Third Sunday of Lent
February 27, 2005
The Gospel: John 4:5-42
Sermon: "The Woman at the Well"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
The Woman at the Well
Third Sunday of Lent - February 27, 2005
If I could choose one story from the Gospel to have with me at all times it is this story of the woman at the well. This story has so many themes and yet the center of the story can be stated in one word. That word is inclusion. Out of all of the stories of Jesus meeting people this one represents the meaning of inclusion the most accurately for our purposes. To comprehend the depth of this story we have to know some of the details about relationships in Samaria in Jesus' day. .
The first relationship is the one between Samaria and Jerusalem. The Samaritans and the Jewish people had a strong dislike for one another. They had a huge argument over religion centuries earlier. The Samaritans built a temple for worship in their own area. They believed God was everywhere and therefore, they could worship God in Samaria without traveling to Jerusalem. The Jewish people, particularly the leaders, believed true worship could only take place at the Temple in Jerusalem. The temple in Samaria was removed forcibly. As a result, the Samaritans were considered of a lower class than the Jewish people due to their religious belief.
Another custom of the day concerned relations between men and women. A Jewish man was not to talk to women strange to them on the streets. It was just not done. If a man did talk to a woman he did not know it was assumed the woman might be a prostitute. Or it was assumed the man was trying to start a relationship with a woman even though she may be married. Either way the relationship was wrong. So, a Jewish man did not talk to a woman on the streets.
Now, Jesus is talking to a Samaritan woman. Two rules are already being broken. And yet, there are more. A rabbi did not talk to women. They taught male students. Furthermore, this woman was known to be a sinner. She was coming to the well in the middle of the day. No one came to the well in the middle of the day. It was too hot. This woman came because she wanted to come to avoid the other women in town. Why did she avoid the women? She avoided because of her reputation. Her reputation was not good. Either she was a possible prostitute or she had a horrible time being married. The prostitution possibility is easy to understand. The other women in town would have no respect for a prostitute. Let's say she had actually been married five times. She would have been ostracized due to her failed marriages. In fact, she was living with a man now outside of matrimony. Either way, she was not very popular with at least a sizable portion of the community.
Yet, as this woman approaches the well, Jesus breaks every societal rule by beginning a conversation. In the course of the conversation Jesus offers her eternal life. She does not realize what he is offering, but he is offering the Holy Spirit. He offers her living water. If she receives this living water she will never thirst again. Jesus is offering her the opportunity to receive the Holy Spirit and be received into the kingdom of God.
However, she does not quite understand. She first believes he is talking about water, regular water. She does not understand how he is going to draw the water because he has no implements to help him. Then, he gets her attention. He asks her about her personal life. He asks about her husband. She admits she has no husband. Jesus confronts her about her five past husbands and then tells her she is currently living with another man. Jesus tells her all about her past and yet he does not condemn her. He doesn't agree with it. But he doesn't condemn her either. The woman must have been shocked. She knows everything he has said is true. Yet, she also knows he does not condemn her. Because he doesn't condemn her she goes to her town and tells them to come and see. The people hear her testimony and they go. Jesus is invited to stay and the town comes to believe.
In the Christian church we say that we believe in inclusion. Yet, do we mirror what Jesus did here? Some people, some individual churches, claim to be inclusive. Yet, they only include and welcome people that are like the members already in the pews. Everyone looks the same, talks the same and acts the same. That type of inclusion is a false inclusion. It is actually exclusion under the guise of the label inclusivity. In these institutions we see the token different person to show they are inclusive. "See here's Joe. He's different than we are. He doesn't look the same or act the same. He doesn't attend the same clubs or functions. We are inclusive."
Then we have the other group of inclusive people. They include everything and everyone. Yet, there is no accountability at all. "We want everyone to come as they are and stay as they are. Bring your sinfulness to this altar and leave with your sinfulness. There is no repentance. There is no redemption. There is just us. We have no need of redemption because Jesus died for our sins and as long as we believe in Jesus we have it made. So, it doesn't matter who or what you are." Now, let a member of this group hurt another member of this group and suddenly that person is on the outs. A person is in as long as they obey the unspoken rules of inclusion. That rule is to agree with what everyone else says and not hurt anyone present. This inclusion is also exclusive. It negates accountability and confrontation of one's own actions. If this was true, then Jesus would have no reason for asking the woman about her life or telling her about her behavior.
True inclusion is following the principles of this story. It is following the principles of our baptismal covenant. We promise in the covenant to respect the dignity of every human being. We also state that we believe in Jesus Christ. We state that we repent and return to the Lord. We proclaim we will turn away from the sin and evil of the world. Here we see acceptance and accountability. We see repentance and redemption. We see the recognition of our sinful behavior and the attempt to actually do something about it. Yes, we know we can not be perfect. Yes, we know we are going to fall short and sin again. The point is we try to live out our faith. Furthermore, we invite others to join in on the journey. If we are honest they do not have to be perfect first. They just have to be willing to try like everybody else. We all have to recognize we are sinful children of a loving God who comes to us and offers us living water. We are offered an eternal spring of living water to enrich our lives with God and with one another.
Today, we have one of the greatest stories before us. Jesus met the woman at the well and she was changed. She was changed so much she took the message to her own town and they were changed too. True inclusion brings change in everyone. It is not possible to stand before Christ, and not be changed. We can deny him and walk away. Or we can accept him and drink deeply from the water he offers. Either way we are changed. We are not perfect in either case, we are simply changed. Will we drink of the water Jesus offers or will we walk away? Jesus calmly waits for our reply.