The day after Christmas in 2004 we hopped in the car from Carrie’s Nana’s home in northern Virginia, slid onto route 15 headed north. We cut around Fredrick, Maryland, up into southern Pennsylvania, headed to the battlefield. One of my wife’s cousins had a relative that was recently retired from the park service. So for Christmas that year she arranged for Uncle Jerry to spend the day with us at Gettysburg. We spent about 5 hours, hopping in and out of cars, cellphones on speaker phone when we were moving, with Uncle Jerry telling stories. Of General Lee’s second attempt at invading the north on those fateful days on July 1,2, and 3 in 1863. Of the confederates driving Union forces back into the town on the first day. Of the lines shifting, moving back into the woods on places like Little Round Top and Culp’s Hill. On that hot third day, and Lee’s final decision, coming straight up Cemetery Ridge, Pickett’s charge.1 We stood there, on a fenceline where the union forces held their ground, as he described the scene, as hundreds of troops – including a couple of brigades from North Carolina – tried desperately to break the line. You could feel it in the air, like you can in so many places filled with history, from Fredericksburg to Antietam, Waterloo to Normandy. The sacrifice and strife, the blood and the tears.
This well was contested territory. To get from Jerusalem in the south to Galilee up north, you had to go through Samaria. And here in Sychar, probably a little village once called Shechem, was a well, Jacob’s well – Jacob whom both the Samaritans and the Jews claimed as a patriarch. But in the centuries since Jacob had met Rebecca there, the people of the region – Judeans, Israelites, Samaritans – argued over where the right and true place to worship was. Those in the south claimed it was Jerusalem, that God lived in Jerusalem, while those in north claimed it was Mount Gerizim, that it must be Mount Gerizim. And, to make it worse, the Samaritans knew that the leaders of the Jews had edited the Torah, cutting back references to Gerizim, always pointing to Jerusalem. The Samaritans felt dismissed.
Then came the Babylonian invasion which resulted in the fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, and the deportation of the most powerful and important Jews while left behind were those deemed of little value, the Samaritans. By historical irony, this treasured well was now all theirs…until after the fall of Babylon, when many of those departed returned to their homeland, returned to their higher status, and so cast low once again those who’d been there all along, namely the Samaritans. But this the Samaritans still had, secure within their territory; the well, this well.2
Jesus arrived there, John said, tired out already by the heat of the day. As he sat, a person who was both a Samaritan and a woman showed up to draw water. Jesus asks her for a drink. This person who is both a Samaritan and a woman is fully aware that this is something that he shouldn’t do, and seems confused he doesn’t know that. Jesus seems unconcerned: "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." Jesus in John’s gospel is so bold, claims his identity much more fully than in Matthew or Mark or Luke. We, the reader, have some sense where he is headed, but the woman does not. In the previous chapter – that we spent time with last week, Nicodemus, a learned teacher, an insider, a Jew, comes to Jesus in the dark of night. Here we have the foil, a woman of no particular standing, an outsider who doesn’t even merit a name, meets Jesus in broad daylight. But like Nicodemus, the woman is confused. Nicodemus thinks that when Jesus says ‘be born again’ he means entering the womb and being birthed a second time. The woman doesn’t understand how Jesus is going to get all that living water without a bucket.
Then she turns and speaks to their differences. Are YOU greater than Jacob, OUR ancestor, who gave us this well, who drank from this well? "Who do you think you are?" she says.3 He then draws a distinction that begins to make sense. Drink even the best water from this well, and you’ll be thirsty again. But what I have will quench a much deeper thirst. The water I give will – and I love this language – will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. Not too different from what we will say when I baptize Joceline and Leo at 11am – child of the covenant, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism – with this living water – marked as Christ’s own forever.
Then, after a brief interchange in which Jesus proves something of his power by knowing a lot about her apparently difficult life, the woman pushes back again. OUR ancestors worshipped on THIS mountain, meaning Mount Gerizim, referencing all those centuries of conflict, when we stayed when you all left. This sounds to me like when there is a conflict in a church and people leave and then, eventually, things get better and some of the members come back. And the ones who stayed have to decide how much welcome they will offer to those who left when things got tough. We stayed here, she says, but YOUR PEOPLE say that the only place God can be worshipped is Jerusalem. And Jesus says, the day is surely coming when you will understand that God is so much bigger than my mountain or your mountain or any mountain. The woman says, "I know this will happen eventually," and Jesus says, "It is happening NOW."
This text has had me thinking a lot about these two mountains. The Samaritans said the only true place to worship was Mt. Gerizim, where Moses had ordered Joshua to bless the people when they first entered Canaan. With equal passion, the Jews proclaimed that the only true place to worship was the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.4 You may have your mountain, each side would claim, but MINE is the right one. MINE is where true worship happens. MINE is where God lives. Too much of our world makes decisions by picking a mountain. Certainly we all do this with differences that are religious or political or theological. One person is up on his mountain, convinced of the truth of his claims about the Heath Care Law or homosexuality and ordination, convinced about the truth of her claims about tax policy or the best ways to combat poverty or who is interpreting scripture in what they are confident is the correct way. You have your mountain, we say. You are welcome to have your mountain, while inside we know, and might even say, that their mountain is the wrong one. You go ahead and think what you need to, we say. True worship happens here.
But I think this goes much farther, and much deeper, even, than differences like that. The mountains that really cause us problems are in relationships – maybe at work, certainly in our families, with people we dearly love. Some conflict occurs – maybe a small one, maybe a large one, and we retreat to our mountains. The Samaritans and Jews had been worshipping on separate mountains for at least 700 years at this point. We get entrenched there on our own special mountains, hunkering down in our own opinions and our own self-righteousness. Your coworker who will always treat you differently from the way you want. Your mom who will never understand the pressure you think she puts on you. Your spouse that cannot understand the stress you are under, at work or with all you have to juggle or at home with the kids all day every day. We have our own narratives of the way things work there, up on our mountain. And that’s where we are going to stay.
I wonder if there is someone you are sure is wrong you need to talk with, a friend you need include again, a wound you need to figure out how to heal.
I wonder if our Thursday morning conversations can be one small place we can speak of some of our opinions grounded in scripture and faith, that the church might be a part of changing our polarized political discourse.
I wonder that we could do to better get to know our neighbors – there are many on the Hope Valley side of the church we know fairly well, but there are some across the street, up Chapel Hill Road, and down Shannon that have much to teach us.
We are all too ready to hike up, back up, really, up our mountains, our own safe places.
But, in today’s text, and throughout his ministry, Jesus comes down from the mountain to risk an encounter with someone different. Jesus met this woman scripture doesn’t even give a name in contested territory, transforming her with His love. Not so they could go worship on one mountain or the other, but so that she, and we, might understand that these mountains don’t matter as much as we think they do. That Jesus calls us to come on down from our mountains, all of us, and see what God has, so that we might ALL be changed.
All praise be to this One, Jesus the Christ, who pours out this water, this grace upon us, upon the world. Amen.
1. I filled in a bit of the history I had forgotten at here.
2. This background comes from ‘Preaching the Lenten Texts,’ by Liz Goodman, in the Journal for Preachers, Volume XXXVII, Number 2, Lent 2014, p 6.
3. Lamar Williamson, Jr., "Preaching the Gospel of John," (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004), p 49.
4. From my friend the Rev. Peter Bynum’s excellent sermon on this text entitled, "I said, ‘IF’" preached at First Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount on February 23, 2014. His sermon, and subsequent conversations at the beach the second week of March, greatly informed this sermon.