Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, March 15, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

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

Last Sunday, March 8, was International Women’s Day, a day with roots in early 20th century social and labor movements seeking safe working conditions, voting rights, and equality for women. One would think that, 109 after the first observance, this would be a day to celebrate all that we have accomplished, the gains women have made in pay and advancement. Sadly, we still have far to go. Last Sunday, violence broke out in Islamabad, Pakistan, as women marchers chanting “my body, my choice” were pelted with stones and other objects by hardline Islamist men. In Kyrgyzstan, women were attacked and then they were arrested for organizing a protest march. Istanbul marchers were turned back by police and many protesters in Chile were arrested.

Later in the week, women around this country gasped in relief as a powerful man, Harvey Weinstein, received a 23-year sentence for rape and sexual violence. Accustomed as we are to slaps on the wrist for such crimes, this came as a welcome change in the way justice is meted out for crimes against women.  No one can deny that women have come a long way since the first International Women’s Day in 1911. But in so many ways, we still have a long way to go.

I think the Samaritan woman in John’s gospel should have an International Women’s Day march in her honor. Much has been made of her five husbands and what a disgraceful woman she must have been, but let’s get one thing straight right here at the outset: in 1st century Palestine, women had few rights. They were literally given in marriage and discarded unceremoniously if they displeased their husband or failed to provide an heir or if he just decided to trade her in on a younger model. If this Samaritan woman had five husbands, it says less about her character than it does about the culture and time in which she lived. And yet somehow Jesus’s words to her about her five husbands have been twisted to make her a prostitute, a harlot, a woman of ill repute. As if she had much say in the matter.

It’s rather tragic that this meeting with the Samaritan woman has been taken to say more about the kind of woman she was rather than the radical encounter that it is. Everything about the culture of the time conspired against this ever even happening! Jesus speaking to a Samaritan, and a woman at that, is astonishing. The Samaritans were viewed as illegitimate heirs of God’s promise, their blood and genetic code mingled with that of invaders from centuries before, their worship not in the right place. Faithful Jews travelling from Galilee down to Jerusalem would actually cross to the eastern side of the Jordan River in order to avoid going through Samaria. And men simply did not speak with women who were not their immediate family. It just wasn’t done, but here Jesus is, asking for a drink from the ancient well of Jacob. This meeting at the well is something of an inside joke to 1st century Jewish listeners: whenever this motif appears in the Hebrew Scriptures, it’s about a couple meeting for the first time who will later marry, like Isaac (or his servant standing in for him) and Rebekah or Jacob and Rachel. Funny how John turns it on its head to make it about Jesus and a woman with more than one husband, putting a new spin on an old tale.

The woman is alone, drawing water in the heat of the day rather than the cool of morning or evening when the rest of the women came. It is generally claimed that she is an outcast because of her marital status, or lack of it, but I wonder, given the widely held belief at the time that people who are cursed with a series of unfortunate events are also cursed by God (cf. Job), maybe the women of the village were afraid that her luck would rub off on them. Whether she had been widowed or divorced multiple times – both of which robbed her of status – and living with a man to whom she wasn’t married, probably in order to simply survive, these calamities placed her on the outside of social acceptability, shunned not because of any sexual proclivities, but simply because life had dealt her a raw deal more than once, and she was beaten down, robbed of dignity, isolated from polite society, likely through no fault of her own.

Can’t you just see her, bent over, hauling the heavy water jar down to the well, trying to avoid contact with those who rejected her, hot and sweaty under the midday sun? It was a job she had to do, or risk dying of thirst. So she came, and there met Jesus, who asked for some water. She doesn’t understand why this man, this Jew, would even speak to her, much less accept a sip of water from her. And then follows a conversation, much like the one between Nicodemus and Jesus that we heard last week, in which their signals keep getting crossed. She’s all excited about setting down her water jar for good when Jesus promises living water, yet Jesus is talking about something completely different, something to quench more than just parched thirst, something to bring life to the good-as-dead. 

What follows the dialogue about her husbands is the next truly radical thing about this passage from John – Jesus actually claims that Jerusalem will no longer be the center of the religious universe. Jerusalem and the temple were the sun around which all Jewish life revolved, and here Jesus claims that worship there or on Mt. Gerazim where the Samaritans worshipped would no longer be necessary. All people – insiders and outsiders, as well – would worship in spirit and in truth. Where that happened would no longer be important. I imagine if the Pharisees and temple authorities had been around to hear that, the crucifixion would have come sooner rather than later.

All of this revolutionary activity in this text that we’ve covered so far really pales in comparison with what comes next. This unnamed Samaritan woman becomes the first apostle in John’s gospel. An apostle is a messenger, and in her excitement to tell the people of the village about this Jesus who knew everything about her, she left her water jar behind and ran into the village shouting at the top of her lungs to whomever was around to listen. “Could this be the one we have been waiting for?” And they listened to her.  This woman who was not even welcome to join the women on their daily chore of bringing up water from the well said “come and see,” and they came and saw. 

It is along about here that we might realize that John has played a trick on us. Last week, we heard the story of Nicodemus, a religious leader who, because of the signs Jesus had been doing, came under cover of darkness and who, presumably, left under cover of darkness, repeating his conversation to no one. (If you missed last week or even if you didn’t, I invite you to read John 3:1-17 and then read this story again. The irony will be unmistakable.) This week, we have an unnamed woman who meets Jesus in the middle of the day having heard nothing about signs and wonders and with no theological education, and yet her life is changed simply by the encounter. She can hardly contain herself as she goes to tell this Good News! The smart, successful, well-educated and well-off leader doesn’t get it, but this poor, rejected, worn out woman does. 

And whereas Jesus is pretty hard on Nicodemus, he is patient and completely without judgment with this Samaritan woman. He sees someone with nothing to lose, not even a name. He sees someone who is thirsty for more than just water; someone in need of acceptance, identity, mercy. How have we allowed this to be made about her sinfulness? Jesus never says anything to her about sin or repentance. He offers her “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (4:14)!

Much as Mary Magdalene – the first apostle of the resurrection – has been painted as a prostitute or fallen woman, so it is with this woman of Samaria. The church has been quite good at moralizing about the behavior of women when, as often as not, women haven’t had the status or privilege to defend themselves or to set their own course. Sadly, some things haven’t changed very much. Just read the news accounts of last Sunday’s violence against women around the world.  

Women are often “the marginalized of the marginalized,”[1] in our world, and until we, the Church, make it our business to protect and love and heal women and girls, to stop allowing scripture to be used to reinforce negative images about women, are we really offering living water?

To whom are we offering this living water, this Good News? There is a world filled with people dying of thirst for the love and acceptance and mercy that Jesus showed the Samaritan woman. And we, each one of us, are called to quench their thirst with God’s love. We have living water that a pandemic cannot corrupt, that hate cannot destroy. Now, more than ever, we need to offer this water to all who are thirsty.

This sermon and the entire Morning Prayer liturgy were recorded and may be found here. The sermon begins at approximately 27:40.

[1] John Garang, quoted by Moses Deng Bol, Lenten Meditations 2014. Episcopal Relief and Development, p. 20.

ASEPSermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, March 15, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas