I am experimenting with various styles of preaching during Lent and then posting sermon manuscripts, when I have such a thing, here. Therefore they may not be as refined as I would like.
During our time in Palestine, we were blessed to meet a young man named Firas. Unfortunately, this was not long before his young life was cut short. He was one of the first young men to get to youth group. Gentle, kind, deeply pious, he loved the activities and, above all, the opportunities for prayer and service. One day he was running late; at the edge of the rural town, his friend was headed toward the church on his tractor and offered Firas a ride. Firas hesitated – he didn’t want to get his church clothes dirty – but he wanted to get there on time. He hopped on, but didn’t hold tight so that there would be space between him and the filthy tractor. As they reached the center of town, the tractor hit a bump; Firas lost his grip and fell; he was killed almost instantly.
It was a tragedy, no doubt. But it was then that we learned something remarkable about the power of faith and reconciliation.
Under traditional Arabic customs, the young man who was driving the tractor had to be banished from the town. Everyone understood that it was an accident; and yet, everyone knew that Firas’ family’s grief needed to be honored in some way. The young man went to a nearby Muslim village. The expectation was that he would be there the duration of the traditional forty day mourning period.
His family had to scrape together the $10,000 to give to Firas’ family; this was also understood to be temporary, and that once the community went through the traditional reconciliation ritual, the money would be returned. Even so, they needed to find the cash in a desperate economy to show their sorrow.
Three days after Firas’ funeral, the elders of the tribes and families from our village and the surrounding town gathered in Firas’ parents’ house to pay their respects. It was then that Firas’ father stood to say a word.
“My Muslim brothers,” he said, “There is a verse in the Qur’an which says that you should honor the Christians and learn from us. And in our book, we learn that we should love one another as our Lord loves us. So since he has forgiven me, so my faith teaches me that I should forgive. Let the young man come back to his home. Let his family take their money back. And let peace prevail between our families.”
The gesture stunned the gathered guests. Some were outraged that Firas’ father had cut the grieving period and the punishment period so short. But he so knew the power of that forgiveness in his own life that to him it felt wrong to withhold it just to uphold tradition.
In Palestinian society, this whole process is known as Sulha – a loose translation is “reconciliation.” And its origins go back into ancient Semitic history. In the time of the Levites, certain cities were set apart as cities of refuge. It was there that people who committed a crime could be safe until such a time as the community had time to work through its process. If someone were guilty, they would be punished; but with a punishment worthy of their crime. If someone had done something accidentally, such as the young tractor driver, reconciliation would eventually happen and they could return home.
One of these towns was Schechem, or Sychar, the town that is the setting for our New Testament lesson this morning. And perhaps it is reading too much into the text, but could it be that there is something about this exchange between Jesus and the Samaritan woman that bears the echoes of refuge and safety, of wrongs forgiven, and of sins washed clean?
Jesus has come to this town that is the center of Samaritan life; the separation and disdain between Jews and Samaritans is very strong, as we know. At the center of their friction is debate over the holy city. For Samaritans, Mount Gerizim, towering over Schechem, is the central place of religious activity, of sacrifice and prayer. For Jews, it is Jerusalem, with its ancient Temple. And yet, Jesus crosses these ancient animosities to speak with this woman.
The whole story hinges on one word, as John seems to enjoy doing. It is when Jesus tells her that he can give her living water. “Living” water. There’s a pun at work in the Greek. The word “living,” when associated with water, means “running” water. It is water that is alive; water that does not stay still. So as Jesus tells her he can give her this “living” water, she thinks he means the water at the bottom of the well. The water at the top pooled from the spring and stream that ran some one hundred feet below the surface. How in the world could Jesus provide her with running water without even so much as a bucket, let alone a rope? She misses his meaning, of course; the water he wants to give her is beyond her reach, but its promise of cleansing will cleanse even the driest soul. He speaks of divine forgiveness, not bodily thirst. And as he reveals how much he knows about her and her multiple relationships and how badly in need of this forgiveness she is, it is then that she comes to know him and proclaim him as the Savior.
