Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Sermon from the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman

Emily has asked that I post a link to Fr. Jonathan's sermon (mentioned in my previous post) in it's entirety. No such link exists, I'm afraid, so with his permission I'm posting it here.

(Note that any typos or editing erros of capitalization, punctuation, etc. can be blamed solely on me - I typed it from a recording of the sermon. I did my best, but there's bound to be a thing or two left hanging or unclear because of my transcribing of another's thoughts and words. Please forgive and overlook these things).

The Sunday of the Samaritan Woman follows the feast in the church of Mid-Pentecost – one of those feasts that’s almost completely forgotten from our church life. We didn’t even have a liturgy or anything here at Holy Trinity but when you look at the service books of the church, it’s midway between the resurrection and the Feast of the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost – it is a very important feast theologically, and it’s all about flowing water. And so we’re not surprised to come to a Gospel reading at this season of the feast of Mid-Pentecost and find that the gospel presents us a story of Jesus thirsty at a well. And a discussion that ensues between him and the woman who is both a heretic from Judaism (she was a Samaritan, member of a breakaway sect) and who is personally a heretic. She has broken the commandments in her personal life, she has drifted away from being under the authority of the Word of God. And Jesus has a conversation with her about the flowing of water and what truly quenches spiritual thirst.
So we sang the Kontakion: The Samaritan Woman came to the well in faith; She saw You, the Water of Wisdom, and drank abundantly. She inherited the Kingdom on High and is ever glorified!

The water of wisdom is an image from the book of Proverbs, actually read at Vespers on the evening of the Feast of Mid-Pentecost, talking about how wisdom has mingled her wine with water. And on this feast in ancient Judaism, the Feast of Tabernacles which is from where the scripture today is read, that water mixed with wine is poured out at the altar. So the hymnographers of the church were fully aware of their Jewish tradition when they said that this woman saw Jesus, the water of wisdom and drank abundantly and in doing so she inherited the kingdom on high, which is the other key image for us as a church, as people who are hearing these words now in Mid-Pentecost.

“The one that you have now is not your husband,” says Jesus to the Samaritan woman. When he had seen clairvoyantly everything that she is and the state of her life, he tells her to go and fetch her husband and she says that she doesn’t have one. And he says, “No, you’ve had five and the one you currently have is not your husband.”

This is an accusation that the Word of God makes at the whole church of course, because adultery – promiscuity - what this woman was doing, the state of her being, is the paradigmatic sin of biblical spirituality. What does that mean the paradigmatic sin? It means that it’s the sin that embodies both in the person’s personal life and also in the life as an image of the whole church, the nature of what goes wrong in our relationship with God. So that’s why we can say, “The one that you have now is not your husband” is not a comment that Jesus made to the woman at the well in the first century, it’s the comment that Jesus Christ the Word of God makes to the church at all times. And it’s the comment that forces us, if we are thinking biblically, to look at ourselves and say, “in what way have I consecrated my life to quench the kinds of thirsts that will make me thirst again?. And in what ways have I consecrated my life to the water that, when you drink it you will not thirst again. It’s as simple as that, in one sense.

In another sense it’s the most complex prophetic sign and wonder that Jesus did. Even our hymn which says about the Samaritan woman, “and she drank freely of the water of wisdom and received the kingdom on high.” This carries us to the very end of the Bible to the book of Revelation. In the last 2 chapters of Revelation it’s all about the New Jerusalem being prepared by God. And in that sense we know that the church only truly becomes the Bride of God in the Kingdom to come. So to be Orthodox – to be a member of the true church – is not to know that you are in the perfect church. To be a member of the true church is to know that you are hopelessly broken until God fulfills the mystery of his church in the Kingdom. That’s important for our thinking in the society of religious diversity that we live in. In Revelation we see this image:” I, John, saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”

This is imagery that has been with us since holy Week. It’s imagery that helps us as modern American Christians to really think honestly about what it means to be an Orthodox Christian communicant in a human community where not only is there diversity of religion and non religion, but where Christianity itself is so fragmented. How is a gospel like today’s which talks about true, consecrated marriage meant to inform? That this Samaritan woman who both personally and then as church, as a member of this sect, had betrayed her spouse, if you like, the Word of God to whom she was betrothed or ought to have been betrothed and married.

