountain was the right one for true worship. Yours or ours? Neither, he said. In fact, the argument about which is the right place of God’s presence, is irrelevant because I am that presence, right here, right now. The mercy seat is right here. Right before you. I have come for you. I forgive you. I came for find you and bring you home to the Father. I came so that you don’t have to just keep going through life’s motions, carrying your heavy water jug here every day in the heat of the day, only to thirst again and again.
That — the carrying of a never-ending, crushing burden — is what the apostle Paul calls life under the law. Us trying to show we are good enough. Us trying to get on God’s good side. Imagining we have no need of grace or mercy because we have it all together.
But the law will never save us, our own efforts to be righteous will never be enough or good enough. As that weary woman showed me when she asked with all that pain and hurt in her eyes, “Why don’t your parents speak to me?,” we all stand in need of grace, in need of Jesus.
Here’s the good news. There is grace. There is mercy. At the cross of Christ, your sin is put to death. There is mercy for all, grace enough for all. No more secrets. No more shame. Bring your pain and failures to the cross. He has seen it all before. None of it will surpise him. The stuff we think hidden, is not hidden to him. He knows. He meets us here, not with judgment, but with mercy.
When the Samaritan woman realized that he knew all about her and did not shame or judge her, when she knew she was in God’s presence, she forgot all about the same-old/ same-old, all about going through the motions, that defined a deadened life.
She just left her water jug behind, the symbol of the law’s futility, lying there empty and ran back to town to tell everyone. Her abandoned jug lying on its side, the sign of the old life. Are there some things you and I might want to leave behind today?
That empty pot was a symbol of her freedom in Christ. He had set her free. And he will do that for you too. He will set you free of the heavy burdens of sin and of the harsh judgments, not only of others, but those we make of ourselves. He will set us free to live a new life.
He knows your secrets and your sorrow, and does not condemn you. With mercy he meets you. He will set you free. Right here. Right now. He is present. His grace is powerful enough to break the chains that bind us. Come to the cross, come to this table, come to the mercy seat. Don’t miss this chance to come to the living God who loves you, and gave himself for you. Come to the living water of Christ Jesus and thirst no more. Amen.