Writer Anne Lamott, in her autobiographical Traveling Mercies, describes her conversion to Christ during a fierce struggle with alcoholism,
“After a while,” she says, “as I lay there, I became aware of someone watching me, hunkering down in the corner, and I just assumed it was my father, whose presence I had felt over the years when I was frightened and alone. The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light to make sure no one was there; of course, there wasn’t. But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus. I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby as I write this.
“And I was appalled…I thought about what everyone would think of me if I became a Christian, and it seemed an utterly impossible thing that simply could not be allowed to happen. I turned to the wall and said out loud, “I would rather die.”
“I felt him just sitting there on his haunches in the corner of my sleeping loft, watching me with patience and love, and I squinched my eyes shut, but that didn’t help because that’s not what I was seeing him with.
“Finally I fell asleep, and in the morning, he was gone.
“This experience spooked me badly, but I thought it was just an apparition, born of fear and self-loathing and booze and loss of blood. But then everywhere I went, I had the feeling that a little cat was following me, wanting me to open the door and let it in. But I knew what would happen: you let a cat in one time, give it a little milk, and then it stays forever…
“And one week later, when I went back to church, I was so hungover that I couldn’t stand up for the songs, and this time I stayed for the sermon, which I just thought was so ridiculous, like someone trying to convince me of the existence of extraterrestrials, but the last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape. It was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices or something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared child, and I opened up to that feeling – and it washed over me.
“I began to cry and left before the benediction, and I raced home and felt the little cat running along my heels, and I walked down the dock past dozens of potted flowers, under a sky as blue as one of God’s own dreams, and I opened the door to my houseboat, and I stood there a minute, and then I hung my head and said,…’I quit.’ I took a long, deep breath and said out loud, ‘All right. You can come in.’
“So this was my beautiful moment of conversion.” (Lamott, p.67)
I read you such a lengthy passage because it resonates deeply with the story that we read this morning of the woman at the well. It’s a story of sadness. Of failure. And of simple grace.
Most rabbis didn’t bother to waste their words of wisdom and theological teachings to a Samaritan. But here is a Samaritan woman. A Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, not far from Mt. Gerizim, which is where the Samaritans thought the temple should be rather than Jerusalem. Because of this, Jewish folks had no dealings with Samaritans. Samaritans had changed the faith. They worshipped in a different temple. They had a different standard of what it meant to be faithful. They were almost Jews. Samaritans were a lot like Mormons. They said the right words, but somehow twisted the core of the faith to make it unrecognizable if you listened closely enough.
Plus, she is a woman. Women weren’t even considered persons. Mostly, they were property. From the way this woman was treated, it was clear that the men in her life didn’t give her any respect or care. And from the fact that she went to the well under the heat of the noon day sun instead of in the freshness of the morning or the coolness of the evening like everyone else showed how much she was scorned by the other women around her.
She can’t believe that this man, a Jew, a rabbi, someone with an obvious following, would talk to her; a woman, a Samaritan, a sinner. Wrong gender. Wrong race. Wrong religion. Yet Jesus reaches out to her. He knows all about her: all her failures. All her sadness. All her sin.
And yet this is not what Jesus sees when he talks to her. He sees – a disciple!
The Samaritan woman is an evangelist. She is the first person who understands in John’s gospel. The disciples are uncomprehending at this point. Nicodemus doesn’t get it. But this woman does, enough to get others to follow her in her new belief in Jesus.
Jesus talks to her of the very essence of life, water that will never run dry. Living water, whatever that is. And she runs all the way back home to tell people, “Come! See a man who has told me everything! He can’t be the Messiah, can he?” It is her witness to the new life Jesus shares that converts those around her
And what is that witness? Jesus didn’t tell her a whole lot. He didn’t quote John 3: 16 or teach her the Apostles’ Creed. He did her one better: he loved her.
It’s amazing the hurts that keep people from Jesus, afraid that God will reject them if God knew what lie deep within their souls.
A few weeks ago I met the woman at the well. Actually, it was a man in a dirty, smoke-filled apartment. He had called the church for help and I went to go see him armed with a bag of groceries. As I was leaving he said, “I want to go to church, can I come to your church?”
Those were his words but that wasn’t what he was asking. What he was really asking was “Will someone like me be welcome in your church?”
I pictured him in our pews, his black greasy hair, his yellowed fingers and his nicotine and booze stained breath, mingling with men in ties and suit jackets, women in dresses and children in jeans. And I thought that like woman at the well was to the disciples, he’d be a challenge to our congregation. But a challenge our congregation would definitely step up to.
“Yes,” I told him, “we’d love to have you worship with us.”
Who is the woman at the well for you? Maybe it’s someone in your family. The brother who hides his homosexuality because he is terrified he’ll be rejected by those who he loves the most.
The co-worker who had an abortion and pretends that nothing really happened “It was just a surgical procedure,” she says, but secretly she harbours guilt and grief deep inside her soul.
Maybe it’s the aunt who found out last month she had cancer and she doesn’t want to tell anyone about it because she’s afraid people will treat her differently - like she’s weak.
Or maybe it’s you. You’re the woman at the well, carrying burdens that weigh you down while you put on a smiling public face.
You need to know that when Jesus looks at you, or looks at whoever it is you consider to be “outside” the faith, that he doesn’t see a sinner. Oh, sure, he sees the sin – and knows it, in all its gory detail – but he sees much more than that.
Jesus’ vision could have stopped at the woman being a Samaritan, a woman, in difficulty with her relationships, a sinner. But he saw more – a woman to be won over to a greater cause, a witness to serve God and God’s people, a disciple.
And no doubt Jesus’ vision of Anne Lamott could have stopped at the alcoholic, the anorexic, the desperate, the druggie, a sinner. But he saw more - a woman to be won over to a greater cause, a witness through her writing to serve God and God’s people, a disciple.
So. What do you think Jesus sees when he looks at you? A sinner? One who has failed and continues to fail in some of your moral obligations? Oh yes. But much more than that – someone to be won over to a greater cause, Jesus’ cause – a witness to serve God and God’s people, a disciple. That’s what Jesus sees.
May this be so among us. Amen.