This week of course was the beginning of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. I don’t really follow basketball, and I’ve never filled out a bracket before. But, like millions of other Americans, the chance at a billion dollars of Warren Buffet’s money for a perfect bracket was just tempting enough that I did get online and fill one out this year. I had to pick Michigan State as the winner, since I went there, my sister graduated from there, and my mother would probably never speak to me again if I didn’t. I looked at a few statistics, and I consulted a couple of friends. I watched a video on the New York Times website that compared the bracket strategies of a university-level math department at Davidson College with the strategies of the four ten-year old actresses currently playing Matilda on Broadway. The Davidson College program is led by Professor Tim Chartier, and he and his students have devised a computer program with 350 equations and 350 unknowns to help them predict the winning teams. My strategies are more like the Matilda girls, who are much less scientific, choosing teams they recognize or going with a gut feeling. Neither group are particularly sports fans; Chartier says that his students who know less about the actual teams tend to do a bit better because they don’t let their own biases creep in and they allow the statistics to do their work. The Matilda girls pondered out loud between teams like Wichiita and San Diego Street; one of the actresses favors underdogs because Matilda, the character she plays, is an underdog. Unfortunately, two of the girls favored Syracuse. The Davidson College program has had some pretty good success in recent years, producing brackets with accuracy rates above 95%.
Still, the odds are against both groups, and really all of us. The chances of picking the perfect bracket are something like 1 in 9.2 quintillion. That means if all 317 million people in the United States filled out a bracket at random, you could run the contest for 290 million years, and there’d still be a 99 percent chance that no one would ever win. If you know the sport pretty well, you cut your odds to something like 1 in 128 billion, but you’d still need to fill out about 90 billion brackets to even have a 50-50 chance to win. Still, millions of Americans fill out brackets every year (even without the billion dollar incentive), buy lottery tickets, and play slot machines at casinos, even though we know the odds are against us. The chance of winning, even if it is infinitesimally small, is so enticing we put aside our better judgement.
The allure of chance, whether a big payout, or the chances of being in the right place at the right time, or the life-changing possibilities of a chance encounter on the street or at the laundromat, captures our imagination, and I wonder if that’s not part of the appeal of this very familiar story of Jesus meeting the woman at the well. Certainly from the woman’s perspective, the chance that this encounter would turn out to be so life-giving had to have seemed incredibly small. The woman is a Samaritan, and you probably remember that Samaritans and Jews (like Jesus) did not get along. And all the details we have about the woman really seem to indicate that she is down and out on her luck. First off, she’s at the well in the middle of the day, when the sun is directly overhead and the heat is sweltering. Hauling water from the well was woman’s work in those days, and it wasn’t easy work. They would take a large clay jug from their home and walk to the well. They would tie a rope around the jug and lower it into the well to fill it with water. They’d haul it up by the rope, and then they would have to haul it home, heavier now that it was full. Most women went to the well in the early morning and late evening, before or after the heat of the day. They could chat and exchange gossip, and help one another out if the jug was too heavy to haul up. For some reason, this woman is at the well in the middle of the day, when no one else is around. John doesn’t tell us why; it may have something to do with her having had five husbands. Whether she lost her husbands through death or divorce, the system of marriage that was supposed to support her has utterly and completely failed this woman. I suspect she stays away from the well when the other women are there because she can’t bear to hear their happy chatter about their husbands and children. She likes the well at noon, when it’s quiet; she likes the anonymity. So, when she sees the strange man sitting there, she probably thought about turning around and coming back later.
