In honor of Vice President Mike Pence not eating alone with a woman who isn’t his wife, I decided to repost this sermon about when Jesus hung out all by himself with the Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s Well. I originally preached this sermon in Lent, 2008.
Meeting God at Wells
3rd Sunday in Lent (Year A)
John 4:4-30, 39-42
Water. Life is dependent on it. In biblical times this meant wells and springs were life. And life was dependent on them. Women were the ones who drew water. They were at wells…a lot. Women not only drew water for their households. They also herded animals mostly sheep, to the wells to water them. Jan Richardson notes this about women and wells:
In God’s lexicon of water, wells have a particularly interesting place. Women at wells: more intriguing still. See a woman near a well, something momentous is bound to happen. It usually involves a person of the male persuasion, and it augurs a major change in the woman’s life. Genesis gives us a rich trinity of woman-at-the-well stories. In Genesis 21, God provides a well to a desperate Hagar and her son Ishmael, who lies near death in a waterless wilderness. Genesis 24 tells of a servant who finds Rebekah, Isaac’s bride-to-be, at a well. Another well serves as a signal of matrimony in Genesis 29, when Jacob meets Rachel at the well where she waters her father’s sheep. The matrimonial symbolism of wells finds a striking resonance in the Song of Songs….Particularly given the intimate, fertile link between women, wells, marriage, and motherhood, one might rightly wonder what the heck Jesus is doing, hanging out by a well with a lone woman, as he does in this week’s Gospel lection, John 4.1-42. I’s a curious thing for a single rabbi to strike up a conversation with a woman he finds at a well. But Jesus is a curious sort of rabbi, and so he wades into an exchange with a Samaritan woman who has come to draw her water at noonday.
Although wells have matrimonial links, two women did not meet husbands at wells: they met God. Richardson notes one of those times in Genesis 21. But Genesis 21 isn’t the first time Hagar had a rendezvous with God at a well or spring, our reading from Genesis 16 is.
Hagar was the first woman to meet God at a well. She was Sarah’s Egyptian slave. She had no say over what happened in her life or her own body. Sarah, desperate for a child, gave Hagar to Abraham as his concubine. After she became pregnant, Hagar may have thought Abraham would make her his second wife. After all, she was the one who would give him his long awaited heir, not Sarah. Hagar apparently started looking down on Sarah. Sarah complained to Abraham that Hagar looked at her with contempt. Abraham said Hagar was her slave, and she could do whatever she wanted to rein Hagar in. Sarah started treating Hagar harshly. Hagar ran away from Abraham and Sarah and ran into God.
God simply wants to know why Hagar is at the spring, and she tells God: she is running away from Sarah. God instructs her to go back and promises her that she will multiply Hagar’s offspring, so that they cannot be counted. God also instructs her to name her son Ishmael, for God has heard her affliction. God extends the covenant promise to Hagar and her son. Hagar is the first woman, and the first person, in the Bible to name God. She calls God, the One who sees. God has seen her pain and affliction, and she has seen God. Hagar goes back and bears Ishmael. She remains in slavery to Sarah until 14 years later, after Isaac is born and weaned. Sarah wants no competition for her son and has Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away. In the desert with no food and water, Hagar once again sees God, who reveals a well to her. God reassures her of the promise before Ishmael was born: he will grow into a great nation.
Thousands of years later another women, another outcast, will meet God at a well named after Abraham’s grandson, Jacob. As Jan noted it is a very strange thing for Jesus, a single rabbi, to strike up a conversation with a foreign woman at a well. It’s even stranger when you consider what time of the day this woman is drawing water. She does not come in the cool of the morning, or when the sun had gone down, but at noon. It’s hot, the water jar is heavy–most people stay in where it’s cool during this time of the day. From the beginning, Jesus knew this woman was an outcast. There is no other reason for her to be collecting water this time of the day. She simply did not want to be around other people. We find out why when she and Jesus begin talking, but we shouldn’t jump ahead of ourselves.
First the Jewish Jesus asks the Samaritan Woman for a drink of water. The Jews don’t like the Samaritans. The Samaritans were people descended from the Israelites that were left after the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles. They had intermarried with other races that had been moved into Israel. Jews considered Samaritans half-breeds. On top of that the Samaritans didn’t know how to worship the right God in the right way either. The woman is understandably surprised that this Jew is talking to her. Well, she’s even more surprised. First Jews avoided Samaria and Samaritans, so her first surprise was finding Jesus at the well. Her second surprise: Jesus talks to her. Their conversation starts out simple, just as God and Hagar’s did. Jesus asks for a drink of water. She wants to know why Jesus is asking her for water, since Jews normally have nothing to do with Samaritans. And then just as we saw with Nicodemus, Jesus starts to get cryptic. He starts talking about living water. He tells the woman that with this living water she will never be thirsty again. The woman eagerly wants this water, not only so she won’t be thirsty, but so she won’t have to come to the well.
