RCL Year A, 3 Lent
This is not actually an attendance question, but how many of you were here last week? Do you remember Nicodemus in last week’s gospel? The powerful man of authority, sneaking in to Jesus under cover of night to find out if his suspicions can be proven, if Jesus really is the Messiah? Jesus doesn’t give him an easy time of it, rebuking him for his unbelief and confusing his literal mind with metaphor and symbol. Whether Nicodemus saw and understood at the end of that exchange, we don’t know – but he does show up at the end of the gospel, still a little furtive, but bringing rich spices and ointments to bury Jesus’ body. Somewhere along the way he seemed to get it, even if only quietly and a little late.
This week’s story at the well is almost an exact opposite of that one. It is not nighttime; it is high noon, the heat of the day. The person Jesus engages is not a religious man of authority; it is a woman, a Samaritan outsider, whose name we never hear. She too has a hard time seeing Jesus for who he is. But when she gets it, she really gets it – and runs off to become the first apostle to the Samaritans.
This is just about the most extended encounter Jesus has with a woman in all of scripture. Really it’s one of the most extended encounters he has with anyone. Maybe that’s why the story is so powerful – we get such a sense of who she is. She’s there at the well in the heat of the day; something has caused her to be excluded from her community, to want to avoid the other women who go to the well in the morning and evening when it is cool. She has had numerous marriages and relationships – perhaps ending in divorce and disgrace, perhaps ending in grief and widowhood, we don’t know. But whatever protection marriage should afford her in that culture has failed her, one way or another. Her life has been hard, tragic, and painful. And you can hear it in her tone as she addresses Jesus. Oh yeah, living water, huh? Sure, guy, give me some of that. Then I won’t have to keep coming here to draw water. Then I’ll finally be free of this drudgery, this endless hopelessness. This woman, it seems, has seen too much of life. She is bitter and jaded, and nothing good is going to come her way again.
Except it does. There sits Jesus, talking with her. Looking right at her and into her and knowing her. I am he – the one who is talking to you is the one you have been waiting for. And the second she sees that, everything changes for her. Off she runs, forgetting her chore and her water jug and the drink Jesus had asked for. She’s bubbling over with the good news, completely breathless and full of joy, running to all the people in her town she used to avoid to tell them about Jesus. Everything that up to this point has blinded her to God’s action in her life falls away, and she sees – and she can’t wait to bring that news to others. And she really does bring that news, because they all come running themselves to meet Jesus – they don’t stop to question her, because they can see how everything in her has changed. It’s an incredible story of hope and new life where before there was none.
So what’s the difference between this woman and Nicodemus? Why does she get it so quickly and readily and rush to share it with others, while he keeps doggedly asking his questions and trying to pin Jesus down? We aren’t quite given enough of their stories to know. Maybe it’s because the woman has been beaten down so far in life that she’s ready to embrace the change – whereas Nicodemus still has so much to lose if he takes the risk of following Jesus. Maybe by nature she’s readier to hope – all those marriages show some belief in the possibility of new beginnings, after all. For one reason or another, she knows her thirst. She knows what she lacks and what she needs, and she knows that she hasn’t found it anywhere else. She is ready to drop that water jar and really drink from the water Jesus is offering to her.
She’s an example of why the Beatitudes say, blessed are the poor. Blessed are those who know they need it. Because when things are going well with us, we don’t see why we should take a risk for the unknown, however wonderful the promise might be. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, as the proverb says; it’s only when we don’t have a bird in the hand that we are ready to step out. Then we’re ready to take the chance for the gift we’re being offered.
The thing is, we are all of us in this kind of need, all the time. We are empty and in need of that living water. It’s just that most of the time we delude ourselves and pretend we’re not. Most of the time we cushion ourselves with routines and comforts and reassurances and self-sufficiency. Everything’s fine, thanks. I’ll just stick with this little jug of water, clutching tight to this bird in my fist. We don’t want to acknowledge how bad it’s gotten, how much we need help in our lives. We don’t want to pay attention to the voice of loss inside of us. We don’t want to admit that the structures we’ve built to fortress ourselves are really houses of cards.
It’s something we need to be brought to, the realization of our need. That’s why we have this season of Lent, actually. We begin the season with the day of Ash Wednesday, receiving on our foreheads a smear of dirt and being reminded that we are dust, and will return to dust. For several weeks in a row we begin our worship first of all with confession, laying before God all the useless pointless stuff we’ve been up to so far today and hearing again God’s assurance of forgiveness and love. We kneel and pray and ask for help. It’s not to focus on our own wretchedness, or make us feel terrible about ourselves. It’s to remind us of the source of our life. Because other times, most of the time, we forget – we pretend we did it ourselves. And then we’re primed for it all to fall apart when the first ill wind blows.
In a few moments in this service we will offer our prayers, the prayers of our hearts for our needs and the needs of others and our world. It’s what we do before we turn to celebrate again the good news of God with us, in the Body and Blood of Christ; before we receive the gift that reminds us of God’s new life for us. Today I want to you really pray these prayers. I’m going to give you some time in silence first, to really summon up the needs and fears and worries and difficulties that are laying heavy on our hearts. I want you to really lay them out before God in your mind, like cards spread out on the table. And then we’re going to stand, first to remind ourselves of what our faith is based on, the essential basic statement of the creed, and then to pray together. And I mean really pray – not just to let the words wash over us, but to offer up our longings and needs. So that when we come to communion, we are ready – ready to receive the gift, ready to eat the bread and drink the wine and know the living water welling up within us.
It’s one way to practice knowing our thirst. Take some time now; take it throughout this week. Know your thirst – be ready to receive what God is giving you. A spring of water, gushing up to eternal life.