Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless
The opening line of the Exodus text is as ironic as it is true to life — “From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages….” Though Sin in this verse is simply a place name and not a description of our lives apart from God, there is something to the notion that we do fall into the trap of “sin” by stages. None of us ever sets out on any particular day to do something bad or horrific; we often move into dangerous and hurtful behaviors one step at a time. (Okay, that little free sermon is done for!)
The issue here is really one of trust in God — again! One would think that, since the Israelites had fairly recently been delivered from Pharoah by fairly dramatic action (see Exodus 14) and had been fed when they were hungry by the miraculous provisions of manna and quail (see Exodus 16) — that they could have been expected to exert a modicum of faith in God when the time came for them to be thirsty. Alas, we humans seem to have very short memories and/or attention spans when it comes to having our needs met by others (including God!)
God’s proposal for slaking their thirst is unique, to say the least; God will stand in front of them and provide water from a rock. Just another, everyday miraculous occurrence. How many miracles does it before one is able to trust wholeheartedly in the care and provision of God, do you think?
The psalm reflects the experience of the Hebrew people in the wilderness; God was, indeed, a “rock” of salvation when God brought the water into their midst. God’s care is compared to that of a shepherd for his sheep — an image that occurs frequently in scripture (the word shepherd is used well over 100 times.)
What motivates a shepherd to care for the sheep? What motivates God to care for God’s people?
It’s something of an old preacher’s joke: anytime you see the word “therefore” in the Bible, you should find out what it’s there for! That’s actually pretty good advice. A brief glance back into chapter 4 of Romans tells you that Paul just finished speaking about placing our faith in the promise of God — a promise made to Abraham, carried through the long line of Jewish successors, and fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Therefore — because of all that has gone before — we have peace with God. The passage goes on to list a number of other “benefits” of the faith that we place in Jesus. What are some of the other things listed here that follow this important therefore?
We have a very long story here — in fact, this is the longest recorded encounter that Jesus has with one individual in any of the gospels. There are lots of ways to look at the story:
- It is an illustration of the lengths to which Jesus will go to reach out to just one person
- It is an example of a very conversational way to “witness,” or share our faith with another person
- It is a model for breaking down cultural, religious, and social barriers
- It is a reminder that “nobody’s perfect,” and that we can all get a second (or third or fourth or fifth) chance at life
- It is a demonstration of the power of a positive example in the midst of a community
What is the most interesting thing that you notice when you read or hear this story?
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
I was ordained many years ago in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in a church not far from Fort Bragg. An old college friend drove several hours to be there. After the service that evening, he gave me a ride to the house where I was staying with another friend during the clergy conference that was to begin the next day. Our route took us through a part of town where “working girls” offered their services to GIs. We came to a stoplight, and they spotted me sitting there in his open-bodied Jeep. I was wearing a black suit and clergy shirt. Several of them came over to the car and began talking while we waited for the light to change to green. I said to my friend, “Get me out of here or this might be the shortest clerical career on record.”
He laughed as we drove away and then he said, “Well Delmer, I’m just a lowly English teacher, and you know I don’t go to church very much, but the way I read the Bible – aren’t those the very people you’re supposed to hanging out with?” I’ve known the man a long time and I still hate it when he’s right.
In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus is hanging out with one of the wrong people; actually a woman who is wrong in multiple ways: she’s a Samaritan, she’s a woman, and she’s a woman with a past. Three strikes and you’re out; except, not when the umpire is Jesus.
Today, Samaritan is a good word – mostly because of Jesus’ story about the “Good Samaritan.”
I found out recently there’s a club among people who do a lot of vacationing using RVs: it’s called the “Good Sam” Club. But in Jesus’ day there was a great deal of well; plain out hatred between the Jews and the Samaritans. It’s a family thing. Somewhere along the way – they got split off into two groups, both claiming to be continuing the “true religion of Abraham.” The details don’t matter for this sermon, it’s enough to know that Jews didn’t usually travel in Samaria, and certainly didn’t sit around chatting pleasantly with Samaritans in the middle of the street in the middle of the day.
Add to that the woman thing. In that day and in that culture, no holy man would dare to be seen alone with a woman. We understand; then as now, people can get the wrong idea.
No, a man didn’t sit around talking to a woman, particularly if the woman, like this one, had a questionable moral character. The text doesn’t say why she had had five husbands, but the line – “and the one you have now is not your husband” hints that she is a person with somewhat loose morals.
So she had three strikes against her – and Jesus ignored all three strikes. He is sitting alone at the well, hot and thirsty and the woman approaches with the means to get water from the well, and so, Jesus asks her for a drink. And the woman could not have been more shocked if he had asked her to fly him to the moon. She was just as aware as he of the things that stood between them, and she could not believe that he had chosen to ignore all those social barriers in order to speak to her.
She says, naming two of her three strikes, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” And just so we don’t miss the point, the writer chips in with an editorial comment – Jews do not share things with Samaritans.
After some confused conversation about water and living water and her personal life comes up and Jesus still doesn’t blink, doesn’t reconsider or clam up; he just keeps talking to her – about religion and true worship and the Messiah and just then the disciples show up, and to drive the point home even more, the writer tells us they were “astonished” to see him talking to her.
The Greek word translated astonished here carries with it the implication or the hint of fear; it is used when something has happened that no only surprises but also frightens. What are the disciples afraid of? The Samaritans? The Authorities? The future? Change? What?
There are more than a few questions in this story for us. We need to ask ourselves if there are any social barriers we are afraid to cross in answering God’s call to spread good news about Jesus into all the world?
If there are, we need to ask ourselves further – What are we afraid of? What might happen? What might change? What might we lose? What might we gain?
The end of this story shows the woman going back to her village to talk to her friends and relatives about what has happened to her; about the man who ignored all the reasons to say no in order to say yes to talking to her. She doesn’t try to convert them or convince them. Indeed she witness with a question. “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”
Just as Jesus talked with the woman as an equal and as a friend; that is all we are called to do as we share with the world our encounters with the holy. It is not required that we either explain or expound – all we are asked to do is tell and invite.
I have often wondered in the last 35 plus years; what might have happened had I – instead of sitting silently in that Jeep, in my black suit and clerical collar, Bible and Prayer Book clutched tightly in my hands – what might have happened had I smiled and turned to those women and said “Hello, my name is Delmer. Would you like to talk?” Maybe nothing; maybe for one of them, everything. We’ll never know – because I was too astonished and afraid to try.
Amen and amen.