A sermon by Ephraim Radner, St. Matthew’s Anglican Church, Riverdale, Toronto
Gospel reading for Sunday, March 15, 2020: John 4:5-42
So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him. Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”
I am “delivering” this sermon electronically. For many of us, the situation we are in seems unprecedented: conferences postponed; sports and music events cancelled; borders shut; schools closed. And now, our churches emptied and our services gone silent. It is frustrating, to say the least. While most of us will, God willing, remain well, some of us our rightly anxious about our own health and that of others. Now we are thrust back on our own prayers, said with one or two others, or perhaps mostly alone.
Praying together, being carried by the prayers of others, even having others pray as we are unable, is a great gift from God, and makes common worship an act of grace.
But perhaps this unprecedented Time of the Virus can also be a gift as well, at least in respect to driving us away from taking refuge from our own selves in the anonymity of other people’s prayers. Maybe in this time we can face our own inner selves more honestly: see what we run from, or what we are unable to unravel ourselves, and in so doing discover the God who gives Himself most fully so that we might in this discover the truth of who we are within His light, and not only within the shadows of our ill-articulated fears. That, at least, is what I hope can happen for me.
I am not someone who has ever been good at sharing his feelings. I don’t mean in a blunt way: am I happy or sad, do I feel angry at someone or am I able to say I love them. I can do that; and in any case, it’s mostly obvious. But it’s the other stuff, deeper, more knotted, mostly in many ways unknown to myself. There are things that, only reaching 60 years of age, I’m even willing now for the first time to engage consciously – things of long ago, things long stored up. Does it matter? I think it does.
For what shall we say about the woman at the well? In fact, we know little about her, when all is said and done – despite great efforts by scholars to get at the customs of Samaritans and Jews, women and men, widows and wives at the time of Jesus. We don’t know if she was happy or unhappy; frightened or confident; presumably not rich, but not necessarily poor either. We don’t know if she prayed much or little, loved her children (or had any at all), enjoyed life or despaired it. What we know are two things only: first, whatever she felt about her life, it was obviously a messed up life, complicated, out of control – a long line of husbands and lovers, and all the confusions that brings to everyone around. The second thing we know is that, in the face of this, one thing about Jesus struck her more than anything, struck to such a degree that her very heart and spirit were taken aback, were turned to a new focus, and she ran back to town and could not contain herself in telling everyone – whether they liked her or not, respected her or not,cared at all – she excitedly proclaimed to them all, “Come see a man who told me everything I have ever done!”.
What a strange way to experience a religious conversion, don’t you think? “He told me everything I’ve ever done! Can this be the Christ?”. The One we have all hoped to find? But maybe not so strange: “He knows who I am!”. To realize this, is, for many, to be changed. I am beginning to think so for myself.
But why is that? Don’t we assume God knows it all already? Yet, the fact is that most of us act as if God doesn’t; most of us both assume that God cannot, and yearn that He might. Most of us approach God as persons who are convinced that our lives are either irrelevant to or unworthy of our Maker. I remember a young man I met in a county jail I visited years ago in Colorado. He had been struggling for years with addictions and whatever other feelings of worthlessness. He said to me, “I believed in God all that time, but I couldn’t open myself to Him, because of all the awful things I’d done and who I was. I believed in God, but I was on my own.” Whether God was with him or not, he himself assumed he was alone. Most of us assume this, most of the time, because most of what we carry within us is hid away from everyone but our own wearied, reluctant, and finally rejected remembering.
Yet, the woman at the well cries out, and the young men in jails, and many others too – they join with her in a moment of recognition: “He knows who I am!”. And once realized, the full power and force of God comes rushing in… with “living water”, as Jesus says. He knows who I am! Now, drink! Everyone who can say and see this – He knows who I am! — they will tell you: He is gracious, He is grace itself! For laying their secret self out in the light, there is light that can now touch was for so long held in the dank shadows.
How messed up do we need to be to run from this truth and possibility? Happy or sad, like the woman at the well, it really doesn’t matter: the confusions and complications of our hearts are so great, and so universal, that each of us has spent a lifetime hiding them from ourselves and from God as a result. What are you hiding, close to yourself? If the person next to you only knew!, you think with shame and fear. And what of God?
But how can God heal what we will not offer Him? I remember once learning, from a mutual acquaintance, how a friend had, three months earlier, gone through some very tough things in her life, things that can only be described as heart-rending and sorrowful. So, I called her up, I told her I had heard about her problems, asked her how she was and so on. And at one point, I said, “why didn’t you let me know what was going on?” “Why would I?”, she said. “But aren’t we friends?”, I asked her. She said to me, “I guess; but you’re not exactly a person who shows much of your own self to anyone”.
As if that explained her silence perfectly. Perhaps it did.
To say, “He knows who I am”, is to say something about a deep place, where freedom and love intertwine.
But where, if we do not go, we live in hiding. And the world hides back. Where, indeed, most of us dwell. If I will not show myself, we have no common space in which to be seen.
