Jesus meets a Samaritan woman and confronts her about some of her more questionable choices. She returns to her village and tells people about the holy man she has met. She speculates that Jesus might even be the messiah. She invites them to come and see Jesus for themselves. And it works. John tells us, “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.”
Then comes the key sentence. After hearing Jesus, people tell the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”
The Samaritans moved from believing in Jesus based on the testimony of someone else—a kind of second-hand faith—to believing in Jesus based on their own personal encounter with him.
As we all know, that move is necessary for any real relationship.
When I was a teenager, I had a crush on Michelle Pfeiffer. She was a movie star. I was a junior in high school. “Grease 2” is what did it. As far as I was concerned, it was love at first sight.
But, as you might guess, we did not have a relationship. I simply admired Michelle from afar.
That is how lots of people start with God. They first learn about God and about Jesus Christ at second hand.
My own Christian journey began with my baptism when I was a few weeks old, and of course I have no memory of that day.
As I grew up, I had to learn about who God is, and who I am, and how I should to relate to God. I remember asking my parents one day what denomination we belonged to. When I first approached a priest about getting ordained, I asked him what it means to be an Episcopalian. I was happy to be one. I just didn’t know what it meant! I needed to learn from others.
Now, there is nothing wrong with that. We begin learning from others when we are young, and the process continues to the day we die.
And, our gospel reading reminds us, some of the best teachers are not the people we might expect. The Samaritan woman in our story was part of a despised ethnic and religious group. She was surprised Jesus was even willing to talk to a Samaritan. The disciples were just as surprised, but their surprise was mostly that he would talk to a woman. And what a woman! Her sexual history made her an unlikely source of religious wisdom. And yet she was the one who first brought her people to Jesus!
I hope always to hear the witness of the Samaritan women among us, whoever they are. I hope never to stop learning from others about the faith we share.
But, important as they are, witnesses to Christ cannot be the whole story for us. At some point, we have to see Jesus for ourselves. At some point, we have to hear Jesus for ourselves. At some point, we have to encounter the risen Lord for ourselves.
For some, that personal encounter with Jesus is quite dramatic. I know people who can pinpoint the moment they came to know Jesus. For others, the process of coming to know Jesus is more gradual.
But for all of us, however our journey begins, having a real relationship with Jesus takes time and effort on our part. We need to be intentional about spending time with God. That means, among other things, prayer.
For most people with healthy prayer practices, prayer in Church on Sunday mornings is a big part of the deal.
A lot of people say they don’t need to come to Church to spend time with God. In theory they are right, of course. God is everywhere. God is with us all the time.
But in fact, they are mostly wrong if they mean to suggest that they can come to know God just as well without coming to Church. Virtually all of us need an anchor for our prayer lives, and regular worship provides that.
Regular worship with our brothers and sisters is a time for us to pray whether or not we feel like praying, whether or not we feel particularly close to God at that moment, whether or not we feel anything at all. It is a hard thing to rely entirely on one’s own emotions and one’s own discipline.
That is why we come together for prayer.
And at the center of our prayer life as a community of faith stands the Eucharist.
The Great Thanksgiving—the Eucharist—begins with a brief conversation between us. “The Lord be with you. And also with you. Lift up your hearts.” And so on. In that bit, we are talking to each other. The same is true when I invite you to say the Lord’s Prayer, and when I invite you to take the gifts of God. You may notice that I make eye contact with you during those exchanges.
But in the rest of the Great Thanksgiving, I don’t look at you because I am not talking to you. We are talking to God. It is all prayer.
I need that. Most of us need that. I know from experience that I pray less when I am not attending worship regularly. And when I pray less, my relationship with God suffers. All that is just to say, we should be grateful for the opportunity to come together in prayer and worship. And we should be particularly grateful when we don’t feel like it!
But as with repentance, so with prayer, what we do on Sunday mornings is necessary, but not sufficient. Intimacy with God takes time, and one hour a week is not much time. I strongly encourage you, if you are not already doing so, to adopt some kind of regular prayer practice.
Most people today say that they are not satisfied with their prayer life. If that is true for you, Lent is a great time to experiment. It is short enough to be manageable and long enough to give something a fair try.
I also know from experience that what works for us changes over time.
For a while, I tried to say Evening Prayer, but I could never make it work. I still don’t say it. When my children were little, Morning Prayer was hard too, and I struggled to find a consistent prayer time.
Now mornings are good for me. Even on school days, Nicholas doesn’t need much from me, and on breaks he moves straight from bed to lunch. I am jealous, of course! But there is a benefit for me, too. Now I have ample time for whatever morning devotions I want.
I still have plenty of room to grow. I still wish I were better at praying. I still need the help of our time together. But at this point, I am reasonably happy with my prayer routine.
And now I can say to those who have helped me to learn about God, “It is no longer [only] because of what you said that [I] believe, for” I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and I “know that [he] is truly the Savior of the world.”
And so, on this third Sunday of Lent, I give thanks to God for the invitation to all of us to come to know him through prayer. In Christ’s name. Amen.