During Lent this year we have four weeks where the Gospel readings are all from John and they all focus on an encounter that one person has with Jesus; last week it was the rabbi Nicodemus, today it is the Samaritan woman, next week we’ll hear about the blind beggar and the week after that will be Jesus’ encounter with his friend Martha.
In each case the conversation begins with Jesus and the other person speaking on very different levels and perspectives from each other.
The Samaritan woman is an outcast, even in her own society; whether her previous husbands died or they divorced her, we do not know, but she was persona non grata amongst the women of the community and so did not go to the well in the morning, as all the others did.
If people don’t want you around, you learn quickly to avoid them as best you can.
So the woman comes to draw water at noon, alone, and Jesus is taking a break from his travels through Samaritan territory.
Jesus starts the conversation, by asking her to give him a drink; already he is crossing a boundary: even though Jews and Samaritans had a common ethnic and religious history going back to the days of king David, they had each developed in different directions, with different customs, places of worship, and religious practices.
Neither Jews nor Samaritans were supposed to speak to each other, and certainly faithful and observant Jewish men were not supposed to speak to women in public places.
So Jesus blows through two boundaries at once in asking the woman for water.
And their conversation takes place on two different planes – the woman speaking at first on a very practical and material level, and Jesus answering her on a spiritual and theological level.
But it soon becomes clear that Jesus has something deep and important to offer her, even more deep and life-giving than the water in Jacob’s well which went back to the earliest days of Israelite history – a place of spiritual, as well as physical, significance.
And the woman gets it – and goes off to tell the folks in town (the very ones that she was avoiding before) that she has met the Messiah and that they should come and see for themselves.
She leaves her water jar behind - a detail reminding us that she is about spiritual business, and that the living water Jesus offers her is not a bubbling spring or stream, but a life-giving relationship with God in the here-and-now.
Jesus is the water for her spiritual thirst.
Here at All Saints’ we host five meetings of the Alcoholics Anonymous program every week, as well as several AA study groups, and the preacher at our 10 am service today is a leader of one of those groups.
AA is a fellowship of people who suffer from addiction to alcohol and want to stop drinking and get sober.
But according to AA principles this can happen only if the person acknowledges that they are powerless over alcohol and surrenders to the power of God to lead them into recovery.
The first three steps of AA are:
· Step 1 - We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable
· Step 2 - Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity
· Step 3 - Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God
The other nine steps in this twelve-step program are all about cleaning house – spiritually, emotionally and relationally – making amends where necessary, being of service to others – especially to others who want to stop drinking , and continuing to have a spiritual life, not just a one-time experience.
These principles, and the Steps that developed from them, are classic Christian teaching, handed on to Bill W., one of AA’s founders, through the ministry of the Rev. Samuel Shoemaker who was rector of Calvary Church in New York City from 1925 to 1941.
AA calls itself a spiritual program, rather than a religious one, so that questions of theology and religious difference and belief don’t get in the way of a direct reliance upon a powerful relationship with God.
A person in recovery will tell you that when they were drinking they thought they were in control, that they had the power to manage alcohol, life, the world and didn’t need anyone else to tell them what to do – including (and perhaps especially) God.
AA considers alcoholism to be a disease that is physical, mental and spiritual – and the only hope is to place oneself in the care of God.
At root, the problem is a spiritual one: looking for meaning, fulfillment and joy from a source that can never give it, instead of looking to God – the Author and Sustainer of life.
Alcoholics are thirsty for life and meaning and connection, but are looking for it in the wrong places.
And they are not alone; it’s the human condition to place ourselves at the center of the universe, to think that we can arrange circumstances, other people, life so that we can have our own wants and needs satisfied, have our own way.
But when we do this, we miss out on a healthy and life-giving connection to God and to others.
When we turn in on ourselves we turn our backs on the light of God and all we can see is shadow – a shadow of our own making – and in that shadow nothing can grow and flourish, and we cannot see the Water of Life that is within our reach.
The Collect for today says: God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves; there is the first step – knowing that we are spiritually powerless and that we need God to act on our behalf.
And that is what God has done in coming into human life in the person of Jesus, in taking on the sin of the world, in overcoming the power of death on the Cross, and in rising to new life.
God has taken the initiative and if we are to drink from the true and life-giving waters and be set free, body and soul, then we need to accept our own spiritual dependence and commit ourselves to God’s power and to God’s care.
When we have done this God is faithful and walks with us every step of the way on our journey of faith and life.
And so, like the Samaritan woman meeting Jesus, like the alcoholic starting to work the Steps of AA, we can know and experience and depend upon God to always be a spring welling up to eternal life. Amen.
Victoria G. McGrath
March 27, 2011