3 Lent – March 12, 2023
This morning we hear the story of the woman at the well. It is one of my favorite stories, and that is partly because it is a complex story, it is so much more than a simple conversion story.
I’ll start off by sharing some important things to be aware of: This is the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in the New Testament and it is with a woman from Samaria. For centuries, Samaritans and Jews occupied neighboring lands and they practiced similar religions all while actively expressing feelings of animosity toward one another. They became bitter enemies after the Jews destroyed the capital city of Shechem and razed the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim. Bottom line, they could not stand each other. The differences between them are not easily negotiated; each is fully convinced that the other is wrong.
Which means that what Jesus is doing, by speaking to a Samaritan who is also a woman, is radical and risky, it is his customary boundary crossing. The contrast between last week’s reading about Nicodemus and this week’s couldn’t be stronger — Nicodemus is male, Jewish, and a religious authority, he is an “insider”. The woman is, well, a woman, a Samaritan, and an outsider.
And, notice that neither Jesus nor the Gospel writer make a value statement about the five husbands; it is more than likely that the woman’s past is not her fault. There are any number of reasons why the Samaritan woman might have the past she has. Perhaps she was married off as a teen bride, then widowed and passed along among her dead husband’s brothers, according to the “Levirate marriage” practice of the day. Maybe her various husbands abandon her because she’s infertile, not able to have children. Maybe she’s a victim of abuse. Maybe she has a disability.
Whatever the case, we know for sure that in the first century, women did not have the legal power to end their own marriages — the authority to file for divorce rested with men alone.
So, Jesus sees her. As Debi Thomas so powerfully shares with us: “But then Jesus comes along and sees her. He sees the whole of her. The past. The present. The future. Who she has been. What she yearns for. How she hurts. All that she might become. And he names it all.
But he names it all without shaming, castigating, or condemning her. He sees and names the woman in a way that makes her feel not judged, but loved. Not exposed, but shielded. Not diminished, but restored. He doesn’t shy away from the painful, ugly, broken stuff in her life. Instead he allows the truth of who she is to come to the surface. “Let’s name what’s real,” he’s telling her. “Let’s say what IS. No more games. No more smokescreens. No more posturing. I see you for who you are, and I love you. Now see who I am. The Messiah. The one in whom you can find freedom, love, healing, and transformation. Spirit and Truth. Eternal life. Living Water. Drink of me, and live.””
So, Jesus sees her, compassionately naming and understanding her circumstances. This is why she calls him a prophet and then risks asking him the central question that divides Samaritans and Jews: the question of where it is proper to worship. He tells her it will be neither place, but instead worship in spirit and truth.
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 — she leaves her jar 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.
They met at the well.
The well represents an in-between place. The well is a space in between Jews and Samaritans. The well is a space in between town and wilderness. The well is a place in between the men who have been unfaithful to her and Jesus—the one being of ultimate fidelity. The well is a place in between her painful past and her joyful future.
This story about the meeting between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is in many ways about identity, about knowing and being known. To be known is to be loved and to be loved is to be known.
We hear Jesus tell the woman that “I am he” in response to her statement about the Messiah. That the person he trusts himself to is a Samaritan and a woman is deeply significant, not only to John’s first-century audience but also to anyone who seeks to understand the gospel. 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. This gospel becomes life changing for the Samaritan woman’s neighbors when she tells them about the Messiah, and becomes the first and most effective evangelist of John’s Gospel.
Jesus’s willingness to break the social rules of his day means that we, his followers, must live into the truth that people are more than the sum of their political, racial, cultural, and economic identities. Jesus calls us to put aside the stereotypes we carry, the prejudices we nurse, the social and cultural lines we draw. He invites us to look at the Samaritan woman and see a sister and an apostle, not a harlot, a heretic, a foreigner, or a threat.
She is unexpectedly known and loved by this itinerant Jewish rabbi, and the living water that he offers becomes in her a spring of water that overflows into her own life and even into the lives of her neighbors. “Come and see!” she says to them. She is an evangelist, one of the first: Come and see!
Jesus honors, blesses, and validates the woman’s proclamation. John writes that Jesus stays in the woman’s city for two days, so that everyone who hears her testimony can meet with him directly, and see that the woman is a reliable witness. She, like John the Baptist, like the Apostles, like Mary Magdalene, like Paul, “prepares the way of the Lord” — and Jesus encourages her to do so. “Many Samaritans from that city,” the Gospel writer tells us, “believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.”
Jesus sees the woman at the well. Jesus also sees us — our challenges, problems, doubts, fears — with compassion and frees us to leave our jar behind. Jesus, who is willing to break all boundaries to share living water with this woman, continues to break boundaries in order to reach us. To be known is to be loved and to be loved is to be known. God loves us with an everlasting love. Amen.