Today’s sermon is a bit different from the norm. First, if you are reading this sermon, you are doing so remotely, since this is the first time I can recall canceling worship for anything other than snow or ice. I pray that all you will practice safe, healthy behavior as this coronavirus runs its course. Second, I am preaching on a very long passage. Like me, John has a tendency to use more words than necessary to make his point.
Today’s passage of Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well is forty-two verses long, following chapter three where Jesus had another fascinating conversation with Nicodemus. So, today I am combining the reading of the text with the preaching. I will read a paragraph and then comment on its meaning, and then read another and do the same until we are finished with this amazing story.
In both of these conversations Nicodemus and the Samaritan did not understand what Jesus was saying. This is true mainly because they were talking on different levels. Jesus was talking about deep spiritual matters, while the others were stuck on a physical, material plane. So buckle your seat belts; we are cleared for takeoff.
Text: John 4:1-6 “Now when the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John, (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), he left Judea and departed again to Galilee. He had to pass through Samaria. So he came to a city of Samaria, called Sychar, near the field that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there and so Jesus, wearied as he was with his journey, sat down beside the wall. It was the sixth hour.”
Comment: Jesus probably decided to head back to Galilee because his success had exceeded John’s, and he knew that the Pharisees would be clamping down on his ministry, since the religious leaders felt threatened by his teaching and actions. The text says he had to pass through Samaria to get to Galilee. If you look at a map of Israel, this is true geographically: Samaria lies between Judea and Galilee. But this was not culturally true. The Samaritans and Jews were such arch enemies that they ordinarily went out of their way to avoid each other, including taking the long way around each other’s territory.
But John may have been speaking theologically here. In all likelihood, Jesus had a divine appointment with this woman; because their conversation would throw open the doors of God’s love to the whole world, just as it had with Nicodemus.
Text: John 4:7-15: “There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink.” For his disciple had gone away into 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? For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.’ 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.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 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. 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.”
Comment: This Samaritan woman is rightly surprised that this rabbi was talking to her. With Jesus’ people she had two strikes against her: she was a woman and a Samaritan. Jewish men did not talk with unknown women in those days, and rabbis certainly didn’t speak to Samaritan woman at all, for they might become ritually unclean and unable to enter the temple or synagogue without undergoing ritual cleansing. Second, for centuries, Jews and Samaritans had no dealings with each other. The Samaritans were from the north and most of their ancestors had been killed or taken into exile in Assyria in 721 BC. Those left behind probably had eventually intermarried with Assyrians, and their Bible stayed stuck at five books, the first five books of Moses in the Hebrew Bible. They had refused to accept the prophets and writings as scripture as the Jews had.
They also built their own temple in the north on Mt. Gerizim and worshipped there instead of traveling to Jerusalem to Solomon’s temple. So, bad blood existed between them. So, this woman had every right to be surprised that Jesus, a Jew and probably a rabbi, was speaking to her. But Jesus wasn’t interested in what divided them; he was there to show her a way to become reconciled. He told her that if she knew who he was she would have asked him for water and he would have given her not well water but living water. The word for “living” can refer to spring water or running water in a stream, which is what she thought he was saying. She doesn’t get it. He doesn’t even have a bucket, and as far as she knows there is no spring or stream nearby.
She had been coming to fetch water from that well for years. Jacob had dug the well, and he and his children and their flocks had been nourished by the water in it through the years. But Jesus told us that everyone who drank the well water had to come back every day or so and keep drawing it, but he was offering her a different kind of water – living water that would quench her spiritual thirst forever.
When Jesus mentions the superiority of the kind of water he is offering, the woman is intrigued and, turning the tables, asked Jesus to give her some of this miraculous water. How ironic! Hot and thirsty, Jesus had stopped at Jacobs well in foreign territory and asks a Samaritan woman for water, and after a theological discussion, she ended up asking him for water! Life has interesting twists and turns and detours, doesn’t it? But Jesus gets personal at this point and tells her to go fetch her husband and return.
