CAN WE TALK?
A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
on 12 March 2023 [Lent 3]: Exodus 17:1-7; Romans 5:1-13; John 4:5-42
“Can we talk?” Some of you may recognize the as the catchphrase of comedienne Joan Rivers. It always seemed to come as the release point of her jokes. Characterizing her sense of humor, Rivers once said that it was her way of cutting through the nonsense that people so frequently focus on to get at the truth: such as, “Oh come on now! Can we talk?” It strikes me that in our time of culture wars and political division, asking this question more frequently of one another might just be an avenue toward the healing and restoration we all need.
Her line came to mind as I took a step back from the immediate demands of preaching this Lent. In doing so, two realizations surfaced. The first came from the way our lectionary orders the scripture for our worship. As I trust you know, the Episcopal Church joins most Christian worshipping traditions [Catholic and Protestant] in using the “Revised Common Lectionary”. In terms of Sunday Eucharistic worship, there is a three-year cycle of the scriptures used. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are the mainstays , offered in succeeding years, with John’s gospel sprinkled in at certain times. While this present year’s gospel lessons [labeled “Year A”] center upon Matthew’s gospel, I couldn’t help but notice that in this year’s Lenten season, the only gospel reading from Matthew came on the opening Sunday in Lent. From that point on until Palm Sunday, the gospel lessons come from John, and what caught my eye was that these four Lenten readings from John share one, very clear, and curious element. Each of John’s Lenten gospel readings orbit around a conversation with Jesus.
The commonality of each of these lessons revolve around a poignant conversation between Jesus and a series of other characters, all of whom end up with a surprisingly profound realization and personal transformation. For instance, last week’s gospel contained a nighttime conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus. This week’s edition, as you heard, involves Jesus talking with the “Woman at the well’. Next Sunday will present Jesus talking to “the man born blind”. And the last Sunday before we enter Holy Week portentously presents Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, a foreshadowing event that is preceded by a revealing conversations with Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha.
The point I am making is that as important as the content of each of these conversations is, the vehicle that carries the details is that of a conversation with Jesus. All of which makes me curious – curious about what a conversation entails. What does it take to have a conversation; and why in our anxious and violent time such exchanges are so rare.
Using both the setting and the content of the story of “the Woman at the Well”, I dare to propose four identifying items that go to constitute a conversation. They are: Show Up; Engage; Listen; Then – and only then -- speak sparingly and only to what matters. Let’s check this out.
I trust you noticed that today’s gospel reading is quite long. I also hope that its length did not cause you to lose focus on how the story’s richness unfolds because in addition to the intriguing story line, the way the story is told is also a vital part of the message. This is to say that there are four scenes in this story, each scene has its own part in the gospel message. (Now, don’t worry: I am not going to pursue the details of each scene! But it would be exciting to be able to gather in another forum to go through this script, play its various parts, and see which characters fit our own identities and roles. Just saying …).
Nonetheless, we need to begin our discovery by paying attention to the amount of detail John provides us. First, Jesus is in a Samaritan town, at the well that Jacob gave to his favorite son, Joseph. The point is that in the biblical witness, geography is theology. And even a casual observer must recognize that Jesus is in “alien” territory because at that time Jews and Samaritans don’t get along (to say the least!). To add to this dramatic situation, when this Samaritan woman arrives at the well to draw her day’s supply of water, red flags are wordlessly flown not only because a Jew and a Samaritan are publicly together but also that in that culture single men are never to be found with an unchaperoned woman – unless something untoward is at hand. And so, we see Jesus, violating all procedure, even to the outlandish point of initiating contact and speaking to this woman.
Now all of us can imagine the unmentioned background to this first scene. The first question is: Why is a woman going to the public well in the noon heat -- alone?, when of necessity the village’s woman gather customarily at the outset of the day to gather water for their day’s cooking and household chores, not to mention for their own social enjoyment of one another. For whatever reason, we are safe in assuming that this woman has been shunned by her own cohort. Her “unsuitable” reputation has become her identity. So, the second question is: What is Jesus doing in this messy situation? Evidently, he is thirsty…
“Give me a drink,” he says rather bluntly to the woman. No “please”; no introductions; no banter about the weather – just what can sound like a blunt order at a diner counter.
