Sunday, March 23, 2014

Lent 3A

Last week, Jesus encountered Nicodemus. This week, he meets the woman at the well. And the two interactions couldn’t be more different.

Nicodemus is a man. She’s a woman. Nicodemus arrives at midnight. Jesus meets the woman at noon. 

Nicodemus is a highly educated, and greatly respected moral and religious leader.

The woman is an outcast and outsider, forced to retrieve her water from the well under the hot sun, instead of during the cool morning breeze, with the rest of the women.

He’s received honours throughout his life. She’s been rejected by most people who knew her.

The two couldn’t be any less alike.

But I know who I’m closer to. If I’m honest with myself I know that I’m more like Nicodemus than I am like the woman at the well. I think most of us here are, too. We may have our fair share of rejection in our lives, we may have gone through tough times, we may have had terrible challenges and almost insurmountable obstacles put on our life’s paths, but we’ve mostly managed to get through them with the help of friends, family, fellow church members, and government safety nets.

She didn’t have those options. She was alone, fending for herself. 

She lived in a culture that placed woman in the same category as livestock. She observed a religion on the fringiest of fringes of her world.

She was a member of a race that was met with hostility by everyone else around them. Her family was held together by the flimsiest of strings. She bounced from one bed to another, just to secure food and shelter for another night for herself and her children.

We know his name. We don’t know hers.

Like I said, I have no idea who this woman is. I can’t imagine what her life is like.

Despite the pain I’ve experienced in my years, I can’t measure it against her suffering. I can’t put myself in her dusty sandals. I don’t see my face in hers. She’s a stranger to me.

I’m guessing it’s the same is most for most of you. It was certainly the same for Jesus. Jesus was more like Nicodemus than he was like the woman.

Even though Jesus was a poor, wandering, homeless, preacher, he still had the respect of his friends (for the moment), crowds gathered to hear him speak, he’s ego was well stoked. He saw the gratitude in peoples’ eyes as they were healed. His life was pretty good - for now.

And Jesus could have easily walked past the woman at the well. He’d seen hundreds like her. He could have walked past her as he walked past the thousands of beggars in back alleys who didn’t come to hear him preach, or the lepers who stayed at a safe distance so not get to into trouble by being so close to others, or the other women who knew that religion at that time was supposed to be a man’s business so they stayed home with the kids.

But something must have caught Jesus’ attention that day. It was probably his parched throat, since they’d been walking for hours. He was thirsty. She had water.

In what must have sounded like a reverse pick-up line, Jesus asked HER for a drink. And she probably thought that this strange man wanted more than a cup of water from her. 

It turned out that Jesus knew everything about her. The men. The rejection. The loneliness. His knowledge may have come from God but it wasn’t hard for him to guess what her life was like. Her story wasn’t unique.

Of course she bounced from bed to bed, she had no other option. She traded her body for a flimsy security. 

Of course, she had to get water from the well in the worst heat of the day because the “respectable” women would push her away if she showed up at a more convenient time.

She was just trying to get through her life and provide for her children the best and only way she knew how. While she had been the victim of her circumstance, she was also a survivor.

She was strong. But she felt weak. She was resilient. But she felt like she would pass out from exhaustion at any moment. She was tough. But she longed to just let herself collapse into someone’s arms, someone who didn’t want anything from her, and rest.

And here was this Jewish preacher, who, by definition, should be her enemy. This man who preached the ancient faith and worshipped in the REAL temple. This man who exuded life and strength. This man, who by all accounts should hate her, looked at her with a love she hadn’t seen in a long time - if ever.

He told her all about her life. And he didn’t forgive her of her sins, as if survival was something to forgive. He just drank from HER cup. He accepted HER gift of water. And that was enough.

Jesus’ disciples didn’t know what to say. They just watched this scene unfold with their mouths hanging open, until one of them had to put a stop to it.

Pulling Jesus aside he asked with a voice everyone could hear, “Don’t you know who this woman is? Why are you talking to her?”

That’s when she bolted. She didn’t want to be reminded of her past, she didn’t want the men thrown in her face, she didn’t want to be judged for what she had to do to survive,  because, all of a sudden, she could see a different future for herself - God’s future for her life. And NO ONE was going to take that from her. She wouldn’t let them. And neither would God.

This Samaritan woman who bounced from bed to bed, who worshipped in a sham temple, who was hated and judged by everyone, became the first gentile evangelist, spreading the good news to those beyond Israel’s borders, making true John’s announcement that “God so loved the WORLD that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”

On that day, God’s saving work spilled into the world, from a broken woman, simply trying to survive.

“Come and see!” she says, “He can’t be the Messiah, can he?”

Not exactly the proud, confident, proclamation of the disciples. But a proclamation nonetheless. People probably never looked at her the same way ever again. Her new life was a witness that could not be denied.

I don’t know why that is, but that’s the way God works. God has a way of using your brokenness for God’s purposes. God has a way using your weakness to show God’s strength. God has a way of using your pain to reveal God’s glory.

God seems to be attracted to pain and weakness. That could be because that’s where God’s greatest work is done.

I’ve noticed that’s true in my life and ministry. When I meet people as “Pastor Kevin” or “Rev. Powell” I encounter a shield where people protect themselves against me, afraid of what I may say about their lives.

But when I drop the titles and formalities, when I take off my collar and minister to people as one who’s gone through his own personal challenges; the death of a parent at a young age, a divorce that almost killed me, and depression that never fully goes away; professional setbacks and personal bombshells; when my scars show themselves, often despite my best effort to keep them hidden, that’s when people drop their guards, and I can minister as one human being to another, trusting that God will bring healing in the midst of common pain. In fact, it’s in that shared experience, that God’s healing work begins. For both of us.

It’s your scars, not your strengths that make you effective in your ministry, whatever ministry that may be. It’s your wounds, not your wins, that shine with God’s love and mercy. It’s the battles fought and lost, the victories denied, those moments of lostness and grief that give you the wisdom out of which God offers healing to others.

So, the woman at the well was the perfect first evangelist. She couldn’t look down her nose at anyone. She was no one’s judge. All she could do was point to Jesus and say, “Come and see the man who told me everything about myself...and made me a new person, and gave me a new future.”

May this be so among us. Amen.

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