Sermon 3.12.23

2601 54th Avenue South  St. Petersburg, FL  33712
On land originally inhabited by the Tocabaga

Date:  March 12, 2023
Scripture Lessons:  Exodus 17:1-7 and John 4:5-42
Sermon:  Dried Up?
Pastor:  Rev. Kim P. Wells

One of our extravagant indulgences as a household is to have a pool service clean our pool each week.   We started it one year when we were away for an extended time, and just never stopped it.  It’s pretty nice to have the pool cleaned once a week – especially our pool which is overhung with trees in our woodsy backyard.

The person who comes to clean the pool changes frequently.  The guy doing it now has been coming for over a month – a long stint for us.  So, when he came this week, Jeff, my spouse, went out to greet him.  They got to talking.  Not a surprise since Jeff is gregarious and so is the pool guy.  I could hear them conversing in the backyard.  I glanced though the window and they are both working at cleaning the pool. . .  When he came in, Jeff told me about the young man.  And I want to share one part of his story with you.

Apparently, when the young man was in high school, a teacher, yes, a teacher, told him flat out – You’re not going to go anywhere.  You might as well drop out.  Stop coming to school.  Yes, a high school teacher in the public schools here in Pinellas County told him that.  And just for the record, he is not Black.  You’re not going anywhere.  Just stop coming.

Now, before we go on, I want to acknowledge that being a teacher is an extremely stressful profession.  It is a very hard job.  And it takes its toll in many, many ways.  And there is little to no support for many teachers – from the school, the educational system, the government, maybe even from their family.  So we want to have compassion for the teacher who gave the young man that discouraging assessment of his future.  

I also want to say that here at LUCC we have had many teachers in the congregation, active and now some retired.  And it has been part of our mission as a church to be a community of support for those teachers so that they can do their best in their ministry of teaching and supporting the growth and maturation of the students.  This is important to our church because we know that being a teacher is not easy and that many forces undermine the hopes and dreams of those who go into teaching with the desire to be an influence for good in the lives of the students.

So, our pool cleaning technician was told he wasn’t going to amount to much.  So, you know what he did?  First he changed schools.  And then, he did as the teacher advised.  At 15 he simply stopped attending school all together,   And did not go back.  And has never graduated.  No GED.  He is 33.  

This young man was told that he was worthless.  Useless.  A burden?  An annoyance?  From the story we heard from the gospel of John this morning, we can well imagine that the woman in the story who came to the well had also been told, maybe not in so many words, that she was worthless.  Useless.   Maybe even a burden.  Certainly an annoyance.  

You see, she was coming to the well at noon.  That is a HUGE red flag.  Going to the well for water was an important social event for the women of the village.  The women would all go to the well at the same time, in the cool of the morning, or the cool of the evening.  It was a time to gather, to visit, to exchange stories.  To talk about their kids.  And their husbands.  Trade recipes.  To give and receive support and comfort and advice.  It was a time of community and connection.  But in the story, the woman who engages with Jesus comes to the well at midday.  In the heat of the day.  Because, well, she was not wanted, not welcome, among the women of the village.  Why?  Because of her many relationships?  Again, 6 partners?  Was she cast off?  Unwanted?  By the men in her life?  Or was there something else?  We don’t know.  But we are told that she is an outcast from her village, her community.

We are also told in the story of the hatred between the Samaritans and the Jews.  That stemmed from an historic difference, centuries old, about where God should be worshiped.  Now, they were bitter enemies.  

And Jesus was a man.  A man did not talk with a woman outside of the home in that cultural context, except perhaps to a family member.  So an interaction between a man and a woman, strangers, in public, was absolutely forbidden according to religious and cultural customs.  

When the disciples return and find this conversation going on, at the well, at noon, between Jesus and a Samaritan woman, they are aghast.  They don’t know where to start – “. . . no one dared to ask, ‘What do you want of him?’ or ‘Why are you talking with her?’”  This encounter was so shocking, the normally loquacious disciples are driven to stunned silence.  

To a Jewish man, this woman is nothing less than despicable – beyond worthless, useless; she was an annoyance, and a burden.  

Yet, we have been given this story.  Of Jesus.  A Jewish man.  The Messiah.  Initiating an encounter with this woman.  The story relates one of the longest conversations in the gospels between Jesus and another person let alone a woman.  And it is an involved conversation.   Not only about the well and her husbands, practical matters.  In the womanly sphere.  But there is an in depth theological discussion.  About the Samaritans and the Jews.  About the Messiah.  About the history of their faith and its scriptures and stories.  Jesus makes a clear declaration of his identity to this useless, annoying woman.  He offers his gift of living water, Love which satisfies, heals, connects, includes, sustains, refreshes, validates, and affirms, to this woman who has been told that she is worthless and seems to have yet to experience a trustworthy love in her life. 

The woman then becomes the first evangelist in this gospel.  She  leaves her clay jar and invites the town, populated with people who have hated her and vilified her and ostracized her, to meet this religious teacher.  She invites the village to hear about this living water.  She immediately shares the gift that she is given.  Because, of course, it is true Love, and true Love must be shared, given away, spread, disseminated, with profligate abandon.  

In the orthodox Christian tradition, the woman at the well has been given a name, Photini.  It means, ‘the enlightened one.’ She is honored with a saint day.  She is revered in readings and song.  

The story from John tells of a person who was no one, or even less than no one, that became someone through the love of Jesus.  Someone who was not supposed to amount to anything, someone useless, worthless, someone who wasn’t going to go anywhere, has an encounter with Jesus, and evangelizes her whole town, and is remembered and revered.  

