The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Third Sunday in Lent
March 19, 2017
When I was a sophomore at UT, I met this girl. We both were in the Longhorn Band, I played tuba she played French Horn. We flirted, we dated, we were engaged, we married. It was the Longhorn Band that brought us together. And you might think that is just too cute, too coincidental; that out of such a huge band two nerds like us would get married. I hate to break it to you, but it’s not. Ours is by no means a unique story. Most of our band friends married other band friends. Going to their weddings is like a band reunion. The Longhorn Band was where people met.
In the ancient world, before marching bands, it was water wells. Water wells were where people met. Think about the Old Testament – Moses and Zipporah met at a water well. Jacob met Rachel, at a water well. Wells were the match.com of the ancient world. Whenever somebody showed up at a water well, you knew that wedding bells were just around the corner.
And so Jesus meets this Samaritan woman at a water well and we begin to wonder – are wedding bells just around the corner? Are sparks going to fly? But we notice that this relationship, this meeting between Jesus and the woman at the well is different. A relationship is beginning to form between these two, but it’s not what we expect.
First of all, she’s a Samaritan and he’s a Jew. That would be like a tuba player in the Oklahoma Sooner band getting together with somebody in the UT Longhorn band. It just doesn’t happen.
And then we notice that this woman has a checkered history. As Jesus points out, she’s had five husbands, and the man she’s with now is not her husband.
Now, I don’t think this woman has had so many husbands because she’s promiscuous. No, we have to begin by asking: why would women have been divorced in the ancient world? It’s because they’re barren, they’re infertile. In reading this story we have to assume that the woman has carried the burden of infertility, of miscarriage, of heartbreak. And her husbands would abandon her, divorce her, because she wasn’t getting pregnant. Misery heaped on top of misery. This is not a story about a salacious woman. This is a story about a desperate woman.
She’s desperate for a true relationship. And it’s that despair, that thirst for something more than makes this woman stand out. Think of it, last week we heard the story about Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a leader of the Jews, a learned man, a powerful man, but he comes to Jesus by night because he’s proud.
Jesus meets a woman at the well. She’s a Samaritan, she has no name, she’s been bounced around from house to house and abandoned simply because the way her body works. She meets Jesus at high noon, in the most public place, she is desperate, hopeless. Her life is the opposite of proud Nicodemus.
And instead of telling proud Nicodemus who he is, Jesus speaks most directly with this woman. Jesus says, “I am.” I am the one you’ve been waiting for. I am the hope of all the ages. I am the Christ, the Messiah. I am.
The first person Jesus tells about himself is to a nameless Samaritan woman who’s had five husband and the man she’s living with now is not her husband. Jesus has not yet revealed himself to Nicodemus, to the disciples, to anybody. Jesus did not go to the powerful and the mighty and rich and the learned; Jesus went to the people on the margins. The lonely and desperate ones.
And that relationship that she has been wanting for so long is finally given to her. This woman meets her match at a water well. But it’s more than a match. She finally meets a man who will never abandon her, she meets the man who will never kick her to curb. She meets more than a man, she meets the Savior of the world.
This is a long, entangled story, but one that gives us some hard truths. And the first is this:
The good news of Jesus Christ is for people on the margins. Jesus Christ is for and with the people whom society deems as the outsiders. Jesus loves the unlovable. If you have been on the outside; if you have been on the receiving end of discrimination, of derogatory comments, of glass ceilings, if you’ve been kicked out of your home because of who you are; then you stand with the woman at the well. Jesus is with you and for you.
This truth is hard because it has a flip side. There is great danger when you push people to the margins. There is great danger when you are Nicodemus; trusting in your own power and privilege. When you are on the giving end of discrimination, of derogatory comments; when you are the glass ceiling, you are treading into unholy territory. Because your heart will be hardened against the good news that is desperately trying to break you open.
This is a lesson for the Church, and it is a hard one. The Church is not for perfect people. The Church is not for people who have their life together. The Church is not a place for people for whom life always seems to work out. The Church is not a country club for the righteous. The Church is not for society’s winners, it is for desperate people; desperate for hope, desperate for relationship, desperate to never be abandoned again by this cold and cruel world. This might seem a little below us as decent, industrious Episcopalians. We probably identify a bit more with Nicodemus. Proud, learned, well-respected. Which is only a sign of our spiritual disease. We’re lying to ourselves, to each other, and to God.
This disease in Christianity today, I think, is that we are putting on a show. We come to church, pretending that we have our life together. We put on a mask and charade about as if everything is okay.
But we all know that is a lie. I think actually, that’s why we push others to the outside. Because we are so frail and insecure about ourselves, that in order to numb our own pain, we have to push somebody else out. We have to push somebody down in order to feel on top. What we end up doing is pushing out Jesus.
This is an unholy cycle. Feeling insecure about yourself and then pushing others out in order to numb your pain. Stop it. And face the truth. We are all carrying some heavy weight, a burden in our hearts. We have all been wounded, abandoned, disgraced, hurt. We have lost children in miscarriage, we have been downsized, we’ve lost our families. We have been kicked to the curb, passed from person to person, we bear a heavy load. Some of this is baggage that we have picked up ourselves. Some of this baggage was placed on us.
But whatever it is, we need to stop the masquerade. And we must not push others down. Jesus knew this woman and the immeasurable pain that she carried every day. Jesus knows you and the immeasurable pain you carry. You can be honest with God about your pain because God already knows your pain.
Now, we might astonish some people when we are honest about our struggles. We might astonish people when we take off our masks and acknowledge our checkered histories. We might astonish some people when we act more like the woman at the well and less like Nicodemus. It astonished the disciples. They come back to see Jesus talking with this woman and they seem to think that it’s below him. It’s not below him, there is no one below Jesus. You are not below Jesus. You are not above others. We are all beloved children of God.
And, I believe, that here in the church, at this table, that we finally meet the one who can carry our pain. Not just my pain, not just yours, but all of ours. We finally meet the one who completes us. We meet Jesus, not as a romance, or as a fling, not as a spouse; but as living water for our thirsty souls. And don’t, don’t tell me you aren’t thirsty. This world can’t take any more lies and self-deception. What this world needs is truth, and honesty, and compassion. What this world needs is for us to unload our burdens so that we can finally love each other for who we are. “Come to me,” Jesus says, “all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”