This is a sermon on John 4:5-42. I preached it at Bernardsville United Methodist Church in New Jersey, where I preach once a month as part of my supervised
This sermon was difficult for me to write, as I mention in the sermon itself, because I don't like Jesus in this story. When I first read this passage, I said to myself that there are a few passages from John that I really like--- why couldn't this week's reading be one of those? I thought, give me the Jesus who said about the adulterous woman that you who are without sin throw the first stone.1 That's the kind of Jesus I can get behind. I thought, give me the Jesus who puts mud on people's eyes to make them see.2 A Jesus who heals using dirt, who gets messy--- I like that kind of Jesus. Give me the Jesus who weeps when he gets to Bethany after the death of Lazarus and sees the tear-stained faces of Mary and Martha.3 A compassionate Jesus, one moved by our pain, that's a Jesus I believe in. So this week, I read the text and found at first an evasive Jesus and I kinda wanted to shake him. To tell him that's not how he's supposed to behave. But I was really intrigued by the character of the Samaritan woman, so I couldn't get the passage out of my head this week.
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Scripture: John 4:5–42 4, from Eugene Peterson's paraphrase The Message
He came into Sychar, a Samaritan village that bordered the field Jacob had given his son Joseph. Jacob's well was still there. Jesus, worn out by the trip, sat down at the well. It was noon.
A woman, a Samaritan, came to draw water. Jesus said, "Would you give me a drink of water?" (His disciples had gone to
The Samaritan woman, taken aback, asked, "How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?" (Jews in those days wouldn't be caught dead talking to Samaritans.)
Jesus answered, "If you knew the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh, living water."
The woman said, "Sir, you don't even have a bucket to draw with, and this well is deep. So how are you going to get this 'living water'? Are you a better man than our ancestor Jacob, who dug this well and drank from it, he and his sons and livestock, and passed it down to us?"
Jesus said, "Everyone who drinks this water will get thirsty again and again. Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst— not ever. The water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life."
The woman said, "Sir, give me this water so I won't ever get thirsty, won't ever have to come back to this well again!"
He said, "Go call your husband and then come back."
"I have no husband," she said.
"That's nicely put: 'I have no husband.' You've had five husbands, and the man you're living with now isn't even your husband. You spoke the truth there, sure enough."
"Oh, so you're a prophet! Well, tell me this: Our ancestors worshiped God at this mountain, but you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place for worship, right?"
"Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you Samaritans will worship the Father neither here at this mountain nor there in Jerusalem. You worship guessing in the dark; we Jews worship in the clear light of day. God's way of salvation is made available through the Jews. But the time is coming— it has, in fact, come— when what you're called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter.
"It's who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That's the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. God is sheer being itself— Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration."
The woman said, "I don't know about that. I do know that the Messiah is coming. When he arrives, we'll get the whole story."
"I am he," said Jesus. "You don't have to wait any longer or look any further."
Just then his disciples came back. They were shocked. They couldn't believe he was talking with that kind of a woman. No one said what they were all thinking, but their faces showed it.
The woman took the hint and left. In her confusion she left her water pot. Back in
In the meantime, the disciples pressed him, "Rabbi, eat. Aren't you going to eat?"
He told them, "I have food to eat you know nothing about."
The disciples were puzzled. "Who could have brought him food?"
Jesus said, "The food that keeps me going is that I do the will of the One who sent me, finishing the work he started. As you look around right now, wouldn't you say that in about four months it will be time to harvest? Well, I'm telling you to open your eyes and take a good look at what's right in front of you. These Samaritan fields are ripe. It's harvest time!
"The Harvester isn't waiting. He's taking his pay, gathering in this grain that's ripe for eternal life. Now the Sower is arm in arm with the Harvester, triumphant. That's the truth of the saying, 'This one sows, that one harvests.' I sent you to harvest a field you never worked. Without lifting a finger, you have walked in on a field worked long and hard by others."
Many of the Samaritans from that village committed themselves to him because of the woman's witness: "He knew all about the things I did. He knows me inside and out!" They asked him to stay on, so Jesus stayed two days. A lot more people entrusted their lives to him when they heard what he had to say. They said to the woman, "We're no longer taking this on your say-so. We've heard it for ourselves and know it for sure. He's the Savior of the world!"
Sermon: Inside and Out
I want to confess today to you that I do not like the Gospel of John, and I don't mostly because of stories like this one we read today about Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus in this story rubs me the wrong way--- he won't answer people's questions directly, he is not even a little bit humble, frankly, I think he is kind of a jerk in this story. At least, that's what I thought the first time I read this story.
