Sunday, 19 March 2017

Meeting the Samaritan woman at
the well and welcoming the stranger

‘Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well’ … a working well gives its name to To Pigadi, a restaurant in Rehtymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 19 March 2017,

The Third Sunday in Lent,


Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick

9.45 a.m., Morning Prayer,

Readings: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5: 1-11; and John 4: 5-42.

In the name of + the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

We have been celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day since Friday, and my first Saint Patrick’s holiday weekend here has been good fun.

Looking at the television reports, it’s not only been a great day, but a great weekend to be Irish.

But sometimes I worry that we draw the boundaries too tightly when it comes to celebrating Irish identity. That we draw the circle so tightly, that we exclude others, that they are kept outside the circle.

This morning’s Gospel story is a story that should be familiar to each of us – the story of the Samaritan woman at the well – but is also a story about inclusion and exclusion.

Our images of Samaritans are very positive today. Many of us know someone who has been helped by the Samaritan helplines. If we think of Gospel stories, then Samaritans are given a very positive press.

We may think of the Good Samaritan who is the very best example of what it is to be a good neighbour (Luke 10: 29-37). Or among the Ten Lepers who are healed, only the Samaritan returns to give thanks, and is then praised for his faith, which is greater than the faith of all of Israel (Luke 17: 11-19).

But in the New Testament period, the Samaritans are religious and cultural outsiders for the Jewish people. Although these two people share the same land, the Samaritans are strangers and outsiders. Although they share faith in the same God and share the same Torah or first five books of the Bible, the Samaritans are seen as having a different religion.

But Christ tries to break down those barriers.

In this morning’s Gospel story, the Disciples are already doing something unusual: they have gone into a Samaritan city to buy food, yet any food they might buy from Samaritans is going to be unclean according to Jewish ritual standards.

While the Disciples are in Sychar, Christ sits down by Jacob’s Well, and he begins talking with a Samaritan woman who comes to this well for water. The conversation that follows becomes a model for how we respond to the stranger in our midst, whether they are foreigners or people of a different religion, or people who share a different culture, attitude or values.

Christ presents the classical Jewish perception of what Samaritans believe and how they worship. The Samaritans accepted only the first five books of the Bible as holy scripture. For their part, Jews of the day pilloried this Samaritan refusal to accept more than the first five books of the Bible by claiming the Samaritans worshipped not the one God revealed in the five books but five gods. Christ alludes to this – with a sense of humour – when he says the woman had five husbands.

In other circumstances, a Jewish man would have refused to talk to a Samaritan woman or to accept a drink from her hands; any self-respecting Samaritan woman would have felt she had been slighted by these comments and she would walk away immediately. Instead, the two continue in their dialogue: Christ and this woman talk openly and humorously with one another, and listen to one another.

Jesus gets to know the woman, and she gets to know Jesus.

All dialogue involves both speaking and listening – speaking with the expectation that we will be heard, and listening honestly to what the other person is saying rather than listening to what our prejudices tell us they ought to say.

When the Disciples arrive back, they are filled with a number of questions. But they are so shocked by what they see happening before them that they remain silent. Their silence reflects their inability to reach out to the stranger.

There are other hints too at their failure and their prejudices: the woman gives and receives water as she and Jesus talk, but they fail to return with bread for Jesus to eat, and they fail to feed into the conversation about faith and about life.

They are still questioning and unable to articulate their faith, but the woman at least recognises Jesus as a Prophet. The disciples made no contact with the people in Sychar, but she rushes back to tell these same people there about Jesus. No one in the city was brought to Jesus by the disciples, but many Samaritans listen to what the woman hsd to say.

The conversation between Christ and the Samaritan woman is a model for all our encounters with people we see as different or as strangers, or who are marginalised or who are oppressed.

The former Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, wrote in one of his books:

‘The Hebrew Bible contains the great command, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), and this has often been taken as the basis of biblical morality. But it is not: it is only part of it. The Jewish sages noted that on only one occasion does the Hebrew Bible command us to love our neighbour, but in 37 places it commands us to love the stranger. Our neighbour is one we love because he is like ourselves. The stranger is one we are taught to love precisely because he is not like ourselves’ (Faith in the Future, p 78).

Am I like the Disciples, and too hesitant to go over and engage in conversation with the stranger who is at the same well, in the same shop, in same queue at the post office or the train station, or waiting for her children outside the same school gate?

