Around the Block
The Third Sunday in Lent
They’re quite some lives – our lives. We start off life smelling bad from time to time and needing to be cleaned up. We’ll end up in the same state – relying on others to tidy up what we’d rather not talk about. And to varying degrees – even in our prime - we find ourselves needing to cover up or plaster over dysfunctions in our family life, in our legal history, in our prayer life or in our state of health or emotional well-being. We carry around the truth with us that we are not exactly who we present ourselves to be. My grandmother used to say of her morning routine that she needed to “put her face on” – a phrase which, curiously, endures to the present day among younger women in Scotland. Yes – even the best of us must occasionally “put his or her face on” – the face which we present to the employer, to the kids, to the minister at church or, if you are fortunate enough to be the minister, to the congregation seated in front of you.
The woman at the well has “been around the block”. Living in a small community with long memories her “put-on face” probably doesn’t hide much from the locals but, on this day, the woman sees a brand new face at the village well where she's come to draw water. Here is someone with whom she could start over and reinvent herself– somebody who doesn’t know her. Jesus is that blank canvas, that field of untrodden snow - an educated traveller with whom she can pass a few words in complete and total freedom. She clearly has a ready wit and good conversation skills. She might even talk about religion without inspiring a belly laugh from her counterpart. And why not? Good for her. You go girl! Reinventing yourself, wiping your slate clean or getting a fresh start: isn’t this the warp and woof of religious revival? Isn’t this exactly what the preachers say is on offer?
“Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18). It’s difficult, then, not to be on the poor woman’s side.
But you are who you are. God begins with that. He listens for a while to the self-justifying language and sees the layer of foundation which you put on your man-face or your woman-face to get that divorce off your face or that bankruptcy or that nervous breakdown or that significant moral failing a few years back or even the realization that the meaning of life chronically escapes you and that you're more bored with the whole process than you'll allow anyone to know. He puts it to you that so much of your religious language has utterly missed the point. Freedom, grace and acceptance is indeed what God offers, but he begins with us as we are. That wretchedness might need to be named. God must tease from us a confession of inadequacy. That's the fresh start. We are what we are. And what we are – the odour of it, the ugliness of it, the tragedy of it - is offered to God as the raw material with which he is pleased to work.