Lent 3A – March 12, 2023
Exodus 17:1-7 – Moses brings water out of a rock at Massah and Meribah.
Psalm 95 – The Venite: O Come, let us sing to the Lord, let us shout for joy to the God of our salvation.
Romans 5:1-11 – Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through Jesus Christ… We boast in our sufferings, for suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character… While we were weak, Christ died for the ungodly.
John 4:5-42 – The Woman at the Well. “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
Listen to the Podcast (3/15/20) – Lent 3A
Woman at the Well: Belonging
The story of the Woman at the Well is the longest dialog Jesus has in any of the gospels. This story is the theme for Dr. Karoline Lewis’ 2022 book, Belonging.
Lewis tackles the long conversation between Jesus and the woman in five sections, and five aspects of discipleship:
- Chapter 1: Discomfort (John 4:1-6)
- Chapter 2: Wonder (John 4:7-15)
- Chapter 3: Trust (John 4:16-24)
- Chapter 4: Letting Go (John 4:25-30)
- Chapter 5: Witness (John 4:31-42)
Dr. Lewis points out that the lectionary appoints verses 5-42, but you absolutely must add verses 1-4. If you’re reading the whole thing anyway, verses 1-4 only adds a few seconds, but a lot of context.
What remarkable contrast between Nicodemus and the Woman at the Well. He has a name; she doesn’t. He’s a religious insider. She’s an outsider. Nicodemus takes place in Jerusalem at the center of their religious life. John 4 in Sychar, in the middle of Samaria. Nicodemus is at night. The Woman at the Well is at noon. Nic seeks out Jesus. Jesus seeks out the woman. This is intentional. How is this central to John’s christology? Both stories are unique to John. Nicodemus pops up later, in John 7, and also is at Jesus’ burial with Joseph of Arimathea.
1. Discomfort (John 4:1-6)
The sermon title could be “Going to Sychar.” Jesus has been in Jerusalem for Passover. He’s heading back to Galilee. He didn’t have to pass through Samaria. They could have gone through the Jordan River Valley or along the Mediterranean. So why did Jesus go through Samaria. the text says, “It was necessary for him to go through Samaria.” (John 4:4) Why? Why was it necessary? John 3:16 gives us the answer: God so loved the world, the whole world, even Samaria.
Jesus ends up at Jacob’s well, a proposal scene (see more about this below). Isaac and Rebecca. Jacob and Rachel. Moses and Zipporah. Every day this woman goes to this well and is reminded that she is not Sarah, Leah, or Rachel. She will not have have ancestors. You do not go to the well at noon to fetch water. It’s too hot. You go at dawn and at dusk. You need water in the morning and at night. She goes at noon because she is an outcast. She is alone at that well.Where or what has been your present day Sychar? Where or to whom may God be calling you, where you do not want to go? What are you afraid might be uncovered about you? What do you find hard to admit about yourself?
2. Wonder (John 4:7-15)
Wonder is possible in a relationship of belonging, because you feel safe to be curious. Notice the parenthetical remarks in the text, which are obviously editorial. (The disciples went to the store.) Translation: Jesus and an unmarried woman are all alone at the well. He is a Jew and she is a Samaritan. There’s a lot going on. No wonder she asks why he is asking her for water. She names her identity: a woman, of Samaria. She has been socialized to know her place. (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) What an understatement. Translation: How could we possibly drink from the same well? Why are you talking to me?
Jesus offers living water to quench her thirst forever. Wells dry up. He is offering her a well that will never run dry. Think of this as a metaphor for her, how much her well has run dry in life, her inability to have children. He offers a spring “gushing up” to eternal life. The tense is that of an ongoing action. John will say “I am the living water…” (John 6:35) God is provision. Her primary job is to get water twice a day, but Jesus is offering to give her water.
This sign, like the others, comes out of the first sign, the wedding at Cana. Ever-flowing wine, the best wine, when you least expect it, at a wedding. There’s so much more for you in life. (John 10:10) I will never abandon you. Then the wonder: “Sir, give me this water so that I may never be thirsty and not have to come to this well…” She doesn’t get it yet, but she’s moving ever so slowly. At first he is a thirsty Jew with no manners. Now she thinks, he might have something I need. Wonder. Have you been taught to know your place? How is it that you Jesus, could need something from me? What do you do for yourself when you think the well is too deep? To whom do you turn?