If I am going to enter into conversation with the stranger, am I open to listening to them, to talking openly and honestly with them about where they come from and what they believe?

When the conversation is over, will they remain strangers?

How open am I to new friendships?

In another place, Rabbi Sacks, now Lord Sacks, writes:

‘It is easy to love our neighbour. It is difficult to love the stranger … A neighbour is one we love because he is like us. A stranger is one we are taught to love precisely because he is not like us. That is the Torah’s repeated and most powerful command. I believe it to be the greatest religious truth articulated in the past 4,000 years’ (Radical Then, Radical Now, p 92).

This is not marginal to our understanding of faith either. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews advises us: Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it (Hebrews 13: 1-12).

And how does this link with Lent and how we are preparing to follow Christ to Good Friday and Easter Day?

The fifth of the seven last words of Christ on the Cross is: ‘I am thirsty.’ It is known traditionally as ‘The Word of Distress.’

Commentators regularly compare the thirst of Christ on the Cross with his request he makes to the Samaritan woman at the Well: ‘Give me a drink’ (John 4: 7), and with the promise that follows: ‘those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty’ (John 4: 14).

In expressing his thirst out loud in that cry from the cross, Christ shows his humanity and his humility. In expressing such a basic need, he shows his solidarity with all those in humanity, living or dying, healthy or sick, great or small, who are in need and who in humility are forced to ask for a cup of water (see Matthew 10: 42).

In his thirst, the dying Christ seeks a drink quite different from water or vinegar, as when he asks the Samaritan woman at the well: ‘Give me a drink’ (John 4: 7). Physical thirst on that occasion was the symbol and the path to another thirst – the thirst that leads to the conversion of the Samaritan woman.

On the cross, Christ thirsts for a new humanity to be formed and shaped through his incarnation, life, passion, death, resurrection and ascension, and that looks for his coming again.

The thirst of the cross, on the lips of the dying Christ, is the ultimate expression of that desire of baptism to be received into the Kingdom of God. Now that desire is about to be fulfilled. With those words, Christ confirms the ardent love with which he desires to receive that supreme ‘baptism’ to open to all of us the fountain of water which really quenches the thirst and saves (see John 4: 13-14).

And so may we continue to journey through Lent to the sorrows of Good Friday and the joys of Easter Day.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Saint Chad’s Well at Saint Chad’s Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 4: 5-42

5 ἔρχεται οὖν εἰς πόλιν τῆς Σαμαρείας λεγομένην Συχὰρ, πλησίον τοῦ χωρίου ὃ ἔδωκεν Ἰακὼβ Ἰωσὴφ τῷ υἱῷ αὐτοῦ. 6 ἦν δὲ ἐκεῖ πηγὴ τοῦ Ἰακώβ. ὁ οὖν Ἰησοῦς κεκοπιακὼς ἐκ τῆς ὁδοιπορίας ἐκαθέζετο οὕτως ἐπὶ τῇ πηγῇ• ὥρα ἦν ὡσεὶ ἕκτη.

7 ἔρχεται γυνὴ ἐκ τῆς Σαμαρείας ἀντλῆσαι ὕδωρ. λέγει αὐτῇ ὁ Ἰησοῦς• Δός μοι πιεῖν. 8 οἱ γὰρ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ ἀπεληλύθεισαν εἰς τὴν πόλιν, ἵνα τροφὰς ἀγοράσωσι. 9 λέγει οὖν αὐτῷ ἡ γυνὴ ἡ Σαμαρεῖτις• Πῶς σὺ Ἰουδαῖος ὢν παρ' ἐμοῦ πιεῖν αἰτεῖς, οὔσης γυναικὸς Σαμαρείτιδος; οὐ γὰρ συγχρῶνται Ἰουδαῖοι Σαμαρείταις. 10 ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῇ• Εἰ ᾔδεις τὴν δωρεὰν τοῦ Θεοῦ καὶ τίς ἐστιν ὁ λέγων σοι, δός μοι πιεῖν, σὺ ἂν ᾔτησας αὐτὸν, καὶ ἔδωκεν ἄν σοι ὕδωρ ζῶν. 11 λέγει αὐτῷ ἡ γυνή• Κύριε, οὔτε ἄντλημα ἔχεις, καὶ τὸ φρέαρ ἐστὶ βαθύ• πόθεν οὖν ἔχεις τὸ ὕδωρ τὸ ζῶν; 12 μὴ σὺ μείζων εἶ τοῦ πατρὸς ἡμῶν Ἰακώβ, ὃς ἔδωκεν ἡμῖν τὸ φρέαρ, καὶ αὐτὸς ἐξ αὐτοῦ ἔπιε καὶ οἱ υἱοὶ αὐτοῦ καὶ τὰ θρέμματα αὐτοῦ; 13 ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῇ• Πᾶς ὁ πίνων ἐκ τοῦ ὕδατος τούτου διψήσει πάλιν• 14 ὃς δ' ἂν πίῃ ἐκ τοῦ ὕδατος οὗ ἐγὼ δώσω αὐτῷ, οὐ μὴ διψήσει εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα, ἀλλὰ τὸ ὕδωρ ὃ δώσω αὐτῷ, γενήσεται ἐν αὐτῷ πηγὴ ὕδατος ἁλλομένου εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον. 15 λέγει πρὸς αὐτὸν ἡ γυνή• Κύριε, δός μοι τοῦτο τὸ ὕδωρ, ἵνα μὴ διψῶ μηδὲ ἔρχομαι ἐνθάδε ἀντλεῖν.

