By The Rev. Sherry Deets
3 Lent – March 23, 2014
The story of the woman at the well may surprise you. The way it’s commonly told goes like this: Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well and asks her for a drink of water. They talk. In the process, she confesses to have been married five times. He confronts her sinfulness. She recognizes him as the Christ and rushes off to tell the others, shouting, “Come, see a man who told me everything that I did.”
That’s the literal understanding of the text. There’s more though, lying just beneath the surface. It draws on the power of symbolism. It’s John’s way of proclaiming the gospel to those who have eyes to see Jesus as Lord and Savior.
The verse just before our reading today begins: “He (Jesus) left Judea, and departed into Galilee. He needed to pass through Samaria.” (John 4:3-4)
Actually, there are two ways to get from Judea to Galilee. One takes you up the Jordan Valley. It’s soft and flat. The other takes you up through Samaria. It’s rocky and mountainous. To borrow a line from Frost, Jesus took the road less traveled. He was on a mission. John goes on:
“So he came to a city of Samaria, called Sychar, near the parcel of ground that Jacob gave to his son, Joseph.” Sychar was the site of Jacob’s well. In the Old Testament, this was where Jacob met Rachel. It was love at first sight. (Gen. 29)
This is our first clue as to what this story is about. Back when Jacob first met Rachel the Jews and Samaritans were one people. They shared a common faith, a common heritage and a common devotion to Yahweh. That was back before they went their separate ways.
So, Jesus came back to where it all started. Like his forefather, Jacob, he came with a proposal in hand. But not a marriage proposal. His proposal had to do with reconciliation. That was his mission – to reconcile the world to God. And in order to do that, he first had to reconcile the Jews and the Samaritans. That’s what this story is about. John continues:
“Jacob’s well was there. Jesus therefore, being tired from his journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour.” Noon is the time of day when the sun is high overhead. It’s the brightest part of the day – a perfect moment for God’s self-revelation.
It’s also the part of the day when you weren’t likely to find many women at the well. Women drew their water in the cool of the morning or late afternoon. It took a strong woman to draw her water in the heat of the day – an independent and resolute woman – a woman with a mind of her own – a woman like Rachel – who, if you remember, also came to the well at noon the day she met Jacob. (Genesis 29:7)
Jesus was sitting at the well when the woman arrived. He got right to the point. He said, “Give me a drink.” Sure, it was noon. Sure, he was hot and thirsty. But that’s beside the point. The point is Jews and Samaritans do not mix. They do not drink from the same cup. They do not commune with each other as brothers and sisters of a common faith. He’s pushing the envelope, which explains her question: “How is it that you, being a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?”
“Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, “Give me a drink,” you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.'” He’s not talking about water. He’s talking about life – real life – life in all its abundance – eternal life – life in the Spirit.
On September 4, 1957, Elizabeth Eckford got ready for her first day of school. She put on the new pleated skirt she’d sewn, along with her white bobby socks and new white buck loafers, gathered her books and boarded the 7:30 a.m. bus for the ride to Little Rock Central High School. There were eight other African American students scheduled to attend Little Rock Central High School that day, but Elizabeth was the first one to arrive. Fifteen years old and painfully shy under normal circumstances, Elizabeth was an unlikely representative of what came to be known as “the Little Rock Nine,” the first group of African American students to integrate a major Southern high school.
But Elizabeth Eckford became a symbol of the struggle for racial integration because she happened to be the first to arrive, and because she arrived in the path of photographer Will Counts, who was taking pictures of that morning.
As Elizabeth Eckford slowly made her way through the press and the protestors, Will Counts shot a picture that would be a haunting representation of the hard hearts that resisted integration in Little Rock that day. In that picture, right behind Elizabeth, there is another young woman, a white woman, whose face is contorted in hatred. Her whole body is protesting; she’s leaning toward Elizabeth Eckford screaming something . . . and you can tell it’s not something nice. That white girl’s name was Hazel Bryan, and spectators reported: she was angry. Benjamin Fine, a reporter from the New York Times, was standing there. Shouts of “two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate!” echoed, while Hazel Bryan shouted, “Go back to Africa!” and Will Counts shot a picture that would define the movement for civil rights in Little Rock. Forever.
