Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on Mar. 12, 2023

Posted by on Sun, Mar 12, 2023 in Lent, Sermons

The Third Sunday in Lent

Mar. 12, 2023

Have you ever seen those crepe paper surprise balls children used to have at parties? Brightly colored strips of paper wound into a ball concealed numerous little prizes in the layers; children take turns unwinding a bit and hoping to uncover one of the tiny gifts. Excitement built watching what was found. With twenty or so little items each child was sure to end up with at least one. 

Today’s gospel is like a surprise ball, inviting us to look carefully at what is revealed. I want to start our ‘unwrapping’ using this icon of the Woman at the Well, (rarely seen as it’s in a private collection of the British Province of the Society of Jesus). It’s unusual for several reasons, the first one I noticed is that they are both are seated. All the others I’ve seen show Jesus seated and the woman standing, or both standing. How does it change our entering in if both are seated as they talk? 

With only these two present we’re drawn in as if we came upon them by happenstance. Christ wears red  as a sign of his humanity, and his mantle is blue for divinity, though too age-darkened to tell. The cross in his halo has the letters HO ON meaning “The One Who Is” which is what he will reveal to her; “I Am, the one who is speaking with you.” His hands and posture convey what we read, he’s talking with her not ‘at her’, one finger is raised as if mid sentence.

The Orthodox Church calls this woman St. Photine or St. Photini, (pho-TEEN-ee) meaning the enlightened one and regard her as one ‘equal-to-the-apostles.’ Tradition holds that the Apostles baptized her with this name, and so we will use it today. More surprises emerge as we ‘unwrap’. Her body also suggests she is active in the conversation. One hand holds her bucket, an invaluable survival tool, and the other gestures as if in question of him. “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” The icon writer shows her unveiled, her posture more proud than ashamed, a frequent and reasonable assumption about a woman who draws water alone at midday. We are only told she does so, though not why. Does she like time alone with her thoughts? Could it be she enjoys the heat of midday? (Utterly unfathomable to me—but I hear some people do.) She wears a white robe symbolizing innocence and recalling the white garments of the newly baptized. Her bright red outer garment usually signifies either humanity or resurrection.

Between them is Jacob’s well, shadowed even at noon as if to show depth. Her bucket hovering and Jesus leaning towards her brings a bit of anticipation and immediacy. The well is dominant, bringing to mind that it is a holy place; to Samaritans, Jews, Muslims, and later Christians. Perhaps for us suggestive of a baptismal font, inviting our reflection on Christ’s waiting, reaching out to us, and our responding. The scene is calm, though maybe weary and overheated is a better description, so where better to find Christ than at a cool well?! Could smell the well-water, green algae on the deeper stones, is it sweet —or sour as wells sometimes get. Here in her ordinary life Jesus asks her for a drink; he thirsts and has no bucket. 

Water is often where we feel God’s presence and invitation; be it ocean, well, lake, gurgling spring, or font. In Genesis creation begins with the Spirit hovering over the waters. This too is a creation story—for Photine and then her community. It is not unlike baptism. Where do you see yourself in her, in this scene? Meeting Jesus in the arduous water-chores? Reflecting at the water? In energetic dialogue about faith? Insert yourself here, more than a passing chance—this is the longest conversation Jesus has in all of the gospels. Not preaching or teaching the multitudes, it’s personal, it’s theological. It arises from the lived experience they are having, so I ask—what experience lives in your mind as one with Christ? Pivotal. What revealed Christ to you?

Photine tells Jesus, ‘the well is deep.’ Knowing John uses metaphors, what might have formed ‘the well’ of her life so far, and for our own experience with Jesus.