But then I reread the passage and began to see the story unfold differently. I saw a Jesus who was tired, but who was willing to engage in theological discussion with not only someone he was raised to believe was ethnically inferior but also a woman. And I saw in that woman a firey example of how we are to respond to Jesus. This was a scandalous conversation, one that invites us to enter into scandalous conversations as well.
Will you pray with me?
may you enter into these words I speak today and into the reflections of all of us here today, that we might better understand your truth that is living water.
Now that I've opened our exploration of this text this morning with rather honest description of my original reaction to the text, I want to return to it, try to get a better picture of this story. Jesus in this story is leaving from Jerusalem for Galilee, journeying through Samaria, which is a big deal that we in our modern times don't often recognize. See Jews and Samaritans both descended from ancient Israel, and even practiced similar religions, worshiping the same God. Yet there was a hostility between them that was so strong Jews would often go out of their way to avoid crossing through Samaria even though that added miles to their route!5
Samaritans are often used as unexpected foils to those we expect to be good religious folk throughout the gospels, as you will remember in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus' and the gospel writer's audiences would just hear the word Samaritan in these story and sneer--- and then be incredulous when they realized the Samaritan was the good guy! A good Jew would avoid Samaria, and if he or she could not, then he or she would have to avoid contact with Samaritans at all cost. Jews couldn't even buy from Samaritans.
Our unnamed Samaritan woman at the well knows this. She can tell that Jesus is a Jew, and so, given her history with Jewish people, she is suspicious. And she calls Jesus out on it. She says, "How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?" She comes from a group of people marginalized by another ethnic group, the Jews, who are themselves marginalized under the Roman Empire. Because of this doubly outcast status, the Samaritan woman is wary when someone of a group who has oppressed her approaches her. When Jesus answers her, he doesn't respond to her question, instead giving her a cryptic response about living water. If I were her, I would say, "Listen mister, you asked me for water. Now you are the one offering it? Make up your mind." Her response to him, while perhaps is not as uppity as mine would have been, is still guarded. In my imagination, her words are hard. She asks Jesus if he has a bucket hidden somewhere to fetch the water, and then if he presumed himself greater than Jacob. She isn't gullible. And if Jesus is going to play games with his evasive answers, she can play them right back.
But when he speaks again of living water, I believe she drops her hard exterior a bit, just enough to reveal to us and to Jesus that her thirst is real, when she says, "Sir, give me this water so I won't ever get thirsty, won't ever have to come back to this well again!" Let us remember that she is coming to this well at noon, not an ideal time to get water because you wouldn't want to be carrying back the heavy jar of water in the heat. She really could be desperate, a marginalized woman looking for the comfort of a cool drink of water that does not wear off. And Jesus knows this.
Some interpreters see the turning point of the story to be the next exchange in the story, the one where Jesus reveals to her that he know about her husbands. This woman has had five husbands and now lives with a man who she is not married to. But I like Eugene Peterson's interpretation of her response. She seems sarcastic here: "Oh, so you're a prophet!" She says. The turning point for me comes in her next question. Here, she finally engages Jesus' theological conversation, and she does it with what seems to me a little jab at the divergence of their ethnic religious traditions. "Well, tell me this: Our ancestors worshiped God at this mountain, but you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place for worship, right?"
This woman is the first character in the Gospel of John to engage Jesus in serious, theological conversation.6 And Jesus takes her seriously! This is a big deal. The first character to challenge Jesus theologically in this Gospel, and I don't mean challenge in a bad way, but challenge in the sense of growth, is a Samaritan! And, not only that, but she's a woman! That is, after all, what scandalizes the disciples when they return to the well to find Jesus having a theological discussion with this unnamed woman. In the New Revised Standard translation of this passage, we read that the disciples were "astonished that he was speaking with a woman."7 And they make the situation so awkward really that the woman leaves them, even neglecting to bring her water jar back to town with her.
And then compare Jesus' conversation with the disciples with that of Jesus' conversation with the woman. We read this morning from The Message that They couldn't believe he was talking with that kind of a woman. No one said what they were all thinking, but their faces showed it. The New Revised Standard version gives us insight to some of the questions running through the disciples minds even though these questions are never voiced: "What do you want?" or "Why are you speaking with her?"8 These disciples we see are not like the woman who told Jesus what she thought.
What would this situation look like today in our world? Though talk of Samaritans and the lack of women's rights seems out of place often today, when broken down we see the same troubles in our world. There are barriers that are physical, like the Wall on the border between the USA and Mexico. Jesus traveling from Jerusalem to Galilee through Samaria is a little like someone from this area going to vacation in Cancun, but to get there rather than taking a plane and bypassing the poverty and the violence on the border, that person decides to walk through the desert, on roads controlled by drug cartels. We avoid those areas, but Jesus seeks them out. And not only does Jesus seek such places out, but he sits himself down by a well to rest there and gets caught up in conversation with someone the disciples would not approve of.
