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ENCOUNTER AT THE WELL"
|Today we begin a new theme: "The Well is
Deep." I thought of this theme one year ago as I was
standing in the crypt under the Cathedral in Chartres,
France part of the trip this congregation gave to
Larry and me as a celebration of our 25 years at UCG. In
the Chartres Cathedral, there is an ancient Celtic well
in the crypt, now covered by a locked lid, a well as deep
as the tallest spire of the cathedral is high. The
Cathedral is built on the site of an ancient Druid
sanctuary where, long before the Christian era, there was
a sacred grove of trees and a well that was called
"The Well of the Strong." Here, carved in the
hollowed out trunk of a pear tree, there was a statue of
a dark woman with an infant on her knees, made long
before the birth of Christ. This well at Chartres is very
deep, in measurable distance and in symbolic meaning.
This morning, our story of a well comes from the Gospel of John, Chapter 4. This story is unique to John; it is not repeated anywhere else in the New Testament. The story takes place at a well in Samaria. We need to know that at the time of Jesus, Jews and Samaritans were bitter enemies. The original source of the hatred between them was a disagreement about the correct location of their most important place for worship. The Samaritans built a shrine on Mount Gerizim and claimed that this shrine, not the Temple in Jerusalem, was the proper place to worship God. The Jews, of course, built the Temple in Jerusalem and claimed that it was the most holy place. Jewish troops destroyed the Samaritan shrine in 128 BCE which did nothing to decrease the hatred between Jews and Samaritans.
This passage from the Gospel of John is a story about reaching beyond prejudice and crossing lines of exclusion. It is a story about the nature of God; it is a story about spiritual growth. I ask you, as you listen to the story, to set aside your own prejudices about the Bible, your own preconceived notions about Jesus, and the ideas about Christianity that you have already excluded from your faith. I ask you to truly listen to the story. Pay particular attention to a word or a phrase or a thought that resonates with you, that strikes you from the story. Then, we will unpack the story and see how deep this well is.
The scripture passage is John, Chapter 4, verses 1 30, a combination of the translations from The Message by Eugene Peterson and the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible:
Jesus heard that the Pharisees were keeping count of the baptisms that he and John the Baptist performed. They had posted the score that Jesus was ahead, trying to turn Jesus and John into rivals in the eyes of the people. So Jesus left the Judean countryside and went back to Galilee.
To get there, he had to pass through Samaria. He came into Sychar, a Samaritan village that bordered the field which Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacobs well was still there. Jesus, worn out by his trip, sat down at the well. The disciples had gone into the village to buy food for lunch. It was noon.
A woman, a Samaritan, came to the well to draw water. Jesus said, "Would you give me a drink of water."
The Samaritan woman, taken back, asked, "How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink of water? Jews have nothing to do with Samaritans?"
Jesus answered, "If only you recognized the generosity of God and you knew who is asking you for a drink, you would be asking me for a drink instead and I would give you fresh living water."
"If you please," she challenged Jesus, "you dont even have a bucket and this well is deep. So how are you going to get this `living water? Do you think you are a better man than our ancestor Jacob who dug this well and drank from it and passed it down to us?"
Jesus replied, "Everyone who drinks this water will get thirsty again and again. But those who drink the water I give them will never be thirsty. The living water I bring will be an artesan spring within, gushing fountains of endless life."
The woman said to Jesus, "Give me this water then, so that I wont grow thirsty again and have to keep coming all the way here to draw water."
Jesus said to her, "Go, call your husband and then come back here."
"I dont have a husband," replied the woman.
"You are right you dont have a husband!" Jesus exclaimed. "The fact is that you have had five and the man you are living with is not your husband. So what you have said is quite true."
"I can see that you are a prophet," answered the woman. "Then tell me this. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you people claim that Jerusalem is the place where God ought to be worshipped."
Jesus told her, "Believe me, the hour is coming when youll worship Abba God neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. .. The hour is coming and is already here when what you are called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter. Its who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. Thats the kind of worshippers God is looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves in their worship. God is Spirit and those who worship God must worship in spirit and in truth."
The woman said to Jesus, "I know that the Anointed One is coming and will teach us."