3. Trust (John 4:16-24)
Who do you trust with your truth? This is not about a promiscuous woman. Sometimes it’s hard to convince people of this after years of misinterpretation. Jesus: “Go and get your husband.” (John 4:16) Woman: “I have no husband.” Here we have layers and layers of not belonging. No husband. No heir. She is an outsider in her own community. She is telling her truth. She tells the most shameful thing about her existence. She responds honestly to him. She takes a risk. Must have been his tone. Tone is everything. That’s belonging. That’s community.
Imagine him responding lovingly, “I know. I know you have no husband. I know what you’ve been through: five husbands.” This has nothing to do with her. She has absolutely no control over her marital status. Either they died or they divorced her. A man could divorce his wife for any reason, but the primary reason would be that she is barren. “And the man you are living with is not your husband.” We hear that as “she is shaking up with a guy.” Karoline Lewis: “That is not a thing. You don’t shack up in antiquity.” What they have is Levirate marriage: The dead husband’s brother marries the widow to provide for her. There is no hint that she is permiscusous. Jesus does not forgive her. It’s not there. There’s nothing to forgive. She senses that he’s a prophet, because he perceives her truth. This is the same conclusion the man who was born blind will come to.
Now she thinks, if you’re a prophet, I have a question for you. She brings up the most important theological difference between Jews and Samaritans. Do you worship on this mountain or that mountain? Where is God tabernacling? It is also the most important theological question in the Gospel of John: Where is God? John’s answer is Jesus. Not this mountain or that mountain. Jesus is God with us. The Temple is no longer the center. What is the importance of the Temple incident in John 2 if it is not the impetus for Jesus’ crucifixion as in the synoptics? In John, there is a sense that Jesus is pointing out some corruption in the Temple system. But here’s the thing: the Temple had to be a marketplace. That’s how it is set up. You have to buy an animal for the sacrifice. Karoline Lewis: “You can’t schlep a goat from Galilee.” This is also an important question after the destruction of the Temple. Where is God? How might you live if you believe Jesus only means well for you? When have you heard the Bible used to condemn you or others? What does this communicate about who they think God is?
4. Letting Go (John 4:25-30)
Belonging sometimes means letting go, leaving your water jar. She says, “I know the messiah is coming…” He says, “I AM.” The text says, “I am he.” Cross out the “he.” It doesn’t exist in the Greek. Jesus responds, “I AM.” Ring a bell? This is how God answered from the burning bush, when Moses asks God, “Who shall I say sent me?” (Exodus 3:14). The very first “I am” in the Gospel of John is to her. Then John 4:28 says, “Then she left her water jar.” This is a huge statement. It is a loaded statement. She went back to the city without her water. She begins to tell her people about Jesus. She may not have heirs, but Jesus is giving her a different kind of inheritance. This is an important story. For God so loved the world… Jesus shows the disciples what the world that God loves is like, in Samaria. This woman. This is the world that God loves.
5. Witness (John 4:31-42)
In John, Jesus’ works are never called miracles. They are called to signs, because they point to something. Signs require interpretation. They point to things. Jesus says, “I have food that you do not know about.” More mystical stuff. “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me.” Then he says the fields are ripe for harvesting. Many Samaritans believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony. Belief is being in relationship in John. They asked him to stay (abide, be in relationship) with them, and he stayed (abided) another two days. At then end of the gospel, John says, “These things are written so that you will come to believe…” Some manuscripts have this as aorist subjunctive (punctiliar, one time). Other texts have it as present tense subjunctive: “These things are written that you might continue believing…” These things are writen that you might trust that you belong. They say, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” What has Jesus done to save the world? He hasn’t died on the cross yet. Belonging is salvation.
Woman at the Well: The Soul-quenching Waters of Grace
If we want to understand this well story well, we should talk about wells. It’s a deep subject as the old pun goes. Wells are the critical source of water, absolutely necessary for life, and therefore, a central meeting place. Wells are a fact of life and also a metaphor. Even today we talk about conversations around the water cooler. If we are to understand the John 4 text at the deepest level, we must be prepared to hear the various parts of the story at both their face value and also their symbolic meaning.
In the Bible, the heart is a well from which can flow fresh water or brackish water. Proverbs 4:23 says, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.”
Later in John’s gospel, 7:37-38, Jesus will talk about the heart (or the belly) as a well. It’s unclear what “scripture” John has Jesus is citing.
