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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Lent 03/27/2011

Last week’s gospel was Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus--male, Jewish, a respected member of the religious establishment who comes to Jesus at night.  Today the encounter is with a woman, a Samaritan, a marginal member of society who comes to Jesus in broad daylight.  They are mirror opposites.  You think maybe John expects us to notice that? 

Then, if you remember the Nicodemus story, you remember that he winds up kind of fading away in the text, mystified by Jesus’ talk about being born again, still not understanding what Jesus was talking about, thus remaining in the dark.  The woman from Samaria, on the other hand goes through a progression of recognition concerning Jesus. She winds up enlightened, her conversation with Jesus having moved her from recognizing him first as simply as a Jewish man, then more respectfully calling him sir, then to seeing him as a prophet, and finally the light goes on that he could be the Messiah at which point she goes and tells others about him and they too come to faith.  Again, you think maybe John expects us to notice the contrast between this woman and Nicodemus?

In all of the gospels, one of the things the authors do is to portray Jesus as one who turns the world and it’s expectations upside down, you know, the hungry are filled and the rich go away empty, blessed are the poor woe to the rich, the have nots of society change places with the haves, half breed Samaritans thought to be worthless are called good.  The way that John tells the Jesus story is quite different from the way the other gospel writers tell it, but the world still winds up being turned upside down. 

These stories from last week and this week are evidence of that as you would expect that Nicodemus, the respected Pharisee should get it, but he doesn’t while the woman from Samaria who in a world turned right side up shouldn’t even be talking to Jesus, in his upside down world, he not only talks with her, she gets it, she comes to faith.  You could say that she represents John’s version of the Good Samaritan.  So in the other gospels Jesus tells stories that upset the order of things, in John certain characters wind up doing the same thing just by being who they are and doing what they do.

There’s a lot in this story of the woman at the well, but coming as it does during the season of Lent, I think it’s important to think about why that is.  Why does this story show up during Lent and not at some other time?  One of the things I talk about relative to Lent is how it is a season of honesty, a time when we reflect on who we really are behind whatever masks we wear, a time when, before God anyway, we don’t pretend but instead we honestly acknowledge the ways we don’t measure up to being who God would have us be.  Not pretending is at the heart of Lenten repentance.

This story gives us a slightly different angle from which to approach pretending and not pretending.  The woman from Samaria has a past.  The details of her past are not specifically identified but you get the idea that if it were possible, there are a few things she’d like to do over.  In her hometown of Sychar though, there’s no use in pretending she’s something other than what she is—as is the case in any small town, everyone knows her past, her life is an open book, the mask is off, for better or for worse she is what she is. 

The result of that is that the people of her town look down their nose at her.  It’s the old, “I may not be perfect, but at least I’m better than her.”  The fact that she goes to the well at noon, in the heat of the day, is a hint of that because the respectable women would go to get water in the early morning or in the evening when it was cooler and they would relax a little, share the news of the day.  This woman however, wasn’t part of that.  She had a past; there was no point in pretending.

So in the heat of the day she encounters Jesus and maybe seeing a stranger who doesn’t know her past, the mask gets put back on.  Curiously though, or maybe not so curiously actually, the story turns at the moment when she becomes aware that Jesus sees through the mask; he does know her past.  He knows her past just like the people back in town know it; the difference is that Jesus engages her and accepts her as she is.  She doesn’t have to pretend with him any more than she has to pretend with the people in town, but with Jesus, the reason she doesn’t have to pretend is because he accepts her.

The woman had a past, but don’t we all?  Some of it we may be proud of, but we’d all probably like a shot at a few “do overs” too.  Lent though is about being honest about all of it.  As was the case for the woman at the well, Jesus knows about all of it anyway.  But as she found out, he knows and he gives us the gift of acceptance anyway.  The repentance of Lent isn’t so we can feel lousy; it’s about recognizing that we are who we are and we’re accepted as we are.  The repentance of Lent should bring us to the realization that God knows who we are…but it’s not a deal breaker.  Paul puts it pretty well in Romans when he says, “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”  It was that recognition that transformed the woman at the well; she had a past, but for Jesus it wasn’t a deal breaker.  Again, it’s Jesus turning the world upside down; here’s this woman that he shouldn’t even be talking to because she’s a woman and a Samaritan and come to find out that on top of that she’s a “sinner,” scorned by respectable society, and yet Jesus engages her.

Another interesting thing about this story and last week’s is the confusion of the characters.  Nicodemus didn’t understand what Jesus meant by being born again.  The woman didn’t understand what Jesus meant by living water.  They’re words that probably confuse us too, but then we’ve got another whole corral of church words that may be confusing to us never mind being confusing to those outside the church, words like salvation and justification and grace and atonement, words like that.  I think though that in his reaction to the woman at the well, Jesus zeroes in on what all of these words point to.  What he offers her is acceptance, acceptance that cuts through all the ancient and current jargon.  That’s the gift that Jesus offered the woman, and the gift that he still offers.  It is the good news of the gospel.

Today’s Psalm was most certainly appointed for today because of its connection to the first lesson and the complaining of the people of Israel at Massah and Meribah.  Trying to connect this psalm to the gospel might be like trying to jam a square peg into a round hole, but what the heck; here goes.

It is a somewhat unusual psalm in that it shifts so quickly from being a song of praise and confidence to being an admonition concerning former sins.  It starts with “Come let us sing to the Lord, let us shout for joy to the rock of our salvation.  For you are a great God; in your hands are the caverns of the earth.  For the Lord is our God, and we are the people of God’s pasture and the sheep of his hand.” 

It doesn’t get much better than that, but then comes, “Oh, that today you would hear God’s voice!” which seems to be one of those “be careful what you wish for” things, because the following verses do represent God’s voice, and it’s not pleasant.  “Harden not your hearts as at Meribah and Massah.  Forty years I loathed that generation.  I swore in my anger, they shall never come into my rest.”  It doesn’t get much better than the beginning of this psalm and it doesn’t get much worse than the end. 

In fact, the shift is so abrupt that some think this is an example of two separate psalms that have been put together but which shouldn’t have been.  The ending is harsh and there is finality about it but on the other hand we know that this kind of judgment is not the core witness we have concerning God; despite how it sounds in this psalm, it’s not the last word.  There are other words, other psalms. 

Taking this psalm as it is though, we might see it directed to us as a word of caution and judgment at the end of any worship service.  “I hear your words of praise, but remember, I also know who you are.”  It’s the same reminder of judgment the woman at the well got.  I know who you are.

We are always subject to that judgment, it’s ongoing; but as was the case for the woman such judgment doesn’t end in rejection but in acceptance and freedom; she was free, free to live, free to live as one accepted by God.  That’s the beauty of Lenten repentance; it’s the beauty of the gospel as we drink from the living water of Jesus and embrace the identity he gives us. It brings us back to verse one of the psalm, “Come let us sing to the Lord; let us shout for joy to the rock of our salvation!”

Rev. Warren Geier

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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