3/23/14 – GIVING UP DIVISION FOR LENT by Lynn Naeckel


John 4:5-42

“What if we gave up division for Lent? I wish we could let go of those things that divide us.” That’s how Brian Blount began his commentary on this story of the Samaritan woman and Jesus meeting at a well (Christian Century, 3/19/14).

I don’t hear much conversation any more about giving up things for Lent. I know I have moved from giving up watermelon, through giving up candy and later alcohol, to instead taking on something, entering into some form of spiritual discipline like daily reading or meditation, fasting, prayer, etc. So this idea of giving up something, something so much more important that food, really struck me.

When we look at the story in its first century context, it’s very clear that the divisions that separate Jesus from the Samaritan woman are enormous. Although the Samaritans worship the same God, they do it differently. (Imagine that!) The Samaritans have intermarried outside the faith and are considered unclean by the Jews. A proper Rabbi would never speak to a Samaritan, much less a woman, especially when they are alone. Jesus ignores all these taboos and divisions.

Notice that the story tells us that this took place around noon. The point is that the woman did not come to get water in the early morning with the other women of the village. Either she has excluded herself from their society or they have shunned her. We don’t know for sure.

However, this has often been preached as a story of transformation from immorality to morality by assuming the woman was a prostitute. David Lose points out that this is just not the case. There are many ways she might have had five husbands and she may be living with someone who is supporting her but is not her husband. The point is that Jesus, who clearly knows all about her, does not accuse her of any sin. She doesn’t ask for forgiveness. He doesn’t tell her to go and sin no more.

No matter what the detail may have been, it’s clear that she has had a hard and difficult life. She is dependent on others in ways most of us would find appalling. When she says to Jesus, “I see you are a prophet,” it suggests that she “sees” him more clearly than most others do. And Jesus “sees” her more clearly than others – as a person of worth, value, and significance. [David Lose]

This reminds me that when we accept the normative divisions in our society, they prevent us from even seeing the “others,” those who are not like us in one way or another. And that keeps us from any chance of knowing them, much less understanding them.

When the woman points out the primary difference between Samaritan and Jew – that her people worship God on the mountain top, while the Jews worship in the Temple, — Jesus responds that this is a false and short-lived division. True worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. Where they do it is not an issue.

Then he admits to this woman that he is indeed the Messiah, in whom she has just asserted her faith. What a quick and decisive way to break down any remaining barriers between them!

When this nameless woman leaves her water jar behind to go tell the village about Jesus, is it just because she doesn’t want to be encumbered by carrying it? Water jars were important and expensive parts of a household. Leaving it behind is not insignificant. Is she leaving behind her old understandings of the divisions between Samaritan and Jew? Is she leaving behind her concern with daily chores to instead pursue a new spiritual path?

This inclines me to ask further: what jars do we carry that help to sustain the divisions among people? What jars are we clinging to to protect us from change? Are they jars of bitterness or prejudice? Are they jars of fear – fear of the unknown, fear of other ideas, fear of unknown people? Are they jars of apathy? Are they jars of judgementalism?

I hope each of us will take some time this week to think about this image of the woman leaving her jar behind and running into the village where she witnesses to what she has seen. What does that jar represent in your life? Just consider it, look at it, and decide whether it is something you can give up – at least for Lent!

And what is the result of this woman’s actions? Jesus and his disciples stay for two days at this village. They worship and pray together with the Samaritans. This is astonishing!! It’s the formation of a new community, even though it is not a permanent one.

Haven’t we done the same thing when we began the Ecumenical Lenten services? I remember the first soup supper. I walked in a bit late and saw over there a table of Catholics, next to them a table of people from First Lutheran, over her a group from Zion, and along the way a group of Episcopalians and another table from United.

I think it says a great deal about our community that this separation by table only lasted one week! And I still remember the overwhelming sense of excitement among most of the participants about doing this together. There are still things that divide us as different branches of the Christian Church, but those things are not much important any more. And worshipping together formed the foundation for doing so much more together: the clothes closet, the Christmas dinner, Servants of Shelter. Who cares if we worship a bit differently from church to church?

Is it time to extend the tent of meeting again? We’ve been doing what we do for some time now and it’s gotten rather comfortable. Should we invite additional folks to join us? If not for the Wednesday night series, maybe our congregation can invite some “others” to join us for Ash Wednesday. How about some folks from the Covenant church? Could we include some Mormons, or Buddhists, or those with no affiliation? Not with the purpose of conversion but merely for the purpose of inclusion. Let’s think about this.

When Sam and Lee took ashes to the Villa this Ash Wednesday, they had a wonderful response. Next year, who knows?

We can’t make others give up divisions, but we can pledge ourselves to the struggle to give up such divisions, not just for Lent, but for life – the life God wants for us and for all God’s children. AMEN

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