Surprised by Grace

Saint James Fordham • Lent 3a • Tobias Haller BSG
God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. - Romans 5:5

Grace is amazing — as amazing as water in the desert. Today’s readings show us two acts of amazing grace, two desert oases in our Lenten pilgrimage, as we examine the dry patches in our lives and discover some surprising water-springs.

The children of Israel received water from rock— the last place anyone would have looked. They had looked in empty river-beds, where they thought it should have been, rather than in the rock, where they were sure it couldn’t be. What was their problem (and do we share it)? Why don’t we find what we are looking for?

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First: we can look for the right thing in the wrong place. There’s an old joke about man crawling about under a lamppost late one night. A passing cop asks, “What’s all this then?” The man explains he’s looking for his watch. After helping him for a few minutes, the cop asks, “Are you sure you lost it here?” He answers, “No; I lost it up the street.” “Then why in thunder are you looking for it here?” Said the man, “Well, the light’s much better here.”

Are we that foolish? Do you remember the old song about looking “for love in all the wrong places”? How often do we do things we think will make us popular or well liked, rather than the things we really enjoy? How many people start drinking or smoking or using drugs so that they can be in the “right” crowd? It is good to be loved, but there are healthy ways and unhealthy ways to seek it.

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Second: we can possess the gift and not know it, or even reject it. Have you ever walked around looking and looking for something only to discover that it’s right in your pocket. Or even worse, have you ever been sorting out your mail and accidentally thrown away an important letter that got mixed up with the junk mail or the empty envelopes? It is possible to have all you could possibly need and yet not know it, or even lose it, through carelessness or lack of awareness.

God was never quite good enough for the wandering Israelites. They treated him like one of those envelopes from Publishers Clearing House — you know, the ones that tell you you’vepossibly won a million dollars, and you get all excited, but then you open it and find out it is about magazine subscriptions, and you throw it away. The treated the wedding invitation as if it were junk mail. They were never satisfied: When God gave them water from the rock, they asked for bread. When they received bread from heaven they complained there was no meat to go with it.

Are we that foolish, that ungrateful? How often, when blessed with life, health, reasonable success, and so on, do we hunger for more? There is a chilling judgment on this kind of selfishness in Psalm 106: “God gave them what they asked, but he sent leanness into their souls.” Leanness of soul, hunger that can never be satisfied but always craves more, is what keeps people looking for the right thing in the wrong place, and not knowing or accepting the gifts they’ve received, or even throwing them away.

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Let’s turn now, though, to some good news, to look at a figure from the Gospel. She’s an unlikely character who found grace in an unlikely way. She shows the same tendencies to look in the wrong place, or for the wrong thing, but she accepts the gift with enthusiasm. We don’t know her name, only that she was a woman of Samaria.

Jesus asks her for water. This is natural: he has no bucket, and he is thirsty. The surprise is that Jesus has living water for the woman, even though he asks her for well water.

Her response to the surprise is to try to “trim the mystery down to size” as all of us do, when confronted with the amazing. We human beings can turn the most beautiful poetry into prose at the drop of a hat. When offered the best things in the world we often try to tame and limit them. We like to put easy handles on big ungainly ideas like “Love” and “Peace” and then think we understand them because we’ve given them those short little one-syllable names. Well, love and peace are hard work, as a look at our lives or the world will tell us, and just because you can say the words doesn’t mean you can put them into practice; just because you can talk the talk doesn’t mean you can walk the walk.

When Jesus offers the woman living water, she asks “How can you offer me living water? You don’t have a bucket!” Then, when Jesus brings up the subject of her husband, she adopts another standard strategy to avoid taking a hard look at her life — she starts to talk “religion.” Here she is, a Samaritan woman, with a real live Jewish prophet cornered: what an opportunity to get a few quick answers.

Does this sound familiar? “Gee, Doc, I know this is a wedding party, but I’ve been having these funny pains in my left elbow for a while now...” Well, here’s the Samaritan woman’s opportunity to get some questions answered by an expert — and to avoid the uncomfortable look at her own life that Jesus has brought up. And, if you’re going to change the subject, there’s never been a more popular subject to change it to than religion!

