A few weeks ago, I was invited by Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley to preach at this year’s Luther Lecture on March 8th. Let me tell you, I was quite surprised and honored to be asked. But then also quite nervous. Preaching before professors and the bishop and colleagues honored guests who mainly come to see a fantastic keynote speaker is quite intimidating.
Now March 8th was the International Day of Women; quite fittingly, the keynote of the day was titled ‘Martin Luther and Women’ and was given by a renowned Danish Luther scholar, Else Marie Wiberg Pedersen – and, by the way, it was a great lecture; Luther in many regards was ahead of his time in regards to women and equality between the genders. He held his wife, Katherine, in high esteem and even determined that she should be his heir after his passing – but the laws of the day, which prohibited a woman from inheriting an estate, were against Katherine. Martin Luther also advocated for a public education of boys and girls of all classes. These are just a couple of examples for Luther’s women-friendly stance.
And so I decided to preach about those hidden and often overlooked figures in the Holy Scriptures and church history, and our world today, those children of God who are still dealing with oppression and harassment all over the world, and, in our environment, are still struggling with glass ceilings in many professions: women. By the way, I chose today’s gospel lesson as the sermon text that day. And since we are still observing Women’s History Month, and since the gospel today is about the Samaritan woman at the well, I thought I might just share with you what I shared during the Luther Lecture.
Women.We encounter them everywhere, more often than not in the background. They hustle and nurture and feed and teach and fetch water and run entire households and estates and sometimes even states, besides many other things. If you have ever been to Wittenberg or have seen images of the Black Cloister, where the Luthers lived, you probably know that there is a statue of Katherine Luther, aka Katharina von Bora, in the courtyard. And there she is, striding with purpose through a doorway, she is charging, a woman who takes charge, a woman who is in charge. What a contrast to all the statues of Martin Luther I know. ‘Here I stand’, with defiance and usually the Bible in his hand. There he stands. Still. And I leave it up to you to think about the implications of those images.
Imagine a ‘Day without a Woman’. Imagine a history without a woman. There wouldn’t be history if there were no women, somebody’s got to add the all-important egg and its genetic information to the new human being that’s being formed in secret, somebody’s gotta give birth even to all those important men in history. Jesus Christ was fully human and couldn’t get around being born by a woman: Mary, a ‘natural woman’, as Luther called her.
Imagine Holy Scriptures and our holy ancestry without women. Admittedly, most stories of our Holy Scriptures talk about the great deeds – and the great failings – of men, but there they are, everywhere, women, an integral part of the story of God and humanity. Christ talks with women, he talks about women and holds them up as examples, and Christ definitely has a soft spot for the passionate and faithful actions of the women around him. ‘Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’ Without Mary Magdalene, Salome, and the other Mary, the life-giving and life-changing story of Easter probably never would have spread.
And today we heard this fascinating story of the anonymous Samaritan woman at the well. And not just any well, but Jacob’s well, a place with history, a place of ancestry, a place of deep symbolical meaning. This well was situated on the very first plot of land Jacob bought and owned in Canaan after he returned from his long exile in the East, in Haran. He staked his claim in foreign territory upon his return, and not only that, he paid attention to the fact that there was a well, a source of water, precious water gushing from the earth, water that stills the thirst of plant, beast and human being, water that gives and fosters life.
It is a well that is deep, a well that has quenched the thirst of countless generations. But someone has to fetch the water, each day anew; someone has to draw the precious resource, someone has to draw this source of life from the deep. And who would be better for that task than women? And so they come out, at dawn and at dusk, chatting, laughing, complaining, a sisterhood with a common purpose, a sacred community, helping each other with the chore of hauling up the water, the well truly comes alive, before they make their way back to the town, back to their families and to the chores of the day. And in many places of this world, where water has to be hauled from the well, we still have them, those sisterhoods and sacred times.
It is quiet in the heat and merciless glare of the midday sun. Jesus rests at the well. A woman approaches, and empty vessel in hand. We don’t know for sure why she is coming out in the middle of the day to draw her water, but there is a good chance that she is excluded from the sisterhood of the other women, maybe because she has no husband, maybe because she is a woman of questionable reputation. She is an outsider. However, she draws the same life-giving water from the well.
