Lectionary blog for March 19
The third Sunday in Lent
Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95;
Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42
When I was in seminary, I heard about a South Carolina pastor’s careful efforts to introduce the “passing of the peace” to his congregation. He was very anxious about it because, like many long-established congregations, they did not adapt to change easily. As part of introducing the then new “green book,” i.e. the LBW, he had written a newsletter article about “the peace,” he had preached a sermon about it, and he had taught an adult forum on it. Finally, the fateful day came when he turned from the altar and said to the congregation, in what he hoped was a warm and encouraging voice, “The peace of the Lord be with you always!” “And also with you,” came the mumbled, almost hushed, reply.
Stepping bravely out of his appointed place in the chancel, the pastor went forward to the front row to shake the hand of the woman there and greet her with words of peace. She was someone he barely knew, who only sporadically attended services and always slipped out during the last hymn.
The moment his hand touched her hand—her face crumbled, her eyes flowed with tears, and she fled the building by a side door.
It was all the pastor could do to finish the service, and as soon as possible he drove to her house to check on her. She politely ushered him into the “front room,” and told him, “I’m so sorry I made such a scene. It’s hard to explain. You see pastor, since my husband died five years ago, you’re the first person who has touched me.”
In our Gospel lesson today, we read the story of a time when Jesus touched a life. It was not easy for Jesus to touch the Samaritan woman’s life. He had to overcome, or simply ignore, many societal and cultural barriers to do it. He was a Jew—she was a Samaritan. He was a man—she was a woman. He was a rabbi—she was a woman of suspect moral character.
And yet, here was Jesus, a religious leader, alone in a lonely place and not only speaking to her but holding a long conversation with her, someone he was not even supposed to make contact with.
And yet, Jesus found a way to touch and transform her life.
The Samaritans were the descendants of the people left behind when the rich, educated and powerful leaders of Israel were carted off in bondage to Babylon. These left-behind Israelites had inter-married with other people living in the area and had kept their faith alive the best way they could without a temple or priesthood—telling the stories of the patriarchs and Moses and David and Solomon by word of mouth, and worshiping at outdoor altars on mountaintops.
When the Israelites returned from Babylon years later, they wouldn’t let the Samaritans help with the rebuilding of the temple, indeed, they wouldn’t have anything to do with the Samaritans at all. Those who had been taken into exile had spent so much effort staying “pure,” that they looked down on their distant cousins who had not. So the Samaritans built their own temple on Mount Girizim. Eventually, tensions between the groups erupted and an Israeli army destroyed the Samaritan temple, leaving them to worship on the lonely mountaintop. So here we are at the well, hundreds of years later. Jesus was a Jew—she was a Samaritan; they should have ignored each other.
But there’s more. Even if she had been Jewish, the encounter would have been suspect, because many Jews believed that men should not speak to women in public. The strictest rabbis advised that men should not speak to their own wives in public. There was even a group of devout Pharisees who were nicknamed the “black-and-blues,” because they walked around in public with their eyes closed to avoid seeing a woman. “Black and blues”? They kept running into things.
The first miracle in this story is that Jesus ignored all these restrictions and prejudices and at mid-day, while sitting alone at a well, he asked her for a drink of water. Nothing extraordinary, nothing stupendous or profound, just a drink of water. And she could not have been more surprised if he had asked her to fly.
What was said between them was much less important than the fact that he spoke to her; he carried on a conversation with her; he treated her like a person worth knowing. He treated her with respect. He treated her like someone who was acceptable, like someone who was touchable. He touched her life in that conversation. He talked to her about important things, about God and life and worship and love. And most importantly, he did not condemn her as others had done. Rather, he offered her an opportunity to change her life. He offered her the “Living Water” of God’s love. He did not argue with her about the relative merits of Jewish and Samaritan ways of worshiping the same God. Rather, he shared with her his love for God and his certainty that without spirit and truth, no worship was true.
He touched her—by meeting her where she was.
He touched her—by ignoring societal barriers that should have separated them.
He touched her—by letting her know that he cared about her; he accepted her; he loved her.
There are many people in the world today who are like that lonely woman in the front pew of that old Lutheran church in South Carolina—people yearning to be touched, people looking for someone who will care about them, someone who will make contact with them. Ours is a world full of hurting, lonely, scared and scarred folk, needing to be touched and healed. This story invites us to a ministry of touching the lives of others with the love and concern of Christ.
We are invited to be like Jesus, ignoring the barriers that separate us from others, reaching out to them with genuine love and concern. And we are invited to be like the woman at the well—responding to the loving touch of Jesus by telling others about the one who has touched our lives.
Amen and amen.