The Woman at the Well

Each month we worship together in order to share life in a deeper way, share the core community’s  faith in Jesus, and give guests and former guests an opportunity to learn about the Bible in a setting that’s familiar to them. In July, Meridith offered the sermon, reflecting on the Samaritan woman at the well, and the surprising encounter she had with Jesus. The full text of the scripture is below, followed by her sermon.

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Jesus and the Woman of Samaria

Jesus left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (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.) 10 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.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but 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.” 15 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.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But 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. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 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.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

Today we’re going to talk about Jesus as a stranger who was thirsty. The Gospels, or the books Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the Bible, have lots of stories about Jesus wandering around and striking up conversations with strangers. This particular conversation is one of my favorites, not just because of what is said, but also because of who the conversation is with. It’s so startling that the scripture goes on to say when the disciples came back with the food they were “astonished” by what they saw, so let’s talk about what made this meeting at the well so surprising.

Imagine, if you will, the hottest part of a 95 degree day, maybe about noon. This was the day Jesus was traveling in, and it was lunchtime. His friends left him at a well while they went to get lunch, and Jesus was hot, tired, and thirsty.

Now imagine that a woman comes along to get water from the well where Jesus is waiting. It seems a strange thing to come and get heavy water during the hottest part of the day, doesn’t it? She’s going out at that time because she doesn’t want to run into anyone, for reasons we’ll discuss. She’s heading out to the well when she’s pretty certain no one will be there, and who does she find but this strange man hanging out by himself. He doesn’t have anything to get water with and he looks dusty and tired.

It’s not hard for me to imagine her inner thoughts. “I’m just going to run to the well real quick, I’ll be there and back in no time. Wait, who’s that guy? Please don’t let him talk to me, please don’t le
t him talk to me. Oh, here we go.”IMG_0352

What is the first thing Jesus asks of this woman? For a drink. And how does she answer? She essentially says “You’re asking ME for a drink? You know your kind isn’t supposed to drink after my kind.”

You see, Samaritans and Jews were different types of people. The two groups hated each other so much that they couldn’t even share things without being afraid they’d get polluted by one another.

I once had a friend who had AIDS, which is a hard to live with disease that stays with you your entire life. It’s hard to give it to someone else, but people don’t always understand how you get it. My friend told me her family worried they’d get polluted by her, so whenever she visited they gave her a paper plate and a plastic fork to eat with, even though you can’t catch AIDS by sharing silverware.

So this woman at the well, she’s been told her whole life that by being born a Samaritan she’ll pollute any Jewish person who shares with her. She thinks she’d better remind Jesus of this fact, to make sure he knows the mistake he’s asking her to help him make.

Far from drawing back his request, Jesus flips it on its head. He suggests that she should ask him for water, to which she sensibly replies, “Umm, you don’t have anything to get water with.” Jesus goes on to say that the living water He’s able to give will satisfy at a deeper level than the water that comes out of the well, and the woman is interested in receiving this water.

Now, remember in the beginning of the story that the woman was out at the hottest part of the day? Why was she trying to avoid all the other Samaritans in this city? She wasn’t going to pollute them, but there’s yet another part of her story that wouldn’t immediately be known by a typical stranger.

Jesus quickly and cleanly reveals his knowledge of her background with his request. Who does Jesus ask the woman to go get? Her husband. And does she have a husband? No. What does Jesus tell the woman about her background? That she’s had five husbands, and the man she now lives with is not her husband.

It’s important for us to remember that the number of husbands the woman had was not her choice. In that day if you were a woman you didn’t get to choose your husband. You were property to be passed around, much like a car. If you’re a car that has had five owners it’s not your fault. Yet if you’re that car the story of your life has been one of transition and uncertainty.

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It is likely this woman was avoiding her neighbors at the well because they treated her unkindly. Maybe the woman couldn’t have children, so her husbands kept leaving her. We don’t know why so many of her relationships had ended, but we do know she goes on to tell her neighbors that Jesus “told her everything she had ever done.” This story of failed relationships was the story told about her, and the story she defined herself with. “That’s the woman with all those ex husbands,” said the other women when she came to the well. Better to go when it’s hot and avoid the whispers and raised eyebrows.

So that’s why it’s amazing to me (and also to that woman) how Jesus ends the conversation. This woman, who has known so much shame and scorn, who doesn’t even get named in the scriptures, she is the only one in the entire Bible to whom Jesus comes right out and says, “I am the Messiah.” He doesn’t deny it when his disciples guess later, but to this woman alone He volunteers his identity.

This story to my reading is full of so much love. Jesus sees this woman coming and understands her longing. When she reminds Him that He shouldn’t share with her he tosses that aside. He anticipates her second shame, the shame of her failed marriages, and tosses that aside too. He reassures her that eternal life is available to her, just as she is, and shares with her the Good News that the Messiah is right before her, looking her in the eye and inviting her into this new kind of love.

Jesus invites us all today too. Here’s what I imagine Jesus’ invitation to look like for many of us:

Mary Ellen: Would you like a drink?

Me: Well, I’m not sure I should. I’ve had all sorts of relationships that didn’t work out.

Mary Ellen: Would you like a drink?

Me: Ah, I don’t know. I’ve abused my body in the past with drugs and alcohol.

Mary Ellen: Would you like a drink?

Me: This may cost too much. A better person would have more in savings by now.

Mary Ellen: Would you like a drink?

Me: I haven’t done enough good in the world. I’m not sure I deserve to be thirsty.

To Jesus, the reasons we give for our reluctance to accept the love He offers are ridiculous. He knows all about us, knows everything we’ve ever done, and is still offering us living water. Friends, we don’t have to do or be anything different before accepting that water, and it is the only water that will satisfy our deepest longings. Jesus is the ladle and is welcoming each and every one of us to the well.