Persistent Friend—John 4: 5-42
March 15, 2020- 3rd Sunday in Lent
I am a lover of words. I love to play with words. I love the power that words have to to change our way of thinking about something ordinary or mundane. One of my favourite examples of this occured in the relationship between between the former Waterloo Presbytery and former Hamilton Conference in the previous United Church structure. Every staff person at the Hamilton Conference office was assigned a Presbytery to which they were responsible for maintaining regular correspondence and attending meetings. Now, there are many terms they could have chosen for the person in this role. They could have called this person a liaison, a contact person, a representative or a delegate. Instead they chose something very different, they chose to call these people “persistent friends”, so that every Presbytery had a persistent friend from Conference office. What a wonderful and beautiful term, persistent friend—someone who loves you and cares deeply for you and will stand by your side through the roughest of times. Everyone needs a persistent friend.
It is this term that came to me as I reflected on Jesus’ relationship with the Samaritan woman—Jesus as the persistent friend. To the woman I think he came across as more of a pest though, sometimes persistent friends are like that. She never expected to engage in a conversation with a strange man at the well, she expected to get her water and go. More than a pest, she probably viewed him as a threat. First of all she was a woman by herself in the company of a man that was not her husband or her brother. According to the social codes of the time it was highly inappropriate for Jesus even to start a conversation with her, and even more inappropriate for her to respond, since it was up to her to protect her honour. Second she was a Samaritan and Jesus was a Jew. Samaritans were a Jewish sect, they believed that the centre of worship was Mount Gerizim not Jerusalem which lay 48 km to the south. Further they believed that the only scripture with authority were the books of the Torah, the first five books of the bible. There was great animosity between Jews and Samaritans, think of Irish Protestants and Catholics. Thirdly, she did not live a socially acceptable life. For whatever reason she had been through five husbands, we are not told why. Now she is living with a man that is not her husband. That’s what we are told about her, nothing else, so it would be wrong to jump to the conclusion that she was a prostitute or otherwise unvirtuous as some have claimed. The most we can say is that life has not lead her on a conventional path, and perhaps this makes her a bit of an outcast or puts her on the margins of Samaritan society.
Regardless she has every reason to see in Jesus a threat; not a friend. But Jesus will not let her go, Jesus is a persistent friend. This confounds her, ‘why would this Jewish man want anything to do with her?’ You can see this confusion in her struggle to come up with a term that describes her relationship with Jesus: Jew (she says with scorn), Someone greater than Jacob (she says questioning), Sir and Prophet (she says with a certain admiration).
Sometimes we can pecieve the people who want the best for us as a threat. Think of a parent disciplining a child for example, or a friend who tells you something you need to hear but don’t want to hear. This resistance is often rooted in our woundedness. Allow me to explain. Each of us is like a set of concentric circles. The inner circle being our true selves, our divine selves, the place where the the image of God in which we are created is evident. This inner circle is the place where we know our gifts and the work God has for us to do, it is the place where our true self resides when we are not people pleasing, meeting other’s expectation or pushing others away out of fear. It is the place of our deepest integrity, it is the place of the soul.
The outer circle are the layers that life places on us; fears, insecurities, traumas, wounds. These are the layers that are the result of abuse, neglect, injustice, not being accepted for who we are and more. We all have this outer layer, our life circumstances determine it’s thickness. You might even be pondering what makes up your outer layer right now. The thing is we can get so comfortable with this outer layer that we start to define ourselves by it. The boy who grows up being physically abused winds up abusing his own family. The girl who grows being physically abused marries an abuser. The child growing up in fear becomes very averse to risk, taking few chances in life. The child raised in a family where love and acceptance are conditional on good behaviour becomes a people-pleaser. The spiritual journey, the Lenten journey, in part, is about getting through that outer layer of imposed definition to our true definition, that lies at our centre; a child of God.
But that can be a scary process, for many of us it has been so long since we’ve been in touch with that core that we don’t know it’s even there. When someone comes along and speaks to the deepest part of who we are, and sees beyond the layers to the inner core, it can be frightening. They are in effect saying, ‘I know the real you, the beautiful sacred you, I can see beyond the fear, beyond the wounds, beyond the hurtful behaviour, beyond the helplessness.” If we are to accept and embrace that view of ourselves then we have to change, we have to let go of who we thought we were, without really being sure that the core of who we are is actually there. That’s why addicts push away those who love them, that’s partially why women frustrate their families by staying in abusive relationships, that’s partially why homosexual and trans-gendered people stay in the closet, that can be why a person with low self-esteem refuses to share their gifts even when asked by someone who sees their giftedness, that can be why a gifted, resourceful person stays in a dead-in job even though someone close says ‘you could be so much more.’
It doesn’t take much imagination to suppose this set of circumstances in the story of the Samaritan woman. Just in this one encounter the layers that separate her from her true self are evident. She is a woman, which in the eyes of sociery automatically makes her inferior to and thus afraid of Jesus. She is a Samaritan, which she presupposes will make her unacceptable to Jesus. She has not lived the most conventional and accceptable of lives which she believes will make her an object of judgement and perhaps scorn. The layers are thick and solid, having been well re-enforced over years and years of being told the same thing and treated the same way. There are good reasons for her to rebuke Jesus, to defend who she knows herself to be. She tries, but Jesus is the persistent friend that will not let her go. He insists on a personal relationship with her. She is a woman and he is a man but Jesus sees deeper. He is a Jew and she a Samaritan but Jesus sees deeper. Jesus sees beyond her lifestyle. He sees beyond all that, beyond all the layers of life, to her very core. Jesus is the persistent friend who stands by her, not judging her but giving her acceptance and hope. Jesus is the persistent friend who sees beyond life’s layers and goes to the core of her identity, revealing to the Samaraitan woman the truth that she to is a child of God. We see this in the woman’s response, she is no longer confused about Jesus’ identity. To her Jesus is messiah, her saviour, the one who reveals God to her. She must share this with everyone.
And that is the way the Holy One works with you and me. God is our persistent friend as well—present in the deepest part of our being, sticking by us, seeing beyond our outer layer to our true and holy selves. That’s often what the discomfort of the spiritual journey and change is all about. It’s our persistent friend speaking from that core layer, loyally sticking by us, calling forth our true selves, not allowing us to short change ourselves without notice. Like a chick pecking away persistently at the shell, to emerge a new life in the world. This is the essence of the spiritual life and Lent, to let the layers fall away. As Heather preached last week, to be born again, completely dependant, not our own strength, but on the grace of a persistent friend who sees us, knows us and will not let us go.
Rev. Joe Gaspar
 I am indebted to the Rev. Karen Hilfman-Milson for this analogy of the two concentric circles.