Third Sunday in Lent
It is hard to ask someone else for help. That is a fact, at least for most people. We say don’t want to inconvenience others—and surely that’s one reason—but that isn’t the deepest reason we don’t quickly ask for assistance. Oh, we might ask someone for a ride, or a teacher to explain a new concept, or bank to loan us money for a mortgage. But to ask for help in a personal, significant way that exposes our raw inadequacy to handle something on our own is too emotional risky for us most of the time. To say, “I can’t do this on my own,” is much harder when we are asking a doctor for anti-depressants, or an AA sponsor to hold us accountable, or a marriage counselor to help us navigate our relationship. We don’t want to appear to have needs, to be insufficient on our own.
But it’s exactly that kind of raw need that unlocks all the goodness in today’s Gospel lesson. The action begins when Jesus asks for a drink. Not that that kind of request is typically difficult to make, but if we consider the context in which it’s made, it is a big deal. He is a man, a Jewish man, a rabbi with some relative power, and he is asking for help from a Samaritan woman. He speaks to her—already surprising in their society, where men don’t speak to women in public who aren’t related to them. The shock value of this interaction is heightened by the fact that she is by herself at the community well in the heat of the noonday, when no other women are getting water, suggesting that she may be isolated and/or rejected in her community.
Yet when Jesus tells her he needs something, she doesn’t simply grant Jesus’ wish, nor does she ignore it. Instead, it’s as if she’s sort of empowered by the fact that he thinks she has something to offer, and she takes the opportunity to express her surprise and discomfort—which seems like a fairly intimate response to a complete stranger. She actually meets him as an equal when she initiates a conversation.
And Jesus engages with her on this surprising level, listening to and talking with her as if her ideas and opinions were worth considering. He describes her marital history and her current situation not in a condemning way, but simply as an acknowledgment of the facts. She has lived a tragic life.
I think it’s worth noticing that, contrary to the way this story is often preached, Jesus never mentions sin when he speaks of her relationship situation, and neither Jesus nor the narrator ever reference a need for repentance in this story. What Jesus comments on is that this is a woman has been abandoned five times (women could not divorce their husbands in those days), and that her present partner is either uninterested or unwilling to marry her. He sees beyond the facts of the matter and hones in on the reality that this woman is emotionally wounded by so many losses. What he communicates to her is not that she should be ashamed, but that she has worth and value. He doesn’t talk down to her with pity or contempt, he engages her in a discussion.
I don’t know if you’ve ever felt invisible, if you’ve ever wondered if anyone sees beyond the brave face you wear on the outside to cover up the emotional mess you are on the inside, but I can tell you from personal experience that it is a terrifying and wonderful thing when someone sees, really sees, you. And that’s why it’s not hard to imagine this Samaritan woman standing up a little taller and holding her head a little higher when she boldly asks Jesus a question. She brings up a theological debate that has divided her people from his people for generations: where is the proper place to worship?
That may not seem like a question that exposes her internal struggle, but it is one that prompts Jesus to offer her a profound invitation. He invites her to imagine that even the most cherished tenets of religious devotion and practice don’t matter if they don’t lead to a deeper relationship with the God. He encourages her to see that she has come face to face with the living God, and that God has looked on her with affirmation, acceptance, and approval. It’s like hearing the voice of the Creator boom from the universe, “You are my beloved child, and with you I am well-pleased.”
Can you imagine having exposed your deepest insecurity in front of an all-powerful God, and then hearing God say, “I understand”? And God doesn’t stop with mere understanding. In the case of this woman, Jesus looks her in the eye and invites her to leave behind her burdens and to share with others the joy and significance of what she has experienced in her encounter with God. It’s just what he did when he asked the fishermen disciples to put down their nets to become his followers. Jesus not only sees the woman for who she is, but challenges her to be an agent of God’s grace. She is called to rise above her own insecurities and doubts and publicly take on the role of leader in her community. She could say no, but she doesn’t.
Instead, the woman leaves behind her jar, and goes to her neighbors to tell them what she has learned. Then she brings them back to meet Jesus. Each one of those actions by itself is risky for her. But somehow, her encounter with Jesus either transformed her or emboldened her to be the person she was always created to be. The Gospel message not only affects our afterlife, but our current lives, and calls forth the best and truest selves we sometimes fear or hide. As author Anne Lamott writes in Traveling Mercies, “The grace of God meets us where we are, but it never leaves us there.”
I can’t say what your intimate encounters with Jesus do in your lives. But I can say for myself that each time I meet Jesus at the well, overwhelmed by shame, bound up in my inadequacies and struggles, each time I am able to express my deepest, most troubling need, the meeting changes me. Jesus sees me, and reminds me that I am somebody. Jesus reiterates that I am loved and valued, just as I am, and that I have more power than I realize. Jesus encourages me again and again to risk asking for the help I need from trustworthy people. Jesus challenges me to accept that I cannot be my truest self without engaging with others. Jesus emboldens me, empowers me, and sends me out to remind others that the Messiah is among us, and to bring them to meet him.
And Jesus offers the same invitation to each one here. Come. Talk to Jesus. Allow yourselves to be vulnerable. And recognize that what Jesus hopes and intends for all of us is that we shine like the radiant beacons of hope and courage and light we all are.
This is most certainly true.
~Pastor Susan Schneider