The Third Sunday in Lent – St Mark’s Episcopal Church – March 19, 2017
In the Name of God: Our Creator, Our Redeemer, and Our Comforter. Amen.
We gather today on the Third Sunday in this year’s Lenten season, on the Third Sunday — about half-way through the Lenten season, about half-way on our journey toward Holy Week, and to Easter.
I’ve got two agendas today, on this Third Sunday in Lent. The first has to do with today, this third Sunday in the Lenten Season, and with the Lessons for Today – for this day, on its own. And today, we have rich and engaging lessons from the Hebrew Bible, and from the Christian New Testament, centering for us as Christians on the Gospel reading, the familiar story of Jesus sharing a drink of water with a Samaritan woman at a well.
And you might advise me – given how long I preach sometimes – to stop there, to let the day’s own lessons be sufficient for the day.
But I’ve got another agenda, which I might as well be honest about. And, before you despair, please note that in today’s epistle, after all, Paul has advised us of all the good that can come from long boring sermons.
After all Paul says “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.”
Anyway, I’ve got another agenda, and that other agenda is about locating this Sunday in Lent, with its specific lessons, in relationship to where we are going, in this season of Lent, and thus why we are here in a season we call Lent.
Because, as you have heard me say before, the season of Lent is not an end in itself. We are here because the purpose of Lent is to enable us to prepare for Holy Week, and for Easter.
Now, I’ve known clergy in my time for whom it was always Lent. The news was always bad, we could never get it right, and there was nothing ever to celebrate.
But that’s not where we are today, here in the middle of the Lenten season. We are here because the purpose of Lent is to enable us to prepare for Holy Week, and for Easter.
So we are invited to think about Lent—including this Sunday in Lent — from the perspective of Holy Week and of Easter.
So, what are we getting ready for, in this season of Lent? We are getting ready for our annual celebration of the central worship services of the entire Christian Year.
In these services, we remember and celebrate the mighty acts of God, who in His Life, Death, and Resurrection overcomes everything that separates us from God.
Paul, in today’s Epistle, gives us a vocabulary to talk about these mighty acts of God, for, as Paul says, “God proves his love for us” in Jesus’ death. So we can be spoken of as “justified,” “saved,” “reconciled to God through the death of his Son,” for it is these acts of God in human history in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that overcome everything that separates us from God, “through whom we have now received reconciliation.”
So, while Paul is talking about all these wonderful things that God is doing, he also talks about us. But when he talks about us, he uses some exceptionally harsh language. All these good things that God has done, Paul says, took place while we were “weak,” sinners, “enemies.”
Yet God still did all these good things for us, so that, in Paul’s words, “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
Or, as Deacon Sallie will chant at the Easter vigil, “How blessed is this night when heaven and earth are joined and we are reconciled to God.”
That’s the language of Holy Week and of Easter, and that’s the language that helps us understand Lent, in this Third Sunday in the Lenten season.
So, from that perspective, the Gospel for today from John’s Gospel about Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, is about Jesus breaking through barriers that separate us from God. There are at least four serious barriers to the event that John’s Gospel recounts for us.
The first is that the woman is a Samaritan; Samaritans were, in Harry Potter terminology, “mudbloods,” people whose ancestors were part of the original 12 tribes of Israel, but who had – horror of horrors – not kept themselves pure, but had intermarried with people who lived around them in the original land promised to the descendants of Abraham, north of Jerusalem.
So Jesus as a Jew is breaking through social and cultural barriers by meeting this Samaritan woman. And the second barrier to this event is that the person Jesus is talking to is a woman, and apparently it was not done for a man to walk up to a strange woman at a well and start talking to her.
And the third barrier is that to give him a drink of water from the well the woman would have to share her water jar with Jesus. So the relationship is getting very personal indeed.
And then the 4th barrier is the woman’s unconventional living arrangements. Here is Jesus talking to a woman who has been married 5 times and is currently living with a 6th man, in the old phrase, “without benefit of clergy.”
When Jesus’ disciples show up, they are scandalized by the mere fact that he is talking to a woman, but they don’t know the half of it.
But we do – we know the lengths to which Jesus goes here to overcome social and cultural and ethnic barriers to have this conversation. From the perspective of Holy Week and Easter, it’s the barriers that Jesus so blithely and easily confronts and overcomes here that gives us hope that Jesus overcomes what separates us from God, as well.
It is also a reminder of how easily Christianity can turn into a purity cult, how easily we can become sectarian, how easily we can find things to separate us one from another rather than recognize our common humanity.
That’s what the woman’s comment about this being Jacob’s well is so important.
