God was doing something new.
Thousands of years before Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well, the Samaritans and Jews had fallen out. The Samaritans are the descendants of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Jews are the descendants of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. At one time, they had been united with a common Torah and understanding of God, but over the generations, they pulled further and further apart. The Jewish community added other Scripture, like the Prophets to their canon. The Samaritans intermixed with the various peoples that conquered them. The Jews worshiped in Jerusalem. The Samaritans worshiped at Mt. Gerezim. Jews went out of their way to avoid Samaria.
But not Jesus. God was doing something new.
Jesus goes out of his way to walk through Samaria. And then when his disciples are off trying to find some lunch, Jesus walks right up to a Samaritan. And not just any Samaritan. He walks up to a woman. And Jesus doesn’t walk up to a woman Samaritan at some appropriate place. Oh no, he goes right up to that Samaritan woman at a well. Now, that would be like Jesus walking into a restaurant, finding the single lady at the bar, and sidling up right next to her. If you’re familiar with the book of Genesis, the well is where love happens. It’s where sparks fly, where marriage proposals are made, where first encounters happen.
But Jesus doesn’t care about convention. Because God is doing something new.
This poor Samaritan woman gets a bad rap. When we hear that she’s had five husbands, we think to ourselves, “Oooh, that hussy!” But Jesus never says that she has sinned, and never offers to forgive her. For all we know she could have been widowed five times. Or been left because she was barren. All we know is that her life has been hard. Defying all convention, Jesus decides to engage her in a profoundly spiritual question. He describes himself as someone who can provide living water. Instead of dismissing him, the Samaritan woman is intrigued and begins a theological conversation with him.
God was doing something new.
The woman starts to suspect that Jesus is something special—maybe a prophet? But she just doesn’t know how to resolve this fundamental difference between Jews and Samaritans. She reminds Jesus that his people worship in Jerusalem and her people worship at Mt. Gerezim. How can this fundamental division be resolved? Is one place right and one place wrong? Even if Jesus can provide her living water, what are the long term implications? The Samaritan woman is very practical.
What happens next is where Jesus blows the Samaritan woman’s mind. The Samaritan woman will go on to be a legend. In the Orthodox tradition she is called St. Photine—the luminous one—a woman who converted many, many people. So what does Jesus say to her? What is so utterly life changing?
Imagine going back in time two hundred years from now. Imagine sitting down with your great-great-grandparents and explaining to them that in the future, you won’t need to be in the same room with a person to talk with them. In fact, in the future, you can be anywhere in the world, pick up a plastic box, stare into it, and have a live conversation with someone you love. Mind blowing right? No longer are we bound by physical presence. We can relate to each other wirelessly.
Well, God was doing something new and similar. Rather than having a certain place be people’s link toward him, rather than making people choose between Jerusalem and Mt. Gerezim, God was going to do something new. God was going to be liberated from the constraints humans had put on him. Instead of being worshiped at Jerusalem, God was going to be worshiped in “spirit and in truth”.
The geographic and biological boundaries that had separated Jew from non-Jew were going to be erased. No longer would God belong to one people or one place. Living water would not just be offered to women like Mary, but women like Photine as well. Living water will be available to everyone, those who fit in and those who don’t. Those who have had easy lives and those who have had difficult lives. Those who have never married and those married five times. The living water doesn’t just lie still in its cup. Living water bubbles up, overflows, and blesses all kinds of people.
God was doing something new. And God is doing something new.
The church is always changing. We started out as small groups of people meeting in people’s homes in the middle east and now we have congregations large and small scattered all over the world. You all have seen your own fair share of changes over the last few years. You have two new priests and half your lay staff has overturned in the last year. There are kids in church now and the music is a little different and I’m sure Eric and I have different liturgical, preaching and personal styles than you are used to. That kind of change can be exciting, but it can also be unnerving. Church is a place where a lot of us feel safe, so when it starts to feel unfamiliar, we feel uneasy.
The larger church is going through changes, too. In some ways, it feels like we’re at the end of an era. We are talking about downsizing our national church offices and even possibly moving them out of New York. The College of Preachers closed, the Alban Institute just announced it was closing, and even the Virginia Seminary Chapel burned down a few years ago.
I’ve seen two reactions to all this national change. One is to try to put the Episcopal Church in hospice care and mourn what it used to be. Mourn the loss of our power and social standing. Mourn the loss of our buildings, some of which need to be closed. Mourn the loss of what felt familiar and comfortable.
However, I’ve also seen people who believe that God is doing something new. Church is not the center of our culture any more. Suddenly, rather than being part of the fabric of society, the church exists on the margins of society. Right where it was two thousand years ago, actually!
God is doing something new, but not something that hasn’t been done before!
In our own diocese, St. Paul’s in Richmond is experimenting with doing things in a new way by hiring a priest, the fabulous Melanie Mullen to be what they call a downtown missioner. Melanie’s job isn’t to drum up membership or serve the poor from within the walls of St. Paul’s. Melanie’s job is to be in the community, get to know neighborhood non profits and businesses and individuals and then learn how the people of St. Paul’s can serve them. Her job is to bring the church into the world.
Like Jesus’ living water, the people of St. Paul’s, Richmond are experimenting with bubbling up and over the line of their property and into the world around them.
We are blessed to worship a God that continually offers us a cup of living water, even in the midst of change. Where is living water bubbling up in our community? How is God blessing us? What gifts and energies are we being called to pour over our walls into our community?
May we, like the woman at the well, shine the light of Christ into the world.