Sunday, March 15, 2020
Everybody is a somebody to Jesus (and to us)
The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
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 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. 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.
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 challenging 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.
One source of information about them is in 2 Kings 17:24-34. This passage tells us that they are descendants of people brought in from other lands to populate the area after most of the Jews were taken to Babylon when Jerusalem was conquered and the Babylonians destroyed the first temple. They brought their own gods and worship into the land of YWHW. The story goes that there were various disasters, and this was blamed on the fact that these immigrants did not pay homage to YWHW the God of this land. So priests were sent and the Samaritans were told to worship YWHW. Some if not most were not true monotheists especially back in this post exile period. Now there is research that disputes this, but you can imagine that if anything like this were true, they would be held in very poor regard and considered pagans by the Jews of the 1st century. The one really clear bone of contention is that the Samaritans claim that the true home of God is on Mount Gerizim and not the temple in Jerusalem.
With that information as background you can see that it is truly incredible that this outsider believes without any problem or reservation once she understands. 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. 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!
Now if all of this is not shocking enough Jesus then spends several days with a large 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.
This year as I read this passage one other thing stood out to me. That was the whole discussion of water. Now water is another of those powerful biblical symbols and a theme in John. Jesus starts his ministry with the wedding of Cana where he turns water into wine. The theme for the Society of St. John the Evangelist’s Lenten series this week is water. The video for this week spent time talking about the importance and symbolism of water. Note that Jesus speaks of living water, water that moves, that is alive. Ideally for baptism we would use living water. The rector of Trinity Galveston even does her Easter baptisms in the ocean!
Water is vital to life, we cannot live without it. People who live in arid areas certainly are more aware of that than others. This is why our Hebrew Scripture passage from Exodus is about finding water in the desert. The well in this story is very deep and still exists today. I had the opportunity to see it. It is found in a chapel under the chancel of a large Greek Orthodox church.
A piece of the video was how living water cannot and will not be contained. Now all of you who lived through Harvey know that water cannot be easily contained and can be wild and unpredictable. I certainly experienced that in my post Katrina work in Mississippi. One of the brothers said that like water we cannot contain God. It isn’t possible to put God in a bottle.
This idea of trying to restrain or tame God is a problem that has been around for a long time. One of the jobs of the prophets was to break God out of the box that the Jews had built. Think about this, the arc of the covenant is literally a place that restricts where God is. In Jesus’ time God was at the temple. Of even greater importance is that the entire temple system was designed to restrict almost domesticate God. Follow the rules, offer the proper sacrifice and proper worship and God will grant you favor, protect you and help you prosper. Sounds a lot like the modern-day prosperity gospel.
There are many problems with this and the first is that it turns religion into an insurance policy. Pay your premiums and you are protected from anything negative. This approach tries to put us in control and not God. I know of no surer way to get in trouble than to try to do that. The ancient prophets knew that as well. They were the first to try to wake up ancient Israel to this and now in today’s story it is Jesus’ turn.
Trying to limit God, limits not God, but in the long run limits us. Why would we try to limit God and what God’s love can do? This is always my problem with anyone who tries to claim they have the one and only understanding of God and if you don’t agree, God will no longer love you. The God I know, the God I serve and preach is a being far larger than our puny human minds can grasp much less control. Further I have no interest in trying to control God, for God knows better than I what needs to happen.
Jesus shows us that all can approach him, get to know him and most importantly serve him and make him known. Jesus time and time again teaches us that no one is outside of his embrace. That everyone is a somebody, there aren’t any nobodies in his world. Everybody is somebody to Jesus and should be somebody to all of us.
Over the next few weeks there are going to be challenges and people who need to be somebody and cared for in this crisis. Katy Christian Ministries will be very busy preparing food to go from the food pantry. If you want to help there let me know and I will email you the information. I would bet there will be people looking to Christ the King’s food pantry with children home and some people unemployed because their businesses are closed.
St. Paul’s is scheduled to serve at the Beacon downtown this Thursday. They do need us. Now we will be preparing sack lunches to be handed out rather than what we usually do, but we are needed to pack those lunches. I am planning to go down and I hope a few of you can go as well. Contact either Steve McConnell or myself if you can help.
If you need assistance let Wendy or I know. Check in your neighborhoods, check in with those folks who may live alone. See if they need help. Maybe a family or individual is on a 14 day quarantine and need someone to go to the store for them. You can do that and not put yourself in any danger. But you can give these people a huge gift. Stay in touch with Wendy and I about needs. This is more than an inconvenience, this is an opportunity to show the care, love and hospitality of Jesus to strangers. Everybody is somebody to Jesus and we are called to give them the same care that he did.
 Rohr, Richard: On the Threshold of Transformation (Loyola Press, Chicago 2010) pf. 38