Friday, April 22, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor as the Samaritan Woman at the Well?

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church - Delray Beach, Florida
3 Lent - Year A - March 28/29, 2011
Exodus 17:1-7; Ps. 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 5:4 - 42
Preacher: The Reverend William H. Stokes, Rector

            …those who drink of the water I will give them will never be thirsty again…John 4:14 
            It was sad to hear this past week of the death of international film legend Elizabeth Taylor.  Her career, her personal story, her loves, was all larger than life...“ She was a Hollywood original to the end,” People Magazine reported in an article that appeared on their website on Thursday.  It continued by stating: “following instructions she herself had left, the service began 15 minutes after schedule…‘She even wanted to be late for her own funeral’ a family rep said in a statement.’”[1] Good for her!
            Velvet Brown in National Velvet; Kay Banks in Father of the Bride; Maggie the Cat in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; the promiscuous Gloria Wandrous in Butterfield 8; Cleopatra; Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe:  Elizabeth Taylor’s range was unbelievable.  There was an exceptionally fine tribute to Ms. Taylor in Thursday’s New York Times in which it was observed, “There was more than a touch of Ms. Taylor herself in the roles she played. She acted with the magnet of her personalities.”[2]
            “Sometimes her film roles seemed to be a mirror image of her life,” the article went on to say. “More than most movie stars, she seemed to exist in the public domain. She was pursued by paparazzi and denounced by the Vatican. But behind the seemingly scandalous behavior was a woman with a clear sense of morality: she habitually married her lovers.”[3] The article stated, “People watched and counted, with vicarious pleasure, as she became Elizabeth Taylor Hilton Wilding Todd Fisher Burton Burton Warner Fortensky - enough marriages to certify her career as a serial wife. Asked why she married so often, she said, in an assumed drawl: ‘I don't know, honey. It sure beats the hell out of me.’”[4]
            I couldn’t help casting Elizabeth Taylor in the role of the Samaritan woman at the well as I thought about this week’s sermon.  Three years ago, when we heard this same Gospel from John, I suggested that I would cast Mae West in the role of the Samaritan Woman and she also would be a great choice.[5]  To be sure, Mae West and Elizabeth Taylor are very different women and each would have brought unique qualities to the portrayal.   Mae West was comic and also brash and sassy.   Taylor could be all of that too. 
            But I think Taylor would have brought more poignancy to the story; a greater awareness of the sadness of this Samaritan woman at the well; of the tragic dimensions of her life; tragic that is, until this encounter with Jesus which changes her life.  And I feel confident the portrayal would have been informed by her personal life experiences.   In many ways, this is a very unusual story.  In other ways, it is characteristically John.  What’s unusual?  Lots! 
            Jesus is alone and talking to a woman and, in that time and cultural milieu, that is generally not acceptable.   She is also a Samaritan and he’s a Jew.   As the text makes clear, “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans” (John 4:9).  Jesus is doing some boundary breaking here.
            Why does Jesus speak with her....Well, apparently, he’s tired and thirsty.  He says to her, “Give me a drink” (John 4:7) This woman knows what the normal code of behavior is and so, she challenges Jesus “How is it that you, a Jew, ask of me a woman of Samaria a drink?” (John 4:9)  Jesus responds, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that is saying to you, ‘give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10).  It’s a rather oblique response....
            As I observed last week when I preached on the encounter with Jesus and Nicodemus, the author of the Fourth Gospel uses this kind of dialogue, questioners probing Jesus with clear misunderstandings, to tease out the deeper levels of Jesus’ teaching.[6] As D. Moody Smith, Jr. observes in his commentary on John’s Gospel, there is a difference between last week’s text and this week’s.[7]  He writes, “in a manner reminiscent of the conversation with Nicodemus, she and Jesus are like ships passing in the night. Nevertheless,” Smith astutely observes, “her questions advance the conversation, as Nicodemus’s do not. She asks about the source of water, and she asks about Jesus and Jacob. Underlying her questions,” Moody writes, “is a growing awareness that Jesus can supply her need.”[8]  And he can, and he does....
            “Sir, you have no bucket and the well is deep.  Where do you get that living water?  Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us this well, and with his sons and his flocks, drank from it?” (John 4:11 - 12) Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.  The water that I will give them will become in them a spring of living water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:13 - 14).
