Third Sunday in Lent
Sunday, March 15, 2020
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester
Text: John 4:5-42
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
You may have heard that expression, incorrectly referred to as a Chinese curse, that goes like this: “May you live in interesting times.”
That could probably have been said of our times even before the current pandemic sweeping across the world introducing the new terms “Social Distancing” and “Flatten the Curve” and leading to the shocking shutdown of professional and collegiate athletic events, of schools and colleges, of professional and amateur musical concerts, of a whole range of other events and activities, and here today at Trinity causing us to forego Sharing the Peace, the Eucharist, cancelling Sunday School, Bible Studies, and Coffee Hour.
Indeed, we live in interesting, and scary, and uncertain times.
In times like these, I believe it’s important to strike the balance between too much and too little fear.
It’s been said fear can be helpful and necessary. Fear of a car accident might lead a senior to give up driving before deteriorating eyesight and slow reaction times lead to an accident; fear of dying by cancer might lead one to quit smoking; fear of dying by a heart attack might lead one to lose weight.
Healthy fear of this pandemic is important as it leads to actions of health. Ironically, it’s been said of these collective actions that if they are successful, it will seem like we overreacted. What’s the big deal? Nothing happened? Exactly! We pray these actions, as disruptive as they are, prevent avoidable infections and fatalities.
It’s too little or too much fear that is unhealthy. Too little fear leads people to act as if there is nothing to worry about causes the virus to spread. Too much fear, on the other hand, causes hysteria and panic that also produces needless and tragic results. There are reports that Asian-Americans are being physically attacked and blamed for the spread of the coronavirus. Perhaps you’ve seen the images of people hoarding toilet paper, paper towels and food.
As Christians, we are called in faith, as recorded so often in scriptures, especially whenever angels appear in the human story, “To be not afraid.” To be not afraid, allows a healthy amount of fear of the virus to guide us to common sense actions to prevent its spread, while at the same time reminding us that Social Distancing is for the sake of keeping our distance from a virus, NOT to distance ourselves, especially in this crisis, from our commitments and responsibilities to love and care for one another.
The TLC Care Team is currently scheduled to meet this Tuesday night, though Council tomorrow night will be meeting to determine how we proceed and if, like other congregations have done, we suspend all meetings and activities, including worship for a limited time or the foreseeable future.
That the Care Team is on our schedule for this week, in which we review our ministry with home bound and shut-in members, reminds us that especially at this time we need to remember those who are isolated, lonely, and most vulnerable to BOTH the virus and the effects of social distancing.
In faith, let us respond calmly, appropriately, and take necessary and important steps for the sake of our health and public health. And, at the same time, let us be liberated from hysteria or panic that would cut us off from one another. Let us continue to see one another, know one another, love and pray for one another, and be kind to one another.
With that being said, a reflection on our Gospel reading for today …
Fittingly, in the Gospel, we find social distancing!
Jesus met a woman drawing water at the well at Noon. It was uncommon to draw water from the well at Noon, because that was the hottest part of the day. Most water was drawn from the well in the cool of the early morning or early evening.
But here she was, in the middle of the day, by herself, either intentionally keeping her distance from others, or perhaps shunned from the others by their cold shoulders, menacing looks, and harsh judgments.
But, Jesus didn’t distance himself from the woman! Instead, he engaged her in the longest conversation recorded in the Gospel of John. Jesus closed the social/political/cultural/religious distance between himself as a Jewish man and herself a Samaritan woman, marginalized and without status or office. He closed this distance by ENGAGING with her in conversation, not lecturing at her or preaching at her, but talking with her.
It’s worth remembering at this point that the Christian Church as early as the 5th Century read this Gospel reading from John on the Third Sunday in Lent. This Gospel reading, along with the gospel readings we will hear on the next two Sundays (if we are gathering), were used as the church accompanied those preparing for baptism at Easter. This gospel story was used in a process of faith development.
In this story Jesus moved past any reasons the woman or others might have offered for a distance between herself and faith. Jesus moved towards the woman and engaged her in a process of faith formation that would lead her to run and tell others that she had found the Messiah.
Today, as we make our way through Lent towards the baptismal waters of Easter, we can receive this story as a promise that God, in Christ, who draws nears to us, closing the distance between us.
Perhaps you think you are too old, or too new to the church, or too much of an outsider to grow in relationship with Christ? Perhaps you think you’ve missed your window of opportunity for Christian faith and growth? Perhaps you think there is some legitimate reason for distance between you and Christ?
