Readings for the Third Sunday in Lent (Year A)
This sermon was preached at Christ Episcopal Church Eureka on Sunday March 15, 2020.
Almighty God, keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
What a perfect Collect for us on this day as we acknowledge genuine concern about a real adversity that could potentially harm and even destroy our bodies; and as we also recognize the power of fear which can assault and hurt our souls. In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus invites the Samaritan woman and us to quench our deepest thirst by appreciating our bodies with prayerful reverence not only because they are the outer shell of our souls but because they are temples of the Holy Spirit. This is the deep theological truth and insight that the Samaritan woman wakes up to in her conversation with Jesus. Although the woman remains nameless in the Bible, our Christian tradition has given her the name Photini or St. Photini, which means “the Enlightened One” or “the Awakened One” because she came to understand this truth that we so often fail to grasp.
Her conversation with Jesus is actually the longest and most theologically dense, one-on-one conversation that Jesus has in the entire Gospel of John. It begins with her asking Jesus, “Don’t you know that your people (the Jews) look down on us Samaritans and avoid us because we have a completely different temple and different style of worship?” To which Jesus responds by saying, “If you knew who you were talking to, you would be asking me for living water.” And with these words, Jesus subtly hints at an entirely new way of understanding temple worship; because the phrase “living water” is a reference to the “living waters” described by the ancient Jewish prophets who promised that living waters would flow out from the true temple of God. The Hebrew prophet Zechariah said, “A day is coming [when] living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem” (Zechariah 14:8). And the great prophet Ezekiel had a vision of living waters flowing out from all directions of the holy temple of God, giving and sustaining life and producing all kinds of fruitful trees (Ezekiel 47:1-12). So when the prophet Jesus talks about living water, he is actually referencing a temple that will both transcend and include Jews and Samaritans, a temple that he himself will fill with his life-giving, thirst-quenching and replenishing spirit.
“Sir,” the Samaritan woman says, “Give me this water. Show me this temple.”
Although it initially seems like Jesus changes the subject, he is actually responding to her request with subtle and prophetic wit. He says, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” Now if we suppose (as most people do) that the Samaritan woman literally did have five husbands, then this would not be a sign that she was a loose and immoral woman (as many male commentators like to suggest). Instead, this would be a sign that she was a victim of her own society. As I mentioned in my February Chronicle article about Jesus’s teachings on divorce, wives generally could not divorce their husbands. At the time, some rabbis were arguing that a man should be able to divorce his wife for whatever reason he wanted (be it overcooking dinner or just because he lost interest in her). In this case, the woman would constantly be under the threat of being divorced, which would lead to social ostracism and economic destitution. This is why Jesus sided with the more conservative school of thought (the School of Rabbi Shammai) that protected women from simply being tossed aside by fickle and selfish men. The Samaritan woman, it seems, had been abandoned and tossed aside by men five times!
However, the most likely reason for this series of failed marriages would not have been because of the fickleness of the men but rather because of the barrenness of the woman. Being barren was often grounds for divorce since a man was expected and even obligated to father two children. It seems that the Samaritan woman was likely barren which would also explain why she came to the well alone at noon. The custom was for women to go to the well together in groups in the early morning or early evening. It was like their coffee hour time. But this Samaritan woman has chosen to practice “social distancing.” Why? Because the other women would have seen her infertility as a punishment from God. The other women would have seen her infertility as contagious, like a deadly virus.
By understanding the Samaritan woman in this light, we see Jesus reaching out to someone who has been pushed around by men because of her womanhood, belittled by Jews because of her Samaritan identity, victimized by society and scorned by other women because of her body and its apparent barrenness. Jesus is reaching out to an excluded person who represents a whole community of excluded people. He is reaching out to someone who is excluded by the excluded; excluded because of her body by a group of people who are excluded because of their ethnicity.
The Samaritan woman then seems to bring the conversation back to the subject of temple worship and the differences between the Samaritans and the Jews. But for Jesus, he was already addressing this issue by gently inviting her to acknowledge the ways in which she felt abandoned and betrayed by men and by a God who seemed to give her a flawed body. Jesus was responding to her questions about temples and worship from the beginning by inviting her to see her body not as flawed but as a vessel for the living waters of the Spirit of God to gush and rush through, as a temple for the Holy Spirit.
Jesus essentially says to her, “Beloved sister, your deepest thirst is not to know about who is right and who is wrong when it comes to the temple and worship. Your deepest thirst is to be loved and accepted and to love and accept yourself and your own body, which has been the source of such shame for you. I am here to quench that deepest thirst by telling you that you are not only loved and accepted by God and by me but also by revealing to you that the true temple of the Holy Spirit of God is now your body.” Jesus says this to the woman in his prophetic, mystical and subtle way and she responds incredulously and dismissively by saying, “Well, yes, I know that the Messiah is coming and someday he will explain all these things and finally accomplish all of these wonderful things you’re describing.” And Jesus says, “No, it’s happening right now. Someday is today. Right now, if you are open, I can make your body into a temple of the Holy Spirit, out of which the living waters of God will come gushing forth. I can quench your deepest thirst. I am the Messiah, the one who is speaking to you.”
At these words of Jesus, the Samaritan woman becomes Photini, the enlightened one. She leaves her water jar at the well because now her deepest thirst has been quenched. She begins to understand her body as a temple of the Holy Spirit as she returns to the city with courage and conviction, inviting others to meet the man who knew and quenched her deepest hunger. She invites us as well to “come and see” and encounter the Christ who can satisfy our thirst by making our bodies into temples of the Holy Spirit. From that moment on, every time Photini would take a simple sip of water or wine or taste a piece of bread, she would remember the one who quenched her deepest thirst and satisfied her deepest hunger by making her body into God’s true temple. I imagine St. Photini inspiring St. Paul to write the following words to the church in Corinth, when he said, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you?” (1 Cor 6:19-20). As we appreciate the bodily gifts of listening and tasting (and later seeing, smelling and touching) throughout this season of Lent, may we do so as people enlightened like St. Photini, giving thanks and praise and glory to the God who dwells within the temples of our bodies. And may St. Photini intercede for us as we continue to pray throughout this week the Collect for the Third Sunday in Lent, which is in your prayer book on the bottom of page 218.
“Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”