Monday, March 28, 2011

The Woman at the Well

(A sermon on John 4:5-42 preached at All Saints' Littleton on 3/27/2011)

The Gospels are full of individual people’s encounters with Jesus. It is my belief that many of us have been trained to hear these Gospel moments in a particular way.
We assume that the person who encounters Jesus does so out of need: growth...healing...forgiveness...restoration...whatever it is, it’s always something. Something is desperately needed or desired, and Jesus either gives them what they need, challenges them, or changes their focus.
Ultimately that does happen to this morning’s Samaritan woman: she indeed has a need that Jesus recognizes...and she changes her focus. But the journey there is rather unique. She does not come looking for Jesus, and she originally asks nothing of him
In fact, it’s the other way around.
It is JESUS who asks her for water. He is the one that is thirsty. She is the one with the jar, able to give him a drink.
Anna Carter Florence writes that, in his asking the woman for a drink, Jesus gives her the chance to recognize the face of Christ in a stranger:
There is something beautifully simple in the staging of this scene as well as its premise: Jesus is thirsty at the well, and we are the ones with the bucket. The deeper metaphorical conversation that follows makes no sense until we really take this in. Can a little thing like a cup of cool water, offered in love, be the beginning of a salvation journey? (Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol. 2 eds. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, 2010, p.95)
“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.)”

Since Jesus does not ask for water again after, I’ve come to the decision that she asks this question after giving him a drink (the text doesn’t say one way or the other). I personally believe that the water leads to the dialogue. She is perplexed, to be sure, but I think she gives him something to drink.
Her words themselves remind me of Mary’s to the angel Gabriel in Luke’s Gospel: “(Gabriel) came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But (Mary) was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” (Luke 1:29)
As the text says: Jews don’t share things with Samaritans. Jewish men aren’t supposed to even talk with Samaritan women, much less share a drink of water. Most would have rather died of thirst than interact in this way: and Jesus clearly isn’t that thirsty for water. The woman rightly senses that this is not an ordinary encounter. 
Jesus said: “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.”
This is, of course, quite a statement. She looks him over, and shrewdly declares that he has no bucket to get this living water from the well. Still, she recognizes that something is going on here. “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” She reminds Jesus of both their common ancestry and their difference, all in one statement. There’s a willingness to engage him, but also a clear understanding that she is faithful to her traditions.
Jesus answers: “...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.”
Showing faith, she takes a step further. “Give me this water” states an openness to be transformed if he can do as he says. Again, she echos Mary’s willingness to say yes to God.
Then comes what seems like an odd twist. Jesus invites her to “Go, call your husband, and come back,” to which she replies “I have no husband.” Jesus agrees: "You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband".
This development confuses modern readers. Many people tend to assume the worst about this woman: concluding that Jesus is revealing both her sin and his willingness to interact with her despite it. It’s possible this is true: but the text never mentions sin. or the woman repenting, or even acknowledging sin.
“Jesus at no point invites repentance or, for that matter, speaks of sin at all. She very easily could have been widowed or have been abandoned or divorced (which in the ancient world was pretty much the same thing for a woman). Five times would be heartbreaking, but not impossible. Further, she could now be living with someone that she was dependent on, or be in what's called a Levirate marriage (where a childless woman is married to her deceased husband's brother in order to produce an heir yet is not always technically considered the brother's wife). There are any number of ways, in fact, that one might imagine this woman's story as tragic rather than scandalous...”
This dialogue shows the woman how much Jesus really sees: not only does he know her specifics...five marriages, now gone...Jesus also sees how she...and all women...are caught in a society of dependence. He sees how their identity is based on their marriage circumstance, and how vulnerable this makes them in this society. Lose concludes that “..she recognizes not just who Jesus is but what he offers -- dignity. Jesus invites her to not be defined by her circumstances and offers her an identity that lifts her above her tragedy.”
She responds positively but cautiously to this invite: “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”
The key to understanding these words comes easier with a comparison.
Consider this in light of last week’s encounter with Nicodemus. There we had a learned, powerful male we have an unnamed outsider; a five timed married woman.
The Pharisee Nicodemus...a man of religious and economic power...seeks Jesus out under the cover of darkness, but fails to understand him. In his amazement Nicodemus asks, “how can these things be?”
The Samaritan woman...the wrong faith and gender, with no wealth or power...engages Jesus in the light at his choosing, understands his words, and in the midst of her amazement, expresses faith.
It is only our lack of context that clouds her response: is she mistaking Jesus for a prophet? Is she attempting, in a strange way, to change the subject away from her marital status? On the contrary, her response to Jesus is an enlightened one. She recognizes Jesus’ authority as a prophet, which he clearly does have, and her question about worshiping on the mountain addresses the ancient argument between Samaritans and Jews. She looks to him to address what has become a terrible divide between people of a common ancestry. Jesus does:
“Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem...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. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
The Samaritan, with insight, puts it all together:
“I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”
And Jesus speaks clearly: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
The unnamed Samaritan woman, who first gave Jesus a drink of water, now leaves the jar behind. She know has living water to share with her community. She is the first in John’s Gospel to tell others to come and see. “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”
Come and see for yourselves...

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