March 23, 2014, Lent 3 – Washing Away History
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People tend to go through life lugging the burden of human history on their backs. No matter who you are, in some way or in many ways the events of the past intrude themselves into your present. On a global scale, we can see that with warfare that is fueled by hatred and distrust, not just between people and events today, but from people and events from generations past, from bitterness that lasts well beyond many human life spans and then suddenly and unexpectedly breaks out in violence and genocide and other horrors. We have seen that in the Sudan, in Ireland, in Kosovo, in Rwanda. And it’s not only in “other” places, places far from us, that we see this burden of history. We live it here in the good old USA, where the scars of slavery and racism and the unjust and cruel treatment of Native Americans cast their long shadows into our present. When we read the news, every single day, there are stories behind the stories, sinfulness and woundedness from the past that feed the sinfulness and woundedness of today.
And of course it doesn’t just happen on the level of societies and nations, because every one of us has his or her own history that we carry around, our own personal “baggage” that weighs us down and also weighs in on our every reaction and thought and decision. We’re like elephants, we never forget. We might forget what we had for breakfast or that we have a dentist appointment at 1:30 today or where we put our glasses, but we have the devil of a time forgetting that our teacher laughed at us in third grade when we stumbled over a word, or that someone we considered a friend spread rumors about us, or that we cheated on our spouse. Guilt and shame and anger and resentment, those things cling to us: they make our steps heavier, and they darken our relationships with God and with other people.
And so when Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well that noontime, it was not simply the meeting of two individual persons, because the story of that meeting was a story within many stories. There was first of all the whole long sordid enmity between the Jews and the Samaritans. Even though they both traced their lineage from Abraham, they were all Israelites, they all followed the law of Moses, they had a break in their common history that had come between them and that had made them enemies instead of brothers. So much so, that Jews traveling from Galilee in the north to Judea in the south would go way out of their way to avoid passing through Samaria. So much so that it was almost unthinkable that Jesus, a Jewish teacher, should strike up a conversation with a Samaritan when they met at the well at lunchtime that day. A Samaritan and a woman, too, which made it all the more unthinkable.
But the separation had begun many generations before their meeting, centuries before, when God exiled the Northern Kingdom of Israel for its sin and idolatry. Those Israelites had been carried off to Assyria and when they had returned many generations later they had intermarried with the Assyrians and were considered “half-breeds”, no longer “real” children of Abraham. Meanwhile the Southern Kingdom, Judah, was later carried off to Babylon for the same sins as her northern sister, but still the animosity lingered through the centuries, and of course neither branch of the family thought the other worthy of reconciliation. That burden of history was all hanging heavy over them when Jesus and the woman met, near the field that had once belonged to their common ancestor Jacob, and been handed down to their common ancestor Joseph.
And more than that, as the conversation continued, it became clear that this woman carried the burden of a long and painful personal history as well. She had been married five times, and whether she had been many times widowed or divorced doesn’t really matter; either way her life had been full of losses and abandonments. And there would also have been the shame that a person so often carries whose life is a total mess, when the world around them seems to assume that they must somehow be to blame for it all – because whether they mean to or not, don’t people often assume that? – I think we do that because it makes us feel better to think there was a reason, so that we don’t deserve the same fate. – And at the end of all those years of pain and grief, the woman was living with a man who was not her husband at all, and that would have put her in a very low social position indeed in those days.
It was a very heavy load that she carried to the well that noontime. No wonder she jumped at Jesus’s words about living water. “Please, sir, if you have something like that, give it to me, because I am wearied to death with coming day after day to drink, only to be thirsty again, coming day after day, with no change and no hope in sight of anything different.” She knew her life was a mess, and she knew that in the eyes of people like Jesus, her people were looked down on, but the kindness and gentleness of Jesus’s voice and manner must have been so great that she was not afraid to speak openly and honestly to him. He was gentle as Isaiah had described him when he wrote, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench.”And so the woman with the bruised and battered life spoke to Jesus freely, and she told him the one thing she held onto. “I do know,” she said, “I know that Messiah is coming, and he will explain everything.”
And can you even imagine her feelings when the kindly Jewish man she had confided in so openly said to her, “I who speak to you am He.” No more holding on. No more hoping and waiting and fearing. “It’s me. I am here now.” he told her. The Messiah had come, God had sent the One he promised. And miracle of miracles, he had sent him to her, to a woman of all people, a Samaritan woman, of no particular social standing or virtue or wisdom. Just a woman, a weary woman, weighed down with the burden of many stories.
The virtue of the Living Water that Jesus offered to her is that it brings healing to all stories. Suddenly the whole village was out there to meet the one who knew them all, who knew all their stories, and the healing began at once because Jesus and his disciples stayed with them for two days, all enmity and resentment forgotten, all racism and superiority and self-righteousness suddenly meaningless in the joy of the Presence of the Messiah, who did not consider himself above talking to women or eating with non-Jews or loving sinners, but who poured out his Living Water freely to all so that their stories could begin anew.
“If anyone is in Christ,” Paul wrote, “he is a new creation. Behold, all things are made new. The old has passed away, behold the new has come.” How many times have you felt that you would give anything for a fresh start, a chance to do things over again? The Living Water of the Christ is the only thing powerful enough to wash away the bitter taste of history, so that mankind can be relieved of the intolerable burden of all those stories that we carry around with us. And then Paul continues – and this is in chapter 5 of his second letter to the Corinthians, if you want to look it up and read more – he continues, “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.”
We are ambassadors for Christ, ambassadors for the Messiah, and that means that we – all of us who call ourselves by his name – we are called to sit by the wells of this world and to do what he did, to listen with kindness and gentleness to the stories of the people around us and to let them know that we have the only remedy for that burden they carry around. Only the Living Water of the Christ can wash away the burdens they carry. And we know that ourselves because we are just like them. We too come to Jesus when we are dry and weary from carrying around our load of guilt or frustration or anger, and he pours out his healing water to give us a new beginning. He tells us we don’t have to carry that same old story around anymore. And we have that to share, not Bible-thumping or proofs or convincing arguments, but our own stories of reconciliation and healing, when we heard the voice of Jesus say, “Come to me, all you weary and heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”
And the amazing thing is that we have even more to share than just our own experiences, because when we came to Jesus he gave us his Spirit to live within us – he said, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” And he proclaimed, “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” That means that as his ambassadors, his power is in us to heal and to refresh others. Just like an ambassador from a foreign country has authority to makes treaties on behalf of his government because they have invested him with that power, we are invested with the power of that Living Water that brings healing to a wounded world. I don’t think we have even begun to realize all that that means, but we should take it to heart, because to be an ambassador of reconciliation for the God of the Universe is no small thing.
But we can make a beginning – by sitting down beside the well at noontime, or at any time, and by taking someone by surprise as we listen to their story.