If its Jacob’s well, and Jacob is the Jacob of the original story about the creation of the people of God – you remember, God as the God of Abraham and Isaac and of Jacob – then the Jews and the Samaritans share a common history, a common religious tradition, perhaps even a common DNA, then all this stuff about whatever defines some of us as Jews and some as Samaritans – or whatever the distinction that we elevate to a level of a wall between peoples – all that seems trivial in light of what we have in common, what we share as God’s people, what we have to be thankful for in light of the Easter proclamation that in this night heaven and earth are joined and we are reconciled to God.
If Allan Jones is right, that from God’s perspective, we go through the world preceded and followed by angels proclaiming Behold a Child of God, Behold, a Child of God, then we are painfully aware of the distance we often feel between how we see ourselves and how God sees us, the distance bwtween how we see ourselves, and how we are, as God’s creatures.
When we do this, then the story of the Samaritan woman is a story about us.
I think part of what Lent is about is helping us see ourselves as the Samaritan woman, or as anyone who feels distanced from God, or from our deeper or truer selves.
And to see ourselves as people to whom God reaches out, people whom God calls into community with God, people whom God welcomes, week by week, at this table, this table for this feast where Christ is our host, and Christ whom we share, so we discover once again, in this season of Lent and Holy Week and Easter, that in Paul’s words, God “proves his love for us” in Jesus’ death. So we can be spoken of as “justified,” “saved,” “reconciled to God through the death of his Son,” for it is these acts of God in human history in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that overcome everything that separates us from God, “through whom we have received reconciliation.”
This seems to be a difficult concept for us to get our heads around, a difficult idea for us to hold on to. We get it, and then it slips away. Our worship recognizes this, our lectionary recognizes this, our Church Year recognizes this.
In the seasons of the Church Year from Advent through Easter, we do recall to memory the events of the life of Jesus. But we do more than that – we also in a very real sense participate in them. Especially in Holy Week we act them out as part of our worship services, so we not only remember them as events that took place a long, long time ago, but also as events we participate in, in our present lives.
This is the Third of Five Sundays in Lent – and then comes Palm Sunday.
In the week that begins with Palm Sunday and culminates in the three major services of Holy Week – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil of Easter – we have the opportunity to participate with Jesus and his disciples in these events that are basic to our faith.
On Palm Sunday, we join Jesus and his disciples as they parade into Jerusalem carrying palms and shouting Hosannas. But then we read the Gospel account of Jesus’ crucifixion, reminding us of what the next few days hold in store for Jesus, and for us.
On Maundy Thursday, we remember the very beginnings of the Christian community, as we get our instructions about how to conduct and maintain the life we have together – we remember and reenact Jesus’ washing the feet of his disciples, and we understand our calling as God’s people is to serve one another, and we remember his new commandment, his mandate, to love one another, as he has loved us. We also remember his instructing his disciples to share bread and wine with each other in memory of him.
On Good Friday, we remember Jesus’ crucifixion, and take up our cross, as we follow him to Golgotha. We enter into our claim that God in Jesus has overcome everything that can separate us from God, so that we can understand in Paul’s words, that there is nothing in heights or depths or in what is or can be, in life, or in death that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
On Saturday night, we gather to light the New Fire, and to recall the history of God’s mighty acts in the creation of the world, in the call to Abraham, in the delivery of Israel from slavery in Egypt, and in the promises God made through his prophets. We also renew our commitment to our life together in Christ, and proclaim Christ’s victory over death, for, we will proclaim, in this night Christ is Risen Indeed.
Each year, in Holy Week, we have the privilege and the opportunity to join with Jesus and his followers in these events at the heart of our faith, to renew our understanding of ourselves as God’s people, and to celebrate our lives together as the Body of Christ in this time and place.
Each of these services has its own distinctive event to celebrate, yet each one is part of a larger story, the story of God’s reconciling work. And then, since Easter is so central to who we are and to what we believe, we come back again on Easter morning to celebrate it again.
As I invited you to a Holy Lent, so too this day I invite you to Holy Week. Three services, three days, every day at 7:30. Some may come for all the services, some for one or two, and some may not be able to come at all. We are talking opportunity, not obligation. Those of us who are here will walk this journey and hear these lessons, and do these things for you as well as for ourselves. That is what Christian community is about.
At the Last Sunday in Epiphany we remembered Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain, and we noted that when Jesus was transfigured the disciples fell down in fear, but that Jesus came to them, and comforted them, and told them not to be afraid, and lifted them up. So the story of the Transfiguration was about us as well as about Jesus, that the Jesus transfigured on the mountain is the Jesus with a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me.
I can’t promise you that Holy Week this year at St Marks will be a transfiguring experience for you. I can promise that in it we will walk with Jesus from the joy of Palm Sunday to the despair of Good Friday. That we will get our instructions about how to life in community on Maundy Thursday, and that we will gather in the dark on the Eve of Easter to welcome and proclaim the Risen Christ and in and through Christ the reconciliation of heaven and earth.