Set Free By Jesus

Woman at the Well, African Mafa

The following sermon was given on the 3rd Sunday of Lent at St. John’s, Wiiliamstown.

John’s gospel is filled with powerful one-liners.

  • “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
  • “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
  • “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

The key line in today’s gospel is, “It was about noon.” There are a couple of reasons why. Let’s explore them.

In the summer of 2015, I had the great blessing to be among a group of bishops who brought college students to North Carolina to study the Civil Rights Movement and to visit places where liberating history was made – places like Greensboro and Selma. Bishop Michael Curry, now our Presiding Bishop, was the bishop of North Carolina at that time and he was our gracious host. The schedule was very full and one day I did not have time for my early morning run. The only free time was lunch – at noon. So, I ran in the 90 degree heat. At the end of my run I was drenched and breathing in gasps. Michael Curry saw me, gave me a quizzical look and said, “Brother, do you know you are in North Carolina…at noon…in July?”

Why was the Samaritan woman, carrying a large bucket, coming to draw water from a well at noon time in the Middle East? In the culture of that time, women would have the responsibility of getting water for the family, but they would have done it early in the morning to avoid the midday heat. This woman goes at noon to avoid the other women. She has been married five times and is now living with someone not her husband. Now we don’t know if her husbands died or abandoned her. We do know that in those times a woman was sure to live in poverty unless she was in relationship with a man. The Samaritan woman does not want to be with others because she is ashamed and/or marginalized. Hence, she goes at a time when no one will be at the well. But at the end of her encounter with Jesus, her life will be transformed. This woman who was avoiding others will go to the city and tell everyone she meets about Jesus. She will go from isolation to community. She will go from silence to proclamation. The Bible does not tell us her name, but the Eastern Orthodox gave her one. They revere her as an Apostle and call her Photini which means “Enlighted One.” The Eastern Orthodox point out that up until this moment in John’s Gospel, all the apostles were bringing in one person each to see Jesus. Andrew went and got Peter. Philip went and got Nathaniel. But Photini, she got a whole city to follow Jesus.

How did that happen? What changed her?

Clearly it was the encounter with Jesus but the very fact that it happened at all tells us something about Jesus. Jesus seeks out those who are feeling lost. Let me give you an example from Mark’s Gospel. Now in preaching you are not supposed to draw examples from different gospels than the one you are preaching on, so don’t tell the bishop. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is constantly traveling. At least 17 different cities are mentioned by name. This one day he goes “to the other side of the sea” to the country of the Gerasenes. A man possessed by an unclean spirit, living among the tombs, comes running out. He shouts out at Jesus. In a highly dramatic scene Jesus throws the unclean spirit out of him and heals him. Jesus sends him out of the tombs and tells him “Go home to your friends.” He restores the outcast to his community. Then Jesus gets back into the boat and goes back across the sea.

Now I have been reading these stories about Jesus for a very long time. And I never noticed until this year that Jesus went all the way across the Sea of Galilee and back for one suffering person. He did not stay there and launch a preaching mission to the people of the Gerasenes. The suffering man didn’t just happen to be on Jesus’ travel route to somewhere else. Jesus intentionally made the trip for one person in pain.

Before he goes to the well in the city of Sychar, he is in Judea at a river where people are getting baptized. Jesus had to walk about 30 miles from that river where he had “abundant water” according to our text, to a desert town where water was scarce. The Bible is clear. When Jesus got to the well, “about noon,” he was “tired out by his journey.” But he did it for one person in need. You see Jesus takes his own story to heart about the Good Shepherd who leaves the 99 to pursue the one who is lost. And on those days when we feel lost, Jesus will find us. Just as Psalm 23 says “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death”…”goodness and mercy shall pursue me, shall chase after me, shall hunt me down.”

At the well, Jesus meets a woman defined by labels. “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” She is defined by her history of the five husbands and her present situation. Jesus breaks through all that. He essentially tells her his place of worship is not better than her place of worship. And he gives her the gift of acceptance. Jesus knows her story and accepts her for who she is. And this is what causes her to believe in him as the savior. Because he just became her savior. With no spectacular miracles. No water changed into wine. No feeding 5000 people with a few fish and loaves. Just acceptance of her as a person – that’s what salvation looks like. Maybe it could look like that for you and me.

