Thursday, February 28, 2013

Third Sunday of Lent: Sacred Geography Part III (Outside the City)

Continuing our journey through the "sacred geography" of Lent, this Sunday we come to the story of the Woman at the Well. The next three Sundays of Lent are from Gospel stories used to teach about Baptism, because Lent is preparing us to celebrate Baptism at Easter (we baptize adults and youth and we renew our own Baptism promises at Easter).
So the story of the Samaritan Woman and her encounter with Jesus takes place at a well. It is Jacob’s Well outside the town of Sychar, in ancient Samaria. The first thing we may note in this Sunday’s sacred geography is that this Well is outside the city. In other words, it is not inside the city walls but one had to go out of the city to get to this well. We know the well was outside the city because John notes that when Jesus stopped to rest at the place, "A woman of Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink.’ His disciples had gone into town to buy food." (4:7-8)
A photo from 1914 shows this "out-of town" location, and the ruins left of an ancient church that had been built by Emperor Constantine’s mother, St. Helena:
Jacob's Well circa 1914 (Note the Woman with a Water Jar)
Now there is an Orthodox Chapel built over the place, begun in 1960.
What is the significance of this encounter with the Samaritan Woman outside the city? There are several connections with Lent and Baptism. Recall ancient Christians went into the desert to get away from the distractions and temptations of the city. We still do this in the Season of Lent when we go into the desert in a spiritual sense. It is good for us to fast from our distractions during Lent so as to better hear God and meditate on what is truly life-giving.
Second, symbolically, being outside of the city was to enter the margins of society: outcasts, lepers, the homeless, the exiles, the unclean, lived there. There is a very significant Bible passage that connects Jesus with these marginal and least ones: "Therefore, Jesus also suffered outside the city gate, to consecrate the people by his own blood. Let us then go to him outside the camp, bearing the reproach that he bore." (Hebrews 13:12-13)
In other words, Jesus was crucified outside the city of Jerusalem, on Golgotha, where criminals were put to death. He identifies himself with all others who are rejected and cast out of society. And we are to go to him and also identify with the lowly. We are to see him in the least of his brothers and sisters: the poor, the hungry, the naked, the sick, the prisoner. (See Matthew 25)
Crucifixion by Balogh Balage (2005)
A Methodist minister, Jill Sander-Chali, notes:
"But, the location of this sacrifice beyond the gates of the city matters... It implies that the place outside the city is also redeemed; that the people outside the city are also redeemed; that those once considered unclean are no longer to be treated as outcast, but rather are to be brought into the community of the blessed and sanctified.
"Throughout his whole life and ministry, Jesus danced in and out of the gates of the city. He certainly loved the rich and powerful and he taught them about giving up wealth and material gain in order to truly be his disciples. But he also loved the poor and the outcast.
"Much of his ministry took place beyond the gates of the city, at the margins of society. He healed people and taught his disciples on the roads while they traveled between cities. He ate with tax collectors and prostitutes and he touched lepers to make them clean. The group of people he called to be his 12 primary disciples were mostly fisherman, who were living and working outside the gates of the city. One of his favorite images for God was that God was like a shepherd taking care of and protecting the flock, beyond the gates of the city.
Now we can see the significance that  Jesus met this Woman of Samaria  outside the city because we learn that she is on the margins of her society and a second class citizen in the eyes of Jews for being both a woman and a Samaritan ("For Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans." John 4:9) She came to the Well at Noon, alone, the hottest part of the day and a time not normal for drawing water, usually a communal activity of the women. She had been rejected by five different husbands and was finally living outside of marriage. But Jesus is going to speak to her, confer upon her forgiveness and dignity, and restore her to the community, by offering her living water. He does this for us also, in Baptism:
"For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:27-28)
"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new." (2 Corinthians 5:17)
"But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light." (1 Peter 2:9)
"For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body [i.e., his Church]–whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free–and we were all given the one Spirit to drink." (1 Corinthians 12:13)
I found a very interesting icon of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman where the Well is in the shape of the Cross. Our Baptism Font at Holy Faith is in the shape of a Cross, deliberately designed so.
In Baptism we are marked with the Sign of the Cross and die and rise with Christ in the Spirit in the waters of Baptism.
 There is another detail about the story where the woman lays down her heavy burden, her water jar, and leaves it behind to go to town and tell about her liberation in meeting this Messiah. I write about that in more  detail in this Sunday's bulletin.
I think about the times when, like the Samaritan Woman, I have known rejection and shame. My relationship with my father when I was a child and a teen was not a good one. My father was abusing alcohol during that time and when he did so was abusive verbally. I am very blessed that he stopped drinking when I was 18 and we had over 30 years to have a new and loving relationship till he died at 69.
At 14 years old, I was blessed to be introduced to Jesus and his love. I was baptized then. It was also the time I experienced being a member of a church and especially a community of other youth following Jesus. I don’t know what kinds of trouble I was literally saved from by having my rejection and shame start to be healed by Jesus (though the healing took a very long time and I would experience various troubles along the way, but always Jesus and his Church were there, the Bedrock of my life). I know what it is to be weighed down and I know what it is to be set free by the Messiah outside the city gate.
I didn’t expect that day to find him there,
His tired legs stretched out along the ground—
For I’d come late, just to avoid the stares,
The winks, the giggled whispers, and the frowns
Of all the other women of the town.
I didn’t expect t find him there that day,
His weary back propped up against the well
(For the burdens of the whole world seemed to weigh
Upon his mighty shoulders), but we fell
To talking. Who he was, I could not tell.
But he could tell me everything that I
Had ever done. His words into the core
Of my soul struck, and burned, and made me cry.
And I, who’d known so many men before—
Could I dare think that he was something more?
A prophet, surely—you could see he knew
Things that no ordinary man could know.
And when he spoke of God, his words rang true,
As if he knew firsthand that they were so.
"I know Messiah’s coming, and He will show
Us all things when He comes," I said, and he
Gave me a look that made my heart stand still
In wonder, fear, and awed expectancy
To hear what he would say. His words were chill,
Like a drink from the mountain-high spring that refreshes and fills!
And all that he has said was "I am He."
I ran back to the town to tell the rest,
"Messiah is at the well! Oh, come and see!"
Some stared at me as if I was possessed
Or the maker (or brunt, perhaps) of some bad jest,
But some there were who did come back with me
To my new master, Jesus, there to be
From all their load of sin and self set free.
–Donald T. Williams