Friday, March 28, 2014

The Invisibility Cloak

A Sermon on John 4:5-42

In the first book of the Harry Potter series, Harry receives a magical cloak which renders the wearer invisible. Harry’s invisibility cloak is a crucial resource for him throughout the series, allowing him to wander around Hogwarts with impunity, eavesdrop on secret conversations unnoticed, and generally cause mischief. Something about the invisibility cloak captures the imagination – I think many of us sometimes wish we had an invisibility cloak of our own, especially in this bustling city, where privacy and solitude can be so difficult to come by.

While invisibility cloaks are mythical, iPhone apps are real, and a new app called Cloak has been making headlines. Cloak helps its users to avoid their friends and acquaintances by collecting location information from friends’ social media updates and warning the user if there might be someone they know nearby. In the time of Jesus, of course, there were neither invisibility cloaks nor iPhone apps, and so people had their own ways of avoiding unwanted social contact.

Our Gospel reading today finds Jesus en route from Judea to Galilee. Judea was one of two Jewish provinces in the time of Jesus; it was where Jerusalem was located, as well as Bethlehem and a number of other towns. Galilee, the other Jewish province, was where Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth was, and where he did much of his ministry. In between the two provinces was Samaria. Samaritans shared common ancestors with the Jews, but while the Jews’ ancestors had been taken into exile in Babylon, the Samaritans were descended from those who had not been taken into exile, and had intermarried with the foreigners who had conquered the land.

By the time of Jesus, the two groups were entirely separate, bitterly divided by their common history. They did not associate with each other, and many Jews would have chosen to detour around Samaria, adding long days to their journey, rather than passing through it. If they did pass through, I imagine many would have assumed a posture familiar to us New Yorkers: eyes down, shoulders hunched, walking hurriedly, disengaged from the world. We know something about how to communicate with our body language that we’re just trying to get from one place to another, that we wish had an invisibility cloak. We assume this posture, perhaps, on the subway or bus at the end of a long day, or in places where we feel out of place, whether it’s a swanky office building or a neighborhood where everyone but you looks the same, or a bar or restaurant where you stop, only to realize that everyone but you is a regular and you are an obvious, unwanted outsider.

In Jesus’ time, just like in ours, there were social norms about who associated with whom, and how you acted when you were just trying to make your way through Samaria. You would don your metaphorical invisibility cloak and get through with as little fuss as possible. But just try telling Jesus that.

Jesus and his disciples have stopped to rest and eat in the Samaritan town of Sychar, and while the disciples go to buy food, Jesus rests by a well. While Jesus is alone at the well, a woman arrives to draw water. The author notes that it is around noon; this contrasts with the story of Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus at midnight. Another thing to notice, though, is that noon is an unusual time to draw water from the well – hauling water was a strenuous chore, typically undertaken in the morning or evening, rather than under the heat of a midday sun. It’s odd and noteworthy that the woman has come to draw water at noon, and some commentators speculate that she is trying to avoid the groups of people, mostly women, who would have come to the well to draw water in morning and evening. Perhaps she, too, comes to the well wishing for an invisibility cloak, whether because of conflict, or rumors and gossip, or simple shyness.

There at the well in the middle of the day, she meets Jesus, who asks her for a drink of water. The woman expresses surprise that this Jewish man whom she does not know is asking her, a Samaritan woman, for water. Coming to the well at a time when she would have expected to draw water alone, the woman meets a man whom she would have expected to avoid contact with her, but instead of pretending that they cannot see each other, he has asked her for a drink, and she remarks on the strangeness of it. Things get even stranger soon enough: in answer to her surprised inquiry, Jesus tells her that if she knew who he was, she would be asking him for a drink, and he would have given her living water, which in Hebrew means simply water that flows, as from a river or spring.

