“The Christ, the Woman, and the Well”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
5 He came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, which was near the land Jacob had given to his son Joseph.6 Jacob’s well was there. Jesus was tired from his journey, so he sat down at the well. It was about noon.
7 A Samaritan woman came to the well to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me some water to drink.” 8 His disciples had gone into the city to buy him some food.
9 The Samaritan woman asked, “Why do you, a Jewish man, ask for something to drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” (Jews and Samaritans didn’t associate with each other.)
10 Jesus responded, “If you recognized God’s gift and who is saying to you, ‘Give me some water to drink,’ you would be asking him and he would give you living water.”
11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you don’t have a bucket and the well is deep. Where would you get this living water? 12 You aren’t greater than our father Jacob, are you? He gave this well to us, and he drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.”
13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks from the water that I will give will never be thirsty again. The water that I give will become in those who drink it a spring of water that bubbles up into eternal life.”
15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will never be thirsty and will never need to come here to draw water!”
16 Jesus said to her, “Go, get your husband, and come back here.”
17 The woman replied, “I don’t have a husband.”
“You are right to say, ‘I don’t have a husband,’” Jesus answered. 18 “You’ve had five husbands, and the man you are with now isn’t your husband. You’ve spoken the truth.”
19 The woman said, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.20 Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you and your people say that it is necessary to worship in Jerusalem.”
21 Jesus said to her, “Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you and your people will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You and your people worship what you don’t know; we worship what we know because salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the time is coming—and is here!—when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth. The Father looks for those who worship him this way. 24 God is spirit, and it is necessary to worship God in spirit and truth.”
25 The woman said, “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one who is called the Christ. When he comes, he will teach everything to us.”
26 Jesus said to her, “I Am—the one who speaks with you.”[a]
27 Just then, Jesus’ disciples arrived and were shocked that he was talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?”28 The woman put down her water jar and went into the city. She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who has told me everything I’ve done! Could this man be the Christ?” 30 They left the city and were on their way to see Jesus.
31 In the meantime the disciples spoke to Jesus, saying, “Rabbi, eat.”
32 Jesus said to them, “I have food to eat that you don’t know about.”
33 The disciples asked each other, “Has someone brought him food?”
34 Jesus said to them, “I am fed by doing the will of the one who sent me and by completing his work. 35 Don’t you have a saying, ‘Four more months and then it’s time for harvest’? Look, I tell you: open your eyes and notice that the fields are already ripe for the harvest. 36 Those who harvest are receiving their pay and gathering fruit for eternal life so that those who sow and those who harvest can celebrate together. 37 This is a true saying, that one sows and another harvests. 38 I have sent you to harvest what you didn’t work hard for; others worked hard, and you will share in their hard work.”
39 Many Samaritans in that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s word when she testified, “He told me everything I’ve ever done.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to Jesus, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. 41 Many more believed because of his word, 42 and they said to the woman, “We no longer believe because of what you said, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this one is truly the savior of the world.” (John 4:4-42 — CEB)
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.
This second story begins with Jesus making his way through Samaria as he travels from Jerusalem north to Galilee. As the narrative unfolds, we encounter a series of juxtapositions that are 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 conversation with Jesus. Jesus initiates the encounter with the Samaritan woman in a public place under the noonday sun.
Nicodemus is either afraid or unable to free his mind from the restraints of a religious system that is, for him, as absolute as it is familiar. The Samaritan woman opens her mind and her 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 herself and within her whole community.1
One purpose of this story—and of every story in the fourth gospel—is to illustrate John’s most memorable declaration: “For God so loved the world, that [God] gave [God’s] only son…not to condemn the world,” but to redeem it.
Let’s also remember that while Jews and Samaritans share a Hebrew heritage, they hold each other in contempt. Jerusalem Jews in particular consider Samaritan Jews deserving of no better treatment than Gentiles and lepers. It’s a sad relationship, and one that has ancient and contemporary parallels in all manner of human prejudice and fear. Into that disaffection, John declares that God’s gift to the world is the Son, the Christ, the Word-Made-Flesh.
I don’t know about you, but the message I’ve heard over the years, and the message I used to preach, declares that 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. Over time, though, I have begun to see God, Jesus and his ministry, and the cross in new light—the light of what we reformed Presbyterians call irresistible grace. And the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman helps to reveal the way that light illumines all things.
Many have noticed and highlighted Jesus’ redeeming love for the woman. The assumption behind much of that teaching is that she’s a “sinner,” but neither Jesus nor 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 thestory—the ancient story of the Hebrews which includes the drama of Jacob and Esau, fraternal twins who experience a deep and painful alienation from each other. Their alienation lasts many years and is healed only when the brothers have grown old enough and wise enough to understand that the world is big enough for both of them—and then some.
That same family is now two first-century nations so deeply wounded and so profoundly alienated from the other, that the two factions barely recognize each other as human. At Jacob’s well, the family now begins to reunite in the persons of Jesus and this very articulate and intrepid woman—who also represent the entire world, all that is beloved yet broken, all that is hurting yet holy.
The encounter shows us that God’s sharing of the Son transcends Friday’s atrocity. The cross doesn’t mollify some angry, human-imaged deity. The cross exposes the bloodlust of a humanity that has given itself over to the selfishness, violence, and the fury of broken systems that exist for their own sakes. In contrast: The gift announced in John 3:16 is the Word who comes to all the world and lives among us, as one of us (John 1:14), for our sake.
“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.”
This reunion reminds us of the reunion of Jacob and Esau at the Jabbok River. It also 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 and re-unifying all things.
The world remains a place of brokenness and alienation. Like-minded individuals seem intent on circling their wagons and drawing the covers of darkness over themselves by finding reasons to fear, judge, despise, and even injure people who aren’t like them. And virtually everyone participates in the brokenness, even if only as passive beneficiaries of inequitable and unjust systems.
But the gospel also says that we live in a world that has been loved from the beginning and will be “so loved” forever. So, we witness to a gathering place in our midst, a well of “living water,” “full of grace and truth.” We can’t restrict the flow of this well, nor can we hinder his love, at least not for long. 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 everyone.
That’s good news in an era of drought. That’s good news in a culture which seems to thrive on division, and on fear of the other. A widening aisle between left and right has each side hurling insults and spiteful judgments at “enemies” on the other side. Sometimes that comes as personal attacks on news networks. Sometimes it poses as comedy on late-night TV. Very often we encounter it in the echo chambers of social media and closed communities. None of these are wells of Living Water; they are pits of despair. And to the extent that we wallow in the pits, we condemn rather than love our neighbors, and we tear at the body of Christ himself.
We will always have differing opinions about challenges and how to address them. As Jesus followers, though, let’s keep his words in mind: “I am fed by doing the will of the one who sent me.” The will of God is to gather at the well—to gather with and to welcome all people, regardless of their politics, or race, or age, or gender, or sexual orientation, or nationality, or even religion. And I know that even saying that can cause anxiety. And yet, because “God so loved [and continues to love] the world,” our call is to gather, to receive, to celebrate, and to share God’s love.
May we claim our Belovedness.
And may we live as fountains of the love with which we are loved.
1Karoline M. Lewis, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, pp. 93-97.