I don't know if any of you have heard of the organization Borderlinks; it is an experiential educational program run out of Tucson, Arizona, and Nogales, Mexico, to teach people about life on the border. I had to opportunity to go in 2009 with a group of other young adults.9 One of the most powerful parts of the experience was when we spent the night in a migrant shelter in the dusty town of Altar, one of the gateways people take into the desert to go North. It is a place where you can find guides to take you across the desert.
In the courtyard of the shelter, there was a huge barrel of water with a flag reaching way up into the sky coming out of it. This shelter is one of those wells for people, a place where people can stop, rest, and get a drink and a meal. Before dinner, we shared songs to welcome tired souls as people came in. We met Pedro, a man in Altar looking for money to buy a prosthetic leg as his old prosthetic was splitting. He said he needed the leg so he could work harder. We met José, an eighteen year old, small, quiet, who sang softly along with us even when he didn't know the words. We met Juan, who came for dinner but did not stay the night as he was going to begin to cross the desert that night. He told us he had been deported fifteen times. What kind of desperation is it that someone who had been deported fifteen times would be getting ready to again cross the desert? It is a physical desperation like the Samaritan woman at the well had.
But as our story tells us that the Samaritan woman was looking for more than fulfillment of their physical thirst. The moment of change for the woman was engaging in theological conversation with Jesus. So the moment of change with her was that moment that Jesus affirmed her self worth, affirmed her by engaging her, and by not judging her. I think we all have a need for that, don't we? We need someone to just be there and affirm our humanness, help us remember that we are made in the image of God. When we were at the migrant shelter, people came into the shelter so exhausted and down, but we were there playing music, asking them about themselves, and just trying to be present with them.
The story of the Samaritan woman at the well becomes more though than just a story of a woman who pushes back against Jesus. It is this very conversation in which she pushes back against him, in which she questions Jesus, that she comes to know him as the Messiah. Samaritans, too, believed in the coming Messiah, and in their conversation, she attested to her own belief and hope that all would be made known when the Messiah comes. When Jesus tells her that indeed he is more than a prophet but the Messiah for whom she waits, she is tongue-tied--- for once! She does not respond to him again, and instead leaves when the disciples arrive. But when she returns to
The good news, the reason why this woman is spreading the word about this man she met at the well, is that, if he was indeed the Messiah, he knew her inside and out and still loved her, still wanted to share with her the living water, the meaning of abundant life. It wasn't that he could figure out how many husbands she had. In fact, though the Samaritan woman is often referred to as a prostitute by preachers, there is no place in the text where that assumption comes from other than the fact that she is a woman, essentially.10 Her husbands could be the result of a Levirate marriage, a custom in which if one brother died without giving his wife children, his brother would marry her, of which there are several stories in the Old Testament. There are many reasons why she could have had so many husbands in her life, but the numbers remind us that women in her day were dependent on men. And Jesus never once condemns her or even judges her in this story.
Rather, Jesus knowing her inside and out meant that he knew she was a Samaritan, he knew she was a woman, he knew she was a little uppity, he knew what she had lived through. He also knew that the hour is coming and is now here that God will neither be worshiped on a mountain or in Jerusalem, but in spirit and in truth. He knew her inside and out and still saw her as one of those who could leave the mountains and Jerusalem temples behind to instead worship in spirit and in truth. And she does: she invites her own people to enter in on this scandalous conversation with her to come and see what it is like to be known and still offered this living water, this promise of life abundant.
She is inviting us too. Shall we go hear for ourselves?
1John 8: 3-11, The Wesley Study Bible New Revised Standard Version.
2John 9: 1-11, The Wesley Study Bible New Revised Standard Version.
3John 11: 33-36, The Wesley Study Bible New Revised Standard Version.
4Eugene H. Peterson, John 4:5-42, The Message (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1993).
5Allen Dwight Callahan, "The Gospel of John," True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, ed. Brian K. Blount (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 191.
6Gail R. O'Day, "John," Women's Bible Commentary, Expanded Edition with Apocrypha, eds. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998.
7John 4:27, The Wesley Study Bible New Revised Standard Version.
9This is from my blog post Presente about my experience at the shelter.
10Many of the commentaries I consulted pointed this out, but I thought David Lose's article in The Huffington Post was a great insight into this: David Lose, "Misogyny, Moralism, and the Woman at the Well," HuffPost Religion (21 March 2011) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-lose/misogyny-moralism-and-the_b_836753.html?ref=fb&src=sp