Sermon preached at St. Bede’s Mar Vista, Los Angeles, California
Third Sunday in Lent, March 19, 2017
Year A: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42
We heard two stories this morning that focus on water. Now there’s a timely topic for us. I suspect that with our recent experience of drought—and our ongoing anxieties about it—we’re particularly well attuned for them this year.
The first took place in the Sinai desert, at a location originally called “Rephidim.” But Moses renamed it “Massah and Meribah,” which means “Testing and Quarreling.” Yes, water occasions a lot of that, doesn’t it?
Usually, we hear the story as just one more example of how people don’t like change. Here the Israelites were, dragging themselves through the desert, complaining all the way. Yes, it was nice being freed from slavery, but it was no picnic. And the food had definitely been better in Egypt.
But after these years of drought here in California, I find myself hearing it a little differently, more sympathetically in fact. We’ve had a vivid reminder of how necessary water is to life—for plants, for animals, for people. All that complaining at Massah and Meribah was fully justified. Lose the flocks and the people will have nothing to eat. Go too long without adequate water, and the people, too, will die.
And poor Moses is stuck in a kind of middle-management position here. It wasn’t his idea to make this trek through the Wilderness of Sinai. True, he’s lived in the desert before as a shepherd, but he never had to find water for a crowd like this. What is he supposed to do? Well, like most of us perhaps, he gets cranky himself: “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?”
The answer to that was simple: either we get water or we start dying off. Moses has to do something, but there’s nothing Moses can do. Between them, Moses and God do sort it out; but the whole episode leaves behind an ongoing legacy of anger and distrust. Maybe that’s why Moses named the place “Testing and Quarreling”—in the hope of leaving what happened there behind.
There’s no way to overstate the importance of fresh, clean water to the future of the world we live in. And we’re all becoming aware that human carelessness has depleted and polluted the the world’s water supplies. We have a lot of work ahead of us to set past mistakes right and make the planet—or even the state of California—habitable for future generations.
The fact that we’ve been bailed out here in California this winter by powers greater than our own doesn’t resolve the problem. We undoubtedly have a long prospect of testing and quarreling ahead of us in the process of doing that. But we are reminded that it has to be done. And we are aware, too, that there are people in the world in much greater danger than we. As Christians, people who are at least learning to love our neighbor as ourselves, we have to keep doing what we can for others as well.
Fresh, clean water is a finite resource. It’s pretty easy to relate to the story of Massah and Meribah because we know that we’re ultimately in the same spot.
Our other story today—the story of Jesus and the woman at the well—is also about water. And, at first sight, it seems quite different.
Well, it does start off, like Massah and Meribah, with the issue of thirst—Jesus’ thirst after a long day’s walk. But the district of Samaria was no desert. And the city of Sychar boasted a well that had been providing ample water for a thousand years. The city was proud of its well, as it had every right to be. The problem was just getting the water from the bottom of the well to Jesus’ lips.
Along comes a Samaritan woman. I think I understand why John doesn’t tell us her name. He wants to emphasize that she and Jesus were on opposite sides of a long history of estrangement, hostility, even hatred. And yet, she’s a real person—and a very interesting one. I’m going to call her “Hannah” to remind us of that—the same as the mother of Samuel; the same as Jesus’ grandmother, according to tradition.
Jesus starts the conversation by asking for a drink. And, at once, we are back in the world of Massah and Meribah, Testing and Quarreling:
“Why are you asking me for water? You’re part of the Jewish majority. I’m one of these Samaritan people your forebears have rejected and persecuted. You Jews think you’re better than we are. You don’t want to be drinking out of a Samaritan cup, do you?”
Jesus doesn’t match her hostile tone. Instead, he shifts the ground of the conversation and talks about another kind of water that he can give in abundance. Hanna takes this as mere banter and responds in kind, “Where are you going to get that? You don’t even have a bucket, much less a rope.”
“This won’t be well water,” replies Jesus. “It’ll be spring water, ‘gushing up to eternal life.'” Hannah says, “Well, that sounds like a great bargain—no more schlepping out here and hauling water back to the house!”
It’s an entertaining exchange, actually, and Hannah is holding her own nicely. After all, that’s what so much of our testing and quarreling is about: who’s responsible for this mess? Who’s going to have to do something about it? You’re the source of the problem, Moses! No, you people are the problem with all your complaining.
Hannah is keeping Jesus at arm’s length: “You’re one of those Jews, Jesus! Why would I take you seriously?” To which Jesus responds, “No, I’m actually here to overcome that past and offer you a gift.”
All this started with a simple request for a drink of water, a request complicated by centuries of ethnic animosity—with the usual minefield of testing and quarreling. But Jesus is looking for a way through it. “Really, I’m serious,” he says, “we’ll make a legal agreement. We need your husband for that.”
That’s how things worked in Jesus’ time—husbands were legal entities, wives were not. If all this were happening in our own time, maybe he would say, “Call your lawyer and we’ll draw up the contract.”
But then there’s that strange bit where Jesus tells Hannah her entire marital history. What is that about? Readers often assume that he was shaming her. Hers was definitely not the ideal story of marital achievement in first-century Palestine. But she certainly doesn’t act as if she’s been shamed. She goes right off and tells everybody in town about the conversation she’s just had.
No. Strange to say, there’s no animosity here, no shame, no embarrassment. Jesus has simply shown that he knows her quite well—and that there are no barriers between them. There’s no business of us vs.them now. It’s not about Jew vs. Samaritan. It’s not about testing and quarreling. It’s a conversation between two people sitting at a well.
Hannah tries once more to hang onto the familiar way of looking at life—Jew vs. Samaritan—this time by raising theological questions. But the conversation has already shifted radically. And she isn’t entirely surprised when Jesus says, “We’re on the brink of a new era now. Henceforth ‘Jew’ and ‘Samaritan’ worship together in spirit and in truth.”
Two thousand years later, the world is still teetering on the edge of this new era. Indeed, over the last five or six months, the world seems to have taken several steps back from it and worked at resurrecting old animosities instead. But God is still holding the door open—open to a flood of life-giving spirit that can wash away our us vs. them and replace it with cups of water exchanged freely across old boundary lines.
Unlike the physical water of earth, this water of mutual recognition, this water of the spirit, is not limited. It is a gift that can be exchanged over and over without getting frayed or tarnished or out of date. It has the capacity to liberate us from the old world of testing and quarreling and blaming.
We enter it when we begin to see the future as a gift from God, the possibility of becoming genuinely human together. We may look at ourselves, our lives, our communities, and say, “It’ll never happen.” But we can look at Jesus and the saints who have caught his vision—our Samaritan Hannah among them—and then we say, “It can happen. It has happened. It will happen again.”
And it needs to happen. The recognition of our shared humanity is as critical to the future of life on earth as caring for our waters. In fact, the one won’t happen without the other. The question, then, is how to follow in the footsteps of the Samaritan woman and the Jewish stranger who turned out to be the Messiah, meeting at the ancient well and introduced there to a new humanity made possible by the overflowing of God’s love for all of us alike. Every step, however tentative, we can make in that direction will prove to be a contribution to the future of the world.