My friend Rob Hirschfeld, for many years the rector of Grace, Amherst and now the bishop of New Hampshire, has a new book out called, Beyond Fear and Shame: From Adam to Christ. I highly recommend it. Reflecting on the book recently Rob said: “I find that the growing edge of our evangelism is to help people with their sense of shame, which I think is an almost universal experience. It can be debilitating and can really shackle us. I don’t think that is what God wants for us.” And “I define shame as that experience of not only having done something wrong, or that is perceived as wrong, but actually being something wrong. It is an existential emotion. It really gets to the core of our being.” And “I think Jesus is on a mission to get us beyond fear and shame.”

The Samaritan woman (or Photini, the enlightened one) leaves her water jar and goes back to the city, restored to the community. One commentator says in leaving the water jar behind, she is leaving her life of abandonment, rejection, marginalization and shame. She is set free by Jesus.

Now I promised you a few minutes ago, at the start of this sermon, there were a couple of reasons why “at about noon” was the key line in this gospel passage.  Here is another. There is only one other place in John’s Gospel where something happens “at about noon.” John’s Gospel is 21 chapters long so you can read the whole gospel and find it. Or you can google it and you will find it in chapter 19 verse 14.At this point in the story Jesus has been arrested, interrogated by the High Priests and handed over to the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate. Pilate has Jesus flogged and mocked by the soldiers. “It was about noon” when Pilate condemns Jesus to death by crucifixion.

The Gospel writer John wants us to get the contrast. At about noon, condemnation of the Son of God by a human being. At the well, about noon, acceptance of a human being by God.

Not only is John, drawing the stark contrast, he is pointing us to the cross. As he does throughout his Gospel. So let’s reflect about what happens at the Cross. You might be thinking “if he does that, this sermon will end about noon.” No, I’m bringing it home. I promise.

You might have heard of the “Seven Last Words” that Jesus says from the Cross. They are scattered among the four gospels. John’s account has three of those “last words.” The very last one is “It is finished.” But before “it is finished” Jesus has two incredibly important things to tell us. He is pushing off death to get these messages to us.

He looks at his beloved disciple and at Mary, his mother. Jesus says to the disciple “Here is your mother.” And to his mother “woman, here is your son.” In doing that Jesus fulfills his promise that he will never leave us orphans. He has given us to each other to care for as family. We are brothers and sisters to each other. And to immigrants and to the 23 million refugees around the world. And to the poor who are already suffering from climate change. And to the factory workers who have lost their jobs to automation. And to women who are harassed and abused. And to Democrats and Republicans. Before Jesus says “it is finished”, he hands over his great mission of mercy, compassion and hope to us. He left us that mission as his last will and testament.

Before “it is finished” Jesus has one more “word.” It is “I thirst.” That seems ironic after the gospel passage we just heard “those who drink of the water that I give them will never be thirsty again.” As all things in John’s gospel, this is intentional. Remember Jesus has already given away his mission to us. And maybe the mission is the water.

But there might be one more reason. Scripture has so many layers of meaning. There is only one other place in the whole Bible, where we hear “I thirst.” The whole Bible. The Bible contains 73 books, according to our tradition. We really need Google to find that other “I thirst.” It is in Psalm 69. It is cried out by a person who is suffering but who goes on to say “I will praise the name of God…you who seek God, let your hearts revive. For the Lord hears the needy.” You see, Jesus fulfills Scripture. He dies alone so none of us will ever die alone. We will have God with us. In death and in life. God will be true to the Covenant. God will never desert us no matter what. Jesus needed to tell us that before “it is finished.”

Jesus is finished. But his God and our God is not. The mission of mercy and compassion and hope has been handed on to us. And just as God raised Jesus from the dead, God will keep raising us up. After death and before. Just as Photino was raised up in the midst of her life. We have a hymn with these words: “Let the servant church arise. A caring church that longs to be a partner in Christ’s sacrifice, and clothed in Christ’s humanity. “May we go with God. It is finished. It is beginning. Amen.