Monday, February 25, 2008

Feb 24th sermon inspiration: High Noon

When I was thinking about what I was going to say this past Sunday, I was inspired by a sermon of my dad's from a couple years ago. Though my homily was much briefer, here's his sermon on the John 4 text.

Biblical scholars tell us this story of Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well is the longest recorded conversation of Jesus with anyone in scripture. Barbara Taylor expands that hermanuetical fact by saying, “Jesus talks… longer to the woman at the well than he talks to any of his disciples, longer than he talks to any of his accusers, longer than he talks to any of his own family!” (Christian Century, February 28, 1996)
In any other communications venue that fact alone would draw attention to itself, causing observers to focus on what is said, the context in which it is said, and what it might mean. In today’s world, notorious or famous people are often hounded by paparazzi and if they can’t get to the star himself, they try to at least get to the one the star talks to or is seen with the most. A frenzy of such is not associated with the story of the woman at the well, surprisingly enough. Perhaps there’s a reason
Being in “the wrong place at the wrong time” comes to mind as the story unfolds. It’s a centerpiece on the map that might chart the “tension” between peoples… yes, there’s some “history” between these people and they have “issues” based on years and years of hatred and distrust.
If we’re keeping a travel log with Jesus, John records the journey and says “Jesus left Judea (which is in the south) and started back to Galilee (which is in the north).” “But he had to go through Samaria.” Humm… Think of a place in your world that is fraught with tension between peoples—a place that is revered as the spot where that tension is memorialized and you might get a better picture of the tension Jesus’ disciples felt about being in Samaria. As to why Jesus had to go through Samaria and stop off at Sychar, who knows, but doing so wasn’t what typical Jews did. But then, what’s typical about Jesus? Because of the racial hatred of most Jews for Samaratins (and vice versa), most would have simply crossed the Jordan River and gone, out of their way, north, toward Galilee, to avoid any contact with these people who were considered half-breeds and hated since the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. Somehow, Jesus felt it was necessary to go straight through Samaria, ignoring custom. So yes, there Jesus was at what most would consider being at the “wrong place,” but what about the wrong time?
We learn immediately from the storyteller that it was “about noon,” straight up, sun at the top of the Palestinian sky, noon. Hot, I would presume. There Jesus sits, without a bucket, by Jacob’s well in the middle of Samaria, when a Samaritan woman walks up to the well with her own bucket, probably carried on top of her head. Nothing unusual about that…, right? High noon at Sychar by Jacob’s well? Humm… “Respectable women made their trips to the well in the cool of the morning, when they could greet one another and talk about ‘the news.’ But this woman was one of the people they talked about, and the fact that she showed up by herself at high noon was a sure sign that she was not welcome at their morning “go-to-the-well” social hour. (Taylor) So, before a word is even exchanged, the stage is set in this “wrong place at the wrong time” encounter in John’s symbolism-laden gospel for tension-filled moments.
The first person to speak is Jesus. “Give me a dink,” he says. Are you aware of some of the rabbinical tradition that surrounds what most of us would call such a simple request as his, “give me a drink?”
· “…A man should hold no conversation with a woman in the street, not even with his own wife, still less with any other woman, lest other men should gossip!” (Humm… and you though only women gossiped!)
· “A common theological ‘argument’ in Jesus’ day was: does a woman have a soul?” Women certainly were not allowed to worship with men, and one of the men’s devotional prayers in the morning went something like, “Thank God I am not a woman.”
· “The rabbinical tradition from Eliezer Ben Hyrcanus was ‘…he that eats the bread of Samaritans is like to one that eats the bread of swine!”
That makes the instruction I grew up with as a child, “don’t drink after strangers,” sound pretty lame.
Needless to say, the dominant feeling on the Jews side was repugnance toward their Samaritan neighbors. So, understandable, Jesus’ simple request, “…Give me something to drink,” was enough to throw the woman off guard. While Jesus might have had no problem in breaking his own culture’s racism and sexism in order to ask for a drink, there was certainly no guarantee that the woman would reciprocate!
The central issue for the discussion at the well is obvious—water! For two thirsty people (Jesus and the unnamed woman) I find it a bit funny that they both spend an inordinate amount of time talking about water, something they both long for… but such is the style of John’s gospel, full of symbolism, irony, and, of course, words!
Jesus ignores the woman’s barbed comment, referring to the so-called impropriety of a man asking a woman for a drink. In fact, he still asks for a drink, certainly aware of the custom in Palestine that a weary traveler, sharing a drink of water with another person actually enters into a social contract with that person. According to that custom, Jesus, asking for a drink of water was offering the woman friendship. Yet she was a Samaritan, there at Jacob’s well at high noon. John would have us see that Jesus could see more in this situation than the woman realized, as he would reveal later.
Jesus mentions “living water.” She replies curtly—“Where do you get that, you don’t even have a bucket!” Or, as we might say, “Who do you think you are?” And, instead of living water, bubbling to the top, all those years of ethnic hatred and division bubble to the top, so she asks sarcastically, “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob who gave us this well?” Yet again, Jesus refuses to be pulled into the tension of ethnic squabbling. His reply is inclusive, “everyone who drinks this water I can give them will never be thirsty again!”
