Sunday, March 23rd, 2014 – Third Sunday of Lent
Scripture: John 4:5-42
Hymns: “Ode to Joy”, “Come, Christians Join to Sing”, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”, “Fill My Cup, Lord”
“Requiem for an Outcast”
Once upon a time, about fifty-five years ago, there was a young man – a civil rights lawyer from the Midwest. He committed himself to change in the United States of America, ending segregation and especially Jim Crow laws, working with no less luminary figures than Martin Luther King, Jr., himself, and in the early 1980s, receiving two awards from the NAACP for his work helping to bring about vast social change in the United States. Along the way, he risked becoming a pariah within his religious circles and, indeed, did find himself the object of the scorn of the most fundamentalist members of his particular church, being relegated to the sidelines – becoming an outcast.
But one day, something went wretchedly, horribly wrong.
There’s another outcast – this one a woman. She was around long before this young man, about nineteen hundred years before. Living in Israel, she had three strikes against her. One, she was a woman; two, she was a woman who had been married multiple times and at this point was unmarried; three, she was a Samaritan. That last strike against her was perhaps the worst. Samaritans and Jews had been at each others throats for some 500-600 years by this point – after Assyria and Babylon sacked Israel and destroyed the temple in Jerusalem, the Samaritans, upon returning to Israel, had built a new site to worship the Lord on Mount Gerizim, believing that that was where God wanted them to do so. When the Jews returned, however, they rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. Both believed that they alone had the correct place to worship God, never stopping to think that perhaps BOTH places were alright for worship. However, the Jews – greater both in number and in power – were able to run roughshod over the Samaritans, consigning them to be an outcast people of heresy. Even Jesus himself had spoken of them as a lesser people, using the so-called “good” Samaritan as an example of a lower class of person who nonetheless was the best of neighbors in his parable in Luke 11.
And so, this woman, having spent her life as an outcast in the greater Israelite society, had now found herself an outcast within Samaritan society as well – moving from husband to husband for reasons unknown to us, she had likely gained a reputation either as an adulterous woman or as a “black widow”. Either way, she would’ve been seen as somebody to be avoided and not to be associated with – an outcast among outcasts.
But one day, something went incredibly, wonderfully right.
At some point in the 1980s, this civil rights lawyer decided that he was being called into ministry – a ministry of putting America back on the right path. He saw a country that had fallen into sin, sins both of excess and morality. He believed that it was his calling to help this country find itself and return to the straight and narrow. But that’s when things went very wrong.
You see, instead of undertaking his call with a sense of compassion and justice, this lawyer undertook his call with a sense of vengeance and fury. He believed that the United States had doomed itself to the punishment of God’s wrath. He left in the dust the teachings of Christ that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, and that we are to treat those we see as though they were God’s own self, and instead began to preach a twisted gospel of anger and hatred. Within a couple of decades, the very organizations that had once hailed him as a civil rights visionary had turned on him, condemning him and the church which he founded as an organization of hatred.
Now this Samaritan woman went to the well one day, to draw water. She didn’t go in the morning, when the other women would be about, because she was outcast from them, and consequently was on her own to perform all the tasks she needed done. It must have certainly startled her when this strange man approached her and asked her for a drink. To begin with, she must’ve wondered why on earth this man was traveling on his own during the midst of the daytime heat; secondly, she must have wondered if he realized just how taboo it was for a man on his own to approach a woman on her own in this sort of situation. Finally, upon realizing that he was a Jew, she must have wondered if he had completely lost his mind – after all, Jews did not associate with Samaritans, let alone a Jewish man associating with a Samaritan woman who was an outcast even among her own people.
For all these reasons and more, she reacted with a bit of surprise when Jesus of Nazareth requested a drink of water from her, even voicing that surprise – “You are a Jew, and I a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?!”
Now I want to take a moment and compare this encounter with Jesus’ LAST encounter with an individual – Nicodemus, the focus of last week’s sermon. One chapter earlier, in John 3, Nicodemus, a respected leader of the Jews, came to Jesus under cover of darkness, seeking the truth but not understanding. Here, however, we see Jesus approaching an outcast Samaritan woman in the middle of the day, under the bright light of the sun, and he is about to speak the truth to her COMPLETELY UNBIDDEN.
“If you knew who I was,” he says, “you would ask me for a drink of living water.”
Much like Nicodemus, the woman doesn’t understand at first. She doesn’t get that Jesus is not referring to actual water, and so wants to know exactly how he plans to go about providing it to her. “You have no bucket,” she says, “and you are not greater than our ancestor Jacob, who built this well, so how do you plan to get the water?”
