Encountering the other

23 March 2014
Third Sunday of Lent
Lent 3A (RCL)
Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

Anyone thirsty? There is a lot of water in the readings for this Sunday. And in the reading from John, of course, water serves as a metaphor for something else. The reading is wonderfully allusive, and only hints at what we are thirsty for.

The story in John couldn’t be any more different from last week’s story. Last week, Nicodemus, a man, a leader of the Jews, comes to Jesus, and leaves completely befuddled and misunderstanding who Jesus is (his understanding is based on signs — always a misdirection in John’s Gospel). This week, Jesus comes to a woman, a Samaritan, and probably of questionable moral standing (five husbands, at the well at noon), and a whole Samaritan village comes to see Jesus as the Savior of the world.

The story of the woman at the well is one of John’s best. The allusions are rich. First, Jesus encounters this woman at Jacob’s well. All of the patriarchs met their wives at a well. Each of them (or their father’s servants) journey back to the land of their kin, and they took as wife the first woman to come to the well to offer them water. Is Jesus journeying back to the land of his kin?

Over and over again, the prophets use the image of marriage for the relationship between God and God’s people. This metaphor may lie behind this story. If so, might we look at the five husbands (Ba’als) as Samaria’s five gods, or overlords? YHWH would be the first, during the period of the united kingdom, then Assyria, Babylon, Persia and Alexander. The one she has now, who is not her husband (Ba’al) would be the Roman Empire. That would certainly explain the Jews despite of the Samaritans.

Jesus begins the encounter by asking for water, as had the patriarchs in the older stories. Notice that he doesn’t say “please.” Rather than giving water, she begins by pointing out differences between herself and Jesus. The conversation then wanders through several theological debates: living/eternal water — no bucket; greater than Jacob?; five husbands/prophet; worship on this mountain/Jerusalem vs. spirit and truth; prophet vs. Messiah — I AM. Through all of that, Jesus never gets his drink of water.

When the disciples return, they are astonished that Jesus is speaking with her. Notice that when she leaves, she leaves her water jar behind. Is she no longer thirsty, because she has come to know Jesus as Messiah, and has his eternal living water? Jesus begins talking to his disciples about food. The food he has is to do his Father’s work, and then he talks about the harvest surrounding them, presumably the Samaritans who come to believe in him. They give him the title, “Savior of the world,” one of the titles given to Caesar by the Hellenistic cites of Asia Minor.

John juxtaposes the two stories of Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman (whose name we don’t know) to make the point that it is encountering the other that are doing God’s work in the world. And not just encountering the other, but engaging them in substantive, theological conversation, open to having your own view changed, and entering into deep relationship (marriage as it were) with the other.

What are we thirsty for? The people, in the Exodus story, are thirst for security. I think we are thirst, in many ways, for a sense of community and of belonging. In a way, that thirst is analogous to the People’s thirst for security. In our thirst for community, we tend to choose communities of affinity, we associate with people like ourselves. Both these readings are invitations for us to step out of our comfort zones and find both our differences and our common desires with people completely unlike ourselves, or to find God’s gifts in completely unexpected places.

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