St. Mark's Episcopal Church

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Lent 3 Sermon 2011
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Jim Campbell

(Maps and pictures are shown here, and were handed out to the church people to refer to.)

Now that I’ve handed out these sheets with the maps and pictures, you can all look at them and not listen to this sermon!  Just kidding!

Was that a long Gospel reading or what?  I told Joyce (Rev. Joyce Avery, our Deacon) last Sunday that if she thought last week’s reading was long, to get ready—this week’s was going to be a doozy!  At our Friday Lent lunch and service at the Church of God, we read this one—it took four of us!  So, Joyce, thanks for persevering through the Gospel reading today.

I’m bringing a lot of geography and history context (the stuff I like!) into this sermon—because it is useful to understand why events occurred as they did in this story. 

Let’s look at where this Gospel story took place, by first asking how Jesus ended up here in Samaria, and in this place called Sychar?  In the first three verses of this 4th chapter of John it says, “Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John” —although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized—he left Judea and started back to Galilee.  But he had to go through Samaria.”  Jesus could have gone around this land as most Jews did, but he chose to take this trip on a south to north route in what is now occupied Palestine that went directly through the land of Samaria.  If you’ll look at the map, it shows how Jesus took the route through instead of around Samaria.  This land has been under Israel control since the 1967 war, although the world does not recognize their occupation. 

Why is Samaria important to this story?  The Jews held the people of Samaria in very low regard, and had for several centuries.  In 586 BCE, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon dealt the Jews a humiliating military defeat, destroying the Temple that Solomon had built and brought the leadership of Judea to Babylon in chains.  The memory of that defeat didn't lessen in the years that followed.  The Jews looked for someone to blame long after the Exile ended.  Knowing that Israel's safety was not with superior arms, but with God's protection, they tried to explain how God had allowed this to happen.  Prophets like Ezra and Nehemiah blamed those men of Israel who had married foreign women, and they demanded that all such men immediately divorce their wives to regain God’s favor.  Many of the men, especially in Samaria, refused, and so began the enmity between Judeans and Samaritans that was centuries old by the time Jesus came to Samaria.

Jews and Samaritans came to develop different centers of worship, different capital cities, and different Bibles. The Jews believed that the center of worship, their temple, was in Jerusalem; the Samaritans believed that the center of worship was on MountGerizim. Jews believed the Scripture consisted of both the Law and the Prophets; the Samaritans, only the Law.  (To me this helps to explain why the Samaritan woman knew a lot about the historical common religious heritage of the Jews and Samaritans.)

What about Jacob’s well?  In Genesis it says that Jacob purchased land at the village of Shechem, now called Nablus, very near this Samarian city of Sychar.  The well had been there for about 2000 years and was still "very deep" in Jesus' day, as the woman said in verse 11: “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep.”  It still exists today and is an important tourist spot to visit, surrounded by an Eastern Orthodox monastery.  It is about 125 feet down to the water, the well is fed by underground springs, and its water is fresh and cool.  Because the water is moving and not from a cistern, the ancient peoples called it "living water" -- a term to which Jesus gave a new and special meaning.   You can also view MountGerizim not far away, atop of which are the ruins of the SamaritanTemple.  The pictures provided show a depiction of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the top, and then have two pictures—one of a typical well in Palestine, and supposedly Jacob’s well today.  You can see how it has been turned into a shrine!  About 10 years ago the Israelis tried to get the monks to give up the well, because they claimed it was theirs; the monks said no!

Jacob’s well is an important place in three major world religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity.  All three world religions claim Abraham, Jacob, and Jacob’s well as part of their sacred stories. Some people in each of these religions believe that they have “the corner” on God’s truth.  Maybe if nothing else, there is one message to take from this story today—that they all need to drink of that “living water” from Jacob’s well.  They should read this passage from John 4: Jesus said to the Samaritan woman, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.  But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.”  Perhaps if Jews, Muslims, and Christians all drank deeply of the living waters of the Spirit of God, there would be fewer tensions between the groups and less self-righteous attitudes in these religions. 

Let’s compare our Gospel readings last week and this, as they appear almost one right after the other in the book of John.  They give us a real contrast in the type of people Jesus encountered in his ministry.  Corby in her sermon last week explained Nicodemus so well: “he is sneaky and quiet, his head is bowed and he wants to ensure that no one sees him going to see Jesus.  Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a leader of religious Jews who teaches and exemplifies Jewish law.  He would have a great deal to lose if anyone caught him with Jesus.”  On the other hand, the Samaritan woman is a total religious and political outsider, she has no name or standing in her society or religion at all, she is actually looked down upon with contempt in her community, and she meets Jesus at noon, in full daylight.  Another big difference in these two stories and characters—is how they deal with the conversations with Jesus: Nicodemus narrowly sticks within what he knows about his religious system and thinking, while the Samaritan woman gets outside her own religious expectations and gets into it with Jesus in a theology discussion.

We read in verse 9: “The Samaritan woman said to Jesus, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)”  Jesus violated several religious laws that day—he was speaking with a woman and she was a Samaritan. And to privately speak with a woman who was not your husband was against the religious laws of both the Samaritans and Jews. The woman also knew what should have been the first rule to follow--Jews and Samaritans were not to speak with each other. Unfortunately, this is pretty similar to the sad and misguided prejudices that exist today between religious, ethnic and nationalistic groups.

In both of these Gospels, Jesus did two important things: he identified each of the people clearly as to who they were, and he used this to get into their thinking about their faith and who He was. 

With Nicodemus, Jesus told him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.  What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ ”  Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”  And Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?  Jesus took Nicodemus’ status as a leader and learned teacher and used it to make him think about his orthodox Jewish beliefs and his understanding of God. 

With the Samaritan woman, Jesus told her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.  Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of 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.”  The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”  Jesus said to her then, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!”

What happens later from each of these Gospel stories is different but exciting in its own way. 

Again, citing Corby’s sermon, “Although Nicodemus sounded very perplexed during his night meeting with Jesus, perhaps the Spirit did come and bless him because he later stood up and defended Jesus before the other Pharisees.  And, after the crucifixion, it was Nicodemus who came with Joseph of Arimathea, bringing one hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes to dress the body of Jesus.  So in today’s story, we are witnesses to the start of a conversion.  We are witnesses to the beginning of Nicodemus’ spiritual rebirth.” 

With the Samaritan woman, it happened much more quickly.  She said to Jesus, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”  Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”  Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city.  She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!  He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”   They left the city and were on their way to Jesus.   Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony. 

In our world today, what does it take to become a believer in God and the Messiah Jesus?  Does it need to be a great learned teacher and scholar and preacher for us to get it--like maybe a Nicodemus later speaking to the Sanhedrin?  Will we listen to someone who we might even have some contempt for, if they speak in glowing terms and with passion about their faith experience and why we should join them—like the Samaritan woman who spoke to the villagers after meeting Jesus?  Do we need to have Jesus himself come and show us? 

Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman showed us what it takes to be a witness for Christ, and it is not after careful study and years of practice and preparation.  We wonder when and if we will finally feel confident enough, secure enough, and knowledgeable enough, to invite others to "come and see” Jesus and experience the love of God.  The Samaritan woman at the well is that clear example for us.  

She simply told the people what Jesus done for her personally, that he knew her better than anyone else, that he was surely the Messiah that they had been looking for.

What is our testimony?  What is the personal story of our lives that we can share with people how the Lord has transformed our lives and made them better?  It is our personal stories that help many people to believe in the possibility that they, too, can find and drink from the Living Water of God that can transform our lives.


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