Third Sunday in Lent, Year A
On the Sunday before last, John de Beer, with whom I work at St. Martin's-in-the-Field, delivered a sermon that (verily, verily, say I unto you) kicked proverbial butt. John talked about how violence so often proceeds from a sense of shame, with perpetuators of violence lashing out at whatever or whoever they've projected their shame onto. He also talked about how this leads to a spiral of violence, as those ashamed of being bullied become bullies, the abused become abusers, and the cycle continues, or even escalates.
That cycle of shame and violence doesn't have to continue, though; Jesus showed us a way out of it. This Sunday's gospel is an excellent case in point.
Jesus is traveling through Samaria, a land populated by Samaritans, whom Judeans despised. It wasn't always that way. But in 586 BCE, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon dealt the Israelites a humiliating military victory, destroying the Temple that Solomon had built and bringing the leadership of Judea to Babylon in chains.
The sting of that defeat didn't lessen in the years to come. People were looking for someone to blame long after the Exile ended. Knowing that Israel's safety lay not in superior arms, but in God's protection, people tried to explain how it was that God allowed this to happen. People like Ezra and Nehemiah blamed those men of Israel who had married foreign women, and they demanded that all such men immediately divorce their wives, passing along the experiences of humilation, abandonment, and exile. Many of the men, especially in Samaria, refused, and so they got this kind of treatment, reported as the words of Nehemiah:
I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair; and I made them take an oath in the name of God ... Thus I cleansed them from everything foreign ...
- Nehemiah 13:25-30
And so began the enmity between Judeans and Samaritans that was centuries old by the time Jesus sat by Jacob's well, and was approached by a woman of Samaria.
It was noon, in the heat of the day, and the last time that most women would have wanted to do the heavy lifting and hard walk back to the village involved in getting water from the well. The other women went early in the morning or in the cool of the evening, when the work wouldn't be quite as hard, and the drudgery of hauling water would be broken by the fellowship shared by the women around the well.
A woman who chose instead to go to the well at noon must have been seeking specifically to avoid that company; she was an outcast even among Samaritans. She was used to the whispering in the village wherever she went, having been used and discarded by so many men of the village, and in a culture in which there was little if any privacy, and gossip spread news quickly. As oppressive as the noonday sun is, it doesn't burn like the stares of the others in the village. So she goes to the well at noon, when she can be sure to be alone.
But she isn't. Jesus is there, and he speaks to her. Men spoke to women directly and in public like that if they were related by blood, or as a proposition, so it's no wonder that there's an edge in the woman's replies to Jesus. But Jesus addresses her in the same terms as he addressed his mother (John 2:4). He meets a woman who couldn't be more of an outsider, and he receives her as an insider, an intimate who has no cause for shame. He brings up her past, and her present, not to shame her, but to take away their power in showing how little they affect how Jesus and the God he proclaims receive her.
I meet a lot of people who could rightly be called "church-damaged," people who have had some of their most painful experiences of shame and humilation in churches, often in God's name. And I've met a lot of Christians whose ability to function as evangelists, as people who proclaim Good News so that others can experience it, is seriously impaired by their concern to make sure that sinners know just how shameful their behavior is, and that they be kept from the center of Christian community. For me, the question about how we evangelize isn't a question of "What would Jesus do?"; it's a question of "What DID Jesus do?"
Jesus received the Samaritan woman with such love and such grace that she was profoundly transformed. She had once accepted the village's verdict that she was so unfit for their company that she could draw water only at noon. After meeting Jesus, she's bold enough to demand (using the imperative!) living water from him. By the end of the conversation, she's left her water jar behind and is rushing into the very center of the village, demanding to be heard by those who were once her tormentors. And she IS heard; many believe in Jesus because of the woman's bold testimony.
What transformed this woman could transform our world. The woman at the well was despised by her village, which was despised by Judeans, whose ancestors had been humilated by Babylonians. From generation to generation, humilation, resentment, and violence were passed down by people keeping the score so that they could seek to even it. Jesus sets aside all score-keeping, and by treating all as if all were forgiven, he makes forgiveness possible -- even for self-righteous sinners like us.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person-- though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
Thanks be to God!
Sarah, your post today was so insightful it inspired a reflective posting on my own blog in regards to being "church damaged" and finding my way "home" to God again. I think sometimes we get so caught up in the zeal of trying to get people to follow God, that we forget that the POINT of Christianity is to love Christ and accept His forgiveness through grace and faith.
