Mar 272011

Gospel Reading:  John Chapter 4 (The Woman at the Well)

This reading we have just heard is so rich with meaning that hearing it is like tasting a fine pastry and wanting to savor it and linger with each layer of flavor one has been treated to. So I recommend we do that this week – live with this story a bit. Go back and read it over again, once or twice, or three times and see what layers of meaning you might discover anew with each bite.

OK, I won’t push that metaphor any further. What I want to do in is  provide a bit of background and interpretation on several points, to deepen our awareness of some of the subtleties and to then suggest some connections it might have to our common life at the moment.

The larger context of this passage is important. It comes directly on the heels of the passage we read last Sunday – the story of Nicodemus.  The thing to note is the counterpoint between these people and their encounters with Jesus.  First of all Nicodemus is named, the woman at the well is not.  He is well off and literate, while she comes from humble means and is likely uneducated.  He is a Jew; she is a Samaritan – the highly mistrusted distant relatives of the Jews.  He is a respected leader and politician, while it is only after her encounter with Jesus that she becomes someone others will follow.  He seeks Jesus out by night; she is sought out by Jesus at high noon. His conversation with Jesus is rather brief, while the conversation Jesus initiates with the woman at the well is the longest recorded conversation he has with any single person anywhere in scripture.  And finally, Nicodemus goes away puzzled and only over time gets the meaning of Jesus, while she immediately perceives the truth Jesus makes known, and running to tell others she becomes the first evangelist. From the counterpoint between these people and these encounters one might conclude that Jesus understanding of God’s purposes for his life leads him to push some pretty significant boundaries of social class, gender and race and bring very different people into one body.

Now, leaning heavily on what Bishop Mary Glasspool, Suffregan Bishop of the Diocese of Los Angeles, shared in one of her reflections with us at our Diocesan Clergy Retreat in February,  I want to comment on some of the subtleties of this passage that are worth drawing out .  In one of her reflections with us Bishop Mary noted:

In the First Century C.E. there was a very common custom related to the offering and receiving of water. If a person offered another a drink of water, and the act was accepted, this gift became a social contract of friendship for one year.


This helps clarify the Samaritan woman’s reaction to Jesus’ request that she draw him a drink from the well.  After all, he was a stranger, a man, a Jew, and they were alone in a public place, and he trampled decorum by asking her for a drink, which was basically saying, “I want to be your friend”.  All the social constraints she had been raised with told her this was not right. But notice she does not flee.  She holds her ground.

So he takes the conversation deeper into the well.  He begins to speak to her on a spiritual level.  She catches his drift pretty quickly, and extends the conversation further by mentioning the name of their common ancestor, Jacob, whose well they are seated at.

What happens next is pivotal to how this woman has been understood over the centuries.  Jesus tells her to go call her husband, and she says she has no husband, and he counters that he knows she has had 5 husbands and the man she is with now is not her husband.  As Bishop Mary told the clergy at our February Retreat:

“These verses of the story have been consistently misinterpreted, resulting in the popular portrait of this woman as a sinner. But there is nothing in the text to indicate this being the case. Most obviously, Jesus does not judge her – any moral judgments are imported into the text by interpreters. There are many possible reasons for her marital history other than moral laxity. She may, for example, be involved in the custom of levirate marriage – the custom that demands that the next available male in a family take the place of (usually) a brother who has died – by marrying his widow. And the last male in the family line could have refused to marry her. Significantly, the reasons for the woman’s marital history have intrigued many commentators – but do not seem to concern Jesus in the least. This part of the conversation between the woman and Jesus about her life’s situation is a

moment of confrontation with truth. Jesus reveals himself as someone who sees deeply into the very essence, the heart of people. And the woman, recognizing this as the case, declares Jesus to be a prophet.”

Whereas the truth that Jesus revealed to Nicodemus made him step back a bit and ask “How can these things be”, this woman quickly recognizes the prophet in Jesus and furthers their conversation by bringing up the most significant theological question that divided their two peoples – the right place for worship of God.  Was it on the holy mountain or was it in the temple of Jerusalem, she wants to know.  In that moment Jesus pushes her past the human constructions of place to grasp the vision of time in which no place will divide or contain the worship of God by those caught up in spirit and truth.

Still she takes the conversation deeper – What about their differing understanding of the Messiah.  Again to Bishop Mary who offered us this analysis of the Greek – the original language of this passage:

The Samaritans called their Messiah, “Ta’heb” (translated “the one who

returns”). The Samaritans thought of the Ta’heb as a teacher, which may explain why the woman says “he will proclaim all things to us.”

