Disruption and Connection
I love the gospel that we just heard. It is another dialogue, another encounter, another one of these long conversations with Jesus that we read together during the season of Lent. In fact, this is the longest conversation with Jesus that is recorded in the New Testament. And it features an unlikely hero – a poor woman, a foreigner, someone who is carrying a lot of pain and yet persists and becomes a model for all of us. A good hero for us in this week that we celebrate International Woman’s Day.
Have you ever read a story and been transported to another time and place? This story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman does that for me. Because the last time I read it was in December in Sychar, which these days is called Nablus, at the foot of Mount Gerazim in Palestine, at this very same well. And there I received a gift. The elderly Greek orthodox priest who is the custodian of the site gave me a gift of water from Jacob’s well, in this beautiful little glass jar.
And that’s not my only memory of this text. The last time that I preached on this passage was March 15 2020, the third Sunday of Lent three years ago, but you might remember it better as the first Sunday of the Pandemic in Ottawa. It was the day our lives, and our churches, shut down. For the first time I preached to a camera in front of an empty building, hoping that our community was tuning in on Facebook, talking about this text.
Thankfully we are in a better place now. But if there are two things that the pandemic taught us, or perhaps reminded us of, they are these:
First that social isolation is really hard. As humans we need connection.
And second, that our lives can be disrupted on a moment’s notice. For better or for worse.
So it is appropriate, I suppose, that our gospel reading this morning, this story of Jesus and the woman at the well, is fundamentally about connection and disruption. It’s about an encounter, a disruptive encounter, but disruptive in a good way. It’s about connection, knowing and being known, going deep, being in relationship.
But it begins in isolation.
A Samaritan woman comes to the well at noon. That’s unusual. Noon is the hottest time of day, and most people would have come to the well in the morning or in the evening.
I don’t know you’ve ever been in a place where people have to get water at the well, but it’s a very social thing. It’s where people get together, it’s when the chatter happens, it’s where you catch up on people’s news. People come to the well and, there’s work to be done, but you also come to meet other people and to be together. But this woman, for whatever reason, and we don’t really know the reason, goes to get water by herself when no one else is there. Maybe it’s related to what we find out later, that she’s had five husbands and that the man she’s with now isn’t her husband. That doesn’t mean she’s a bad woman – really, it means that men divorced her or husbands died. Maybe it was because she couldn’t have children – we don’t know all that, but what we do know that she was socially isolated. She came to the well at noon.
The gospel begins with isolation, with social distancing - but then something disruptive happens. Jesus happens to be at the well when she shows up, a man when she is a woman, a Jew when she is a Samaritan, and he says to her “Give me a drink.” He’s not supposed to do that. He’s not supposed to be there. It’s a disruptive event for this woman. How is she going to respond?
One of the things that we need to remember is that God works through disruptive events. Disruption actually provide God with the opportunity to change our lives. When everything is going along smoothly, the normal routine, life can stay the same. When things get disrupted - and that doesn’t mean that all disruptions are good, some of the things we have to deal with are really difficult - but when things get disrupted, God has a chance to enter our lives and be in relationship with us in new ways, and that can change us.
Some of you know the song Anthem by Leonard Cohen:
Ring the bells that can still ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
I had a prof when I was at seminary, and he used to say to us that the really important question when you’re talking about your relationship with God is not ‘is it good or bad’ it’s whether it’s static or dynamic. Is it passive or is stuff happening? And dynamic is better. It doesn’t matter whether you’re angry with God, whether you’re fighting with God, you’re upset, whatever it is, dynamic is better. It’s better to be dealing with stuff that matters, it’s better to be dealing with the hard stuff because when your relationship with God is dynamic, when it’s active, when stuff is happening, when there’s a back and forth there, change is happening. And change is life-giving.
This story of Jesus and the woman at the well is a dynamic encounter. Stuff happens. There’s back and forth. He talks, she talks, they go to places of pain, they ask the questions of the day. She eventually runs back to her village, tells everybody, they all come, and it says at the end that there were many Samaritans from the village and they recognize Jesus as the saviour of the world. That’s stuff happening, all as a result of that initial disruption: ‘give me a drink’. It’s an active, dynamic relationship.
Last week we talked about Nicodemus. Nicodemus was the exact opposite. He was the establishment guy, he was a man, a Jew, a person of privilege. He came to Jesus at night, not the middle of the day. Kind of in quiet, in hiding, secretly. Nicodemus doesn’t ask a question, instead he tells Jesus something. Jesus tries to go deeper with him, but did you notice that in last week’s gospel reading, Nicodemus, he actually just disappears. By the end of last week’s gospel, third chapter of John, you don’t know if Nicodemus is still there or not. He’s gone, he disappeared.
Today is different. This woman, who has none of the privilege that Nicodemus had, who does not have the right to speak and pronounce that Nicodemus had, she doesn’t disappear. She engages. She sticks with it. She asks her questions. She deepens. She enters into relationship.
Jesus says ‘give me a drink’. Think about it – what were her options? She could have just ignored him. I suppose she could have run away. Most likely she could have just given him a drink without saying a word. That would have been passive. Static. Not engaging in a relationship. But instead, what does she do? She says to him “how is it that you a Jew ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” She speaks her truth. You people have been ostracizing me and marginalizing me for my whole life, telling me I’m the enemy and the adversary, you’ve been telling me my place is in the home, you men have divorced me and left me alone, how is it that you’re asking me for a drink?
And Jesus deepens, he says, it’s not just about water, everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, the water that I give will become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. And she goes with him in that deepening, she says “I want that. What are you talking about? Give me that water. But how is that, are you greater than our ancestor Jacob?” There’s engagement here.
Then Jesus goes to her place of deepest pain and vulnerability. “Bring your husband”
“I have no husband”
“You’ve had five husbands, and the man you’re living with now is not your husband” - probably her husband died, and her husband’s brother had to take her into his house so that she wouldn’t starve, because women had no independent source of income.
That’s got to be a place of pain and loss and regret. Jesus goes there. He goes to our places of pain and loss and regret, and he’s ok there, he has compassion, Jesus isn’t afraid of deepening our relationship. And neither is she. She says, “I see that you’re a prophet.” And so I’m going to ask the question that’s really been bugging me, because you Jews say that we have to worship on the mountain in Jerusalem, when we’ve been worshipping on this mountain for a thousand years and so if you’re a prophet then tell me what’s up with all that?
And he says, “all of that is passing away. God doesn’t care about which mountain. God wants people who are going to worship him in spirit and truth.”
Question by question, answer by answer, they deepen. And this woman who began the day alone, social distancing, self-isolating, coming to the well at noon, all of a sudden is in this deep relationship where she is known. Jesus knows who she is, and she knows who Jesus is. He starts out as a Jew, and then he becomes sir, and then a prophet, and then she talks about the Messiah coming, and he says “I am”, and then the very last line of the text is that they all recognize that this is the saviour of the world. We’ve reached the very core of the gospel.
To me, if you want an image of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, what it looks like to be a person of faith, what it means to have a relationship with God, this encounter is the most beautiful example in all of scripture of what faith looks like. Of what it looks like to be in relationship with Jesus, to know God and to be known by God, to connect and deepen and ask questions and be transformed and then to become a disciple and to be saved. It’s all right here.
This is life-giving. This is our faith.
Homily: Yr A Lent 3, March 12 2023, Trinity
Reading: John 4.5-42