“Night and Day”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John” 2—although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— 3he left Judea and started back to Galilee.
4But he had to go through Samaria. 5So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)
The Samaritan Woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)
Jesus answered her, “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.”
The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”
Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.”
The woman answered him, “I have no husband.”
Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!”
The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”
Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But 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. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”
Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
27Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?”
28Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”
30They left the city and were on their way to him.
31Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.”
But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.”
33So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?”
Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
39Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41And many more believed because of his word. 42They said to the woman, “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.” (NRSV)
Last week, we listened in on the nocturnal conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. This week, in the very next chapter, we watch and listen as Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well.
The story begins with Jesus making his way through the unfriendly territory of Samaria as he travels from Jerusalem north to Galilee. As it unfolds, the narrative creates a contrast to the previous one that is both stark and completely deliberate.
Nicodemus is named. The woman is not.
Nicodemus is male. The woman is…well…not.
Nicodemus is an influential leader among the Jews in Jerusalem. The woman is an outcast among the outcasts in Samaria.
Nicodemus sneaks in under the cover of darkness to initiate a visit with Jesus. Jesus initiates the encounter with the Samaritan woman, in a public place, in the full light of the noonday sun.
Nicodemus is either afraid or unable to free his mind from the restraints of a religious system that is, for him, not only familiar but absolute. The Samaritan woman opens her mind and her entire life to possibilities that would appear to be unimaginable for her.
Nicodemus is a clueless conversation partner who fades out with his incredulous question: “How can these things be?”
The Samaritan woman demonstrates theological understanding and spiritual boldness in her conversation with Jesus. Then, she becomes an active witness whose testimony unleashes faith and joy within her and within her whole community.1
These stories create a study in night-and-day juxtapositions. One purpose of the story of Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman is to illustrate one of the most memorable declarations in John’s gospel: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son…”
Now, let’s remember: While they share Hebrew heritage and history, Jerusalem Jews and Samaritans hold each other in contempt. Jerusalem Jews in particular consider Samaritans deserving of no better treatment than Gentiles and lepers. It’s a sad relationship, and one that has parallels in all manner of human prejudice and fear, both ancient and contemporary. Into that disaffection, John declares that the Father’s gift to the world is the presence of the Son. God gives the Christ, the Word enfleshed, to the entire Creation.
I don’t know about you, but the message that I’ve gotten over the years, and the message I used to preached, connects the giving of the Son almost exclusively to the cross. The Father gives up the Son, sacrifices the Son, as the only way to restore God’s desire and ability to love the Creation and to deal graciously with it. As I’ve said before, I can no longer preach that point of view in good faith because I consider any god who requires a violent human death to be restored to a capacity for love is just that a god. Not God. And it seems to me that the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman reveals the true nature of the Son as God’s unique and saving gift to us.
When Jesus enters Samaritan territory, he instigates the conversation with the woman. We call that initiative grace. Many preachers and teachers have spoken of Jesus’ redeeming love for the woman. The assumption behind much of that instruction is that she’s a “sinner,” but one is hard pressed to pinpoint where Jesus or John clearly identifies the woman’s sin. Jesus simply states the facts: The woman has had five husbands and is now living with someone who isn’t her husband. John doesn’t elaborate on that, and Jesus doesn’t condemn her of anything. At Jacob’s well, the two begin to talk, to share their stories, and to share the story.
The ancient story of the Hebrews includes the drama of Jacob and Esau, twin brothers who experienced a deep and painful alienation from each other. That alienation lasted many years and was healed only when the brothers had grown old enough and wise enough to understand that the world was big enough for both of them, and then some, so big, in fact, that God alone can comprehend it and love it adequately.
That same family is now two first-century nations so deeply wounded by the world, and each side so profoundly alienated from the other, that the two factions barely recognize each other as human. The family now reunites in the persons of Jesus and a very smart, articulate, intrepid woman. Meeting at Jacob’s well, they represent the entire world, all that is beloved yet broken, and all that is holy and healing.
The encounter shows us that God’s giving of the Son transcends Friday’s atrocity. Friday doesn’t mollify an angry God. Friday exposes the bloodlust of a humanity that has given itself over to the selfish and fearful fury of broken systems that live for their own sakes rather than for the sake of neighbor and earth. In contrast: The gift announced in John 3:16 is the enfleshed Word who comes to all the world and lives among us. (John 1:14)
“Come and see a man who has told me everything I have ever done!” says the woman to her neighbors. And “when the Samaritans came to [Jesus], they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days.” Invited and received, Jesus accepts the hospitality of the despised Samaritans with loving gratitude and generosity. This reunion reminds us of the reunion of Jacob and Esau. It shows us how God continually gives to the world the Son, the unquenchable “light that shines in the darkness,” (John 1:5) and who is even now transforming all things from night to day.
We live in a broken and alienated world. Like-minded groups seem intent on drawing the covers of darkness over themselves and others by finding reasons to fear, judge, despise, and even injure people who aren’t like them. And I don’t know anyone who doesn’t participate in the brokenness, even if only as passive beneficiaries of systems of inequity and injustice.
But the gospel says that we also live in a world that has been beloved from the beginning and will be so loved forever. And there is a gathering place in our midst, a well of living water who is given to us and who abides with us, full of grace and truth. We don’t restrict his movements or hinder his love. Our tradition calls him Jesus, the Christ, but we do not own the well. We only witness to it, for in the well of God’s timeless, universal Christ, there is water enough for all whom God loves.
If the coronavirus outbreak holds even one positive thing for the world, it’s a reminder that we are, all of us—Jew and Gentile, male and female, black and white, rich and poor, resident and refugee—one human family on this planet. We are far more deeply connected and interdependent than many of us want to admit. Our insane scrambles to stockpile hand sanitizer and toilet paper for ourselves attests to how far we’re willing to go to separate ourselves one from another. In the midst of our reactionary fears, today’s text reminds us that our daunting task is simply to come to the Well, to drink the living water of the Christ, to receive his satisfying and renewing light, and to learn to see one another as he sees us—as ones who are eternally beloved by God.
May you claim your Belovedness.
And may you live as fountains of the love with which you are loved.
1Karoline M. Lewis, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, pp. 93-97.