Then Jesus utters the climactic statement of the entire engagement. In the Greek, he utters two words which are simple and bold: (ego eimi) which translates simply as “I AM” . . . and then he adds ” . . . the one speaking to you.” Translators have added a predicate to the statement – that is, “I am he.” which takes away from the boldness of what Jesus is saying to the woman. Jesus is saying “I AM.” It’s how God identified Godself to Moses. “I AM.” It’s akin to how the Gospel Writer John introduced this Gospel – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

It should be noted that this is the first time in the Gospel that Jesus reveals his divine identity to anyone.  She is the first – something that will be echoed at the end of the Gospel when the risen Christ reveals himself first to Mary Magdalene in the early shadows of Easter morn.

But this moment of revelation at the well passes quickly-as most do- with the disciples returning from town with bread for lunch.  But this moment of revelation was all it took for the woman of the well to run back to town to tell others about it.  She makes no grand speech; rather she just tells them about Jesus, that he is a prophet and draws them in with a question, “He could not be the Messiah, could he?” That draws a crowd, and soon Jews and Samaritans are mingling over the waters of the well of their common ancestor, where they drink deeply together of the living water of Jesus.

What an awesome story of bold and inclusive faith!  I think there are two important “take-aways” for us here and now.

First is the message about moving past human made walls and barriers to share friendship and to worship One God.  Our Lenten Sunday Morning Forum series on the Abrahamic Faiths has afforded some of us a good bit of time to consider how we can join hands with people of other faiths, and while respecting our differences and honoring what each brings to the table, we can share in helping manifest the One God in the world. This Gospel seems to affirm that movement of the spirit and our following it through.

Second this Gospel illustrates that to be an evangelist all one has to do is offer an invitation to others that is based in the truth of how your own life has been transformed by knowing Jesus.  It does not take fancy words, but rather authentic words.  A simple “come and see” can be powerfully attractive when there is fire in the eyes of the one that utters it.  And it is the funny thing about this faith of ours, which is at the heart about knowing God among us – that it only grows stronger when we give it away to others. “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” Come and see my friends, and bring others.  In memory of her and in Christ’s name. Amen+


 Sermon: March 27, 2010 (Lent 3)  Posted by on Sun, 27-Mar-11 News, Sermons Comments Off on Sermon: March 27, 2010 (Lent 3)
Mar 162011

In the first letter he wrote to the people at Thessalonika, St. Paul advised them to “pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances.”

Just for fun, here’s how to give thanks in 465 different languages.

Merci / Gracias / Arigato / Spacibo for reading this today, and may the peace of God be with you.

 Give thanks in all circumstances!  Posted by on Wed, 16-Mar-11 Ministries Comments Off on Give thanks in all circumstances!
Mar 062011

May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer.  That’s from the closing prayer from Psalm 19 … let’s pray it together….  … Amen.

The Gospel reading is Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration of Jesus, Matthew 17:1-9

I wonder … what meditations were in Peter’s heart that day?  What sort of prayers filled his soul when his teacher’s face shone like the sun?  How did he feel when he saw his lord, and our lord, in the company of Moses, the giver of the law, and Elijah, the great prophet of the people of God?    We don’t know much about his meditations: the Gospel doesn’t tell us about his interior experience. We do know he what he said.  It was something about a construction project.

I wonder: were the meditations of Peter’s heart and the words of his mouth acceptable in the sight of the Lord that day?

What about the meditations of my heart and yours?  What would we think, feel, and pray if we were eyewitnesses to those events?

Some of us have been here in church often. At this time of year we’ve regularly heard this Gospel account of the transformation of Jesus. Others, who haven’t been here as much, are hearing it for the first time. We may hear these Gospel words with wonder, and we hope to hear them with faith. But it has to be said: some of us (old-timers and newcomers alike) are surely tempted to wonder if it’s a “cleverly devised myth.”  Peter’s epistle (which we know came well after the Son of Man was raised from the dead) assures us it’s no myth. We need to hear that assurance (at any rate I do personally).

It’s fair to wonder if Peter’s letter is written to himself as well as the whole church. Does he need to remind himself of the holiness of those events? Were they hard to experience, and harder to remember years later?  He certainly wasn’t made speechless by what he saw. He needed to talk even in that moment. He offered an affirmation “it’s good.”  He went on to say “Hey, I got an idea!” and he chattered away about a construction project.

If I were there myself, would I be able to be still and know that God was present? I wonder. Would I just keep on talking and talking, trying to justify and explain the presence of God to myself and the people around me?   What about you?  Would our noisy meditations and our noisy words just keep coming?

We wonder: are these meditations and words of ours acceptable in the sight of the Lord?  With the ancient writer of Psalm 19, we hope and pray that they are. Even so, let’s consider the possibility that God hopes to bring us even closer to God’s own self.

