Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

March 12, 2023. 

Texts: Exodus 17:1-7; John 4:5-42. 

Imagination. It’s a flexible word. Your imagination is playing tricks on you suggests that imagination is not necessarily a good thing – it can be overwrought or unreliable.

But to use your imagination is almost the opposite. When a child comes to a parent on a rainy Saturday with the complaint, I’m bored what is there to do? the parent might well respond, use your imagination. Or when a manager urges a worker to use your imagination it can be encouragement for freedom to experiment and innovate.

Imagination has been applied both positively and negatively to the story of the woman at the well. What kind of woman is she? What should we take away from this encounter?

We have imagined her ostracized and sinful since she comes at noon to draw water when other women are not around.  We have imagined that she is a woman acquainted with impropriety. After all, since she speaks to a man, and admits to five marriages and one liaison that doesn’t reach the standard of a properly contracted relationship.

We have also imagined the woman as a ground-breaker. A Samaritan woman not afraid to respond to the Jewish man at the well. A woman whose theological repartee is equal to that of the man. A woman who is among the first in the gospel of John to witness that the man she met at the well just might be the Messiah. And the first of many women in the gospel who are later understood to be disciples in their own right.

But have we imagined what the point of the story was to those to whom it was first told? Have we imagined that as they heard about the woman, they thought of biblical women whose stories began at wells – Rachel, Rebekah, Zipporah? Or that they might have thought of the women who didn’t not hesitate to hold their own counsel, like Mahlah, Milcah, Tirzah, Miriam?

Have we imagined those people who heard this story from John thinking about other women in multiple marriages like Tamar? She who was vindicated at the end of the story by no less than Judah the patriarch of her kin. Have we imagined what it meant to them that Jesus did not demean or reject the woman at the well but continued in conversation about the nature of true worship and the Spirit of God, and who openly revealed himself to her as the Messiah?

And have we imagined how the people that populate this gospel story are like, or unlike us?

-The solitary woman, bold enough ask questions of God and to re-think her faith. What does she show us?

-The disciples who know Jesus so well, and yet as it turns out, not as well as they think. Surely that is not us? Surely Jesus would commend us for our carefully studied and correct comprehension of him and his work.

-The community of Samaritans who listen to the testimony of one of their lesser members about God. They take it as a matter of serious consideration, and embraced an enlarged understanding of God’s work among them and in the world. Can we, like them, listen to someone’s surprising encounter with God and trust that it is true and worthy of our curiosity?

Moses was sorely tried by the failure of imagination among the Israelites. They were in the wilderness of Sin (pronounced seen) a dry place. They complained about the lack of water. But their real complaint was about a God drought.

The Israelites felt that God had abandoned them. They didn’t bring the matter to God though. They put the blame on Moses. “Why did you lead us out of Egypt to kill us…our children…our livestock with thirst.” What does God have to do with thirst in the desert, after all?

Moses wasn’t fooled. He could tell the difference between a cry of thirst, and a cry for attention.

The people needed to have something more tangible than a clouded mountain to trust. Lest they abandon their journey toward a new life and identity, and return to their former slavery and to the lesser gods in that place.

God wasn’t fooled either. God called Moses (can we imagine what that moment was like? Was it a sound, or an impulse, or a flash of insight?)  God instructed Moses. Get some elders, trusted people to come with you. Take the symbol of your leadership, your staff, and go. Find the rock at Horeb and give it a mighty whack. Water will come and the people can drink.

The moment of sweet relief wasn’t the water. It was the people believing the witnesses, and with restored trust in Moses, imagining once again that God was with them. God cared.

The woman who went to the well at midday was thirsting. But she couldn’t imagine it at the time. She had found no lasting relationships. Her bucket was empty. Then Jesus approached her, spoke to her, entrusted her with the revelation of his identity, and offered a new kind of relationship. He opened her mind to God and the woman’s thirst was satisfied.

The Samaritan woman may also have represented the whole Samaritan people, who thirsted too. Their traditional place of worship was on Mt. Gerazim. A temple once stood there, a tangible sign of their devotion to the God of Jacob. But it had been destroyed by the Jewish High Priest John Hyrcanus more than a hundred years earlier.

Now only Jacob’s well remained as a sign of their covenant with God. They thirsted for their promised Messiah to come, and uphold their faith as the truest and most spiritually pure in the land. But Jesus said, imagine this: true worship happens wherever God’s Spirit is welcomed!

The disciples thirsted to understand the mystery of Jesus. But the cross was beyond their imagining. Jesus said they would have to live into the mystery with him. The sowing, the reaping, the mourning and the rejoicing all are part of the following.

Imagine this: Jesus knows our thirst. Invites us to take a long drink of the Living Water, raise a toast to the Samaritan woman, and go out together to see who else is looking thirsty. Amen