I love the story of the Woman at the Well in John chapter 4. It’s a story rich in metaphor, allegory and symbolism. I could probably write a dozen sermons on it!
This morning, we’ll dig down on one specific aspect of the many meanings found in this story.
Because of its length, I’ll give a synopsis in place of our normal practice of reading the full passage. We’ll then watch a video that presents a modern reinterpretation of this passage, and conclude with a short meditation.
We’ve all heard the story of how this woman encounters Jesus at Jacob’s well at noon on a hot, sunny day, where Jesus is resting as he journeys through Samaria.
He’s thirsty and asks her for water.
She wonders why he, a Jewish man is bothering to talk with her, a Samaritan woman, at all.
He tells her that the water from the well is insufficient, that those who drink of it will thirst again. He then offers her living water.
She asks for such living water for herself, so that she never has to come again to draw water from this well.
He goes on to tell her she has had five husbands, and is now living with a man who is not her husband.
She replies (one of the great understatements in the Bible) “I see you are a prophet.” But then she asks why the Jews say all people must worship in Jerusalem and cannot worship as her ancestors have long done, right here at Mt. Gerazim, at the foot of which is the well he is sitting on the edge of: Jacob’s well; Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham; and father of Jews and Samaritans alike.
Jesus responds that the time will soon come when we will all worship the Father together, neither here, nor in Jerusalem. He says he is the Messiah that the Jews and Samaritans both anticipate.
At this point, the disciples come back from shopping for food in town, and are astonished that Jesus is talking to a woman, alone! She leaves her jar and goes back to town.
The disciples then try to get Jesus to eat. He refuses, saying he has food they do not know about; and that his food is the will and work of the one who sent him.
Meanwhile, the woman is telling everyone in town that she met a man who knew everything she had ever done.
Everyone rushes out to find this man, wondering if he is the Messiah. When the people arrive from the City, they are eager listen to Jesus, and soon realize that he truly is the Savior of the World.
Now, we’ll watch this beautiful video that provides us with a modern interpretation of the same story.
Please join me in prayer… Lord God, may your Holy Spirit fill each and every one of us. Open your scriptures to us, and may I clearly communicate what you intend us to receive here this morning. May your Word take root and flourish within each and every one of us, and through it may we be strengthened and transformed by your unconditional, living, and infinite love for each and every one of your children. In Jesus Name, Amen.
We’ve been told that the Samaritan woman is of ill repute (I’ve heard that phrase I don’t know how many times!); and who, because of her shame, must come to the well when no one else is there – in the bright sun and heat of midday, to draw the water we all need to sustain life.
But, this story also talks mainly of an encounter between strangers, not whether this woman is shameful or not. So, I wonder: who is the strangest stranger here? Who is the one who is most “other”? The woman? No. She is a Samaritan living in Samaria, in the town right there. Everyone knows her.
And I wonder if even our interpretation of her being shameful is correct. After all, why does everyone rush out to find Jesus after she tells them what Jesus had revealed to her? If she was a woman of no reputation in the eyes of others, I imagine she would have been ignored, but she wasn’t. The people listen to her, and we also see she in her discussion with Jesus that she is every bit his equal in the verbal interchange between them. She is not acting as if she’s an ostracized person, isolated from community for who she is or what she has done.
So, from what I see here, the lack of self-worth she that seems to have for herself, being a woman, being a Samaritan, and having been many times married, as well as now living with a man who is not her husband, are all judgments put upon her by others. These things are not her, but are part of others see and place upon her; and it causes her pain, hidden pain.
We are all branded by our failures, often more self-branded than branded by others. We also fear that the seeds of failure we find within ourselves will spring forth for all to see, without warning. And yet this woman ventures forth every day: risking the light, risking exposure, to find the water that sustains life at the well of her ancestors.
A brave soul. Going out when no one else will, facing the shame and her fears. She represents us: every day risking that those seeds of further shame and failure will spring forth; because she has no other choice if she is to live.
How different is that from us? Not much. We all do the same things; we have to, if we are to live. We are all trapped in lives where we must go back to the well again and again, to find the water that relieves our thirst for a time; but we always go again to get more. These waters are not enough by themselves, not even the waters of our ancestors.
