It’s the most wonderful time of the year – or is it? Of course, we prepare to celebrate God’s greatest gift to us – but that is tinged with sadness for so many of us. This may even be the most difficult time of the year for you.
If you are grieving a loss of any kind, or are sick or suffering or anxious or depressed or just plain sad, then every cheerful song you hear on the radio, every “Merry Christmas” wish, every party invitation, every commercial encouraging you to buy more stuff, is like a knife in your already hurting heart.
Even the familiar carols and other traditions that are supposed to build up your faith bring you to tears.
Churches have started to recognize this. Many of them now offer a special “Blue Christmas” service at some point in the Advent season. Maybe we’ll do that next year – but this year, all of our Advent, Christmas, and even Epiphany services will be based on the theme of finding peace – something that we and all hurting people need.
So we start with an unlikely Bible story for the First Sunday in Advent: Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. We have heard more sermons on this story than almost any other from Jesus’ ministry. But we probably have missed the fact that this woman was hurting. She needed to find peace in her life.
She had been married five times and divorced five times. Because woman were not permitted to divorce their husbands, then we know that she had five husbands leave her. Finally, she gave up on marriage and just moved in with a guy – in spite of the public disgrace that went with that. She was an object of scorn – and she needed some peace.
This woman seems to enjoy arguing with Jesus, but that only comes out of her pain. She was trying to protect herself by dodging His questions and trying to change the subject.
The fact that she was at the well around noon tells us that she was hurting.
The other women in town came to the well early in the morning – when it was cooler to walk while carrying heavy jars of water. But she came when the sun was highest in the sky because she was less likely to run into anyone else. She would not have to endure the stares and hear the rude comments and gossip.
That’s how she ran into Jesus. She was – to her community – damaged goods. She was – to Jesus – someone He came to save – someone who needed her compassion. And He started to show it by politely asking her for a drink of water.
Which was astonishing to her, because the Jews believed they would become ceremonially unclean if they took a drink from a Samaritan.
The Samaritans were descendants of those left behind after the Northern Kingdom of Israel fell and many of its people were taken captive to Assyria. Many of the Assyrians stayed in Samaria and intermarried with the Israelites. The Samaritans were viewed by the Jews as half-breeds. They had had a temple of their own on Mt. Gerizim and still worshipped there when Jesus passed through.
So this woman was an outcast as a Samaritan in the presence of a Jew, and as an outcast within her own community of outcasts.
As their conversation continued, Jesus told her that if she only knew who He was, she would ask Him for living water. This well where they met – known as Jacob’s Well – was a actually a cistern. Rainwater would percolate through the ground, purifying it before it collected in the well. It was not, however, a spring-fed well, which has the best water.
Jesus alluded to this theme in verse 14 when He said that whoever drinks this living water will become “a spring of water, welling up to eternal life.”
She still thought He was talking about drinking water, so she asked Him to give her some. She was hoping she would never have to go back to that well and face humiliation.
At that point, Jesus tells her to go and get her husband. It might seem that that He is ignoring her request, but He is not. He knows she needs His living water and not just something that will quench her thirst for only a little while. She needs Jesus’ love in her life and not just another guy to give her a temporary respite from loneliness and shame. By asking her to get her husband, Jesus is naming the source of her pain – the circumstances that allow her no peace in the sense of the Hebrew word Shalom: wholeness. Professional counselors call this “naming the elephant in the room.”
“I have no husband,” she replies. Jesus responds by telling her her own story: five husbands, five divorces, and she’s living now with a guy she’s not married to.
Now, she’s really intrigued – and probably very uncomfortable having this conversation with a total stranger – so she tries to redirect the conversation. She tells Jesus that she can see that He is a prophet – and then asks Him to resolve the eight-centuries-old dispute over whether the temple should be on Mount Zion in Jerusalem or on Mount Gerizim in Samaria.
The woman does not realize it, but in trying to change the subject – she has opened the door for Jesus to give her relief from her pain, to give her peace, to make her whole.
“Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.”
Jesus is saying that the physical location of the worship is not important – it’s the kind of worship that matters: worship in spirit and in truth. That is worship from the heart – worship that is sincere, coming from being in relationship with him – with Jesus Christ.
This is the same thing God said through the prophet Isaiah in our reading this morning: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.”
Worship in spirit and in truth is open and honest – not pretending to have it all together, but coming to God in our brokenness. It is the very opposite of hypocrisy. The Samaritan woman has tried to avoid confronting her pain by giving Jesus answers that are true but not the whole truth and by trying to change the subject. Only when she owns her hurts and brings them before God, can she find the peace she longs for.
John’s account of the Gospel gives us a hint that this woman found the peace she needed. She went back to town – in such a hurry that she left her water jar at the well – and told everyone who would listen, “Come, see
a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?”
She didn’t say that negatively – she said it excitedly. Jesus – in naming the source of her pain – had moved her from worrying about worshipping in the right place to worshipping from the right place: from a heart filled with truth.
Evie Tornquist was a popular Christian singer when I was in college, and one of her biggest hits was “Give Them All to Jesus.” At the time, I thought it was kind of cheesy – but today it seems remarkably appropriate as we think about finding peace by confronting our pain as an act of worship:
Are you tired of chasing pretty rainbows?
Are you tired of spinning round and round?
Wrap up all the shattered dreams of your life
And at the feet of Jesus, lay them down.
He never said you’d only see sunshine,
He never said there’d be no rain.
He only promised us a heart full of singing
About the very thing that once brought pain.
Give them all, give them all, give them all to Jesus
Shattered dreams, wounded hearts, broken toys.
Give them all, give them all, give them all to Jesus
And He will turn your sorrow into joy.
In a few moments, we will do just that. We will come to God – not with masks of having it all together or of being giants of faith, but as our lost, broken, confused, sinful, messy selves. We will share honestly our sorrow, our shame, our disappointments, our fears. We will name the source of our pain.
As we give them to God and worship God in spirit and in truth, we will find His peace that surpasses our ability to understand it.