She is exposed in the glare of the midday sun. And, just as an aside, what a contrast to the story of Nicodemus, approaching Jesus under the cover of darkness, which we heard just last Sunday. This woman has nowhere to hide, she is vulnerable, yet she seems unafraid of the stranger sitting at the well. There are certain safety features in place: no reputable man would speak to a woman in public, for starters. Then this man sitting at the well obviously is a stranger, a Jew, one of the others. Because of the contentious history between Jews and Samaritans these two peoples merely tolerated each other and would avoid contact whenever possible. And: this man at the well is on foreign territory. The woman has the home advantage. There is nothing to fear.
But then the unimaginable happens. Jesus talks to the woman. Scandalous! The opening request seems innocent enough: Give me drink of water! To which the woman – surprised? With indignity? Alarmed? – replies: how come you are talking to me? You ought to know this is against all the rules. But, interestingly enough, Jesus doesn’t answer her question, but involves her in a lively theological conversation. And it becomes clear: this woman has thought about many things. It’s all out there, in the glaring light. This woman has her questions to ask this stranger at the well. She is holding her own. Instead of drawing water, she is drawing answers out of Jesus, answers that quench her thirst for more than just water. Her thirst for acceptance, her thirst for understanding, her thirst for love.
And, take notice: this is the first time the word ‘Messiah’ falls in the gospel according to John, apart from chapter 1, where John the Baptist declares that he is NOT the Messiah. The woman has hopes and expectations for this Messiah to come, and she probes, subtly: maybe you are the one? And Jesus confirms it, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’ This is amazing, this is huge!
And just like the women at the empty tomb can’t keep themselves from sharing the good news of the resurrection, this woman has to share the good news she just experienced. She runs into town, she has nothing to lose, she doesn’t care about what others might think of her, but invites others to check it out themselves: Come a and see, there is a stranger at the well who told me all about my life, who saw me, who got me. He can’t be the Messiah, can he?
This woman leads others to the wellspring of life, she draws the water for them that gushes to eternal life. She is the first apostle to the people outside of Galilee and Judea, an unlikely candidate, yet, there she stands and proclaims the good news. And people listen, maybe because it is so scandalous, maybe because they hope for some entertainment, some spectacle, maybe because they think this woman has gone completely nuts. But they see and experience for themselves, they invite Jesus to stay with them for two days and at the end can say, ‘We truly believe that he is the Savior.’ The strangers, the others, the despised, are the first ones to accept Jesus as their Messiah and Savior. Think about that!
Christ stakes his claim right there and right then in foreign territory. He shares the water that quenches the universal thirst for justice, reconciliation, peace, and life, and by doing so, he heals, he overcomes and transcends the divisions between people, the other-ness, and calls all into the one community of God, the realm of heaven. And what a timely message this is in a world and in a country where leaders shamelessly use rhetoric of fear of the stranger and the other in order to divide and push their own mysterious and, as I suspect, sinister agendas. What a timely message this is in a world where so many readily buy into the fear and want to build walls and buy more guns to protect themselves from those whom they perceive as bad guys, those who distance themselves from others, from brothers and sisters beautifully and wonderfully created and knit together in secret in the womb in the image of God.
We don’t know what happens to that anonymous woman after Jesus leaves, but there is a good chance that she regained her place in her community and maybe even was given special honor – after all, this story was shared, the evangelist we identify as John deemed this story worthy to be written down and told, and told it still is, ‘for what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’
And today, we remember. And now I am stealing from a great sermon our sister and recently retired bishop associate of the Sierra Pacific Synod, Nancy Feniuk Nelson delivered some years ago, what else is remembering – re-membering – but to put all the pieces back together that once were dis-membered? As Christ brought healing and bridged the chasms between people and people and people and God, whenever we re-member, we become part of the important work of reconciliation. By remembering the woman at the well, we restore her to the community of all the saints.
By remembering all the faithful women in history and in our world today, we don’t simply single out one particular group of human beings, no, we re-member and restore the entire body of Christ in all its diversity and all its beauty and with all its different parts and gifts and functions. Without women, this body is just not complete and fully able to be God’s loving, forgiving and healing presence in this world. For that matter, without any children of God, this body is just not complete.
As we remember those who tend to be forgotten, we live fully into the promise of the realm of heaven.
And so here we are, together, men and women, children of God, the body of Christ, and we pray and sing and love and forgive and reconcile, here we proclaim the good news of God’s promise of life for all of creation through word and sacrament and deeds of all kinds, and from here, I hope we will stride purposely out of those doors, charging into the world, and, individually and together, be the ones to share the gushing waters that lead to eternal life in all the wildernesses we encounter – and, as we all know, there are many of those. All of us. It is our gift. It is out call. So help us God. Amen
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