[The Samaritan woman] said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!  He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” John 4:29

Whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome in this place.

I say that every single week, at both services.  It is said by UCC pastors around this country; an intentional phrase of inclusion, a correction of the historic church exclusion that has harmed so many, and made so many wary of entering our worship spaces.  It is an intentional response to the judgment that so many churches practice.

It is not, however, a response to Christian exclusion.  For that has never existed.  This new, modern, liberal position is, in fact, none of those things, but is one of oldest tenets of our faith. Because our faith calls us to extend our ideas of who we count as neighbor, as worthy, as Godly, as recipients of grace. The extravagant welcome, the extravagant forgiveness that we work so hard to embody are not the products of modern Christianity, but ideas that Jesus himself espoused and practiced.

It seems like whenever Jesus wants to really drive this point home, the story would involve a Samaritan.  There’s the parable of the Good Samaritan, found in Luke’s Gospel, which has become so embedded in our culture that it has lost a great deal of its power.  And there is this story, of the Samaritan woman at the well, only mentioned here in John’s Gospel, and where we are more likely to remark upon the protagonist’s gender and sexual history than on her geographic origins.  But these are important; perhaps more important than anything else about her; for it is the fact that she is a Samaritan that makes her so totally “other”, so totally despised by the Jews.  Because you never fight with anyone so badly as with your own family.

The region that in Jesus’ time was called Samaria had been, before the Babylonian exile, the Kingdom of Israel – the northern half of King David’s realm, which had broken with Judah to the south and become its enemy.  The battles of these kingdoms are recorded in the historic books of the Hebrew Bible (2 Kings 17), as was their eventual fall to the Assyrians and the Babylonians.  Still: Samaria and Judea had a shared history, through the lineage of David, and earlier, of Abraham: the well from which Jesus proposed to drink was the well of Jacob, Abraham’s grandson.  The Samaritans, too, were people of the covenant, with the same scriptures and the same commandments and many of the same practices as their neighbors – their cousins – to the south.  But to the Jews – Judeans – there were inexcusable differences in practice that rendered the Samaritans “impure” and “fallen”: notably here, that the center of their worship was Mt. Gerezim (in Samaria) rather than Jerusalem (in Judea).  The Judeans despised the Samaritans for having received the same revelations of God, the same covenant with God, and responding to it in a different manner.

So to have this woman, so very “other” from the average reader of – or listener to – John’s Gospel as the protagonist, let alone the intelligent, perceptive protagonist that this woman is… it would have been nothing short of mind-blowing.

But it would not have been an accident.

John’s Gospel was the last of the four to be written, around 120CE.  It is the only one in our Bible to include an innovation of written storytelling: a strong sense of narrative and structure.  Far more than just strings of parables and sea crossings over the course of three years, like the other (Synoptic) Gospels; John is intentional in its placement of stories and parables.  Today’s reading is a good example: the internal structure of John 4 contrasts Jesus’ conversation with the woman, and the results of that, with his conversation with the disciples.  To both, he talks about physical needs as metaphor for spiritual ones – hungers and thirsts have both superficial and larger meanings.  But this story is also placed in a larger context, and draws another contrast; this time with the character we met in the previous chapter, the Pharisee Nicodemus – the Jewish man rather than the Samaritan woman, who came to Jesus in midnight darkness rather than noonday sun.  John’s careful use of story and narrative not only gives explicit examples, but drives us towards an implicit understanding of God’s love and grace; God’s extravagant welcome.

So we find Jesus at noon at a well in Samaria, having left Judea because it was prudent, for the time being, for him to put some distance between himself and the authorities in Jerusalem.  And in his travels, he found himself in need of water; at a well but without a bucket.  It is one of the rare references to Jesus’ humanity in this Gospel, yet a good reason to situate this story at noon; an unusual time for anyone to visit a well and draw water.  Why the woman should come to draw at noon is the subject of speculation, but it seems prudent not to read too much into it.  Things happen that we couldn’t predict when we went to draw water in the early morning, not least of which is that God calls us and moves in us in unexpected ways.  Not to mention that the Gospel writer needed Jesus to be alone with the woman; to get no external clues about who she was or her history.

So: noon.  Not midnight, as with Nicodemus; for the woman, there were no shadows to hide in.  Nothing except the bright, clear light of the desert sun; nothing except clarity, and the vision that allowed Christ to see the woman entirely: to see the precariousness of her position as a woman in society, to see all she would have had to do to survive.  There was only the vision that allowed Christ to see the sharp intelligence, the quick grasp that this woman – so very “other – had of all that he was telling her.  And the clarity that allowed woman to ask shrewd questions in return, to examine what Jesus really meant by his offers of acceptance and grace.  She asked the questions that any might ask of us, when we assert that all are welcome here: what does that really mean?  “Am I allowed even if I don’t worship as you do? In Jerusalem?  Am I welcome even as a Samaritan?  even as a woman?  No, seriously, what’s the catch?  What conversion or change is required?”  The Samaritan woman stood before Jesus in the brilliant, shadowless light of the noonday sun; in the light that allowed her to stand vulnerable but unafraid before the one who could see her entirely, in the light that allowed her to see him clearly as well, and to name Jesus as prophet and Messiah, in the light that allowed there to be nothing hidden between them at all.

