Lent 3: On Human Density and Living Water

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Brian “preaches” to the crowd in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
John 4:5-42

The Monty Python movie, Life of Brian, came out in 1979 and is, to date, one of the best commentaries on humanity and its relationship to religion that I have ever seen.

What does Monty Python have to do with the story of the woman at the well?

I’ll get there.

Life of Brian is set during Jesus’ life, in the Middle East of the first century. A man named Brian is born on the same night as Jesus in Bethlehem, and the wise men show up to his home instead of Jesus’, until through a series of fumblings, they discover that this is not the foretold child that they are looking for. Despite Brian’s mother’s protestations for them to bring back the expensive gifts, the magi make it to the house where the foretold Messiah actually is, and the scene ends.

Brian’s life continues to go this way. On the streets of Jerusalem in the first century, preachers are everywhere and miracles are often rumored. The Romans are harsh overlords and everyone is looking for the Messiah, someone to lead them — and Brian keeps accidentally and quite comically implicating himself as a would-be Messiah. Once, he falls off a rooftop running from a Roman soldier and knocks a street preacher off his soapbox. Deciding that this might be his best way to escape the soldier, since no one pays attention to these crazy guys anyway, Brian begins to preach about peace and love, but people actually start to stop and listen. Realizing that he’s attracting a lot of attention to himself, Brian grows nervous — then the Roman soldier spots him when he is mid-sentence and he runs away as the people protest: they want to hear the rest!

Brian continues this way, being mistaken for the Messiah. He eventually hides out with his mother, but crowds gather outside. Finally, he comes out and, to cheers, says he has one or two things to say. Brian urges them to follow their own path — and to leave him alone.

“You’re all individuals!” he yells at them.

“Yes! We are all individuals!” they yell back.

“You’re all different!”

“Yes! We’re all different!” One fellow says, “I’m not,” and is quickly smacked.

“You’ve all got to work it out for yourselves!”

“Yes! We’ve all got to work it out for ourselves!”

Brian, satisfied that they’ve gotten the message, attempts to leave, but he’s stopped by the crowd: “Tell us more!”

Humans, especially when it comes to things that we cannot see, have a hard time. We have this ability to latch onto things and concepts and refuse to let go. We have expectations of what “things foretold” will be like. We don’t want to “work it out for ourselves.” We want someone to work it out for us.

And, above all, we are really, really dense.

In fact, I’m sometimes afraid to go to one of those icon making workshops, because what I really want to paint is an icon of Jesus facepalming. I will have it no other way.

Even the Old Testament reading today gives us the Israelites, who have been led out of Egypt by great miracles, complaining that they have no water — a lack of faith that God will not let them forget. (And that’s what that harsh psalm was about.)

We know that God’s love is evident in God’s love and patience towards sinful humanity.

But I find that God’s love is evident in God’s infinite patience with dense humanity.

Today, we have the woman at the well, who is one of those rare, talented humans who just may get it. Or not. We’re not really sure. Again.

John does this to us a lot.

Last week we had Nicodemus, whose character in John is really hard to figure out. He engages Jesus, calls him Teacher, says he comes from God, asks him questions, defends Jesus and helps bury Jesus. But he also remains a Pharisee, makes a very feeble attempt at defending Jesus, and gives Jesus a rich burial in secret.

And also in the story this week, we have the disciples, who are definitely dense.

Jesus is traveling from Judea to Galilee, and you can almost hear John sigh as he writes, “But he had to go through Samaria.”

Samaritans and Jews, as John tells us, don’t share things in common. By this point, they’ve a centuries-old religious and cultural struggle. I won’t get off into the weeds describing it, but you are welcome to resarch. For our purposes, let’s just say that they had all the fervor you can imagine in a clash of just-similar-enough-to-hate-each-other-in-a-uniquely-informed-way cultures. We’re familiar with such struggles today. Today we might even say that the particularly enthusiastic Trump supporter from Mississippi and the particularly enthusiastic Clinton supporter from New York meet one another by a well. Jews and Samaritans did not share things in common, they did not want to talk, and they had different values. Their cultures were sort of similar, but they also came from different worlds in many ways. That’s where we are today.

And Jesus strikes up a conversation with this woman from another world. He meets her at a well. Now, if you know your Old Testament stories, you’ll know that significant meetings happen by wells. This is particularly true of couples, with the not-so-subtle implication being that the couple who meets at the well will have a fertile marriage.

Well, while these two obviously won’t be a romantic couple, their meeting will be fruitful —  just not with children. John’s Jesus has a way of toying with our expectations.