I wonder how the woman heard Jesus’ request. Perhaps in her situation (the complexity of which we will soon learn as Jesus expands this unusual encounter into a conversation) -- perhaps she was used to such demanding bluntness. After all, she was a woman in a culture and a time where the notion of “women’s rights” was virtually unheard of. Clearly, there were no celebrations of “International Women’s Day”. Or perhaps, a woman alone with a man might give cause to expect the stranger to come on to her: a “you come here often, sailor?” kind of thing. Even so, the story tells us very clearly that she too recognizes the radical nature of this meeting because she asks Jesus to explain himself in all his rule breaking.
For his part, Jesus speaks mysteriously (and in the mind of the woman, obliquely) about “living water” and never being thirsty again, to which (in her matter-of-fact, literal perspective) the Samaritan woman wonders how this guy (if this were his intention) would possibly be able to buy her a drink without a bucket. Upon hearing Jesus’ description of the water to which he has access – the water that quenches humanity’s deepest thirst, a thirst for life on God’s terms -- the woman cries out that this type of water is exactly what she needs. Yet, once more, she is not on Jesus’ wavelength. Her enthusiasm for this “living water” is a product of thinking that Jesus’ gift would provide her with some version of indoor plumbing and that she would never have to go to the well again and carry the weight of the water to her house.
As this part of the encounter fades away into a second scene, the heretofore absent disciples arrive in the village center to see Jesus talking to an unaccompanied, foreign woman. Too threatened by what to them was a terrible breach of etiquette, not to mention Jewish law, they quickly and cowardly change the subject at hand and ask if Jesus needed something to eat. How ironic, unlike the woman at the well, the Twelve do not know that Jesus is thirsty!
Meanwhile, perhaps to mitigate the impact of hanging out, alone and in public, with thirteen Jewish men, the woman at the well leaves quietly, where she enjoins her fellow villagers with a testimony about her unprecedented conversation with Jesus. “He told me everything I’ve ever done!” she enthusiastically cried out. Evidently, she was a good public speaker in spite of her social isolation. For those village people immediately left their domiciles to see Jesus for themselves.
The third scene seems to sound like an intrusion in the story, an editor’s misplacement from another narrative; but the fact that Jesus tells his disciples that he has sent them “ to reap” the awaiting harvest, a metaphor that doesn’t mix with that of the well’s water and Jesus’ thirst. Yet, the subtle irony of this scene is that while the disciples scratch their heads at their Rabbi’s harvest imagery, the Samaritan woman had already done some reaping with her own people in identifying Jesus for them.
The entire story ends with the report that due to the witness of the “woman at the well”, the entire Samaritan village desires to enroll in the next baptismal instruction class so that they can be a part of knowing and living with (their words) “the Savior of the world”.
Again, all these details matter, but the catalyst that energizes them all stems from the conversation that Jesus fosters with the woman. Again, with reference to my admittedly artificial four points of a conversation, Jesus dares first to “show up” – in “enemy” territory. He shows up where it is clearly inconvenient to be, if not outrightly forbidden and potentially dangerous. He also “engages” the woman, presenting himself with an element of vulnerability that expresses his common humanity. “I’m thirsty,” he confesses; and implicitly admits that he needs the assistance – even from the enemy. His engagement, albeit risky, seeks common ground that can be shared. In this case, Jesus makes clear that everyone is thirsty for something well water can’t touch.
Personally, I painfully wonder how I might “show up” “engage” the humanity of the other, and then “listen”, seeking common ground with people with whom I not only disagree but reject their egocentric fabrication of facts, the manipulation of which excludes the sharing any common story. How can I discipline myself to move beyond the harsh and often times offensive differences that tear us apart and “listen” – that’s the word and the third element of conversation – listen to their story as a fellow, thirsty human being? For the challenging truth is this: You can’t hate someone whose story you know.
Jesus listened to the woman. It turns out he knew all about her and her life from the “git-go”; or as we so easily pray “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid …” [BCP., p. 355]. “Show up”; “Engage” human to human; “Listen” – listen and hear the deep “thirst” of the other, and then (with crisp, honest words) “speak simply” and compassionately only to the need at hand.
At which point in doing my best to tend conversation, I may not make any difference in the way the other votes or lives, but from the experience of conversation we both will recognize the impossibility of hating one another. And who knows, perhaps we’ll talk again … and again … until the story belongs to us both and we live it together in our differences.
“Can we talk?” Amen.