In her Lenten Reflections booklet, Ruth Haley Barton says,
During Lent we are called to enter more intentionally into prayer, self-examination and repentance for the purpose of restoration and renewal. As painful as it is to be exposed at this level, awakening is evidence of God’s Grace.
Using the story of Jesus and this Samaritan woman we’re going to explore awakening to God’s grace. I want to invite you to join me in the process of restoration and renewal of our souls and to experience the belonging Jesus offers us.
Last Sunday we read the verses 16-17 of John 3, which say “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
In Chapter 4 of John we see Jesus putting his teaching about salvation into practice. Without using words Jesus shows his disciples that THIS is what he meant by loving the whole world, giving love and belonging to this woman, this Samaritan woman, this abandoned Samaritan woman.
Most of the sermons I’ve heard about this Samaritan woman describe the forgiveness of Jesus and the sinfulness of the woman. But there is no mention of forgiveness or promiscuity here – we have read that into the text. Perhaps this woman’s story is different than that. Perhaps her story is more like ours than we’d like to admit. Though the details may be unique to her story, I believe each one of us is longing for relationship and acceptance, just as she was. And I believe that Jesus offers the same belonging and salvation to each of us as he offered to the Samaritan woman.
This woman had been married five times and she has been abandoned five times…abandoned through death of a spouse or divorce, likely due to her barrenness. The ability to bear children in ancient times was seen as the primary purpose of a woman, carrying on a male’s lineage was the entire point of marriage. If this woman was incapable of this “basic biological function”, she would surely be rejected. Thus when she meets Jesus at the well, she is thirsty for more than water. This woman is in need of acceptance, of relationship, of belonging.
My own story is not unlike this Samaritan woman’s. As a young married woman, I wanted nothing more than to have children. I had framed my future and my sole purpose in motherhood. Thus, I was completely shaken when my body’s functioning wasn’t “normal” and healthy. I, too, was barren. I spent five years of sorrow and darkness and questioning my worth and belonging. My friends were having children, women’s retreats would gather and discuss their kids, and I was on the outside. My infertility was even used as a weapon against me when some people questioned my effectiveness in church ministry if we didn’t have children. How could we possibly connect with the community without kids? These types of statements were both cruel and untrue. Though we knew these words were not of God, the shaming from outsiders was hard to bear.
Gradually my darkness began to transform me. I turned to God with more intensity than ever before. Gently and graciously, He began to unravel the strings I had tied up in my worth as a mother. He began to reveal to me the truths: I was valuable… apart from whether I had children or not. Kids would not fulfill me, my husband could not fulfill me, a job or ministry could not fulfill me. Jesus told me I was loved and I had belonging in him, no strings attached. This is the message of salvation for each of us – love and belonging.
So back to Sychar…there’s Jesus interacting in the most unlikely places with the most unlikely people. Meeting at a well was somewhat scandalous in itself, for wells were often the place where love-matches were made. Jacob and Rachel, Moses and Zipporah, and others like them met their spouses at a well. Jesus’s Jewish heritage came with an unspoken rule to not interact with their rebel-cousins, the Samaritans. And as a man, Jesus was ignoring all sorts of social protocol by interacting with a woman, going as far as to ask her to share her drinking vessel with him. He was risking his reputation in order to share the refreshing streams of God’s love with this thirsty woman.
Even in the Exodus passage we read about how physical needs drive us to God. In chapter 17, the Israelites are complaining and arguing with Moses about how terrible their living conditions were. They were so overcome with their selfishness and their thirst that they went as far as to complain that they were no longer slaves in Egypt! Moses was afraid their rage was going to result in his stoning. (Talk about “hangry”!) In verse 6, God provides the miraculous water from the rock at Horeb and Moses commemorates the occasion by naming the location Massah and Meribah which mean “Test and Quarrel.”
But the thing about each of us, and the Samaritan woman, and the Israelites is our thirst is so much deeper than a dry mouth. Our physical symptoms or outward actions are often an expression of an inward spiritual need. How often do you find yourself acting out in anger or impatience when the real problem isn’t really your kids or your husband or the barista or the guy in the car next to you. The real cause of your turmoil is something inside you. The stress or selfishness or jealousy causes us to act out, and those feelings are all rooted in a need to be filled with the living waters of Jesus. When we look inside ourselves and begin to dig through the mess we’ve created – the broken relationships, the poor self-image, the fear about money or anxiety about future plans – we find that at our core we need belonging. We try desperately to fill ourselves and take away the ache of belonging…that dream job, the perfect house, that friendship, the 401K, the fairytale wedding, the marriage, those kids, that college degree…none of it works, friends. All of this can just mask the problem unless we let Jesus walk us through the process of releasing our desires and our inadequacies and to be filled with him alone. It’s terrifying, I’m not gonna lie. But what I know for certain is that Jesus wants to save us from ourselves. He wants to give us living water that wells up to eternal life. By believing in him and following him, we find the belonging and we find salvation. And we, like the Samaritan woman, can’t wait to share this truth with everyone we meet.
This woman kept asking more and more questions of Jesus. “How can you be asking me for a drink? Where do you get this living water? Are you greater than our ancestors? Will you condemn me for the life I’ve lived? Where should we worship you? Are you really the Messiah?”
And she believes him. She knows he must be the Messiah and runs to tell everyone in her city that very day. The truth sets us free, friends! And this woman was changed from a shamed barren reject of society to a missionary for the good news about Jesus.
So how does Jesus want to save you? What shame or struggle does he want to free you from? What does he want you to release to his care so he can fill up your real need, your need to belong.
This is salvation, friends: to find acceptance and belonging in Jesus.
goal and guide,
you go before and await our coming.
Only our thirst compels us
beyond complaint to conversation,
beyond rejection to relationship.
Pour your love into our hearts,
that, refreshed and renewed,
we may invite others to the living water
given to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Sermon given at Monroe Free Methodist Church based on the texts for the 3rd Sunday in Lent