Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, March 12, 2023

YEAR A 2023 lent 3

Lent 3, 2023
Exodus 17:1-7
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42
Psalm 95

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So, let’s start with how I have always interpreted this gospel text.  How, in fact, I’ve always heard this text interpreted.  Jesus find himself alone with a Samaritan woman who has had five husbands, and she is surprised that he is talking to her.  Everyone agrees on that part.  But then where I’ve always gone after that is to focus on her being an outcast, by virtue of being a Samaritan.  Adding the assumption that she would be an outcast among her own outcast people because she has had five husbands.  (And lots, and lots of people imply that she is somehow a loose woman because of that.)

Then, we typically make the jump to explain why she’s at the well at noon, the heat of day.  Because, nobody likes her, see?  She comes to the well when no one else would be there.  Like she’s hiding by coming at noon.  Then I personally usually pivot to point out how awesome Jesus is, because he doesn’t see her the way everyone else does.  Isn’t Jesus wonderful for daring to embrace someone who is so rejected by her own rejected people because she has had many husbands?  

And that’s what I usually do with this text, because that’s what I’ve heard most theologians do with this text.  Until this past Tuesday, when we talked about this story in my online text study group.  As I’ve said before, that’s basically a bunch of Lutheran clergy from the upper midwest, plus me and Mother Mo—whom I dragged into the group.  It’s always a spirited discussion, and not for the faint of heart.  Like watching how the sausage gets made, most weeks.

So anyway, as we were talking about this story, I started to see that my starting point was completely wrong.  Because the text does not tell us why she goes to the well at noon.  And all these years I have been patting myself on the back for making plausible excuses for why she’s had so many husbands, but the text doesn’t tell us that either.  My starting point with this woman was always that she was an outcast, a nameless woman, and Jesus is extra great for hanging out with her.  But I have been projecting all that onto her.  Because it’s not in the text.

And treating her the way I always have, essentially just makes her into a pawn so Jesus can look cool.  I mean, she doesn’t even get a name.  How important can she be?  And my friends in the clergy text study were saying how much they wish she had a name.  And that’s when I remembered something that Sarah Emmert had told me that very morning.  Because in the Orthodox tradition, this woman does have a name.  And in the Episcopal Church, her feast day is February 26th, and she does have a name.  And it’s not just any name.  She is called Photini.  Which sounds like some kind of fancy drink.  But hear me out.

You can maybe hear in the name Photini that it is connected to the Greek word for light.  Think of photosynthesis, photons, even photographs (literally translated to “light drawings”).  The name Photini means, “the enlightened one.”  And this is where it all gets interesting!

Think back to last week’s gospel text, from the chapter before this in John’s gospel.  We heard the story of Nicodemus, who came to Jesus in darkness.  Remember that?  Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, and in darkness—both literally and metaphorically.  And Nicodemus also leaves Jesus in darkness—both literally and metaphorically.

Nicodemus comes up two more times in the scriptures.  When his fellow Pharisees send guards to arrest Jesus, he says that they shouldn’t do that without giving Jesus a chance to testify before them in person.  And then he shows up with the spices to help Joseph of Aramathea bury the body of Jesus, where he is referred to as a “secret disciple of Jesus.”  That’s it.  Comes in darkness, argues for direct testimony from the accused, and brings the spices to bury the body.  In darkness.

But Photini meets Jesus at noon.  Not the heat of the day, but rather when the light is at its brightest!  She is not cowering by hiding at noon.  She comes openly in the full light, which nobody else seems able to tolerate.  Last week a religious leader came to Jesus in darkness and we felt no need to explain his secrecy.  Today, a woman shows up in broad daylight and I reflexively revert to explaining why that’s a problem!  

My starting point has always been to assume she is an outcast.  Well shame on me—and 2,000 years of western patriarchy—for trying to read something into this story that simply isn’t there.  Jesus meets a beloved child of God at the well, and the standard reaction is to try to explain away her beloved-ness.  She is not hiding at noon.  She comes in full light and becomes a powerful evangelist who converts an entire town with her testimony.  

The given name Photini gives us the roadmap here.  She comes in honesty and light, and is exactly who she is, hiding nothing.  This conversation between her and Jesus is the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in all the scriptures.  And it’s not a lecture.  It’s an actual conversation, with give and take.  She asks sassy questions, and won’t take lofty-sounding metaphors at face value.  She wants to know the truth; she’s a theological thinker; she trusts that she does not have to grovel in front of Jesus, or anyone else!

And what does she do after this encounter with God incarnate?  What does she do after she asks hard questions in broad daylight when no one else would dare to be there?  She leaves her safe-investment water jar there, and goes to tell other people!  She doesn’t prepare a big lofty presentation.  She just tells people her story: “He told me everything I have ever done.”

He told me everything I have ever done.  That sounds kind of scary, doesn’t it?  Think about that.  Don’t you hear that statement with fear and trembling?  Like, you have a conversation with Jesus and your takeaway is, He told me everything I have ever done.  Uh-oh.  That doesn’t sound like good news to me, to be honest.  Like the last thing I want Jesus to bring up is . . . everything I’ve ever done.

But maybe that’s because, like Nicodemus, my typical way to approach Jesus is in darkness.  Assuming that Jesus is just too precious and fragile to know about my own darkness.  The last place I want to talk to Jesus is in the white-hot light of the noonday sun, where everything I’ve ever done is exposed.  But that’s how Photini meets him.  At a place where there is nothing to hide and nowhere to hide.  What you see is what you get.  And Jesus sees all of it . . . what she calls, “Everything I have ever done.”
And.  He.  Does not.  Reject.  Her.

And can you see what that means for you and me?  We too can approach God in true openness, in the true white-hot light of the blazing noonday sun, without fear of rejection.  Asking hard questions of God, laying bare everything we have ever done, demanding real answers to things that don’t make sense, none of that can separate us from the love of God.  We do not need to hide from the one who truly loves us.

And my new favorite part of this story is the part about the husbands.  Because Jesus says, “Hey go home and get your husband and come back.”  Now she could have said, “Yeah, good idea.”  And then slink away and never come back.  There is no reason to expect that Jesus knows she’s not married.  But instead of getting the heck out of there, she says, “I don’t have a husband.”  And Jesus says, “I know; you’ve had five husbands.”  

And you know what?  I picture them both laughing at that moment.  Because it’s funny!  Like Jesus is kind of teasing her.  I love to think of it that way.  Why don’t you go get your husband?  Because I don’t have one.  I know, LOL!  There is a levity to this part of the conversation, if you look for it.  Just two former strangers talking in the brightest moment of the day, and that brightness is reflected in Photini.  Jesus shines his light on her, and she spreads that light to others.  This is a glorious and powerful story of a person who meets Jesus with nothing to hide, and in reflecting the light, she brings everyone she knows to Jesus, who knows everything she has ever done.

May Photini remind us that we can bring everything to God, that we will not be turned away or rejected, and that the most powerful testimony of grace is to say to others, “He told me everything I have ever done.”


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