            The key is in the image of the water and two forms of the word used in the narrative.  Smith gives us the key to understanding this exchange...In the Greek version of the story, two words for “well” are used, as in the well of water.  Smith notes, they are phrear and pege....Phrear, “‘Well,’ is used of the well of Jacob, which was and is dug deep into in the earth…”  Pege, ‘Spring’ is used of the water that Jesus gives...the former is everyday natural water; the latter is is internal and eternal.  It gushes up...It is running, living water...”[9]
            In the Bible, living water, running water is often a symbol of salvation.  For us, it is also, needless to say, the central sign and symbol of baptism and you can be sure John intends us to understand this as well.  The woman, however, does not seem to get the full implications of all of this...“Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water” (John 4:15) Her understanding seems to be operating at a more literal level...Jesus seems to understand he is getting nowhere with this conversation...
            “Go call your husband!” (John 4:16)
            “I have no husband!”
            “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands and the one you have now is not your husband.  What you have said is true.” (John 4:17-18).
            Tom Wright makes an observation about this exchange which I used the last time I preached this text and which is too good to pass up... He observes, “Jesus saw straight to the heart of what was going on....The woman has had a life composed of one emotional upheaval after another, with enough husbands coming and going to keep all the gossips in the village chatting for weeks....”[10]  “But,” Wright observes, “she knew her life was in a mess, and she knew that Jesus knew.”[11]  She tries to change the subject.
            “Sir, I see that you are a prophet” (John 4:19)“Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem” (John 4:20). 
            In the setting in which John places this exchange between Jesus and the woman, the two of them would have been able to see Mount Gerazim, where the Samaritans had built a temple for their own use.  By the time John’s Gospel was written both the Samaritan place of worship and the Jewish place of worship would have been destroyed, which helps underscore the importance of the next thing Jesus says to her.
            “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship God neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.  You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews; the hour is coming and is now here when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth for such the father seeks to worship him.  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23 - 24).
            Now if we are paying attention, we can’t help noticing another connection between last week’s reading about Nicodemus and his conversation with Jesus about the work of the Spirit, and being born from above and this exchange between Jesus and the woman about living water... Spirit and water....rebirth and salvation.
            It is clear, John is giving us a very deep discourse on baptism and the salvation of God; on desire and the power of God to call people into new life through Jesus; to turn lives around; even a person’s life that is as much of a mess as this Samaritan woman’s life is.
            Does a glimmer of understanding begin to show in her when she says to Jesus, “I know that Messiah is coming (who is called Christ)?  When he comes he will proclaim all things to us...” (John 4:25).
            It is interesting to note that the Samaritans were not waiting for a Messiah in the same way the Jews were....The Jews wanted a new Davidic king....Again, Smith is helpful...The Samaritans, who were the inheritors of the northern tribes of Israel had very little interest in such a king....The Samaritans were waiting for a new “restorer” a prophet; one like Moses, which they referred to as “Taheb.”[12]
            Well, whether the woman meant Messiah or Christ or Taheb, Jesus responds to her, “I am he....The one speaking to you” (John 4:26).   It is the first of the so-called “I am” sayings in John’s Gospel.   These echo the revelation of God to Moses at the Burning Bush.  “Who shall I say sent me?”  Moses asked in Exodus (Exodus 3:13)  The voice from the burning bush, the voice of God, responds, “tell them “I am” has sent you Exodus 3:14).  In Hebrew this is translated something like Yahweh; it is the proper and sacred name of God....A name so revered by Jews it is not spoken.
            “I am he” Jesus says to the woman.  In other places in John he will say, “I am the bread of life”  (John 6:35); “I am the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11); “I am the true vine” (John 15:1); “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).  You can be sure each of these is an echo; an intentional identification of Jesus with the revelatory voice of God from the burning bush.[13]
            And what does the woman do with this revelation?  How does she respond?  Well, Jesus’ disciples show up and they are a little shocked that he is talking to a woman and a Samaritan woman at that (John 27:1).  They don’t question him about this, but they are puzzled, and likely troubled....She uses their interruption as an excuse to make a timely escape and she rushes back to the village and calls out to anyone who will listen, “Come and see a man who told me everything I had ever done!” (John 4:29)  Excitement often results in exaggeration! “He cannot be the Messiah can he?” (John 4:29) 
            I can’t help seeing something remarkable in this woman....Last week, when we heard about Nicodemus, he came in stealth in the night, and just disappeared from the scene without a word....The encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well is in broad daylight; at noontime...