Jesus tells her to go and bring her husband. She tells Jesus she has no husband. Now we learn why the woman is coming to the well at noon, and why she avoids the other women. Jesus tells her that he knows all about her. He knows that she has had five husbands, and the man she is now living with is not her husband. Of course it’s automatically assumed that she has been divorced five times, and she is an immoral woman. But when a group of women with AIDS in South Africa studied John 4, “they immediately pitied the woman and concluded that she must have been an AIDS carrier–killing her husbands while she remained unaffected by the disease” (Worship Planning Helps from the United Methodist Church). It’s amazing what different cultures and different people in different circumstances assume about Scripture. We’ll never know if this woman was widowed that many times, divorced because she was barren, or a combination of divorce and being widowed. But that didn’t matter to Jesus. He points it out, but he does not condemn her. He does not even condemn her for living with a man she is not married to. He simply lets her know that he knows her and accepts her. There is no judgment or condemnation.
Now the woman knows Jesus is a prophet, and she is determined to get the answer to the theological question the Jews and Samaritans have been fighting about for over 100 years. Where is the right place to worship? Here in Samaria at Mt. Gerazim or in Jerusalem? Jesus tells her, “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 worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.” Again Jesus does not spend a lot of time on the proper place to worship, just as he did not spend a lot of time on her marital status, or lack thereof. This isn’t what’s important. To Jesus there are peripheral issues.
Then the woman makes a wistful comment, “I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” And now Jesus can get to the point. The reason he is the living water this woman is looking for, the reason he is talking to this woman, the reason the place of worship is no longer important is that he is the Messiah. The Samaritans had a different idea of the Messiah than the Jews had. They were not looking for a political savior to save them from Rome. They were looking for The Prophet, like Moses, who would restore the Torah, the Law. In fact, the Torah was their Scripture. They didn’t acknowledge the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures–just what Moses had given. Jesus could openly reveal himself to the Samaritan Woman, and then the village of Sychar, because they would not have the political agenda that the Jews had. Jesus plainly tells the woman that he is the Messiah, the one she has been waiting for.
About this time the disciples return with the food and wonder what the heck Jesus is doing talking to this woman, alone, at a well. After all they were well acquainted with stories of men and woman at wells. They don’t say anything, but you know Peter was probably just barely containing himself. Jesus and the woman don’t seem to notice the disciples. Then, as Jan Richardson notes, the woman does a very strange thing:
She left her jar. She left her jar behind, that water-bearing vessel on which she depended for her very life. She abandoned it at the well.She had become the vessel. Filled with the living water that she found in the midst of her mundane, daily task, the woman goes to spill forth what she has found.
Early in their conversation, this Samaritan woman had made a point of making sure that Jesus knew that this well belonged to her ancestor Jacob. Jacob, who wrestled with God by a river and received a new name. At Jacob’ well, his womanly descendant does her own wrestling with God. She is unnamed, all throughout John’s story, but not unchanged.
The five-time married woman becomes the first evangelist in John’s Gospel. Can you imagine Zsa Zsa Gabor becoming an evangelist? She runs into the village and stops avoiding the people who look down their noses at her. She forgets the stares and shame. She tells them that she has met a man who knew everything she had done. “Could this not be the Messiah?’ she asks person after person. And many of them believed just on her testimony. Soon the village is following her back to the well to see if Jesus is the Messiah. They asked Jesus and the disciples to stay, and they stayed in Sychar, Samaria for two days. “Many more believed.” They now believed, not because of the woman’s testimony, but because of Jesus. He had shown them that he was their Messiah as well as the Messiah of the Jews. It was time to heal this old family rift. And that’s what it was: an old family rift. Not only is a woman who is a social outcast restored to God and her community. An outcast community comes to know that Jesus is the Savior God has sent into the world.
Both Hagar and the Samaritan Woman found God at wells. They found a God who cared and took time to meet with social outcasts. They were both thirsty and lonely. One commentary I read said that wells were “significant meeting grounds, giving relief to emotionally and spiritually parched people” (The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary, 597). Hagar and the Samaritan both fit that description. All of us go through times where we are spiritually and emotionally parched. We need more than religious platitudes and the empty cliches of “Just believe and everything will be fine.” We need a God would meets us where we’re at whether as slaves to habits or addictions or outcasts harshly judged by the world around us. Or may be we’re just tired. May be we need a long, cool drink and a break. Time to rest. Time to remember Jesus knows all about us and still meets us. Hears us. Talks to us. Forgives us. Refreshes us. And then sends us on our way to share that living water with the people around us and our world.
The pictures are from the gallery of He Qi.
(Originally published March 1, 2008.)