Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Lent, Year A - Mucknell Abbey
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Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Lent, Year A

12th March, 2023

He came to me with his eyes and asked for water,
Stretched out his hands and spoke.
His mind burned into mine like the noon sun,
My pitcher of thoughts broke.

I had not noticed him at rest by the well head,
Shadowed by the rare tree;
But as I carried my shame into its coolness
His eyes awaited me.

The opening verses of a poem by Clive Sanson ‘The Woman of Samaria’. To be fair to him it was published in 1956 before theologians began to question the issues we are addressing now. Sandra Schneiders, in her book ‘The Revelatory Text’ offers a very interesting commentary on today’s Gospel which challenges a lot of the common assumptions illustrated by the verses I have just quoted.

We know that John’s Gospel is very carefully constructed. Patterns and themes emerge, every word can be analysed. Today’s Gospel passage is part of a sequence of stories beginning and ending at Cana. It is a ‘type story’ following a recognised biblical pattern. In this case the paradigm is a story recounting meetings of future spouses who then play a central role in salvation history. Wells, redolent with the symbolism of water, play a part in these stories for Isaac, Jacob and Moses.

Jesus meets the woman at Jacob’s well. In the development of the sequence the woman is clearly contrasted with Nicodemus. He comes at night and disappears into the shadows confused by Jesus’ self-revelation. The woman encounters Jesus at high noon and brings others to him through her testimony.
Like other significant persons in John she is nameless and can represent a group, in this case, the Samaritans.

Jesus does not express judgement about the woman’s personal morality. Schneiders suggests that it is not about the woman’s morality at all, but a theological discussion around the divisions between Jews and Samaritans. The break between Jews and Samaritans happened when the returning exiles from the Northern Kingdom, Ancient Israel, chose to follow the five false gods of neighbouring tribes. This explains the five husbands and the woman’s irregular current relationship. In the prophetic literature idolatry is symbolised by adultery and prostitution. The woman’s admitted unmarried state represents the fact that the full integrity of Samaria’s covenantal relationship is tainted by false worship.

In the Samaritan tradition the Messiah was not a king but the last of line of prophets and the conversation with Jesus shows a gradual revelation of his true identity. When the woman calls Jesus the Prophet she is making the connection and identifying him as the Messiah. Jesus confirms this using the Mosaic phrase ‘I am’. This dialogue is unique in the Gospel and illustrates a movement towards the new covenant of fidelity to the new Bridegroom of the New Israel.

In this Cana to Cana sequence we see a model of mission. It starts with Jesus’ immediate family and disciples at the wedding, moves to the Jews with Nicodemus, then to the Samaritans and in the last story, the healing of the Royal Official’s son, to the outsiders brought to faith in Jesus. The Samaritan woman goes off to pass on the news and the people of Sychar come to Jesus and are convinced by his words to them. This is another recurring theme in John. People are brought by a disciple and then convinced by meeting and hearing Jesus themselves.
Even the little detail of the woman abandoning her jar points to the evangelistic focus of the story. Think of the nets, boats and parents as the disciples abandon their daily concerns to follow Jesus.

But what about the living water? Through the centuries Christians have seen the woman at the well as a type of the catechumen. She comes to faith through question and answer with Jesus, the spring and source of living water. It is interesting to note that some early baptismal liturgies include a gift of a cup of water to the newly baptised, a dramatic gesture which puts this story in its true context.

Bearing in mind the radical inclusiveness of the teaching of Christian forgiveness, even though it was often presented through sexist imagery, let us hear how the poem ends.

He spoke of water to cleanse the spirit:
I tried not to understand.
He followed me along the road of my evasions,
And when it ceased in sand

He brought me home from my self-forced journey –
He showed me my own soul,
Cracked and dry as a discarded wine skin,
And made it whole . . .

He came to me with his eyes and asked for water,
Stretched out his hands and spoke.
As I carried my peace back to the streets of Sychar,
A new world woke.

Br. Anthony

Image: Siemiradzki, Henryk, 1843-1902. Christ and the Samaritan Woman, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54747 [retrieved March 13, 2023]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Siemiradzki-Chrystus_i_Samarytanka.jpg.