Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | March 27, 2011

2011.03.27 “Questions at the Well” – John 4: 5 – 42, Fearless: The Courage to Question Series – Lent 2011

Central United Methodist Church

“Questions at the Well”

Pastor David L. Haley

John 4: 5 – 42

March 27th, 2011

       “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


     (Pastor Haley begins with a drink of water) Sorry? Thirsty? Would you like some?

      Can you think of a time when you were very thirsty, so thirsty you still remember? Maybe on a hike, out in the sun? It’s high noon, there’s no shade to be found, and the sun is blazing? If you’d known it was going to be so hot, you’d have brought water. But you didn’t, and now you can’t wait to get back, for that first, wonderful drink of ice cold water. 

      Some of us can even remember before the ubiquity of plastic water bottles, even of plastic. Growing up in the fifties, I went on hikes with a WWII metal canteen, which, when full, probably weighed a couple of pounds. Now, of course, you can wear a camelbak, so that you can sip as you go. Or, as most of us do, carry bottles of water, available almost everywhere. Of course, the more people, the hotter it is, the more remote you are, the higher the price.

      Perhaps this was Jesus’ situation, that day, as he hiked through Samaria. I’m assuming they carried portable water in skins (like a wineskin), but with his crew of disciples, it might be gone before he got any. (Hey, who drank all the water? Not me, Master!) They’d likely been walking since early morning, and now it was noon, and they were hot, hungry and thirsty. The disciples went off to find a McDonald’s, maybe some gyros, leaving Jesus left alone.

      There were in a place not very hospitable to them, Samaria.  Jews and Samaritans did not get along, like Israelis and Palestinians today. But to get from Judea to Galilee they had to go through Samaria, kind of like we Chicagoans, to get to Michigan, have to go through Gary, IN.

      Jesus is actually hanging out at a well, wishfully perhaps, an old and famous well, Jacob’s Well, straight out of Old Testament history. But there’s a problem: the well is 100 feet deep, and there’s no bucket. Maybe you had to pay for that.

      As Jesus waits, other overtones are in the air. In the Old Testament, wells were meeting places, the of their day.  Isaac, Jacob, and Moses all met their future wives at wells. Are we being set up for something?

      Sure enough, a woman approaches. But something’s wrong. Village women get water together, making it a social occasion, as women as so good at doing, usually either early in the morning or late in the evening.  So for a woman to be coming to get water alone, at midday, is not right. Is she out of water, or out of friends, or both?

      In any event, in that time and place, men and women didn’t socialize in public, especially not Jews and Samaritans, especially not strangers.

      So nobody is more shocked than this woman, when Jesus says, “Would you give me a drink of water, please?”  “Imagine that,” says Anna Carter Florence, “Jesus is thirsty, and you are the one with a bucket.”  (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, p. 95)

Judging by Jesus’ conversation last week with Nicodemus, and this one today, it must have been confusing to have a conversation with Jesus. While Nicodemus is hearing “born again”, Jesus is talking “born from above.” While Jesus is talking “living water,” the woman is thinking “fresh water not cistern water.” No wonder she says, “Sir, give me this water so I won’t ever get thirsty, nor ever have to come back to this well alone in the middle of the day again!”  It’s easy to see how a person could get confused. 

      What may be even more confusing is what happens next. “Go call your husband,” Jesus says. “I have no husband,” the woman says. And Jesus says, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.”

        We can’t see Jesus’ face or hear his voice, so we don’t know the tone in which he says this. But may I point out, contrary to popular opinion, there is nothing in this text which explicitly says this woman is disreputable, or that she has done anything wrong. Jesus at no point invites repentance nor offers forgiveness.  If this woman was a five-time loser, maybe it’s because was widowed or abandoned or divorced, which, for a woman in the ancient world – was the same thing. 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.

If she was living with someone, perhaps it was someone she was dependent upon, or perhaps she was in what was called a Levirate marriage, where a childless woman is married to her deceased husband’s brother in order to produce an heir.  Perhaps there was no love lost.  In order words, what if this woman’s story is tragic, rather than scandalous?

Why do we always assume the worst, especially in regard to women, whether it’s Mary Magdalene or this unnamed woman at the well?  For two reasons: (1) Sadly, the long entrenched history of misogyny in the church, in sharp contrast to the role women play in the Gospels; and (2) because this is what happens when religion is reduced to morality, especially sexual morality, as many religious people – especially conservative Christians – tend to do.

The other difficulty with interpreting this woman as a less than respectable woman is that it colors the rest of the story.  Then, when the woman responds to Jesus, “Oh, I see that you are a prophet” and asks him a question about worship, we see it as an attempt to change the topic.

When, in fact, this woman gets it. Because he understands her, she understands him. In John’s Gospel, “to see” is connected with belief. When the woman says, “I see you are a prophet,” she is making a confession of faith. Why? Not because Jesus has exposed her, or accused her, but because he has knows her. He has seen her plight, not of immorality, but of dependence. He has recognized her, spoken with her, offered her dignity, to which she is unaccustomed. She exists for him, has worth, value, significance. When he speaks of her past knowingly and compassionately, she realizes she is in the presence of a prophet.

And so she asks a question perhaps she’d always wanted to ask, though no one would give her the time of day.  It was a question which had divided Samaritans and Jews for centuries, and thus what separated her from Jesus now. When Jesus dignifies her with an answer more hopeful and penetrating than she expected, she makes one last comment: “I know the Messiah is coming. When he comes, we’ll get the whole story.”

“I am,” said Jesus. “You don’t have to wait any longer or look any further.”

      Says preacher and author Barbara Brown Taylor:

      “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.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, “Face to Face With God,” The Christian Century, February 28, 1996)

      Nicodemus had not gotten it; this woman did. Nicodemus comes to Jesus hidden, late at night; this woman in broad daylight.  Nicodemus is an insider, a religious leader of the Jews; this woman an outsider, a woman, a Samaritan reviled by the Jews. As someone who should have known better, Jesus was tough on Nicodemus; as someone who was open and honest and inquisitive, Jesus responds with patience and candor to her questions. After only a few verses, Nicodemus fades into the dark. In contrast, 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.

      No wonder she leaves her water jar behind to tell her neighbors about this man. No wonder also, as a result of her witness, “Many of the Samaritans from that village committed themselves to him.  As she says in that great unfinished sentence in verse 39:  “Come see a man who told me everything I ever did . . . AND LOVED ME ANYWAY!”  I wonder if she might have sounded something like this? [Woman at the Well]

      How many people are there – even sitting here in church, who might be thinking, if these people knew who I am, what I’ve done, they wouldn’t want me here. How many people – maybe even people sitting here in church – think of God in the same way, who – if God knows me – knows how bad and undeserving I am.  The Good News of the Gospel is that God knows, and loves you that much more. “While we were yet sinners,” St. Paul said, “Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

      How many people are there out there – people like this woman at the well – who think of themselves and of God in such harsh ways. How might they be waiting, for someone who will break through the barriers which divide us – barriers whether of religion or race or culture or class or stereotype – to treat them with dignity, to listen to their questions, and love them as they are.  And where is the well at which we will meet them? School? Starbucks? A local pub? The water cooler at work? 

      In the end, I like what preacher and commentator Anna Carter Florence has to say, to preachers but not only for preachers: 

      “If I were asked to pick one story that shows us the most about who Jesus is, it would be this one.“ Here is a passage for a preaching life and a lifetime of preaching. Here too is a text with its own bucket, ready for the filling. Let it down again and again, and each time it comes up with another sermon of living water, another deep drink from the well that will not go dry.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, p. 93).


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