This story is one of my favorites from John. The Samaritan woman is an interesting contrast to Nicodemus, who we read about last week. He is the one who comes in the darkness to see Jesus in secret. In contrast, the woman is portrayed as one who has come to the light. This woman interacts with Jesus at high noon, out in the open. Nicodemus came in hiding and left in silence. This woman comes in the daylight and leaves proclaiming the Lordship of Jesus.
This morning I want to reflect on two things, what the story says about Jesus and what the story says about the woman at the well.
First, what does this story say about Jesus? One, that he will go anywhere and do anything to rescue one of his sheep. You can’t read this story without marveling at Jesus’ willingness to ignore the propriety of the culture in those days. A Jew didn’t associate with Samaritans because Samaritans were half Assyrian conqueror and half Jewish. Secondly, they worshiped on Mt. Gerazim rather than in Jerusalem. Not only that, it was unthinkable for a Jewish man to openly talk to a Samaritan woman. A single Jewish man wasn’t supposed to talk to any woman, much less a Samaritan. Not only was it bad enough that he talked to a Samaritan woman, she was a loose Samaritan woman at that. Jesus went out of his way to ignore the religious and cultural barriers to offer her living water. The woman was probably confused at first and may have even thought Jesus was looking for a date. A well was a common place to meet people. Don’t forget Jacob himself found his wife at this very well. And when Jesus asked about her husband, and she said, ‘I have no husband,’ she may have been giving him an invitation. But that was not Jesus intent. He broke all rules of the religiously correct to reach into this woman’s world and heal her. His intent was to change her life—to bring her freedom.
Second, Jesus message to this woman said much about his identity. And ‘who it is that is offering you living water.’
Jacob’s well was an important place. It was the well that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. It represented the calling of Israel for Jacob’s name was changed to Israel. It was a tie to a holy and ancient past. It was a well that had been there as a reminder of God’s care for his people. It was almost like a shrine of God’s pouring out of the waters of his blessing. What does Jesus offer immediately to this woman? Living water, water that when you drink it, you never thirst again.
Jesus returns to the imagery of water that he talked to Nicodemus about. Here living water is ‘the water of life,’ living because it comes from a pure, running stream.
What does this say about Jesus? Jesus here is saying that he is better that the water of Jacob, the water of Israel. The water he gives is greater.
Even more important is the conversation they have about the Temple. The Samaritans and Jews disagreed on where the Temple ought to be and where God’s glory is correctly experienced. Jesus went with the Jewish interpretation. But he said that a time is coming when the true worshipers will worship God, not in Samaria or Jerusalem, or the Temple, but in ‘Spirit and Truth.’ Jesus is saying that the experience of God that he offers transcends even the holiest of places, the Temple. In essence he is saying that he is more than the Temple, that the glory of God is revealed in him. He is the truth and he sends the Spirit. The living water of Jesus surpasses sacred places even the most sacred.
We need to hear what Jesus is saying here. Isn’t it easy to limit God to a place? Isn’t it easy to put God in our Sunday box and forget about him the rest of the week? I believe that Christ is present here in this Temple. I am a sacramental Christian and I believe this place is sacred. But what happens when we leave this morning. What happens when we go out for lunch or go home or go to work tomorrow? Have we left Christ here?
One of the wonders of our faith is that anywhere Christ is and where his people are, there is a holy and sacred place. Remember what the bishop from Sudan said: ‘I was consecrated under a tree.’ There are 1200 churches in his diocese alone, most of which meet under a tree—therefore that place becomes holy.
This is true for us as well. And worship doesn’t only take place at this time and in this place. Paul says to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God, this is our spiritual act of worship. Worship doesn’t cease when we walk out of those doors. The challenge for liturgical Christians like ourselves is to long for the holy presence of God in every aspect of our existence. A modern Christian Cyprian monk has said, ‘the natural state of man is the continuous contemplation and memory of God. I do not mean a cerebral memory of God but a memory that works from within the heart…the heart is attached to God, lives with God, functions in God, and is joyous with the presence of God even while [being] absorbed by everyday activities.’
Continuous contemplation of God. Continuous worship. Continuous waiting and yielding ourselves to him, no matter where we are or what we are doing. We need to be careful not to limit God to a church building or a particular way of worship. True worshipers worship him in Sprit and in Truth, even during everyday activities.
There is one more observation about Christ from this story that is worth noting. It is his insight and perception. He knows the right words for the right time for the right reasons. His goal? To change her life. He is not after a convert and he is not out to win an argument. He is there to change her life. He is there to give her a freedom that she has never had. He is there to be living water.
As Richard Lischer says, ‘Only one who loves you knows your deepest desires. Only one who loves you can look at your past without blinking.’ Jesus had every right to judge her and to bring the law of Moses down hard on her. But he loved her. All he wanted to do was to quench her thirst and make her free.
