Last week, you might remember, we jumped out of the Gospel of Matthew and into the Gospel of John and we came alongside the character of Nicodemus – a religious leader, an educated man. We walked with Nicodemus in the cover of night as he met with Jesus to ask him questions of his identity as the Messiah and we listened in as Jesus walked him through the process of deepening faith, beginning with baptism. And, this morning, we find ourselves in a completely different setting with a character that couldn’t be more different from Nicodemus. Remembering that each story included in the Gospel of John is there so that we might come to believe, we listen for another example, another encounter with Jesus. Today, we arrive at Jacob’s Well, in Samaria, under the noonday sun and we listen in as Jesus and a Samaritan Woman have a theological conversation.
There is a lot packed into this story and so, Anna Carter Florence, a preaching professor at Columbia Theological Seminary, encourages us to enter into this text as being thirsty, feeling the emptiness of the jug, feeling the heat of the noonday, and as we feel parched, to drink in the text. She encourages us to feel our buckets dip down into the well and to pay attention to what is brought up not only for ourselves but for the whole world as well. So, I invite you to turn in your bulletin to the second scripture reading today. Much of our text this morning is a conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan Woman so, I would like for this half of the room to read the part of Jesus and I would like the other half to read the part of the Woman. I will read the narrating pieces and together, let us listen for God’s Word.
Let us pray: Startle us, O God, with what we draw up from the well of your love.
John 4: 5-42
So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)
Jesus: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
Woman: “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”
Jesus: “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
Woman: “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Jesus: “Go, call your husband, and come back.”
Woman: “I have no husband.”
Jesus: “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!”
Woman: “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”
Jesus: “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
Woman: “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”
Jesus: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people,
Woman: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”
They left the city and were on their way to him. Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them,
Jesus: “I have food to eat that you do not know about.”
So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?”Jesus said to them,
Jesus: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony,
Woman: “He told me everything I have ever done.”
So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to 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.”
This is the Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God.
If you were here last week, you might remember that we went over a lot of contextual background on the Gospel of John – so I won’t repeat all of that information but, I will give a little overview to refresh our memories. And, I do this not because I want us to delve into the Gospel of John as a historical document but so that we can delve deeper into it – so that we can begin to unpack the stories that are told, to look beyond the words on the page to envision the scenes described and discover for ourselves how these stories shape and enrich our lives and the lives of Christians worldwide.
So, let’s remember the initial audience of the Gospel of John – what is known as the Johannine Community. Towards the end of the 1st century, this Gospel was written for a community that had been persecuted and oppressed – they were faithful Jews who believed Jesus was the Messiah and for that belief, they were shunned from their temples, ousted from their communities, punished for their beliefs. For some, such response to their belief in Jesus only emboldened them – but, for others, it drove them to go underground, to stay in the closet, remaining in their communities while believing in secret. Knowing this dynamic of the Johannine community is especially poignant today, as it is suggested that this story – the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan Woman at the well – this is the story in the Gospel that paints the most accurate self-portrait of the Gospel writer and the community for whom the Gospel is originally intended.
So, let’s start with the setting of the story. Jesus is on his way from Judea to Galilee and along the way, Jesus has to stop in Samaria. As verse 9 articulates, the Samarian community does not share things in common with the Jews. Rather, Samaritans exist as a separate community – a community disregarded and disrespected by the Jews. They are not to mix with Jews, share with Jews, be in relationship with Jews. But, Jesus, a Jew, goes to this place – and stops at this well, Jacob’s well. And, the fact that it is a well in the land of Samaria is important – because, the setting of the well, and Jacob’s well in particular, translates as something of a type-scene – think biblical-times match.com. Throughout the biblical text, the well is understood to be the setting for matches to be made – it was at the well where Jacob met Rachel, where Moses married Zipporah, where Abraham’s servant found Rebekah, who would become Isaac’s wife. And, in our text this morning, it is at the well where Jesus begins to redefine humanity’s relationship with God – where in the light of day, Jesus goes to the community that is different, the community that has felt the sting of rejection, the community that has grown self-protective and he reveals not only his own identity as the Son of God but also that God’s presence and love, God’s salvation, is not only for the Jews, but for all.
