“Wishing Well”

Jn4

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

At the time of Jesus, only the richest people had anything like central plumbing. Most people had to carry water into their homes from an outside source.

So communal wells were popular places. Not surprisingly, when people went to the wells to get water, they met each other, and they talked.

In today’s Second Lesson, the Gospel writer John gives his version of a dialogue between Jesus and a woman whom he meets at a well.

The lesson is almost as long as a sermon, so I can’t comment on every line of it—though I wish I had the time, because it’s filled with interesting ideas! I’ll just look at a couple of points made in the story that are of particular interest to us today.

First, John notes that while the well is located in a Samaritan city called Sychar, it was also near a piece of land that the patriarch Jacob had given to his son, Joseph. Since Jacob came to be known by a second name, “Israel,” readers of this text would have recognized that Jesus was in a place that was both congenial and hostile.

Jesus was a Jew near a landmark honored by the people of Israel. Yet he was in a city inhabited by Samaritans who were rivals of the Jews. The Samaritans used a shorter version of the Bible and held some different beliefs. As the text points out: “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.”

But Jesus never seems to have minded talking with people who disagreed with him. In this case, too, he didn’t hesitate to argue with a woman–even though rabbis at that time were expected to have only limited contact with females. In the passage, the woman expresses surprise at Christ’s boldness. She asks, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”

And, indeed, Christ’s dialogue with a Samaritan woman is about inclusiveness.

The woman alludes to the fact that Samaritans and Jews have different holy places. She says, “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Indeed, to this day, Jerusalem is the holiest city on earth for the Hebrew people. And the few surviving Samaritans still hold sacred the same region north of Jerusalem where the woman and Jesus were talking, 2000 years ago.

But Jesus had a very different idea of faith. He was presenting a religion that didn’t depend on any sacred places. He said, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.’”

Christ offered a new relationship with God. This relationship transcends the limited categories of the religions that existed at that time.

Jesus said to the Samaritan woman, “We worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.” In other words, Jews like Jesus had up to then only known how to worship in their holy places.

But a different revelation was at hand. Jesus went on: “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth…” This is the heart of Christ’s message: God could be worshipped in a way that goes beyond the old boundaries.

For Jesus, “God is spirit.” And since God is Spirit, then God isn’t tied to any particular place. Holy mountains, blessed wells, sacred cities: such religious tools are no longer essential.

If God is pure Spirit, then we don’t need to think of him within the old, limited categories. As Jesus broke the taboos attached to a religious teacher speaking to a Samaritan woman, so, too, he broke the taboo of confining God to one space.

As a result we Christians know that we can pray anywhere, for God’s Spirit is always present.

Over time, Christians developed a more complex idea of the divine that incorporated the transcendent Spirit into our general concept of God. God could be known as “Father”—according to the ancient idea of the divine Creator who is described in the Old Testament. Christians also saw the divine in Jesus of Nazareth, the “Son of God”—and to complete what Christians came to call, the Trinity.

Christians took a very old term for God, “Spirit,” and revised it, following Bible texts such as the one we are considering today.

John’s Gospel sees the Spirit as the third person of the Trinity – the aspect of God that relates directly to us as individuals. So the whole idea of a God who is both transcendent and yet accessible is built in to the fundamental structure of Christian belief.

We should consider this when we hear someone who isn’t an active Christian use the word, “spiritual.” People often claim that while they don’t go to church, they think of themselves as “spiritual persons.”

The term “spiritual” avoids the apparent taint that “religious” has for some people.

And they have a point. “Religious” is attached to groups of human beings who adhere to certain beliefs. And since human beings in these groups sometimes say or do stupid things, religions will always be imperfect.

The important insight for us in all this is that while we Christians are religious, we can also use the term, “spiritual”—because we find everything is touched by the Holy Spirit of God.

In fact, as the story of the Samaritan woman at the well suggests, talking about the spiritual is liberating. We’re no longer bound to the ancient religious categories.

Here’s an example of how we might apply the insights of the story to our own world. First, we remember that we Christians have our specific idea of the Spirit—the Third Person of the Holy Trinity that guides our ongoing life.

Yet because we have this clear and strong idea of the Holy Spirit, we are able to project the notion out beyond ourselves to adherents of other religions.

So we can view followers of the Jewish religion as connecting with the same Spirit we connect with. Of course, they have different religious views from ours: kosher food is important to followers of the Hebrew faith. But we share a common devotion to the divine Spirit.

And though it’s a greater stretch of our imaginations and our sympathies, we can see a similar common ground with Islam. We have different religious practices: Muslims pray five times a day, while we Anglicans have our Morning and Evening Prayer.

Yet we do share with Muslims a connection with the Holy. As Jesus taught the Samaritan woman at the well, religion is more than hallowed places and sacred habits.

Faith in the living God draws us beyond the familiar—faith brings us to the Spirit, and to Truth.

Amen.


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