This story from the gospel of John became a central teaching in the early church, especially around the practice of baptism. Writings of those church leaders say that baptism must be carried out with “running” or “living” water to have its effect – not necessarily a stream or river, but with water that moves. And this ancient teaching still lingers today. In the Roman Catholic tradition, where baptism is so central and vital that even a non-believer could carry it out in an emergency, the one requirement is that the water, even if it is just a sprinkle, must move in order to be effective.
But I digress.
The ancient city of refuge Schechem has changed hands through the centuries. When the Romans conquered the region, they renamed it “The New City: Neapolis.” When the Arabs came to the area, the name “Neapolis” slowly faded through the centuries into “Nablus.” And yet, there is still a small community of Samaritans living there – not more than a few hundred – still practicing those ancient Temple rites of animal sacrifice and prayer at their altar on Mount Gerizim. And in this growing city in the heart of the West Bank, there is also a small Christian community, numbering some five hundred. Among the treasures they hold dear is the convent built over the site of Jacob’s Well.
When you visit, Fr. Justin, the Greek-born caretaker monk, meets you and shows you around. You walk through the grand cathedral being built, down a flight of steps, and into a damp cove of a room where a well has center place. It takes a few minutes for the bucket to reach the water down below; once it does, you can taste the clean, cool running, living waters of Jacob’s Well and meditate on this incredible exchange between a wandering Jesus and a Samaritan woman.
Fr. Justin has been there nearly thirty years, working on rebuilding this cathedral. He is an artist and a writer of icons. Like so many in this place, he is a character unto himself. When he works, he smokes non-stop; and when he’s moving stones into place alongside his workers, only the long flowing beard and ponytail and slight Greek accent in his Arabic separate him from the others.
Much of his workers come from the Balata Refugee Camp, right across the street from Jacob’s Well. These Palestinians, descendants of those driven from their homes in 1948, are the outcasts of outcasts; they have never been fully integrated into the West Bank’s complicated social structures, and so they continue to live in abject poverty. There are no Christians in Balata. And yet, Fr. Justin is revered there; when he walks through there in his flowing robes, he is welcomed with open arms and freshly brewed coffee. It is almost as though this “living” water flows through him so steadily that he cannot help but model his life after Christ, reaching out to and even working alongside those whom he is supposed to disdain and disregard. And in that respect which he demonstrates, they have come, like that Samaritan woman so long ago, to know something of the character of God’s embrace.
So what about us? Can we learn something from all of this, to adopt something of the character of Christ in these moments, to reach out and embrace those whom we are supposed to cast aside, those who are different from us, who disagree with us, who act in ways of which we disapprove, who might even look at us in much the same way? Can that “living” water flow through us in such a way as to feed parched soil and to water dry souls?
But before we get there, maybe we need to put ourselves in the place of that rejected Samaritan woman, caught up in our own ways of skirting God’s desires. Maybe it isn’t that we need to reach out as Jesus did so much as we need to know something of that incredible sense of his forgiveness and invitation.
Friends, what would it mean to stand before God with our souls as exposed as this Samaritan woman’s was before Jesus? Her darkest shames of these multiple relationships and men to whom she was not married stood open and bare before him. He knew them all. And yet, it was not judgment that he laid upon her; instead, it was an offer to quench her thirst. Could we take this? Could we so stand before God with our own embarrassing realities, especially the ones that we keep hidden inside our souls? And could we take it if, instead of rejection, we were offered embrace, care, love, warmth?
Do we need to know that there are safe places, cities of refuge, to which we can flee as we seek and thirst for reconciliation in our lives? Do we need places that we can know we will have the time and the space to mend broken relationships, to find the words to say, “I am sorry,” not only with one another, but with the one who continually invites us into his presence?
During this season of Lent, these are the questions that should face us. As we contemplate the cross which stands before us, as we consider the humiliation and punishment that this Jesus bore for our sake, we must let that light of Christ shine, even into our darkest of places. We must stand before God who knows all that we hide within, ready to receive what it is that God would give us.
But let us know this, my sisters and brothers. It is Christ who comes to us, just as he sought out this woman in ancient Shechem. It is God who offers us that clean, cool cup of “living” water for our parched souls. And it is these moments that should inspire us to invite others to come and meet him, too.