But, before we get too far ahead of ourselves – let’s back up a little bit and talk about the woman Jesus meets there at the well. She is not given a name – only the name of her community. Identifying this woman by her community helps us understand that this story, this interaction, is meant to reflect Jesus’ connection with all people — even those not readily identifiable as God’s people. And the woman at the well is an incredible character – but, she’s really gotten a bad rap by countless biblical interpreters and preachers over the generations. You see, traditionally, she has been interpreted as a prostitute, a whore, someone shunned from or shamed by the community – assumptions because of the time of day she is found at the well (she is at the well at noon, an unbearably hot time of day to endure the hard labor of carrying water) and the number of husbands she claimed to have. However, the text is clear that these men in her life are husbands…not patrons, not boyfriends, they are husbands. Now, there isn’t much scholarship on Samaritan marriage laws however, we do know they were based primarily on Jewish law. So, it’s reasonable to assume that there were marriage laws in place and that the men that Jesus speaks of as her husbands, were, in fact, husbands by law. So, it is most likely that she was widowed or divorced or left behind. Women didn’t have legal autonomy – so her connection to each of these 5 men plus the one she is with now is intimately intertwined with her identity and worth.
In light of this, I believe we should attach grief to her story, not shame. At no point does Jesus offer the Samaritan woman forgiveness for these husbands. Instead, he offers her compassion; he offers her recognition of her identity as a child of God; he offers her a relationship with God. Wise to this offer of living water, she seizes the moment to ask Jesus one of the most pressing questions of theological debate between the Samaritan community and the Jews – where is the right place to worship God? In the Temple? Or on the mountain? In other words, does God reside with the Jews or does God reside with the Samaritans. And, in his response – his identity as the Messiah is revealed to her, and to us, for the first time. Jesus is the great I Am – and the Spirit of God is not with us or with them but that the Spirit of God is among all people.
Jesus claims the identity of being the Son of God – the great I Am, the One sent by the Creator and unlike Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman goes and tells others about what she has learned of Jesus’ identity. She leaves the well then – just when the disciples walk up – she leaves her jug of water and she goes to the townspeople and she tells them what she knows in her heart, even if it sounds a little crazy. She goes to town, and with confidence in her voice she exclaims to others, “Could this really be the one?! This can’t be the Messiah, can he?!” Though she isn’t totally sure of all the details, this remarkably human and humble character of the Samaritan Woman shares what she knows to be true in her heart and she invites others to come and see for themselves. Without a declaration of faith, without a fully developed understanding, the witness of the Samaritan Woman is enough. Without judgment or presumption, her witness avoids triumphalism, it avoids platitudes or trite answers to unanswerable questions, she offers no ultimatums or certainty on theological matters – but, she witnesses to her lived experience with the living God and she invites others to come and see – to come and see and to discern for yourself who Jesus is in the world – and the people do just that. (Fred Craddock)
And, while she is back in town, inviting her neighbors to come back to the well with her, to come and see for themselves who this Jesus is – Jesus is with his disciples, basking in his satiated appetite to do God’s will. Again, the imagery of the setting, the imagery of the conversation draws our attention from the tangible experience of hunger in our bellies to the spiritual needs we have beyond ourselves to do God’s will. And Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well and in the consequences that followed, his deepest hunger to do God’s will has been appeased – he is fulfilled, he is satisfied.
Thirst and hunger. Thirst – thirst for relationship with God, thirst to be loved and accepted, thirst to be made whole – this thirst is represented by the Samaritan Woman and is quenched by the non-judgmental, the kind and compassionate, the all-knowing and wise God of living water. And hunger – hunger to do God’s will, to embody God’s love for the world, to save the world from darkness, destruction and death – this hunger is satiated by the opportunities to reap the harvest wherever we are. In the places we know – like Jerusalem – and the places where not one would expect – like Samaria – the harvest is ripe and, like reapers sent to labor in the fields, we are all called by God to be in relationship with Jesus and sent out to invite others to come and see.
Church, our text this morning is a remarkable story that inspires us to reorient ourselves in this season of Lent, reflecting more deeply upon that for which we truly thirst and hunger. The Samaritan Woman – carrying grief and brokenness in her heart, seeking answers to pressing questions of the community, immediately says yes to the invitation into relationship with God. And then, open to the possibilities, without all the answers, she invites others to come and see for themselves. All the while, Jesus, filled and satisfied by fulfilling his purpose as the Son of God by extending the gift of relationship with God, charges the disciples to go out and do the same – with those near and far, with those similar and different, with those known and unknown – go out and extend the gift of relationship, and invite others to come and see what God’s love is doing in the world.
And, so I ask you to consider again – what do you feel as your bucket dips into the well and what was brought up for yourself and for the whole world? Amen.