On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, 38 and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’”
The well is also a metaphor for the tongue:
- Proverbs 18:4 says, “The words of the mouth are deep waters; the fountain of wisdom is a gushing stream.
- James 3: “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?”
Everywhere I have travelled in the developing world, I have seen women hauling water from the well to the home. It seems as if this has always been women’s work.
Here are some pictures I took of women hauling water in the Central African Republic:
Here is a well in Ethiopia. This is why well-building is so important:
Well stories abound in the Jewish Bible. The author of the Gospel of John knew this. Wells were holes in the ground, sometimes covered by a stone. It was a place to draw water for the family and for the livestock. A well was life.
Isaac’s wife was found at a well. In Genesis 24, Abraham sends his servant out to find Isaac a wife. When the servant arrives in the town of neighbor, we are told he prayed:
O Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. I am standing here by the spring of water, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. Let the girl to whom I shall say, ‘Please offer your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.”
Before he finished praying Rebekah showed up at the well. This Genesis story is important, because in John’s gospel, Jesus asks for a drink from the well in the same way as the servant in Genesis 24:14: “Please offer your jar that I may drink…”
Jacob met his wife Rachel at a well in Genesis 29. Traveling east of his homestead, he came across some flocks that appeared “well-watered.” As he is visiting with the brothers who own the well, their sister Rachel comes up, with her father’s sheep.
Moses, the central figure of the master story of the Hebrew Bible, The Exodus, found his wife at a well.
But Moses fled from Pharaoh. He settled in the land of Midian, and sat down by a well. The priest of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. But some shepherds came and drove them away. Moses got up and came to their defense and watered their flock. hen they returned to their father Reuel, he said, “How is it that you have come back so soon today?” They said, “An Egyptian helped us against the shepherds; he even drew water for us and watered the flock.” He said to his daughters, “Where is he? Why did you leave the man? Invite him to break bread.” Moses agreed to stay with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Zipporah in marriage. She bore a son, and he named him Gershom; for he said, “I have been an alien residing in a foreign land.”
Please allow me a brief digression. Did you know there is a natural spring called Jacob’s Well in the Texas Hill Country, near Wimberley? It’s actually a dangerous diving spot. Thousands of gallons of water per minute surge upward forming the source of Cypress Creek and eventually feeding into the Gulf of Mexico. It is one of the longest underwater caves in Texas. In 1924, Jacob’s Well flowed at a rate of 170 gallons/second (shooting 6 feet into the air). Over the years, the well’s flow has diminished. The spring ceased flowing for the first time in recorded history in 2000, and again in 2008. See photos below from Amazing Planet. Water is becoming a greater and greater challenge Texas.
With temperatures rising and water levels rising-, water scarcity is becoming more and more an issue. It always has been, in one way or another, if one listens carefully to the importance of water in ancient societies. Perhaps today we are more ready to hear these stories.
John 4 is a bit long to include here. This story takes up the majority of the chapter, 42 verses, prompting Gulf Coast Pastor Gary Morgan-Gohlke to say, “I love that Jesus had no place he’d rather be that day than having a long, deep talk with her and I love that John uses most of an entire chapter to include the details.”
Jesus comes to a Samaritan city called Sychar where you will find “Jacob’s Well.” This well is considered important by Jews, Muslims, Samaritans and Christians. It is located within an Eastern Orthodox monastery. It has been a tense location since the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. In 1979, the custodian of the well, Archimandrite Philoumenos, was hatcheted to death by an Israeli activist. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem declared Philoumenos a saint.
That Jesus sat here, clearly the place for women is interesting. A Samaritan woman arrives, so Jesus says to her, “Give me a drink.” That this is a remarkable boundary-crossing in Jesus’ day is in no doubt, since the text tells us (v. 27) that the disciples, “were astonished that he was speaking to a woman.” (καὶ ἐθαύμαζον ὅτι μετὰ γυναικὸς ἐλάλει). We must be careful to check our twenty-first century understanding of gender relations.
Even the woman sees the problem. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Alice Conner in Fierce: Women of the Bible and their Stories of Violence, Mercy, Bravery, Wisdom, Sex and Salvation interprets this as, “You know you’re not supposed to be talking to me, right?” Indeed, we will soon discover that Jesus has not just crossed a gender boundary, but also boundaries of race, religion and shame.