This would have sounded very strange to her: this man has just asked her for a drink – but now he’s telling her that she should have asked him for a drink of spring water – so does he need a drink, or doesn’t he? And what does his identity have to do with it? “You have no bucket, and the well is deep,” she observes. Then she follows up about his mention of his identity: “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Now Jesus starts to hint that the water he speaks of is not literal water: “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman hasn’t quite caught on yet, though: “Give me this water,” she requests, “so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Here we see another hint that her trips to the well are onerous, and perhaps not just because of the physical labor; she longs for a source of water that will put an end to her hot mid-day journeys to the village well.

In an odd conversational turn, Jesus responds to her request for water with a request of his own: “Go call your husband and come back,” he bids her. When the woman replies that she has no husband, Jesus reveals that he knows more than he had let on: it’s true that you have no husband, he says, because you have had five husbands, and the man you are living with now is not your husband. Most commentators assume that this must be an indication of sinfulness on the woman’s part – that her strange marital history must be due to some moral deficiency on her part. Perhaps, some commentators note, that is why she comes to the well at an unusual time, because her reputation makes her unwelcome among the women who gather at the well in morning and evening. But commentator Gail O’Day notes that the text does not mention divorce, adultery, or sin – and while the commentators are very interested in delving into the woman’s sexual and marital history, Jesus notes it without judgment and moves on.

Jesus’ surprising insight into her history shows the woman that Jesus must be someone special – “Sir, I see that you are a prophet,” she says. And then she begins to ask him about one of the most significant theological differences between the religion of the Jews and that of the Samaritans: where should one worship God? Jesus’ speaks of a coming age when right worship will be defined not by location, but by “spirit and truth.” Hearing his promise of change, the woman brings up the issue of the coming Messiah, and Jesus replies, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” Just as the two have hit upon the essence of Jesus’ identity, the disciples arrive, carrying the food they have purchased for the mid-day meal. And at that point we read this: “They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’” And with that, the woman leaves her water jar behind and returns to the city, where she starts to tell people about Jesus. The woman at the well becomes the first evangelist: the first person who preaches about encountering the Messiah.

“They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman,” the author reports. The first time I read this text was in my junior year of college. At the time, I was rather idealistic about healing the divisions between progressive and conservative Christians, and I had joined a bible study group run by a very conservative national campus ministry organization, where I was far and away the most liberal member. In that same year, I finally recognized that I was called to ordained ministry. One day I arrived at Bible study brimming with hope and joy at my newfound sense of call. “How do you reconcile that with 1 Timothy 2:11?” one young woman asked, referring to one of the passages about women not speaking in church, which are used in conservative traditions to bar women from leadership positions. I was stung by the dismissal of my call, and hungry for scriptural affirmation of my call to preach. And so I opened my bible and read, and read, and read and read until I found those words from this story: “They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman.” Jesus didn’t care about the boundaries between men and women, Jews and Samaritans; Jesus did not care about the conventions and social norms that are supposed to render people invisible to one another; Jesus simply cared that she was thirsty for living water. There were a lot of people thirsty for living water, thirsty for good news of God’s love. And so Jesus told her the good news, and she went out and told the people.

Our world is less bound, perhaps, by formal restrictions about who can speak to whom. And yet, sometimes when I stop on the sidewalk to talk with someone I know from church, I notice the odd looks of people who, like the disciples, wonder but do not ask: why are we speaking with each other? Why am I speaking with Walter, or Ben, or Jim? What could I possibly be talking about with our sandwich line clients? And when I notice those looks, I think of the woman at the well. When, like that woman, we meet Jesus at the well, the boundaries that limit our relationships to people who look and think and talk and believe like we do, the boundaries that keep us separate from each other, fall away. They slip from our shoulders like invisibility cloaks, allowing us to see our common thirst for living water, for good news.

I wonder whether the woman only told the good news to people who looked like her, who shared her social station? I wonder if she slipped back into the invisibility cloak that made women invisible to men, Samaritans to Jews, old to young, poor to rich? Or did she discover that it was as unnecessary as her water jug, and leave them both lying on the ground as she went out to preach? And what about us? When we leave this place, our thirst slaked with living water, our hearts brimming with good news, what will we do?

What will we do?

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