Sunday, February 24, 2008
Living Water: John 4:7-39
A Sermon for III Lent
February 24, 2009
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham, NJ
(the Rev’d) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor
Well, in the church, we are well into the Season of Lent.
In the world, however, we seem to be in the Season of the Underdog.
On the political scene, everyone seems to be competing for the title – not hard when you got the first woman and the first African American striving to be the Democratic candidate for the President of the United Status.
Depending on your perspective – or the latest spin from the political pundits – that could even be the Republican candidate, a man who displeases the staunch conservatives because, even though he is probably one of the few outside the With House who remain in favor of continuing the War, he has made a name for himself by sitting down and talking with Democrats. On the other hand, I’ve heard even those on the Religious Right mutter, “Anybody but Huckabee.”
Today’s political landscape is flush with underdogs. Which is okay. Americans of every political party love to cheer on the underdog. It’s in our DNA.
Over in the sports world, when the Giant from New York did slew the David Patriot we all cheered – or, at least, some accepted the outcome with the grace of resigned chagrin. I’m from Boston where those of us who favor their sox in the color red learn the first two words of hope at our parents’ knee: “next year. “
This year’s real underdog was a dog – a noble but humble Beagle named Uno, the first of his kind ever to win Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. He has a sweet face, full of charm and charisma – but he was, let’s face it, a hound dog – as in, “You ain’t nothin’ but a “.
It was a triumph for the dog next door. Imagine, a Beagle ringing the opening bell on Wall Street. Ah, sweet victory! And, power to the people’s dog!
Over the years, as I have heard and come to cherish this morning’s Gospel Story of the woman at the well, I’m convinced that part of its power has to do with the power of the underdog.
For starters, she is a Samaritan – sometimes referred to with great disdain as the ‘mongrels’ of the Jewish antiquity because intermarriage other ethnicities was common practice.
Of course, she was also a woman, and we know how the ancient world treated them (come to think of it, not too much differently than they do today). This woman, however, is an underdog among underdogs.
She had come to deal with her status by a process of accommodation: coming to Jacob’s well alone in the heat of the noonday, rather than in the early morning with the rest of the other women in the village.
I love her sass – also part of her accommodation When Jesus tells her that he can give her ‘living water’ she scoffs at him. You can hear it in her words.
“Man,” she says, “you don’t even have a bucket and the well is deep. Where you gonna get water to give to me, much less ‘living water’?” What’s that line from that old song, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose?” Me and Bobby McGee. She and Jesus of Nazareth.
That’s the thing about underdogs. They know their status better than anyone else. So, they can risk. Which is precisely what this woman did. She risked everything and ran to tell the rest of the people in the city that she thought she had found the Messiah. In so doing, as history will record, she became the first woman to be an evangelist for Jesus.
Imagine that! Not just any woman. A Samaritan woman. And, not just any Samaritan woman, one who had five husbands, and the one she had now wasn’t even her husband! That’ a little like Uno winning Best in Show. It’s like the Giants winning the Super Bowl when the Patriots had been undefeated. It’s like Herbie Hancock being the first jazz musician in 43 years to win a Grammy Award for Album of the Year.
All any underdog wants is a chance. Someone to believe in them. Someone who sees past all the unimportant minutia of your life and appreciates your potential. Someone who will not blame them for the shame they feel over their status. Jesus didn’t judge the Samaritan woman. He simply told her the truth about herself. He didn’t buy into her defensive sass. Instead, he was fully present to her, despite her status as outcast underdog.
I once had a woman who came to me for spiritual direction who was, she said, unable to pray to God. “God doesn’t listen to me,” she complained, “so why should I bother anymore?”
She then launched into a 15 minute story about her teen-aged daughter who was giving her lots of problems. She had been running with a fast crowd, smoking, drinking and, she feared, she was probably pregnant. She had run away from home and, after two very frightening days, was discovered living in the next state with her older sister.
As she spoke, I could empathize with her turmoil. Clearly, she was worried. She was also angry, but she was also frightened for her daughter. But there was something more. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
As she finished her story she said, “So, no matter how hard I pray to God, God doesn’t answer my prayers. My daughter still keeps on doing what she is doing – ruining her life, her reputation, and that of her whole family.”
I looked at her and said something like, “Right.”
The woman looked at me, astonished. Clearly, I hadn’t been listening to her. She took a breath and then launched into another 15 minute exact version of the same sad tale of woe.
When she finished, I looked at her again and I said, “Right.” The woman looked at me again, but this time, she broke out into a smile of recognition.
“Well,” she said, I guess I’d have to admit that I was a bit of a hellion at her age, too.”
“Really?” I said.
“Yes, and look at me now. I guess I’m doing okay.”
“Yes,” I said, “I guess you are.”
“And, I suppose,” she said, “She’ll turn out okay too. I suppose she ran away because she couldn’t stand all the shaming and blaming I was doing. That’s different from making her keep the rules. I can do that without all the yelling and screaming. I just have to keep loving her, right?”
“Right,” I said, “just the way God loves you. And,” I added, “hears your prayer.”
“Right,” she said, “the way God heard my mother’s prayer for me.”
The cycle of shame and blame is a difficult one to break. That’s the dark underside of the dynamic of the underdog. The impulse that leads us to cheer on the underdog is the one of recognition.
We’ve all been there – in second place. Some of us have been in last place. We know what it feels like, so when we see the underdog getting a chance to show her ‘real stuff’ we cheer.
But, when we see our failures reflected in others, we can also be the harshest judge, the cruelest adjudicator of the law. Shame always travels with its companion ‘blame.’ We need to find scapegoats to carry the burden of our blame. When the underdog wins, we are often the very ones to cheer the loudest.
I think we come near Jacob’s well whenever we meet people where they are on their journey, just as God came to Jacob who was changed and transformed after struggling with an angel.
I think we offer living water of hope and transformation when we are fully present to others in the midst of their pain and confusion, their shame and need to blame, which often comes out as sass and indifference. That’s what Jesus did with the Woman at the Well.
We are in the Season of Lent where, it is promised, the underdog shall win. We know how the story ends. The stone that the builders had rejected will become the cornerstone.
So, if this Season of Lent isn’t going exactly as you had planned, if you have already broken your Lenten Discipline, take heart. God knows your weakness and, you know what? God loves you anyway.
God loved the Samaritan woman enough to send her to Jacob’s well in the heat of the day to meet someone who would change her life forever and elevate her status from underdog to the first woman evangelist. God can use your flaws to God’s glory, too.
God works through our pain and our shame, not to place blame, but to transform hearts.
I believe this to be true.
Then again, I’m from Boston. I know there’s always next year.