a Homily for Lent 3A
Text: John 4:5-42
Our scene turns from Nicodemus, who seeks Jesus at night to an unnamed woman who stumbles upon him in the middle of the day. I think we are supposed to juxtapose these contrasting characters from chapters 3 and 4. Night/Day. Man/Woman. Named/Nameless. Leader/Commoner. Insider/Outsider. Hebrew/Samaritan. So many differences.
And so much story. I’d understand if you lost track in the middle. Here’s my recap:
Jesus has to go through Samaria to get to Galilee. His followers get hungry and take off. Jesus sits by a well that happens to be the one where Jacob met Rachel. A woman comes up and scandalously converses with this foreign man (alone), discovering (of course) that he isn’t a normal man. The woman goes back and tells everybody; they want to see Jesus for themselves. Disciples return with food. Jesus tells them the true food is ready to be harvested right here. The townspeople meet Jesus and invite him to stick around. He does; for 2 more days.
Big story. Lots of dialogue. And big ideas. Which makes for a pretty cool story of relationships, Jesus, and the mission Jesus is on. We could certainly spend hours on this. Which we won’t [don’t worry]. But what makes this story sing is the back story and what they are there to do.
The Back Story
Jacob has 12 sons. And 3,000 years ago, there were 12 tribes. Of course that’s on purpose. These tribes were united under two kingdoms and then, under King David, they became one. Under David’s son, Solomon, they remained a united kingdom. Then, upon Solomon’s death, they fought and 10 of the 12 tribes seceded. Then, two hundred years later, in 730 BCE, the Assyrian Empire conquered the Northern Kingdom, where the Samaritans are in Jesus’s time.
One of the favorite tactics of conquerors to this day is to replace the identity of the conquered with their own. And one way they do this is by genetically altering the populace. Or, less politely, they rape the women. The children the local women bear are now 1/2 like them. The next set will be 3/4. Then 7/8. And so on. The Assyrians didn’t know the biology of that, of course. But they could see it in the skin, their complexions, the hair of their offspring. All visible genetic markers.
Through this, the Samaritans clung to their identity. They were Children of Jacob. Worshippers of a GOD revealed to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then to Moses and Aaron as YHWH (or Yahweh). The God of the Hebrews as told in the ancient stories. Victims of abuse and occupation, then othered by their brothers, the Hebrews. Those Samaritans.
Not pure-blooded, the Samaritans were considered ethnically-mixed and foreign. Even one drop of blood makes them a different race. Lesser. Other. The Hebrews felt justified in destroying the Samaritans’ Holy Mountain and site of worship, much like the Romans would destroy the occupied Hebrew’s Temple some 40 years after Jesus. The evils of prejudice are revealed within our friends and foes alike.
Then we have the well. The well is important to this story because this is the well where Jacob first sees his beloved Rachel. Where he gives her sheep water. Where she invites Jacob back to meet her father. A well of love and peace. Where a foreigner named Jacob is reunited with his people. Jacob is the displaced foreigner, living in someone else’s land in Canaan. Laban and his daughters are the insiders. The whole family is reunited in marriage.
We are supposed to see Jesus as Jacob. He, this displaced foreigner, reuniting the whole family through water, with a drink from the well.
And this nameless woman is Rachel. As Jacob is named Israel by GOD and Rachel weeps for all of their children as her own, even those born to her sister and their servants. In Jeremiah 31 GOD responds to Rachel’s tears with comfort:
Thus says the Lord:
Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work,
says the Lord:
they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
there is hope for your future,
says the Lord:
your children shall come back to their own country.
The children will come home.
When the disciples return with food, Jesus teaches them about where real food comes from. That GOD tills the soil, plants the seeds, waters and keeps them, and months later, the vegetables burst through the soil, ready to be picked. He says to them that here, in the land of their half-breed enemies, GOD long ago tilled and planted and watered and kept these people. And now the disciples are called to harvest. Now, not later.
What he is trying to tell them is: Forget what your parents told you. What your teachers told you. What your leaders, like Nicodemus told you. These are GOD’s people and you are called to bring unity. The harvest is ready now.
When Jesus speaks to His disciples, He does so with the understanding that they are the xenophobic bigots they were raised to be. Their culture has lost no sleep othering their own people: brothers and sisters, born of Jacob (and his four wives). He tells them that this is their work: reconciling the separated. For this place that our Moms and Dads told us to avoid is the very place GOD has planted and we are to harvest.
This story speaks to much of our bigoted past and present. It speaks of a culture to which we are complicit. We, a nation of immigrants, rejecting today’s immigrants. Bias against people who are culturally different in any perceivable way: in race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, age, political affiliation, economic status, education, self-expression. Our many biases are on constant display.
And yet, if we are following Jesus, we find ourselves, always in foreign territory, miles from home, even when we walk to church. For Jesus never stays where it is safe. He goes. And we are to follow. Even if its where our parents refused to take us. Our heavenly parent is driving us. Through Samaria, the dangerous mission field, then on to Jerusalem, a much more dangerous place.
For in GOD, the Kingdom is not only united, it is unity itself. It is not 12 tribes living as different kingdoms with different boundaries. It is one. The Kingdom of GOD.
Lent, the season we’re in now, is about reconciliation and becoming aware of redemption and unity. It is about our becoming mindful of what breaks us apart and what brings us all together.
Like the twelve brothers selling one of their own into slavery, GOD brought the eleven to Joseph. So we, the privileged and comfortable are brought to a new land, our own Egypt that we might be saved. That we, the foreign occupiers might remember our displacement and how we continue to displace our brothers and sisters.
We are reminded because GOD loves us. GOD wants us. In spite of our bigotry and hatred. Or our selfishness and fear. We are called to come together. We are called to listen. Above all, we are called to love. Love from our woundedness. Love as Rachel loves all her children. Love in the place we live, even if our parents would hate to see it. Love as parents love children. As GOD loves us. All of us.