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SEEING INVISIBLE PEOPLE – John 4: 5-42

Third Sunday in Lent, March 18/19, 2017
Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, PA + The Rev. Roy Almquist

I see dead people! Some of you movie buffs may remember that great line from M. Night Shyamalan’s spooky classic, The Sixth Sense, the story of a little boy, played by then angelic Haley Joel Osment, who was able to see and talk to the dead.

Our Gospel lesson for today … the story of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman … reveals our Lord as one who could not see “dead people,” but who was capable of seeing invisible people. By invisible people I mean the sort of individuals who others quite easily overlook … deem insignificant … the denizens of the margins of life.

John’s account in Chapter 4 reveals Jesus is seeing just such an invisible person in the form of the Samaritan woman at the well. As Jesus engages this woman and transforms her life, so he also challenges us to think about how people come to faith.
Coming to faith is not an intellectual process of aligning with a particular Christian denomination or mastering complex theological concepts like the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection.

No, when Jesus encourages people to come to faith … he means the ability to trust God in such a way that we can take substantial, even dangerous, risks for the sake of the Gospel.

In today’s Gospel lesson we encounter the Samaritan woman ~ a person who moved out of the shadows and became an exemplary follower of Jesus, demonstrating a vibrant, confident, and compelling faith, as she encouraged her neighbors to place their trust in Jesus.

When Jesus engaged this Samaritan woman in conversation he had the longest conversation ever recorded in Scripture between Our Lord and another individual. How interesting that when he did this he did not choose a disciple or a Pharisee but an outsider ~ we might say she was a triple outsider.

First of all, she was a Samaritan, a person of no value or importance to pious Jews. She represented a remnant of former Jews, who had been left behind to assimilate with other cultures when the more elite and talented Jews were carried into captivity in Babylon, some six-hundred years before the birth of Jesus. Thus she was invisible to Jewish males, including the disciples.

Then, of course, she was a woman. In Jesus’ time, women had little status. They were not allowed to worship with men. A Jewish man would actually pray: I thank you, God, that I am not a woman. Indeed, women had no place in public life. They were not to be seen or heard. They were invisible.

Finally, the Evangelist John indicates that this woman might have been something of a social pariah in her community. Clearly, she did not come to the well in the cool of the morning, when the other women did, the best time for socializing and sharing the news of the day. John considered it worth noting that this woman had five husbands and now lived with another man to whom she was not married.

This Samaritan woman was an invisible person! The Western Church has never identified her save by her gender and nationality. She is honored by the Eastern Orthodox Church, where she is St. Photine. So it is that this woman represents countless people, many of them women, who simply are not noticed … people who work so hard that they never get to the polls to vote … they have no recognizable professions or skills that earn them prestige … those who quietly dedicate themselves to others, and yet no one knows their names!

Lynn Cohick, a New Testament professor at Wheaton College in Illinois, reflects on our Gospel lesson by telling the story of a woman she met while in Kenya:
Florence came to my house twice a week, selling vegetables. She carried on her back a bag weighing nearly forty pounds. …
One day, Florence … told me her husband had died when her children were young. It was important that she remarry … Her parents sought a suitable spouse, and the man they chose was her grandfather’s age. Florence smiled, confessing that at first she disliked the idea. … I later met him, a wonderful, wizened man—mostly blind and deaf, but dignified. Florence cared for her elderly husband, and the marriage gave her stability and self-respect.
As I listened to her, I began to think about the Samaritan woman at the well. And I saw parallels immediately. [Christianity Today, October 12, 2015]

The wonder of our Gospel story is found in the fact that Jesus did not just speak to this Samaritan woman … He saw her! He could read her heart and her thoughts. When he commented on her marital background and present living arrangement, he did not do it in a judgmental manner. Sadly, the Church has achieved a rather ugly profile of viewing people harshly, who have had multiple marital connections or live in partnered relationship outside of marriage.

When Jesus spoke to her, it was not in a spirit of condemnation, but out of compassionate recognition of the fact that this woman had lived a heart-rending and problematic life. Abandoned five times, now dependent on someone who will not marry her, she is in desperate straits. But for Jesus this woman has dignity and value. He can sense her leadership ability.

So we find this Samaritan woman to be the first person to whom Jesus reveals himself fully. When the Samaritan woman says: I know that Messiah is coming … When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us, Jesus responds: I am he, the one who is speaking to you. [John 4: 25-26]

Today our Gospel lesson challenges us to see the invisible people around us …
the children of poverty who play the game of life with a stacked deck,
the maid at Shannondell, who got to work in the snow last Tuesday because she could not make the day up on Saturday because she works her second job on weekends,
the refugee father and husband who has lost his country, his home, his pride and wants only a chance to begin again and provide for those he loves.
Today our Lord urges us … to see invisible people … open our hearts to them, extend our helping hands to them, value them for what they are … children of God, like us, and Jesus’ little brothers and sisters.

I am convinced that what will matter in the eyes of God is not that we have the right heritage or skin color … not that we belong to the right denomination or align ourselves with the right religious faith community …
What will matter to God is that we can see each other … that we will embrace and love the invisible and the unlovely … that we know we need each other and we will stop building walls of separation and, instead, find the paths and bridges that connect us to one another. amen