“Could he possibly be the Messiah?“
– John 4:29
My Dear Friends in Christ,
We talked on Ash Wednesday about WHY we pray. It is part of the tradition of Lent that Jesus Himself gave to us of prayer and fasting and almsgiving. More than simply telling us to pray, we learned that this season is about renewing our relationship with God, who seeks to be with us, to draw us close, to remind us of who God is and how God works: that EVEN NOW, no matter where we are or what we’ve done, no matter how distant we’ve become or how angry we feel, EVEN NOW, God seeks us out. God seeks us out to build and grow that friendship, recognizing each of us as a beloved daughter or son.
Then on the First Sunday of Lent, with Jesus being tempted in the desert, we learned that prayer helps us to fight temptation by reminding us of who we are. Satan tempts Jesus most insidiously by trying to get Jesus to doubt; doubt His relationship with our heavenly Father; doubt His ability to fulfill the mission entrusted to him by the Father; doubt His willingness to suffer all that will come and remain faithful. The only way Jesus can fight these temptations is to maintain and strengthen His relationship with God. Prayer helps us to do that.
And then last week, we saw that relationship confirmed in the Transfiguration of Jesus. This is my beloved son. The glory of God, God’s awesome power, God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm, the brilliance of God’s love all shining palpably through the humanity of Jesus. In this gift, even misunderstood, Peter comes to realize that It is good that we are here. This mountain-top moment when God’s Presence is undeniable is to strengthen Peter and James and John to face those times God seems distant or absent.
And now, let’s take a look at what we do in prayer, to pray, and how we pray.
It’s out of the way, and, in fact, it’s anathema for any good Jew: Samaria, the town of Sychar, Jacob’s well. You see Jews hated Samaritans (and vice versa!) and had for almost a thousand years. The Kingdom of Israel was originally made up of all the twelve tribes of Israel, each tribe founded by one of the twelve sons of Jacob. The kingdom reached its zenith under King Solomon, the son of King David but split along political lines after that into the northern kingdom, Israel, and the southern kingdom, Judah. The animosity between the Jews (inhabitants of the Judah, the southern kingdom) and Israelites began immediately after the division, as Samaria was the capital city of the northern kingdom. Later, after Israel’s fall to the Assyrians, they began to intermarry with the Assyrians which is why the Jews hated the Samaritans as “dogs,” or “half-breeds.”
Jesus is on his way home from Judea to Galilee. Since the Jews (good ones at least) avoided Samaria, they would go far out of the way to go around Samaria, bypassing the whole region. Jesus takes the more direct route and passes through Samaria, not because He’s lazy but because, as we’ll see, He has a mission. Even still the trek home was a three day walk in the hot sun. John tells us in the Gospel that it is the sixth hour. If the first hour was at sunset, then the 6th hour was roughly around noon, lunchtime, and the hottest part of the day. Since it’s lunch time, Jesus and the Apostles stop for a break at Jacob’s Well. Jacob’s Well was a popular watering hole (get it?!) and locals came to get their daily supply of water and to see their friends and catch up on the town gossip. The Apostles leave Jesus to go get some food. Unusual that they all go, but Jesus has a plan. At noon, the well was pretty much devoid of activity; most got their water earlier in the day or later in the evening, when it was cooler, avoiding the high heat and the penetrating sun. Thus, Jesus comes to be sitting alone at the well at the sixth hour. But he is not alone for long.
A woman comes to draw water?? Why would she be there at the heat of the day?? To do the backbreaking work of filling a large jug and then carrying it home?? She’s there because she knows that no one else will be there. You see, she’s a woman, strike one in Jesus’s day. She’s a Samaritan; strike two and, as we’ll come to see, she is a great and very public sinner, flouting the rules about marriage and what’s important, the butt of people’s jokes. It’s not surprising, then, that she comes at noon because she knows that no one else will be there. She wants to slink in, get her water, and then slink back out, avoiding the locals and their harsh judgment. Even more devastating is that perhaps, she thinks they are right.
She must have been upset then, to see Jesus there, foiling her plan. Then, she’s startled, even shocked as Jesus begins to speak to her. Anyone of her strikes would prevent others from engaging with her, let alone all three. But not Jesus. Jesus puts aside social convention, judgment, and prejudice to engage her.
“Give me a drink.” – It’s one of my favorite scripture passages (although in context it’s not as funny as a standalone line!). He doesn’t castigate her, ignore her, berate or disdain her. He doesn’t talk theology or esoterica above her reasoning or beyond her situation in life. He doesn’t talk about the weather or ask about her family. He doesn’t talk about the latest movie or asked if she’s read the new bestseller. Jesus cuts through everything else and engages the woman where and as she is. She isn’t ready to discuss the important things; she doesn’t know let alone trust Jesus. He knows this, so He starts with something simple. Whatever the case, Jesus simply asks her to give Him a little bit of what she has in great abundance.
