For those of you who may be using the Narrative Gospel reading this coming Sunday, here’s a sermon that was inspired by Teresa of Avila’s image of being tickled by God.
There’s a commercial currently running on the TV and each time it comes on, I can’t help myself, it makes me smile and if I let myself, it makes me laugh. It’s a collection of scenes in which lovely little babies laugh. They laugh and they laugh and they laugh and before you know it you’re hooked and you just can’t help yourself you are laughing too. Laughter is a great tonic! Laughter is good for the soul! And yet, for some unknown reason we tend to exclude laughter from our religious life. Religion is serious business and so we don’t laugh much in worship. There’s a quote from St. Teresa of Avila that served as a warning sign for me as I was preparing this sermon. “NOT YET TICKLED” writes St. Teresa, “How did those priests ever get so serious and preach all that gloom? I don’t think God tickled them yet. Beloved—hurry.” The thought of being tickled by God is delightfully refreshing.
I must confess that I don’t spend much time laughing with God. Listen to this quote from the writings of St. Teresa: “Just these two words God spoke changed my life, “Enjoy Me.” “What a burden I thought I was to carry—a crucifix, as did Christ. “Love” which is Teresa’s name for God. “Love once said to me, ‘I know a song would you like to hear it?’ And laughter came from every brick in the street and from every pore in the sky. After a night of prayer, God changed my life when God sang, “Enjoy Me.” Enjoy Me. What a different place the world would be if we could only hear God beseeching us, “Enjoy Me.”
We are a serious lot we Christians. Duty, responsibility, guilt, and consternation have left us precious little time to “Enjoy!” We’ve got things to do, stuff to learn, values to instill and standards to uphold, so we’ve put enjoyment on the back-burner. After all, God is far too high and mighty to be trifling with, we daren’t laugh in the presence of our God. And yet, God continues to tickle us. Over and over again, with the most absurd wonders, and we can’t help ourselves, but smile. Creation is so full of laughs. Life is so funny! And church, I mean, whenever I think of the ridiculous things we get up to in church, well its enough to make you laugh until you cry. So to those of you who insist upon personifying our Creator, don’t you try to tell me that the Creator of all that is or ever shall be, the one who is responsible for creating humour itself, doesn’t just roar with laughter at the stuff that we get up to. So, isn’t it just possible that when it comes to laughing babies, God has plenty of scope for delighting in us? Surely, laughter is one of the most sublime forms of prayer? We ought to lighten up and enjoy our time with God. Cause lord knows, serious people are all well and good but who wants to spend time with a bunch of folks who can’t enjoy a joke.
So with that said, let’s turn to this mornings Gospel reading. This story is a real tickler! But in order to get the jokes, you’ve got to know some of the stuff the insiders knew. It’s a bit like trying to understand British humour, sometimes you don’t quite get the joke, if you don’t know something about life in Britain. The Gospel of John is full of stories that play on the local humour of Palestine in the first century. This story, about the Woman at the Well is full of double en-ton-dras. Indeed, this story is so outrageous that when the powers that be were sitting around deciding which books would make it into the New Testament, The Gospel of John almost didn’t make the cut. This story was far too racy and I mean racy in both senses of the word, this story was about race and it was far too risqué for the likeings of the religious authorities who were functioning as the thought police for the early church. So, sit back and allow yourselves to be tickled as I let you in on the jokes.
But before I begin, let’s take care of a big problem in this story. The writer of the Gospel of John, left out an important detail that makes it difficult to tell this story. Now even though there are more than a few scholars who believe that the writer of the Gospel of John was actually a woman, the truth is we don’t actually know who wrote any of the Gospels. But, based on the stories and the type of Greek with which they are written, scholars have determined that the Gospel of John was written near the end of the first century or the beginning of the second. So, that puts somewhere between the years 90 and 110. Most of the stories included in the Gospel of John were put there to speak to the Christian community that was evolving at the turn of the first century. Life was tough for women during these days, so if this Gospel was written by a woman, you can bet that she would have had to masquerade as a man just to get beyond the seriously vicious and dangerous religious types who would not have stood idly by while a woman told a tale as outrageous as this. But I digress.
Lets get back to the problem of this story. Whoever wove this tale, she neglected to tell us the name of the protagonist. The story teller has left us scrambling for a name and so we call the protagonist, “the woman at the well” or “the Samaritan woman,” and even though as the story unfolds she turns out to be the first evangelist, we never call her “the woman evangelist.” So, I’d like to suggest that we do what the Orthodox Christians have been doing for centuries and make up a name for this woman. In the Orthodox Church she is known as St. Phonitina, which means “bearer of light.” In the Russian Orthodox church she is Svetlana which is Russian for “Light Bearer,” and she is celebrated as equal to the Apostles: Svetlana the First Evangelist. Now that’s a name, but why don’t we just call her Lana for short. Lana makes me think of Lana Turner that vivacious movie star from the 1950’s who positively oozed sex. Lana is a great name for this racy Samaritan woman that Jesus encounters at the well; this racy woman who rocks Jesus world!