She, understandably, is baffled by this Jewish man chatting her up, but she continues to engage him. It’s hard to tell if she really gets what he’s saying theologically — I mean, like with Nicodemus, do you? — but she keeps going toe to toe with him in what reads, to me, like the verbal version of two ninjas sparring. Even when she says “You have no bucket and the well is deep,” it’s entirely possible that she’s just using the same metaphor he’s using. I mean, they’re standing by Jacob’s well, and water, as we talked about Wednesday night, is a common spiritual metaphor.

The Samaritan woman not picking up his metaphor it would be a bit like a group of high school students walking with his history teacher on a field trip to a Revolutionary War battleground. One student gets his foot stuck in a hole. The teacher quips, “Ah yes. Many have struggled for freedom here.” The student responds, “Well, they should put up a sign then, if so many people keep getting stuck.”

But the teachers in the room know that this kind of denseness does indeed happen.

The conversation continues, and she finds out that Jesus knows about her personal life without being told. He knows all about her husbands — which, by the way, could mean that she has married and divorced of her own will five times and is now shacking up with a boyfriend. That would certainly be the case today for such a situation. What’s much more probable in her world, however, and therefore her reality (and not ours), is that she has been passed from husband to husband as property, either being divorced or because her husbands died. This would be particularly common if she had married a series of brothers who died without producing an heir.

And who is the man she lives with now? Who knows? A boyfriend? A friend? A stranger kind enough to keep a widow from starving?

The text itself isn’t as concerned with the woman’s romantic life as its interpreters have been. John’s Gospel doesn’t pass a word of judgement on her. It’s just another example of Jesus knowing things without being told (he does the same thing to Nathanael in John 1:47-50).

And then things get real.

She says, “Look man, I see that you know things, so you must be a prophet.” She says she’s looking for the Messiah like the rest of the Samaritans and Jews.

And this is where our translation falls short. Several times in John, Jesus will say “I AM,”  the divine name, but the English translators will render it, “I am he.”

Anyhow, it makes us miss a big moment here.

Jesus literally says, “I AM, the one who is speaking to you.”

Just then, awkwardly enough, the disciples walk up, and unlike the woman, they are as dense as a fencepost about everything. They remind me of the two guys in the movie Rat Race who are frantically searching for the Las Vegas airport. A plane zooms overhead as one of them looks up and says, frustrated, “Where the hell’s the AIRPORT?!”

But by this point, the woman is long gone. John tells us that the woman left her water jar and went into the town.

The symbolism is as clear as a smack on the face: she doesn’t need her water jar anymore. She’s got Living Water. Her jar sits unused by the well as proof.

And she’s going to tell everybody.

The disciples are oblivious to all of this. In all that “fields are ripe” talk that follows, Jesus is basically telling them that they’re about to reap a harvest they didn’t work for, but a woman did. (And here we have Jesus: understanding a woman’s centuries-old struggle.)

Because at that moment, the woman is going and telling the whole town about Jesus, and through her, they’ll come to believe. This meeting by a well would make for a fruitful union indeed.

The reaper’s already receiving wages, bro, and she is awesome at her job.

We never really know for sure if she got her theology right. All she really has are questions: “He can’t be the messiah, can he?” All she can do is tell them about her experience of him — about how he saw her and he knew her. And that was enough for John to make this nameless Samaritan woman into a hero of his Gospel, the one who gets it better than the Teacher of Israel in the chapter before.

Yes indeedy, humanity is dense. But in God’s great mercy, God keeps finding ways for us to find new life and discover the kingdom anyway.

The woman at the well may have gotten it, or she may not. But there was just something about that Jesus guy that made her want to tell the whole town. And even those dense disciples will go on to fulfill Jesus’ mission of being God’s embodied love to the world. Even their dense butts would find redemption and new life, as they just kept telling the story of that Jesus guy who changed their lives.

Most of my generation doesn’t go to church. Most of New England doesn’t either.

But we keep showing up, not because we really get it necessarily, but because there’s just something about this Jesus guy that keeps us coming back.

We laugh about how dense humans can be, especially about religion. But in truth, we worry about it too. We worry a lot about really “getting it,” about having the right theology. But the truth is that we’re all kind of fumbling in the dark as we talk through this, wrestle with the Bible, listen to the Holy Spirit, and try to figure it out. But the good news is that we don’t have to wait to get it figured about before we invite others along.

Just remember: “He can’t be the Messiah, can he?” was once an evangelistic line that brought a whole town on board.

So come, drink of living water; never thirst again.

May your water jars clink to the ground as you leave this place to embody love in the world, as you become a spring of new life. Your theology and your biblical knowledge may or may not be on point, but living water? That’s an experience, not a piece of knowledge.

So let us experience the risen Lord in wine and bread and water and words. And may others experience God through us.

Because Living Water is here for the taking, and there really is just something about that Jesus guy. Amen.

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