Elizabeth Eckford’s experience, along with the other eight African American students at Little Rock Central High School, was filled with fear. Over and over she and the others were harassed, and records of their experiences remain, containing notes like this one from Elizabeth’s principal’s records: “[Elizabeth] said that except for some broken glass thrown at her during lunchtime she really had a wonderful day.”
As the attempts to integrate the high school continued, Hazel Bryan was adamant that she would never attend an integrated high school. She’d learned those standards at home, with a father who refused to be waited on by anyone of color. After Will Counts’ picture ran in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, then all over the world, becoming the visual image of hatred in Little Rock, Hazel was called into the principal’s office where the principal asked her to reconsider her position, admonishing, “hatred only hurts the hater.” But Hazel remained stalwart and gave interview after interview maintaining her position.
Time marched on. Elizabeth Eckford, along with the other members of the Little Rock Nine quickly made their ways out of the South after graduation. Hazel Bryan dropped out; got married; raised a family in a rural section of Little Rock. Both of them left the moment when that picture was taken with heavy burdens of pain and hearts hardened by their experiences.
So it was a surprise and shock during the summer of 1963, when Elizabeth was home visiting family in Little Rock, that she received a telephone message from someone she’d never heard of before. Someone named Hazel Bryan. When Hazel finally got Elizabeth on the telephone she explained: she was the girl screaming hateful things to Elizabeth in that picture that was all over the papers. She was the one, and she was calling to say she was sorry . . . sorry for all the pain and hatred, sorry for the fear, sorry for all the hardness of heart that that picture illustrated. (“Through a Glass Darkly,” Vanity Fair, September 2007) The story of Hazel Bryan and Elizabeth Eckford is a story of redemption, a story of the softening of hearts that was not unlike the invitation Jesus extended to the Samaritan woman at the well, to his disciples, to the people of Samaria, to you . . . and to me. Samaritan, woman, outcast: the appropriate response is to turn away, to build a wall of separation and indifference, to live with a hardness of heart.
But Jesus never lived that way when he walked this earth.
No matter who he encountered, Samaritan, woman, Pharisee, Roman ruler, Jesus always offered the possibility, well, actually, the probability, of the parts of your heart and my heart that are hard in such a way that they cut us off from other people and from the grace and love of God, hard parts of us that can be softened, softened by the powerful solvent of the living water.
Jesus saw the Samaritan woman at the well. He has seen her plight of dependence, not immorality. He has recognized her, spoken with her, offered her something of incomparable worth. He has seen her — she exists for him, has worth, value, significance, and all of this is treatment to which she is unaccustomed.
And so when he speaks of her past both knowingly and compassionately, she realizes she is in the presence of a prophet. For this reason only does she risk the central question that has divided Samaritans and Jews for centuries: Where is the proper place of worship? This is no awkward dodge or academic diversion. This is a heartfelt question that gets to the core of what separates her from Jesus. And when Jesus surprises her with an answer that is simultaneously more hopeful and penetrating than she’d expected, she leaves her water jar behind to tell her neighbors about this man.
And here, perhaps, is the part of the story that witnesses to her transformation and freedom. For in terms of John’s story and the world, this nameless woman has pretty much everything stacked against her: she is a Samaritan in this Jewish story, a woman in a male-dominated world, has lived a challenging and probably tragic life, and is very likely dependent on others. And yet after her encounter with Jesus she leaves her water jar — perhaps symbolic of all the difficulties of her life — she leaves it behind to live a new and different life and to share with others what God has done for her.
So what is it, I wonder, that holds us back from living into the future God has prepared for us and sharing the news of what God has done? What, that is, are the jars we would like to leave behind, trading our past tragedies and present challenges for the living water Jesus offers? What holds us back from freedom, transformation and reconciliation?
The living water is freely given and available. Jesus is here and now. Amen.
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