This brings us to the woman. She comes by herself to the well. This is an indication that she was an outcast even among the woman of the community. This is probably because of what Jesus says—‘You have had five husbands, and the man you are with now is not your husband.’
Now her ‘looseness’ was not her only difficulty. She was more than likely cast aside and divorced by those husbands for no real reason. Some men in those days interpreted the law as a way to give license to walk away. If the wife burned the toast, you could divorce her. She was in a no win situation.
She does not know what to do with Jesus. She probably thinks that he is hitting on her at first, but then he offers her this living water, and talks about worship and tells her everything there is to know about her.
He wants to give her something that the other men in her life won’t or can’t. Freedom. A purpose. A reason to live. Joy. Living water.
And you know what? It doesn’t take her long to understand. She is in great contrast with Nicodemus the religious expert. She is a sinner. She is broken. But she is in the light and the religious leader is in the darkness. And she wants to be in the light, no matter how vulnerable it makes her feel, not even if the Son of God sees all of the darkness and brokenness inside of her. As one author has put it, ‘The light has exposed her, but she chooses to remain, and it must have been a decision of remarkable courage and will.’
Aren’t the broken the better witnesses to the faith than those who have it all together? For example many ministries on college campuses have a strategy that I don’t particularly like. The strategy is to do everything to convert the cool people. Get the cheerleaders and the football players to come to Bible study and everyone else will follow. There is not as much of a focus on those who are really broken. But I would rather hear stories like the woman at the well’s.
It not that the popular don’t have something to share, but the broken often have more credibility because you know they are not putting on. You know that they are not pretentious about their faith. You know that they have been put into the light and have had the guts to be changed by it. God often chooses the weak, for his strength is made perfect through weakness.
Author Brian Dodd tells an old Indian parable about a water bearer with two water pots that hung on opposite ends of a pole that he carried around his neck. One of the pots had a crack and another one was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream to the master’s house. The cracked pot arrived only half full. For two full years this went on daily, with the bearer delivering only one and a half pots full of water for his master’s house. Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments and the cracked pot was embarrassed that it could only produce half of what it was supposed to do.
After two years the cracked pot spoke to the water bearer and said, ‘I am ashamed that I can only deliver half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak all the way back to your master’s house.
The water bearer felt sorry for the old cracked pot, and said, ‘as we return to the master’s house, I want you to notice something you may have missed along the path.’ As they went up the hill, the cracked pot noticed the sun warming the beautiful wildflowers on the side of the path, but it still felt bad that at the end of the trail, it still leaked half of its load.
But the bearer said to the pot, ‘Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of the path, but not on the other pot’s side? That’s because I have always known about your flaw, and I took advantage of it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and everyday while we walk back from the stream, you’ve watered them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my master’s table. Without you being just the way you are, he would not have this beauty to grace his house.’
God often uses the broken and even has a purpose for their brokenness, like the woman at the well, to make something beautiful. She responded to Jesus the way no one else does—she immediately started to spread the gospel. She does so knowing her brokenness and sin. But God made from her brokenness something beautiful.
A key challenge for us is to find where Samaria is in our world. Where are the broken? Where are the places and who are the people we are afraid to interact with? There is a church down the road who has decided that Cherry Creek is not worth trying to evangelize. There is a church in LA that has decided it will not exceed a certain number because it has deliberately decided to be an international church.
One last observation. Lent is about repentance and change. What did repentance look like to the woman at the well? Did she start weeping and hitting herself with sticks when she realized that Jesus saw right through her? What did her repentance look like? she simply walked away with joy from her former life. John points out that she forgot all about the water she had come for. Jesus filled her broken and cracked cup with living water. And then she could hardly contain herself. The living water welled up within her and she couldn’t keep it to herself. ‘Come and see the man, who knew everything about me. Could this be the messiah?’ Because of her, the gospel reached where the disciples could not have reached. The gospel reached the unreachable Samaritans because one woman dared to be exposed to the light and changed. She dared to take the cup of living water because she believed Jesus could change her.
What about us? Can we handle being in the light of Christ, knowing all that we are and all that we are not? Can we be filled with living water in our broken and cracked cups or is it too much to bear? Can we be healed by Jesus, or has the pain or prosperity of life taken away our ability to even know how thirsty we really are? As the old song goes, ‘there is a fountain that never shall run dry.’ In the words of Christ, ‘Whoever drinks of the water I give you will never thirst. The water that I shall give you will become in you a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.’ Are we able to take the cup of living water? Can we, like the woman at the well, walk away from our former selves and walk in the joy and freedom of Christ?
In the words of Joyce Rupp:Love waits to heal. All he wants to do is change our lives. All he wants to do is give us freedom. All he wants to do is give us living water.