Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | February 24, 2008

2008.02.24 “A Conversation With a Woman at a Well”

Central United Methodist Church

“A Conversation With a Woman at a Well”

John 4: 5 – 42

February 24th, 2008

         “Come see a man who knew all about the things I did, who knows me inside and out. Do you think this could be the Messiah?”  – John 4: 29, The Message


     It was 1998, I was divorced and single, and sitting in the floor of the airport in New Delhi, India.  After a morning flight from Veranasi, I had spent most of the day trying to get on a flight home.  After interminable hours in the airport, and more hours waiting at the boarding gate, we had just been informed that the flight was delayed due to mechanical difficulties.  

      At that point, a young woman from Holland looked at me and said, “I’m going to get some tea.  Would you like some?”  It was the beginning of a three-day friendship that got us through the three difficult days it would take to get out of India.

      Perhaps you can recall such a chance conversation in your life.  The first time you met someone, with words exchanged which were to be the beginning of a significant friendship, relationship, maybe even a marriage.  To this day you remember that conversation.

      Transpose that to 1,978 years ago, and you have the conversation we overhear today between Jesus and the “Woman at the Well.”

      It is the 3rd conversation we have listened in on this Lent.  The first was between Jesus and the Tempter in the desert. The second was last week between Jesus and the Jewish religious leader named Nicodemus. 

      If you compare the conversation with Nicodemus to this one with the woman at the well, you begin to get some insight into the Evangelist’s John’s technique.  Written towards the end of the first Christian century, The Gospel of John is the most embellished, and most symbolic of the Four Gospels.  What John does is to take an incident that may or may not have happened, and use it to tell and show who Jesus is, often through a play on words leading to an extended discourse. 

      Judging by these conversations, it must have been confusing to have a conversation with Jesus.  While Nicodemus is hearing “born again” (a mistake still made), Jesus is talking “born from above.”  While the woman at the well is thinking “fresh water not cistern water”, Jesus is talking “Living Water which I will give you.”  It’s easy to see how a person could get confused.

      In the scene before us today, Jesus is traveling through Samaria. It is mid-day, Jesus is hot and dusty, and he is alone because his disciples have gone into town to buy food. There is an old and famous well there, Jacob’s Well, straight out of the Old Testament. The problem is, it’s 100 feet deep.

      Other overtones are in the air.  In the Old Testament, wells were meeting places, the singles’ bars of their time.  Isaac, Jacob, and Moses all met their future wives at wells.  What are we being set up for here?

      Suddenly, (uh-oh!) here comes a woman to draw water.  That’s not strange, it was the job of women in that time and place to draw water.  What is strange is that the women generally all come together, at the same time, either in the early morning or late afternoon.  So why is this woman coming at mid-day, and alone?  Is she out of water or out of friends?

      Given this, what happens next shocks everyone.  Jesus speaks to the woman, “Would you give me a drink of water, please?”   Even the woman is taken aback.

      Because Jesus has broken a triple-taboo.  First of all, she was a Samaritan.  Jews considered Samaritans a mixed-race, mixed-up religion group of people, and as Eugene Peterson puts it, Jews wouldn’t be caught dead talking to Samaritans.  But Jesus did.

      Secondly, she was a woman.  In Jesus’ time, women were not allowed to appear in public with men, whose morning devotions included the prayer, “Thank God I am not a woman.”  Women’s place was in private life; they had no place in public life. Women were not to be seen or heard, especially not by holy men, who did not speak to their own wives in public.  One group of pious men was known as “the bruised and bleeding Pharisees” because they closed their eyes when they saw a woman coming down the street, and they walked into walls a lot. 

      Thirdly, as the text suggests, she was a “fallen” woman.  Perhaps that’s why she came alone at the wrong time of day.  Even though, as we later learn, she had had five husbands, was she a woman who had repeatedly fallen into the same ditch or a woman repeatedly victimized, as such women almost always are? Were the five husbands due to divorce or death? When this passage was studied with a group of women in AIDS-stricken Southern Africa, they immediately pitied the woman and concluded that she must have been an AIDS carrier — killing her husbands while she remained unaffected by the disease.  So we must confess we do not know this woman’s story; let us beware reading too much into the text.


