Based on John 4. 1-19 The Woman at the Samaritan Well
On this, the second Sunday in Lent, I begin my sermon, at its end, that is, with its conclusions.
1. No one, no human, can or should control access to God or to God’s grace, hence, keep baptizing.
2. Talk to strangers, especially women, and don’t forget to listen.
Will you pray with me?
Come, God, come. Bend low. Enter this your house. Come so near to each of us as to oil the hinges of our hearts’ doors that they may swing easily and gently, to welcome your coming. Amen.
This Lent, the clergy are preaching and teaching, and our musicians are singing and playing, into the theme: Against the Powers. We are exploring how Jesus got himself crosswise with the powers and principalities of his world; so crosswise, that he was in the end, executed as a criminal.
Having agreed our theme – Against the Powers – I opened my Bible to John’s Gospel, to the 4th chapter, to a series of rather extraordinary, lengthy, and interesting unfoldings.
The fourth chapter opens with a worrying bit of news. Jesus and John are out in the wilderness baptizing up a storm, making a ton of disciples and operating, as it were, off the grid. They are operating outside the boundaries of the approved religious institutions. These unauthorized baptisms, and the crowds gathered round Jesus, put him on a kind of watch list. Jesus’ movements are being monitored, his words scrutinized, his actions noted.
Jesus learns of this, learns the heat is on, and decides it’s time to let things cool down. He beats a hasty retreat. He heads home, north, toward Galilee. But instead of walking around the region
of Samaria, which was easy to do (Samaria was avoidable enough) Jesus walks through Samaria.
On his way he arrives in a certain Samaritan city. As he is tired and thirsty, he pauses at a public well. A woman happens along, a Samaritan woman. In the ancient Middle East, men and women who were strangers to one another, especially those of different religions or sects – especially Jews and Samaritans (who had a kind of running feud) – just didn’t speak. Didn’t even make eye contact. Such diffidence was woven into the ancient Middle Eastern culture of modesty, decorum and, wariness.
Jesus breaks with decorum. He speaks to this strange woman of a different sect. They engage in a back-and-forth, a conversation, an exchange which, frankly, gets personal and deep. They discuss matters of great consequence. They speak of God and salvation, of issues of gender and sect, of monogamy and marriage, of where and how to worship.
And, they converse over the subject of water, living water. They discuss who’s in with God,
who has access to salvific waters and, conversely, who’s out; who is outside the sphere of God’s grace, the sphere of salvation; who does not have access to springs of living water.
And, in every way, in every word – this strange woman, from the first century of the Common Era, this woman from a society that oppresses women – she holds her own with the famous rabbi. In this deep and delicate and charged conversation, she holds her own. And from the great, yawning distance of over 2000 years, I wanted to yell out to her: “You go, girl! Good on you!” Her name doesn’t appear in John’s Gospel (no surprise there), but her story does, her repartee does, her verbal jousting with the famous rabbi does. It’s all there in Holy Writ. “You go, Samaritan woman! Good on you!”
As I was engaging with unfoldings in the 4th chapter of John’s Gospel, it dawned on me that our story, Old South’s story, parallels this story. This church was born baptizing off the grid and we were born in serious and deep conversation with a woman.
In the year 1669, twenty-nine men and their wives (and a widow or two) ventured out into the wilderness of Boston as it were, went off the grid and founded their own church where they could dispense the grace of God, the waters of salvation, generously, liberally…in marked contrast to the stingy protocols of the church from which they were breaking, a church who guarded access to baptism, thus, protecting access to the very grace of God.
Our founders were aided and abetted in this unsanctioned undertaking by Mary Norton, a widow, who bequeathed to our forebears a sweet and generous gift of land, smack in the middle of Boston.
From that beginning and throughout the ensuing three-and-a-half centuries you can trace this church’s theological commitment to providing access to grace, access to the very favor of God. Indeed, to trace this through the centuries is to trace an ever dawning tolerance and embrace of the other as favored by God.
Old South Church: it is in the waters of baptism that revolution is stirred.
Let me say a practical word about baptism at Old South Church. We receive cold calls, regularly, perhaps twice a month, from persons asking about baptism. They’ve never been here. They don’t know anything about us. They don’t go to church. They want their new baby baptized. They want access to baptism. They want it for their baby. They want what we have.
And, whatever “it” means to them, they want it enough to make cold calls, church after church after church, until someone picks up the phone or calls them back.
Most churches won’t even bother speaking with this caller. Won’t call back. I know why.
Because, if history serves, it’s a losing proposition; by which I mean, there’s a high probability that once the child is baptized and the pictures taken and the baptismal gown folded away, and the grandparents are back home, we won’t see that family again. There’s a high probability of that. That’s why most churches don’t answer such calls.
Not Old South Church. Until recently, I took all these calls. Kate Nintcheu, our Director of Children and Family Ministries, has taken this on. And here’s what we do … and we do it because Jesus did it and because in 1669 the founders of Old South did it. We do it because we were born to baptize. We talk with them, these strangers who have come for water, who are
almost always women. We take them seriously and we enter into conversation. We invite them to worship. We invite them to a meeting, a gathering, usually with other young parents, to talk about baptism.
Kate has them read aloud together, the Litany of Baptism. You know our Litany of Baptism. You probably know it by heart! In that litany you, church, you, Old south Church, promise a lot to this family, you promise the world to this family. You promise to provide the infrastructure to teach their child about the faith, and about the meaning and the revolutionary import of grace. You promise to maintain a nurturing and challenging Christian environment as the child grows. Moreover, you promise that you, too, will endeavor to grow with the child.
And then the litany turns to the parents. Do you, parents, assume your primary responsibility for fulfilling these expectations by growing with your child in the Christian faith, helping her to become a faithful member of the church of Jesus Christ, and by offering her the nurture and support of the Christian church? And the parents have a single line, but it’s a big one, it’s freighted: We happily and genuinely undertake this serious duty.
We familiarize these parents with the Litany, which what we are asking them to promise, to vow, before God and everybody. We ask them if they are able and willing to make and keep these promises. We look them in the eyes. And if those parents say yes, who are we to say no?
After all, this church was born to baptize, born to dispense God’s grace liberally, generously, without calculation as to the payoff.
And so it is that I have arrived at the conclusions of this sermon, conclusions that are also and simultaneously admonition and exhortation:
1. No one, no human ever, can or should control access to God or to God’s grace, hence, keep baptizing.
2. Talk to strangers, especially women, and don’t forget to listen.
If we continue to hold fast to these, hold them high, we will inevitably find ourselves crosswise with the powers and principalities of this world. At the same time, we will get ourselves right with God.