The woman at the well was isolated. In more ways than one. She came to the well at noon to draw water. Most of the other women would have come early in the morning, when it was cooler, and they would have come together. It was a chore, but a social one. One made easier through companionship and laughter. The woman Jesus meets is by herself. We learn some of her story, though not all of it. She has been married five times, and is not currently married. Has she been divorced? If so, it wasn’t by her choosing in that time. Widowed? Some combination of the two? Whatever has happened has left her as an outcast apart from others.
Isolation is difficult to bear. It wears on our hearts and souls, slowly over time. In this time of global pandemic, we’re experiencing voluntary isolation and social distancing out of love and care for our neighbors, but it is still difficult. St. Paul’s offered virtual worship this past Sunday (CLICK HERE), and will continue to do so. As we seek best practices to maintain the physical health of our community, let us also be mindful of our spiritual health. Reach out and connect with each other in all the ways technology offers, and reach out to me with prayer requests and concerns.
The sermon below, based on John 4, is a little different than what you hear in the video, this is what I had written before the decision to cancel church was made, although with an ending written after that point :).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
During his last year in seminary a colleague of mine signed up for a class called “Confession and Forgiveness from a Pastoral Perspective.” All forty-five slots filled up on the first day of registration, which was pretty impressive for a three-hour class that started at 2 in the afternoon.
On the first day, with everyone in eager anticipation, the professor asked, “What do YOU think this class is about?” The extroverts quickly gave their answers: the importance of forgiveness every day. God’s love for us. God’s grace given to us. God’s assurance of forgiveness. Nodding, the professor moved to the chalkboard and wrote one word. “Shame.”
For the most part, the class was intrigued. They could see why shame would be part of the class, even though it wasn’t mentioned in the course description or syllabus. They were on board with this change, until, at the end of the first class, the professor dropped the bombshell.
The final exam would be something different. Each student would have to write a fifteen-page autobiographical essay about a personal experience of shame. Are you surprised, that after that first class, one-third of the students dropped the course? What would you do, if, right now, I asked you to turn to your neighbor and share a personal experience you’ve had with shame?
Not embarrassment, like when I was ten and forgot the lines in the school play and my teacher had to whisper them to me. Not guilt, which we might feel when we make a mistake, but shame, the feeling that I AM a mistake. The feeling that something is fundamentally wrong with me, that I am deeply flawed in some unfixable way. I’d bet at least a third of you would flatly refuse.
With that in mind, I hope you won’t be too disappointed to hear that this isn’t a sermon about shame. Shame is a relevant topic, if for no other reason that we need to hear the good news that God made us just as we are, that God loves us no matter what, and that we are worthy of God’s love. But this sermon isn’t about shame, because this text isn’t about shame—in spite of what many of us have been taught.
A long tradition of biblical interpretation concludes that this woman at the well must be a prostitute. After all, she is living—so to speak—with a man who isn’t her husband! That tradition means many of us come to this text preconditioned to see this woman as shameful and ashamed.
Yes, she has been married five times, but there are perfectly logical reasons in the ancient near east that might make this happen. Yes, the man she lives with now isn’t her husband, but there is nothing in the text to suggest this is so awful. It could be her father, or brother, or brother-in-law.
This story isn’t about shame. It’s about judgment. It’s about division. It’s about assumptions and boundaries, and the ways we distance ourselves from one another. And it’s about how those judgments and divisions and boundaries might unravel if we engage one another as human beings created by God, inherently valuable and worthy of love and respect.
In our series looking at Love Languages, the language for today is Quality Time. Quality time is the love language that centers around togetherness. It’s all about expressing your love and affection with your undivided attention. When you’re with someone else, you put down the cell phone, turn off the tablet, and focus on them. It’s not just about time, it’s about the level of attention and care you put into that time.
I should say, that while I offered the survey, and have been saying that we all have our own primary love languages—that doesn’t mean we don’t all need the other four. We might need one or two more than the others, but all of us need all the love languages in some form or another. We all need quality time with those we love and care about. Especially now, as we talk about social distancing and staying home, we might want to ask what does quality time look like? How can we make sure we’re still giving and receiving it, while being safe and conscious about our actions?
It’s probably not surprising that this is the love language for today, given the sheer length of today’s gospel reading. This is the longest conversation that Jesus has with anyone in all of Scripture. And it’s a conversation that shouldn’t have happened in the first place.
The woman is naturally suspicious of Jesus. She’s by herself with a jar at a well—the ancient near east equivalent of a singles bar—and this man asks her for a drink. She is especially suspicious because she can tell this man is Jewish. And Jews and Samaritans were deeply mistrustful of one another after a long and painful history.
But thankfully, Jesus fails to follow the culturally acceptable script. Instead of refusing to interact with this woman simply because she is a Samaritan and woman, he engages her. He speaks to her, he listens to her, he sees her as more than her labels. All of which allows her to see beyond that Jesus is Jewish and a man. As they talk, she comes to discover things she never thought possible. This man talks about God in ways she has never heard before. Moreover, he is unafraid to talk with her, utterly unashamed by their encounter. He welcomes the opportunity to engage her, to converse with her, in spite of the things that should divide them from each other.
And the woman leaves transformed—inspired to share the good news of this unlikely encounter with her community—the news that God might just be bigger than they thought, big enough, in fact, to hold together Jews and Samaritans. Big enough to overcome the divisions and divides that we create.
God offers us the gift of quality time. Quality attention. God is never too busy to be in deep and meaningful conversation with us. Are we willing to take God up on the offer? Do we put quality time into our relationships with God? With each other? What miraculous things might happen if we did?
Who are our Samaritans? Who are the people that we see as other? In this time of heightened anxiety around illness, people of Asian descent have been the increased targets of racism and xenophobia. This is unacceptable. Being wary of spreading and catching illness, which is a god thing, can have the negative effect of making us wary of each other, distrustful and suspicious.
God can hold us together, we can break with the shame we may have internalized and see ourselves how God does—as whole, and wholly worthy of God’s love. We can see others that way too. We can reach across barriers and see people not for the labels and judgments they might be given, but for the children of God that they are.
A detail we might miss at the end of the story—after this woman rounds up all her neighbors to meet Jesus, Jesus and the disciples stay there, in that Samaritan village, for two whole days! They eat and drink with Samaritans, share space with them, all things that neither group was supposed to do. Imagine how many assumptions and judgments were destroyed in those two days.
Time spent together, listening, learning, trying to understand, is time spent in a godly way. As many of us are off from school or working from home in these days, maybe we can consider: how can we spend quality time with God and with each other? How can we maintain our necessary social support of each other, even if we aren’t physically present with one another? Think about if you were in church this morning. Who would you see? Who would be sitting near you? Pray for that person. Reach out, give that person a phone call or an email or a text letting them know you’re thinking about them.
May God grant all of us living water during these anxious and trying times. May we be refreshed and renewed in God’s presence, and by God’s gifts of love and grace. And may we be brought closer together—even if not physically closer—in support and prayer for one another. Amen.