A Sermon for Sunday, March 27, 2011 || Lent 3, Year A || John 4: 5-42
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
Have you ever wandered into a place all by yourself and immediately felt the numinosity–the otherworldly holiness of it—and you just knew you were in God’s presence? Maybe it was in a sacred space like a church or a cathedral –where with every breath you felt you were breathing in the hopes, and dreams, and prayers of the many generations who’d lived and died before you.
But maybe it was outside, in the thick of a pine forest –when a clearing with a lush carpet of wildflowers suddenly opened up before you so totally unexpectedly that it caught you up short and practically took your breath away. Or under the velvet canopy of a night sky over a seemingly endless horizon—a sky so chocked full of stars you almost got dizzy standing there, as if you were floating among them untethered.
There’s something about being alone in these numinous places—what the Celts called “thin” places—that is very special, and ever so holy. Because of course we aren’t really alone at such times, we are alone with the very source of life itself.
I remember long before I was a regular church-goer stealthily slipping into church sanctuaries during my lunch hour, or in the late afternoon, just to sit and drink it all in. I wasn’t at all sure what “it” was, but I knew I was thirsty—and in these empty, holy places, I felt safe. And I felt an invitation to stay and to linger. I didn’t know it then, but what I was feeling was the embrace of God’s magnificent arms welcoming me and drawing me in.
This, I imagine, is what the Samaritan woman felt that day at the well, when she found herself so unexpectedly in the presence of God in the person of Jesus. Safe. Welcome. In the presence of the holy, and ready to drink it all in– whatever “it” was.
Now, I know in the gospel story Jesus is the one who asks for the water, but we all know the Samaritan woman is the one who thirsts. The Samaritan woman is the one who comes to the well in the scorching heat of the noon day sun, when no one else in their right mind would be there. Whether she is a woman of lose morals—as we’ve traditionally been taught—or a woman left on her own by a series of husbands who have either died or abandoned her (as many modern scholars believe) —it doesn’t really matter.
What does matter is that this Samaritan woman is an outsider. She is an outsider among her own people, because whether by choice or by circumstance her condition is shameful. She comes to the well mid-day to avoid the furtive glances, whispers, and shuns of the other women—the ones to whom she is invisible and among whom she is not welcome…the ones who gather their water in the cool of the evening while bragging about their children and complaining about their husbands.
And the woman at the well is even more of an outsider in the eyes of Judaism. She is, on top of everything else she has going against her, a Samaritan—a half-breed– the product of intermarriage between the Assyrians who occupied the Northern Kingdom in the 6th century BC, and the few Jews left behind when the majority were in exile. Samaritan’s were ritually unclean to the Jews, their women especially so. And while they shared much scripture in common, they practiced a bastardization of Judaism watered down by the religion of their oppressors, and on a mountain more than 40 miles away from the Temple in Jerusalem where God’s presence was believed by all faithful Jews to reside.
And yet Jesus actually welcomes this Samaritan woman and invites her in—into the longest conversation he has with anyone in the gospels, into a relationship of mutuality and dignity, and into the special sacred space of His holy presence. Jesus sees this invisible woman—sees right through her in fact—and shares with her not only the truth of who she is, but the truth of who he is: Messiah, the Christ, the living water that will become in her “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
Of course, when the disciples abruptly appear on the scene, they are so flummoxed to find Jesus with this unclean nobody that all they can think of to say is, “Rabbi, eat something!” But Jesus isn’t hungry. What feeds him, Jesus says, isn’t food so much as it is doing God’s will, and God’s will is to let the living waters flow freely to all who thirst. God’s will is to invite outsiders in, and to fling open the doors of the Temple–because in God’s eyes no one is invisible and God’s love cannot be contained.
You see, the story of the woman at the well is a story of God’s all-inclusive hospitality…of God’s generous and warm embrace of all God’s creatures. The Samaritan woman is completely transformed by this hospitality. After stepping gingerly into that numinous, holy space with Jesus at the well, thirsting for she knows not what, the Samaritan woman runs back to her village and boldly proclaims the good news to the very people who have ostracized her–becoming the first evangelist in John’s gospel. The Orthodox Church calls her St. Photini; in the Russian church she is “St. Svetlana”. Her name means “Equal to the Apostles.” From an invisible outsider, to an equal of the apostles!
Dr. Paul Wadell, a theologian and ethicist, tells a wonderful story about an icon he saw at an abbey in Austria. In the background of the icon was a small town, with people walking around, running errands or doing whatever it is they had to do. And in the foreground of the icon was a large table with people seated around it sharing a meal. Everyone in the icon looked quite ordinary, according to Dr. Wadell, except that a halo encircled the head of each person.
“Everyone in the painting radiated the goodness of God,” writes Dr. Wadell, “because whether they were host or guest, citizen or stranger, love was being given and received.” The icon was titled, “Xenophilia”—love and friendship for strangers.
I eagerly look forward to the day when we can fling open the doors of St. Stephen’s to welcome the folks out there, in here—and not just on Sunday morning, but Monday through Friday, during normal business hours. I eagerly look forward to the day when we can welcome people in our community who want to slip into the sacred space of this sanctuary and drink it all in…ordinary people who are thirsting for something they can’t define, but feel the pull of God’s welcoming embrace inviting them in for some alone time, some sacred time, some time to rest in the presence of the holy…during lunch, between meetings, before they pick the kids up from school, after that doctor’s appointment they were so worried about, or when they just happen to be walking by and notice the doors are open and inviting.
I eagerly look forward to the day when we find a way to balance our need for physical security with God’s imperative for radical hospitality. Because right now the signs around town that say “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” ought to have a line added to them that says, “but only on Sundays.”
Hospitality is often called the most important Christian calling of our times. Says Dr. Wadell: “There may be no … more urgent way today for Christians to follow Jesus’ command to love our neighbors than to become communities skilled in the risky hospitality of God… In a world of terrorism and war, school shootings, road rage, and pervasive anger and discontent,” he writes, “it is no wonder that concern forsafety and security frequently triumphs over hospitality to the stranger. It is no wonder that we are encouraged to build walls around our homes and communities, along the borders of our country, and even around our hearts. But is that the kind of community the Church should be?”
I don’t think so. And I don’t think you think so either. So let’s find a way to balance our call to be faithful with our need to feel safe. Let’s find a way to be the living water for which so many thirst. Let’s find a way to be skilled in the risky hospitality of God.
Because St. Stephen’s is the kind of place you can wander into all by yourself just to drink it all in, and immediately know you are in God’s presence. Maybe one day someone will step gingerly into this numinous, holy space all alone in the heat of the day and be transformed by an encounter with Jesus. Maybe one day someone will leave here with her thirst slaked by the Living Water. Maybe one day someone will go running back to our village, boldly proclaiming the good news of God’s presence here… who knows? With God all things are possible.
And wouldn’t it be amazing to be a part of making it possible? Amen.