Sermon by Barbara Mraz - Mar 15, 2020

High Noon at Jacob

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HIGH NOON AT JACOB’S WELL

A Sermon by the Rev. Barbara Mraz

St. John the Evangelist Episcopal church

St. Paul, Minnesota

March 15, 2020

 

John 4:5-42

 

For 2000 years, Christians have gathered to worship God. They have met in private homes, in cemeteries, in structures of all types, in prisons, in schools, on the battlefield, in war and peace, adapting to persecution, national or international events, or simply the style of the times. Today, we continue that tradition as we gather in a yet another way: in front of screens. 

We cling to the words most-frequently uttered by Jesus: “Be not afraid.” We commit to examining our Scriptures, using our reason and intellect, and service to our brothers and sisters. 

The corona virus brings up all sorts of questions about God and the reasons for suffering. That is one reason we gather each week, to methodically address these questions and, sustained by the Sacraments of the church, to build a faith. What is not negotiable is the power and strength of the love of God for us and ours for each other. Love is the great truth of Christianity. 

After several weeks of homiletical chess, and my championship move stolen from me by the rector who admitted to stealing Prince by wearing purple (well it’s Lent, so are we all!), I’m raising the stakes. I have a personal connection with the person I’ve chosen today. She has begun dating one of my former students – a young man whom I always thought was the most physically-attractive human ever to walk the hallways of The Blake School (before going on to Harvard), and sat in my classroom a whole semester and whose assembly speech I helped him write! We’re practically related! You can find out his identify online and I will reveal hers in a minute.  

In today’s Gospel, a woman has a secret. Most women do – I do. A majority of these secrets, I think, are related to sexuality. What was done to us that wasn’t completely okay; what we agreed to that we regret; what we feel guilty about and don’t discuss; the humiliating rejections experienced through not being chosen, or break-ups or divorce. I cannot speak for men and others– I suspect that there are many similarities — but I respectfully ask your indulgence if I’m incorrect.

Today’s Gospel says that none of us need certain kinds of relationships to feel strong; certain kinds of lives to feel successful; nor do we have to seek love so desperately that it humiliates us. And like the woman who abandons her water jug at the well, and the burdens and restrictions it represents, we are invited to a new kind of freedom we all crave. 

At the end of the movie “A Star Is Born,” the main character named Ally (who’s not even given a last name until she marries) has done everything possible to maintain her intense romantic relationship with country singer Jackson Maine. Yet it isn’t enough – and he abandons her repeatedly to a formidable seductress – addiction – and ends his life before she can rescue him one more time. At the end of the movie, Ally – played by Lady Gaga – sings these words: 

Don’t wanna give my heart away
To another stranger
Or let another day begin
Won’t even let the sunlight in….
I’ll never love again.

The Great Law of Judaism, says the writer Nancy Rockwell, the Law given to Moses by God on Mt. Sinai, the Law written in stone as the Ten Commandments, holds out only one sexual sin: adultery. For this is not only a physical act but a betrayal of an explicit or implicit covenant with another person. Female adultery was unforgivable in the first century, yet Jesus defends several “adulterous women,” and he confronts the men who would judge them, warning them to look at their own hearts’ desires. Today it happens at High Noon at Jacob’s Well in western Samaria. 

This is what we know about the woman whom Jesus asks for water: 

  • She is, in the eyes of the Jews, a triple outsider: a woman, a Samaritan, and it could reasonably be concluded, not respectable because she gets her water at the hottest time of the day, at noon, and not in the cooler morning, perhaps to avoid the shaming glances and snide comments. 
  • She has the longest recorded conversation with Jesus of anyone in scripture.
  • She seems to be intelligent, and able to hold her own in the give and take banter she has with him.  One person says, “She plays word games with him.  She argues theology and politics with him. It’s clear she understands they’re talking about something more than well water.”
  • She knows her religious history. The Samaritans were Jewish in that they accepted the Torah but not other parts of the Jewish Bible. The woman refers to their common ancestor Jacob who worshipped on this mountain but notes that Jesus would see Jerusalem as the place to worship.
  • She admits she has had five husbands and is currently living with a man who is not her husband.
  • We don’t know her name, her age, or what she looks like.

She never admits any sinfulness and never asks for forgiveness, nor does Jesus offer any. As for her marital status, the Lutheran David Lose writes, “She very easily could have been widowed or abandoned or divorced (which in the ancient world was all pretty much the same thing for a woman). Five times would be heartbreaking but not impossible. Further she could now be living with someone that she was dependent on in what was called a Levirate marriage, where a childless woman is married to her deceased husband’s heir yet is not always technically considered the brother’s wife. There are any number of ways that this woman’s story may be tragic rather than scandalous.”

