Thursday, April 4, 2019

Lent, Sunday #3 alternative: woman at well and hospitality


Third Sunday of Lent, alternative reading: March 24, 2019 (but use Year A reading)

There are two Gospels for the third Sunday in Lent – the readings from Year C (this year) or alternatively the readings from Year A, used with people who are preparing for baptism at Easter. The latter is extraordinarily packed, worth reading alongside the Lord’s words about the Last Judgment in Matthew 25:31-46.

Matthew 25 has the six precepts: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome strangers, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and visit the imprisoned. It seems to me that this passage must be read on at least four levels: (1) literal, (2) metaphorical, (3) moral and/or social, and (4) anagogical. (Anagogical: that’s about taking the way up, or spiritual life, or heaven.) It seems to me that all six precepts show up in today’s reading, and all four levels are pertinent, although not all six show up on all four levels.

woman at the well and Matthew 25

literal
metaphor
social
anagogical
hungry
x
x
x
x
thirsty
x
x

x
stranger
x

x

naked

x

x
sick

x

x
imprisoned

x

x


The reading is about Jesus meeting the woman at the well.

The reading includes the second precept, obviously. On a literal level, Jesus wants some water, and she can get him some. But, also obvious, he offers her “living” water; water here is a metaphor for a spiritual life, and indeed for life eternal. (Thirsty: levels 1, 2, and 4.)

The first precept also shows up. When the disciples find Jesus at the well, they ask if he wants something to eat. That’s literal. He says that he has food that they don’t know about: “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish his work.” (That’s metaphorical.) Then Jesus talks about harvesting, about gathering crops for eternal life. That is, they have a mission. They are called to feed God’s people. (Moral, social.) The fields are ripe for the harvest. (That’s anagogical.)

The fourth precept is also in the story, although it’s not obvious. In Scripture, clothing the naked is rarely literal; it’s almost always metaphorical. The first nakedness in Scripture is right at the beginning of Genesis: Adam and Eve sin, experience shame, and then discover that they are naked. Their nakedness is about shame, not about skirts and pants. When Jesus is stripped, the soldiers are not trying to make him feel the cold; they intend to make him feel shame. In Scripture, clothes don’t hide nakedness; they reveal the person: people are clothed in white, or in royal garments, or in majesty and splendor. In this story, the woman has apparently been stripped naked by at least five men – literally, but outside the boundary of this story. Jesus helps her to bare her soul, and then he clothes her in his dignity (metaphorical, anagogical).

It seems to me that in Scripture, we find Jesus visiting the sick – literally – quite often, but almost never visiting the imprisoned – literally. But on a metaphorical level, Jesus does both all the time. The woman at the well is ashamed but also weak – sick. He gives her the strength to come alive and start talking about the things in her heart. When she talks about her hope for the coming of the Messiah, she is healed. Clothed in the Lord’s dignity, and healed of her broken-ness, she sets off to town to announce the good news. This joyful proclamation comes from a heart that has been freed.

The Samaritans started to listen to Jesus because of her testimony. But then they make their own decisions, and offer hospitality.

It’s worth noting that the discussion of thirst is personal, between Jesus and the woman; and when Jesus heals her and frees her and clothes her in dignity, that too is between the two of them. But the discussion of food is communal: Jesus talks with his disciples about it. And the offer of hospitality is also communal: the people of the town invite Jesus to stay.

The offer of hospitality is evidence of a healing. The relationship between the Samaritans and the Jews – at least in this town, with these Jewish strangers – is healed.

Was this Gospel (John 4, most of the chapter) written to explain Matthew 25? Or vice versa? No! A thousand times no! The two passages have so much in common because these are the things that matter to the Lord. In this story, the six precepts overlap and intertwine and reinforce each other, because this is the life that the Lord asks us to live.

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