What's the story?

note...  So, I haven't been great at keeping up with my blog lately.  I apologize!  I owe you 4 or 5 theater reviews, and probably that many sermons, too!  But for now, here's this morning's.  I'll try to get caught up soon!

Icon of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well, from the Church of Jacob's Well in Nablus, Palestine
Lent 3A
John 4:5-42

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Last week we heard the story of Nicodemus: a consummate insider; a Pharisee; a moral leader of the Jews.  He came to Jesus under the cover of darkness in a time of inner tempest and turmoil: the kind of tempest borne out of having seen God and not knowing what to do - not accepting what must be done.  He came saying, basically, I see God in you, but logic tells me that I shouldn’t.  What must I do?

Jesus sends him deeper down the rabbit hole.  Deeper into his own spirit, and his own experience of the Holy Spirit.  Deeper into his own turmoil.

This week, the story turns around, somewhat.

As much as Nicodemus was the consummate insider, this woman at the well was the consummate outsider.  She was a woman.  A sinner.  A foreigner.  She didn’t seek out Jesus to trudge through the turmoil of her soul.  She wasn’t seeking Jesus at all.  She just came to the well looking for a little water.  Not a problem of the spirit, but a need of the body.  Not theological searching, but a temporal chore.  She just needed a bit of water.

Instead, she found much more.  She found a sustenance that she neither knew she needed nor that she even knew was available.  She was just looking for water, but she also found Christ.

Taken together with the story of Nicodemus, Jesus, in the story of the woman at the well, begins to paint a picture.  He’s is not just a savior for the insiders.  He didn’t just come to teach in the synagogues, or to speak only to the faithful.  Jesus was just as much a savior for the outsider: for the ones who most religious leaders of the day might have thought were beyond hope; for the ones who weren’t from the right families, or the right upbringing, or the right gender, and even for those of us who had made bad decisions.

Jesus was sent to be a Christ for us all - no matter who, no matter when, no matter where.

When I was a seminarian, still in the early stages of discerning how God might be calling me, Elizabeth, my mentor, asked me a question that really ticked me off.  (She did that from time to time…)  She asked me what biblical story motivated me to ministry.  The question made me angry, mostly because I didn’t have an answer.  She went on to tell me what her motivating story was, and to parse out the theology of how it applied to her daily life, and to give examples of times when it came in handy.

I was mad because I felt sideswiped.  Out of nowhere, I’d been accosted by this question that I had no answer to.  Moreover, I was mad because it seemed like a pretty important question.  It felt like the kind of question that I should have had an answer to.  So I felt unprepared and inadequate.

But her question did plant a seed.  What was my motivating story?

Years went by before I knew.

It wasn’t until just a couple of years ago that an answer finally dawned.  I was on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and we’d visited the Palestinian city of Nablus.  There’s a church there that’s been built over an ancient well that tradition holds is “Jacob’s well” - the well that we read about today.  As we stood around that well, and drew water from it, and read this story, something within me began to stir.

Afterward, we had some time to spend in the church.  Some people prayed.  Some people bought things at the little souvenir counter the church had set up.  Some people just visited with other people - taking a moment of rest on a weary-making tour schedule.  I spent the half hour or so that we had there wandering around the church and absorbing the many ways that artists had captured the story of Jesus meeting the woman at the well.

Near the entrance of the church I found this one contemporary icon.  In the sea of artistic interpretations, nothing about it really stood out.  It was an icon in the classic Eastern style.  But I stood there for the 15 or 20 minutes that I had left, and allowed it to draw me in.

I thought of myself standing beside that well.  I thought of the crystal, cool water it produces from deep in the earth, and that it has been producing for thousands of years, and that I had just tasted.  I thought of that woman - that outsider, that foreigner, that sinner - and I knew that she was calling me just as clearly as was God.  God was calling me through her.  God was calling me because I was her.

Of course I’m Nicodemus, too.  The Pharisee.  The religious insider consumed with inner tumult looking to Jesus for answers that seem all too elusive.  But even more, I’m the woman at the well.  The one who doesn’t quite belong, but who still finds belonging in Christ.  The one whom Christ found in the midst of her daily tasks and turned her toward something bigger.  The weary one whom Christ refreshed with living water.

Though I was angry with Elizabeth for asking me that question that I couldn’t yet answer, it’s a question we all need to be asking - both as individuals and as a congregation.  We’re called to be ministers of this gospel of Jesus Christ, but why?  What motivates us?  What story turned us around?  Which story keeps turning us around each time we encounter it?  Where in the Christian story do we see ourselves?  Where are we being called?  To where are we being driven?

We need to know, because when we encounter the tempests like we heard about from Nicodemus last week, we need these stories as a roadmap.  We need to know what motivates us, for those times when we need the motivation the most.

There are times in the life of any faithful Christian and in the life of any faithful congregation when we simply don’t know the way.  There are times when our decisions or our circumstances leave us feeling far from the path we thought we were supposed to be following.

Knowing who we are, and who we’re called to serve, and how we’re called to walk the way with Christ can lead us home when we get lost.  For me, the way home is by way of the outsider - my own “inner outsider” and the outsiders I see (and sometimes fail to see) every day.  It may be something else for you.  And it may be something else entirely for ‘us’.

It might be a really frustrating question.  I can be hard to answer.  But it’s worth asking.


Oh, may I always 'tick you off' and cause you to consider how the Gospel is alive in and animating your life.