In the Torah, God calls the Hebrew people out of obscurity, away from the fleshpots of Egypt, to become a blessing to the world – to give the world the living water of Divine Love, compassion and justice.  The Hebrews are led away from the familiar customs, material comforts, and power arrangements that they know and understand.  To create something new.  And it is not an easy transition.  In the story from Exodus, the people are clambering for water.  Give us water.  Give us water.  And through Moses, God gives them what they need.

In the story of the woman at the well, again we see a story of Divine love drawing people away from the customs, comforts, and power arrangements that they have come to know and understand.  Into new territory.  

This involves giving up what they have come to know and appropriating a different worldview, different assumptions, it is an invitation to a new realty.  The reality of the commonwealth of God.  Which includes everyone.  No exceptions.  Even a promiscuous woman from an enemy nation.  

There are so many people thirsty today – for love, for meaning, for purpose, for connection, for validation, for respect.  Today, so many people feel alienated from their true humanity, from Divine Love, and certainly from religion.  

And this is the reason that the church exists:  To engage those who are cast aside, vilified, forgotten, devalued, and disrespected.  And to share the living water, Divine Love, with all.  The mission of the church is to let people know that they are loved, all people.  We are here to give the living water that sustains and refreshes everyone.  

Yet, often the church seems to be contributing to the disrespect of humanity, to the divisions that cause harm and that undermine the universal, unconditional, eternal love of God.  The church often seems to stemming the flow of the living water instead of taking it to those who are thirsty.

When we are in Spain walking the Camino de Santiago and we see the ornate gold adorning the sanctuaries of so many churches, we are continually reminded of the church’s role in subjugating peoples of other lands.  The riches of Mexico glitter in Spain.  The church has a long history of appropriation and of subjugation.  And this continues in the church today.  Much of the church still does not ordain women.  Along with sexism, racism is alive and well in the church.  The church perpetuates patriarchy and the damage it causes.  Much of the church continues to try to blame and control women’s bodies.  The church continues to devalue non-Western cultures and to impose culture along with religion.  The church also contributes to the dehumanization of people who are not cisgender, people whose sexual orientation or gender identity doesn’t fit narrowly defined norms created and imposed by society including much of the church.

All of this and more is in direct conflict with the legacy of the gospel of Jesus – the living water offered fully and freely to the woman at the well and others who are considered less than, other, deviant, unworthy.  

In the book Eve’s Pilgrimage, there is a beautiful description of the flowing of living water at a jubilee concert in Rome around the turn of the millennium when there was a focus on international debt reduction.  Author Tina Beattie offers this description of the concert: 

“The evening began with an Iranian Muslim Women’s ensemble singing verses from the Qur’an, and for the next two hours we were swept up in a celebration of music and dance that seemed to emanate from a different universe to the baroque extravaganza of the basilica next door.  Here, the extravagance lay not in the brash proclamation of Rome’s power frozen in marble and bronze but in the human body and voice — the female body and voice — transformed into a living icon of praise.  Peruvian dancers, American sopranos, a Filipino choir, African, Polish and Romanian musicians, Korean women like bright butterflies in their national dress — that night the Vatican was truly catholic, and woman was truly incarnate.  The evening ended with a group of young Italian ballet dancers, dressed in slinky costumes in the colours of the jubilee logo.  As they writhed sinuously up the steps and arched their backs and raise their arms to the risen Christ [The Paul VI concert hall, where the concert was held, contains a vast bronze sculpture of the resurrection.], I wanted to pinch myself.  Could this possibly be happening on the Pope’s doorstep?  This was Eve risen, redeemed, beautiful, sexy, dancing where she should always have danced, in the heart of Christ’s Church on earth.”  [In Resources for Preaching and Worship: Year A, Quotations, Meditations, Poetry, and Prayers, compiled by Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, pp. 18-19.]

That is the living water that Jesus offers.

Jesus does not treat the woman at the well like a second class citizen, less than.  She is not considered different.  She is not ‘othered.’  In fact, in the story, Jesus seeks her out so we can see what it is to be truly freed of all that separates, divides, diminishes, and drains.  And he offers the refreshing, sustaining, transforming, life giving water of Divine Love specifically to her. 

It is the Lenten season, so it is a time when we reflect on our spiritual life.  We seek to be people of faith.  We are here in church.  We want to follow Jesus.  So we may be wondering, have we received this living water?  Is it sustaining us?  Is it refreshing us?  Are we saying yes to the Good News?

Well, we can look at our lives.  Do we seek out those who are different than we are?  Do we engage with those we do not agree with?  Are we involving ourselves with people from different cultures than ours?  And different religions?  And no religion?  How do we treat those from a different political party?  As enemy?  Less than?  Other?  Are we respecting and affirming the full humanity of women and girls?

Do we find ourselves reaching out?  Offering love?  Seeking understanding?  Are we giving affirmation?  Acceptance?  Validating the humanity of those considered less than, other, annoying, bothersome, burdensome?  Are we looking at others with compassion, seeking understanding?  That is Divine Love flowing through us.

If we are seeking to love our enemies and to engage with the ‘other’ than the living water of Divine Love may very well be flowing through us into the world where it is desperately needed.  

When we embody the gospel, as Jesus did, we find Divine Love flowing out from us.  A spring.  A fountain.  A river.  Not a stagnating pond.  Despite all the messages telling us we can’t make a difference.  It doesn’t matter.  Only money talks.  Things can’t change.  We aren’t going to amount to anything.  And when we reach out in Love, seeking to share the living water with others, we find that we ourselves are actually revived and refreshed.  We are made new by that spring of Divine Love.  Don’t be afraid of a dip in the pool!   Amen.  

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

Author: Rev. Wells

Pastor of Lakewood United Church of Christ since 1991. Graduate of Wellesley College and Union Theological Seminary of New York.

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