The previous conversation Jesus had (in John last week!) was with Nicodemus.  Nicodemus is a man, a leader of the Jews, but he comes to Jesus at night. The writer Karoline Lewis says, “Nicodemus lasts all of nine verses in his conversation with Jesus before fading into the night from which he came. The Samaritan woman ….meets Jesus at noon in full daylight. Whereas Nicodemus is unable to move beyond the confines of his religious system, the Samaritan moves outside of hers and engages Jesus in theological debate. She hears the actual name of God when Jesus says, ‘I AM he.’ While Nicodemus’ last questioning words to Jesus expose his disbelief, ‘How can this be?’ the last words of the woman at the well lead her to witness to her whole town… She demonstrates what can happen when we actually engage in conversation and questions about our faith.”                                                                                                                                      

And when the Woman tells townspeople “he told me everything I ever did,” I think that what she means is that Jesus (to use the contemporary phrase) gets her.  He understands who she really is beneath the labels, acknowledges her good intentions, her mixed motives, the decisions she has had to make, the suffering she’s been through, the burdens she carries. And when she runs to the village, she simply tells her story and tells people to “come and see.” Not a heavy-handed “repent and believe!” message. Like John the Baptist, she points to Jesus yet (like Lady Gaga’s character in the movie), she is not even given a name by the writer of John’s Gospel.

The treatment of women was horrendous in the first century and earlier, but Jesus was their champion again and again, which often appalled his disciples. While he refuses to speak to the Sanhedrin, the powerful all-male council in Jerusalem, the weeping women of Jerusalem reach out to him as he made his way up Golgotha, and he speaks to them. Women were the first to learn of the resurrection, were steadfast at the foot of the cross, full partners in the early church and not banned from leadership until the 4th century. Yet the Roman church seems to see nothing but their sexuality…And the ideal is Mary, the virgin. The fact that she is also a mother has taken some pretty creative theology.

On the other end of the Christian spectrum, the conservative preacher John Piper says: “The woman is a worldly, sensually-minded, unspiritual harlot from Samaria, a whore.” Another says, “Before this immoral woman could embrace the Savior, she had to concede the full burden of her sins and be forgiven.” There is still the tendency to classify women in polarities: as a goddess or a whore, Eve or Mary. Jesus saw more in women.

Things may be better now in this country, as justice was dispensed in the trial of Harvey Weinstein, but still domestic abuse, rape, and sexual trafficking is practiced routinely. Just as rape is motivated by power and violence more than sexuality, historically, men have been terrified of women’s sexuality and they have strived to control it at all costs. According to the U. N. Office on Drugs and Crime, a total of 87,000 women were intentionally killed in 2017, more than half by intimate partners or family members. This means that 137 women across the world are killed by a member of their own family every day. 

The Samaritan’s woman’s water jar could be a symbol of unrelenting drudgery, of the necessity to attach yourself to a man to survive, of being a vessel whose emptiness has to be filled up by men’s bodies and validation. 

Rather than let our traumas define us, what would you leave behind in your water jar at Jacob’s well? Spiraling anxiety, an unfulfilling relationship, a past wound, grief, guilt or a generalized sadness? Maybe your fear as the world faces a pandemic?  

Finally, a word about water. Perhaps another reason for why this story is set at noon, is that it is the time when Jesus was crucified (by the Romans, not the Jews) and says, as he does here, basically, “I thirst.”

So do we. 

Water always finds the lowest point. Maybe the water that God in Jesus gives us also finds our lowest point, goes directly to our original wound, that hurt or inadequacy that we spend so much energy trying to heal, and have for years. There are a million ways we try to use substitutes for this divine approval and to try and make sure our damage is not seen.

Once we are heard and understood and accepted, once we have a deep need satisfied, we can somehow relax by letting go of the pretense. Known as “the Sarcastic Lutheran,” the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber writes, “I think living water found a crack in the Samaritan woman’s defenses and trickled down to her lowest point, her deepest wound, her greatest need, and she finally exhaled.” And maybe, she can love again, especially herself. Maybe she will be less afraid of the future. If she had stayed at the well longer, she would probably have heard the words of Jesus that echo through the ages, “Be not afraid.” 

We will continue to be the church and help each other as we go through the days ahead and, collectively, we will prevail, as we have for 2000 years. Amen.

Sources:

Nadia Bolz-Weber, Sarcastic Lutheran, March 21, 2017.

Lady Gaga (composer), “I’ll Never Love Again,” A Star Is Born, Warner Brothers Productions, 2018.

Robert Hoch, Commentary on John 4:5-42, Working Preacher, 1984.

Karoline Lewis, Commentary on John 4:5-42, Working Preacher,

 David Lose, “Leaving It All Behind,” Working Preacher, March 17, 2014.

Nancy Rockwell, “The Bite in the Apple, “2017. Textweek.