Jesus replied, "I speak to you as that person."
The disciples, returning at this point, were shocked to find Jesus having a private conversation with a woman. But no one dared to ask, "What do you want of him?" or "Why are you talking with her?"
The woman then left and went off into the town, leaving her water jar behind in her excitement and confusion. She said to the people, "Come and see someone who told me everything I have ever done! Could this be the Messiah?" At that, everyone set out from town to meet Jesus. .. Many Samaritans from that town believed in Jesus teachings on the strength of the womans testimony and Jesus stayed there two more days, and through his own spoken word, many more came to faith.
This is a story of the well of faith a faith that breaks through our prejudices and our barriers. Look at the lines of exclusion that are crossed in this story. Jesus breaks the rules of conduct in his culture by speaking to this woman. A Jewish man did not ever initiate conversation with an unknown woman. Moreover, a Jewish teacher did not engage in public conversation with any woman, not even his wife. This is not just a passing hello; Jesus has a long extended conversation with this Samaritan woman. In fact, this is one of the longest dialogues in the book of John. She is feisty, forthright, and assertive; she engages Jesus with questions and discussion.
This conversation is all the more remarkable because it takes place between two individuals whose people have long been enemies. She recognizes this immediately: "How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?" Jews did not share things in common with Samaritans, particularly anything connected with eating or drinking. Samaritans were considered to be unclean; and Samaritan women were thought of as impure. This conversation breaks open the walls between enemies.
Jesus approaches her, a woman, a foreigner from enemy territory, and he accepts her as she is, a woman who is out at noon drawing water from the well. Typically the women would go to the well in the morning and in the evening, not in the oppressive heat of mid-day. My guess is that she may be out at noon to avoid the other women in the village who probably shun her for living with a man who is not her husband. For centuries, Biblical scholars have consistently portrayed this woman as a sinner because they assumed that she had been divorced five times. But five divorces, uncommon even today, were unheard of back then. It is more likely that her husbands had died. In fact, she may have been a victim of the law of succession which meant that when her husband died, his brothers were entitled to marry her and assume any material wealth she had. Sometimes widows were passed along from brother to brother in this way. She may have fled this quasi-slavery to live with a man whom she could not marry. In stories about Jesus, things are seldom the way we first see them.
Note that Jesus does not judge her and doesnt seem a bit concerned about her relationships. He mentions them only to illustrate his ability to see and know things about people. As such, it is a moment of revelation to her, because it allows her to see Jesus with new eyes. Her prejudices about a Jewish male are broken open - and she says, "I see you are a prophet."
As the conversation progresses, it deepens. She puts before Jesus the fundamental issue that divides them: which is the right worship site, the temple in Jerusalem or the shrine on this mountain. He answers her by breaking out of the rigid religious boundaries of the past. God is spirit, he says, not bound to any one place or to any one people. Those who worship God must worship in spirit and in truth. In these few sentences, Jesus does away with regionalism, nationalism, and denominationalism. Worship in spirit and in truth is not threatened by those who are different. In spirit and truth, strangers, even enemies, may come together and drink the living water. They may honor and celebrate their differences and bring forth their God-given gifts. Wherever they worship, those places become holy and sacred, for that is where they meet God.
Such was the experience at Jacobs well in this story for both Jesus and for the Samaritan woman. Jesus offers her a view of God, and of herself, that challenges the limitations of her traditional beliefs and ultimately changes her life. She returns to the town and shares with the people what she has seen and heard. She, not the disciples, becomes the witness for God in that community and she re-enters the community, no longer shunned or isolated.
Let me share with you how this story speaks to me today. First, this story clearly calls me to look at the groups of people, and nations, that are in some way my enemy. Who do I avoid? Who do I stereotype? Where is the well I have in common with them? How and when and where can I seek opportunities for conversations, possibilities for sharing a cup of water?
The story echoes my belief that spirituality and interpersonal relationships are not separate. They travel hand-in-hand, connected like Siamese twins. We find God not only in solitude and silence, but also in our connections with one another. And this story says to me that the God of spirit and of truth comes in connections not only with those who are like me, but also, and perhaps especially, with those people who are different from me.
