John 4:1-15 The Rev. Helen Havlik 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time November 17, 2019
The greatest commandments as presented by Jesus are easy to remember: “love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” Which sounds nice when we say it, but what does it mean to love our actual neighbor? That’s the question we’ve been looking at this fall, based on Alexandra Kuykendall’s book, Loving My Actual Neighbor—where she describes how our love for the real people around us can be nurtured and lived. So far we’ve talked about being humble, listening to others, staying in the awkward, accepting people for who they are and taking ourselves lightly. As our series ends this morning, we turn to John’s gospel to a story about generosity. I’m reading from John, Ch. 4, beginning with vs. 1. Listen to God’s holy word.
My Aunt Dot was one of the most generous people I’ve ever known. A school teacher with no children of her own, she took an active interest in her nieces and nephews and the children of friends. She was the one who bought us shoes at the beginning of each school year—and made sure we had a new winter coat when we outgrew the old one. There was always a dollar in our birthday cards and as we got older, even more. She gave us some extra spending money in college and made down payments on cars and security deposits on apartments. My brother Bill told me he had first-hand information that when a friend had lost her job, falling behind on her mortgage payments and facing foreclosure, Aunt Dot offered her the money to catch up. The relieved friend promised to repay the loan as soon as possible—but Aunt Dot told her it wasn’t a loan, saying, “My father always said ‘neither a borrower nor a lender be’—this is a gift.” I don’t know for sure, but I suspect Aunt Dot’s generosity came from the personal experience of being on the receiving end of large and unexpected gifts. During the Great Depression when my grandpa was out of work and the family was homeless for several months, a friend of a friend had come through with a job and a rented house and helped them get back on their feet in other ways. Aunt Dot was, as we say, paying it forward.
This story of the Samaritan woman is pretty familiar to most of us. I’ve preached on it several times over the past 28 years—and I usually focus on the themes of hospitality and spiritual thirst. What I haven’t thought about much is how generous Jesus is to this woman who eyes him somewhat suspiciously as he sits by Jacob’s well in the heat of the day. He could have been put off by her questions—she seems to think he will be as she reminds him of the old rivalry between the Samaritans and the Jews. Instead, he doesn’t seem to care. He’s tired. He’s thirsty. He has no bucket to draw water and it’s high noon, so he has no hope of anyone else coming along to give him a drink. And yet here she is, at the right place at the right time, and it’s up to her to offer hospitality to a stranger. Does he ask for her credentials before he asks for her kindness? Does he let old conflicts get in the way of his generous offer to give her living water in return?
Alexandra Kuykendall tells the story of a friend whose husband died unexpectedly. The woman, a young mother with three kids, was beside herself with grief and Kuykendall was at a loss as to how to help. Then she discovered her friend needed a dress for the funeral. So Kuykendall offered to shop for her, which turned out to be harder than she expected, but “I was at arm’s length, not part of her inner circle, so she didn’t need me sitting with her…. She needed practical help… [and] though I hated the mall, though I wanted to go home and numb my own sadness for my friend… my time, money and energy were all hers.” (Loving My Actual Neighbor, p. 165-168)
It was the right thing to do at the right time and came from all the other practices we’ve talked about—humbling ourselves, listening, staying in uncomfortable situations, accepting people for who they are, taking ourselves lightly. All of these help us to give freely to the people around us. “When we give freely, we aren’t holding back,” Kuykendall says. “We aren’t worried about whether there will be enough to go around. We are living from the perspective that every good gift is from God, and so we can hold it lightly and offer it back for God’s purposes.” (LMAN, p. 168) And when it comes as the result of the other practices, giving freely draws us closer to our neighbor, “because it is done out of seeing and knowing the person right in front of us.” (LMAN, p. 169)
And who better to teach us about giving freely than Jesus himself? Listen to the conversation he has with this woman. Seemingly uneducated and outside mainstream religion, she is the person to whom Jesus reveals himself as he has to no one else yet in John’s gospel. As she speaks with him, her understanding of who he is grows: first he’s just a Jewish man sitting by the well. Then she calls him “sir”—which is the same word in Greek as “Lord.” She asks whether he is greater than Jacob in a way that implies she believes he is. This is no idle chatter by a town well, but a deep discussion about who Jesus is and what he brings into the world. Her potential generosity to a stranger leads to a reversal where Jesus instead becomes the host. He offers to quench her deeper thirst—for acceptance, for forgiveness, for value, for integrity, for community, for love. The day is near, he eventually says to her, “when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter. It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God.” At the well, Jesus generously offers the Samaritan woman the chance to live as God has intended everyone to live all along. And we, in turn, are asked to be as generous as he was.
Jesus said he was thirsty and asked for a drink—and the woman at the well offered him refreshment even though she was a Samaritan and he was a Jew. She gave him what she had to give and he in return gave her something priceless. She freely gave him the water for his thirst—he freely gave her refreshment for her soul. In her act of kindness, she was shown kindness and given the keys to the kingdom. “Jesus is the ultimate example of giving freely,” Kuykendall says. “We can give freely knowing God is the source of all we have to give. If every good thing we have is from God, we are merely stewards waiting for an opportunity to do God’s work this side of heaven….” And maybe most important for us to remember, “If God has called us to love a neighbor in a particular way, God will give us what we need to carry it out. With that understanding we can give freely.” (LMAN, p. 183)
Later in Jerusalem Jesus, the embodiment of generosity, said he was thirsty and was given vinegar. Instead of hospitality and refreshment, he was rejected and reviled. He was full of love and compassion, which were met with spite and hate. He brings us fresh springs of life and too often we keep the water for ourselves. Yet even now, Jesus is the generous heart of God, the living water that brings life and wholeness to us and our neighbors. Beyond rejection and spite and hate is the resounding response of God’s generous love, overflowing, spilling out refreshment for all who are thirsty.