Third Sunday of Lent
St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church (Durham, NC)
(Note: It is always hard to reproduce, after the fact, the event-quality of extemporaneous preaching. Each "performance" is live and therefore unique. I have done my best to re-capture from the tape of memory the gist of things. The sermon itself went about 18 minutes, but people seemed to think it was alright!)
Well, this is awkward. The disciples return from grabbing a sandwich from the Sychar Subway to find their teacher, the Messiah, the most holy, pure and almighty Son of God sitting by the well with...a woman. And, of course, not just any woman. But a Samaritan...woman. In the publicity of broad daylight! They do not yet know what Jesus has drawn forth about her disreputable sexual history. But what they do know, and what they see, is Jesus, leaning so close to a strange female at a well, almost whispering into her ear, gently and ever so intimately, "I am he."
So of course, the disciples do what most of us do when we stumble upon something so intimate, so real, and so awkward to us. We get embarrassed. We get tongue-tied. We avoid what is before us, awkwardly stare at our shoes, or try to make small talk. Yet John records their thoughts, and he might as well have added one of them saying, "why don't you two get a room?" As it is, once the woman, who is undoubtedly no stranger to the scorn and stares of scoffers and saints, pays them no heed. She leaps up to rush home and proclaim to others boldly, "look! someone who has told me everything I have ever done! Come and see!" The woman's boldness, her freedom, stands in bold contrast to the schmucks back at the well who can only really muster up small talk: "so, um, Jesus, um...want a bite of my sub?"
Incidentally, I think the disciples must have been Lutherans. Let's be honest, we are TERRIFIED of intimacy. Just look at the first ten rows of pews - EMPTY!!! And as we all know, its most likely that way in 99% of Lutheran churches across the country right now! I'd like to think its because you're afraid I'm going to launch a sermonic spit-bomb on you. At Southern, its the exact same way. First five pews? Empty. I grew up sitting in the front row (pastors' grandkid!), and so I like to risk a sally forth into no man's land on occasion and occupy the first pew beneath the pulpit. Often, the presider or preacher will look at me kind of nervously and back their chair up a few feet - I swear they must be thinking: "does he have a bomb strapped around his chest?" "What is he DOING so close?" Awkwardness.
For a tradition of faith which values the idea of God made flesh, of God descending from the lofty heights of distance deity to come near in feeble flesh, we sure struggle with the idea of intimacy with God. Words and slogans like "God is love," "Jesus loves and died for me," and "we need to love and serve our neighbor" are well-intentioned and well-wrought, and yet, if we are all honest with ourselves, we like to keep such divine love, such "Jesus is my boyfriend" talk at arms' length. Its good for evangelicals and Christian radio. But I'll stay as far away from that altar until I HAVE to go up for communion.
We are not unlike the disciples, stumbling upon an awkwardly intimate encounter between Jesus and a woman at a well. In some ways, we are not unlike the ancient Israelites, asking the testing, honest, difficult question in our hearts: "is the LORD really among us or not?" This seems to be John's concern in writing too. Grand theological claims like the Prologue, the clearing of the temple, the debates with the Pharisees, the puzzling locutions of "the Father and I are One" are juxtaposed throughout the narrative with moments of stirring intimacy: Jesus whispering with his mother at wedding; Jesus conversing with a sage at night; Jesus at a well with a woman; Jesus touching the eyes of a blind man with his spit. Is this one, so fleshly, so earthly, so intimate, the same as the Creator of the Universe? Can divinity be so awkwardly embodied? Is this the LORD among us, or not?
Our own struggle with the intimacy of Jesus has very little to do with God most of the time. What we understand and what we have experienced as "intimacy" in this world is so often marked by disappointment, shame, hurt and betrayal that when we encounter the reality of the burning furnace of divine love, we recoil - we do not know how to accept it or what to say. We fear the exposure that comes when someone comes close to us, sees through the layers of fig leaves that we like Adam and Eve adorn our nakedness with, and offers to tell us everything we have ever done. Some of us have been hurt when we have become so vulnerable to another. Marriages fail. Lovers leave. Leaders betray. Those to whom we give our hearts reject them, or, seeing the ugliness we've taken so long to work up the courage to reveal, exploit us. And we have undoubtedly done the same to others.