Here in this story of Jesus moving towards a woman others had retreated from, is the promise of God, who in Jesus Christ, moves towards us in relationship. There is nothing from God’s perspective that separated us from God’s love for each and every one of us announced in Christ!
Central to this engagement between the woman and Jesus is questioning.
The woman questioned Jesus:
- “How is it you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan, for water?”
- “Sir, were do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob?”
- “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say the place to worship is in Jerusalem?”
Theologian Christine Roy Yoder sees “tenacity” in this questioning. The woman at the well asked clarifying questions. She pushed out beyond the limits of her knowledge and she pushes Jesus to explain himself. The questions, and Jesus responding, led her into faith.
I’m reminded of a conversation I had with parents of a child who grew up Lutheran, but left Lutheranism as a young adult to convert to Buddhism. The parents said one of the deciding factors in leaving the Lutheran Church was that in confirmation class, the pastor would not allow the students to ask questions. The students were to simply be passive receivers of information. There was no room to push and prod into the mysteries of faith, to wrestle with Christian life lived in human messiness and sin.
In the interaction between Jesus and the woman at the well, we see that questions are a vital part of faith formation and development. The questions helped the woman engage with what Jesus was asking, and it allowed Jesus to gauge her level of comprehension. I believe questions are, if not more important than, at least as important as, the “quote-unquote answers.”
What questions to do you bring with you today? What nagging, persistent, perhaps troubling questions about faith are on your mind? Although you might think your questions are a sign of distance between you and Christ, in faith I invite you to consider that perhaps your questions are calling you deeper into faith!
What if the questions were planted by the Holy Spirit to inspire a curiosity, a hunger, to know more, and to take seriously what you are hearing about a life of faith? What if the questions are a way the Spirit is leading you towards some understanding or insight? I’m not promising, however, easy or quick answers to your questions. What I’m suggesting is that the questions themselves might be a process by which the Holy Spirit shapes and forms you – drawing you deeper into faith and a relationship with Christ.
A final point …
In the conversation, it is revealed that Jesus knew the truth of the woman’s life.
At one point in the conversation, in verse 16, Jesus seemed to ask a non-sequitur.After the woman asked for living water, Jesus responded: “Go, call your husband and come back.’” After responding that she had no husband, Jesus then accurately stated that he knew she had five husbands in the past.
There’s scholarly disagreement about whether the number of 5 husbands is significant. Some scholars believe it may represent the history of Samaria after the fall of the Northern Kingdom, the deportation of its inhabitants, and the influx of a mixture of foreign nations having influence over their lives.
That seems to a minority opinion. The larger point, is less about symbolism, and more about Jesus’s unexpected knowledge of her difficult past life. It was this knowledge that seemed to transform the woman. “Sir, I see you are a prophet!” she exclaimed.
In this part of the interaction, we see the truth for our lives of faith: Jesus already knows the inner secrets of our lives. Jesus already knows how you spend your money, how you spend your time, what you say about other people, what you email one another, what you look at online or on social media, but just like Jesus didn’t use this knowledge against the woman, he didn’t shame or blame her, Jesus doesn’t use this knowledge against us, and he doesn’t shame or blame us! Rather, he invited her to receive living water.
Even before Jesus approached the woman, he knew about her life, and wanted to draw her into a relationship of faith and hope. Even before we make confession of our sins, even before we seek to draw closer to Christ, Jesus knows us and has already drawn close to us! Jesus doesn’t use his knowledge of our secret and inner lives against us, rather, because he knows we are broken sinners, Christ draws close to us in mercy and grace, to quench our thirst with living water.
The Good News for us today, in these interesting, and scary, and confusing times in which we live, is that even as we are called to distance ourselves from one another for a time, Christ always draws close to us!
In the living water of baptism, and in this Gospel story today, we are promised the closeness of God in Christ Jesus, even as sin, death, viruses, or whatever else we face, would seek to tear us from one another and from God.
Our living and sustaining hope today, is the promise of God drawing even closer to us than we are to ourselves. In Jesus, God closes the distance between us and God, and is the living water that washes each and every one of us, lowing through our questions, flowing towards each of us despite any truth of our lives for which we might feel shame or guilt. This living water is God’s relationship with us poured out in Christ and made alive in us through faith by the power of the Holy Spirit.
In these interesting times, along with the woman at the well, may you drink from that living water. May you drink from the water that is relationship with Christ. Drinking from that water, may you live in peace and hope, knowing you will live with Christ forever.
Thanks be to God!
For the latest information about the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), I recommend visiting the website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Click on the link for direct access: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html