You can imagine her being somewhat torn: angered that her plan for an anonymous strike has been foiled but also a sense of joy that someone is engaging her, perhaps only because he doesn’t know who she is. She leaves both behind and focuses on the question at hand. She answers with what she has learned, both from history and from her own life: “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” And so, it begins. From this inauspicious beginning, the dialogue continues, allowing an encounter with Jesus. But, much like the infomercials of the 1980s, Jesus tells her: Wait, there’s more. Jesus is offering much, much more than He’s asking for; Jesus offers her living water that she’ll never thirst again. As it often happens, at least with me, she thinks too small about His offer. She only wants the living water so that she never has to come back to this well again and avoid the people completely. But again, “Wait there’s more!” Jesus wants something more, something so much greater FOR her than anything He is asking FROM her.
Although somewhat stylized and brief, this back and forth represent that Jesus engages her, puts Himself in relationship with her, continues to answer questions and to draw her closer and more deeply into relationship with Him. He wants her to know Him and to trust Him, to know that He loves her even as she is known by Him. This is not some casual encounter, or some idle banter. Jesus is at work deepening bonds of friendship and love and trust that will allow God to work with her, for her, and then THROUGH her for others. Only when Jesus has established a relationship with, only once He has her trust, only once she knows of His care for her does he delve daintily into what was most likely in the forefront of her mind with Jesus and with anyone else she meets, what is certainly for the local yokels her defining element, her sinfulness.
Go call your husband. It is only once they are in relationship that Jesus moves forward to what everyone else would have considered front and center: her sinfulness. In the same way that Jesus did not allow social standing, political ideology or historic animosity to stand in his way of reaching this woman, neither, will he allow her sinfulness to stand in his way of his offering and her accepting God’s love. Jesus wants to free her from that sinfulness, free her from those limitations, liberate her from accepting the judgement of others in favor of God’s judgement for her.
Jesus doesn’t want to forgive her only to stop her from sinning. He wants to liberate her from the burden of sin, help her to know the delight God takes in her and help her to become the woman she wants to be. And this is ultimately what Jesus teaches her.
“I am he, the one speaking with you.” Jesus did not come merely to engage her nor merely to forgive her, so that she can move on with her life. Jesus wants something so much greater for her, even greater than she imagines or even thinks possible. Whatever her situation, whatever led her to struggle, whatever her state of mind or heart or life, Jesus comes to her to let her know that God is close, that God wants to be with her, to delight in her, to help her, to strengthen her. Jesus teaches by His Presence and by His words that God loves and cares and has a plan that God comes to us, that we are not alone. Through His searching her out as she seeks to avoid everyone, through His engaging her when no one else would bother, through His challenges for her, through His address of her sins, through His forgiveness, Jesus has taught her how close God is, that to recognize Jesus as the Messiah is to worship in spirit and in truth. To worship in spirit and in truth, truly to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, is a life changing thing, accepting the truth of God’s love for us and allowing God’s Spirit of love to reign in our hearts and in our lives. And this is ultimately why Jesus comes to the woman and what Jesus does for her.
Jesus has come, engaged her, forgave her and taught her also so that she could share God’s love. Immediately following their conversation, the woman leaves her water jug and runs into town to the very people she was avoiding earlier. And she begins to preach. She doesn’t quote scripture, spout theology, expound philosophy, or teach morals. She simply shares her experience and invites the people to do the same. “Come see a man who told me everything I have done.”
You can almost imagine their indignation as she begins to speak to them. Who the heck does she think she is? What right does she have to tell us anything? Rather than avoid it, or hide it, or dance around, the woman begins her testimony with her sinfulness. She hadn’t fooled Jesus or hid anything. Like those townspeople, Jesus knew her and her sinfulness. But his response was not like theirs. She’s not sure what has happened, but she knows that something, everything has changed. She can’t explain it, she can’t define. She can only ask a question “Could he possibly be the Christ?” And those listening, they who know her and have judged her by her sinfulness sense that something is different. Her words, her witness, is so powerful that even despite her being a very poor and disreputable carrier, the message is received, and they go out to encounter Jesus on their own.
And this is what we do when we pray. Prayer is not about getting something, or even getting something out of it. We simply need to offer to Christ a little of what we have, not water but time and energy and attention and effort. And Jesus will do the rest. Concentrate only on the time and effort, the attention and energy, the openness and vulnerability that you offer to God. Prayer is an offering you make to God. Sure, we can ask for what we want, but when we will only accept a particular outcome, we limit God. Remember the woman only wanted water but she got freedom in this life and a shot at eternity. God had much bigger plans for her, bigger than even a lifetime supply of water or indoor plumbing to bring it to her. This is why, when we pray, we need only remember this Gospel and how Jesus does all of the work.
Jesus comes. TO YOU.