Posted by: Mystery | Feb 22, 2005 9:17:52 PM
Excellent reflection, as usual! I always enjoy reading your perspective on these lectionary texts.
Posted by: Willie | Feb 23, 2005 12:02:28 AM
The idea of being "church-damaged" is something I need to mention to my wife. To this day, Mariann will not sing in front of others because of something she was once told by a sister at her parochial school, and she has avoided church in general because of another statement made by a priest during Sunday mass years ago.
While I haven't had that kind of experience IN church, I certainly have been damaged by the behavior of churchgoers OUTSIDE of church.
Posted by: James | Feb 23, 2005 9:41:39 AM
Sarah, you want to come preach for me this Sunday! :)
This was great.
Posted by: Jay | Feb 23, 2005 12:31:31 PM
Thanks, all! I do love this passage, and I'm glad it came across.
And all joking aside, the parish where I work didn't get the pledges they anticipated for 2005, so the staff position I hold is being cut. If you'd like me to serve as a guest preacher/teacher or to apply for a staff position, you can download my C.V. from the 'about Dylan' page, or just give me a shout. Have Bible, will travel!
Posted by: Sarah Dylan Breuer | Feb 23, 2005 12:44:58 PM
I'm a first-time responder but I believe your insights are Spirit-given, Sarah. You could hit a bullseye at any distance with the texts.
Posted by: Rev. Bob Knight | Feb 23, 2005 12:53:34 PM
I came this week to see what you wrote on this Gospel, remembering your preaching on it at the 20/20 gathering at Camp Allen...
The idea of this Gospel as a window into breaking the cycle of shame and violence is wonderful.
Thanks for this ministry!
Posted by: Paige | Feb 23, 2005 4:47:49 PM
I'm always peeking at this page when I've got a sermon to prepare. I'm sorry to hear about your position being cut--it's happening far too much all over.
If by chance you're ever up Chicago way, I'd love to have you preach and do a program here at Brent House!
Posted by: Stacy Alan | Feb 24, 2005 12:03:53 AM
There's a baptism this Sunday - I'm going to be taking a big jug of water and pouring it like a waterfall to illustrate the way God's grace brings new life into tired and dusty deserts of rejection. Thank you for being such a stimulating writer.
And if you're ever looking for a job in Essex...
Posted by: andy gr | Feb 24, 2005 6:58:09 AM
Thanks for this.
I just read Mumcat's reflection on the same passage,
which is also quite good, and got to wondering what Dylan had to say about it. Both are quite similar! Makes me wish I was preaching this week.
Posted by: Jake | Feb 24, 2005 9:30:11 AM
Jake sent me.
Thanks for this. I like the thought that Jesus was someone who accepted her as she was, not as she should be (in their estimation). That does make for "good news" indeed.
Posted by: mumcat | Feb 24, 2005 9:49:16 AM
Many thanks for your insightful comments on this passage. I have been struggling with this particular piece of scripture trying to decide about water, new life, vulnerability, and what it means to be left out by the people who you think love you. Not certain where you are (geographically) but if you ever have a notion to come to Canada, specifically southwestern Ontario, give me a shout. Would be glad to have you preach!!
Posted by: Sue+ | Feb 24, 2005 3:04:36 PM
Speaking as a scarred veteran of Church damage, and friend to others currently experiencing same, I add my "Amen!" to the other comments here.
A few months ago, on the Beliefnet Christian Debate forum (which has the most traffic of all the forums), I started a little project where, every week, I post next Sunday's lectionary readings with perhaps links to some study helps and then some questions for discussion. It always amuses me how the people most philosophically opposed to lectionary use ("A preacher should preach as the Spirit moves!") get into this the most.;-) Anyhow, I'm finding it very interesting that this week, when I posted this text, almost no one responded...and one fellow who did was offended by my emphasis on the radicality of the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman; he wanted to keep the discussion on a purely spiritual level. Which tells me that Jesus' inclusivity/radical hospitality unnerves "holy folk" as much today as it did then.
Posted by: LutheranChik | Feb 24, 2005 10:23:19 PM
It sounds like those who only want to keep things spiritual are those who are causing a lot of pain in the church. I have been a pastor for 43 years, and those who have hurt me in the church just don't seem to get the blood and guts of the radical Christ!