Jesus suggests that maybe she should be asking for a drink from him, and he might provide “living water.” I wonder what those who can’t understand this text allegorically make of this passage. She responds literally. “You don’t even have a bucket, and the well is deep.” Deep indeed. In John 3, during the Nicodemus story which we read last week, we learned that the things of the Spirit are complex. The Spirit blows where it wills. You hear the sound, but you can’t really know where it’s going. (John 3:8)
Jesus says you can drink the water from this well, but you’ll be thirsty again. If you drink of the living “water” of which he is speaking you will never be thirsty again. Jesus’ water will be like a spring (well) gushing up to eternal life. “Eternal” in John is not so much about length as it is about depth. Eternal life in this life and the next is abundant life: life in all its fullness.
Jesus always moves from the physical to the spiritual. In John 3 he was talking about spiritual rebirth, but Nicodemus was focused on physical rebirth. In John 9 the Scribes and Pharisees will be focused on the man’s physical blindness, but it becomes obvious that Jesus is speaking about their own spiritual blindness. In today’s passage, Jesus keeps taking the conversation to a deeper level. The Samaritan woman keeps thinking about physical water. “Give me this water so that I won’t be thirsty, so I don’t have to keep coming back to this well.”
Then things get real. Jesus says, “Okay. Go get your husband and we’ll talk about it.” When she responds that she has no husband, he concurs. She has had five, and the man she is living with is not her husband. She is impressed by this, and calls him a prophet.
She then addresses the religious problem. You Jews worship on that other mountain in Jerusalem. We worship on this mountain here. It’s an argument about where the navel of the universe is, and also about whose religion is the true religion. We have these same conversations today. Again Jesus takes it to a new level. The hour is coming when this mountain or that mountain won’t much matter. People will worship God in the Spirit. God is Spirit.
Again impressed, the woman says she knows the messiah is coming. Everything will get sorted out then. Perhaps he knows when the messiah is coming. Jesus says, “I am he,” or more literally, “I AM.” (Ἐγώ εἰμι.) Jewish hearers will get this. It’s straight out of the Septuagint. It’s the same thing God said to Moses at the burning bush. She lights up.
Right about then, the disciples arrive with all their misgivings about him speaking to a Samaritan woman in public, but they are afraid to bring it up with him. The woman leaves and begins telling everyone about this Jesus whom she has encountered.
Verses 31-38 are a strange interpolation. It follows the pattern of people talking about physical things and Jesus talking about spiritual things. They suggest he get something to eat. He responds with things like, “I have other food you don’t know about.” “My food and drink is to do the will of the one who sent me.” “The fields are ripe for harvesting.” If Jesus spoke to people like this frequently, it is no wonder they had trouble following him. He was speaking on another plane altogether. Those who focus on mystical things often seem crazy to those around them.
Finally, we are told that many Samaritans believed in Jesus because of the Samaritan woman. “He told me everything I have ever done.” He saw her. He saw inside her, and he loved her. Many others believed because of Jesus’ preaching. “We have heard for ourselves, and know that this is the savior of the world (ὁ σωτὴρ τοῦκόσμου).
David Lose published an excellent article in the Huffington Post a few years ago that is worth a read when considering this text: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-lose/misogyny-moralism-and-the_b_836753.html. He reminds us that Christian commentators have tried to make a prostitute out of this woman, and wonders why we seem to need to do so.
The woman may not be scandalous, but Jesus’ conversation with a Samaritan woman in public certainly is, as evidenced by his disciples’ own reaction (John 4:27). Still, we should not assume that she is a scandalous woman. A bad girl. There’s nothing in the text to suggest this. She’s had five husbands, yes. She could be widowed. If so, she deserves Jesus’ compassion. Even if she is five times divorced, this was likely not her choice. Men divorced women (for the flimsiest of reasons), not vice-versa. Being barren is grounds for divorce. Perhaps she is unable to bear children. We simply don’t know. Either way, Jesus chooses to respond by treating her as a person, with compassion.
It’s interesting how we respond when we don’t know. Do we assume the worst? Even if the worst is true, whatever that may be, should we not even still respond with compassion as did Jesus to the woman caught in the very act of adultery, coming to us in just four more chapters (John 8)?
