Well, today is the second Sunday in March. And it was on the second Sunday in March all the way back in 2014, that I became the pastor here at Douglas UCC. Thank you. It is my ninth anniversary. Now I really don't remember what I preached on that first Sunday. But as you will know, our readings are based on a three-year cycle. So I'm guessing that I spoke about this Gospel reading of the Samaritan woman at the well. But I'm so delighted to be preaching about it today in 2023, because it is one of my all time favorite gospel stories.
In fact, if somebody said to me, ‘Pick just one story from the Gospels that encapsulates the message and ministry of Jesus,’ this is the one I would pick. And I love that it falls during Women's History Month. And in this week that we had International Woman's Day.
You know, Jesus spoke to a lot of people in the Gospels. But the longest conversation he had with anyone was with the Samaritan woman at the well. I think that's pretty significant. And when I actually think about it, I think it's very moving. You know, you you've heard me talk about Samaritans before. If you were here a few months ago, we were reading Jesus's parable of the Good Samaritan. And I explained that Samaritans were second-class citizens. They were people who were looked down upon. They were mocked, they were considered dirty and unclean. Good, upstanding religious people actually avoided Samaria. They would travel around Samaria, but never through through it. They were forbidden to associate with Samaritans, to talk with them.
And then the woman is also female. And women in Jesus's day were also considered inferior. They were considered property of men. So Jesus very easily could have avoided talking to this woman, because she was a woman, and because she was from Samaria. But then we also learn, the woman has been married and divorced five times, and the man she's living with right now isn’t her husband.
Now, you know, in Jesus's day, a woman couldn't divorce her husband. Husbands could divorce wives, but wives couldn't divorce husbands. So we know this woman has been rejected five times.
And my guess is, although the story doesn't tell us, I think she's also been rejected by the women in her town, because it says she's going to get water at noon. And the women in the town would come to get their water in the morning from the well when it's nice and cool. Noon is the heat of the day. But my guess is, she is there because no one else is going to be there.
But she encounters Jesus. And what is Jesus do? Does Jesus mock her? Does He say to her ‘Woman, you are a sinner, you need to turn your ways around, you're broken, you're in need of fixing.’
In fact, he does just the opposite. He reminds her of her worth. And because of that, she's healed and transformed. He bestows dignity upon her. And after that encounter, she goes out and she tells everybody that Jesus is the Messiah. You know, she is the first person in the Bible to proclaim to the world that Jesus is the Messiah. That's amazing! A woman who has been rejected because of her gender, her ethnicity, her her religion, her status in life. She's the first person.
Do you know what that means for us? What it means for you? No matter what you've done in your life. No matter what people in the society, no matter what people in your family, think about you, God loves you extravagantly. God loves you, beyond your wildest Imagination.
And that's why I love this story so much, and I think it encapsulates Jesus's message. But as we heard in our Words of Integration and Guidance this morning from Bishop John Shelby Spong, this story probably didn't really happen.
Now, hold on.
Many of you know that bishop John Shelby Spong is one of my spiritual heroes. He passed away last year at the age of 90. Elizabeth and Mary and I got to meet him a few years ago, at a UCC church in Massachusetts, where he was speaking. Bishop Spong was probably the greatest scripture scholar of our time. He devoted his life to the study of the Bible. And the passage we heard this morning comes from his last book, “Unbelievable.”
He knew that he didn't have much time left. And so he put it all out there in his last book. And he explains that the writer or writers of John's gospel, were writing literary characters, that these weren't real people from actual history. And the people who were reading at the time understood that, that these were symbolic stories. In fact, as we heard, the people in John's Gospel actually mock people who are literalists. So if you were here last Sunday, we were hearing the story of Nicodemus, Jesus said, ‘You need to be born again.’ Nicodemus said, ‘How can I go back in my mother's womb?’ And then we hear the woman at the well – Jesus says, ‘I'll give you living waters,’ she says, ‘You don't even have a bucket.’
So the whole point of John's gospel is that the stories are meant to be understood symbolically, spiritually, and I always say, even though they may not be true, they speak to great spiritual truths.
And what is the spiritual truth of the woman at the well? Well, Jesus, of course, isn’t talking about literal water. There's no place you can go to get literal water that's going to literally quench your thirst. Of course not. Jesus is saying, there's spiritual water. And if you drink of this spiritual water, you'll never be thirsty.
You know, most of us are trying to quench our spiritual thirst, but we're seeking it outside of ourselves. We're trying to quench our thirst with money, with power, with material things, with the perfect body, with whatever it is. And of course, we're going to continue to be thirsty, because none of those things will ever quench our thirst. Jesus is saying, ‘Within you is this well, this internal and eternal spring, that you can always dive deep within. And in there you will find peace, love, joy.’ That is going to quench your thirst.
He says to the woman, ‘Woman, if you only knew the gift of God that is within you.’ And most of us are like the woman. We don't believe it. Me? The Living Water is within me? How is that possible?
But this season of Lent is the perfect time for us to dive deep. Now I shared with you at the beginning of the Lenten season that the word Lent comes from an Anglo Saxon word which means spring. Because that's what we're doing these 40 days – we are preparing for spring, for new growth and new life.
But I think this gospel message also gets me thinking about the other definition of the word spring. Not the season, but the fountain, the spring of that living water that is within us. And the season of Lent invites us to find time, each and every day, to be still and quiet and to go within so that we can get that living water.
The season of Lent is a time to stop trying to quench your thirst with the things that are no longer quenching you and to go within to drink of that living water. That daily bread you can feast upon, the daily bread that is God's gift to you. It's been given to everyone, not just special people, but to to all people.
So that's what I'm inviting you to do this week. I'm inviting you to find time in your day. It doesn't matter when you do it. Could be first thing in the morning, could be before you go to bed at night. Find some time to just be still and quiet and to go within. Dive deep within that well, drink of that living water that is within you.
Be still and know that you and God are one.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration & Guidance
Bishop John Shelby Spong
Almost any poll of regular churchgoers will reveal that their favorite book in the New Testament is the Gospel of John. Yet, I suspect that these devotees of John’s Gospel would be both shocked and angered by contemporary insights into this treasured book. Among the conclusions that I have reached in my intensive study of John’s Gospel are these: There is no way it was written by any of the disciples of Jesus. The author of this book is not a single individual but is at least three different writers/editors, who did their layered work over a period of 25 to 30 years. Not one of the miracles recorded in this book was, in all probability, something that actually happened. This means that Jesus never changed water into wine, fed a multitude with five loaves and two fish or raised Lazarus from the dead. Many of the characters who appear in the pages of this book are literary creations of its author and were never intended to be understood as real people, who actually lived in history. John’s Gospel seems to ridicule anyone who might read this book as a work of literal history. For example, Jesus says to Nicodemus: “You must be born again.” Nicodemus, the literalist, says: “Born again? How can I crawl back into my mother’s womb?” Jesus says to the Samaritan woman: “I will give you living water.” The Samaritan woman, a literalist, responds: “Man, you don’t even have a bucket!” John’s Gospel is not a literal history, but rather a symbolic text to describe the experience of the human breaking the boundaries of consciousness and entering into the transformation available inside a sense of a mystical oneness with God. Christianity is not about the divine becoming human so much as it is about the human becoming divine. That is a paradigm shift of the first order.
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