I have always remembered that, a rebuke to me, but also a kind of challenge to some truth about the world, even about God. For has not God shown himself to us? Has he not already marked out that space for us to enter? “He came to his own people”, John tells us at the beginning of the Gospel. He took flesh and pitched his tent among us, dwelling where we thought God would never come. He was tempted in every way like us (Heb. 4:15); and we watched and listened as he “offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears” (Heb. 5:7), bearing his heart, as we know, to the point of wretchedness, exposed in the most fragile nakedness before the crowds. “In time past, God spoke to our ancestors by the prophets; but now, in these recent times, God has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb. 1:1-2), by his own self, the Word now flesh, the divine heart laid bare. He has spoken to us about himself! We know – now, we know! – “everything that he has done!”.
Such is the path of grace. For just because of this opening of his very Spirit to us, we can now say, “he knows who I am!”, and in so saying, finally receive what God has always offered, that is, himself. The Scripture says that this is the source of our own openness to God, our own responsiveness to God’s love, our own ability to receive grace. “He told me everything that I had ever done; can this be the Christ?”. And if you stop and reflect, you will answer, won’t you, “Oh yes, it must be, it must be”.
“Lord, you have searched me out and known me”, writes David in his psalm; “you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar; you trace my journeys and my resting places and are acquainted with all my ways” (Ps. 139:1ff). Is this a realization of horror? Only if we believe that God has long ago left us. But, if God still stands before us, knowing this, knowing “my inmost thoughts”, my every hope and yearning, my every stumbling and anger; my every tenderness and loss, my every fear, confusion and my every faith – if God, knowing me, as I really am, still is my God, then I am His, all of me, the whole of me, the truth of me, is not foreign to Him, and to His power of making His purpose real for me. “He presses before and behind”; thus, “How great is thy love” (Psalm. 36:7). Then I shall understand, even as I am understood (1 Cor. 13:12), Paul writes; then I shall know, even as I am known (Gal. 4:9)! Then, now, the light of grace shed upon the present: God’s love is, in the first place, for who we are; only then shall we become who we are meant to be.
And this is why we pray, my friends. How many people I have heard say that they will not pray for themselves! Or even pray for anything in particular! “Doesn’t God know it all already?”. Oh, yes! Of course He does! Yet do you really believe in this? No, stay a while, each day, and tell Him all, tell Him at the least to convince yourself that He knows who you are, and that you, you, are willing to be known, and thus to be grasped by His mercy, by the one who has bared all of Himself for you, and be made His for His desires.
To whom, after all, did I speak, as a young man, a teenager? For a long time, to no one. All my friends were, as I was to them, distant reflections of our own mutual caution and self-protection. We learn early to show as little of ourselves as possible to others: the confusions of growing up, our perplexities at hypocrisy, our naïve idealism and hopes, our wounds, often deep but so hard to explain, the glows of pleasure and delight that others, we know, would mock if we were truthful… so we learn to live our lives, and all their messes and all their complications, as if it were an anonymous sentence that we bear, whose details lie filed in the darkest cabinet of our soul. And while our fellow-prisoners ask us, “What have you done? Why are you here?”, we carry on in silence and in suffering mystery. Even to ourselves. Does anyone really know me? Who truly knows you, and all the parts of you that are waiting for their embrace and restoration?
Yet I learned to speak to God; somewhere in the years after 14, I learned to pray, even about myself; even about myself and the others whom I loved and feared for. Is there any greater gift to be given, any greater skill to hone? So that somewhere, somewhere that is more than anywhere, somewhere that is where I and you are meant to turn and tend, somewhere at last “He knows who I am”. But how long it has taken from age 14 for me to say this clearly! My friend’s rebuke of long ago has begun, perhaps, to bear its fruit for me, now as I am older; now as longer years of keeping deeply to myself have been worn down by the inescapable reality – brought on by disappointments and losses — that I too am riddled with holes of need, wrapped up by cords of fear, that I too have kept silent about the worst and even the unappreciated best, the most real and most weakened of my meager inner resources, and that only now, now at last I stand not just ready but deeply desirous to receive finally what God is offering me of his own being. You know who I am! “Whom have I in heaven [but thee]? and [there is] none upon earth [that] I desire beside thee. My flesh and my heart faileth: [but] God [is] the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever (Ps. 73:25-26).
Prayer is a kind of dialectic between my own reluctant embattled and even resisted honesty and God’s complete and perfect honesty.
The last finally draws out the first, so that the beauty, surety, and glory of the last can at last transfigure the first, God “transforming us from glory into glory” (2 Cor. 3:18). In this precedented time, let us hope that we too can be met – distracted, uneasy, long caught up in other things – beside a well from which God’s grace can flow.
He told me everything I had ever done; can this be the Christ? Yes, it must be; the “knowledge he reveals is His power take what is his above me, and to enter into my most secret being” (F. Mauriac). As he knows me, I shall know Him and rejoice in Him. And if God knows me as I am, it is because His loves begins just here, just now.