We tend to worry, as Orthodox Christians, because we see the kind of extreme expressions in our community of faithful which get extremely rigorous – judgmental of everybody else – you might say fundamentalist, as though here in the church there is life and everywhere else there is complete and unadulterated darkness – and is a kind of fanaticism. That exists wherever there is covenantal language, not just in Orthodoxy, wherever there is language of exclusive covenant if we don’t hear it carefully, we do become sort of fanatical extremists, if you like. But really, for most Orthodox Christians, that’s not our problem. Our problem is really the opposite problem. We’re common sense people – we’re all grown ups as they like to say, and we look around ourselves and we see people who are not Orthodox who are holier, who pray more, who live the gospel more and even people who are not associated with religion who do the same and we have to understand that all in the context of a church that presents us consecrated, covenanted life with God – with his Word. Now how do we understand all of that? And that’s largely what this Gospel reading, which is here to form the newly baptized in the church from the beginning of Christian worship, that’s what it’s here to help us to do.

The images that the Vespers services for this Mid-Pentecost feast on Wednesday gave us all talk about this flowing of water. Just listen to them and see if you can get some of the spirit. The second reading is from Isaiah at that Vespers and it says, “Lo everyone that is thirsty, come to the water. He that has no money come and buy.” It’s paradox - no matter how poor you are come and buy the water. “Come and buy wine and milk and water without price” to quench your thirst. “Why do you spend your money for that which doesn’t sustain, which is not bread? And why do you work so hard for that which doesn’t satisfy you? Hear me carefully, says the prophet Isaiah, and eat that which is good, let your soul delight.” It’s this image of abundant nourishment. There’s no problem with the fact that he’s telling people with no money to come and buy, that’s not for the prophet a problem.

And then the reading goes on from a different section of Isaiah: “Therefore with joy you shall draw water out of the wells of salvation. And in that day you shall say, Praise the Lord , call on his name, declare his doings among the people and make mention that his name is exalted.” The Samaritan woman reading ends with the meditation on the fact that she went back and told everybody what he had done and what he knew and what he could see, and Jesus stayed two extra days because so many people came to hear the faith and were converted. In this drawing of the water of the wells of salvation in the prophet Isaiah, Jesus is clearly doing the sign in the context of the Hebrew scriptures, in the context of this prophecy.

And then finally, this is where it informs a little bit how we should think about the struggle of human beings for truth, and for life generally. In all of these Christian forms and non-Christian forms. The word of God, he says, is like rain – for as rain and snow come down from heaven, and don’t go back to heaven without first watering the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater. You heard in today’s gospel reading, “You are reaping where others have sown.” The word of God has come down, it has permeated the people, things have grown, you are reaping, he says to the disciples who are discussing the situation with him when they find him talking to the woman at the well, where others have sown ("the field is white unto harvest" ..we have all this imagery present). "And so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth. It will not come back to me empty." In other words, evaporating and going back up into the clouds, to use modern science. "But it will first accomplish that which I intended it to. My word will soak into the ground wherever it is and prosper according to the purpose for which I sent it." What we’ve been told here is that the Word of God (and we talk about the Holy Spirit this way – it’s everywhere present and fills all things) does not belong to the church or the confines of the church. God’s will, his intention for human beings, is poured out on the whole of creation. Therefore, we as Orthodox communicants, if we see it anywhere and do not recognize it for what it is then we have desecrated the Word of God. It doesn’t help to say, “I’m Orthodox, I don’t need to pay attention to what that person is praying or what their faith is, because if they are praying from this permeated rain, this soaked rain, if they have found the language for God that comes from this biblical revelation, then first of all we should at least recognize what we hear. What is the church for if it’s not here to form us and teach us? What at the heart of this revelation is all about.

So you have that sense of the Spirit being everywhere – that’s why in Baptism the water is poured all over the place – splashed on anything – but we ourselves who are baptized are consecrated to a covenantal relationship with this Word. In other words, we seek to be under its authority – that’s what covenanted means. And that’s of course what is at stake in the parable of the Samaritan woman. She is supposed to be under authority to her husband in a relationship of consecrated union. And he to her. Because in the OT law it was not just the woman as adulterous, but the man as adulterous who are equally condemned. In her situation, she becomes this physical metaphor of the spiritual state (and really the problem of Christian morality is to realize that everything we do is prophetic. All sins are adultery. Every dishonesty. Every selfishness. Every hard-heartedness. It’s all faithlessness to the Word of God. That’s why we can call adultery the paradigmatic sin, because all sin amounts to that kind of faithlessness, that’s why it’s such an important biblical image.)