Who could blame her for her response… finding something which would quench a thirst eternally! Who wouldn’t want that? She wants it! Give it to me, so that I won’t have to keep coming here in the heat of the day when all the other women who judge me and scorn me come in the early morning cool of the day, leaving me to come here alone.
Then, it seems to me that Jesus says something that seems completely out of context for the story… “Go call your husband.” And with that, a Pandora’s Box is opened, revealing some of the saddest parts of this woman’s existence. She has no husband. While she may have longed for a relationship that would quench that thirst for companionship, love, and nurture, all she had found in five relationships was dryness, being used, and being used up… to the extent that even now, the relationship she is enduring is illicit. Little wonder that no townswomen have befriended her and invited her to the well to draw water at the more reasonable time of the day. She’s literally an outcast amongst the Samaratin outcasts! An outsider, as Taylor says, a “triple outsider”—a woman, a Samara- tin, and a woman whose relationships with men are in question. Yet she is the one Jesus talks to, longer than anyone else in the New Testament! She is the one to whom Jesus offers friendship, living water!
Her response is so revealing of the kind of people we are. First, she was bowed over that Jesus asked her for a drink of water in the first place, now he’s seeing right through her, it would seem, to the very depths of her soul, to her most intimate need; and she can’t take it! So, thank God for religion! She uses religion as a barrier for when things are get too personal! Sound familiar? No, she didn’t quibble about how to baptize or how much water to use. She didn’t talk about the nature of the Trinity or predestination or original sin, like we sometimes do. For her, there at Jacob’s well, a more relevant religious question was “What’s the most holy place, Jerusalem or Gerizim?” What a tactic! Hide from God and others behind religious quibbling.
“You can hardly blame her,” Taylor writes. “If he knows about all her husbands, there is no telling, what else he knows about her, and she decides she would rather not find out. It is time to introduce some mental static so that the man with the X-Ray eyes cannot read her so well, time to step back from him and cover herself up again. But it does not work. When she steps back, he steps toward her. When she steps out of the light, he steps into it. He will not let her retreat. If she is determined to show him less of herself, then he will show her more of himself. ‘I know that the Messiah is coming,’ she says, and he says, ‘I am he.’ It is the first time he has said that to another living soul. It is a moment of full disclosure, in which the triple outsider and the Messiah of God stand face to face with no pretense about who they are. Both stand fully lit at high noon for one bright moment in time, while all the rules, taboos and history that separate them fall forgotten to the ground.” (Taylor)
Understandably, she is changed! The disciples return from their go-for-lunch-run down the road, shocked (as any Jewish man would be) to see Jesus sitting by the well talking to a Samaratin women—but they don’t say a word about it.
And we see just what this evocative story is really all about. Belief in Jesus by a religiously ostracized group is what this story is all about. The story is about religious tensions and a church (the one to whom John addresses his gospel) which, in its origins, sought to overcome them, even while the attempt itself caused new tensions! (Interpretation Commentaries—John, Gerard Sloyan Fortress Press, p. 51)
The Church of the 21st century finds itself at high noon as well, midst some of the most controversial and tension filled places of our time. Our divisions have new names, but our self-righteousness and judgementalism are still the same. Like the Woman from Sychar, we too can engage in religious “dancing around the issues,” quibbling about this or that even when the Christ himself sits amongst us, ready to help us out of our parched, dry lives.
The woman’s testimony which was most compelling to even her fellow townspeople was: “Come see a man who told me everything I’ve ever done! Can he be the Messiah?” (John 4:39) The quench for her deepest thirst was found with that look into the very depths of her heart, as through Jesus’ love, he broke through all the barriers of racism, sexism, and even religion to find God! In so doing, she found her true self and found that that living water was there, within her, bubbling up to overflowing. God who made both Jew and Samaratin had put it there, though it was stifled and choked back by all of life’s “isms.” It mattered not that she was a woman. It mattered not that she was a sinner. It mattered not that she was a Samaritan. It mattered not that she could parrot religious arguments. She, like the apostle Paul, could say, “God proves his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (Romans 5:8)
I believe hers is that kind of testimony that makes a difference. It is that kind of testimony that draws others to Christ. It is that kind of testimony that breaks down all barriers… and, considering the tensions we face today, it’s the kind of testimony that must be made today.
If the ones making such a testimony today make you feel uncomfortable, remember the testimony of this woman who came to the well, dutifully seeking water but found living water. Many in her judgmental and self-righteous town became believers who truly knew that Jesus was the savior of the world. In the heat of the day and the tenseness of the moment we need such a savior. I pray we won’t turn his messengers away when they come shouting the good news… “I have found the Savior and he told me everything I have ever done!” If we do, we and our Church might die of thirst.

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