Great story this week from John’s Gospel on the Woman at the Well (John 4). It’s such a great passage and offers up so many angles as to how to approach it. And the irony of John is getting thicker (reaching a high point next week when we hear about the man born blind). So here it is, my sermon from yesterday.
Lent 3A—John 4:5-42
There’s a cartoon of two people dragging themselves across the sands of a desert. It’s a man and a women, their clothes in tatters. You can see that they have been at this for days, they’re dying of thirst and there is no end in sight. As they slither like snakes, the woman looks at the man and says something to him. The caption deadpans, “Then again, if it did rain, my hair would get all frizzy.”
We didn’t hear the beginning of this story from John’s Gospel this morning, so let me give you the context. We’re told that word had gotten to the Pharisees about Jesus and his ministry, and so he decides to head back north to Galilee from Jerusalem. And, John writes, he had to go through Samaria. Except what we’re not told is that most times Jews would head the other way; rather than going west and traveling through Samaria, they’d head east to avoid the area all together. They did this even though it meant traveling for a longer period of time; going through Samaria was more direct. But Jews hated Samaritans, and the feeling was mutual.
But something is up. Jesus had to go through Samaria, John writes. And as he journeys north, one day it gets hot, and it’s about lunch time. So the disciples head into town to rustle up some food, and Jesus takes a seat by the well which sits outside the town. As he catches his breath, a Samaritan woman comes up to draw some water. He’s thirsty, so he asks her for a drink.
We aren’t told much about this woman by John. We aren’t given her name. We suspect that she’s an outcast; women normally come in the morning and evening to get water, avoiding the hot part of the day. There had to be a reason she came at noon when the sun was blistering. She’s a Samaritan, a half Jew. She is, for all intents and purposes, a nobody.
But she gets it, this nameless woman. “Why is it that you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” In her head she must be also asking, why is he talking to me? Doesn’t he know that I’m an outcast?
But Jesus doesn’t care. He’s thirsty. He asks her for a drink. Which is pretty remarkable when you think about it. Jesus is asking for a drink. I cannot help but think of his words in Matthew’s gospel about the sheep and the goats. He tells the sheep that they can enter into the Kingdom because of the things they did for him. “When I was thirsty, you gave me a drink,” he says. They ask him when they did this, and he replies, “Whenever you did it it to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.” So here is Jesus, sitting by this well, asking for a drink. He’s giving her a chance to see the one ignored—in this case a nameless Jewish man—and offer a cup of cold water. Before he teaches her about living water, he creates an opportunity for her to do kingdom work.
Instead, she starts putting up road blocks. She starts with that whole, “I’m a Samaritan, you’re a Jew, you know we can’t get along” speech. Jesus tells her that if she knew who he was, she’d be dying to ask him for a drink. She can’t believe it, since Jesus doesn’t have a bucket and the water was a long way down. “You’re not greater than Jacob, are you?” she asks, expecting Jesus to say no, and pulling out the family heritage.
Instead of talking genealogies, Jesus talks about spiritual water, and how the water that he offers would gush in them offering eternal life and they would never be thirsty again. She doesn’t understand that he’s not talking about the same kind of water she is, and says she wants this water so she doesn’t have to come back day after day with her bucket.
He then tells her to go get her husband and then come back to him. She answers, “I’m not married.” Jesus tells her that she’s right, but that she’s been married five other times, and that the guy she’s with now isn’t technically her husband. And with that, the cat is out of the bag. I suspect she feels dejected, and thinking that the whole reason she came to the well at mid-day was to avoid these kinds of conversations.
“Sir, I can see that you’re a prophet,” she says to Jesus. And then she puts up another wall, bringing up the topic of religion and where the proper place to worship is, either on the mountain where they were at or back in Jerusalem. She thinks she knows where this conversation is going, with Jesus—as a Jewish man—telling her that she needed to worship in Jerusalem. But he surprises her. “The time will come—and now is—when it doesn’t matter where you worship. It’s how you worship, the way you live.” She doesn’t get it, so she says one more thing; one more intended dialogue to block Jesus’ offer of water. “I’m not sure about that, but when the Messiah comes, he’ll tell us what we need to know.” “I am he,” Jesus tells her. I’m the one, the Messiah.
And then the light goes on. She gets it.
The disciples come bumbling back at this point, asking all the same questions from before—why is Jesus talking to this woman and all that. The woman is overwhelmed by it all, and leaves her still empty bucket and runs back to town. “Come see a man who knew all about the things I did,” she tells them. What she doesn’t add, but must be thinking is this, “and he still cared about me as a human being.” “Is this the Messiah?” she asks.
They come out in droves. Granted, they knew all about the things she did, but they stopped talking to her. They gave her those looks. They made it so uncomfortable that she had to get water at noon by herself. But they go out to see what all the fuss was about. And many of them come to believe that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.
But this story raises one vital question for me. Why do we—even if we are dying of thirst—avoid taking a drink? This woman is given a number of opportunities to drink the water Jesus offers, and she keeps changing the subject. In her own way she seems to be saying, “Then again, if it did rain, my hair would get frizzy.” Thank you very much for the offer, but even though I’m dying of thirst, I’ll keep things the same, if you please.
We do too, sometimes. We live in fear of taking a drink of the living water that Jesus offers. Either we don’t believe him, or we’re afraid of the unintended consequences—we worry about frizzy hair too. We are prone to self-sabotaging our spiritual lives: not making time for prayer, or finding excuses why we can’t help out at local charities. We leave the Bible on the shelf or the bedside table saying we’ll get to it tomorrow. We avoid the conversation with a friend about our spiritual lives even though it feels like the discussion is going in that direction. We refuse to take the first step in reconciliation. We put up so many walls that we can’t see the water Jesus offers us even though we are in desperate need for a drink.
He’s here. The one who knows all the intimate details of our lives and loves us anyway. He doesn’t see all the labels others cast on us, or the ones we place on ourselves. He always sees somebodies and never nobodies. And he offers us a drink. Will we take it? Will we approach this altar and say to the Messiah, the Christ, please, give me the living water? He’s holding out that cup for us and waiting. Will today be the day we take that long drink? Will this be the day that eternal water gushes in us so that we will never be thirsty again? He tells us that we are all welcome, that even when we think we don’t deserve the living water, he offers us a cup so we can have our thirst quenched. He’s holding out that cup. The rest is up to us.