Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Accidental Conversation

John 4:5-42
Lent 3 / Year A

This morning’s Gospel reading chronicles the second of four “big” Scriptural conversations we will be hearing in Lent.  Last week Nicodemus intentionally sought out Jesus with spiritual concerns and questions.  This morning we read the story of a Samaritan woman Jesus encounters at a well outside her village.  Completely accidental, it is the opposite of an intentional meeting.  And, like a lot of unintentional conversations we get drawn into, it takes some wild twists and turns. 

That the woman comes to draw water at noon is telling.  She engages in an activity most do early in the morning while it is still cool.  In addition to a daily chore, it is a social time when those gathered share the latest news and catch up on the latest gossip.  That she elects to avoid a public gathering and opts instead to be at the well when she imagines no one else will be there suggests she is not comfortable, and most likely not welcome, to be in the company of her neighbors.  They know her scandalous life and it is better for her just to avoid interacting with them.  She practices social distancing well before any of us ever heard the term.

The conversation gets off to a rocky start when Jesus asks her to give him a drink of water.  Well, “asks” is a bit misleading.  Given his statement is cast in the imperative, it is more of a demand than a request: “Give me a drink of water!”  When she bristles, wondering why a Hebrew like him would lower himself to speak to a Samaritan, the conversation is off and running.

It touches on such topics as spirituality (“living water”), cultural bigotry, moral failings (“you have had five husbands”), religious differences (where is the correct place to worship?), eschatology (“I know the Messiah is coming”), and theology (“God is spirit”). 

A straight reading of the text suggests what impresses the woman most is how Jesus is able to tell her everything she has ever done.  This, in fact, is the message she shares with the people of her town.  It makes it seem as if Jesus is a clairvoyant who can gaze into her eyes and divine her secret sins and past failings.  But I wonder.  Surely she is used to people criticizing her lifestyle and choices and Jesus doesn’t have to be a mind reader to figure out why she is getting water alone at this time of day.  In truth, that Jesus “knows” who she is is not really not surprising or impressive. 

I suggest what is different is this: unlike the people of the community who know everything she has done and condemn her for it at every turn, Jesus knows who she is and yet still loves her unconditionally.  It is not how the text says it, but what I think it really means is this: “He told me everything I have ever done and yet he still loves me.”  Knowing her and yet still loving her is what sets Jesus apart from everyone else who knows the woman.  It is so significant, so explosive, so unexpected, that the woman tells everyone she knows about it.  She becomes an evangelist in her community because for the first time she has felt loved; loved as only God can love – deeply, completely, unconditionally.

A few years ago, when one of my lovely nieces was married, she asked her pastor, Duane, perform the service.  On the staff of a large, conservative, mega-church, he did a nice job, but, leery of getting drawn into a argumentative conversation, I wanted to keep my distance.  Later in the evening I was outside and smoking a cigar – trapped.  Duane approached me and asked about the Episcopal Church’s position on same-gender marriage.  Here we go, I thought so I tried to measure my words to defuse the situation.  Then Duane began to tell me about his ministry, which includes reaching out to drug addicts, ex-cons, prostitutes, and just about everyone all of us good Christians identify as sinners.  To my surprise I discovered one of my Christian mentors as a youth is also one of his.  I have since come to learn the Episcopal Church I first joined partners with his ministry aimed at helping those down and out to make a new start.  When I think about Duane, I realize what makes his ministry special is not that he can name sinners and knows who they are.  What makes his ministry effective is he loves them.

Accidental conversations.  Sometimes we get drawn into these against our will, they go south fast, and become a nightmare quickly.  You know the kind.  The person attacks you for your political leanings, for your religious beliefs or affiliation, for being a Hookie or a Woo, or for being a Yankee.  These are the conversations where differences are all that matters and is discussed and certainly love is not present.  And then there are those accidental conversations that are enriching.  You learn things about another you never would have known, see the world from an entirely new perspective, have your own value and worth affirmed, and find you are not alone in this world because you have engaged a kindred soul.

Let me suggest the difference between the two experiences is the presence or the absence of love.  When we seek Christ in all persons we cannot help but to meet them with love and charity – the other person is, after all, bearing our beloved Savior.  When we set out to respect the dignity of every human being we strive to love our neighbor as ourselves.  Our interactions, whether intentional or accidental, are infused with God’s love. 

Let me say in closing, we are now living in an “accidental” time as we find ourselves in a national emergency and worldwide pandemic.  Now, more than ever, our accidental encounters with others need to be directed by Christian charity and good will.  Every person whose path we cross provides us with an opportunity to express God’s boundless love made known to us in Jesus Christ.  Now is a time for us to be evangelists and ambassadors of the one who gives us living water.  May God’s love at work in and through you catch by surprise every person you encounter.  And may you find holy and kindred souls in the accidental encounters of these coming days.