The Third Sunday in Lent

When Romeo first meets Juliet, he is an outsider in the home of the Capulets, who are of course the mortal enemies of his own family, the Montagues.  He has crashed the Capulet party for no particularly good reason, and as fate would have it, he has developed an instant crush on Old Capulet’s daughter, Juliet.  Star-struck, he approaches her, takes her hand, and speaks an elegant speech:


If I profane with my unworthiest hand

This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:

My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand

To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.


It isn’t just the smoothest opening line any wooer ever spoke.  It is in fact the opening stanza of a perfect sonnet.  Romeo and Juliet compose together, on the spot, just spontaneously, a sonnet about how Romeo is a pilgrim and Juliet is a saint’s statue and Romeo wants to, well, show his piety, by kissing her although they’ve just met.

Here’s how the whole thing goes:


Romeo:           If I profane with my unworthiest hand

This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:

My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand

To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss

            Juliet:              Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,

Which mannerly devotion shows in this;

For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,

And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.

Romeo:           Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

Juliet:              Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

            Romeo:           O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;

They pray--grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

Juliet:              Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.

Romeo:           Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take.


Then they kiss: perfection.  Romeo is just daring enough to capture Juliet’s attention, and Juliet manages to be a wonderfully correct, slightly unavailable saint while nevertheless breaking the rules of polite behavior just enough to get to kiss a cute boy at a party.  Composing a sonnet together without even trying, at their first meeting, they are the epitome of fashionable adolescent behavior in Verona.  They are the teenage elect.


Sometimes, when lovers meet, it’s obvious that they were meant to be. 


In the twenty-fourth chapter of the book of Genesis, when Abraham decides that it is time for his son Isaac to marry, he sends a servant away to the city of Nahor, to find Isaac a wife who isn’t a Canaanite.  The servant waits by a well, praying to God that the woman he asks for a drink of water will be the one God has chosen for Isaac to marry.  And before he finishes the prayer, lo, the beautiful virgin Rebekah, of just the right family, appears and gives him water.  She even gives water to his camels, which I guess is in its own way as elegant a show of perfection as composing a sonnet.  It is meant to be, between Rebekah and Isaac, and the promise of God to Abraham lives on for another generation.


Again, in the twenty-ninth chapter of Genesis, when Isaac decides that it is time for his son Jacob to marry, it is imperative that he not marry one of the daughters of the Canaanites.  So Isaac sends Jacob away to Paddan-Aram, to find a woman from Rebekah’s family.  Journeying east, Jacob waits by a well and just happens to meet there some men from Rebekah’s family.  Even as they speak, the lovely Rachel approaches.  Jacob gives water to the sheep Rachel is tending, kisses Rachel, and weeps.  It was just meant to be, between Jacob and Rachel, and though the family story is awfully complicated by this point, the promise of God to Abraham lives on through Isaac and Jacob, through Rebekah and Rachel, and on down through their descendants.


Moses, in his day, waiting by a well in the land of Midian, helps the seven daughters of the local priest to water their flocks and ends up married to Zipporah.  Like the sonnet spoken by Romeo and Juliet, these spontaneous exchanges at foreign wells mark our biblical heroes and heroines as fore-ordained.   No matter what desert they journey through, we come to understand, the people of God will find the water.  The water will come to them.  They will remain God’s people.  The promises will come to pass.


The Samaritan woman who encounters Jesus by Jacob’s well in John’s Gospel this morning seems to be the inheritor of an inferior promise.  Yes, Jacob gave this well to her ancestors, and the Samaritan people had understood themselves to be in communion with God, worshipping God on a special mountain.  But apparently their tradition pales by comparison with the promises of God to the people of Israel, and they are second rate, so much so that it’s surprising that Jesus would even venture through Samaritan land.  It is completely unexpected, then, that he would wait by a well and ask a Samaritan woman for a drink.  In fact his disciples can’t fathom why he would even be talking to a woman in the first place, though they keep that unpleasant little opinion to themselves. 


But Jesus thirsts for something that this second-class woman can give him, and no less deftly than Romeo, he prompts her to share with him an unexpected intimacy.  And she, no less responsive than Juliet, quickly finds herself in a passionate exchange with a stranger.  He somehow knows all about her, knows that star-crossed lovers’ meetings have worn thin for her, that after five marriages a nuptial promise starts to feel like a very weak indicator of God’s providential care.  Who knows what those five marriages have been about: whether she has been abandoned or passed along, or unfaithful, or widowed.  All we can say for sure is that she is ready for something deeper.  She is almost majestic in her openness to the approach of Jesus.  She acknowledges the facts of her life without defensiveness, and offers up her version of religious understanding without clinging to a truth that isn’t working.  When Jesus tells her that it doesn’t exactly matter what mountain she worships on, she willingly lets go of what she thinks she knows.  And she eagerly receives the living waters that Jesus offers, dropping the jar she has used day in and day out for the tedious journey to an ancestral well. 


The words she speaks in response to Jesus are certainly not worthy of Shakespeare, but they are in their own way perfection: “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”


All our lives, many of us wait for the perfect sign of God’s presence among us.  We cling to promises and relationships and daily routines, hoping against all evidence that they will slake our thirst for the living water.  We feel sure that when we have that living water we will be holy and certain, elegant in our faith, perfect insiders with God.  And all this time, while we wait for the perfect encounter, God is with us in our cynicism, in our doubt, in our failed promises and our misunderstanding.  There may be dreamy encounters with God when all the words are right, but God isn’t holding out for perfection and neither should we.


Jesus thirsts for connection with us in our failings.  That is why Jesus journeys in a strange land: in search of us, with our uncertain sense of providence, with our quiet misgivings.  The living waters flow through those places too.  And our responses at those moments--“This isn’t God I’m encountering, is it?”—are quite enough for God to use.  That Samaritan woman became a prophet among her people, just by letting Jesus come close to her misgivings. 


Don’t wait.  You may not feel the urgent thirst that Jesus feels, but Jesus thirsts for you to encounter him.  And all around you are people who thirst for transformation.  When you acknowledge the weary imperfections of your own relationship with God, the water flows through you.  And your own tentative acceptance opens doors for everyone you meet.


This Lent is not primarily a time for us to feel right with God.  It is primarily a time for us to acknowledge the truth of our relationship with God, and to become in that honesty, vessels of God’s grace for a world that is truly—really—parched.  Dry as a bone. God needs no more from us, no perfect sonnet of rapturous acquiescence.  At this time of year, more than ever, God’s truth is perfection enough.


Thanks be to God.


Preached by Mother Nora Johnson

Lent III, 23 March 2014

Saint Mark's, Philadelphia

Posted on March 25, 2014 .