Sunday, March 12, 2023
The Third Sunday in Lent


The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77450

Click here to watch the sermon

It is rare that two weeks in a row the characters and the story involved in the gospel present the stark and dramatic contrast that we have between Nicodemus from last week and the Samaritan woman at the well this week.

Last week the wise, respected and apparently well-known Pharisee Nicodemus doesn’t get it, but this week the common, despised, uneducated, nameless Samaritan woman does. The difference between the people who are the main characters between this week and last could not be greater!

Everything about this story is shocking. In today’s world we do not understand the impact of Jesus’ traveling through Samaria, speaking to a Samaritan and then a woman on top of it. This was the most direct route between the two places that Jesus was traveling between, but was not the usual route for a Jew. They would go around this area rather than travel through it The gospel said he had to go through Samaria. This implies that there was more than just convenience in the selection of his route and very probably it was to make the point of this story. So the first question is why did he “have” to go this way.

There is a challenge in trying to describe how shocking this would have been to a Jewish audience of the 1st century. The story behind the Samaritans is fuzzy and sometimes contradictory. First of all, there were lots of different groups that lived in Samaria, but only this group is called Samaritans and there about 800 of them in Israel today. They still worship just as they did in Jesus’ time. That Samaritans were hated by the Jews is very clear and John shows Jesus using them several times in his gospel always as the outsiders, the other.

For John’s readers it would seem incredible that this outsider believes without any problem or reservation. The woman is often thought to be a sinner, but a.) this isn’t supported by the writing and b.) it doesn’t matter to Jesus. There is nothing that says she is immoral because of having had all those husbands. Maybe this was a string of Levitical marriages where she kept getting married off to the various male relatives after her first husband died. There is speculation that the five husbands are a metaphor for the 5 books of Moses. Of greater importance is that her moral standard is not what is important. Sin in this case is unbelief and she responds to Jesus by believing. She is so excited once she finally understands, that rather than run into the shadows like Nicodemus, she runs to the village and asks the whole village to come and see.

Richard Rohr writes: “Enlightenment is not about knowing as much as it is about unknowing; it is not so much learning as unlearning. It is about surrendering and letting go rather than achieving and possessing. It’s more about entering the mystery than arriving at a mental certitude.” Nicodemus will not go there, but our unnamed Samaritan woman does![1]

Now if all of this is not shocking enough Jesus then spends several days with a group of Samaritans, welcoming their signs of faith. This is one of the first large groups of converts in John’s gospel and they are from a despised group. In fact, this is the first time in John’s gospel that Jesus uses the famous ego emi, “I am” statement. Our translation says I am he, but in the Greek it is simply I am, echoing God’s words to Moses when Moses asks who are you to the burning bush. This “I am” statement is made to a woman from an outcast group who goes and brings her whole village out and they all are converted.

Now this is the point I want to look at this time around the story. BTW three years ago I was talking about how important it was for us to be caring for each other as COVID really started to take hold. That was looking inward for some very necessary in-reach.

Now I want us to look outward. The words that grabbed me this time around were, “Come and see.” These are the same words that Jesus spoke to Peter and Andrew when they first encountered him. “Where are you staying?” they asked. He replies, “come and see.” I want to mention again, what a different reaction this woman has compared with Nicodemus.

Here we have the very first evangelist and she is a woman from a despised group in Israel. Yet she literally drops what she is doing, leaves her water jar and runs back to the village and spreads the word. But again, it is the invitation that she offers, come and see the man.

One thing we learned from COVID is the incredible importance of relationships. The bonds between people that are so essential to our well-being. Over the past few months, I have attended several presentations by the Episcopal Health Network. The network was established by proceeds from the sale of the St. Luke’s hospital chain. EHF is the outreach part of what was established with that money.

The goal is changing how parishes do outreach. I have mentioned this before, but it bears mentioning again. There are several types of outreach, all are important, but they have different effects. Charity is important, food banks, backpack drives, coat drives, are all important, but in some respects, they are a bottomless pit. As Jesus said, “You will always have the poor with you.” What the foundation is asking us to do is to redirect some of our efforts into building relationships in our communities where we can find out and help change some of the root causes.

This is why ministries like the Beacon are important. Now we help with the charity part, but the Beacon is much more. Health care, assistance finding jobs, addressing those things that make people homeless and keep them there. Katy Cares who we are assisting this Lent. Yes there is the need for supplies to help those who are just getting set up in a home, but this program aims to help keep these families from falling back into homelessness by building the life skills they need to break the poverty cycle

The Neighborhood Garden is in the same category. Josh is going to attend some of the Health Foundation programs this spring to learn more about the network and relationship building that is so important.

The relationships are important because we do not necessarily know what is needed until we ask. My favorite example is something that happened to my parish before I went to seminary. St. Paul’s in Cleveland Hts. was supporting a project in a small village in El Salvador. It was just women and children, all the men were dead from the civil war. The women had started a small cottage industry of sewing. So we raised money and sent them 12 sewing machines and we were very proud of what we did. The only problem was that there was no electricity in the village to run them! They needed treadle sewing machines. We need to build relationships so we know what the community truly needs and then tailor our outreach to meet those needs. That’s why the dialogue with the school across the street is so important. They are looking for community partners. They know what they need. We need to help them with that.

The other part of come and see is behind opening our doors to community groups that need places to meet. I’ve watched the folks that come here for a variety of things looking at the bulletin board by the parish hall that tells all the things in which we are involved. Wendy’s parish spent a Saturday in our parish hall on a retreat and were so impressed by the bulletin board that they went back to Christ the King and did the same thing Someone told me the other day, “When I told a person I went to St. Paul’s they replied, oh the parish that does all the outreach.” I can tell you that was not our reputation back in 2019!

Now there is an easy way to invite people to come and see that all of you can do. It’s this new thing called social media. When you share things from the St. Paul’s page or talk about something you are doing here, that goes out all over the place. Katy Cares told us that traffic to their Facebook page and website jumped by quite a bit when we publicized the last drive we did in Lent. So please share away about what we are doing. Share that you are here this morning. Do that check in thing and say something about the service. If something I say moves you, then go ahead and put it out there. Visit our website, share a sermon that you liked or pictures from an event. All of this helps invite people to come and see. Then when they do welcome them. You see you can be an evangelist, it’s not hard. Don’t be a Nicodemus! Be like the Samaritan woman. Invite, welcome the stranger or friend. Come and see.

[1] Rohr, Richard: On the Threshold of Transformation (Loyola Press, Chicago 2010) pf. 38