            In fact, in something I once read (I wish I could provide you with the source) the author argued that this woman’s reputation was so bad that she had to get her water at high noon, the hottest part of the day, because she was ostracized by the other women of the village who would regularly get their water early in the morning, when it was cool out....I think that’s a reasonable argument.
            But this woman of questionable reputation, this woman who has held her own in conversation with Jesus, who has continually helped take the conversation to a higher level, becomes a messenger of the Gospel to her village...In this, she strikes me as an early foreshadowing of Mary Magdalene, who was sometimes portrayed as a woman of questionable reputation, but who on Easter morning was the one who first carried the news of Christ’s resurrection, who became the apostle to the apostles (John 20:18).
            This figure – a Samaritan, a woman, who has lived with five men, is cast in a similar role for her village...She goes into town and calls out to everyone who will listen, “Come and see a man who has told me everything I have done...He cannot be the Messiah can he?” (John 4:29).  And we’re told that many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done” (John 4:29).  And they came out to him and asked him to stay with them and we’re told he did stay with them for two days.  And many more believed because of his word.  They said to the woman, “it is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world!” (John 4:39-42)
            I don’t know if they’re putting the woman down or not....Smith writes, “the fact that Jesus here encounters a woman who is a foreigner and deals with her on the same basis as everyone else is fundamental to the role and importance of the episode.   In fact, its unique character lays the basis for the Samaritan’s climactic affirmation that Jesus is the Savior of the world.” [14]
            It is an incredible Gospel message about the extent of Jesus saving message....In Christ, God invites all people to new and richer life, no matter where we are, no matter what we’ve done.
            We are in the third week of Lent....It is a time during which we are to allow ourselves to be encountered by Jesus, to imagine ourselves at the well with him, just like the woman; to comprehend that Jesus sees right through us; sees it all, knows everything about us; everything we have ever done, and loves us anyway....
            Above all, Lent is a time to discover that we are not to be defined by those elements of our lives about which we are ashamed....It’s not that they’re not real.  It’s not that they haven’t happened.  It’s not even that they’re not sinful; they likely are....And if we are still living in these things that make us ashamed, Lent is a time to renounce them; it’s a time to allow God’s grace in Christ to give us strength to put them aside so that we can move on in life...And that’s the point....
            Lent is a season of renewal...It is a time when we are, by the grace of God and his forgiveness to put the sin in our lives behind us.  It is a period when we are to engage in what the 12 Step community refers to as “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves”[15] but also a time when we are “entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character., to humbly ask God to remove our shortcomings, and also when we are called to make amends to those we may have harmed or may be harming...”[16]  It is a liberating thing to engage in this cleansing encounter with Christ and with ourselves....It has the potential to make all things new....It has the potential to give us new life....In short, it has the power of Easter. 
            It is Lent....Come and see this person Jesus; really see him, who knows everything you have done....Come and experience his love and let him make you new...
            He is indeed the Savior of the world.

[2]    Gussow, Mel et al  “A Lustrous Pinnacle of Hollywood Glamour” The New York Times -3/23/2011 
[3]    Gussow, Mel “A Lustrous Pinnacle of Hollywood Glamour”
[4]    Gissow, Mel  “A Lustrous Pinnacle of Hollywood Glamour”
[5]    Stokes, William H  “To Err is human but it feels divine!”  Sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Delrya Beach, FL  2/24/2008
[6]    Stokes, William H. “It’s that time of year again…”   Sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Delray Beach, FL 3/20/2011
[7]   Smith Jr., D. Moody  Abingdon New Testament Commentaries:  John (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1999, pp. 113 – 114.
[8]    Smith, pp. 114 - 115
[9]    Smith 114
[10]  Wright, Tom, John for Everyone - Part One (London, Westminster, Louisville: John Knowx Westminster Press, 2004) 44
[11]   Wright, 45
[12]    See Smith, pp. 117 ff.
[13]    See Smith, pp. 118
[14]    Smith, p. 123
[15]   See the 12 Steps of AA Step 4 at
[16]   See the 12 Steps of AA Step 6-8  at

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