Sermon: March 19, 2017 –
I want to invite you into the life and world of the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. A woman who, I suspect, saw herself as someone of little value. First of all, she’s at the well in the heat of mid-day. Traditionally, the women of a village traveled to the well in the cool, morning hours. The work of drawing water for the day was also an opportunity to share news and gossip. But this woman has come alone, when the sun is high and hot.
Traditionally, her solitary trip to the well is interpreted as meaning that she is somehow morally deficient and shunned by the righteous women of her town. But there is actually nothing in the story to support that assumption. Scripture tells us she has been married five times. She very easily could have been widowed or have been abandoned or divorced (which in the ancient world was pretty much the same thing for a woman). Five times would be heartbreaking, but not impossible. Further, she could now be living with someone that she was dependent on, or be in what’s called a Levirate marriage (where a childless woman is married to her deceased husband’s brother in order to produce an heir yet is not always technically considered the brother’s wife). There are any number of ways, in fact, that one might imagine this woman’s story as tragic rather than scandalous. And most telling of all, Jesus never brings up the subject of sin or forgiveness. And he begins their encounter by asking for a drink.
He’s no doubt hot and thirsty, but when he faced 40 days in the wilderness, he resisted the urge to provide for himself and trusted God to provide what he needed. So why would he blatantly violate cultural and religious custom and regulations to engage in public conversation with a woman?
…Appalling enough on its own, but she’s also a Samaritan woman, part of a tribe that righteous and pious Jews went out of their way to avoid. And, even more astounding, he asks her for a drink, a request that, if honored, would have him drinking from a ritually impure vessel.
Why would he do this?
First of all it’s important to notice that Jesus NEVER acts in ways that are rebellious simply for the sake of rebellion. Jesus’ entire life is offered as a way to reveal the kingdom of God. So when Jesus chose to violate all earthly social customs and acceptable behavior to initiate a conversation with a woman from a tribe of people traditionally seen as enemies, that encounter ought to make us sit up and take notice…and keep our eyes open for a revelation. So, the conversation that results from Jesus’ request for a drink, is a conversation about water, quenching thirst and leads to a promise from Jesus that he can provide her with living water.
“Well, then, give me this water,” she exclaims, believing at first that Jesus is speaking literally. “Then I will no longer be thirsty or have to come to this well.”
Jesus deftly leads her to the next level of the conversation. “Go, call your husband.” And when she admits that she has no husband, Jesus shares his intimate knowledge of her life- that she has had 5 husbands and the man she is with now is not her husband.
For her, the implication of Jesus’ knowledge is clear.
“Sir, I see that you are a prophet.” This is no ordinary man she is speaking to. And she takes the opportunity to ask for understanding of a controversy at the heart of the division between Jews and Samaritans: “ Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”
It’s a question of great importance to her: what IS the right worship, acceptable to God? And Jesus tells her that it is not location that matters, but rather the inspiration that matters: right worship is that inspired by the Holy Spirit.
THIS is something she understands! When the promised Messiah comes, he will explain everything. The truth of the Spirit will be revealed by God’s anointed one.
And then comes the real reason why Jesus began this conversation: “I am he, the one speaking to you.”
The astounding thing is how quickly she realizes the significance of what Jesus has shared with her.
In the previous passage, Nicodemus, a highly educated religion scholar, struggled to understand what Jesus was revealing to him.
And yet, here is a simple, unsophisticated woman from a tribe that all respectable Jews understood as unorthodox and seriously lacking any understanding of scripture and religious law who apparently has no trouble making the connection. And she, who has apparently seen herself as a person of little consequence, has just been entrusted with the revelation that the Messiah is in their midst.
She wastes no time in running back to her village and sharing the precious news, fulfilling the task that drew Jesus to her in the first place: she has become his messenger to the people of her village; and though they are drawn to Jesus by her witness, their faith is ultimately grounded in their own encounter with him.
The story is one that tells of the transforming power of God’s love. A woman whose life of suffering and tragedy, that has left her seeing herself as someone of little value, is given a vision of herself through God’s eyes:
Someone whom God loves and values, enough to invite her into his mission of revealing the kingdom through the Messiah; and she eagerly accepts his invitation, becoming the first person in John’s gospel to seek out others to tell them about Jesus.
I can’t speak for anyone but myself, although I suspect that my experiences are like those of many others, and there have been, are and I expect will continue to be, times in my life when I see only the difficulties and the hurts and the tragedies; times when I see little of value in myself.
I want to thank the woman at the well for reminding me that even when I know that things aren’t what they could be in my life, or in the world, God draws closer, inviting me into a holy conversation, and promises “living water, a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” Thanks be to God.