A sermon for the third Sunday of Lent

So Jesus has gone up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, one of the three feasts when Jews were supposed to come to the temple. Jesus and his people, you’ll remember, were in Galilee. Galilee is separated from Jerusalem by Samaria. The Jews and the Samaritans did not get along. They were descended from common ancestors—Jacob, for example—but somewhere along the line they had split and their worship was different. And they despised each other.

Jesus is traveling back home to Galilee in this story after the Passover. John’s Gospel says that he had to go through Samaria. Now, he could have gone around, but Samaria was the direct route. And I cannot overemphasize how difficult, how hard this travel was. This was mountainous country, mountains and valleys, bandits and wild beasts. There were dangers along the way. That’s what happened in the story of the Good Samaritan. One of the bandits got him. Despite these challenges, the experts who have read the texts closely tell us that they were able to travel about 20 miles a day by foot, which to me is astounding.

But you can imagine that by the time Jesus gets to this well in the heat of the day, he’s got to be pretty tired. Sychar is about 40 miles from Jerusalem, so they’ve presumably been on the road for two days already. He’s resting in the heat of the day while his people go off to get food. This Samaritan woman comes alone to the well. He asks her for a drink. She’s quite surprised that he’s speaking to her for two reasons: First of all, Jews and Samaritans don’t generally talk to each other, and a man would not talk to a woman alone in a situation like that.

But Jesus says, “Give me a drink,” and they begin this long conversation which is really quite profound. He tells her about living water. She doesn’t totally get that. Which is not surprising, but it’s not like last week’s Gospel, the story of Nicodemus, where he seems sort of baffled the whole time.

She actually proves herself to be a pretty astute theologian. They talk about the differences between belief and worship in Israel and Samaria. He tells her about this living water. Though she doesn’t totally understand, she asks him for it, this water that gushes up into eternal life. Eternal life here is not heaven. It’s a life here and now that’s richer and deeper and meaningful and authentic. Though she doesn’t totally get it, even this request bears fruit in her. She goes back to the city. She tells her people, “Come and see. Come and see this man.” And they do. He ends up staying there for two days and many people come to believe in Him.

This is just one of the richest stories in the New Testament. In fact, it is the longest conversation that Jesus has with anybody in the New Testament. She is the first person to whom he says, “I Am,” which echoes the name of God in the Old Testament. It’s the first time he tells an individual his true identity, and it’s this woman of Samaria.

There are so many aspects of this story that could be a sermon. If you’re old like I am, and have been going to church for a long time, you’ve probably heard them all. You’ve probably heard the one about how she was a terrible sinner who was converted in the presence of Jesus. But I say to you, look really closely. Where does it say she was a sinner? There’s nothing here about repentance. There’s nothing about forgiveness.

Jesus seems to accept her many husbands. In this world she would’ve had no choice about husbands. Men could divorce women, not vice versa. They could have dismissed her five times. Maybe she wasn’t able to have children and they divorced her, or maybe her husbands died and she had to marry his brothers in sequence. Maybe she just had the misfortune of losing five husbands that way, or maybe as some people say, It’s symbolic about the politics of Samaria and foreigners who married in. All I would say about that is, look closely. There’s no sign, really, in this text that she’s a notorious sinner.

Another theme for preaching would be crossing boundaries, and how Jesus goes to foreigners and to a woman to have this conversation and reveal this truth about himself. Which is a nice story for Women’s History Month.

But my preaching professor always told us to preach one sermon, preach one theme. And the theme I want to focus on today is living water, living water that gushes up into eternal life, that grace that comes into us from Jesus and brings us fully alive.

Once a long time ago, before I was ordained, the members of my parish were having a spring workday. We were out working. It was around noon and it was hot. Around that time a group of bicyclists went riding by, which is pretty common in that beautiful part of Bucks County.

They stopped at the church and they asked if they could fill their water bottles. I said, “Of course, help yourself. We have the living water that gushes up into eternal life.” Now, I really did say that, but it happened that one of the bicyclists was a friend of mine who goes to Quaker Meeting with my husband. He and I had had discussions about religion, so I was sort of teasing.

I have no idea what difference that made in his life from there on, maybe none. I don’t know. But that is what we are all supposed to be doing. We’re supposed to be sharing this Good News. That’s what the Samaritan woman in this story does. She speaks with Jesus. She only partly understands him. But she’s filled with the spirit. She goes back to tell her people.

Sorry, I need a sip of water. I’m just going to bring the glass down here with me.

So this is what we’re all supposed to be doing. We’re in Lent now, so on Ash Wednesday we read the Litany of Penitence. I think it’s on page 268 in the Book of Common Prayer. It’s a really good way to examine your own conscience. It’s a good list of the kind of sin we tend to fall into. We don’t tend to talk much about sin these days, but this litany is a very good list of things to think about during Lent especially.

And one of the things on that list is the failure to commend the faith that is in us. In other words, not sharing our faith is something we need to think about. Because that’s what we’re supposed to be doing.

Now we are all born thirsty. We’re born thirsty. And I’ve got water right here. This wasn’t planned, but I think it’s a good illustration.

We are born thirsty. If you’ve ever seen a newborn latch onto the breast, you know this. I mean, the baby has no idea what’s going on. She has no way of conceptualizing this thirst, she doesn’t know she’s thirsty, but she is. And she knows without thinking about it what she should do about it. That baby is hungry, thirsty for milk.

We are all born thirsty for God’s love and God’s grace. And when we find it, it’s up to us to go out and share it. So here’s something to think about in the week ahead. My suggestion for this week is to think about who brought living water into your life, who shared the faith with you. I’m not necessarily thinking about teachers, not necessarily thinking about people who gave you the words of theology to describe the faith, but people in whom eternal life bubbled up and spilled over like gushing water, people who said—not necessarily in words, but in the way they lived—“Come and see Jesus. Come and meet Jesus.”

Think about those people and be grateful for those people, and then think about how we can live according to that model and bring that grace and that faith to others.


Preached at St. James the Greater Episcopal Church, Bristol, PA.