Second, this is a story of a man and a woman crossing the lines of gender which in their time were rigid boundaries. I resonate with this story because it is a personal cause of mine to keep women and men connected to one another. I affirm and value the women who are a deep part of my life. And it is important for women to have time with women, and for men to have time with men. Thats why there is a Mens Overnight this week-end and why Lynda Everitt and I are leading a Womens Overnight in two weeks.
Yet I believe it is equally important to pay attention to opportunities to cross over those gender lines, to unclump, and to relate to one another. I get frustrated when I go to a social gathering and find the men all standing on the porch talking to each other and the women all standing together in another room, and there is no interaction. I realize from this Bible story that this is more than my desire for equality. When we let ourselves always gravitate into gender-segregated groups, we lose opportunities for personal growth and learning and we lose the chance to touch another perspective about God.
At our Annual Planning conference this past week, we spent some time in small groups of 5 sharing about our spiritual journey and how the work we do in this church relates to our spiritual path. I was in a group with 3 women and 2 men and it was a rich experience for me to have that kind of conversation in a mixed gender group. There was an enhanced perspective about God and about our human journey. In fact, at the end of the group, I said "I have been hungry for this kind of talk." I remember on a church retreat a few years ago, Jim Button and Barb Rienzo led a workshop on sexuality. I was in a small group with 1 other woman and 2 men sharing some experiences from our childhood, and I heard stories about what it is like to be a boy that I had never heard before and that I will always remember. We see vividly this kind of deep conversation and interaction in our story of the Samaritan woman. Stepping out of our usual routine, truly listening and truly being heard, quenches a deep thirst in all of us; it is the experience of living water.
Third, the story also points me toward the symbolic spiritual well which is very deep. In the story of the Samaritan woman, it is no accident that she meets Jesus at Jacobs well. Jacob was their common ancester, a source of their common faith and they meet at that well and at that place move beyond what divides them to the living water of the spirit. The well at Chartres sits in a medieval cathedral which incorporates many strands of Christianity including medieval pilgrimage and yet that well goes deeper, back to Celtic times, back to the times of Goddess worship. All are part of that spiritual well, that living water.
In our own lives, I think of Jungs image of the psyche. He says that below the ordinary surface conscious layer of our daily lives, within our psyche is our unconscious, where our shadow self, our memories, our other side lives. And below that he says is a deep aquifer of the collective unconscious which he calls the universal. In that deepest layer of ourselves, we carry our commonality with all of humanity, with all of creation. In that deepest layer of ourselves is the spiritual aquifer. And we all have the ability to move through our conscious to our unconscious to this layer of the spirit, the universal, where we touch the Holy. That is our spiritual well and it is very deep.
We all remember Jesus parable of the Good Samaritan, who stops by the side of the road to help a Jewish man who has been beaten and robbed. Whenever you think of or hear that parable, remember also this good Samaritan in the Gospel of John, an encounter at the well between a woman and a man who were not afraid to speak and to listen to one another. Both stories of Samaritans free us from the narrowness that loves our own kind and worships God only in one temple or on one mountain. Together, these Samaritan stories remind us of how to love a neighbor and how to worship God in spirit and in truth.
Prayer O Holy One, my soul longs for your living water. I thirst for meaning, for balance, for connection with others, for sacred space.
Let me see an image of my own well of the Spirit. At this time in my life, is my spiritual well deep or shallow? Is the water gushing, or flowing, or trickling? Is it clear or murky? I ask for a word, a thought, of direction of what I need to keep this living water of the spirit flowing in my life, quenching my thirst.
I also pray for an awareness this week, in the midst of my days, for the barriers and lines of exclusion that exist within me and around me. Let me cross those lines of differences as I am able, let me pray for the places where I am unable to cross those barriers; mostly, let me see more clearly.
Be with those whom I name to you in silence now.
Be with those who are ill, who are homeless, who are hungry, who suffer from war and hatred.
Be with those in our own congregation who have special needs this week.
Let us remember the words of the Psalmist: In your presence, O Spirit of Love, there is fullness of joy and blessedness forever and ever. Amen.