Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent
The Samaritan Woman
By The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer -
On the second and third Sundays in Lent, last week and this week, we meet two characters unique to the Gospel of John.
Last week, we were introduced to Nicodemus who comes to Jesus by night and lasts all of nine verses in his conversation with Jesus before fading into the night from whence he came.
This week we meet the Samaritan woman at the well and, as you have just heard, hear her remarkable dialogue with Jesus.
The contrast between Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman is striking. Given the fact that they appear one right after the other in the Gospel, it is clear that St. John wants us to see the contrast between them in all of its detail.
In last week’s text we met Nicodemus, a Pharisee, an insider, a leader of the Jews. He is a man of faith, he has a name, and yet he still comes to Jesus by night.
The character to whom we are introduced in this week's text is a Samaritan, a religious and political outsider, hated by the Jews. She is a woman, she has no name, and yet she meets Jesus at noon, in full daylight.
And the contrast between their conversations with Jesus is even more extraordinary. Whereas Nicodemus is unable to move beyond the confines of his religious system, the Samaritan woman moves outside of her religious expectations and engages Jesus in theological debate. Whereas Nicodemus cannot hear that Jesus is sent by God, the woman at the well hears the actual name of God, "I AM" when Jesus tells her that he is the Messiah, “I am he,” as our text records his words. While Nicodemus's last questioning words to Jesus expose his disbelief, "How can this be?" the last words of the woman at the well, also posed as a question, "He cannot be the Christ, can he?" lead her to witness to her whole town.
The Samaritan woman is a remarkable, intelligent, independent woman in a time and place when none of those attributes were expected or affirmed in women. And, I might add that, despite some past interpretations, there is no evidence that the Samaritan woman is a prostitute.
I met the Samaritan woman some years ago. Well, not the Samaritan woman of this text, but one much like her.
I met Martha Symphorian when I visited her and her grandchildren in their home in northwestern Tanzania several years ago. Symphorian had cared for her grandson, Kenedy, since his father had died of AIDS and his mother left the child in a panic, fleeing to another village to start a new AIDS-free life. It is the African tradition that the extended family take in orphaned children, so, at more than 70 years of age, that is what Martha Symphorian did. Martha took in young Kenedy, who also has AIDS, as well as the two children of her other daughter, a daughter who had died of AIDS. Now with her dead children buried in her front yard, Martha Symphorian cared for her three grandchildren, including 15 year old Kenedy, who, because of AIDS, looked to me more like a child of six or seven.
I visited with Martha and her grandchildren along with other AIDS orphan families to see the wonderful ministry provided to these families by the staff of the Northwestern Diocese of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania, ministry supported by our ELCA World Hunger Appeal funds. Funds we provide help allow Martha to purchase AIDS medicine for Kenedy and pay tuition so that her grandchildren can attend school, since public education hardly exits in Tanzania. These funds also make certain that a struggling family has enough food to eat. It is help that is much appreciated and has eased young Kenedy’s suffering.
All this is wonderful, but the day we visited, Martha had found out that I was a Lutheran pastor, and like the wise Samaritan women, Martha had a question for me, “Why does my one grandson have AIDS, and the others do not?” “Why does my one grandson have AIDS, and the others do not?” Gulp.
I will tell you the rest of that story, but let’s first go back to the Samaritan woman from today’s Gospel text.
Reflecting on this text, many preachers like to speak about Jesus’ commitment to outsiders. They might say, "See, Jesus did not come for the important people of the world, like Nicodemus, but for the no-names, the down-trodden," and, as some older commentaries misinterpreted the Samaritan woman, "the five-time losers."
And that is one interpretation, one I certainly have used in the past. But I also wonder if Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well is really for us all and about us all? I suspect that many of us feel like outsiders, at least some of the time. I know I do. Jesus is not just talking to and accepting of the Samaritan woman, Jesus is talking to and accepting and loving each one of us, too.
And, perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of this story is not simply that Jesus is for the Samaritan woman, but that the Samaritan woman becomes a witness for Jesus.
The Samaritan woman at the well is not a passive recipient of Jesus' offer. She immediately recognizes the societal barriers and boundaries that keep her in her place but at the same time challenges Jesus' authority over and against the ancestors of the faith. Like Nicodemus, she first interprets Jesus' words on a literal level, but she is able to ask for what Jesus has to offer rather than question the possibility. She does not appear to be certain that Jesus is the Christ, but she does not let that stop her from leaving behind her water jar, going into the city, and inviting the people to their own encounter with Jesus.
In short, the Samaritan woman demonstrates what can happen when we actually engage in conversation and questions about our faith. The woman at the well shows us that faith is about dialogue, about growth and change. And the story of the Samaritan woman shows us that we do not have to have all the answers to tell others about Jesus. Belief in Jesus, questions and all, is enough.
The Samaritan woman at the well is an example for us of one whose “labor helps bring in the harvest,” to use an image from this text. She responds to Jesus in such a way that leads Jesus to reveal his true identity to her, and in doing so, her own identity evolves.
We learn from the Samaritan woman that in our own encounter with Jesus, not only are we changed, but that which God will reveal to us will change as well.
Now, back to Martha Symphorian. When she addressed her “why” question to me, “Why does my one grandson have AIDS and the others to not?,” I stuttered and stumbled for an answer. But, before I could give my certainly less-than-adequate response, Martha wisely, Samaritan woman that she was, Martha wisely interrupted me to ask me if I would simply pray for her.
It was as if she knew that hers was an unanswerable question. We then prayed for strength for her fragile family, for food and schooling and access to medical care. And, above all, we prayed that, no matter what happened to them, that Martha and Kenedy and her two other grandchildren would continue to know the deep, deep love that Jesus has for them. Our translator did not even have to translate our prayers – that was not necessary since Martha understood that were praying for her and her grandchildren. She flashed a weary smile.
Martha Symphorian knew, just as the Samaritan woman learned in her encounter with Jesus, Martha Symphorian knew that, no matter how terrible her situation was, that Jesus is the Messiah, her Messiah, and that, because of Jesus, God’s love is eternal, never-ending, and guaranteed.
God’s love - eternal, never-ending, guaranteed for the Samaritan woman, for Martha Symphorian, for you and for me.
Thanks be to God.
(I am most grateful to scholar Karolyn Lewis for her Bible work used in this sermon).
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
March 18 & 19, 2017