3rd Sunday of Lent – Cycle A (2002)

Jesus faced a problem in his ministry
that he never really solved.
If you had no credentials to speak of,
but you had a message that people were going to find difficult,
how would you convince people to listen?

Sometimes what happened was what happened in today’s gospel.
This woman at the well was enormously impressed with Jesus’ ability
to tell her something about her past,
to know without being told that she’d had five husbands.
That got her attention, the mind-reading,
and ultimately that seems to be the message
that she runs off eager to tell her fellow townspeople.
“Come see a man who told me everything I ever did.”

An amazing thing that Jesus did, and funny, too.
But he said something in his conversation that was much more spectacular,
and that seems to have gone right over her head
despite the fact that he had her attention.
But we can’t let it go over ours.
“The hour is coming,” he said, “The hour is coming when we will worship God
neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.”

To get some sense of what this meant,
remember where Jesus is.
He is in Samaria, talking with a Samaritan.
Samaritans were not considered to be Jews,
everyone in the New Testament seems to draw this great distinction,
Jews vs. Samaritans,
but in fact they were more related than that makes it seem.
Samaritans accepted the first five books of the bible
— Genesis, Exodus — in which all Jews believed,
but long back in Jewish history their traditions had separated,
and as in so many cases,
it’s the people who are closest to your beliefs but are stubbornly separate
that seem the most perverse to you.

Jews hated Samaritans for perverting their traditions,
for refusing to believe all the holy writings,
for having their own holy places, like this well at which Jesus has stopped,
for having their own way of doing things.
Samaritans, people said, intermarried with non-Jews,
and those non-Jews, people said, were bringing in foreign gods.
Perhaps we have to think Serbians and Croatians, or Protestant and Catholics in Belfast,
or Moslem and Hindu in India and Pakistan,
those are the only combinations we can come up with that have that same mix
of religious difference and political conflict as Jews and Samaritans.
They made good material for Jesus’ stories,
since all he had to do was use the word “Samaritan”
as an image of someone
with whom you had centuries of long, complex, deep-seated conflicts, hatred even,
someone who was not in your circle.
And what he kept saying, in the story of the good Samaritan,
in this amazing statement today about Jerusalem,
is that the circles we define are not God’s.

If we were Jesus, in Samaria, talking with this Samaritan woman,
thinking we were on a mission from God,
we probably would have taken the tack of trying to convince her of the error of her ways.
How you can you not accept the prophets as sacred scripture,
how can you ignore all the signs pointing to Jerusalem as the culmination of our history,
when are you going to get in line?
One of us is right, and one of us is wrong.
But Jesus doesn’t take the approach of carefully defining differences
and finding a convincing argument in favor of his side.
What he said was something that only God could say.
He said that in the long run, none of this matters very much, does it,
it doesn’t matter whether you believe that the mountain near Jacob’s well is a holy place,
or whether Jerusalem is a holier place.
We’re all going beyond that, God is bigger than that,
bigger than all the definitions we make.

Was Jesus saying that all religions are pretty much the same, and nothing matters?
No. Salvation, he says, comes from the Jews, and from himself,
and the Samaritans are missing some completeness in their vision of God.
But the point is that those who think they have the truth
always draw lines between themselves and everyone else
based on things that are not very important.
They seem important, these lines that we draw,
but to Jesus, to God, we hate to hear it, but they’re not.

The irony of Jesus’s statement
that ultimately we won’t be worshiping at Jacob’s Well or in Jersusalem
shouldn’t be lost on us today,
when each week dozens of people are killed and maimed in that very city
by people outraged with one another about who lives and worships there or not.
But forget the Middle East for a moment,
forget interpretations of the Koran that declare war on infidels.
Sometimes it’s as if we never heard what Jesus said either.

Churches expend so much energy drawing fine distinctions among one another,
living in our separate buildings,
all of us finding it hard to believe that God sees us without the walls we have built.
Instead, we live as if we are all separate, headed to some different paradise.
Even inside our church, Catholics expend so much energy making sure
that it’s their vision of worship or art or piety that carries the day,
their liturgy, their prayers, their way of doing things,
offended at everyone else,
worrying about who’s in, who’s out.
But Jesus says today that God isn’t a mountain, or a city, or a sanctuary, or a church,
or a prayer, or a history, or a picture.
Like the people of Israel out in that desert in the first reading,
they looked around and didn’t see anything familiar,
we look at different places and don’t see anything that looks like God to us,
we see a strange place,
and we don’t think God is there.
But true worship, in spirit and truth, as Jesus says today.
is facing God in such a way
that we realize that God is in our midst,
and not only next to us, but next to all people, without distinction.
God is in our midst here with the eucharist, with this community,
so close that we touch him,
but we, the people who believe that the sacraments bring us so close to God,
we do not have an exclusive.

But perhaps Jesus wasn’t so ineffective at getting this point across
as it seems at first glance.
Maybe it wasn’t just the mind-reading that impressed the Samaritan woman.
After all, she was told something about God by a Jew,
and that wasn’t supposed to be possible.
She may have gotten the point.
And Jesus didn’t lack for other people who somehow heard what he was saying.
In his life, in fact, he found that few things made people angrier
than telling them that their imagined exclusive
on God and his law and his traditions was over,
that other, completely unacceptable people as much about loving God and neighbor.
In a few weeks, when we hear about Jesus’ death,
we’ll see exactly how successful he was telling us
that God is determined, even if we aren’t,
to be in the midst of all of us.


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