John 4:16-26: “Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.’ The woman answered him, “I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying,’I have no husband;’ for you have had had five husbands, and the who you now have is not your husband; this you said truly.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people out to worship.’ Jesus said her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirt and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship must worship in spirit and truth.’ The woman said to him, “I know the Messiah coming (he who is called Christ); when he comes, he will show us all things.” Jesus said to her, ‘I who speak to you am he.’
Comment: At this point she must have begun to trust Jesus, because she shares with him that she has no husband. Then Jesus tells us that in fact she has had five husbands, and the man she is with now is not number 6. The fact that Jesus knew these details about her personal history caused her to think Jesus was a prophet. Some commentators think at this point the woman tried to change the subject by referring to an ancient theological rivalry between the Jews and the Samaritans. Her people had built a rival temple on Mt. Gerizim and worshipped there, while the Jews continued to worship in Jerusalem in the temple that King Solomon had built on Mt. Zion. Whatever her motive, Jesus tells her that the day is coming and “now is” (in him) when it will no longer matter where people worship, only that they worship God in spirit and truth.
This is when she refers to her people’s hope that God will send the Messiah soon. And Jesus, probably after a strategic pregnant pause, said, “I who speak to you am he.” This must have knocked her back on her heels and prompted her to let go with a few Hallelujahs in harmony, but the disciples, who were good with timing, showed up with the food and awkwardly asked Jesus what he was doing talking to a woman. This was a good time for her to make an exit, so she left her water jar, went home, and told her neighbors that she met a man who had told her all she ever did. “Can this be the Christ?” she asked.
John 4:27-42: “Just then his disciples came. They marveled that he was talking with a woman, but none said, ‘What do you wish?’ Or ‘Why are you talking with her?’ So the woman left her water jar, and went away into the city, and said to the people, ‘Come, see a man who told all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?’ They went out of the city and were coming to him. Meanwhile the disciples besought him, saying ‘Rabbi, eat,’ But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat of which you do not know.’ So the disciples said to one another, ‘Has any one brought him food?’ Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work. Do you not say,’ There are yet four months, then comes the harvest? I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see how the fields are already white for harvest. He who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor; others have labored and you have entered into their labor.
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony. “He told me all that I ever did.’ So when the Samaritans come to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his words. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.’”
While she was gone, the disciples tried to get Jesus to eat something, but he refused, suggesting that he had bigger fish to fry. Just as he had been more interested in living, spiritual water than plain well water in his conversation with the woman, Jesus told the disciples that the kind of food he was more interested in had to do with doing God’s work and that he had food about which they knew nothing. Meanwhile, back in the village, we are told that many of her neighbors believed that Jesus was the Messiah because of her persuasive testimony. But she apparently wanted them to see for themselves and so she took them to meet Jesus. And they did, and they invited Jesus to stay in the village with them, and he accepted their invitation and stayed for two days.
This is an amazing passage. Early in his ministry Jesus takes the good news of God’s lover and mercy into a foreign land and breaks down several cultural and theological barriers. This was unheard of in his day. But this was the nature of Jesus’ character, offering love and mercy to everyone, not just his own people. Ironically, while the religious leaders in Jerusalem were planning how to quash his ministry, this Samaritan woman perceives that Jesus is the long awaited Messiah, accepts him, and becomes one of the first people to share this good news with her whole town. And because of her sincerity and conviction, she persuades many to believe that Jesus is the Messiah. This is radical stuff; and for the Samaritans, beautiful stuff! -- and should be to us as well.
In a world that was deeply divided and stratified culturally and religiously, Jesus came offering God’s grace and redemption to all people. In the previous chapter of John in his exchange with Nicodemus, a leader of Jesus’ own people, Jesus declared that God loved the whole world and had sent him offering salvation to anyone and everyone who believed in him. He came not to judge or condemn this Samaritan woman but that she and her whole village might be saved in him. That, my friends, is some mighty potent water, full of new life and great joy. May we all drink deeply and daily from this mighty, flowing spring so that we might become the people God has created us to be.