Sermon for Lent 3 – St John’s, Aberdeen

The sermon preached today at St Johns’, Aberdeen, by the Revd Dr Jenny Holden.
Exodus 17:1-7 / Romans 5:1-11 / John 4:5-42

When was the last time you had to go and speak to someone that you didn’t want to? Perhaps asking for help in a store? Perhaps asking someone to move their car which is blocking your drive? Asking for something, asking perhaps for a favour? How did it make you feel? Nervous? needing a dose of courage? Awkward?

Or perhaps even worse what is your reaction when someone you don’t know approaches you and asks you for something? Someone you’ve never met before, asks you to go out of your way to help them despite having no acquaintance with this person before. How does that make you feel? Threatened? Nervous? Unsure of what will happen next?

Our Gospel reading this morning begins with an encounter at a well between two strangers, which leads to a conversation and both parties leaving the conversation changed by it despite uncertainties between the two. Two people who wouldn’t normally interact, meet, questions each other and will not be the same following this meeting. They both started the encounter needing something sustaining for life – water and food but leave the encounter having received something different.

The Story of the Woman at the Well may be familiar to you, or it may not. What is this story say? What is it trying to say and how can that impact our lives in the here and now?

What is Going ON here?
At first sight it appears that this is a conversation between Jesus and an unnamed woman at Jacob’s Well in Sychar. However, by social convention this isn’t a conversation that should happen. This is a single male talking to a female alone in a traditionally female space – the well. Then there’s the fact that the woman is a Samaritan – not an expected meeting of people – there’s a reason the Good Samaritan is a surprise to the original hearers in Luke’s Gospel. Years of antipathy between Samaritans and Jews, over cultural practices, over religious practices.

Then there is the fact that the woman has been divorced multiple times. However, this says more about what has been done to the woman rather than what she has done. In this time a woman could be divorced for a younger woman, someone perceived to be more beautiful, for any reason and in a society where a woman’s worth and safety is defined by her marriage and childbearing status. This woman is set up as an outcast not only by her gender, her ethnic status and her personal history. Definitely not the kind of person Jesus should be taking to by convention or the disciples think Jesus should be speaking with but yet Jesus does speak to her, actually it’s more than that they have a conversation, she questions him and recognises Jesus for who Jesus is.

Thinking back to last week when we thought about Nicodemus, an educated, upstanding member of the community who comes to Jesus in the dead of the night and is invited to continue (as are we) a journey of faith, but Nicodemus wasn’t there yet. This woman (unnamed – but the Orthodox tradition calls her St Photius meaning light) meets Jesus in public (think the equivalent of the market square, the Costa at Union Square), converses with Jesus AND not only recognises Jesus for who Jesus is – the Messiah but goes on to tell others about this encounter.

Jesus in speaking to the woman at the well has overcome social conditions and the busyness of the day – what does Jesus have to overcome so we can hear him to speak to us? Is it busyness, is it challenging the way we think things should be, is it that we’re not listening, looking, observing and discerning Jesus speaking to us? Lenten disciplines are often about clearing space – not doing something in create space whether it be living with less, creating time, creating absence all in order to try and hear God more, consider our relationship with God more. We should not be the same after our Lenten encounters with God in the same way that neither Jesus nor the woman at the well are the same after their encounter.

The woman, because she is a human made in Gods image and beloved, recognises who Jesus is – a Prophet, then the Messiah. The woman recognises this because she is human, despite what social conditions at the time may have classified her as. Jesus tells her he is the living water – living water necessary for life as with the water that began this conversation but living water has an impact way beyond that of water. Consuming living water, through an encounter with God – Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer leaves us changed, nourished and formed – there are opportunities to encounter out God through scripture, prayer whether alone or in community.

I find it interesting that this woman recognises Jesus as Messiah, son of God and proclaims“ Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” (v. 29) she cries. I sometimes think we could add in “ Come see a man who told me about my history, about why society doesn’t like me … and loved me anyway!” That is true for each of us here, no matter what we have done, how we react to things, what we do or fail to do, we are beloved by God.

Despite her status in society and the difference in status and social convention around gender, nationality, ethnicity and social standing the Samaritan woman STILL had a conversation with Jesus. Jesus asked for water to drink, invited the woman into an encounter with God incarnate and the woman had the courage, the self-assurance and the need to respond to Jesus, not with the immediate yes, no, handing him the water requested. The Woman at the Well had a conversation with Jesus, sharing her questions, her life, including the things she was less comfortable about. Jesus can be confrontational, and he can be compassionate, he can be generous. Jesus here, through conversation helps the woman grow in faith, she leaves the encounter changed, assured of her place as a beloved child of God, assured that she has something to say, assured that she can have courage to share what has happened to her with others.

The Good News for us here today is that we don’t need to be collecting water at a well to speak to Jesus, we don’t need to be alone in the midday sun, we can speak to the Triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit any time we want – through prayer. No matter who we are, no matter who we think we are, no matter what we are afraid of or think of ourselves for our reactions to things around us we can have a conversation with Jesus through prayer. No matter where we are, whether at home or in a car or in a place of worship we don’t have to wait to speak to Jesus – the invitation is open at all times.

We can speak to Jesus, we are entitled, welcomed and encouraged to speak to Jesus through prayer. And at this time of uncertainty, worry and what seems like constant change there is a certainty that we can pray, we can take our worries, our concerns, those things we’re not liking about ourselves to God. God always listens, God loves us and God will not desert us. God is not running away from us, God will no runaway from us, God has never run away from humanity no matter what humanity is going through. God is love and we are God’s children and we are beloved yesterday, today and forever. At times we might feel that there is nothing we can do, nothing we can say, nothing we can do to put faith into action, particularly if we cannot be with our usual communities of love, support and faith. But we can pray, praying is not not doing anything, it is going before the God that loves us with our concerns and those things on our hearts, a God that knew us before we were formed in our mother’s wombs. A God of light, hope and love that invites us to speak with themselves in times of trouble, worry, joy and thanksgiving, for ourselves, for our loved ones, for our community and for our world.

The invitation to have a conversation to Jesus is there. That invitation is open to us all, how will we respond to that invitation?

In the name of God +Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer and Sanctifier. Amen.

Resources Used in Preparation
Bartlett, David Lyon, and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Year A. Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.
Piatt, Christian. Surviving the Bible, A Devotional for the Church Year 2020. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2019.