Grace Episcopal Church
The Third Sunday in Lent (A)
Exodus 17.1-7 Psalm 95 Romans 5.1-11 John 4.5-42
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
“Oh, my God!” The constant use of this expression really bothers me. Used just as a verbal intensifier, the expression fails to acknowledge God’s greatness. It’s hard to think of a pious Jew of biblical times saying anything like “Oh, my God!” That would be too close to taking the Lord’s Name in vain. But, I expect that the disciples–who in today’s gospel are described as being “astonished” at finding Jesus speaking with the Samaritan woman at the well–might have said something like “Whoa! What’s up here?” The disciples already have a pretty good idea of who Jesus is. Back in ch. 1, Andrew is quoted as telling Simon Peter, “We have found the Messiah” (John 1.41). But why the astonishment? To understand this, we have to understand the social conventions of the day. Jesus and the disciples are in Samaria. This in itself is unusual. To get from Galilee to Jerusalem, a pious Jew would in general go around Samaria, because Samaria is hostile territory. The Samaritans are not Jews, but people who have adopted a form of Judaism into their own pagan system of belief.
OK, bad enough to be in Samaria, but to this we need to add additional levels of discomfort. Jesus is speaking with a woman. He has crossed a boundary. A man does not speak with a woman outside of his household. He is to speak to the male under whose protection she lives; her father or husband, or a brother. And then, to make matters worse, He’s speaking to her at the village well at midday, and the only reason to speak to a woman at the well is to court her. You go to the well to find a bride. Hence the disciples’ reaction: “Whoa! Is our Master to take a bride, and a Samaritan, at that?”
Throughout the gospels Jesus crosses boundaries. He’s not worried about rules. When you are the author, your don’t need to worry about the script, and so He can say to the Pharisees things like “[T]he Son of man is lord of the sabbath” (Mtt. 12.8). He is particularly not worried about human rules and human conventions, like whether or not to speak to a Samaritan, or whether or not to ask her for a drink, or whether or not to speak to her at a well. But, notice that in reaching across boundaries Jesus invites those on the “other side” to cross as well. When the woman describes how the Samaritans worship, Jesus instructs her in true worship, and when she states that the Samaritans, too, expect the Messiah, He identifies Himself, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you” (John 4.26). In fact, in the original He is even clearer, saying “I AM [the Holy Name of God as revealed to Moses at Exod. 3.14], He is speaking to you.”
Now, notice that boundary being crossed, and let us thank God that the Messiah is not just the Anointed One for the Jews. St. Paul writes to the Romans, “... we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand ...” (Rom. 5.2). He’s writing not just to Jews in Rome, but to Gentiles as well. Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that Messiah comes to Jew and Gentile alike, that, while “... salvation is from the Jews ... the hour ... is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him: (John 4.21-23). In other words, the relationship which the Jews have with the Lord by and through the covenant, is now the relationship that all who believe have. We are elected, chosen. Just as the Lord chose the Israelites, saying by Moses, “[Y]ou are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth” (Deut. 7.6), so now, by Jesus, do we hear that we are “such [who] Father seeks to worship him.”
Which brings us back to Paul’s words, “Since we are justified by faith ...” (Rom. 5.1). The whole concept of “justification by faith” has been a theological battleground in the Church, at least since the time of Martin Luther. People and denominations have argued over whether we are justified solely by faith, or if works have a role, and arguments have been endless about what justification means anyway. It’s like in the old mock debate over Lite beer, “Tastes great! Less filling!” Isn’t the point whether or not it’s good beer, and isn’t the point about justification and faith not about mechanism but about whether or not we are in right relationship with God? That’s what Paul is getting at, when he says that we “were reconciled to God through the death of his Son” (Rom. 5.10). Earlier, in ch. 4 of Romans, Paul used the example of Abraham’s faith; that Abraham believed the Lord’s promises, and this faith was “reckoned to him as righteousness” (Gen 15.6). He writes that Abraham became “the father of all who believe” (Rom. 4.11). In other words, those who believe are in right relationship with God. When we have faith in Jesus Christ we are brought within the election of Israel. We become members of the covenant. There are no boundaries. Jesus has crossed all boundaries. Jew, Samaritan, us, we all become people of God.
Now, here’s the rub. Having been included within the bounds of God’s covenant, what do we do in response to election? It’s really easy to become a Pharisee, and to think (and sometimes even say) “I have faith and am saved” without worrying about crossing the boundaries that separate those who do not know God from salvation. Oh, we can even think of admonishing those who don’t know God that they need to “get right with God,” but do we in fact seek to bring them into the right relationship with God, or do we think of them as “Samaritan,” as people outside?
The Samaritan woman has the unique blessing of meeting Jesus in person, and she goes and tells all the people of Sychar to come and see Messiah. At the end of today’s lesson we hear the people of Sychar say, “It is no longer because of what you [the woman] said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world” (John 4.42). The Samaritan woman hears the Messiah, meets the Messiah, and seeks to bring others to Him. We hear Jesus in His holy Word. We meet Him in the most Blessed Sacrament, and we are to bring others to Him, regardless of boundaries. Because there are even more boundaries crossed in this story. Jesus speaks to the woman. She speaks to Him. He chooses a woman–one whose testimony is not considered as anything worth hearing in that time and place–to testify. She speaks to her townspeople, people who will not hear the testimony of a woman, and particularly of this woman, who has had six men in her life without benefit of marriage. Jesus has chosen an outcast to testify. If she were not an outcast, she would not be at the well at noon, but at sundown, when the women of the village would gather at the well. He has chosen an outcast, because He does not recognize any boundary.
Jesus does not recognize any boundary, and He calls us to ignore them as well. We’re to go to people who are “outside,” whom we consider “unclean,” to invite them into right relationship with God. And in doing so, we’re to recognize that we may not be all that clean ourselves, just like the Samaritan woman, if not necessarily to the same extent. We are justified. We are allowed to stand before God because Jesus stands before God for us. As Paul says, “... we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand ...” (Rom. 5.1). And Jesus tells us, He sends us, to all, that they too may know the Savior of the world. The disciples are astonished because of boundary crossing, and yet because many boundaries are crossed the Samaritans of Sychar believe. They call Jesus “Savior”. No one else in the gospels does so. The disciples are astonished because Messiah, their Messiah, is not just theirs, but has included those outside of the covenant, and it is from these outsiders that the disciples themselves hear that their Messiah is Savior, Savior of all the world. So the next time you worry about who’s “in” and who’s “out,” consider both that Jesus doesn’t recognize boundaries, and that when you cross them you’ll learn something about God. You’ll learn more about God from obeying His call for you to go to all people, and you’ll learn about God from what they have to say once they too are invited to know Him, to love, Him, and to serve Him. Oh, and if the boundary scares you, remember that when you are sent, you are never alone. In Paul’s words, “[W]e ... boast in God through our lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (Rom. 5.11). Thanks be to God!
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son,
and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
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