Lent 3 A: Living Water, Living Faith

John 4:5-42

Dear Partner in Preaching,

How does someone come to faith? Not simply “faith” in the sense of intellectual or cognitive assent to doctrinal formulations like “Jesus is the Son of God.” But “faith” more in its biblical sense of trust, a living and active trust that makes it possible to take significant risks. I ask this question because I think today’s lengthy reading from John offers a vivid portrait of one such person coming to this kind of vibrant, trusting, risking-taking faith.

In order to highlight the possibility of not just lifting up but inviting such faith, I’ll make one brief observation about the use of this passage on Sunday and then offer a few reflections on the narrative. First, the suggestion: given the length and significance of this passage, I’d recommend, first, omitting some or all of the other readings to make space for this one and, second, preparing a shorter-than-usual sermon to bringing this conversation to life by having it read by various members of the staff and/or congregation taking up the parts of narrator, Jesus, the woman at the well, the disciples (as a group), and the Samaritans (as a group; you can use the same couple of voices that read the part of the disciples).

As to my reflections, I notice three things that I think are essential in cultivating such faith. The relative vulnerability and openness of the characters is the first. Jesus asks for a drink and so shows his need. (Quick side note: I know “give me a drink” doesn’t sound like a request, but the woman treats it as such, so I will also.) Asking someone for anything exposes a certain vulnerability, as we typically don’t like to show our need. In return, and perhaps in response to this demonstration of vulnerability, the woman neither simply grants his request nor ignores it, but shares what I take to be her surprise and discomfort. That, in turn, invites a deeper conversation about life and faith that may never have happened absent this initial note of vulnerability.

Second, Jesus doesn’t just talk to her, he sees her. Jesus’ words describing her marital history and present circumstances are not condemnation for past or present sins, but rather recognition that she has lived a tragic and difficult life. (Note that neither John as narrator nor Jesus as central character mentions sin or invites repentance.) Abandoned five times, now dependent on someone who will not marry her, she is in desperate straits. Yet rather than ignore, critique, or pity her, Jesus recognizes and names her challenges and so sees and values her. In doing so, he conveys to her that she exists for him. She is not invisible. She has worth and value. And all of this may have been rather new to her. In light of Jesus seeing and valuing her as a person – rather than simply as means to an end or embarrassment to be ignored – she is emboldened to risk asking the central question that has divided Jews and Samaritans for centuries: Where is the proper place to worship.

Third, in response to her question, Jesus issues a surprising invitation. An invitation to imagine that even our most cherished practices matter little if they do not facilitate a relationship with the living God. An invitation to recognize that it is the very Messiah and Son of God who is speaking to her and affirming her worth and value. An invitation to leave behind her burdens and share with others the joy she has encountered in their meeting. These invitations are surprising in that the come from a man to a woman, a Jew to a Samaritan, and a rabbi of relative power and authority to someone who had neither. They are also surprising because each invitation also involves challenge – the challenge of getting over one’s piety as an excuse for keeping a distance from God; the challenge of accepting the new identity Jesus offered; and the challenge of imagining that God could and would use her to share the good news. Invitations aren’t devoid of challenges, and challenges can themselves be empowering when offered out of regard, acceptance and affirmation.

In response to all this, the woman leaves her jar behind, goes out to her neighbors to tell what Jesus has shown her, and brings them to Jesus. Every element of that is risky. Yet she is, in almost every way, a completely different person and so able to take risks. Or, perhaps she is simply the person God created her to be but that she had difficulty embracing because of the tragedies she had experienced, and it is discovering who God created her to be that gives her the capacity for risking herself. The Gospel, I think, is often like that, creating something new that is really what God had hoped and intended for all along, and that gift of identity and regard is always empowering.

A willingness to be vulnerable. Truly seeing each other. Offering invitations that take seriously the gifts, worth, and potential of another. And all of this leading to greater faith, love, and action. This is the stuff of this story and, potentially, of the communities to whom we preach. Perhaps the whole sermon can be an act of vulnerability, sight, and invitation, or perhaps this letter will serve as such to you as you go into the pulpit this Sunday and into your role as leader of your community in the coming days. For I am so grateful for what you offer your people week in and week out. I know it isn’t easy. But I also know it matters. Thank you. Thank God for you. And blessings on your proclamation.

Yours in Christ,