Yet her question is superficial, as is so much talk about religion. “Where is the right place to worship?” — that’s the question she wants settled. Christ answers that the “where” isn’t important, but the “how” — true worshipers worship in Spirit. This answer about the Spirit confuses her, much as poor old Nicodemus was confused in our Gospel reading last week when he was told he needed to be born into the Spirit that moves where it wills, to be born again, born from above. The Samaritan woman too doesn’t understand, and says, “Messiah will make it clear.”

Then comes the climax, the turning point of the story, of her story and ours: Jesus says, “I am He.” He is Messiah, talking to her right there! That moment is portrayed in one of our stained glass windows,

right over there, just as Jesus tells the woman that he is what she has been looking for. Now, we’ve got some lovely stained glass windows here at Saint James — and this isn’t one of them! This was an American window made by a well-meaning craftsman trying to imitate the kind of work you see in the German stained glass windows in the sanctuary. The architectural details in his effort end up looking more like bananas than pinnacles. Still, look at the Samaritan woman’s face, caught in the moment of recognition, as she looks up just as Jesus points to himself and says, “I am he.”

There is some real skill showing through the artist’s vision of that moment, isn’t there? And what a moment it was: “I am he, the one speaking to you right now.” He is the real fount of living water brimming up in the middle of the desert of her life.

And hers is the proper response — she goes off to the city to spread the word. She doesn’t stake a claim to the living water: she doesn’t try to cap the well, she goes off to tell the town the good news. She becomes the first non-Jewish evangelist, the first to spread the Good News to the outcast and despised people of Samaria, the Good News that the Messiah has come not just to the Jewish people, but to them as well, to a people despised on account of their ancestry and their beliefs. Like Andrew, whose first act was to find his brother, this woman spreads the good news throughout the town, and a whole thirsty community is enabled to drink in the living presence of the Messiah among them.

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This story shows us several things about grace, most importantly that grace is undeserved. It is a gift, not a wage. Neither we nor the Samaritan woman nor the children of Israel earn it — we sometimes even refuse it without knowing it — we often avoid it as if it were hurtful. We sometimes pass it by as if it were not there. Grace is a gift, not a wage. It takes us by surprise. We don’t earn it. The only thing we earn, our only wages in our sinful state — well, as we are reminded in this Lenten season — the wages of sin is death.

But as the everlasting good news of Eastertide reminds us: the gift of God is life, life in abundance, like water in the desert. God’s love was poured out for an unlikely woman with a questionable past by a well in Samaria. And God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

For the gift and giver are one and the same: the giver is the gift. Jesus gave himself, gave his life for us, even while we were sinners. We’ve earned only death: we’ve worked hard for it — instead we are given a gift of life. And that is the wonderful and amazing surprise of grace: it’s what grace means — not getting what you deserve for your failings, but being forgiven in spite of them.

Christ continues to pour these gracious gifts upon us, through word and sacraments. We receive that grace, mediated through outward and visible signs. And the first of these, the one by which we first come into unity with Christ and the church, is the water of baptism, which flows into the desert of our lives.

We are the vessels for that water, vessels of clay made by the potter’s hand, ready to be filled to the brim with grace. The woman at the well said that Jesus had no bucket for the living water. But he had her: she would be a receptacle of grace, and carry it carefully back to her city, not spilling a drop, to quench the thirst of other yearning people, to invite them to the well of living water that is Jesus Christ.

The water of baptism is the same living water that burst from the rock to quench the thirst of the wandering children of Israel, the same living water that Jesus promised to a lonely woman by a well in the Samaritan outback, the same water in which you and I were baptized, and in which children and men and women will continue to be baptized until sacraments shall cease and we are one in Spirit and in Truth.

As we continue our Lenten pilgrimage, think on the gift of grace we have been given: how it is unexpected; how it is undeserved; how amazing grace is, that through word and sacraments we have come to know the One who is “indeed the savior of the world.”+