This sermon was offered at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT on March 15, 2020 to an empty church due to the concerns from COVID-19. However, God’s Church, God’s people, are active!
The texts were: John 4: 5-42 You can watch the service on YouTube on the Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church SLC channel
A lot has changed this week hasn’t it? We have left some things that we’ve always known and had behind. It’s in our human nature to try and not leave anything behind when we leave places as we like to keep what we have and what we know in close proximity. There are times when we intentionally leave something behind, like a gift, or a remembrance as a way of marking the moment and the occasion. But how many of us have the experience of leaving something and not even knowing until a later date, sometimes much later. So was that thing really that important? Do we really need it? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. We can also realize what we truly need when we’ve left something behind.
When we leave things behind, sometimes it frees us to be open to a new direction, a new way of doing something, or a new experience or new information. Leaving something behind means loss, worry and a feeling of vulnerability. So we try and hold on to what we have, even when perhaps leaving it behind is what we need to do for something new.
Our story of the woman at the well with Jesus today has a lot of layers, depth and nuance to it that I wish I could address in one sermon, but alas, you’ll have to wait another three years when this comes back around and we’ll add to the story. But I’ll try and drop a few fun nuggets as we go. Jesus crosses into Samaria, foreign territory, where the people worship differently (despite being a branch from the same tree of Judaism), have some different values and there is a definite rift between the Samaritans and the Jewish people of Israel. The Samaritans don’t worship in Jerusalem in the temple but at Mt. Gerizim-which would be blasphemy for the Israelites. The Samaritans were considered persona non gratis to Israelites and to be avoided at every cost. But Jesus doesn’t take the long way around to avoid them-he goes straight into their territory unabashedly. He leaves behind the safety of staying in territory that is known, acceptable and comfortable. He goes to the well, Jacobs Well, as Sychar, or what in the OT is Shechem. This well is the scene of a couple of betrothals and wells were known in the ancient world as a place to see the opposite sex. A dating site if you will.
Jesus is at the well when the woman comes at noon to fill her jar. Now a lot of assumptions have been made about this woman coming to the well at noon alone. But notice that the text says nothing of her morality, ethics or character. Only that she comes to the well at noon. Jesus engages her in conversation and through this back and forth about living water, Jesus reveals that he knows about her marital status. Five previous husbands and the one she is living with isn’t her husband. Some scholars think that this is metaphorical for Samaria being under the rule of five foreign powers and then Rome, but more than likely, this is a nod to Levirate marriage laws where if a man dies without an heir, one of the remaining brothers marries his wife. It could be that this poor woman has been widowed five times and the last brother refuses to marry her. We also have to remember that women lacked the autonomy that we have today. Women only had safety, worth and dignity attached to a male family member somehow, a husband or a son. She’s not a woman of ill-repute, she’s a woman caught in social structures that don’t benefit her.
Jesus acknowledges this. Jesus understands the predicament she’s in and offers her another way. The way things have always been in her life, don’t have to be. The old ways will be left behind and something new will happen. She responds with the proclamation that Jesus is a prophet and challenges him with another cultural norm, the place of worship. She brings up the elephant in the room: we don’t agree on a basic tenet of faith Jesus. As Jesus always does, he doesn’t get caught in the either/or trap. He reveals that the day is coming when WHERE we worship God is far less important than HOW we worship God. We will have to leave behind the trappings of space and ritual and worship in Spirit and truth-that is live out John 3:16-be God’s love in and for the world.
The woman then has a glimpse of what is really going on-she’s met the messiah, the one who makes whole, the one who will bring redemption, the one who brings life. Jesus simply says “I AM.” The woman then goes back to her village filled to the brim from this encounter with the living God, leaving behind her water jar, leaving behind her past, leaving behind her assumptions, leaving behind social norms of women, to be a witness to truth, to living water that flows to all. Everything she leaves behind frees her to witness to God’s mission through Jesus. She goes and tells her community, “Come and See,” and the people also leave behind their own opinions on the unnamed woman, assumptions on the messiah, as well as Israelites. They invite the stranger into their midst and learn from him and become witnesses themselves to the new thing that God was showing them through Jesus.
We, too, are in a moment of leaving things behind. We have left behind being together in a particular place for worship, for sacrament, for fellowship. We have left behind social norms of daily life, we have left behind certainty, assumptions of how life should be, and so much more. But in leaving these things behind, for hopefully only a few weeks, how are we freed to witness like the woman in ways that are unconventional, new, and life giving? Jesus is clear in this text, where one worships isn’t what matters, it’s worshiping in Spirit and truth. It’s getting clear about what matters, what we can and should leave behind, in order for God’s truth, that God loves the world, and we are to bear witness to that in all times and places. Jesus very presence with the woman propelled her out of her comfort zone and everything she knew about herself in societal structure in order for others to come face to face with Jesus who crosses borders, leaves behind earthly expectations to reveal God’s expectations of how we live together.
I’m sure the woman was nervous, a bit afraid and wasn’t sure what would happen next as she left her water jar. But she did it trusting that what she had experienced mattered more than any of those things. As we move forward in the coming days and weeks, we are called to trust in what matters, that the people of God cannot be contained to a space, that Church is always loose in the world and isn’t a building, that we can be witnesses to God’s presence in surprising and unexpected ways in our lives. I, too, am leaving behind comforts, routines and assumptions of how church and life work right now. Together we will step out in faith and leave behind what was and embrace what is and know that Jesus is in our midst. Amen.