Sunday, March 19, 2017

Holy Women

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
March 19, 2017

Year A: The Third Sunday in Lent
Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

Holy Women
            You know, we human beings are amazing – just look around at all we have built.
            Especially here in the city, almost everything that we see and hear around us – the buildings we live in, the streets we walk or drive, the clothes we wear, the music we hear – all of it started as an idea in someone’s head.
            Almost everything around us was built and is maintained by people using extraordinary skill, remarkable expertise.
            Just one example is the cell phone, these little devices that connect us to the whole world, giving us access to more knowledge than can be found in any library, the stuff of Science Fiction to most of us even just a generation ago.
            And, at our best, we are amazing in our ability and willingness to care for one another, to care especially for those who are too young or too weak to care for themselves, doing our best to make sure that everybody is fed and nurtured, even – especially – those who will never be able to pay us back.
            But, of course, we human beings are also skilled at things that are not so good.
            We are often quite willing to set aside, to ignore, our common humanity and divide people up based on superficial characteristics – where they’re born, the color of their skin, how they worship, the mistakes they may have made in their lives, those who are seen by the world to be winners and those who are seen as losers.
            We are also good as scapegoating certain people.
            We say to ourselves and now even sometimes out loud, “If only we could get rid of this person – or this group of people – then, then, all our troubles would disappear!”
            Jesus himself experienced this on Good Friday when the crowd turns against him, thirsty for innocent blood.
            And, you know, all of this dividing and scapegoating can actually work - for a while, but only for a while.
            Soon enough, new troubles arise, and once again we need to find someone else to blame, someone else to expel, someone else to destroy - and the dreadful and bloody cycle starts all over again.
            Jesus, though, Jesus has no use for any of our divisions and rejects our scapegoating.
            Throughout his ministry, he shocked his friends and enemies by hanging out with - by loving - all the wrong kinds of people, the people who were looked down upon, the people who did the wrong thing, the people who were despised and even hated, the outcasts like, for example, the Samaritan woman at the well.
            It’s a long and tragic story, but Jews and Samaritans were related to each other, and like many families, they fought, often and bitterly.
            Now, when we hear “Samaritan” we think of the “Good Samaritan,” but Jews in the days of Jesus would have had a hard time imagining that any Samaritan could ever be good.
            But, in today’s gospel lesson, we find Jesus crossing one boundary after another, entering the land of the Samaritans where, tired out by his journey, he comes upon a woman at a well.
            Now, for a number of reasons, Jesus shouldn’t be talking with this woman.
            They’re alone, she’s a woman, and she’s a Samaritan.
            And, on top of all that, she’s not just any Samaritan – it turns out that she’s a Samaritan woman with a rather complicated marital history and her present situation seems, let’s say, irregular.
            And, probably because of those complications and that irregularity, this woman seems to be an outcast in her own Samaritan community. Note that she’s alone at the well under the noonday sun – presumably the other woman had been there earlier in the day, when it was cooler.
            So, maybe this woman prefers to be alone – or, maybe, she has no choice.
            Jesus, in his usual way, crosses over all of these boundaries and asks this Samaritan outcast for a drink of water – and, of course, she’s surprised.
            But, Jesus is just getting started.
            Jesus offers her what he calls “living water” – water that quenches thirst forever, the living water that gushes up to eternal life.
            And, for the first time in the Gospel of John, Jesus reveals his identity – not to his family, not to Peter or the other disciples, but to a despised Samaritan woman.
            And, we’re told that, somehow, Jesus tells this amazed woman “everything” she had ever done.
            It’s quite a story, right?
            Yet, maybe the most amazing part is what happens next.
            You know, it might have been wise if the Samaritan woman had kept all of this from her neighbors who had ostracized her. It would have been understandable if she just held this most remarkable encounter close to her heart, but that’s not what she does.
            Instead, this woman with the complicated marital history and the irregular living situation, this woman forced to go to the well in the noonday heat, she goes into town and sticks her neck out, risks ridicule and even more rejection, and she tells people about Jesus.
            And, we’re told that many Samaritans from that city believed in Jesus because of her testimony.
            For us Christians, the Samaritan woman is, maybe, the first in a long line of holy women.
            The first, but far from the last.
            The gospels don’t tell the Easter story in quite the same way, but they agree that on Easter morning it’s women who first discover the empty tomb, it’s women who are the first to share the Good News at the heart of our faith – that love defeats hate and life conquers death.
            And throughout Christian history and in our own time there have been holy women who have continued to stick their necks out to share the Good News, who remembered and lived out Christ’s command to love one another, especially the poorest and the weakest.
            Lately I’ve been reading about one of those women, a holy woman that I hadn’t even heard of until recently: Mother Maria Skobstova, otherwise known as Mother Maria of Paris.
            A century ago, like many Russians, she fled the Bolshevik Revolution and eventually landed in Paris where, despite having been married a couple of times, she was allowed to become a Russian Orthodox nun.
            And, like her American contemporary Dorothy Day, Mother Maria believed that the heart of the Christian life is to love our neighbors as ourselves.
            She opened houses of hospitality where she housed and fed the poorest.
            Mother Maria believed that, “The way to God lies through love of people.”
            I read a wonderful description of this cigarette-smoking woman wearing her flowing Russian nun’s habit negotiating with butchers and bakers to get the lowest prices for what she needed to feed her people.
            When the Nazis occupied Paris, she and Russian Orthodox priests issued false baptismal certificates to desperate Jews – and for this, for this sacrificial love for the hated and despised, for this love of the scapegoat, Mother Maria was arrested and sent to the concentration camp where she died not long before the end of the war.
            Holy women.
            And in our own time and place, I think of our deacon Jill Singleton and what she has already accomplished over at the Lighthouse, providing shelter for the poorest and most despised, for the scapegoats of today, people who have fled war and oppression and have received asylum here in the United States – asylum, but, let’s face it, not necessarily a particularly warm welcome.
            Yet, over there on Storms Avenue, the light of welcome, the light of love, the light of Christ is shining out.
            And, a couple of months ago, our parishioner Trish Szymanski invited me to a meeting downtown about starting a supper club for refugees, an opportunity for them to eat foods familiar from home, to be together, and to know that they are welcome here.
            By the way, I was the only man at that meeting, and since then it’s been this group of committed women who pulled the first supper together.
            On Thursday night, three refugees from Syria along the planning team and sixteen donors gathered for a delicious meal – a meal that was prepared by one of the refugees.
            At the table, boundaries crumbled as people broke bread and shared conversation, recognizing our common humanity that’s far important than whatever may divide us.
            It was a taste of the Kingdom of God, the kingdom proclaimed by Jesus – Jesus, who has no use for any of our divisions and rejects our scapegoating - Jesus, who crosses over all kinds of boundaries and hangs out with all the wrong people, including the Samaritan woman at the well, an outcast who took the big risk of sharing the Good News, the first, perhaps, in a long line of holy women that continues to this very day, right here and right now.
            Thanks be to God.