So often, such exposure is not a source of living water welling up in us, as true love was meant to me. It is more like the exposure of radiation in the waters of Japan, which even an ocean away, we fear will contaminate us, and kill us.
To stand naked and exposed before the God of the universe is a terrifying thing. To stand thus before our fellow human beings equally so. And so we clothe ourselves in apathy, in defensiveness, we avoid intimacy, or we commodify, commercialize and objectify it, making it the stuff of steamy Hollywood love scenes and cheap tabloid cover pages, distancing ourselves from the awkwardness and painfulness of flesh meeting flesh, of brokenness encountering brokenness, of the awkward exposures and painful shames of our own lives. And so we come to believe that God will look at us the same way. We define the intimacy of God by our experience of the world, rather than letting the lie that is the world's version of intimacy be smashed by the truth that is the love of the Father for us.
The intimacy Jesus shares with our woman today is far from pain-free. In some instances, depending on how you sound the words as you read, Jesus can sound down-right cruel. Layer by layer, Jesus undresses her very identity as Samaritan, exposing her as an outsider, pointing to her people's separation from the Chosen People, flirtatiously offering her "living water" while at the same time dancing playfully away from her when her longing seems genuinely aroused. And then, the killer blow: "what you have said is true: not only have you been divorced five times, but now you're also living with someone."
And yet, we must look to the woman's reaction to these difficult words. For, unlike Nicodemus, meeting under the covering of night to cloak the awkwardness of his intimacy with Jesus, in broad daylight, this woman is captivated by the promises and possibilities before her. Unlike the pharisee who made his living by being holy, this woman knows desire; she knows longing; she knows a creep when she meets him, and she knows genuineness too. "I perceive that you are a prophet" she responds. Tell me more. This woman is truthful - we might say, justified - and anticipates Jesus' words: true worshippers worship in Spirit and in TRUTH. This woman knows a real man when she meets him. She knows there is intimacy here to be had. She does not back down from her exposure, or her nakedness before the penetrating gaze of this Jew; she goes deeper.
And in doing so, in allowing herself to be intimate with Jesus, Jesus in turn, becomes intimate with her. Jesus does not shame her, as so many would, with the knowledge of her sin. Even his jabs at her community's religious life are not meant as exclusionary, but point to the wonderful mystery of something radically new. For in the time that Jesus says is NOW HERE, the worship which has been dressed and covered up by the trappings of the exclusivity of the temple will be unveiled and exposed for all nations and peoples who worship in spirit and truth. The nakedness of God, and the possibility of intimacy through the Spirit, will be extended not just to the Jews, but through THIS Jew, to all. God's intimacy will overflow into the world, without bounds.
Furthermore, Jesus reveals to the woman the deepest intimacy yet told in John's Gospel. The woman has been revealed intimately to Jesus; now Jesus reveals, intimately to her, that "I am he, the one standing before you." Here is God, the divinity, the Logos, the Word made Flesh, the One who is One with the Father - undressed, naked, and revealed, to a foreign woman of ill-repute, on the edge of a well, in broad daylight. The woman is rapt and enchanted. They lean close. There is electricity here. If this were a secular film, we would expect the scene to fade away as Jesus wraps her up in his arms and carrries her off to the Hotel Samaria. Something passes between these two that is unimaginable to John's readers - and shocking to the disciples when they return.
Of course, had they been reading their Hebrew Scriptures, the disciples and we should not be shocked. They would remember that in the love story of God with God's people, romances always happen by water! In the Great Vigil of Easter which we anticipate, we are told how God's love hovered over the waters and created the world; how God placed Adam and Eve by the rivers of Eden; how God led God's beloved people through the waters of the Red Sea into liberation and covenant; how God provided for them at the rock of Meribah; how in the Song of Songs, the lovers' eyes meet like doves beside the rushing waters; how in Christ's death, water flows with blood from His side; how in baptism, we are each incorporated into the love story of God. The story of God with God's people is one of both physical waters and of spiritual waters welling up within this life together, overflowing into the world.
