Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent (Year A)- March 15, 2020
Exodus 17:1-7; Ps 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42
For those of you who were here last week, this Sunday’s Gospel must sound distressingly familiar. Once again we find ourselves confronted with one of those passages from John’s gospel in which th meaning is not immediately evident. Last week’s Gospel was from the previous chapter in John and tells of a similar sort of conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, a “ruler of the Jews.”
Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night and acknowledges Jesus’ authority as “a teacher come from God.” But according to the Gospel, that’s not enough because Jesus goes on to challenge him: Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from about.” How we should acknowledge that John is telling his story to the Church, and he assumes that all of us as members of the Church will understand its symbolic meaning as a reference to Christian Baptism.
This interchange between Jesus and Nicodemus is very much intended for the late first century when the early Christians were still struggling to establish their identity as the new Israel. Thus it was not enough for Nicodemus simply to acknowledge the authority of Jesus as a Jewish teacher. Rather, he must choose to follow Jesus, to become a Christian. As a symbol for all who are seeking God, Nicodemus must be born anew by water and the spirit, be baptized and become a part of the community of faith, the Church.
Jesus uses the image of being born anew to make a spiritual point. But it is a point lost on Nicodemus who insists upon taking the image literally: “How can anyone be born after having grow old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” And so, Jesus tries again: Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” And again, the meaning for the Christian is perfectly clear. This is what John intends the church to hear: “You have to be baptized.”
And so on this Sunday, we have an account of another conversation in which John is obviously trying to make the same point. This time, however, it is not a Jew who is told he needs to be baptized, but a Samaritan woman who is told she needs to be baptized. With this passage, John extends the Church’s net: all of humanity needs to be baptized; all must follow the way of Christ; all must be brought into the community of faith, the Church-Jew and Gentile, man and woman-all of us.
Once again, John portrays Jesus as making a spiritual point by using a term symbolically, while his hearer appears only to understand it literally. This time Jesus refers to water as “living water,” the water of life, the water of baptism, the symbol of spiritual renewal in our relationship with God. The woman, on the other hand, can only conceive of water in the literal sense: water that we drink, water which we draw from a well. And so, for the Christian who has grown up with this symbolic use of water in the Church’s life and teaching, the woman is distressingly dense, just as Nicodemus was distressingly dense about being born again.
This is the narrative tension which John seeks to create in this Gospel passage. All of us, as Christians are meant to be terribly frustrated by this exchange. Even at the end, the woman still does not get it. Like Nicodemus, she will go on to acknowledge the authority of Jesus and run to tell her village that he is a great prophet. But she will never quite get it; she will never quite understand the spiritual meaning of his teaching.
But we get it! And that in the end, is the gospel writer’s point. By both these accounts, John reminds us that the Way of Life began for each of us with our Baptism and that our own essential journey to follow in the Way of Christ began with that great sacrament. For, as John would teach us, it is the sacrament of Baptism that each of us as Christians was symbolically born a new in the Spirit, symbolically refreshed forever from the spiritual well of life.
But what sort of a point is this, you ask. For certainly John is not just telling is here in his Gospel that we need to be baptized. Rather, he is urging us to know what our baptism means. He is calling us to live out our baptism in our daily lives. He is reminding us not just that we have been baptized, but that we have been baptized for a purpose: baptized to be born anew! We are called to remember that we have been baptized into a new way of living: the way of Christ, the way of humility, the way of the Cross, the way of Christ’s reconciling death and resurrection.
That, of course, is why we have these two passages, one after the other, on these two Sundays. For it is especially appropriate in Lent for Christians to remember their own baptism as we prepare to celebrate Holy Week and Easter, the time when once again we enter into the Paschal mystery of Christ’s dying and rising. In our baptism we are marked not just as someone who listens to Jesus, but as someone who follows Jesus. In our baptism we are marked not just as someone who acknowledges Jesus’ authority as a great teacher or prophet, but as someone who sees in Jesus “The Way of Life.”
In our Gospel for today Jesus says that God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” This is the Spirit which Jesus has revealed to us; the Spirit which dwells in our hearts as we follow “The Way of Life.” This is the Spirit which Jesus described to Nicodemus as “a wind that blows where it chooses; you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” This is the Spirit which Jesus describes to the Samaritan woman as water which he will give us “so that we will never be thirsty.” This is the Spirit which Jesus promises we can experience within ourselves as “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
And so, during this Lent let us remember our baptism as we look to the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection into which each of us was baptized. During this Lent let us five ourselves for fully to the Spirit, living more fully into the purpose which God has revealed to us in his Son, Jesus. During this Lent let each of us take the request of the Samaritan woman, which she meant literally and render it as a prayer from our hearts: “Sir, give me this living water, so that I may never be thirsty.”