Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Sermon for Lent 3 2017: The Woman At The Well

MORECAMBE PARISH CHURCH          19 March 2017

The story of the Woman at the Well has a very odd ending. We are left in the air. She had brought her townspeople to meet Jesus and many of them believed in him v 39, so much so that they persuaded him to stay longer. But the woman - what about her? We are not told if she believed that he is the Saviour of the world or whether she was left dithering and undecided.

And the story of the journey of the people of Israel is also full of dithering, indecisiveness. For a short while after they came through the Red Sea all was hunky- dory. Their pursuers had drowned, they were delivered and all was happiness.

But it wasn’t long before difficulties made them miserable and grumpy. They were short of water, and when they do find some, it is bitter. They grumble and complain to Moses about God. God shows Moses how to turn it sweet and drinkable; back to happiness.

A few miles further on they are hungry. They’d probably finished the supplies they’d brought from Egypt, so what do they expect to find in a desert? They grumble and complain to Moses about God. So God rains down bread from heaven in the form of manna, to be freshly baked every day. And quails were driven in on the wind for supper; back to happiness.

But they get sick of it and are miserable and grumpy again.
By the time we get to the chapter we had read to us, Moses is tearing his hair out. Wouldn’t you be? They’d run out of water again. Guess what? They grumble and complain to Moses about God - again. No wonder Moses says to the Lord, v 4 “what shall I do with these people?”

So God had him strike the rock of Horeb and water came out. Even the name they gave the place reflected their attitude: ‘quarrel’ and ‘test’. These fractious people had not really decided to trust God. They would only trust God if He did everything they wanted.

So when a new challenge is given them it throws them into a panic and they pick a quarrel with Moses. ‘Let Moses do the believing in God for us!’ They were behaving like infants, refusing to make the decision for themselves. They had all these opportunities to trust God and they just dithered and wouldn’t commit themselves to this God who had done so much for them.

Back to the Woman at the Well! You would have thought that given half the chance to talk to Jesus face to face, she wouldn’t dither. But the conversation is full of avoidance. All the way through she is trying to put Jesus off; keeping him at a distance, keeping the conversation jokey.

Jesus has broken all the customs of the day for a Jew. He asks a favour of a Samaritan, a race despised by the Jews, and a woman at that. And what’s more, a woman of questionable morality – why else would she come on her own at midday instead of with her community in the cool of the morning? Jesus is breaking down all the barriers of race and gender and social norms. So perhaps it’s not surprising she puts her defences up.

She’s resorts to what she’s good at - the quick repartee:
“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” She comes off the page as cheeky, even flirtatious.  And Jesus at first responds with warmth and humour but everything he says has a serious point to it. She resists his seriousness, cleverly turning what he says into a debate about their mutual ancestor Jacob. Anything to keep the conversation away from her own personal circumstances!

But Jesus won’t let her get away with it – every time she tries to turn the conversation away from the personal, Jesus brings it back. “Go call your husband!” (v 16)
She finds herself being confronted with what she has been so carefully keeping from him and she has to name her shame: “I have no husband”. The superficial way she usually converses with people is gone. She’s left completely exposed before the only person who has ever shown real understanding and acceptance for who she is.

She can’t bear that penetrating gaze for long and switches back again to discussion, to keeping it all at the level of the mind – a safe place to run when the gaze of Christ becomes too personal. But Jesus wants our hearts as well as our minds.

“God is Spirit” says Jesus to her “and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.” The Spirit has a way of getting behind our defences and showing us the truth about ourselves and the truth of God’s unconditional love, poured out like living water slaking our thirst for reality.

But she’s not ready. For one last time she clings on to the safe, the impersonal. “I know the Messiah is coming – he’ll tell us everything.” But it’s something that belongs to a time in the future; it can’t change anything for me now.
 And then, to this Samaritan woman, to this outsider, this nobody who hasn’t shown any evidence of believing him, Jesus says the same words that God used in revealing himself to Moses in the desert: ‘I AM’, I AM He. I am the one you’ve been avoiding but the one you are really looking for. And for a moment all her defences come crashing down.

What will she do? The moment of truth is here, the Truth about everything, is now standing there right in front of her, demanding a decision. And she runs away. She runs to find people who will make the decision for her.

For the first time in her life they listen, they give her the respect she’s craved for so long. They go to find this Messiah for themselves and they believe, (v 42) no longer because of what she said but because they’d heard for themselves and know “this is truly the Saviour of the world.”

Perhaps she just can’t believe that her life can change - just like that, that she is being offered salvation so easily, so freely. We are left wondering - did she allow the waves of God’s grace to overwhelm her, or did she do what the Israelites did and refuse the invitation to trust? We will never know.

But we can end the story for ourselves.  How will we decide? Keep Jesus at a distance or respond to the offer he makes: “the water I give will become in you a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” v 14

Sue Kiernan