holy cross sermon for the third sunday in lent, year a, march 23, 2014

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink,” you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’”

In last Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jesus said to Nicodemus: “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit,” (Jn. 3.5f). This Sunday’s Gospel reading takes us deeper into the mysterious metaphysics of water and spirit which the Lord introduces in these passages from John’s Gospel.

Here again today, we find Jesus speaking with an interlocutor about water and spirit: He comes to a city of Samaria, sits down beside a well, and there encounters a Samaritan woman coming to draw water. After asking her for a drink and being rebuffed, Jesus says to the Samaritan woman, “If you knew who I am, you would have begged me for drink, and I would have given you living water.” And a few verses later, Jesus says to the woman: “God is SPIRIT, and those who worship him must worship in SPIRIT and truth.”

Water and Spirit. And just a few verses after telling Nicodemus that he had to be reborn by water and the Spirit, as we heard in the Gospel last week. What is Jesus talking about?

Ultimately, the gospels are all about Jesus. This story too, is all about Jesus. And we, in our turn, with our lives, should be all about Jesus – the Son of God, who came to save us from the hell we make for ourselves without him.

This story of the Samaritan woman is fundamentally about her encounter with Jesus, with God incarnate. It is about a particular woman encountering God in his human particularity – the untapped and unknown wellspring of her fulfillment, the fountain of life-giving water who gently seeks to bring her to seek him, to recognize her unquenched thirst as a thirst for HIM. “…Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

This proposition sounds good to the Samaritan woman. She says, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.” But she is obviously thinking in a superficial way. She has not yet allowed herself to become spiritualized by this encounter with Jesus; she is not yet open to receiving what he has to offer, which is ultimately the same thing as who he is – Jesus is what he offers: his body as food, his blood as drink, a propitiatory and life-giving sacrifice and sacrament.

And how often do we do exactly the same thing as the woman at the well? We desperately want to think that our happiness will be found in some kind of material refreshment – if I just had another job, or if I just had more money, or a different spouse, or a spouse to begin with – sometimes we think that if I were just someone else, or if my circumstances were somehow different, then I would be happy, or at least happier – I would no longer have to come to the well to draw. So we spend our time running away from the person God has created us to be. We spend our time running around on the “wheel of fortune” – as those of you who have been coming to the Friday night Lenten program will recognize.

“Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.” And then we read what seems like a non-sequitur. Jesus says: “Go, call your husband, and come here.” But its not a non-sequitur. Jesus is resisting the Samaritan woman’s effort to make this encounter abstract and impersonal, which she keeps trying to do. Throughout their conversation, she keeps trying to retreat into abstractions. But Jesus keeps bringing her back to herself, to face the fact that her problem is not that she lacks something outside of herself. Her problem rather is that she keeps running away from this encounter with Jesus. She keeps trying to change the subject. And Jesus says, “No, its about you and me. You’ve had five husbands, and now you’re in a sexual relationship with someone to whom you are not married.”

This makes us a little uncomfortable. Imagine how the Samaritan woman must have felt. This kind of talk is not polite, and it proves pretty conclusively that Jesus could not have been an Episcopalian. You just don’t say things like that! The Samaritan woman tries again to change the subject, to retreat again into a more comfortable social propriety, into abstractions. “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” But Jesus brings her back to the here-and-now, to her and him: “Woman, the point is neither this mountain nor Jerusalem. And besides, you Samaritans don’t know what you’re talking about anyway. The hour is now. The Father seeks you NOW. He wants you to worship him honestly – in TRUTH – and as he is – in Spirit.”

The woman was probably breathing a sigh of relief that the conversation had finally veered safely away from her sexuality – she seems to think that she’s gotten the prophet’s attention off of her, and onto the subject of religion. But she’s wrong, and she’s about to realize it. Polite people usually aren’t supposed to talk about religion either, but it’s a lot better than having a conversation with a stranger about some of the finer points of your sexuality. The woman says “I know that Messiah is coming. Some day. And then he’ll reveal everything.” She thinks she’s talking about some point in the safe and distant future. SOME DAY everything will be cleared-up, and by then I will be long dead, and my sexuality and my disastrous personal life will remain unexamined and will be long forgotten.

But Jesus says to her with devastating clarity: “The time is now. I am he.” In the Greek language, in which John was written, Jesus says “Ego eimi…”. Ego eimi means I AM. It is the Name of the God of Israel. The same words used in the Greek version of the Old Testament when Moses asks God on top of Mount Sinai to tell him his name. God says to Moses, “Ego eimi.” I AM. And now this Samaritan woman, thinking she could safely push back her encounter with God and her need to take an honest look at her personal life in spirit and truth, she now finds herself standing face to face not just with a prophet, but with the Lord, with Ego Eimi himself.

So the woman left her water jar, and went away into the city, and told others about Jesus. Suddenly she realizes she has encountered the fountain of the waters of life, and so she drops her empty water jar, the sign of her vain quest for satisfaction, and she runs off to tell others about Jesus.

Commenting on this passage, St. Augustine notes that at the end of the story, the disciples show up and they “marveled that he was talking to a woman,” (v. 27). Augustine says that they marveled “That He was seeking her that was lost, He who came to seek that which was lost: they marveled at this.” This highlights two things: that this is the story of each of us. And that the great “marvel” is that God comes to each of us, who are lost in our own ways, to seek and to save us, to give himself to us. The great “marvel” is the mystery of the Incarnation.

“If YOU knew the gift of God, and who it is that speaks to YOU, you would ask him, and he would give you living water.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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One Response to holy cross sermon for the third sunday in lent, year a, march 23, 2014

  1. This combination of water and spirit is clarified somewhat later in Jn. 7:37-38, where Jesus tells those who “thirst” to come to him and receive rivers of living water; then 7:39 adds that Jesus was talking about the Spirit–the living water was a metaphor for the Spirit–which would be given to those believing in Jesus, after he was glorified (returned to the Father).
    Thus when Jesus talks about worship in Spirit and truth, he is talking about worship in “the Spirit of truth” (his favorite description of the Spirit in Jn. 14-16).

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