16 λέγει αὐτῇ ὁ Ἰησοῦς• Ὕπαγε φώνησον τὸν ἄνδρα σου καὶ ἐλθὲ ἐνθάδε. 17 ἀπεκρίθη ἡ γυνὴ καὶ εἶπεν• Οὐκ ἔχω ἄνδρα. λέγει αὐτῇ ὁ Ἰησοῦς• Καλῶς εἶπας ὅτι ἄνδρα οὐκ ἔχω• 18 πέντε γὰρ ἄνδρας ἔσχες, καὶ νῦν ὃν ἔχεις οὐκ ἔστι σου ἀνήρ• τοῦτο ἀληθὲς εἴρηκας. 19 λέγει αὐτῷ ἡ γυνή• Κύριε, θεωρῶ ὅτι προφήτης εἶ σύ. 20 οἱ πατέρες ἡμῶν ἐν τῷ ὄρει τούτῳ προσεκύνησαν• καὶ ὑμεῖς λέγετε ὅτι ἐν Ἱεροσολύμοις ἐστὶν ὁ τόπος ὅπου δεῖ προσκυνεῖν. 21 λέγει αὐτῇ ὁ Ἰησοῦς• Γύναι, πίστευσόν μοι ὅτι ἔρχεται ὥρα ὅτε οὔτε ἐν τῷ ὄρει τούτῳ οὔτε ἐν Ἱεροσολύμοις προσκυνήσετε τῷ πατρί. 22 ὑμεῖς προσκυνεῖτε ὃ οὐκ οἴδατε, ἡμεῖς προσκυνοῦμεν ὃ οἴδαμεν• ὅτι ἡ σωτηρία ἐκ τῶν Ἰουδαίων ἐστίν. 23 ἀλλ' ἔρχεται ὥρα, καὶ νῦν ἐστιν, ὅτε οἱ ἀληθινοὶ προσκυνηταὶ προσκυνήσουσι τῷ πατρὶ ἐν πνεύματι καὶ ἀληθείᾳ• καὶ γὰρ ὁ πατὴρ τοιούτους ζητεῖ τοὺς προσκυνοῦντας αὐτόν. 24 πνεῦμα ὁ Θεός, καὶ τοὺς προσκυνοῦντας αὐτὸν ἐν πνεύματι καὶ ἀληθείᾳ δεῖ προσκυνεῖν. 25 λέγει αὐτῷ ἡ γυνή• Οἶδα ὅτι Μεσσίας ἔρχεται ὁ λεγόμενος Χριστός• ὅταν ἔλθῃ ἐκεῖνος, ἀναγγελεῖ ἡμῖν πάντα. 26 λέγει αὐτῇ ὁ Ἰησοῦς• Ἐγώ εἰμι, ὁ λαλῶν σοι.

