By The Rev. Sherry Crompton
March 27, 2011
Read: John 4:5-42
This was a rather long gospel reading this morning, this story of the woman at the well. It is actually one of Jesus’ longest recorded conversations and this Samaritan woman finds herself engaged with Jesus in a genuine and extended conversation in which she holds her own quite well.
And, this story comes just after the story of Nicodemus. One can’t help but notice the sharp contrasts between the two. They are at opposite ends of the social, political and religious spectrum. One is named and male; the other is an unnamed female. One is a distinguished religious leader, a pillar of the community; the other is a despised foreigner with an irregular marital history. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night; the Samaritan woman encounters Jesus at noon, in the fullest light of day. The dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus quickly shifts into one of Jesus’ monologues and Nicodemus fades into the shadows. The conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, by contrast, is characterized by lively give-and-take. And, at the conclusion of her story, the Samaritan woman does something very important that Nicodemus did not do: she bears witness to Jesus. As a result, a whole village comes to faith!
There are those who have focused on the woman’s marital history and labeled her a prostitute. The fact is, we do not know why she had five husbands. She may have been divorced, or widowed. In those times a man could divorce his wife for dropping a bowl. Jesus is not uncovering a shameful past or exposing her life of sin when he says she has had five husbands and the man she is living with now is not her husband. Jesus, then, is not chastising her or calling her to account; rather he sees her, compassionately naming and understanding her circumstances. This is why she calls him a prophet and risks asking him the central question that divides Samaritans and Jews: the question of where it is proper to worship.
The Spirit is introduced here explicitly. To worship God as God wants is to worship in Spirit, presumably with the Spirit that Jesus offers gushing up from the heart, and in truth, which we will later understand to be embodied in Jesus himself (8:31-32; 14:6). Worship, this seems to suggest, is about relationship, dwelling in the vine Jesus. The Samaritan woman, who has entered into relationship with him here, perhaps understands this. She suggests in her roundabout way that he is the coming Messiah, and for the first and only time in John, Jesus says that he is. I AM.
Although Jesus knows everything about this woman’s life, as indeed he knows what is in everyone (2:25), there is no mention of sin or sinfulness in this text and no word of judgment or even encouragement to change her life. What is life-changing for the woman is, according to her, that she has been entirely known by him, and this being known has enabled her to know him. The story is about her being able to begin to see who he is, being given the gift of that truth that leads to real worship and becoming a conduit for the living water. It is about her only insofar as it is about who he reveals himself to be to her and, through their encounter, to her neighbors and then to us.
A trial motif runs throughout John from the introduction of John the Baptist in 1:7 as a witness. Giving testimony is something Jesus’ friends are called to do (15:27). The woman testifies (4:39) to her city. As a witness, she is intriguing. She certainly cannot be said to overstate the case. She says only what she knows and then leaves the question with them in such a way that they are compelled to come and see him for themselves.
This story suggests in a number of ways that it is not about what we know but who we know. It is about having an encounter, experiencing the light of Jesus’ truth and love shining on our past and our future, and then having the courage and the wherewithal to drop anything that isn’t that and go share what we know (not what someone else knows, just what we know) as witnesses to his abundant grace gushing up to eternal life in us.
While she came to the well to get water, now that she has met Jesus, “who told me everything I have ever done,” she leaves her jar – the token of her present difficult and dependent life – behind to go tell others. She has, indeed, encountered living water, has been freed by her encounter with Jesus, and wants to share this living water with others.
To be known is to be loved and to be loved is to be known.
In welcoming the Samaritan woman, Jesus in effect welcomes us.
And in her enthusiasm and sharing her story with others, we find a role model for our lives – a model that is unashamed to tell the truth to people who are already loved by God whether they know it or not. A model that invites and welcomes people simply because we know that they too are welcomed by and accepted by and forgiven by Christ. As are we.
To be known is to be loved and to be loved is to be known. Amen.
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