Sermon for Lent 3 2017

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

When Annie and I were at the beach last month, some of our housemates insisted on turning on the television on a Friday evening to watch these British programs that PBS has been airing weekly at least since I was a kid. Boy have things changed, though, if my one experience in a decade-and-a-half is to be trusted. While I recall a mix of anthologies based on Victorian novels and sitcoms that I always thought would serve as a powerful cure for insomnia, what greeted us on public television that evening was nothing short of trashy. We saw a “documentary” (notice the inverted commas) about Wallis Simpson and the late Queen Mother which should have been titled
“the Real Housewives of Windsor Castle.” Perhaps I’m a bit uptight, but I thought the primary appeal of the program was that it appealed to the prurient interest.

This shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did, I suppose. This is an unpopular opinion, I know, but I did some years ago attempt to watch Downton Abbey, and found it utterly unappealing. I I never got what the fuss was about. As with other programs of its ilk (Upstairs Downstairs, &c.) I guess I was always unable to get my head round whether the audience was meant to recognize the sickness inherent in a society with such rigid class distinctions or to feel some kind of nostalgia for it. Perhaps both- and I suppose that’s what the tacky program about the “royal wives” was aiming for- eliciting both a disgust for the beneficiaries of an undemocratic social structure while tempting contemporary hoi polloi with visions of the same structure in which they imagine themselves at the top.

The peculiar thing about these programs, as well as more artistically meritorious novels and films set in pre-war Britain is the complex view of class is that they appeal so much to American readers and viewers. The obsession with maintaining what society deemed to be the proper relationships between members of different social strata (especially when the distinctions seem so very slight from our perspective) can be confusing. Okay, maybe an American divorcee, socialite though she be, might not be a popular Queen of England, but Lady So-and-So not being able to marry a doctor or lawyer or priest because he’s a little too middle class should a rather foreign concept to us, but it’s the basis of an awful lot of culture (both high- and middle-brow) that we seem to eat up.

And yet, maybe it is uncomfortably close to our reality and we don’t want to admit it. The basic human weakness which gives rise to the complex social rules one finds in a Downton Abbey or a Victorian or Edwardian novel is still with us. We still have this tendency to separate “us” from “them”, “our kind of people” from “those people”. It may not be entirely, or even predominantly, a class issue anymore, but we’ve nonetheless retained the sinful inclination toward holding those who aren’t “our kind of people” at arms length, whether they be immigrants and refugees or the adherents of other religions which we’ve turned into frightening caricatures.

The upholding of social divisions as somehow divinely instituted was as great a temptation in Jesus’ day as it was in pre-war England or 21st Century America. The woman at the well was not “our kind of people”, and I think we can forget how radical Jesus’ decision to even acknowledge her really was. For one thing she was of the wrong religion; Samaritans and Jews, while having much more in common than either would have acknowledged, had such different theologies that each claimed the other’s religion a heresy so profound as to preclude contact. This morning’s Gospel puts it pretty plainly: “for Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.” The conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman mentions perhaps the most important difference, as far as they were concerned, namely that the Samaritans prayed to God on a different mountain than the Jews, who insisted that Mount Zion in Jerusalem was the proper place for worship. We might see this distinction as trivial today, but for Jews and Samaritans, it was of the greatest importance.

What’s more, the Samaritan woman’s lifestyle would have branded her a less than wholesome acquaintance. She had been married five times, and we can assume from her reluctance to share this information that she had not just been five times a widow. The man she was now with was not her husband, and suffice it to say that cohabitation was far less commonplace or socially acceptable in the first century as it is today.

Perhaps this is why the Samaritan woman came to the well at noon. All of the other women would have drawn water in the morning, and one can imagine the taunting that a loose woman in a Samaritan village might receive from her fellows. She was likely unpleasantly surprised to see Jesus at the well that day, having hoped that she could get her water covertly, without facing once again the public’s scorn.

And yet, thanks be to God that her attempt to hide was foiled by the Savior’s presence. Thank God she was found, not only because it led to a whole village coming to faith in our Lord, but because it remains a powerful example to us today, who are just as likely as the Samaritan villagers to scorn those whom we don’t understand, who are just as likely as the disciples to be astounded by one who reaches out to those who aren’t “our kind of people”.

Jesus deemed one so unlike himself in background and social standing and general wholesomeness not only as a good person with whom to share a drink of water, but as an appropriate witness to his message of redemption, as a person adequate to the task of being a missionary. When we, like Jesus, can see this potential in those who make us uncomfortable, they’ll cease to cause us discomfort. When we stop worrying so much about what our fellows think about the fact that we consort with marginal people, when instead we take the example of Christ, who broke bread with prostitutes and sinners and a Samaritan woman at a well, we might start to see that Christ’s message of salvation is for everybody, and that Christian fellowship is bigger than our own provincial attitudes about the caliber of person with whom we like to interact. Let us pray, then, to be open to the people whom we don’t yet hold in high regard, knowing that God’s judgment of a soul matters more than ours. The seeds of God’s grace can be found in soil whose richness we do not at first discern, and the living water which we carry might cause growth. The most unlovely soul might need nothing more than a glass of that water to quench his seemingly undying thirst, and it is not our prerogative to withhold it, because it’s not ours to begin with.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.