Third Sunday in Lent - March 12, 2023
- Exodus 17:1-7
- Psalm 95
- Romans 5:1-11
- John 4:5-42
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This is the longest conversation that Jesus has with anyone in the gospel of John. And notice who he has this conversation with: it’s not a man. It’s not even a Jew. It is a nameless, Samaritan women. Jesus talks to this woman longer than he talks with Nicodemus—a prominent leader in the temple. Yet we often equate the woman at the well in a very negative light. That is significant and yet, our contemporary, modern ears tend to miss much of the significance of this encounter because we make it into the tale of the sinful woman, an ignorant-foreigner whose life gets turns around after a chance encounter with Jesus. We focus on the fact that Jesus calls out her past husbands. We say all kinds of vulgar things about her and her people. We say things like the Samaritans had no values—that this story is proof of that. We do exactly what the they did back in the first century—we make a judgement about a people and race simply based on a few facts that we found on Wikipedia. But the story of the woman at the well is much more complex full of twist and turns, and really is void of any scandal or misdeeds.
So first, let us talk about the history of the Samaritan people. “For centuries, Samaritans and Jews occupied neighboring lands and practiced similar religions while actively expressing feelings of animosity toward one another. The origin of the Samaritan people remains a mystery, but suffice it to say that ancient Jewish explanations of Samaritan origins were overwhelmingly negative. The Jewish-Samaritan conflict climaxed in 128 BCE when John Hyrcanus, high priest and ruler of the Jews, destroyed the capital city of Shechem and razed the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerazim to the ground. It is not surprising, then, that these groups remained bitter enemies at least until the first century CE.”
In looking at Jesus’s initial words with this woman, we really don’t see any of that animosity between Jesus and this woman. Instead, their conversation begins by talking about their shared past. She asks if Jesus is greater than both of their shared-ancestor, Jacob. By her asking this question, it gave Jesus an opportunity to reveal more about his “messianic identity, something he has done very little thus far in John.” And he does this by talking about Water. “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:15). John has a thing for water. It is an important symbol that he has used numerous times leading up to this story: [for starters, there is] frequent talk of baptism and John the baptizer (1:26, 31; 3:22-24; 4:1-2), then the story of Jesus turning water into the best wine (2:7-11), [last week] a discussion about being born of water and spirit (3:5), and now a conversation at a well about water gushing up to eternal life which John’s shorthand for a new quality of life, not heaven.” She is intrigued by Jesus’s description of this special water so much so that she asks for a taste of the water that Jesus is offering. Water that would no longer require her to spend hours each day walking to obtain. Water which would clenched her thirst for all time. Water that would lead her to a new life.
And does Jesus give that to her? Well, first it appears he goes all Jerry Springer on her and poses a very strange request: “Go, call your husband, and come back.” How odd of a thing to say and this is where most of our modern interpretations tend think that Jesus is angry over her morals and values. This is where most modern preachers tend to blame the woman and say that she is “living in sin and Jesus is calling her out.” But I don’t think that is the case for a number of reasons.
Number one, there is this whole concept of the well we haven’t really addressed. She is nameless and is only really referred to as the Woman at the Well. Which got me thinking…“In Genesis 29, Jacob meets his future wife, Rachel, at a well at midday. A generation before, Abraham’s servant had found Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, at a well (Genesis 24).” “Biblical scholar Robert Altar labels repeated settings like these “biblical type-scenes” and he calls the meeting-at-a-well trope a betrothal type-scene. The first Christians to experience John’s Gospel read aloud would have recognized this type-scene as soon as they heard that Jesus stopped at a well at noon.” I think, John uses this scene to draw his readers into the story all the more. The people are expecting a reference to marriage. They are expecting Jesus to meet the love of his life and then they all ride off into the sunset as they did in Genesis 24 and 29. “What they did not expect, though, was that the woman in the scene was not a blushing soon-to-be bride but a wedding-weary woman.” This leads me to the second reason why I don’t think Jesus is calling out the woman’s past. “As a woman, she could not initiate divorce. Her husband could but not herself. We all assume she has been in adulterous situations that led to her having multiple husbands. But John nor Jesus ever say that. Frankly, she could have also been widowed and remarried multiple times. Neither Jesus nor the Gospel writer make a value statement about the five husbands which makes me think that the woman’s past is not her fault. But how often have we injected our own modern sensibilities here making her more a perpetrator rather than a victim? We ignore her voice because we think Jesus is calling her out.
“Many commentators wonder if the woman’s husbands symbolically represent either the five political powers that had ruled Samaria or the five groups that were rumored to have comprised the early Samaritan people. In this view, Jesus is rehearsing Samaritan history. Or Perhaps this betrothal type-scene doesn’t anticipate the marriage of a couple but of the Samaritans and their God. Jesus tells the woman that soon all people will worship not divided but together in Spirit and truth. Jesus then gives the Samaritan woman insight into the mysterious nature of God—God is Spirit!—and invites her into the reality of this divine truth.”
Personally, I think Jesus is using this opportunity to unite two waring factions together around the same God. Both groups of people, Samaritans and Jews, anticipated the arrival of an eschatological messianic figure. She even says to Jesus, “I know that Messiah is coming…When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” But what she wasn’t expecting, perhaps what none of us are expecting, is for Jesus to say, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
You can almost feel the tension break in this part of the story. This is the first time in the gospel of John that Jesus uses an “I am” statement. “I am” is significant because that is the name God gives to Moses on which God should be called. It is a name reserved for God and here Jesus drops it like it is nothing. It startles the woman. It causes her to leave her bucket of water, the whole reason she came to this well—to leave her bucket behind and go back to the city saying to everyone she meets, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” She does all of this because Jesus says three simple words, “I am he.” This is the only time that Jesus reveals this truth to another person. He reveals this Good news to not only a Samaritan, but Samaritan woman is deeply significant, not only to John’s first-century audience but also to anyone who seeks to understand the gospel.” She is not a woman of ill repute that is called out by Jesus for her past sin. That isn’t Jesus style. When a different woman is caught committing adultery, Jesus reply is not “stone her” but rather, “Thou cast the first stone who has not sinned.” Jesus is all about empowering women, not condemning them. Jesus is all about using women to spread the good news of the gospel message. “The gospel truth of Jesus’ life is that he brings a new way of life, a way that results in all people—women and men, Samaritans and Jews, outsiders and insiders—worshiping in Spirit and in truth.”
Think about it—Jesus, the very Word of God made flesh is present in a forbidden territory. Ho many people in Jesus day believed that God can’t certainly dwell there because God could never love “those” people, but yet, here he is talking not to the leaders but to a nameless woman at a well—revealing to her the amazing truth and power of the messiah that both Jews and Samaritans have longed to see, be fully present in their midst. The gospel changed their lives and the gospel remains life changing for us as well. Last night, the life a little one named Reese had her life forever changed at our own well. The same Christ who met the this nameless woman at the well in Samaria showed up at our well with a message of hope—“that he is the one to whom will save Reese.” So much of Reese’s future is not yet written. Of course she will grow up and do many great and wonderful things is a given, but her future is not yet written or know. What is known is that throughout her days, the Lord, the great I am will be with her and though her life may not always be easy, “I am” will never abandoned her. Our Lord showed up last night, the great I am showed up at our well and revealed the wonders and mysteries of our God just as he did 2000 years and Jesus will use Reese, and Paige (her sister), Matt and Beth—he will use us all like he used the woman he met to spread the good news of a new life for all. May we be so bold as the woman at well did, that after we see Christ reveal himself to us, that we might race back and tell the others, to “come and see” and have your life forever changed.
In the name of the Father, and the son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.