Well, well, well, well, well, were do we begin. Jesus was traveling from Judea in the south to Galilee in the north and most self-respecting Jews would have gone the extra miles to avoid Samaria all together, but not Jesus, no, he just had to go into that God forsaken place. Why, every good Jew knew that Samaritans were good for nothing half-breeds! Ever since the majority of the Hebrew people were carried off into captivity, leaving the few Hebrews that were left behind to get mixed up with the locals and before you knew it they were marrying one another and corrupting the true faith, insisting that it was okay to worship God on Mt. Horeb near their capital rather than making the pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. So by the time the Hebrews returned from captivity in Babylon, why the Samaritans had adopted so many different ways of worshipping that the two of them just couldn’t get along. Before long, good self-respecting Jews were avoiding Samaritans like the plague. But not Jesus, oh no, he ended up right smack dab in the middle of Samaria in the heat of the noonday sun! And at the site of a well not less.
Now you’ve gotta remember that in Jewish history when a man pays a visit to a well, a woman is sure to appear. Ever since Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for Isaac and Rebekah waltzed onto the scene, wells have functioned as a sort of pickup joint for the hero’s of the faith. After all, Jesus doesn’t just end up at any well, no, this is Jacob’s well! Maybe not the same well where Jacob met the lovely and beguiling Rachel and was so moved by her charms that, “Jacob kissed Rachel and wept out loud.” That sure must have been some kiss, because Jacob spent years and years on a quest for more of Rachel’s’ kisses. Who can forget that the great Moses himself, he too, met his true love Zipporah at a well. Surely Jesus would have known the significance of hanging out in such a place, in the heat of the noonday sun. I can tell you that the first time this story was ever told, not a person there would have been surprised that a woman showed up.
O sure, that a woman showed up that late in the day may a have caused a few eyebrows to raise. After all, what kind of a woman does her chores in the heat of the noonday sun? Somebody who clearly wants to be alone that’s who! So there you have it, Jesus the would be messiah shows up at an ancient pickup joint, and a woman who “vants to be alone” shows up; and not just any woman but a woman who belongs to a race that is the sworn enemy of the Jewish people; a Samaritan woman. And Jesus, the would be Messiah, strikes up a conversation with this woman.
Now you and I might not be able to relate to these ancient taboos, because after all, we’re Christians, good upstanding church-going Christians. So, just try to imagine some of our own taboos and you might just begin to understand the scandalous nature of this encounter. Just imagine, if you will the sleaziest bar in town. Forget it! There isn’t a bar sleazy enough in Newmarket. So, head down to the city and imagine some sleazy joint and you look over and who do you see but Stephen Harper and, I don’t know, say, Lindsay Lohan. They’re sittin there all cozy like…. chatting like there’s no tomorrow! Whadda ya think Harper’s handlers would think of that?
So, now, back to Jesus and the woman at the well; now their conversation may not seem like very much to you but it is the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in the New Testament; and what a conversation! Jesus asks this woman for a drink of water. Now, this may not sound like much of a pickup line to you, but back in Jesus’ day this was pretty risqué stuff! According to one respected Jewish scholar, first century custom dictated that if a man asked a woman for a drink of water he was actually asking for a relationship and if the woman gave the man a drink of water then that man and that woman would be bound together for no less than a whole year! If on the other hand, the woman told the man to get the water for himself, then they were never to speak again. Well, not our woman of the well, no our well-woman takes the measure of Jesus, and demands to know: “How is it that you, a Jewish man, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” And Jesus answers her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink,” you would have asked him, and he would have given living water.”
Well, our well-woman has been around the block a time or two and she knows a line when she hears one. She’s come across more than a few men who’ve tried to convince here that they are God’s gift! So, she puts this guy Jesus in his place: “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” But Jesus isn’t about to give up, “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.” Well, then, if that’s what he’s offering, our well-woman calls his bluff she says to Jesus, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
A little harmless repartee you say? Well I don’t think so! You’re forgetting perhaps that Jesus was a rabbi and rabbi’s in Jesus day just didn’t talk to a woman, any woman in public! Back then, rabbi’s were affectionately known as “the Bleeders” because they often went so far as to cover their eyes in public so as not to even see a woman, and they kept bumping into things and were often covered in bruises. And this wasn’t just any woman, this woman was a Samaritan for heaven’s sake! It was a violation for a Jew to speak with a Samaritan and for a Jewish rabbi it was unthinkable. This woman wasn’t just any Samaritan woman, this woman came to the well in the heat of the day, to avoided the other women of her town. This woman “vanted to be alone” cause she was the talk of the town! Jesus is breaking the socially accepted dividing walls. Our well-woman knows that Jesus is breaking all the rules!