And however Jesus overturned this ancient curse that Genesis talks about, forcing the woman to look to her husband as master because the world is a fallen place and Jesus overturned that by sacrificing himself for his wife the Church, for his Bride, the church. And however we in modern culture might then struggle in our relationships to find balance and mutual sacrifice and mutual submission, the fact is that prophetically speaking, the image of our covenant with God remains that Old Testament image. The Word of God is the Bridegroom and we, the Church, are meant to be completely under its authority. And that is how a gospel like today’s is meant to reinforce both our consecrated-ness to the Word of God to remind us that our experience of the Gospel is an intimacy – consecrated and closed-off within our hearts. And yet, from that intimacy comes the knowledge that that Word of God in which we seek covenant is poured out on everyone. So our real danger as modern Orthodox Christians is not so much in becoming narrow-minded fanatics – it happens – but it’s much more that we lose that sense of intimacy, of consecrated-ness, of necessarily affirming and rejoicing in every yearning - every thirst - for the Word of God that we see wherever we see it. Not with condescension but with humility – because where we see thirst it always judges us for not thirsting enough. It’s not that you condescend to those ”heretics” or whatever. You see them and you are humbled and crushed and brokenhearted because thirst is thirst – and if you see someone thirsting for the Word of God, whatever the setting is [it judges] you for your lack of thirst. That is how we relate to other Christians if we are relating Biblically and in an Orthodox way. That is how we relate of course to one another in the church because we are all struggling in the church. In this sense, this Gospel is so profound.

In closing, bear in mind this scripture and what is behind Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman. She is being called, as our Kontakion says, to embrace the Word of God in a consecrated way. Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, and he’s having this discussion with this woman, not just reforming her physical life, but reforming the whole spiritual mystery – and, by the way – saying that he will pour his spirit everywhere that people will worship. Not just in Jerusalem, but anywhere in spirit and in truth. So Jesus proclaims that the nature of what he’s preaching is going to be poured out on everybody.

It goes back to a very difficult text in the book of Numbers. There are so many things in those early ancient books which were already a scandal to the prophets, never mind to the Christians, but it had to do with what you do with an adulterous woman. It’s in Numbers 5 and it’s a ritual that is prescribed. And when Jesus is having this conversation with this adulterous woman about drinking the water that gives eternal life, you have to have this ancient narrative from the book of Numbers in mind to feel the power – and we need to feel the power because on the feast of Pentecost we will be told that the word of God flows out of our bellies like living water. Where does that image come from? It comes from the book of Numbers. Its says that if a man in a jealous rage that his wife has been unfaithful to him brings her to the temple for judgment this is what you do (it reminds me most of all of the Salem witch trials where you have this thing in which you know in reality the ritual couldn’t prove anything – and maybe it’s why it’s never referred to as having been enacted – but as a spiritual symbol). Listen to this rule [from Numbers]: The husband has to bring an offering of grain and the grain is put into the hands of the woman who is accused. And then the priest brings a bowl of what is called “bitter water.” The woman is given this kind of sermon that she has to bear witness to her guilt or her innocence of the accusation of adultery. And then prayers are said and the grain is mixed into this water and the woman is given this water to drink. “The priest shall charge the woman with an oath, and shall say to her, ‘the Lord make thee a curse and an oath among thy people and make thy thigh to rot and thy belly to swell.” (This is euphemism for her whole reproductive system ) If she has committed adultery, her whole reproductive system will swell and rot – I mean, it’s a ghastly image but it’s this ancient reattribute of act – so different from the account of the woman taken into adultery in the Gospel of John – and yet this is the root of the prophecy of the sign that Jesus does. Water – holy water – that has been made bitter is given to the woman to drink and if she has broken her oath it comes with this curse that all of her life-giving ability will be corrupted. And of course if she’s innocent, then they won’t. Well, when Jesus comes to the Samaritan woman who is an adulteress and says to her, “drink of this water and you will have eternal life,” he’s reenacting the scene of the woman taken into adultery where he forbade the people to stone her. He’s saying that the mercy of God drunk in this way will bring you not just condemnation, but forgiveness of sins – will bring eternal fertility.

And this is what's been told to the Church. The Church, this adulterous community embracing politics and national culture and power and money, and everything else that Christians do and members of our Church do as Church – so faithless, so broken. We stand accused as this woman stands accused in the book of Numbers and we are given water to drink. But it’s not the water of judgment. In Christ it becomes water yes, of judgment, but also of forgiveness.


Emily H. said...

Wow, thanks.
I didn't think that you would have to type all that by yourself - but it does explain why I couldn't find a link to it from your church's website. That was really nice of you to go through all that work!

I learned a couple things though. I hadn't heard of the water of wisdom before and I also liked the connection made with the OT.

-C said...

Well, I had actually gone through the work a few days ago, when I wanted to lift a few bits for this blog. But to be sure that I quoted correctly (and maybe just to have it to re-read at a later time), I typed it I had it at home on my computer anyway.

Those OT connections are so important, I think, and our priest makes these often. Helps keep things in context for me ...

Thanks for dropping by Emily.

Mimi said...