Sermon preached by Penny Wheble, at St Martin's on Sunday 23rd March 2014
Today's scripture from John's Gospel is wonderful in its use of imagery. Just picture the well, and the tired Jesus who watches the woman walk to the well he is sitting by. Imagine the well surrounded by trees, probably olive trees, and smell the dust that still floats in the air from the passing of the travellers. Feel the heat of the midday sun, and picture the woman walking through the heat shimmer on the road as she carries her water jugs to the well.
I guess most of you are familiar with the story of the woman at the well, but let's re-examine some of the highlights.
Jesus is travelling with his disciples because he's avoiding the Pharisees in Judean territory. Tired, thirsty and hungry, he stops by a well to rest while his companions go ahead to search for food for their midday meal. A woman comes to the well to draw water and Jesus asks her for a drink. They end up talking and Jesus awakens something in the woman who runs to the village to tell everything else.
I'm sure many of us have heard this story several times before, and you could probably tell why this woman is so special and why it was so radical that a Jewish man, a Rabbi, was talking to a woman, a Samaritan woman.
Putting it another way, here were Jewish men, travelling in a territory that all other Jewish people avoided like the plague - yet they were willing to eat their food and even drink their water. It would seem scandalous! But in the heat of the day, maybe things look a little different to hot, tired and dusty people.
I'd like to continue by talking about what this story meant to the community that was hearing it for the first time.
What did this journey mean in first century terms? Just suppose that you were making a long journey, and between you and your destination lay a district filled with criminals, sexual predators and mentally unstable people.
You could go the long way round but it would add another 5 hours to your journey. And remember that the people living there are social outcasts.
If you were to speak to them or even get the dirt from their ground on you, you would become unacceptable in polite society forever, and you wouldn't even think of eating, drinking or speaking to the residents.
That was the choice that Jesus and his disciples had to make.
It was radical for Jesus and his companions to even be in Samaritan territory, let alone speak to someone or eat and drink their food.
I feel that this story has a great deal to do with the embracing of "the other" even when that "other" was as despised as Samaritans were. It's not just about a woman who was the first apostle to a hated people, rather this is about one group of people trying to welcome another group they once found repugnant.
The writer of this passage is struggling with the presence of a people who 20 or 30 years before would have been banned from their places of worship but now are part of their community - people who were thought of as charity cases in the best of moments, people they could help so they would feel good about helping, and people less fortunate than they were.
What John tries to tell us is this - there is no difference in the eyes of God between any of us.
The passage is trying to tell the two communities, which were most probably at odds with one another, that Jesus would have found both sides to be worthy of God's love, and if God finds each side acceptable, then why couldn't everyone in the community?
Nowadays we face very similar problems as communities, with the addition of people from other cultures who bring some new and dare I say it, maybe even strange ways of worshipping into our midst.
I'm not referring to any particular church, but the wider church, and how we as Christians sometimes struggle with welcoming new ethnic churches into our fellowship of compassion, justice and mercy.
It's often difficult to see God in different ways from ours, even when it's enlightening and transforming, and maybe, even a little scary.
So let's look at how the Jewish Christians visualised God, Jesus and Holy Spirit.
Jewish Christians in the first century were primarily Jewish in nature. They saw their world through the lens of the Hebrew Scriptures, as taught by the temple and synagogue - that meant that by becoming Christians they had already made a huge transition to a new way of thinking, and many felt Christianity should remain as Jewish as possible because that is what they were comfortable with.
The Samaritans, on the other hand, were no longer purely Jewish, and as a result they were not able to worship at the temple in Jerusalem. Therefore, the Samaritans set up their own place of worship on Mount Gerizim and developed their own worship customs, mostly in defiance of temple authorities.
So now you have two groups that hated each other being converted to Christianity and entering into community together, each with different ideas about worship and God.
Each felt threatened, yet there is a conflict here because they're Christians and that means they are brothers and sisters in Christ.
This is a familiar scenario. We've all been to places where we felt threatened by someone else's way of worship, yet we can still find something wonderful in those moments.
The unfamiliar becomes a doorway into a new understanding, and we just have to get beyond our own belief that we are the right ones. Most new churches are ethnic, and that means that we will meet or encounter new ways of worship and praising God that is different from our own.
However, as a faith community we are not called to assimilate the other into our way of worship, nor are the others called to assimilate us into theirs, rather, each community is called to celebrate the life and faith of all and recognise the presence of God in the diverse ways we all reach out to Him.
So how can we as Christians accept people who may not believe the things that we do? I would say in that every way you are fed by God and the Holy Spirit, it's right for you and we must honour that. I am a Christian and proud of it.
I will always be a Christian, but just as Jesus went into Samaritan territory and recognised God's presence, we too must recognise God's presence in the people we meet, whether they are Muslims who follow Mohammed or Buddhists who look for enlightenment through the teachings of the Buddha. All are made in God's image.
In Romans 5: 1-2 translated in The Message it states: "By entering through faith into what God has always wanted to do for us - set us right with him, make us fit for him - we have it all together with God because of our Master Jesus. And that's not all: we throw open our doors to God and discover at the same moment that he has already thrown open his door to us. We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand - out in the wide open spaces of God's grace and glory, standing tall and shouting our praise."
Indeed, we as Christians find our way through the Master Jesus but God has thrown open the doors and as we stand there we discover new spaces were God's glory is magnified.
So it's not what we have been used to and maybe it will challenge us to work to discover wonderful spaces when we embrace the other.
Fortunately in this country we are blessed with freedom to worship how we choose without fear or prejudice. It can, however, become overfamiliar and perhaps we don't have to think or work at it.
And if we don't have to think or work at something it then can become taken for granted, and we can fail to recognise it's worth or value.
So back to the woman at the well. How do you think she felt? Jesus knew everything about her history. He knew her soul, and most of all he had mercy.
She had engaged him in a theological discussion - Jesus couldn't just say things about her past and get away with it!
As 21st century Christians, would like to think we'd invite the loners, and the poor and hungry to our tables, but I don't know if we empower them to witness to God's divine mercy.
We might give money to refugees or even walk to fight AIDS and pray for children, but how often do we sit down with immigrants and invite them to church? Have you hugged someone with Aids, or someone who is homeless recently?
If children want to lead in church do we encourage them to do so?
Jesus shared himself with the Samaritan woman at the well. She left the well with a tale to tell.
May all who have ears to hear, listen and respond to her call.