A sermon preached on March 27, 2011 based upon John 4: 5 – 30.
So (Jesus) 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.
As John tells the story, Jesus has already been to Jerusalem, where the conflict between the religious authorities and himself has reached a feverish pitch. He retreats to the north country, passing through Samaria, the homeland of a people viewed by the Jews of the day as “backsliders” – their ancestors having been Jews who intermarried with non-Jews.
Jesus rests by a well. Here in the US, we don’t appreciate the importance of water, and of knowing where the wells can be found. We take water for granted. But in the hot and arid land of ancient Palestine, water was life itself.
There are many places yet today where the situation is no different — where people often die from a lack of access to clean water. Our youth group is in the process of raising $2000 in order to be able to have a well built in a place where it is desperately needed.
Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
Here is a striking thing. John’s Gospel boldly presents Jesus in very exalted terms. He is the word made flesh, God incarnate.
Nonetheless, like every other human being, Jesus’ body becomes tired after a day of walking in the hot sun. His body also needs water, and food.
Jesus rests by the well. But he has no bucket. The well is outside of a Samaritan village, and his disciples have gone into town to buy food. So Jesus is alone.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water…
Something is not quite right about this. Normally, women would have come in a group to get water for their families and would have done so either in the early morning, or in the early evening, when it would have been much cooler. This woman comes alone in the heat of the day, suggesting she is ostracized somehow, excluded from the company of other women.
Jesus said to (the woman), ‘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.)
There are rules that every society has for the interactions of people. The woman knows the rules – they’ve always been there in her life, unquestioned, setting the boundaries of her life.
When Jesus speaks to her, asking for a drink, there are two long established rules that he is breaking. Jews don’t have dealings with Samaritans. And Rabbis don’t talk to women, unless their husband is present.
With his request for a drink of water, Jesus breaks both rules, which the woman is quick to point out.
What’s going on here? Surely the woman wonders.
There is a suggestion here that maybe she thinks the man is trying to “pick her up,” that he is looking for some quick, sexual gratification.
The fact that she is there alone without the other women of the community suggests that she might be, as they say, a “loose woman.” This may or may not be true, but it would be a conclusion that a visiting male might easily come to, finding her all alone at the well at noon.
How easy it is to misunderstand the intentions of people in this world. The fear of being misunderstood can be so paralyzing.
Jesus, however, isn’t afraid of being misunderstood. He acts out of a love rather than fear.
Jesus answered her, ‘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.’ The woman said to him, ‘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 said to her, ‘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.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’
Throughout John’s Gospel conversations take place on two levels. Jesus speaks metaphorically, using physical images to speak of spiritual realities, and his listeners misunderstand him, assuming he is talking merely about the physical reality. Last week we heard how Nicodemus understood the birth of which Jesus was talking as literally the birth that takes place when a baby emerges from his or her mother.
Jesus is offering the woman an encounter with the eternal, life-giving Spirit. The woman thinks that by “living water” he is talking about flowing water, the water of a stream, for instance, which is always better than stagnant water. The water in the well is pretty stationary. She points out that Jesus doesn’t even have a bucket, calling into question his capacity to come forth with this flowing water.
Jesus speaks more directly of what it is he seeks to offer people: “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” Skeptical, the woman plays along with Jesus. “Okay, give me this water, ‘cause, you know I’m pretty tired of coming back day after day to this well to draw water!”
Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘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!’
“Go, call your husband and come back.” On the surface, it may have sounded to the woman that Jesus has suddenly decided to follow the rules. Rabbis aren’t supposed to talk to women without their husbands present.
But there is more going on here. Jesus is inviting the woman to get real with him about her life. She says she has no husband, which is literally true, because, as Jesus points out, she isn’t married to the man with whom she’s presently living. Previously, she has had five different husbands over the course of her life.
What does this mean?
It is interesting the conclusions we ourselves are quick to jump to regarding this information that has just been revealed. “Oh,” we think, “she must be a tramp. A man-eater. Jesus is putting her in her place.”
But we just don’t know. The fact is, it was a tough time to be alive as a woman. A woman without a husband had no source of income, no protection. In many parts of the world it remains exactly the same.
And it wasn’t uncommon for men to die from disease, and so maybe she just has had the misfortune of having husband after husband die on her. And sure, she was quick to find another husband after each died – she didn’t want to be left destitute. Maybe that alone was enough to lead the other women of the village to exclude her.
Jesus’ words don’t necessarily imply judgment – they could just mean something like – “let’s drop the BS. We don’t need to pretend. We can let go of the cocktail party talk and talk openly instead about what it’s really like to be you.”
Is the woman trying to change the subject? Perhaps a part of her wants to engage in the conversation this man is leading her into, but another part is terrified by speaking such truth. Better, perhaps, to keep the conversation safe and superficial.
So she tries to throw the strange man off track by gives him a compliment. “You are a prophet!” Men are succors for compliments from women. Then, move quickly to divert the conversation into a discussion about the different religious traditions of his people vs. her people. It’s a handy way of avoiding the heart of the matter, which is her personal relationship with the God who made her.
Jesus said to her, ‘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 worshippers 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.’
There is a hole in your soul that has always been there. The rituals of “religion” doesn’t fill it. Access to clean water and abundant food doesn’t fill it. (We have all this and more here, but that doesn’t mean the hole in our soul has been filled.) Husbands, wives, lovers, don’t fill it.
Nor do the woman’s attempts to justify her life in the eyes of the others from her community who are so quick to judge her.
It’s a God-shaped hole. The time has come to reach out to one who alone can fill that hole. You don’t have to go to a “holy place” to reach out, Jesus says. Any place will do. You just have to be willing to leave behind all the pretences.
The woman is very close to the living water. A longing is stirring up deep inside that she has tried hard to keep buried. Could it be, she wonders, that this man can speak to my deepest longing?
Still, she’s afraid to address it directly. The best she can do is to mumble a few words about her belief that the Savior is coming, someday, in the future.
No, not in the future. Now. “I am he,” says Jesus. “I am the one you long for.”
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?’
Even the disciples find their Master bewildering. “Geez, don’t you know how bad this looks — you sitting here alone talking with this woman with her shady reputation?”
But they find it hard to get real either. Talk about what they’re going to have for dinner. The weather. Anything but actually what’s going on. It’s seems safer.
Then the woman left her bucket and went back to the city. She said to the people, ‘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.
The heart of this woman has been opened up. She has tasted the living waters. Suddenly, the cares that have preoccupied her life no longer weigh her down. She leaves the bucket and the endless, anxious concern for water. She goes to the people of her community who have been so quick to judge her, label her — assume they know what’s going on inside her. She has touched by life-changing grace in this mysterious man and she can’t help but share it with them. And the people of the town are so impressed by the change that has been wrought in this woman, who, up to this moment had always been so guarded in her interactions with them.
C.S. Lewis wrote an autobiography about his conversion to Christianity entitled, “Surprised by Joy.” He described having experienced throughout his life that he referred to as being that of joy, which, when we looked closely at the experience, he realized that it was a kind of a desire – a longing. When he asked himself what it was his heart was desiring in such ecstatic moments, he could find no answer within the world itself. This longing – this joy – was clearly preferable to any kind of satiation he could find within the world.
There are blessings in this world that can trigger the joy of which Lewis wrote. The taste of cold water, for instance, when you are hot and thirsty can be so exquisite. Witnessing children singing and dancing can stir the same sort of sensation. The gift of a true friendship.
These earthly blessings point to a deeper blessing – the joy of heaven. Understood rightly, every good and beautiful gift in this world points beyond itself to the living water of which Jesus spoke to this woman by the well.