Has a revelation of the truth ever turned your assumptions upside down?

A few years ago I had a chance encounter with a person that changed – and continues to change – my life. My husband and I were living in Manhattan, across the street from the hospital where I work. We have a dog, a little black miniature schnauzer named Frankie. My husband Tex usually walks her in the morning, but for some reason this morning, after I was dressed for work, I took her out.

It was early in the morning; the night had been cold and the morning air still felt chilly. As we were walking up the block, Frankie and I approached a seemingly homeless man who had slept the night on an old piece of cardboard that he had placed over a sidewalk grate near the steam exhaust of an apartment building.

He was shivering from the cold; he had no hat or gloves or warm coat. I suspected he may not have eaten much recently. As we passed him on the sidewalk, Frankie 'put on the brakes' and made a beeline to him. He looked into her eyes, and she jumped up on him like he was her best friend. Her little stump on her rump was wagging back and forth as fast as it could. He brought his head down to hers, and kissed her. Then, he let her go, and she came back to me. His eyes met mine, and he smiled and said 'thanks.' Noticing my collar, he asked me for a blessing. I gave him one. With a peaceful look upon his face, like he had received a gift that he had been waiting for for a very long time, he returned to his cardboard bed. 

That was it. He didn’t ask for anything else – no 'can you spare some change' or anything. Just love from a dog, a blessing, and 'thanks.'

Tex and I eventually moved to Queens, so I now take the subway and walk to the hospital. I sometimes see him. He’ll notice me, come towards me and say 'please give me a blessing.' I always do, and he smiles and says 'thanks.' Never asks for anything more than a blessing. I often notice that all the rest of us, coming to or from our jobs at the hospital, aren’t smiling the way he is.  

Today's Gospel is the story of Jesus' oh-so-familiar [and long!] chance encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus was on his way from Judea to Galilee, and he had to pass through Samaria en route. He stopped by Jacob's well in the heat of the day for some refreshing water; there he met a woman who had come with her water jar to draw water from the well. 

The hatred and distrust between Judeans and Samaritans was centuries old by the time Jesus sat by Jacob's well and was approached by this woman of Samaria. It was noon, in the heat of the day. The other women went early in the morning or in the evening, when cooler temperatures would make the work seem easier, and they could still enjoy each other’s company. 

A woman who chose instead to go to the well at noon must have been seeking specifically to avoid that company; it seems that she was an outcast even among Samaritans. It was a culture in which there was little if any privacy, and gossip spread news quickly. As oppressive as the noonday sun is, it doesn't burn like the stares of the others. So she goes to the well at noon, when she can be sure to be alone.

And, Jesus does the unthinkable! He speaks to her and asks her for a drink. It was not customary for men to speak with women in public, and Jesus was not just any man. He was a rabbi, a further limitation on his public behavior, and this was no ordinary woman. This was a Samaritan woman, one with whom no contact was allowed, an outcast of sorts, a near non-person who existed well outside the margins of society. Like my homeless man.

Asking her for a drink of water was nothing short of scandalous. The woman is quite surprised that a man – and a rabbi at that – would speak to her. And then Jesus offers her 'living water.' Now the woman was really getting confused. It's one thing for him to speak to her, but his suggestion that he might give her water, that's so far beyond what is possible it boggles the mind.

Jesus now promises her that the water he can provide for her is water from which springs eternal life – water that will quench her thirst forever.

Eventually the woman left her water jar, went back to her community and told her people about this rabbi she had met who refused to play by the rules. And many heard her story and it was so compelling that many came to believe in Jesus.

What is it about Jesus? Time and again his behavior surprises us; his words jolt us; his teaching forces us to rethink the way we see and understand the world. In this case he turned everything upside down: He sidestepped the boundaries and spoke with an outcast; he suggested to her that he might serve up the water rather than be waited on by her.

He confronted her with the sure knowledge of her secrets, but rather than condemning her, he used her own difficult story to help her discover who he really was. 

Give Jesus half a chance and most of what you think you know about him he is going to turn upside down. He is going to find a way to transform your life, reorient your thinking, and make you more open to receiving life’s blessing.

That's exactly what happened to me that cold, spring morning when Frankie and I had our encounter with the homeless man in my neighborhood. My whole world was turned upside down. My expectation of what that person would be like, what he would want from Frankie and me, was and continues to be the opposite of what my instinct tells me to expect. A nameless, homeless man asks me for a blessing, and despite his earthly, material position, despite what is surely an empty belly and discomfort in his body, he most wants to receive a blessing. In fact, when I take in how open he is to the presence of God, I always realize in a profound way, that I am the one who receives the blessing. A homeless man without a name has crossed a barrier with me and shows me Jesus in a way that I have rarely experienced.

The woman asks, 'Where can I get that water that water, that water that you say will quench my thirst forever?' She wants the well that is deeper than Jacob’s well, she wants to quench her thirst. She is open to blessing, this eternal love and rightness. And she gets, in the person of this stranger standing right in front of her in the middle of the village in the middle of the day, a taste of God. I pray a blessing on my homeless man; he becomes living water through which God gives me a taste of eternity and quenches my thirst.

What transformed this woman and me could transform us and our world. The woman at the well was despised by her village, which was despised by Judeans, whose ancestors had been humiliated by Babylonians. How does our society regard the homeless, the outcast? Jesus sets aside all score-keeping, all boundaries, and by treating all as if all were forgiven, he makes forgiveness possible – for all of us.

That woman asks Jesus about that living water. Perhaps for the first time ever, her thirst is quenched. I like to imagine that for the first time ever, she has a new view of herself. Maybe she hears that voice that Jesus heard at his baptism in the Jordan making her feel that God is well-pleased; maybe she hears that she is loved, and that she is worth more than the sum of her past. I wonder what her next questions might be?

Asking questions is a risky business. Our questions can push us a bit, like the question of the Samaritan woman, so that we have to look at our lives, to see what we want, what we need, what we don’t need, and what God needs from us. If we question our assumptions about others, what blessing might we receive? 

Lent is a good time to ask the questions we might avoid the rest of the year. What might we ask? And, what can do this Lent to be – hopefully forever – open to receiving God’s blessing as we learn from all our fellow God-created creatures?

May our questions make this the holiest Lent ever.

Thanks be to God.