And for Jesus’s part, I’m not sure he was too thrilled to see her. He and the disciples have been traveling on foot a long time on their way from Jerusalem to Galilee. Everywhere they go, people flock around him with questions or requests for healing; the disciples are constantly bickering with each other and asking him which of them will sit at his right hand and which at his left. The nice thing about being in Samaria is that no one knows who he is, people just leave him alone. Jesus is probably enjoying his few minutes of quiet at the well, and might have just ignored the woman. But he looks at her and something about the woman touches him, and so he asks her for a drink of water. The woman is shocked, to put it mildly. Men simply did not speak to women in public in those days, especially not strange women they didn’t know. Plus, the woman can tell by the way Jesus is dressed that he’s a Jew: no faithful Jew would ask a Samaritan for anything. She asks him why he would ask her for a drink, and then she and Jesus have this strange conversation about water and thirst and living water and eternal life. The woman has a hard time understanding what Jesus is saying, that he has a living water to give her that will mean she’ll never be thirsty again. She marvels that he knows all about her past, her husbands who either died or abandoned her. Before she realizes it, she’s forgotten that she’s not supposed to talk to men in public, that she’s not supposed to talk to Jews, that her life is filled with sorrow and shame. She asks Jesus about the difference between the mountain where Samaritans worship and the mountain where Jews worship, a question really about the difference between Samaritans and Jews, a question that really asks, “So, Jesus, which one of us is better? Which of us has it right?” And Jesus replies, “Pretty soon, that won’t matter. We’ll all worship together. All those things that you think separate you from me, that separate you from your neighbors, that separate you from God, they’re all in your head. They do not matter to God. God seeks those who seek to worship in spirit and truth. It doesn’t matter who you think you are; it doesn’t matter who others think you are. It only matters who God thinks you are.”
Everything changes for the woman because of this chance encounter with Jesus at the well. Now, she sees herself through Jesus’s eyes, she sees herself through God’s eyes. Before, she did her best to be invisible, to stay in the shadows. Now, she leaves her water jar at the well and she runs throughout Samaria telling men and women alike about this Jesus, who saw her as she is and talked to her anyways. Before, she saw herself as a cast-off, as a nobody. Now, she sees what Jesus sees in her, what God sees in her, that she is a somebody, that she has worth, that she has value, that her life has meaning and potential.
A couple of weeks ago, I watched the movie A Late Quartet on Netflix. It’s the story of a professional string quartet as they approach their 25th anniversary of playing together. There’s a scene in the middle that really got me. Christopher Walken plays the quartet’s cellist, and he’s coaching a young group of musicians playing chamber music. One of the young musicians calls another out on a mistake, in a pretty harsh way. Walken’s character says, "Folks, disagree, but do it nicely. And please, try not to get caught up in mistakes. When I was your age, I met the great Pablo Casals. I was so intimidated I could barely speak. He must have sensed this, because...instead of a chat, he asked me to play. He requested the prelude to the fourth suite by J.S. Bach. I focused, took a deep breath, began, the notes started to flow, the music's in the air, and it was the worst music I ever made. I played so badly, I got halfway through and had to stop. "Bravo," he said, "Well done." Then, he asked me to play the Allemand. "A second chance," I think to myself. I never played worse. "Wonderful. Splendid," he praised me. And when I left that night, I felt terrible about my performance, but what really bothered me wasn't my playing, it was Casals. The insincerity.
Years later, I met him in Paris and by then I was professional, we played together. We became acquaintances, and one evening, over a glass of wine…I confessed to him what I thought of his insincere remarks all those years ago. And he got angry. His demeanor changed, he grabbed his cello, "Listen," he said. And he played the opening of the prelude from the fourth suite. "Didn't you play that fingering? You did? It was novel to me, it was good. And here didn't you attack this passage with an upbow, like this?" And he played a phrase from the Allemande. Casals emphasized the good stuff, things he enjoyed. He encouraged. And for the rest, leave that to the morons, or whatever it is in Spanish, who judge by counting faults. "I can be grateful, and so must you be," he said, "For even one singular phrase, one transcendent moment."
I really love this story. I think about all the teachers I had over the years who chose to hear and see and focus on the best of my work instead of the worst. I think of my parents who figured out how to bring out the best in me when I was doing my darnedest to mess up my life. I think of my friends and colleagues who have helped me to find that little glimmer of good in the many messes I’ve managed to create. I’m here today because they chose to see the best, and they helped me to see it. I suspect if you look back over your life, you’ll find the same pattern, that you’ve been shaped by those people who have helped you see your own God-given potential.
Today will be filled with chance encounters, chance opportunities, chances to have an impact in small and large ways. Be open to others seeing your God-given potential in ways that you haven’t been able to see before. Do your best to help others see their God-given potential. Choosing to do this, to see past all the noise and the mess, choosing to see the best in yourself and in others, may not win you a billion dollars. But it will help bring about the kingdom of God, here today. Amen.