Jesus is seeking you out and wants to come to you. All that you need to do is be available. All you have to do is be available, open, vulnerable. Easy but not necessarily comfortable, Good but not nice. We need to be passive before the Lord, allow space to encounter Christ. Spend time being passive before the Lord. But, if you are anything like me, it is difficult to be passive, and I find myself having to work very hard to set the stage of my mind and heart to be passive.
Jesus engages. YOU.
Jesus not only comes but engages her, meets her where she is, as she is and then talks to her on her level. Notice that Jesus does not solve her problems or provide her with a reading list. He engages her though, answers her questions, deepens the conversation and allows faith to grow. In fact, some of the answers Jesus gives raises new but more important questions for her: “Could he possibly be the Christ?” In engaging us, as with the woman at the well, Jesus is not castigating us nor, at the other end of the spectrum, simply seeking our comfort or making everything nice. Jesus does not attack, does not judge, does not confront her. The encounter is about inviting us to know and to share God’s love, about leading us to experience that love in the forgiveness of sins and in the joy of God’s mercy. Jesus wants each of us to recognize ourselves as God does, a beloved child in whom God is well pleased. And how does Jesus engage us today, what he did in person with the woman at the well. Jesus engages us through sacred scripture where we hear the words that Jesus used. Jesus engages us through the teachings of the Church that challenge us to recognize in ourselves and one another the dignity of a child of God. Jesus engages us through books and art and science, stirring questions in our minds, feelings in our hearts, calling us to live and reach more deeply. Jesus even engages now through the news, positive or negative, that can help us question what we think and accept for norms and givens.
Jesus teaches. YOU.
Jesus does not teach some dull theology or inscrutable philosophy. Rather Jesus teaches us about Himself, how close God is, how much God loves us and how close God wants us. Jesus teaches us of revelation, of who He is and how God works. And, Jesus teaches us about forgiveness.
Jesus forgives YOUR SINS.
Jesus did not simply get the woman to stop sinning to make her an upstanding citizen. Jesus wants the same for you, even if you aren’t looking for it or don’t think it’s possible. In grace and with mercy Jesus wants you to know God’s goodness for all, of God’s delight in you. Jesus wants you to be healed and to help you recognize your own worth.
Jesus sends YOU.
All other things lead up to the woman’s going back into town. Jesus comes not simply to make good little sheep but people of boldness, joy, excitement, courage, to be someone who is palpably changed, substantially different. Jesus doesn’t want us to quote scripture, spout theology, expound philosophy, or teach morals. God simply asks us to share our experience with Jesus and then invite other people to do the same. “Come see a man who told me everything I have done.” It is God who will give us the right things to say and the ability to be convincing, despite our being an unreliable witness.
Saint Thérèse of Lisieux once called prayer “a surge of the heart, a simple look turned towards heaven…” a cry of recognition and of love embracing both trial and joy. Thérèse was an amazing saint. She died at only 24 but was recognized even in her own day as a saint. She entered the convent at only 17, wanting to be a priest. She never traveled further than a few miles from her home yet wanted to be a missionary. She wanted to go out and do great things for God but was limited by her health. It was through her prayer, her turning over both trial and joy, indeed her whole life to God that she was able to realize the delight God took in her, where she was, as she was. He revealed to her what she called the Little Way, to stand and bloom where you are planted, to see in every task, every duty an opportunity to serve God and to do so joyfully. Only possible but eminently doable with God’s help.
And this is what we pray for Dawn and Jen and Liz in just a moment, that they, too, can meet God, that they, too, can encounter Christ, that they, too, can know forgiveness and not be limited by sin, that they can be sent out as effective preachers of the gospel, announcing their experience of God’s love and forgiveness. In just a minute, we’ll pray for them, asking God to help them remember their sinfulness but, as with the woman, remembering that sinfulness only to offer forgiveness and love. That will come in a sacramental way in the waters of baptism.
Take some time this week, to reflect on our Gospel. Seek the presence of God. Remember that any time, all time you give to prayer is good, a gift to God. Don’t be stymied by distraction but keep remembering that Jesus comes TO YOU. Jesus seeks to engage YOU. Jesus wants to forgive YOUR SINS. Jesus teaches YOU. Jesus sends YOU OUT to share the good news of YOUR EXPERIENCE of God and God’s love FOR YOU. Be like the woman at the well, courageous and bold, simple and convincing in preaching Jesus Christ and the living water God seeks to give. You won’t be sorry. Rather, concentrate on offering something to God. Even now.
Use what I call the 7/7 rule: Take 7 minutes each day over the next 7 days to pray. Objectively, it’s not a long time and surely you can find it. Spend the first minute telling God where you are, and the last-minute asking God for what you need. But leave the 5 minutes in between for God. Allow God to delight in you, strengthen you. I guarantee you that God will make use of the time you offer if you can focus on your offer rather than the reward. Together, let us pray for one another and for all those who will come to encounter Christ during this Lent. Pray that, through the intercession of Saint Joseph they might be cared for and watched over by the God who loves us and draws us close.