A sermon for the third Sunday of Lent

Who in your life has been a channel of faith and grace for you?

Who has shown you what it means to live in God’s love, and inspired you to want to live that way yourself?

We talked about that in the little group that made it through the snow to our Lent study group on Wednesday. We didn’t do the full lesson that was planned for that day, because we’re saving it for the whole group this coming Wednesday. But we did talk about some of those people in our lives who have been most significant in bringing us to faith.

We’ve been talking about what we call the five marks of love, or five marks of mission – not a checklist of things we must do to prove that we’re Christians, but basic things that demonstrate that we are “marked as Christ’s own,” as the title of the program says. These marks are five things that demonstrate God’s love at work in our lives.

The first mark of love is that we “proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom,” which we can abbreviate simply as “tell.”

Now Episcopalians are not known for being particularly comfortable with the vision of ourselves as evangelists. Not for nothing are we sometimes called “God’s frozen chosen.”

You don’t find a lot of street-corner prophets standing under the Episcopal shield, but the point is that you don’t have to go out to the streets to proclaim the Good News.

You can do it right where you are, in your day-to-day life, through your words, or just by how you lead your life.

There’s a quote attributed to St. Francis about that. He supposedly told his brothers to preach always – and if necessary, use words.

We all need this kind of inspiration. Whether by words or action, we need people who can inspire us in faith, and show us how it’s done. People whose example we can follow.

Today we have a wonderful example of down-to-earth evangelism in the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well.

It’s a familiar story to many of us – maybe too familiar. What I mean by that is she’s been misunderstood over time, this wonderful nameless hero of the faith. So I want to start by asking you to forget some of the impressions you might have.

If you were taught to think of her as a notorious sinner, a woman with a shameful sex life – look carefully and see if it really says that.

If you were taught that the main thing that happened in this story is that Jesus rebuked her, or that he forgave here – look carefully and see if it really says that.

On the other hand, if you think of this woman at the well as the first person in John’s Gospel to whom Jesus reveals his true identity – “I am” – or if you remember her as an important woman disciple who was credited with bringing a large Samaritan community into Christian discipleship … good for you! Because I think that’s what we see when we take a good look at this story, keeping an open mind about what’s really happening.

Jesus is traveling from Jerusalem, where he encountered Nicodemus in last week’s Gospel, back home to Galilee in the north. On his way, he passes through the foreign territory of Samaria. This was hostile territory – a lot of travelers going that way took a longer route around just to avoid it.

Our familiarity with the story of the so-called Good Samaritan might incline us to think of the Samaritans as nice people, but that’s not what Jesus and his friends would have thought. They had some common ancestors, but as far as the Jews were concerned, Samaritans were an inferior race of people who followed a false religion. They were despised.

So Jesus crosses a couple of huge boundaries to have a conversation with this woman at the well, based on culture and also on gender. As a Jewish male, he’s socially superior to a Samaritan woman and wouldn’t be expected to talk to her at all.

This comes right after the famous words of John 3:13 – “God so loved the world” – and I think that’s not at all by accident. This is Jesus showing his disciples – and all of us – what “the world” looks like. And it turns out to be a little bigger than we might have had in mind.

So there he is, tired and thirsty in the heat of the day, and she’s the one who has the bucket.

If light in John’s Gospel represents faith and full relationship with God, while darkness represents unknowing, what does it say that this meets Jesus at noon – compared to Nicodemus, who met him at night?

Right there in broad daylight, Jesus and this woman have a conversation that is theological from the start, and she totally holds her own.

She begins by asking why he’s going against Jewish tradition, and talking to her at all.

He mentions living water, and she mentions the patriarch Jacob, who met his wife Rachel by this very well.

But Jesus is talking about something more than ordinary H2O. He says, “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (4:14) He’s offering a life-giving stream of grace that will open those who receive it to life in the Spirit. And she doesn’t hesitate – she wants some! “Sir, give me this water!” (4:15) she says.

Then they talk about some of the theological differences that separate Jews and Samaritans. Chief among these is the question of where true worship should take place – at the temple in Jerusalem, as the Jews believe, or on Mount Gerizim in Samaria.

And Jesus declares that he himself has replaced both of those sites as the manifestation of God’s presence on this earth.

And that part about the five husbands? There’s really no evidence of sexual sin on her part. She would have had very little control over her situation, anyway, since the power to divorce belonged to the men.

We don’t know her story. I read one commentary which suggested that the most likely explanation was that she was unable to have children, and so her husbands divorced her, one after another.

Others think that the reference to these “husbands” was symbolic, representing the waves of foreigners who came in and intermarried with Samaritans.

Figuring out about the husbands isn’t as important as recognizing it as a sign that Jesus knew her through and through. That’s what’s significant here.

This part of the story parallels the story about Jesus calling the apostle Nathaniel (1:49) back in the first chapter of this Gospel, where Jesus tells Nathaniel, “I saw you under the fig tree” (1:48) – before he ever met the man – and this experience of being so thoroughly known by Jesus is what makes a disciple out of Nathaniel.

It makes a disciple out of the woman at the well, too.

And her response is to run and tell others, proclaiming the Good News, as in the first mark of love I mentioned earlier. She becomes a channel of faith and grace to the Samaritans of her community.

The Gospel tells us, “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” (4:39).

And this is the last we hear of her New Testament. But in the Eastern Church, she is given a name and honored as a saint. St. Photine – it means the luminous one – came to Jesus in broad daylight, and left illuminated. She’s regarded as an apostle, and an evangelist.

According to this tradition, she traveled as far as Rome, where she converted Nero’s daughter, endured his attempts to torture her, and eventually met her death. But not before becoming a living channel of grace and faith to many.

This is such a rich story – it has a lot of takeaways for us.

For one thing, the world that God loves and wants us to love turns out to be bigger than we might have realized – and God’s love is inclusive maybe even beyond our comfort level.

If our souls are thirsty for God’s love, Jesus provides a stream of living water that will satisfy that thirst, forever.

If we want to know God, Jesus is the way.

And there is work for all us as disciples and evangelists, women as well as men – that part certainly shouldn’t be news to us here.

And that brings us to the end, which is to say back to the beginning.

Back to that question: who in your life has been a channel of God’s grace for you?

For me, there have been so many, I have to stop and think, to try to remember them all. Teachers, friends, some people I don’t even know personally but have met through their words and actions.

These are my heroes in the faith, my channels of faith and grace.

Who are yours?

Who are your heroes – and how will you take what they have given you, and pay it forward?

How does your life tell the Good News to others?

That might be the most important question of all.