Drawn to Repentance and Conversion -- Sermon for III Sunday in Lent
The middle of the day is an odd time to draw water. Most people would go in the morning, since, after all, you need water throughout the day, and carrying heavy water jars in the full noon heat (remember, we’re in the dessert in the near east here) is not a pleasant task. So why is this Samaritan woman at the well to draw water at such an odd time?
As the Lord draws out from her, she has had five husbands and currently lives as a concubine. She is likely ashamed, not wanting to encounter the more respectable women as they come to draw water together each morning. Following our recurring theme from the past few weeks, we can also see her and the Israelites from the Old Testament lesson today as manifestations of the vice of sloth.
Sloth, you will recall, is not just present in inactivity, but in that desire to have anything except what you have. Thus the complaining of the Israelites during their desert wanderings. While in Egypt they complain about their mistreatment at the hands of Pharaoh, and once they leave, they complain about their lack of food. When God gives them miraculous food from heaven, the manna, they complain that they are bored of always eating the same thing. And today we see them rebelling against Moses’s leadership (and really, against God’s leadership through Moses). This becomes a seminal episode in the history of the Israelite people, and one of the reasons for which they are condemned to 40 years’ wandering in the dessert. (It doesn’t, after all, take 40 years to travel from Egypt to Palestine, even on foot.) In fact, it continues to be recalled every single morning in the Church’s liturgy as priests and religious recite Psalm 95 at the beginning of the day’s office, stating our intention to adore the Lord in our prayer, professing our faith in the true saving rock (of which the one that provided the Israelites’ life-sustaining water was only an image), and asking the Lord not to harden our hearts like the Israelites’.
The Israelites, then, are an image of sloth because they desire anything except what they actually have, and as they manifest one of the daughter vices of sloth we learned about last week at our Lenten Series: the wandering of the mind after illicit things. Just as the Israelites wandered in the dessert as a result of their rebellion at Meribah and Massah, so does the slothful mind wander away from its proper task to focus on anything else. (Like when I was writing this homily, and, all of a sudden, just had to check if my gas stove really is in danger of government confiscation. Turns out it’s safe for now.)
Similarly, we see in our Samaritan woman at the well a sorrow in the face of the good, the fullness of the vice of sloth. This sorrow manifests itself as shame and despair at the possibility of being accepted by the other women of the town. Perhaps she has waited until mid-day to go after the water needed by her household out of a sluggishness for the commandments – another of sloth’s daughters.
When she does finally make it to the well, though, she encounters someone with a surprising proposition. First, it is of course no accident that the Lord is there. “Give me a drink,” he tells here. This is one of two times in St. John’s Gospel that the Lord expresses thirst. For the other, we will have to wait until Good Friday – “I thirst,” He says from the Cross. St. Theresa of Calcutta had that declaration of the Lord – “I thirst” – inscribed over the crucifixes of all the chapels of the Missionaries of Charity to remind the sisters that Christ thirsts for them, and for the poorest of the poor whom they serve. Christ is thirsting for the love of this very imperfect Samaritan woman, and His conversation with her is a drawing of her through a process of conversion.
At first, she is fascinated by this stranger. “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” Men and women were not supposed to be interacting like this in public, and Jews regarded the Samaritans as ritually impure. He makes her a tantalizing promise: “Whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst.” This must have been appealing for the woman who loathes coming to the well to draw water, risking the scorn of the town. “Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” She doesn’t yet seem to have noticed, or understood the meaning of, the promise of a “spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
Christ’s response to having elicited this desire of that living water, though, seems like a complete non sequitur: “Go call your husband.” This is not just an awkward transition point. In order to prepare her to receive the living water, He must draw out from her not only a desire of his gift, but a confession of sin. “I do not have a husband.” Imagine the demoralizing effect of the woman who has lived with five husbands, and is now the concubine of another man who must confess, “I do not have a husband.”
In order to receive the living water, the healing that Christ wants to bring to her life, she must repent. Both the Samaritan woman without a husband and the Israelites at Massah and Meribah are rebels before the Lord. To turn aside from being a rebel before God is not easy. At various times throughout their journey, the Israelites were forced to drink the ground up gold of the pagan idol they created, were inflicted with poisonous serpents, and entire clans were devoured by the ground opening up to swallow them when they rebelled against God’s lordship of His people exercised through Moses’s leadership.
So likewise this woman, and all of us, must undergo a profound process of repentance and conversion for our own rebellion against God. We often wonder why we do not make progress in the moral life, why we continue struggling with the same habitual vices. Perhaps it is because we have not fully repented. We do not excite in our hearts true horror at the depravity of evil that is within the tortured human heart, and we neglect the penances we should do for our sins. This, really, is why we have this time of Lent. It is not a self-help or self-improvement program. It is a time to wrestle with the gravity of sin and perform works of repentance – fasting, prayer, and almsgiving – in reparation for the evils we have done, and even for those done by others in our world.
This is a sour medicine that is difficult to swallow, but the crushing humiliation of the Samaritan woman’s confession is not the end of the story. Receiving the Lord’s mercy leads her back to Him with the most important of questions: How are we to give thanks to God? That is, how are we to worship?
The Samaritan woman points to a long-standing conflict between the Jews and the Samaritans about the right place to worship – the Temple of Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim. But Christ points to the true worship and the true worshipers – those who have the spring of water welling up to eternal life in their souls through Baptism. “The Father seeks such people to worship Him.” Conversion and works of penance are necessary preparations to the full healing that takes place in responding to the Father’s invitation to worship. It is in Christian worship in spirit and truth that the same Christ who revealed Himself to the Samaritan woman reveals Himself to you and asks you likewise to make a response: “I am he, the one speaking with you.”
Right worship is an essential remedy to the vice of sloth, and one we will explore in two ways over the last three sessions of our Tuesday Lenten series, which will focus on joyful resistance to the vice of sloth: the Sabbath rest, the virtue of magnanimity (or great-souledness), and the re-telling of the story of mankind through intentional Christian living and worshiping.
The Samaritan woman’s encounter with the Lord is a story of hope. The one who slothfully came to the well in the heat of the day to avert the scorn of the other townspeople now “left her water jar and went into the town and said to the people, ‘Come see a man who told me everything I have done.’” Their scorn has been purged of its venom by the One who has looked into her soul and seen all. Being known is no longer a source of fear, but a source of life, since she has encountered the One whose knowledge moves her to repentance, conversion, and new life.
She, then, is now a model of another remedy to sloth: magnanimity, or great-souledness, which reaches out to great things. Her fear is gone and she reaches out to the great good of drawing others to Christ. I hope that you will join us on the next three Tuesday evenings of Lent to learn more about how to put these important remedies against the vice of sloth into practice in your life.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
III Sunday in Lent, A.D. MMXXIII