It takes courage, to achieve such clarity.  It takes courage to come to such intimacy as we usually reserve for few, if any, in our lives.  We, who turn away from bright lights, who shield our eyes and our hearts from the rawness and pain of human life; we, who protect ourselves in shadows; we are uncomfortable with that level of light, of vision, of clarity.  We are uncomfortable with the idea of being seen entirely, of being broken open, with all that we would rather hide made made suddenly visible.  We are afraid of having on display the fears, the insecurities, the desperations of our lives; of being vulnerable, especially to one whom we suspect despises and judges us (and whom do we not suspect of judgment and derision?)  And so we remain in shadow, fearful of being seen; fearful as well of seeing.

For what might it mean for us to see the fears and desires that drive someone else?  to see and understand the root of their hurts, their shame? What might it mean for us to see that none of us are really all that different, despite what we’d rather believe: despite the superficial, created differences of race, or class, or gender? Despite the equally superficial differences of politics, practices or beliefs?  Despite the all-too-human desire to be special, unique?

What might it mean to see ourselves in the mentally ill?  In the addict?  In the young woman on welfare, or the young man whose unemployment insurance has run out?

What might it mean to see ourselves in those whom we might otherwise judge so harshly?

Is it any wonder we prefer shadows, w what we might see in the light?

The problem is that we tend to think God prefers the shadows, too.  We, like Nicodemus, think we can find full understanding of the love that welcomes us so extravagantly, yet without having to see or be seen.  We hide our fears and our failings, as though we might be hiding them from God, as though these might be the deal-breaker that excludes us from love and grace.  We keep to the shadows because it enables us to continue believing what we would really prefer to believe, despite our fear: that there are those who are, in fact, not welcome, not worthy: a Fred Phelps, an Adam Lanza, a one who has gone so far from love as to be cut off from grace… as we fear we might be, if we were truly and clearly seen.

We, like the disciples, prefer to focus on the human, the mundane, the safe.  We concentrate on human hungers and human thirsts.  We dwell in the places where it’s comfortable to look, without too much light, lest it hurt our eyes and our hearts.  We hide ourselves in the the dappled shadows of otherness and difference – the human reassurance that “we” are not like “them”, but are worthy of love, and of acceptance, and of grace… if no one looks too close.

We talk fairly regularly about God’s light at work in this world, banishing the shadows that would hide us from one another.  It’s pretty frequent imagery for mainline churches, but we talk about it rather like we talk about the coming Kingdom, as a sorta-now-but-mostly-later thing; a let’s-look-for-signs rather than a let’s-help-it-arrive thing.  We rejoice in God’s Kingdom… as long as it doesn’t mess with our comfortable, happy lives.  We look for God’s light, as long as it doesn’t expose us too badly; as long as we can use it to banish other people’s shadows, over there, away from us, where we can’t actually see.

We look for God’s light, as long as it doesn’t make us see clearly that which we’d rather not see, as long as it doesn’t open our hearts to that which we’d prefer to not understand, as long as it doesn’t make us see ourselves in those whom we’d rather despise.

We pray for God’s light, as long as we can still seek Jesus from the shadows, like Nicodemus, as long as we can stay safe, and not actually risk ourselves in the process.

God’s light is in the world, and we throw up our hands to shield our eyes.  We create shadows in which to hide while urging the light to dispel other shadows, somewhere else.  We create shadows from which we can claim not to see, blinded as we are by the brightness beyond our reach.  And we survive on pale excuses for sustenance: busyness and diet and causes that fall within our comfort zone; we settle for being full, rather than nourished.

But the light is there – brighter than the desert sun at noonday.  The grace is still there, that knows us and still invites us out of the shadows.  The grace that invites all of us – our fears and insecurities and shame included.  The grace that invites all of us: humanity in all its varied forms, with its most basic, shared needs for food and water, unconditional love and extravagant welcome.  The grace that invites all of us: Fred Phelps and Mathew Shepherd; Adam Lanza and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; victims and offenders, the fearful and the…. fearful.

Grace invites us: all of us who fear that God’s love might actually have limits – because we don’t worship in Jerusalem; because we are Samaritans, we are “other”; because we have hurt one another; because we are broken, and fearful, and hurting.

Grace invites us, still, to live by God’s abundant love, to live in God’s extravagant welcome.   Grace invites us, even in our fear.

God’s light is in the world, and we need not hide, for what shadows can hide us from God?  What shadows can hide us from the one who knows everything we have ever done?  We have been seen entirely, and are beloved despite it all.

God’s light is in the world so that we might see one another, and be seen by one another… and in the clarity of that light, we might recognize God in our midst: even by the well at noon; even in the Samaritan woman; even in person who is so “other”, that we would far rather they simply burn in hell.

God’s light is in the world, in the hopes that we might stand within it, vulnerable and unafraid, to accept the living waters of grace; to nourish ourselves on the food that is light, and grace, and love spread throughout this creation.  God’s light is in the world, and we are welcomed by grace – whoever we are, and wherever we are on life’s journey.

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