Jesus points out the truth of her situation, which surprises even her. Lose suggests that this is not judgment but compassion. His bridge of compassion sparks her to point out their religious differences. We worship on different mountains. We are different. Jesus responds suggesting that mountains are becoming irrelevant. We worship God in spirit.
Liz Curtis Higgs, in Bad Girls of the Bible, considers the question of why men so badly want a bad girl, but then also want to denigrate her. Why do we want to make a bad girl out of this Samaritan woman? Why do we want to make a bad girl of out Mary Magdalene? She exposes society’s need to have a bad girl, as a counterpoint to self-righteous moralism. Painting easy, vulnerable targets as bad makes me look and feel good about myself. But while men hate the bad girl, deep down they want her. “I’m a bad girl.” Wink wink. “A very, very bad girl.” Male society wants the bad girl, but also wants to hold her in contempt.
Jesus does not go to her because she is bad. He does not ask her to repent, and sin is never mentioned. He goes to her because she has been victimized. He “sees” her. This is the first step to being a healer. You have to see people first.
Do you “see” the vulnerable? Or do you “see” the powerful who look down upon the vulnerable, powerless and stigmatized, yearning for God’s mercy? Do you see desperate people fleeing violent situations, or do you see criminals who have crossed our borders and are stealing our jobs?
The Samaritan woman is one of the many unnamed women of the Bible. There are around 3,000 names, perhaps 1,700 of them are distinctive names. Named women make up less than 8% of all the names in the Bible. 93 have spoken words recorded, like this woman. Most of them are under the authority of a man. The only women who were not were what the Tanach calls zonah. Independent women were often considered a threat. This may be another reason that strong, independent women got labeled prostitutes, as a means to stigmatize them and take away their power.
This text is also an awesome text to consider interfaith dialog. How does Jesus engage this woman of a differing religious background? He sits with her. He is honest with her. He listens to her. He does not critique her faith. He does not try to proselytize her. He builds a bridge. “You worship on this mountain and we worship on that one. The days are coming when we will all worship God in spirit and in truth…” What could we possibly have in common? Let’s talk about the Spirit. She emphasizes their differences: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman, a Samaritan?” (John 4:9) Jesus does not emphasize their differences.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly… God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us… we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
God in Christ is about reconciliation. God in Christ is about redemption of all of us, even the broken, even the ungodly. Christ died for people like you and me, and the folks that we know. And this woman. This is enough for a week of preaching.
And then there’s this passage from today’s epistle reading…
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
God’s love has been poured into our hearts…
What a deep, soulful passage. Paul’s formula is borne of his experience murdering Christians, his mystical encounter with Christ, his out-of-body experience, his conversion, his own subsequent persecution:
suffering > endurance > character > hope
It is a very Christian formula, the E=MC2 of early Christian theology. Law and Gospel. Suffering and Hope. This is a perspective easily lost by the American church. We live in such abundance, the concept of going without, denying ourselves, making sacrifices for others, except, ironically, in the military, where people put their lives on the line for the safety of others.
Jesus’ willingness to suffer for his beliefs, for his misguided Jerusalem, is at the heart of the foolish message of the cross. The disciples’ willingness to give their lives for their faith fueled the powerful Christian movement of slaves and women. Martyria of the second and third generation Christians shows a 100% whole-life commitment to a new kind of society. What would they think about a church two millennia later, that is wealthy, and comfortably in bed with the empire? We can only guess.
Have we become too comfortable to risk speaking up for those who are outcast? Are we too comfortable to become despised and persecuted for standing up for the poor, the stranger, the diseased? Are we too comfortable to name racism, sexism and classism? Are we too comfortable to preach a sermon that asks hard questions?
The preacher could spend an entire sermon on signs of spiritual thirst that only the Spirit can quench. We are desperate for love, joy, peace, justice, generosity, kindness and other spiritual fruits. This thirst is the gentlest way to preach law, judgment. We can talk about how our desperate and feeble attempts to quench our spiritual thirst in all the wrong ways leads to the world we live in. We try to fill the spiritual void with money, sex, entertainment, success, and a pantheon of gods, Luther would say. A great sermon title based on an old country song would play well in rural Texas congregations: Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places.
Paul says that God’s love poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. The only source of lasting love that quenches the deep spiritual thirst in our lives is the love of God that is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. And with that we’re back to grace. It is grace that redeems, renews, justifies, absolves.
Anything that does not do those things is not the gospel.