Third Sunday in Lent, Yr A (RCL)
March 23, 2014
Church of the Good Shepherd, Pawtucket, RI
The Rev. Gillian R. Barr
I’ve been asked to tell you about the day that everything changed for me. You see, I haven’t always been looked up to as a leader and teacher, one of the “matriarchs” of this congregation. No, before that day at the well, well, I was a nobody.
It was a HOT day. June in Samaria can be brutal. I’d come to the well to refill the big water jar we used at the inn, it was at the height of the midday sun, and there was no shade—talk about a place that needed some nice landscaping! (1) I got there, already hot from lugging the empty jar across town and not looking forward to carrying it back full, and there was this stranger sitting there. This Jewish guy. He looked even more hot and tired than I felt. As I drew myself a drink—so cold and delicious–he asked me if I could give him a drink.
Imagine—a Jewish man, asking me, a woman, and a Samaritan—if he could drink from my ladle! The Jews hated us, and we hated them. This fellow wasn’t even supposed to talk to a Samaritan, much less share a water ladle with one! We each kept to our own places—there might as well have been signs up: “This Well for Samaritans ONLY.” And what was he doing chatting up a woman in the middle of the town at noon, anyway? Had the heat gone to his head?!
Most women wouldn’t have even spoken with him, but I was used to dealing with pushy men, so I talked back to him a bit. Asked him just who he thought he was, being so forward.
Then we got into this odd back and forth about water and wells and living water. At first I thought he was just having me on, making me the butt of his amusement. But there was something about him, his eyes—he didn’t look like he was making fun of me—he looked at me like he really cared about me, about my being so hot and thirsty and tired—and not just tired of lugging that jar in the sun, but tired of everything—tired deep in my soul, and not able to see any way things were going to get better.
It felt like he was actually listening to what I was saying, taking me seriously and trying to help me understand something important—trying to help me. As if he could see the weariness deep inside–it was almost like he cared. Suddenly I heard myself asking this brash Jewish man for this endless supply of living water he was talking about—as if he might actually give something so valuable to somebody like me–riiiiight!
And that’s when it happened. All of a sudden we weren’t talking about water and thirst any more. He told me to go bring my husband. I said I didn’t have a husband. (Actually, I’d had way too many husbands, but I figured he didn’t need to know that. Technically I wasn’t lying–the man I was living with then wasn’t my husband. It was more of a business arrangement. But I certainly wasn’t going to admit any of that, not to this man who was obviously not shy about asking women for what he wanted!) When I said, “I don’t have a husband,” he said, “You’re being honest–you don’t have a husband right now–you’ve had five husbands, but the man you live with now is not your husband.” How did he know that?
When I tell it, it sounds like he was putting me down, but it didn’t feel like that at all. His eyes were so gentle. It was as if he not only knew I’d had five husbands, but he knew all the pain, all the suffering, all the shame.
Yes, I’d had five husbands. They’d all left me, some through divorce, some through death. I was cursed, or so it seemed–couldn’t have children, at least not children who lived, and then the one decent fellow who didn’t care about all that, well, he managed to let the ox cart fall on him when he was fixing its wheel! And then the last one drank himself to death.
After each one died, I had fewer and fewer resources, and so finally the only way I could keep myself fed and have a bed was to agree to work and live at the inn. It started off because I had to work off the debt my last husband drank himself into at that inn. I cooked the meals and took care of the rooms and did all the dishes. Some nights, if the innkeeper had drunk too much, or business was too slow and he was frustrated, he’d treat me badly. I hated it, and hated myself for what I’d come to, but what else could I do?
Everybody in town knew me, but they didn’t think much of me. When they’d see me at the inn or walking to the market, they looked right through me, as if I didn’t exist. Or sometimes they’d make a face, as if I was as disgusting as the slop I emptied out of the basins onto the garbage heap every morning. So when someone knew my past, it generally wasn’t a good thing for me.
But this time was different. The way Jesus looked at me told me he really did know all my past–which shocked me–how did this man I’d never met, from a different religious group and a different area, know all about me? And if that wasn’t enough to make me drop my ladle on the ground, the way he looked at me! Without judgment–with actual compassion, as if he knew how hard it had been, how things just kept going from bad to worse, no matter what I did, until I was trapped.
He looked at me as if he saw the me who’d existed before all that happened–the happy, smart, curious young girl who used to hang out at the entrance of the synagogue so I could listen to the rabbis teach and debate. When my father would come home I would ask him to explain things to me–what it meant to be a Samaritan, why we worshiped the way we did, what the scriptures meant. And he’d answer my questions and wouldn’t even make fun of me for being a girl who wanted to learn, and he didn’t even complain about how much he wished he’d had sons–even though I know he did.
When Jesus looked at me that day, it was the same way my father used to look at me, so long ago, in what had seemed like another life. Back when I was somebody, the apple of my father’s eye, a young girl who had spunk and courage and smarts, and who had potential. That’s who I was once, before I became a nobody.
And when Jesus looked at me–I can’t explain it, but it was as if I was actually changed back into that person. As if all the layers of exhaustion and despair and shame just washed away, and I was that young, happy, curious girl again, asking my father questions about God.
And something about me must have really changed, because when I went running into the village to tell everyone about this amazing man, they listened to me! They didn’t laugh or mock, or tell me to shut up or go away. They listened to me and took me seriously, and came with me to see what I was talking about! Just as if I was the confident respectable woman that that little girl had pictured herself becoming, the person I had always yearned to be! As if the past 25 years hadn’t even happened! They listened to what I told them–about this incredible man I’d just met, and how I was almost thinking he might be the Messiah, like he said, as crazy as that sounded.
That was the day everything changed. In that encounter with Jesus.
You’ve heard what happened after that. That he stayed in our town for a few days–actually stayed in the inn where I lived, but nobody even whispered. They were all as amazed by him as I was. Pretty soon everybody was talking about him, and saying that he really was the Messiah. After he left people were still talking about him, and what he’d told us.
And that’s how this church got started, and how I came to be one of the elders here. Me, who had been nobody, worse than nobody, before that day at the well. That was the day when everything changed, the day I was changed. Changed into who I really was. Who I am. Thanks be to God!
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1. An allusion to the guests in the congregation from the Blessing Way landscape training program, who would be speaking about their program right after the sermon, as part of the Episcopal Charities annual campaign.