Jesus turns the table on her. No longer are we talking about her giving him a glass of water from the well, now we’re talking about living water. Living water would have been a well known luxury of the day, something that Rabbis had and common folk didn’t; Living water was the common name for oxygenated water prized for its health giving purity, sorta the ancient version of Perrier. Jewish law required the use of Living water for ritual cleansings. This woman was drawing water from a stagnant well and this rabbi Jesus is offering her living water; moving water, the water that was found deep below the reach of the well’s walls. It was the best most refreshing water of all. And this rabbi doesn’t even have a bucket to draw water with.
But before she can even taste this water, Jesus changes the subject. “Go, call your husband, and come back.” Sounds like he’s fishing. “But I have no husband.” Says our well woman. “you are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” Our well-woman says to Jesus, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.” Now, stop right there, don’t believe a word you’ve been told about this woman! Sure she’s a woman of the world, sure she’s been around the block a time or two, but don’t go thinking that just because she’s had five husbands, that that makes her some sort of immoral woman. First of all women of her day could not divorce their husbands. Only men could divorce. A WOMAN COULD NOT DIVORCE A MAN. In Semitic cultures, a man could just throw his wife out if she displeased him and then take another wife. Jewish law was just a tad more enlightened than Semitic culture, a husband had to declare three times in public: I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you…before taking another wife. Jewish law then demanded that at the very least a husband had to provide a writ of divorce so that the woman could remarry. Without that option, in a society were women had little or no rights, she would have been in very desperate straits, a divorced woman could try to go back to her family, she could beg, or she could prostitute herself in order to survive. But Jesus doesn’t even say that this woman was divorced, only that she has had five husbands. Perhaps her husbands died. Widows back then were always encouraged to remarry. In fact the Romans went so far as to make it illegal for widowed women to remain single (they wanted children for the Empire). Jesus tells her that the man she is living with is not her husband. Don’t go there! For all we know she may have been living with her father or her brother…Jesus didn’t say a word about sex…but that’s right where most people go with this. “Aha”, they say, “Living in sin was she?” Of course she was living in sin; aren’t we all! Besides, Jesus seems unconcerned about sin in this conversation. He never accuses her, not even once. Nor does he tell her to repent. We have absolutely no evidence that this woman was anything but the most morally upstanding individual. What we do have are a lot of labels and stereotypes. First of all she was a woman alone in public. She was a Samaritan; a member of a different religion. She’d been married a few times. She talked to strange men. Sure, she’s not the type of person that your average rabbi would be striking up a conversation with. But then, Jesus isn’t your average rabbi. Jesus is the kind of Rabbi that pushes the boundaries and tears down walls.
Jesus’ behavior scandalized his own disciples! According to our story, “They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman.” But they didn’t dare to ask why? It’s funny really, when you think about it. These uptight righteous dudes, scandalized by Jesus’ because he dares to fraternize with a woman at a well know pick-up joint. These guys need to lighten up. They need to learn to laugh at themselves. Cause if you don’t laugh you’d cry. Cry at the self-centered, outrageously uptight, rule obsessed nature of their behavior. The story-teller has woven together a tale that pokes fun at the seriousness with which these guys take themselves. It reminds me of all those jokes about rabbis who go into bars. We tend to laugh at jokes that point out how ridiculous we are. But were so busy taking ourselves and our religion seriously that we’ve missed the punch line. Jesus himself, is undone by our vivacious Lana, who waltzed up to the bar and distracted our rabbi with her loveliness and before you know it our rabbi is going home with the lovely Lana. We could all do with a little lightening up. Go on have a little drink, relax, enjoy yourselves. Life is serious enough! We all need to unwind from time to time and just enjoy the absurdities of life, learn to laugh at ourselves.
Laughter works like a tonic. Laughter is good for the soul. So, don’t tense up, when God comes by to tickle you. Relax and let yourself be tickled. Remember the words of St. Teresa: “Just these two words God spoke changed my life, “Enjoy Me.” “What a burden I thought I was to carry—a crucifix, as did Christ. “Love once said to me, ‘I know a song would you like to hear it?’ And laughter came from every brick in the street and from every pore in the sky. After a night of prayer, God changed my life when God sang, “Enjoy Me.” Enjoy Me. What a different place the world would be if we could only hear God beseeching us, “Enjoy Me.”
Lighten up. Don’t take yourselves so seriously. Smile. Giggle, Laugh!!! Enjoy! Surely laughter emanates from the Spirit who is LOVE.