Sunday, March 27, 2011

"The Stranger at the Well"

John 4: 5-42
March 27, 2011
Lent 3
First United Church – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

Note: before beginning the sermon, the congregation heard the song “We Are Broken” from the album Riot! by Paramore. I asked them to listen to the lyrics closely. I won’t print there here, due to possible copyright issues, but I encourage you to Google for the lyrics before reading the sermon (or, even better, listen to the song online).

I mentioned earlier that I had the song “We Are Broken” rolling around in my head all week, which was strange because I hadn’t even heard it in a while. So I decided to pay attention to the still, small voice inside me. When I looked at the lyrics, it was immediately apparent why I couldn’t get the song out of my brain. I think the Samaritan woman at the well must have written the song.

Unlike Nicodemus, who chatted it up with Jesus last week at nighttime, this nameless woman comes to Jesus in the middle of the day. She’s been sitting at home, waiting for the sun. Specifically, she’s been waiting for the hottest part of the day to go outside and draw water from the local well.

Anyone who’s ever done physical labor knows this is stupid. You don’t want to go outside at noon. You want to go in the early morning. That’s when all the other women go to the well. It seems that this nameless woman isn’t too bright.

Or maybe the opposite is true. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that she has wide eyes that see many things. And her desire to go to the well during the heat of the day is not stupid, it’s smart. She has spent her life on the outside. She’s seen worlds that don’t belong. She never quite fits in. She can’t figure out how to make small talk at the well. And so she goes during the time of day when the well is deserted. The physical toll is worth the peace and quiet.

Today is like any other day, except she’s not alone at the well. There is a stranger at the well. She tries to avoid him but he isn’t interested in avoiding her. He speaks to her directly, “Get me a drink.”

“Oh, great,” she thinks, “Another man to boss me around. Just what I need today. What is this joker even doing here in the middle of the day?”

And she wonders – what exactly did he mean by “drink”? Men usually only bother her when they want one thing. She glances around – are they completely alone? Her heart races and she feels unsafe.

She tries to brush him off, “Right. You’re a Jew and I’m a Samaritan and you want me to get you water.”

But he’s not finished with her. He says something unexpected: “If you knew who was talking to you and the gifts that God is trying to give you, you wouldn’t be giving me a hard time. You would have asked for living water.”

She looks at him for the first time. He’s smiling. He’s not going to hurt her.

She decides to chance a conversation. After all, no one is watching. Her mouth is dry with words she cannot verbalize. She has big questions. She wants to ask him, “Sir, please tell me why we live like this?” but she’s not ready yet. He is still a stranger.

They have a conversation. It’s witty. It’s fast and furious. They talk about this idea of “living water.”

She understands that the conversation is happening on two levels at once. Obviously, the water she gets every day from the well is not living. It’s still water. It’s safe and cool – but still not as lovely and luscious as running water. Living water is superior. But she somehow senses that this stranger is not really offering her a stream of literal water. After all, she’s not stupid. She’s lived here her whole life and if there was a good stream of water, she’d know about it.

He’s talking about….something else. She’s not sure what. But he knows things. Things that might help her feel less thirsty, less tired, less sad, less used. Things that might help her feel more. More seen, more heard, more valued, more loved, more whole.

Before she realizes it, she’s sitting down and they’re talking and talking. She’s enjoying herself.

She can’t remember the last time she actually had a decent conversation with someone.

She’s been married five times and she certainly never had a good conversation with any of those men. Maybe back when her mother was alive, there were some good talks. Or when her sister still lived at home – yes, she and her sister used to understand each other. But that was all a long time ago.

Suddenly, the stranger changes the subject. He says, “Hey, why don’t you go get your husband and bring him here?” The nameless woman looks down, “I don’t have a husband.”

There is an awkward pause. The hairs on the back of her neck stand up. Her heart starts to race, “Why did I tell him that?” She looks around again – still deserted. “Did I misjudge him? What if he really is here to try and find some poor woman to hurt?”

She looks up – slightly panicked.

And then she sees his eyes.

They are full of love. And it’s not the “love” she’s used to seeing in the eyes of the men who look at her. It’s not desire. It’s not lust. It’s like the love she used to feel when her mother looked at her when she was a little girl.

Back before life happened.

Looking at her, he loves her and says, “I know you don’t have a husband right now. You’ve been married a lot of times, but not right now.”

Her heart skips a beat. He knows her story. Who told him? How can he possibly know what her life has been like? How could a man ever understand what it’s like to be passed around from man to man – cast aside?

There was her first husband – twice her age. She was married to him as a young child. She was too young to even bear children yet, but that’s what he wanted. God knows he tried to get her pregnant, but she was just a child herself. He divorced her after a year.