I’ve always liked to think that Jesus had a bit of a sense of humor, and so when she said this, he cracked a bit of a smile. “Not greater than Jacob, huh?” he thought. “Let me tell you about how Jacob really IS my ancestor. Let me tell you about how once upon a time, God – who I am, by the way – wrestled WITH Jacob and had to wrench his hip out of joint to win, that’s how strong this guy was.” But of course, he didn’t say any of that. Nicodemus had believed because he had SEEN. Jesus wanted people to believe because of their FAITH, so this Samaritan woman had to come to belief on her own terms, not because of what had been TOLD to her about him.
So he carries on – “The water I give you will become in you a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” And while the woman still doesn’t understand – she still thinks he’s talking about literal water – she immediately says that yes, she wants this water. She didn’t need to SEE that it existed. She BELIEVED that Jesus could give it to her, and so she wanted it.
Since it was clear that she had faith, even if she didn’t yet understand, Jesus decided to clarify things for her a little, telling her things about her that a stranger couldn’t have possibly known. “You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband,” he tells her, to which she replies, “Surely you are a prophet.”
But she’s still a Samaritan, and he’s still a Jew, so she brings up the issue of the different places that they worship. “Ah, but you see, soon people will worship in NEITHER place,” Jesus tells her. “They will worship God in spirit and in truth, at all places and times.”
And that’s when she says the magic words. Maybe she already knew, and was just giving it voice – maybe the things Jesus had said to her prompted her to say it. “I know that the Messiah is coming,” she says to him, “and he will proclaim all things to us.”
Well, this is when Jesus is prompted to, for the first time in John, explicitly name himself as such. Yes, he had implied it when talking to his mother at the wedding at Cana, and when talking to Nicodemus, but here he claims it. “I am he,” he tells the Samaritan woman, “the one who is speaking to you.”
This exchange was all it took for the woman to become, as it were, a disciple of Christ. As Jesus’ apostles caught up with him, she took her leave to go into her city and make known to her people that the Messiah had come. She testified before them, and as it says in John 4:39, “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” Without even meeting Jesus, they believed that he was the Messiah simply because of what this woman told them about him. And when they met with him, they confessed, “This is truly the Savior of the world.”
For this outcast among outcasts, truly this encounter served an amazing purpose. The Messiah revealed himself to her, and in turn to her people. This community of outcasts became one of the first communities of Christ, and all because this woman decided she wanted to know more about the spring of living water which was offered to her.
Unfortunately, for our other outcast, things have not gone so well. In case you haven’t yet figured it out, that once-renowned, now-despised civil rights lawyer is Fred Waldron Phelps, Sr., of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. When he felt God’s pull on his heartstrings, instead of seeking the eternal spring of life that Christ offered, he instead demanded signs. He demanded a change in America, and has since condemned everybody from Prince to the Pope, from Barack Obama to Billy Graham, from Hollywood to Hell. All have come to know the wrath and scorn of Fred Phelps, as he has publicly rejoiced over the deaths of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, over the death of a little girl and a federal judge in Tucson, Arizona, and the mass shootings in Aurora, Colorado, and Newtown, Connecticut – just a few among many atrocities which he so vilely claims are the judgment of God.
But I can’t help but wonder, what if things had gone just a little differently for Fred Phelps? What if, instead of seeing America as a corrupt nation that demanded the furious vengeance of God, he had seen it like the Samaritan woman saw her community? As a broken people in need of love and compassion, seeking the promised Messiah?
As Robert Frost said, two roads diverged in a wood. The Samaritan woman blazed the trail in the direction of faith and justice, while Fred Phelps left to travel the road in the direction of hatred and condemnation. And on Thursday of this last week, he passed from this world to the next.
For years, I have scorned Fred Phelps. I have refused to acknowledge that his followers constitute a church, have rejected him as a minister. I know that I am not alone in this – every Christian that I know, be they liberal or conservative, believes that Phelps spoke from a place not of God, but only of evil, and that he has done harm to the Christian Church in virtually every possible manifestation.
But in his final days, as he approached death, I suddenly found that I no longer felt hatred toward him – I felt pity. Even now, he stands before his maker, and has surely been required to answer for his repeated and blatant violations of the teachings of Christ, and if before his death he realized the vast extent of his sins, then surely he must have been terrified.
Even more than pity, though, I felt sorrow. For like the woman at the well, Fred Phelps was seeking, and found not the spring of eternal living water, but the cesspool of hatred. I can only imagine what he might have accomplished had he followed in the way of the Samaritan woman. This man who had, in his youth, carried such a passion for justice and equality could have walked alongside the outcasts such as the Samaritan woman and declared, “This man, Jesus of Nazareth, is surely the Messiah. Come to him, believe, and thirst no more.”
Let us, then, walk alongside the outcast and downtrodden. Let us proclaim Jesus is the Messiah. Let us drink from the spring of living water, let us embrace the love and compassion taught us by our Messiah, and let us be thirsty no more.