27 καὶ ἐπὶ τούτῳ ἦλθαν οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἐθαύμασαν ὅτι μετὰ γυναικὸς ἐλάλει• οὐδεὶς μέντοι εἶπε, τί ζητεῖς ἤ τί λαλεῖς μετ' αὐτῆς; 28 Ἀφῆκεν οὖν τὴν ὑδρίαν αὐτῆς ἡ γυνὴ καὶ ἀπῆλθεν εἰς τὴν πόλιν, καὶ λέγει τοῖς ἀνθρώποις• 29 Δεῦτε ἴδετε ἄνθρωπον ὃς εἶπέ μοι πάντα ὅσα ἐποίησα• μήτι οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ Χριστός; 30 ἐξῆλθον οὖν ἐκ τῆς πόλεως καὶ ἤρχοντο πρὸς αὐτόν.

31 Ἐν δὲ τῷ μεταξὺ ἠρώτων αὐτὸν οἱ μαθηταὶ λέγοντες• Ραββί, φάγε. 32 ὁ δὲ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς• Ἐγὼ βρῶσιν ἔχω φαγεῖν, ἣν ὑμεῖς οὐκ οἴδατε. 33 ἔλεγον οὖν οἱ μαθηταὶ πρὸς ἀλλήλους• Μή τις ἤνεγκεν αὐτῷ φαγεῖν; 34 λέγει αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς• Ἐμὸν βρῶμά ἐστιν ἵνα ποιῶ τὸ θέλημα τοῦ πέμψαντός με καὶ τελειώσω αὐτοῦ τὸ ἔργον. 35 οὐχ ὑμεῖς λέγετε ὅτι ἔτι τετράμηνός ἐστι καὶ ὁ θερισμὸς ἔρχεται; ἰδοὺ λέγω ὑμῖν, ἐπάρατε τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς ὑμῶν καὶ θεάσασθε τὰς χώρας, ὅτι λευκαί εἰσι πρὸς θερισμόν. ἤδη. 36 καὶ ὁ θερίζων μισθὸν λαμβάνει καὶ συνάγει καρπὸν εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον, ἵνα καὶ ὁ σπείρων ὁμοῦ χαίρῃ καὶ ὁ θερίζων. 37 ἐν γὰρ τούτῳ ὁ λόγος ἐστὶν ὁ ἀληθινὸς, ὅτι ἄλλος ἐστὶν ὁ σπείρων καὶ ἄλλος ὁ θερίζων. 38 ἐγὼ ἀπέστειλα ὑμᾶς θερίζειν ὃ οὐχ ὑμεῖς κεκοπιάκατε• ἄλλοι κεκοπιάκασι, καὶ ὑμεῖς εἰς τὸν κόπον αὐτῶν εἰσεληλύθατε.

39 Ἐκ δὲ τῆς πόλεως ἐκείνης πολλοὶ ἐπίστευσαν εἰς αὐτὸν τῶν Σαμαρειτῶν διὰ τὸν λόγον τῆς γυναικὸς, μαρτυρούσης ὅτι εἶπέ μοι πάντα ὅσα ἐποίησα. 40 ὡς οὖν ἦλθον πρὸς αὐτὸν οἱ Σαμαρεῖται, ἠρώτων αὐτὸν μεῖναι παρ' αὐτοῖς• καὶ ἔμεινεν ἐκεῖ δύο ἡμέρας. 41 καὶ πολλῷ πλείους ἐπίστευσαν διὰ τὸν λόγον αὐτοῦ, 42 τῇ τε γυναικὶ ἔλεγον ὅτι οὐκέτι διὰ τὴν σὴν λαλιὰν πιστεύομεν• αὐτοὶ γὰρ ἀκηκόαμεν, καὶ οἴδαμεν ὅτι οὗτός ἐστιν ἀληθῶς ὁ σωτὴρ τοῦ κόσμου.

Translation (NRSV):

5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ 11 The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ 13 Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ 15 The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’

16 Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ 17 The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ 19 The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ 21 Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ 25 The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ 26 Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’

27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ 28 Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29 ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ 30 They left the city and were on their way to him.

31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, ‘Rabbi, eat something.’ 32 But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ 33 So the disciples said to one another, ‘Surely no one has brought him something to eat?’ 34 Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35 Do you not say, “Four months more, then comes the harvest”? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36 The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.” 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour.’

39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’

The Samaritan Woman at the Well ... a modern Greek icon in a recent exhibition in the Fortezza in Rethymnon, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Collect:

Merciful Lord,
Grant your people grace to withstand the temptations
of the world, the flesh and the devil
and with pure hearts and minds to follow you, the only God;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Lenten Collect:

Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent:
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts
that we, worthily lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This sermon was prepared for Sunday 19 March 2017.

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