Nor would the disciples themselves have overlooked the most obvious love story here in the background: the story of how, when Abraham desired a wife for his son Isaac, he sent his servant to a foreign land, where he waited by a well for the woman who would bring water for him and his camels. This would be a suitable bride for Isaac, and would become the mother of Jacob, of Israel. The disciples knew that love affairs begin at wells. It should not have surprised them, then, that Jesus, the lover of the world, should be intimate here, with a woman, inviting her into His life, and embracing her into His story. She is, in a sense, to be the bride of Christ, and the mother of a new kind of Israel, one arising from the Jew Jesus, to embrace the world in God's story of His romance with His creation.
Lent is about longing. It is about desiring, thirsting for God, anticipating the Vigil of Easter at which we not only recount again this unbelievable story of the intimate God who redefines our understandings of love, of acceptance, and of intimacy, and draws us near as God's family. As some of you know, Lent was not originally a time of mortification of the flesh, of shame at sin, of cloaking ourselves further in fig leaves and works; rather, in the early church, Lent was a time of great anticipation as candidates, catechumens, were prepared for baptism. Like the woman at the well, they were submitted to public scrutiny, asked to profess the faith to the entire community, to confess sins, even to be exorcised of demons and of evil spirits! Today's Gospel reading was selected by the church as representing the stages of intimacy through which a new believer had to pass on her way to the living waters of baptism, where in spirit and truth, she would go down into the waters, die to the world's illusions of intimacy and love, and rise up, fully immersed, fully washed, into the light and the warmth and truth of the love of God, the grace in which we stand, justified by faith in Christ who on the cross came to die, not for the righteous, but for sinners.
And at that vigil, she would be naked. Literally. The church could not truly read the words "Behold, if anyone is in Christ, she is a new creation - everything old has passed away, behold! everything has become new!" unless symbolicaly and physically, that person also passed through the exposure and the intimacy of being before God, as humans were meant to be in the beginning, without shame, without guilt, without fear of exploitation, to arise and be clothed in the white robe of Christ.
Awkward? Not to them. Only for us.
In Christ, God desires this kind of deep intimacy with us. In baptism, God has poured the love of the Holy Spirit into our hearts, and in baptism, Christ becomes unified with the believer. We have UNION with Christ! Martin Luther used to say that the union between believer and Jesus is so close that even the most intimate sexual union between a married couple (see Eph.5) is but a shadow, a figure, a foretaste, of how close Jesus is with us. Jesus is REALLY within you, really that close. It is not just a story we tell, not just nice words we read, not just a nice set of imagery. The one who lived and died and rose for you dwells intimately in your heart, such that you are now one flesh with the very Creator of the Universe! This is the reality of what it means to be baptized - you have been and are becoming transformed - dare I say, divinized? - by the gift of the intimate and personal presence of the Divine Lover in your hearts!
Sound crazy? In our Gospel, notice what happens to the woman. When the gawking disciples show up, she does not allow shame to dominate her. Rather, she leaves behind her old water jar (a symbol of the death she has undergone, perhaps?) and rushes to tell the people of her village, who undoubtedly are well aware of her extracurricular activities, and takes what was one a source of shame and makes it the very stuff of her proclamation and witness! "He told me everything I have ever done!" Shame has given way to freedom! The sinner has become the saint! The prostitute, the preacher.
And notice her words: "come and see!" The woman uses the very words that Jesus Himself had used to call his own disciples. There is a sense in which already, this woman has been so close, so intimate with Jesus, that she has already taken on Jesus' own life and words, and is doing that which Jesus tells his disciples is his true food: "to do the will of the one who sent me."