In her book, Well of Living Water; Jesus and the Samaritan Woman, Sr. Magdalen Lawler, SND (Sister of Notre Dame) has a meditation on this: 

Hours of relentless sun. “Feel the dryness in his mouth, and his longing that his thirst will be slaked and his desire for each one of us satisfied. Watch Jesus as he settles himself by the well and see the well, itself, formed by many trickling, underground streams. Try to still your self within and listen to those tiny streams gathering in a desert land. Look into the well and gaze into its depths. And are there signs of green growth around, as is so often the case near oh well? See how close Jesus is to that water and yet unable to draw it up. How he is sometimes from being able to reach down into our depths and draw up life-giving water for us.”  (Magdalen Lawler SND, Well of Living Water Jesus and the Samaritan Woman, 2019, Messenger Publ. Kindle Edition.)

We hear him offer Living Water and we forget this weary Jesus is asking us to give him a drink from our own hand. Now we recall his words from the cross; “I thirst.” Could God actually thirst for us? Can we fathom a deep mutual thirst between God and each of us, as intimate as this conversation? This one breaks cultural boundaries, occurs at the wrong time of day, and ignores social norms, yet it happens. We meet at the water.

We meet at the water and Jesus loves us as we are. I’m not talking about Jesus meeting us only in light of our shortcomings and failures, Photine’s five husbands. He welcomes our unmasked broken and wonderful unique selves. She speaks up! She challenges what she doesn’t understand. She comes at midday and we hear no apology for that or her multiple husbands. She asks questions and listens to his answers, and asks another. The most beautiful thing happens next; she takes in his words and in candor speaks her belief; “I know the Messiah is coming, (who is called Christ). When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” And Jesus says to her, “I AM, the one who is speaking to you.” Yes, in JOhn’s gospel he tells her what he has not yet told the disciples!

John also tells us “it was about the sixth hour” which is noon. Again a foretelling of his crucifixion is wordlessly whispered, for when Pilate (offering to release Jesus in chapter 19) brings him outside to the a place called The Stone Pavement, or Gabbatha, we will hear the exact same sentence; “it was about the sixth hour.”

Let’s turn back to our reading from Exodus and unwrap another layer of our imaginary paper ball. The people in the wilderness are cut off from what they knew and had. They quarreled with Moses, saying, “Give us water to drink.” They complain asking if he’s brought them there to let them die of thirst, so Moses turns to God and God says to use the staff with which he struck the Nile to strike the rock at Horeb, promising water will flow, and so it does. This is literally life-saving water for them, is not so very different than the woman from Samaria or ourselves. 

When our hearts feel like stone, what does it take for Jesus to bring forth Living Water? Photine did not need to qualify or earn it, she opened herself to our Lord and their exchange flows more like a river than a quiet well. Yet it also goes deep as she finds courage and faith to move from being a lone woman with a bucket – to one who runs with unbridled joy to her community to tell them all about him. Her rushing to tell them “Come and See!” is her carrying the good news and bringing about the birth of a community of believers. 

Exciting as that is, people still cringe at the thought of becoming an evangelist, out loud, in front of everyone. If so, you are not alone. She may have been a quiet introvert herself, given her solitary chore that day. Being the center of attention may be one’s greatest fear or one’s heart’s desire, but this isn’t about ‘us’ as we say. Sharing our faith, our story, even a brief mention of prayer or worship helps people see what they couldn’t see before—not in us or at us, but perhaps just beyond, as if seeing Jesus just over our shoulder.

She shows it needn’t be perfect or practiced, she tells her good news and points them to Jesus, leaving the outcome between them and God. They heard her testimony and saw her passion and they went themselves. “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know…”

We too hear Jesus promise that “whoever drinks of the water which I shall give them will become in them a fountain of water that bubbles up to eternal life.” That well stands ready like an open font, where Jesus met her and where he meets each of us. That well is at the center of our icon and of the story. By coming to Christ at our center and gathering around his well, a family of faith is born and renewed each time, with each baptism, each Eucharist, each celebration. The promised Living Water is upwelling in us and offered for our eternal life in Christ. Amen.

© 2023 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.

Post will be removed at 8:00 AM on Wed., Mar. 5, 2025.