She and her parents moved to another village, trying to start over. With no connections, it was almost impossible to find another spouse. But they managed, somehow. They found her a second husband. He was a decent man and he treated her okay. They almost never spoke, but at least he didn’t force her to share a bed with him every night. But he died.

He had three brothers. And according to custom, she married them all in turn. Her third husband barely spoke to her. She was lonely. They were married about five years and then one day he disappeared. She was disgraced. She married a fourth time – almost unheard of, but better than being left alone. This husband beat her mercilessly. He died, thankfully. Those were tough years. She also lost he mother during that time – but, of course, she hardly saw her anymore anyway because her husband wouldn’t let her.

And then there was her fifth husband. He was no different than the others. And he didn’t keep his end of the bargain. He, too, left her. This time for another woman. The greatest of humiliations. Childless and alone, the nameless woman settled into her life on the fringes of society.

Unable to find anyone else who would marry her, she was left with no choice but to live with a man who wasn’t her husband. At least she had a roof over her head and some daily bread.

And somehow this stranger at the well knows these things. And the oddest thing is not that he knows them – any of the women who visited the well in the morning could have told him about her. No, the oddest thing is that he doesn’t seem to care.

His voice is level and matter of fact. His eyes say to her, “I understand. You’ve been dealt a rough hand. Your life hasn’t worked out the way you had hoped.”

And so she says to him the only logical thing. She says, “I see that you’re a prophet.”

He neither confirms nor denies this conclusion so she continues on. You see, there is still this voice inside of her that asks the big questions.

So she asks here question. She says, “Tell me why we live like this.” She wants to know how we can restore our innocence. How do we get back to all the promises we once adored? Who can we ask for life? Because we all just want to be whole.

She wants to know why there is such division between her people, the Samaritans, and this stranger’s people, the Judeans. They share a religion, so why do they hate each other so much? She has heard that it’s simply because they choose to worship in different places – but, really, she thinks, for a hatred this deep – it has to be about something more, right?

It turns out that the answer is both simpler and more profound than she ever would have guessed.

This man – the stranger sitting at her well, right here in the middle of nowhere Samaria, is the guy to see if we want life. He sees that we are broken and he, too, wants us to be whole. The water that he has to offer is the water that can restore us. He speaks to her of the true meaning of worship.
She understands his words, but, really it’s more than his words that convince her he’s telling the truth when he confides that he is the Messiah. It’s something in his eyes. That sense that, in his presence, she is loved beyond comprehension. And by a stranger! And by a stranger that is supposed to hate her and her people!

How can this be? How can this man, knowing her fully, still love her – a stranger and an enemy? If this can be done, surely nothing is impossible with God. She begins to see that we don’t have to live like this. We can make other choices. We can get back to all the promises once given to us. We can be made whole.

She jumps up and leaves her jar behind. She runs to the city. This morning she sat in her small house with the blinds drawn, waiting for the sun to be high in the sky before sneaking off to the well.

But now she stands in the middle of the town square. She shouts out loud.

She runs up to people who have never so much as looked her way and grabs their sleeves, tugging on them, asking to be heard.

She comes to proclaim the Messiah – the Anointed One. She has heard a voice and she wants to capture it – remember everything he ever told her. She wants to tell others so they can see they have a choice about who they are.

She knows that we all, the human race, we’re at war – we live like this: prisoners to our circumstances, our shame, our fear, our doubts, our histories. But she now knows something else: she knows there is a better way.

At first, the people in town brush her off, but she continues on, “He told me everything I’ve ever done. He knows who I am. He sees me. And he didn’t leave. I haven’t had the easiest life. I’ve seen a lot of things I didn’t want to see. I’ve had a lot of things happen that I didn’t choose. And I’m not used to having people see me. People look the other way. But this stranger at the well was different. He saw me – really saw me. And in his eyes I could see it – he loved me. Even though he saw me first. I’ve never had that happen before. Not since my mother.”

And do you know what? For the first time ever, they listened to her.

A man seeing this woman? And loving her? How could that be? And if he loved her, what might it mean for them?

They started walking towards the well. They brought the man back to town and talked with him for two days. At one point, they looked around for the nameless woman to say, “Look, honey, thanks for telling about this guy. We think he’s the real deal. Not necessarily because you say so, but because we can see it for ourselves.”

But by then she was gone. She had packed her bags and left that town. She wasn’t sure where she was headed, but she felt at peace. And in her head she hummed a little tune, “Give us life again – cause we just wanna be whole.”

After a life of wandering, wondering, seeking, the truth was made known to her in a stranger’s eyes. She saw God face to face in the eyes of that stranger at the well. Looking at her, he loved her. God saw her – really saw her – and loved her.

And now she knew she could love herself.