The EPISCOPAL CHURCH of ST. JAMES the LESS
Well, I thought I might just be preaching to my husband here behind the camera this morning. He can attest, that wouldn’t be the first time I’ve done that–preached to my husband. But a small scattering of people are here, I see. And welcome to the many more of you who are at home. I hope you are staying safe, and taking good care. The church has had a lot of practice over the centuries adapting to world crises. In a way, that is the story of our very origins in the Roman Empire. We will adapt. We will come out stronger.
Already, as a culture we’re having to think more about others’ well being. Some of you have told me how it feels kind of good being in something together. Not to mention the thought we’re giving to those whose lives will be completely upended by this crisis: the working poor, the physically weak. It’s human nature to find meaning and purpose in difficult times. That’s what we do. We’re in Lent. That’s the message of this whole season. Tragedy and hardship are not in vain. There’s redemption in them, if we know how to look for it.
And if I could add just one more thing: It’s striking how much our liturgy, as it already is, without altering it, is prepared for a moment like this. That’s partly because it’s Lent, and it’s partly because the church is always attuned to suffering in the world.
So again, welcome to all, near and far. Perhaps even some of our alumni are here with us this morning.
We’re in the third Sunday in Lent. Talking about anything except the Coronavirus right now almost seems trivial, but Lent marches on and I made the decision this morning—I hope you’re okay with it—to just preach a sermon like I normally would. Plus it just doesn’t seem right to neglect the subject our reading today, the woman of Samaria.
In January our pilgrim group to the Holy Land visited the site of this encounter, Jacob’s well. It’s now in a grotto underneath a church, I think about the fifth church to be built on that site. A picture of us all gathered around and drawing up water from the well was on the front of last month’s Parish Messenger, our newsletter. It was in a Greek orthodox church, so we women were all required to wear headscarves. It’s a lovely picture. I wish some of our pilgrims were here this morning because they could attest to this, but a strange mania overtakes you in the Holy Land, and you suddenly HAVE to get your hands on every little vial of holy water you can find. I’m a true skeptic when it comes to religious souvenirs, but somehow that didn’t stop me from loading my suitcase with water from the Jordan, from Mary’s well, Jacob’s well, not to mention all the little vials of holy oil I bought. But you bring these things home, and all the magic from them fades completely. I don’t know what that desire to possess–water, oil, relics–is about. But it IS a lovely testimony (I think) to how we need things, to touch and see, to help make our faith real. No less the things here: candles, stained glass, the smell of incense, for some. Places, too. It’s funny; I wrote parts of this sermon before deciding to close off the church for worship today. So I suspect we’re feeling this even more: There is something about visiting, being in, a place, a religious holy place, or a church, that momentarily calms and converts even the skeptic. This site, this well, Jacob’s well in today’s reading, sits today beneath an Orthodox Church called St. Photini. That’s the name that the Greek church gave the woman in our story. It means light. After she speaks with Jesus she goes out and tells everyone what he just said to her, and that made her (according to tradition) one of the first Christian evangelists. Many came to believe because of her, the Scripture tells us. The Greek Church added to her story five sisters, all with names, who worked with her to spread the Gospel. What was it about this encounter that led to all this–this church, the legend of this woman, the conversion of many? There’s no miracle in it. Though that depends on how you define “miracle.” Churchgoers know well the ancient enmity between Jews and Samaritans that underlies this story. What’s remarkable is that this enmity is also very current, practically unchanged. Even the borders today between these people remain more or less what they were 2000 years ago. We call it now the West Bank, not Samaria, but this exact encounter, were it to happen today, an encounter between a Jewish man and a Palestinian woman, on her land, would be as momentous and potentially fraught now as it was then. In our story, Jesus approaches the woman as she’s drawing water from Jacob’s well, on the land Jacob the patriarch bought many, many years before. Jesus asks for a drink of water. She remarks how unusual it is for a Jew (and a man) to approach her, a woman and “unclean” Samaritan. Jesus ignores that entirely, launching instead into a conversation about living water. As often happens in John’s Gospel, as we saw last week with Nicodemus and being born again, she takes it literally. “Living water” can be, in the Greek, a reference to running water, as from a stream. Jesus, of course, means it as a metaphor, for that which quenches our spiritual thirst.Next, the conversation turns to a discussion about her five husbands. And notice how all this doesn’t lead to a lecture on morality or marriage or family, and there’s certainly no scolding or judgment passed; instead, it leads straight into one of the most important religious conversations a Jew and Samaritan could possibly have: Where is the true Temple, on our land or on yours? A topic on which, shockingly, the two seem to find agreement. So, Here are the miracles that I see in this story: first, how judgment of this woman doesn’t even register. I can’t tell you how many sermons over the centuries have focused on her past when Jesus himself, didn’t–made a point not to once it came up. Mary Magdalene, the woman caught in adultery whom Jesus saved from being stoned; these are other women Jesus defended against prejudice, judgment, moralizing. And he does it again here. When a man refuses to carry the inherited baggage of sexism, and superiority, toward the opposite sex or another race, another faith--that is a miracle. The second miracle is simply the interaction of these two strangers on opposite sides of political and religious lines. Here they were in a culture where what divided them was so assumed, hardly anyone even thought about it any more. In fact ancient footpaths had been by then worn, by generation after generation of travelers, around Samaria, so that these two tribes didn’t have to interact. The odds of any conversation between these two people happening at all were so slim, not to mention a mutually respectful conversation, that this really was a miracle. Would be no less so in our day.And this is why (our now) St. Photini ran right out and told everyone what she had seen and heard. I think we’re in a time now where we’re learning to expand our definition of miracles. Everyday encounters, reaching out to help another, thinking of another, putting aside our differences, finding common cause together. Really caring. These are miracles in times of hardship. They’re miracles all the time, but maybe we appreciate them just a little bit more right now. So keep working miracles like these. Do good, practice compassion, and let’s see what kind of people we are when all this is through. Better people, and better Christians, I pray. Amen.