If this woman, who partakes of the first fruits of the inbreaking kingdom of God in Christ Jesus, is already so united, so faithful, so transformed, so intimate with Jesus, how much more are we, who are baptized and who live in the time of the ripe harvest and white fields, united with Christ and so called to take on his nature, his words, his life, his love? We are literally called to become one flesh, one spirit, with this new life, with these living waters that well up within us. Just as in baptism, we are ordained as ministers of the gospel in the priesthood of all believers, so, enraptued and ravished by the intimate love of our divine Bridegroom, we too are called to follow this woman's example, to go forth, and invite others to "Come and see" this kind of love, to witness it, not only in the Words we proclaim, but also, in becoming the kind of community which can truly call itself the Bride of Christ.
We are called to become the kind of family of God that can see our neighbor's nakedness, his shame, his sin and guilt, and who will welcome him into the story of God. To be people who, because we have been honest, and intimate, and courageous, and willing to be exposed to and with one another, who do not hide behind our sins and our shames, but rather confess them, forgive them, and experience together transformation, can go and do likewise, extending such a Gospel welcome to all. We are called to be a family who embodies this Gospel in the way that we do not shame one another, in the way we do not betray one another, in the way in which guilt has no place within our love of one another. We are called to be a people who can see each other's awkwardness, and meet it, not with words of condemnation, but with gentleness, kindness, peace, patience, and love.
We are invited to take up the gift of new life, of a new nature, of a new love, of an intimate union, and to use it, to invite others to become part of the story of God with God's people, a story made possible because Jesus Christ lives in our hearts, a story we live out in this community of faith, in our intimacy with one another.
Awkward? Its so much easier to just say, "well, God accepts me just where I am." Why do we need such a transformation? But if we are honest with ourselves, "God accepts me as I am" is pure hell. It is indeed true - God does not shame us, God does not look upon our sin with condemnation in Christ, and God will always be patient and forgiving and loving. But in Christ's love, God does not touch us once, tell us an empty "I love you," and then leave us. Rather, God is in it for life. God comes close to us in Christ, through the Spirit, and chooses to be united in intimate love with us in our hearts - we literally become a new reality, a new being, a new nature, a new creation. Each of us contains so much divine power, so much divine love, so much divine potential, and if we are willing not to hide from that gift, but to use it, to live out of it, to LOVE out of it, then we truly can become, like the Samaritan woman, a source of living water for others. God accepts us where we are at - and then also transforms us so that we do not have to stay there, but so that we can grow deeper roots in Christ, and so, delve more deeply into what true intimacy is.
What in your life defines the intimacy of God? What in your life keeps you from intimacy with God, from intimacy with others? Today, as you come forward to receive the most intimate sign of God's love, the very body and blood of Jesus Christ which will be taken into your body, uniting your flesh with his, I invite you: bring forward your shame. Bring forward your betrayals. Bring forward your fears. Bring forward your guilt. Bring forward your feelings of being judged, of being exploited, of being abused. Bring forward these things, take them off, lay them on the altar, and come naked before the one who sits beside you at this well of life and longs to whisper in your ear, "I am he - the one that loves you." It definitely sounds awkward to us. But give it a shot. And perhaps, I pray, you may discover that in coming undressed and exposed, as Adam and Eve, to this feast, you will also find God, naked and exposed, in the love of Jesus Christ.
The thirsty pilgrims of ancient Israel once quarreled, asking, "is the LORD really among us, or not?" Centuries later, a poet of the psalms who was himself a lover, wrote, "there is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the Holy place where the most high dwells; God is within her, she will not fall." In Christ we have found this river; God is within you, and God will not fail you, will never make you feel ashamed, will never betray you. Rather, by the Spirit, Christ dwells in our hearts. Lovingly. Intimately. Forever.
Go forth, like this woman. Live in this intimacy. Live in this gift. Live as an agent and a lover of this new creation. Worship in spirit and truth. And invite others to come, to see, and to experience this love for themselves. Amen.
In memoriam Peter J. Gomes, witness, teacher and friend. May his soul rest in peace. Soli dei Gloria.