Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, March 12, 2023 – The Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas

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(Exodus 17:1-7)+Psalm 95+Romans 5:1-11+John 4:5-42

Wednesday of this week was International Women’s Day. Everywhere I looked on the news or social media, people were praising the women in their lives or those they look up to. Even at our vestry meeting on Wednesday evening, we began by talking about women whose names we wanted to share on this particular day, and we prayed for them and for all who identify as women.

Out of curiosity, I Googled this day, which was first observed in 1911, 112 years ago. I was stuck by the description that it is (and I quote) “a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating women’s equality.” And that is great, truly. We should celebrate the progress women have made while continuing to seek full equality.

There is, however, something that makes me a little uncomfortable about the purpose of this day, because it is so achievement focused. “The social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women.” It isn’t that there is something wrong about that. It’s just that we are more than our achievements.

As the vestry and I were talking about the women who meant something to us, it wasn’t about their achievements, it was about how they made or still make us feel, the joy and love we share with them for who they are, not what they do or have done.

All of this was swirling around in my mind as I approached the very familiar story of the Samaritan woman who met Jesus at a well. The Jews and Samaritans were cousins, torn apart by conflict about the proper place to worship God, and many self-respecting Jews would skirt around Samaria in their travels to avoid coming into contact with the residents there. But not Jesus. He was trying to get from Judea to Galilee, and the closest route was straight through Samaria, and that is the route he took.

He encounters a woman at a well in the center of town. In the Hebrew scriptures, a well is a meeting spot for potential mates, so this story must have come as quite a surprise to those listening. And if meeting at a well was not sufficiently shocking, Jesus actually speaks to this woman.

It has long been the custom to interpret this unnamed woman through the lens of shame. Her shame. Five husbands. Living with a man not her husband. Coming to the well in the middle of the day unlike the rest of the women who collect water before the sun is up or after it has gone down. And yes, we can logically infer that this woman is on the outside of polite society. But there is nothing in the text that tells us that, and there could be perfectly good reasons why she has had five husbands under the rules of Levitical marriage or is living with someone who is not. But we attach shame to her anyway.

Sociologist and renowned speaker Brené Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love, belonging, and connection…Shame is the fear (she writes) of disconnection. Given that we’re physically, emotionally, cognitively, and for many of us, spiritually, hard-wired for connection, love, and belonging, and it’s why we’re here, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, think about how powerful shame is, because it’s the fear of disconnection, it’s the fear that we’ve done something or failed to do something. We haven’t lived up to an ideal, or we haven’t accomplished a goal that makes us worthy of connection. ‘I’m not worthy or good enough for love, belonging, or connection’.”

This does not sound to me like the woman Jesus meets at the well. She does not shrink from his questions or run to hide. She carries on a conversation that sounds confident, like a dialogue among peers.

The Orthodox Church gives this woman a name, Photini, and a story about conversion and baptism and martyrdom under the cruel emperor, Nero. Whether there is any truth to this tale of her life after the encounter with Jesus, it’s a story that elevates her because of her achievements.

I prefer to imagine her as a woman whose life was changed not because of anything she did, but because of this conversation with Jesus, the longest recorded conversation he had with anyone. She wasn’t fully convinced but had seen and heard enough to ask the question, “Could this…might this actually be the one we’ve been waiting for? The Messiah?” And because of her willingness to wonder out loud about this Jesus, many others believed.

So, maybe we are a few days late, but we can still offer this Samaritan woman as one to be celebrated on International Women’s Day, not because she achieved great things, but because she showed up, did not hide herself, and was open to the possibility that this random encounter might just change her life.

I will say it once again, it isn’t that there is anything wrong with achievements and progress for women. But so often, failing to achieve or thrive or be successful is a source of shame that has us scrambling to cover it up or ignore it, and it all separates us from deep and authentic relationship. Jesus does not ask for us to do anything or to be anyone other than who we are. Jesus just invites us to come to the well, to show up, and to drink deeply from the living water he is offering us.



allsaintsadminSermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, March 12, 2023 – The Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas