St. Paul’s Episcopal Church - Delray Beach, Florida
3 Lent - Year A - February 23/24, 2008
Exodus 17:1-7; Ps. 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 5:4 - 42
Preacher: The Reverend William H. Stokes, Rector
I was “channel surfing” at home not that long ago and came across a documentary about Mae West.1 There are few more recognizable figures, or more caricatured ones in American pop culture than Mae West....In her film and stage work she pushed the edges of propriety, even crossed those boundaries. Her sassiness, keen wit and double entendres, and above all her unique look and her eternal youthfulness have made her distinctive and a uniquely American pop icon.
Mae West’s story is fascinating. Her quotes, many of which are not fitting for church, are easily recognizable: “Opportunity knocks for every man, but you have to give a woman a ring.” “She’s the kind of girl who climbed the ladder of success wrong by wrong.” “Those who are easily shocked should be shocked more often.” “To err is human but it feels divine.”2
According to Wikipedia, Mae West was offered her first movie contract when she was 38 years old? She only made 12 movies. The last was Sextette which was filmed in 1978, when she was 85 years old. She died at her home at age 87 and everyone was still amazed at her youthful appearance. She reportedly never had plastic surgery and still had her own teeth when she died.3
A famous Mae West anecdote: In her first film in 1932, Night after Night which starred George Raft, she had a relatively small part with which she was not especially happy. She got permission to rewrite some of the lines. In West's first scene, a hat check girl exclaimed, "Goodness, what lovely diamonds." West cracked back, "Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie."4 Classic Mae West!
So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the lot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, give me a drink” (John 4:5 - 7)
I would cast Mae West in the role of the Samaritan Woman. (You were wondering where I was going with that, weren’t you?!) The Samaritan woman is brash, and smart and sassy, and she definitely pushes the edge of propriety. Of course, Jesus is pushing the edge of propriety himself when he even dares to speak to her. First of all, he is a Jew and she is a Samaritan, and, as the text makes clear, “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans” (John 4:9).
She is also a woman and, in that social milieu, it is not acceptable for a woman and man who are not married to each other to be alone, never mind, to speak to one another. But Jesus does speak to her. He is tired and thirsty and he says to her, “give me a drink.” At least he could say “please.”
Well, she does know the proprieties and, as I already have indicated, she is sassy. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask of me a woman of Samaria a drink?” (John 4:9) If Mae West had edited the script, she would have added, “It takes two to get one in trouble!”5
Jesus snaps back, “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....I can imagine her raising her eyebrows, Mae West-like, and looking at Jesus as if he is not all there, “Sir, you have no bucket and the well is deep” (John 4:11). 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
“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). She is neither impressed with Jesus not intimidated by him. Actually, her tone seems condescending. She is saying, in effect, “Who do you think you are?”
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).
Mae West once said, “If I asked for a cup of coffee, someone would search for a double meaning.”7 In this dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, it is all about double meanings. The living waters about which Jesus is speaking are the waters of eternal life. It is a reference to baptismal waters, the waters that draw persons into his life, and so into the very living waters and life stream of God. But the Samaritan woman at the well has not caught on yet. She is, perhaps, so used to the mundane drudgery of everyday life and its constant routines, that her greatest hope would be even the smallest relief from these. In fact, she hints at that in her next response to Jesus: “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water” (John 4:15)
Perhaps a little frustrated that she is not catching on, Jesus takes a different tack. “Go call your husband!” (John 4:16)
“I have no husband!”
“You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for the 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).
In his commentary on the fourth Gospel, John for Everyone,8 N.T. Wright observes about this exchange, “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....”9 “But,” Wright observes, “she knew her life was in a mess, and she knew that Jesus knew.”10 “Her reaction to this,” Wright continues, “is a classic example of what every pastor and evangelists knows only too well. Put your finger on the sore spot, and people will start talking about something else...”11
If she were being played by Mae West, she would have responded to Jesus, “I’ll try anything once. Twice if I like it. Three times to make sure.” 12 The Samaritan woman does say, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet” (John 4:19). In saying that, she is affirming the truth of what he has said. As N.T. Wright astutely observes, the Samaritan Woman shifts from the subject of her life, to the broader, safer and more distant question of institutional religion.13 She says, “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem” (John 4:20).
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 (John 4:21 - 22).
In his answer, Jesus seems to uphold Judaism and its traditions, at least as the original source of salvation, but he doesn’t leave it there. He continues, “...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).
It is a surprising and radical move. It is not the physical location of worship that is at the heart of it all, Jesus is saying. It is the intersection of the nature of God with the faith and disposition of the believer. Many Jews at the time of Jesus focused their attention on Jerusalem and the Temple, but these would fall to the Romans in 70 A.D. as they had fallen to the Babylonians 600 years before. What of faith then? What of God then?
When the geography of religion and its buildings and institutional forms become the focal point of belief, rather than the living God and living faith to which that geography and those buildings and those institutional forms should point, than faith has been misled. It has become idolatry.
I am not suggesting that religious geography is unimportant. I have led pilgrimages to the Holy Land, to sacred places in England; to Iona, and Greece and Turkey. These places can be, indeed are, touchstones for faith, places where the veil between heaven and earth is indeed thin.
I am not saying that religious buildings are not important. This beautiful church sits as sacred space in the midst of a bustling community with all the distractions and even sinfulness of contemporary society surrounding it. This church building is a visible reminder of God and as a sanctuary, to which people may come for respite and prayer and healing and peace; to be fed with the spiritual food of Jesus and to drink of his living waters.
The forms of our worship are also time tested and important. We do them because we believe we have received them as gift from God and that they lead us to God. But when the forms of worship become the “be all and end all” of faith, rather than a vehicle to an encounter and relationship with God, than something has gone wrong.
“...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 4:21 - 22).
The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming...When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”
“I am he, the one who is speaking to you” (John 4:25 - 26).
It is a stunning self-identification by Jesus. It is one of the so-called “I am” sayings which are unique to John’s Gospel. “I am the way the truth and the life” (John 14:6); “I am the good shepherd” (John 6:11); “I am the true vine” (John 15:1); “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35). These and others echo the voice of God to Moses at the burning bush, “Tell them ‘I AM’ has sent you” (Exodus 3:13 -14).
In Hebrew, “I AM” is translated YAHWEH - It is the name of God, the proper name of God. “I am he” Jesus says to the woman. The wording of this formulation is no accident and the audience that first read or heard John’s Gospel would have understood the connection.
The story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman is interrupted by the arrival of Jesus’ disciples and a conversation about literal food and spiritual food that offers a nice parallel to the living water conversation between the Samaritan woman and Jesus (John 4:27 - 30). We are told the woman left her water jar, and went back to the city and she said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done” (John 4:28 - 29). The woman, a Samaritan woman, becomes a model of discipleship and evangelism, going and telling her people about how she has met Jesus and inviting them to come, see and experience Jesus for themselves.
“Come and see,” she said to them, and they went...They went to see for themselves. And we are told later in the narrative that “when they found him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there for two days, and many more believed because of his word” (John 4:40). They said to her, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard it ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world” (John 4:42). And once more in this story, we are presented with a stunning identification of Jesus - Jesus as “Savior of the world.” Note well, what they say. Not the Savior of the Jews alone. Not the Savior of the Samaritans alone, but the Savior of the World. But they wouldn’t have heard anything if it hadn’t been for that smart, sassy, sinner of a woman who went and told them about her encounter with Jesus.
It’s a great story in which Jesus saw right through that woman, saw right through to her very soul. He saw that her life was a mess, but you know what? That wasn’t so very important. You see Jesus wasn’t nearly as concerned with who she was as he was concerned with who she could be. To be sure, Jesus confronts the woman in her brokenness and in her sinfulness, but he doesn’t do this to leave her in the muck and in the mire. He calls her out of all of this, and that’s what makes him the Savior: his calling her and leading her out of the mess that is her life.
He knows that he has something to offer her, something all the other men in her life did not - living water, water gushing up to eternal life. If she drinks of this water, she will never be thirsty again. And she does drink of it, and she goes to bring others to the living water, and her world, and theirs, would never be the same again. They would be saved and as a result they would know and worship God in Spirit and in truth.
So how about you. Where is Jesus meeting you in your life? Are things alright, well good, but perhaps they could be better, more fulfilled, deeper. Perhaps your life is a mess. If it is, I have good news for you. Jesus can be found here, at the well which is this church. And Jesus isn’t nearly as concerned with who or what you are, as he is with what you could be, a disciple who worships God in spirit and in truth. If you allow it to happen, you can find water at the well that is this church, living water, the water of life. Drink of them. Drink deeply. But just don’t stand at the well drinking. Be like that woman. Go out and invite others to the water.
Go out tell others whom you know, others who are thirsty, others who need to discover God in spirit and in truth...Tell them to come and see. Jesus’desire was, and always will be, to give living water to all who thirst, and especially those who are isolated, alienated and alone. So go out and invite them, invite everyone you know. Tell them about Jesus and the living water. Invite them to...come up and see him sometime!
2. See “Mae West quotes” on-line at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/m/mae_west.html
8. Wright, Tom John for Everyone - Part One (London, Westminster, Louisville: John Knowx Westminster Press, 2004)