So, are we, the audience, the strangers in the story? How can that be? We know ourselves all too well after all: our own fears, our own shame, our own struggles. But no one else knows us. No one else knows us like we know ourselves. No one else sees our own hidden pain. No one else sees the quivering, fragile person that hides behind our eyes and our nose and our mouth. No one sees us as we really are, and we eventually become so skilled at hiding ourselves from ourselves, that we become strangers to ourselves. Others see what we choose to show to them, and what we choose to show to the world. But, the reality of who we are, all that we are, is never fully known to anyone else, not even to ourselves.
And yet, despite creating a prison for ourselves, a prison of pain in which to hide, we all want to be known. We all want to be loved for who we truly are. But, how can that be when we imprison ourselves behind these walls that we’ve built out of our own fears and our own doubts and our own pain? But, Jesus loved this woman even though exactly who and what she was could not be hidden from him.
The Samaritans didn’t know Jesus at all. Even his own disciples [obviously] don’t know him. No one knows him. He is the stranger here, he is “The Other.” And yet, he knows us. He knows everything about us.
We don’t know him, just like she didn’t know him. But, he knows us and loves us despite knowing everything there is to know about us – who we are, who we have been, and who we shall become. The baptism of water known to the Jews and Samaritans is not sufficient to liberate us from our fears or our shame or our sin. So, Jesus offers this woman in its place the Baptism of the Holy Spirit: the Baptism of Living Water.
He did so because even being a descendant of Jacob, like she was, and the other Samaritans, and even the disciples were and Jesus himself is, was not enough. Jesus liberates us through Living Water, through the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. He liberates us through the limitless and bountiful love of God.
The woman realizes this. She receives that baptism while standing there, next to the well, talking to a strange man, a Jew, in the midday sun, where nothing at all can be hidden. And despite being exposed, despite being completely known for all she is, her shame evaporates. She has no further need for the water of her ancestors. She leaves her jar behind and runs back to town, bearing witness to the Good News for all to hear. She has been released from the prison we all create for ourselves. She is free at last.
Jesus’ discussion with the disciples after she leaves reveals something else. He receives neither food nor water from anyone in the story. His sustenance comes only from our Father in Heaven. His message is therefore not dependent upon the Jews, nor upon the Samaritans, nor any source of human source of effort or support. No one can claim to be the voice or arm of God, except Jesus himself.
The Holy Spirit within Jesus, and within this woman, and within us, is what makes it possible for us to spread the Good News. No one can claim the Gospel as an exclusive possession or as something only they have the right to preach. No one can prevent others from finding it for themselves, nor can they dictate how we must receive the Good News. Nor can they judge how, or if, that Good News is bearing fruit in our lives.
And, what does this story tell us about those who are “Other”? What about those who are immigrants, or of a different race, or a different religion, or even of a different political party?
The Holy Spirit is available to all, even to Samaritans, even to those klutzy disciples, even to us. Jesus is a stranger, just as we are, just as every immigrant, every nonbeliever, every person who is not like us, and us.
We cannot dictate who is allowed access to the Holy Spirit, nor how it should manifest within them. When speaking to us, Jesus is not concerned for others, but only for us – concerned about our own shames, concerned for our own hidden past, present, and future failures.
The story of the Samaritan woman teaches us that we are redeemed. We are known, and in being known, we are loved.
At the very beginning of the video, you see someone messing with that fire hydrant: we’re not sure if he’s turning it on, or turning it off. But in the next frame, as the woman comes down and sits down next to the well, we see the waters are no longer flowing. Instead, she begins to tell us of all she isn’t: of her frustrations, anger, and pain. She’s given up; her pain is her own private jail. The flow of the Holy Spirit is blocked, made invisible and taken away by her own fears and self-doubt.
And then at the end of the video, the waters are flowing again, once she realizes that she truly is loved, and is known; and capable of knowing and loving others.
We are the well. The source of God’s love is already within us, it is already flowing. We only need to let be free to do its work.
To be known is to be loved. To be loved is to be known. Jesus knows and loves us: every bit of us, every one of us. Always has, and always will.
Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, Sunday, March 19, 2017 (3rd Sunday of Lent).
John 4:5-42 (“The Woman at the Well”; NRSV)
Copyright (c) 2017, Allen Vander Meulen III.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.