St. Anne's Episcopal Church, Conway SC
Well, I wonder
Sermon for Third Sunday of Lent
March 19th, 2017
Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina University
Exodus 17: 1-7 Romans 5: 1-11 John 4: 5-42
Let’s do some wondering. The lesson we just heard from the Gospel of John is one of the most fascinating stories in scripture. The story itself is straightforward enough. Even with all of the asides about why Jesus was alone at the well and how Jews and Samaritans don’t share things in common, it’s a story about how Jesus interacts with people and how people come to believe in him. But, as with most stories from scripture, there’s space left to wonder about what was going on. And that space is created by what the Gospel writer doesn't explicitly tell us. So I’d like to invite you to do a bit of wondering with me as we engage this story.
First up, Jesus is alone at the well. John’s Gospel tells us that the disciples had gone into the city of Sychar to buy food, but I have to wonder why, at this particular moment, Jesus decided to sit by himself at the well. Being tired is one thing, but I wonder if there was something more that caused him to linger by the well. John’s Gospel tells us that the well had historic significance for the people of Israel. It was Jacob’s well - the Jacob who wrestled with God and was given the name “Israel.” So I wonder if Jesus wanted to sit there to feel a connection with the story of his people; much in the way that people today like to visit the grave sites of their ancestors to remind themselves that they came from somewhere. Or sit alone in a church to remind themselves that others have shared the same faith. Was Jesus taking some time for himself to think about the story of his people and the place that he himself had in that story? I wonder…
I wonder also about the woman who came up to the well to get water. When she saw Jesus, I wonder if her initial thought was, “Oh boy, I hope this Jewish man won’t try to talk to me.” Or if she was initially concerned about her safety. For a woman to come alone to a well and to encounter a strange man sitting there, I imagine that there was at least some thought on the woman’s part that the situation was not ideal. Which I think explains her defensiveness when Jesus asks her for water. Better to stand up to this stranger from the get-go than to let him think that she was going to be a push-over. I also think it explains her clever use of sarcasm when Jesus tells her that he has access to living water. “You can get living water? Right - where’s your bucket?!” The woman’s response seems perfectly normal to me. And it makes me wonder if her initial response is how we usually approach encounters with Jesus. We don’t usually expect to encounter Jesus in the face of the stranger, so when a stranger asks us for help, our first response is to use sarcasm to create distance. Oddly enough, the woman’s answer leaves just enough room for Jesus to continue the conversation. And I think that may be how God ultimately gets through to us. Is there room for skepticism when we encounter God? Can God use our reluctant and even snarky reactions to his presence to continue the conversation? I wonder…
I wonder also about the woman’s willingness to be forthcoming with a complete stranger. Sure, by the time Jesus had told her to go get her husband, there is some indication that she was warming to the conversation, but her display of honesty is remarkable. I am often amazed at how airplanes can be mini-confessionals for some folks. I’m sure that if you’ve been on a flight, you’ve witnessed or had the experience of a complete stranger opening up to the person sitting right next to them. People can talk about some very intimate details of their lives on short flights! I know I’ve been involved in conversations on airplane flights that I wouldn’t have except with my closest friends. I imagine the thought is that you’ll never see this person again, so why not be totally honest, but still. It takes tremendous courage to open up to someone you’ve just met. Yet the woman at the well decides to be candid, and it allows her to recognize that she is indeed encountering God’s grace. I’m not saying we all need to spill the beans the next time we get on a plane, but the story of the woman at the well begs a question: Is vulnerability and honesty the shortest route to an encounter with God? I wonder…
In a few minutes, we’re going to be doing the service of healing, and I want to draw attention to the power of what we’ll be doing. Now, I’m not going to be asking for everyone for a list of details about what ails them or their loved ones, but by naming our intentions - even silently - and praying intentionally for them with each other as we are about to do, we are displaying honesty and vulnerability. And when I anoint your heads with oil, it’s a tangible way of showing that God’s love and care reaches us even in our weakness and even in those places where we feel the MOST vulnerable.
It’s a far cry from meeting Jesus at a well, but I wonder if we might keep that story in mind as we approach the service of healing. You may be tired and worn out and need a little space to feel at home. You may think that getting a little oil smeared on your head won’t make much of a difference, or your inner cynic may be asking, “What kind of oil is it? Is it olive oil or canola oil? It’s a healing service, so maybe it’s castor oil.” (It’s olive oil, by the way). But if you’re willing to entertain the notion that God can and does meet us even here in this place and with these people, then you may well discover that God’s healing power is not some far-off thing to look forward to some day in the future. It’s present to you now.
So that begs a final question about what we’re doing here today; what we do here every week, really, and what goes on in our everyday lives: Is God’s inviting me to experience his power to heal? I wonder…
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