The third in a Lenten series on prayer
by Reverend Rebecca Newland
Read the series:
Third Sunday in Lent — 23 March 2014
Exodus 17.1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5.1-11; John 4.5-42
Today we continue our reflections on prayer, the way we communicate with God and God communicates with us. If you have heard the last couple of sermons you have probably worked out that my focus in these talks is not how we pray, the particular words or forms we might use at various times. It is not the mechanics of prayer so to speak. My focus is prayer as an encounter with God, as a spiritual discipline whereby the Spirit transforms us over a lifetime of practice. It is about living in and through love more and more. Today's gospel reading has a lot to tell us about an encounter with the God of love.
It is the most extraordinary encounter and a thing of beauty. It is beautiful for many reasons—its construction, its humanness, its revelation of who Jesus is and how he sees others. Jesus talks longer to the woman at the well than he does to anyone else in all the Gospels—longer than he talks to any of his disciples, longer than he talks to any of his accusers, longer than he talks to any of his own family. She is the first person to whom he reveals himself in the Gospel of John. She is the first outsider to guess who he is and tell others. She is the first evangelist, John tells us, and her testimony brings many to faith. She stands in contrast to Nicodemus, who deliberately came at night to be with Jesus. She meets Jesus in a chance encounter in the middle of the day, in the sunlight.
We know that this is a very unlikely exchange for two reasons—that she is a Samaritan, traditional enemies of the Jews, and she is a woman. A Jewish man did not initiate a conversation with a woman. Moreover a Jewish teacher did not engage in public conversation with a woman. An old saying went, "He that talks much with womankind brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of the law and at the last will inherit Gehenna". No wonder Jesus disciples were horrified—by talking to this woman he was neglecting the most fundamental responsibility of a Jew, the law, and he was on his way to hell. (Girls, you've just got to love Jesus!!)
But Jesus let none of this deter him, neither the traditional teachings of his culture and faith or his disciples' problems. Instead through this encounter he reveals truth. Seeing the truth is actually a dangerous thing and it is a brave person who can pray the prayer, "God, show me the truth".
You see most of the time we humans live in a labyrinth of lies and deceit. (And on some level we are actually comfortable and happy there). We think we are distant from God when God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. We think we are intrinsically bad and wicked when we are made in the image of God. We think we have to be better people to earn salvation when God's grace is a gift freely given to all, sinner and saint alike.
There is a deeper truth available to us. What I love about the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is how Jesus gets her not just to the point of truth, but to the point of being willing to explore the truth and tell others about it. What happens between the two of them is almost playful. It is certainly gentle. Jesus forces nothing upon the woman. He requests, he suggests, he encourages, but perhaps most of all he is willing to step outside the confines of his cultural upbringing, that carefully constructed illusion about the way the world is or should be.
We can actually pray all our lives without ever wanting to know the truth and God will respect that in us and take whatever we are able to offer. God will even use what we offer to further the Kingdom. But if like the Samaritan woman, we want to know truth and we ask God to show the truth to us, then a whole other world will begin to open before us. If we open the door even the smallest amount, God's grace will begin to transform our lives. Jesus tells us in this passage that God seeks those who are able to worship in Spirit and Truth. We might be seekers of God, but God actively seeks us as well.
It is almost as if God is hovering around just waiting for the opportunity to step through the door we open. It seems to be the experience of people who pray that God takes ten steps to us for every step we take to God.
However, a glaring question remains about this encounter. What is the truth that is revealed? Well there are more than one and I invite you to take this passage home and explore all its depth and beauty to find those pearls of truth. But the one that comes at the climax of the encounter is the one that the whole conversation has been pointing to and it provides the context for grappling with these ideas of truth and illusion. In verse 25 and 26 the woman says, "I know the Messiah is coming. When he comes he will proclaim all things to us." Jesus says to her, "I am he, the one who is speaking to you."
Now again translators do an interesting thing in this verse. In the Greek Jesus does not say, "I am he." He says, "I am". When we hear this all our antennas should be up and going crazy. But we don't hear it, because the translators make it next to impossible, but hear it we should. By saying, "I am", Jesus is not just confirming that he is the Messiah, the Christ. He is saying something very particular about the Christ. Remember the encounter between Moses and Yahweh when Moses asked him who would he say had sent him. God replies, "Tell them "I am that I am" has sent you". God's name is 'I am'. And "I am" is pure being—no categories, no specifics, no cultural conditioning or religious straitjackets, no illusions, no nothing—just pure being. That, I think, is one of the reasons the first of the Ten Commandments is about idolatry and images. God does not what to be trapped in an illusion. So when Jesus says, "I am," he is revealing that he is about as close to God as you can get and, like God, he will not be contained by any human made image or concept.
That Jesus is "I am" is the great truth that shines out in this encounter. And we discover this truth when all our illusions are stripped away, when our stories that we have about the world and ourselves are exposed to the clear light of pure being. In leaving behind our false gods, we also leave behind our false selves.
The Samaritan woman stepped into that clear light, into pure being, and was transformed by the encounter. It is no mistake that John has this meeting taking place at a well. By doing so he evokes biblical memories of Rebecca and Isaac, Rachel and Jacob, Moses and Zipporah—all betrothal and marriage stories. But the relationship being cemented in this gospel encounter is the one between the woman and God, through and in Jesus Christ. It is a relationship that quenches our deepest thirst, brings life to dry bones and fulfills our deepest longings.
Later in the Gospel, Jesus will say, "the truth shall set you free". When we pray may we have the wisdom and courage to pray, "God, show me the truth".