       Given all this, what takes everybody aback, including Jesus’ disciples (whom I picture as bumping into one another like cartoon characters), is Jesus intentionally reaching across this triple taboo to have a life-changing conversation. In fact, Jesus talks longer to the woman at the well than he does to anyone else in all the Gospels — longer than he talks to any of his disciples, longer than to any of his accusers, longer than to any of his own family.  She is the first person he reveals himself to in the Gospel of John, the first outsider, and the first evangelist, who brings many others to faith.

      So if we see Jesus, as John intends for us to, as the human face of God, then is it not amazing how radical the love of God is, as shown to us in Christ.  In demonstration of the life-changing love of God, Jesus was willing to ignore the religious, racial, gender, moral boundaries of his time and place, to offer the grace of God to a woman at a well.  What boundaries in our time and place block us from doing the same?  Would the woman at the well be welcome here, in our church?

      It is exactly at this point that Jesus, gently but firmly, demonstrates that he knows who he is talking to:

               “Go call your husband and come back.”

             “I have no husband,”

     “That’s nicely put: “I have no husband.’ You’ve had five husbands, and the man you’re living with now isn’t even your husband. You spoke the truth there, sure enough.”

      And yet, what Jesus did not say, was “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.”  I think the reason Jesus raised the issue was to say, “I know what you know, and that is no barrier either.”

      How many people are there — outside the church but also inside the church — who struggle with serious issues misinterpreted by casual observers, critics and comforters alike.  Those outside the church may feel they are damned already, that what’s offered in churches is not for me.  It’s quite certain there are those inside the church who may feel that, “If they only knew, they’d throw me out.”

      Hear the Good News:  God is not a casual observer.  God is intimately acquainted with each of us and knows why, how, and where we are where we are.  This God comes to us in Jesus Christ, with healing, and hope, and offers us to drink from the Water of Life.

      At this point, feeling the conversation a little close, the woman tries to change the subject back to religion again, about mountains and modes of worship and messiahs.  And who could blame her.  If Jesus knows about all her husbands, there is no telling what else he knows about her, and she decides she would rather not find out.

      But it doesn’t work.  If she is determined to show him less of herself, then he will show more of himself. “I know that Messiah is coming,” she says, and he says, “I am he.”

      As preacher and author Barbara Brown Taylor puts it:

      “It is the first time Jesus has said that to another living soul. It is a moment of full disclosure, in which the triple outsider and the Messiah of God stand face to face with no pretense about who they are. Both stand fully lit at high noon for one bright moment in time, while all the rules, taboos and history that separate them fall forgotten to the ground.”

      “By telling the woman who she is, Jesus shows her who he is.  By confirming her true identity, he reveals his own, and that is how it still happens.”

      “The Messiah is the one in whose presence you know who you really are — the good and bad of it, the all of it, the hope in it.”

      “The Messiah is the one who shows you who you are by showing you who he is — who crosses all boundaries, breaks all rules, drops all disguises — speaking to you like someone you have known all your life, bubbling up in your life like a well that needs no dipper, so that you go back to face people you thought you could never face again, speaking to them as boldly as he spoke to you. “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done.”  (Barbara Brown Taylor, “Face to Face With God,” The Christian Century, February 28, 1996)

      After we parted at the airport in Amsterdam, the Dutch woman — whose name I don’t remember — and I never communicated again.   After this conversation, the woman at the well — whose name we never learned — is never heard from again.

      But they are still out there, these “women at the well.”  They are found not only on Oprah, or Dr. Phil, or Jerry Springer, but among all people, men and women, rich and poor, people of every race and religion.  Sometimes they are respectable and sometimes they are not.  Sometimes they are us. 

      And they – or we — wait for someone to drop the pretenses – to have a life-changing conversation about the things that matter, that deals with the issues in our lives, until we find for ourselves the same spring of living water Jesus offered the woman at the well.  Until we can say for ourselves, “We’re no longer taking this on your say-so. We’ve heard it for ourselves and know it for sure.  He’s the Savior of the world!”

      Who will begin that conversation?  In demonstration of the barrier-breaking love of God, in the name of Jesus Christ, won’t you be the one?


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