Posted by: Dogwooddave | Feb 26, 2005 10:50:01 AM
This is the first time I came to this site. Wow...I love you're take on the scripture. Personally I like preaching from the lectionary, there is always a story to be pulled from the text. There is always something that can be adjusted to our life today. Some things never change. May God Bless your ministry in the future.
Posted by: Rev. Sue Bowen | Feb 26, 2005 1:01:53 PM
What a great story. Thanks! I hadn't thought of including something about the "church damaaged" in my sermon, but I think I've got to do a partial rewrite. There are a number of previously "church damaged" folk in this congregation.
Posted by: Rev. Donna | Feb 26, 2005 4:29:42 PM
A tangential comment;
I'm doing a first communion class with nine 2nd graders (as interim, it's a tradition I inherited). Today, the topic was stories and remembering. I tell the story of the OT up to Moses in ten minutes, and then split them up in teams and have a "bible bowl." When I asked one team the name of Abraham's wife, their consultation among themselves was something like this; "Wasn't she the one who laughed at the angel?...Yea! Who laughed?...It was Sarah! Sarah laughed!"
It finally dawned on me the source for the title of this site. Duh!
Posted by: Jake | Feb 27, 2005 4:07:29 PM
I have now heard three sermons on this passage. Each with its own particular lens.
The sermon I heard this morning held a lot in common with your reflections, if from a slightly different emphasis.
Reflects the power of scripture, nu?
I like your emphasis on how abuse perpetuates more abuse.
The sermon this morning emphasised the importance of radically accepting those different from ourselves - specifically naming GLBT.
The sermon I heard last night spoke of the Living Water.
Each was true. Each had a word for me.
Bless you for your ministry.
Posted by: James | Feb 27, 2005 4:59:46 PM
This is great. I've heard this text preached by trying to stuff it into a moralizing package one too many times, so its good to read something that is taking the passage seriously.
Posted by: *Christopher | Feb 28, 2005 12:28:30 PM
I have new blog about evangelism; please visit and comment.
Posted by: Sam Peterson | Mar 22, 2005 6:59:15 PM
I like very much by reading I go peace
Posted by: komal | Jul 22, 2005 3:27:14 PM
A very good message. One of my responses was to do some quick research on "Shame + Violence," which led to some interesting results. I'm in ministry with people with severe mental illness, and the corrosive effect of shame--too often, as you note, church-generated shame--is evident in many of the people we see. You point in a good direction to see freedom from shame in this passage.
Posted by: William | Feb 18, 2008 9:43:58 AM
Dylan, I am not sure about the woman's transformation. Throughout her conversation she has an edge to her comments, and just when she asks for the living water Jesus asks about her husbands! This is a verbal joust that ends with the woman in the same place as Nicodemus: a "sign" believer (2:23), and in John's Gospel that won't do. So far Jesus has conversed with a Pharisee and a Samaritan and neither can make the step to belief John calls for: a total transfer of allegiance.
Posted by: Jeff Nowak | Feb 20, 2008 9:46:05 AM
Thanks for your wonderful insights every week! I have often followed the thinking that the woman is an outcast in her own village-which is why she comes to the well at noon and alone. But for the first time today, it struck me that we might be reading too much into the text on that point, and missing one of John's Light/Dark themes: Nicodemus, in the previous story, came to Jesus "by night". He, the insider encounters Jesus by night. This Samaritan woman, the outsider, encounters Jesus in the day. High noon, no less. Maybe John is shedding a little theological light on things with this mention of noontime, vs. shedding light on her status in her community. Maybe it's both! Just a thought!
Posted by: Paul | Feb 20, 2008 4:57:49 PM
I think it is important that the woman is as extreme an outsider as Nicodemus is an extreme insider. Whereas Nicodemus seeks; the woman does not. But while Nicodemus intellectually grasps the nature of Jesus (no one can do these things apart from God) he does not at that point give his heart to Jesus. On the other hand, while the woman may not grasp who Jesus is intellectually, (she has her doubts) Jesus fills her with hope and expectation. The result is that she witnesses to the townsfolk who have avoided and ridiculed her, while Nicodemus slinks back into the night. Many come to believe on her account. Who would we rather have in our congregations? Yet to his credit, Nicodemus does make a comeback after Jesus is crucified.
Posted by: Harry | Feb 21, 2008 3:17:54 PM