The Woman at the Well

Sunday, March 19, 2017
3rd Sunday in Lent

Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
  7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The 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.) 10Jesus 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.” 11The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but 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.” 15The 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.”
  16Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But 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. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
  27Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” 30They left the city and were on their way to him.
  31Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” 34Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
  39Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41And many more believed because of his word. 42They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” – John 4:5-42

Listen to today’s sermon here:

“Well-behaved women seldom make history.” That’s a quote by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich who much to her surprise saw that line from a scholarly article leap into popular culture to be printed on t-shirts, bumper stickers, and just about anything else you can think of. Intrigued, she later wrote a book with that title, chronicling history makers like Rosa Parks, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Harriet Tubman, women who broke the rules for the sake of justice.

The power of the quote is that it doesn’t really challenge the behavior of women so much as it challenges the ways that status-quo societies respond to those who push boundaries, particularly when that boundary pushing is a fight for equal rights. It says that as a culture we tend to stigmatize those who push us outside our comfort zones, pushing them to the edges to maintain our level of comfort and labeling them as badly behaved. It says that we too often value fitting in at the expense of important messages we need to hear.

So we come to the history-making woman at the well. Like so many other women and other marginalized people in history, her name was not recorded. (Though, fun fact: the Orthodox tradition named her Photini, meaning “enlightened one,” because she recognized and shared God’s light with her whole village.) For centuries she has been shamed as sexually promiscuous even though that is only one of many possible explanations for her having had multiple husbands and currently living with someone who is not her husband. It would be a lot, but not unheard of in that time for her to have been widowed that many times and finally to have been taken under the protection of someone else.

Or what about this: one of the things she does with this stranger she meets at the well is to question the standing religious and political separation between Samaritans and the Judeans, who both worship the same God but refuse to acknowledge one another. She strikes me as the kind of person who is willing to challenge the status quo, question long-standing assumptions. Is that perhaps what has left her isolated, alone, and shut-off from her community like so many others who have stood out ahead of their time to demand justice and question the assumptions we all make? Maybe this prophet of God was shunned and shut out and left on her own because she pushed the boundaries, questioned her assigned position in her world. Maybe that’s why she’s at the well in the heat of the midday sun, because she’s tired of the quiet whispers, the unspoken judgments, the harassing epithets that are thrown at the people who speak out for something different, for something new.

And along comes Jesus. The woman at the well is cautious at first, having come to expect, perhaps, that she won’t be treated well or fairly. Instead she is not just tolerated by Jesus, but invited to share what she has to offer and invited into conversation about serious matters. And then, inspired by this encounter with God, she goes back to her village. And here is the real miracle of this story, something is different, something is changed because someone at least, starts to listen. When she comes to tell them she has seen the messiah, it’s a claim just outrageous enough that have to check it out, even coming from her.

And that’s the part of the story I’m wondering about most this week. Because as much as we like to think of ourselves as people who know what’s right and what we are supposed to do and how to act for justice, we are, all of us, also at one time or another people who stand for the status quo and people who choose not to live out of the encounters we have with God. I for one, don’t always like being pushed out of that comfort zone, even when I know it’s what I need.

And the church broadly speaking and this congregation as part of that larger church, for all the times we may have spoken up for justice, for transformation, for something new, have also at times been the keepers of the status quo. We, too, are sometimes the ones who whisper, who silently judge, even who come right out and say things that shut people out. I don’t think in the end any of us come out 100% in the right. The church, like the community around it, sets up insiders and outsiders, right and wrong.

Some clearly experience being marginalized more than others. There are still many places like the Samaritan village which lack easy access to clean, safe water, a burden that still today falls more to women than to men. There are people in our own community who still do not have enough food, or access to housing. There are people everywhere who experience subtle and overt racism, sexism, and homophobia. And yet all of us can connect with moments of our own experience feeling marginalized such that all of us can begin to connect that to the experience of others and confess the ways we have marginalized and shamed others.

The promise for us in all this is that God comes to and for everyone in this village. Everyone. In the way that God so often does, Jesus goes first to places others will not go, to the shunned woman, to the well in the midday sun. Whether she is, in fact, marginalized because she speaks up for change, or whether some combination of choices made by and for her have resulted in her being labeled unworthy or unclean, God comes first to her. God comes first to the poor, the stranger, the outcast, the immigrant, the sick, the imprisoned. And through them God speaks words of life. Words that bring living water to thirsty souls. For all of us long for a transformed and renewed world. Whether our circumstance or choices place us in the in group or the out group, God is working in our broken communities to transform us.

It’s the classic way God works: showing up in the outsider and using that outsider to bring good news of liberation and justice and grace to the insiders. That’s essentially the story of Jesus, who over and over again finds himself on the margins, from a birth in a stable to a death on a cross, beginning to end thirsty for living water, not just for himself but for everyone. He asks this woman for a drink, because he sees in her, in the outcast one, another way into our broken world. And she is moved by his invitation and ultimately by his deep knowledge without judgment or shaming, to go and tell.

So we are called to open our ears. To open our ears to the voices among us who are too often silenced. To open our ears to the ways God is asking us for a drink and giving us the strength to proclaim God’s good news from and to the places of the outcast and stranger. To open our ears to the voice of God inviting us to this feast, where there is no longer room for blame or shame but room for all of us to gather at the table to receive the life-giving feast which fills our hungering hearts and assuages our thirsty souls.

-Pastor Steven Wilco