There’s a wonderful new book by the Hebrew Bible scholar James Kugel (In the Valley of the Shadow, New York, Free Press, 2011). It’s an account of his interior experience during his struggle with cancer. About the day his physician gave him his diagnosis, he wrote,

After the initial shock, I was, of course, disturbed and worried. But the main change in my state of mind was that – I can’t think of a better way to put it – the background music suddenly stopped. It had always been there, the music of infinite time and possibilities; and now suddenly it was gone, replaced by nothing, just silence. (p 2)

Dr. Kugel’s background music – his noisy meditations and noisy words – stopped in an instant. It took a fearful interruption to his life and a sharp reminder of his mortality to quiet the noise.

The prophet Elijah had a similar experience (1 Kings 19: 11-13). He waited in a cave near a mountaintop. A violent wind came, then an earthquake, then a fire. Only after those noisy things came and went was he able to hear the still, small Voice of calm.

What about Peter? What kind of interruption did it take to stop his noise? How did God get him to be quiet even for a minute?  From the Gospel we learn that it took a bright cloud and the divine Voice saying “This is my Son. I love him and I’m proud of him. Listen to him.” Only when the Voice interrupted his chatter did he (and James and John) fall down in fear and awe.

Peter, James, and John were blessed by Jesus to be taken along on his trip up the mountain. They were blessed to witness the awesome events of that day, even if it took more than one event to get through to Peter. He was, before the day was over, able to quiet down and fully experience the divine presence on that mountain. Dr. Kugel experienced it in a time of crisis in his life.

That leaves the rest of humanity. It leaves everybody who doesn’t get to go along on the trip to the mountain. It leaves those of us who don’t happen to get terrifying news from our doctors. It leaves you and me.

It left the Israelites in the desert near Mount Sinai when Moses and Joshua left to go up the mountain. Moses, always the skilful shepherd, knew it was risky to leave his flock and go up the mountain. He knew what might happen. He knew his flock would not share his experience of the divine. They would continue in their noisy everyday lives. He knew the people needed guidance. He knew they needed to pray that their meditations and words would be acceptable in the sight of God.

So he asked his brother Aaron and a friend to fill in while he was away.  And of course Exodus teaches us what happened: While Moses was on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, the Israelites and Aaron got themselves into serious trouble. You may recall it was something about making and praying to a golden calf. You may recall that the Lord was not at all pleased.

This business of going up to the holy mountain to meet God has real risks. Moses only took Joshua: he left the Israelites alone. Jesus only took three: he left the rest of his followers alone. A year ago, our priest and some others went on a trip to El Salvador, and left the rest of us here. When they heard from them that it was a transformative experience, and opened their eyes to the presence of God in the world. Through their stories our eyes were opened too.

Even so, the ones who went took a risk. There was the chance that the rest of us would not understand or believe the experience they had. There was even the risk of jealousy: it was possible that the rest of us might be annoyed at being excluded. In those times when we don’t get to go along on the trip to the mountaintop, we do need to pray that the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts are acceptable to God. We do need God’s help for that to be true.

The biggest risk of all, though, is concluding that the holy mountain is for somebody else, and not for you and me. Even though that’s easy to believe, it’s simply untrue. Returning to James Kugel for a moment, he also wrote,

Long before the doctors’ diagnosis, that background music had stopped for me every once in a while—as I’m sure it does for everyone, at least for a minute or two. Sometimes in the oddest places for no reason at all: when you are just sitting on a park bench somewhere …;  or else one day standing in your backyard, as the sun streams down through the trees to land in a little dazzling square patch right in front of you. Then everything shimmers for a while and you are completely there.

“Everything shimmers.”  That sounds like the bright cloud on the mountaintop.

With the presence of Jesus our redeemer, we can take all these risks with  confidence., We can all visit the mountain and hear the still, small Voice. This gospel account ends with Jesus laying his hands on his terrified friends and telling them “stand up and do not be afraid.”  He is saying the same to you and me.

So we do pray that our words and meditations are acceptable in God’s sight. But let us also pray with certain hope that when we visit the mountain, whether in Galilee or New Hampshire or a backyard, or even, heaven forbid, at the doctor’s office, that our meditations and words fall silent before the face of God.. Let’s pray that we hear the Voice and come to know the Presence. For we have nothing to be afraid of: God loves each one of us and is proud of each one of us.


 Transfiguration Sunday March 6th 2011  Posted by on Sun, 6-Mar-11 News, Sermons Comments Off on Transfiguration Sunday March 6th 2011
Mar 032011

Sunday, March 13, 2011 at 3 pm at St. Paul’s Church – In honor of our 300th Anniversary Christ Church Cambridge Handbell Choir will perform “Lenten Meditations”.  Join us for this beautiful music that is as exciting to watch as it is to hear.  Free admission. Reception to follow.

 Handbell Concert “Lenten Meditations”  Posted by on Thu, 3-Mar-11 News Comments Off on Handbell Concert “Lenten Meditations”