Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | March 23, 2014

2014.03.23 “The Water That Changes Everything” – John 4: 5 –42

Central United Methodist Church

The Water That Changes Everything

Pastor David L. Haley

John 4: 5 –42

The 3rd Sunday in Lent

March 23rd, 2014


So Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to 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?” (Jews do not share things in common 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 no bucket, 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 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.”

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.”  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 five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “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.”  Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But 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 woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

Just 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?”  Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”  They left the city and were on their way to him.

Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.”  So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?”  Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.  Do 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. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering 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 everything I have ever done.”  So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word.  They 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, The New Revised Standard Version


Every day, all over the planet, it is an essential task of life: the search for water.  Water to satisfy our thirst, to cook our food, to clean our bodies and clothes and dishes.

In the developed nations of the earth, as for us who live here on the shores of Lake Michigan, we take water for granted. We simply turn on the faucet and there it is.  There is no excuse for us to ever be thirsty.

But for 1 billion people on the planet, it’s not that simple.  Before we move to today’s story of two such people in need of water, to set not only the context of our search for water, especially since yesterday was World Water Day, let’s take three minutes to watch this short informative video from Charity: Water. [Water Changes Everything]

An intriguing title for that video, wasn’t it: Water Changes Everything. That might also be the title of what happened long ago, when two people met up at a well in search of water: one was an itinerant preacher, and another an unnamed Samaritan woman. It’s a great story, one of the best stories in the Bible. Preacher Anna Carter Florence has gone so far as to say, “If I were to pick one story that shows us the most about who Jesus is, it would be this one.” Through the centuries, this story is a well so deep, we can send down the bucket again and again, and every time bring up living water, from a well that will never go dry. (Feasting on the Word, Year A. Volume 2, p. 93.)

The well at which they meet is Jacob’s Well in Sychar, modern day Nablus, in the Palestinian West Bank.  It’s a place full of tradition, where the patriarch Jacob met his future wife Rachel. In previous sermon series, we’ve had occasion to see the Orthodox Church there as well as the well underneath it, to see Adam Hamilton tasting it and saying, “Hmmm – that is good water!” I regret I didn’t make it there when I went there to Israel last summer, so I too could taste it and say – “Hmmm – that is good water!”

The problem for Jesus was, (1) He was thirsty, (2) the well is 100 feet deep, and (3) there’s no bucket. (The water’s free, but the bucket cost $50). So nobody is more shocked than this woman who shows up with her own bucket, when Jesus says, “Would you give me a drink of water, please?”  “Imagine that,” says Anna Carter Florence again, “Jesus is thirsty, and you are the one with a bucket.”  (Feasting on the Word, Year A. Volume 2, p. 95.)

At first glance, the woman whom Jesus meets at the well could not be more different from Nicodemus, the leader of Israel, whom we met last week. He was a man, a teacher of Israel; she is a woman, likely uneducated. He was a Jew; she was a Samaritan, a race hated by the Jews.  He was a moral leader, respected in his community; she comes to the well alone, for unknown reasons. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night; she meets Jesus at noontime, in broad daylight.

And yet, how intelligent she is, this woman without a name, more informed than Nicodemus, really. She knows the regulations about ritual purity, the ancestral traditions of Israel, the necessity to worship at a valid temple, and the expectation of a Messiah. So much so that Jesus takes her seriously.  In fact, Jesus conversation with the Woman at the well is the longest recorded conversation Jesus has with anyone, ever, as recorded in the Gospels.

This is despite the fact that it was a conversation that should never have happened. According to custom, because it was triple-taboo. Why? (1) First, Jesus was a man, she was a woman.  According to the custom of the time, a man did not even speak to his wife in public. (2) Jesus was a Jew, she was a Samaritan.  There was a long and bitter rivalry between Jews and Samaritans, most Jews avoided traveling through there. (3) Jesus was a religious leader, a righteous man; the fact that she came alone at midday raises questions.  And yet, barrier breaker that he was, Jesus initiated a conversation.

As we saw last week in the story of Nicodemus in John 3, in John’s Gospel talking with Jesus could be less than straight-forward, even confusing. You ask him a simple question and the next thing you know he’s talking about birth and wind and serpents on poles lifted up in the wilderness. Indeed, that’s the way this conversation goes: he asks for a drink, she points out he has no bucket, and the next thing you know they’re talking streams of living water and the theology of worship.

Even more confusing is what happened next, when her whole life is spilled right out, like water poured out of a bucket.  Jesus says, “Go call your husband.” She says, “I have no husband.” Jesus says, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” How did Jesus know this?  Had he been on her Facebook page, or was he just putting two-and-two together?

We can’t see Jesus’ face or hear his voice, so we don’t know how or even why he says this. Contrary to the traditional interpretation, there is nothing in this story which says this woman is disreputable or has done anything wrong, nor does Jesus condemn or forgive her.  If this woman was a five-time loser, maybe it’s because she was widowed or abandoned or divorced, which, for a woman in the ancient world – amounted to the same thing. When this passage was studied with a group of women in AIDS-stricken Southern Africa, they pitied the woman and concluded perhaps she must have been an AIDS carrier — killing her husbands while she remained unaffected.  In order words, what if her woman’s story is tragic, rather than scandalous, as we often interpret it.

Sad to say, the Church has a long history of misogyny, which, in some traditions, still persists.  Why is it that women have to be either virgins or whores, like Mary, Jesus’ mother, or Jesus’ closest female friend, Mary Magdalene. One reason is that because up until almost recent times, almost all the scholars and commentators and preachers have been men; at least the ones whose voices and writings we got to hear.  It is the newer voices of women scholars and preachers who have helped us read such texts differently, more fairly.

The other difficulty with interpreting this woman as less than respectable, is that it wrongly colors the rest of the story.  When the woman responds, “Oh, I see that you are a prophet” and asks him a question about worship, it has been seen as an attempt to change the subject. When, in fact, this woman gets it. Because he understands her, she understands him. In John’s Gospel, as we shall see next week in the story of the man born blind, “to see” is to believe. So 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, respected 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.

So she asks a question she’d always wanted to ask, but no one would answer. It was a question that had divided Samaritans and Jews for centuries, and what separated her from Jesus now. So when Jesus dignified her with an answer, that the true worship of God is not defined geographically but by spirit and truth – in other words that God transcends sex, race, tradition, place, and liturgy – she adds 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)

No wonder, in her surprise, she dropped her water jar, leaving it behind as she runs back to the city, to become the first Christian missionary: “Come see a man who told me everything I ever did . . . AND LOVED ME ANYWAY!”  She does not say the last four words, but they are implicit in her action and in the joy with which she runs.

I suggest that the story of Jesus and the Woman at the Well is not a story of forgiveness, but a story of insight and transformation, not only for the woman at the well, but for us.

In terms of her life and world, everything was stacked against her: she is a Samaritan in a Jewish story, a woman in a male-dominated world, she has lived a challenging and even tragic life, and now finds herself dependent upon others. But now, after her encounter with Jesus, she leaves her water jar behind, symbolic of all the responsibilities and difficulties of her life, to begin a new and different life, sharing with others what God has done for her.

How many people are there out there like this woman at the well? Just waiting for someone to break through the barriers – the barriers of religion or race or culture or class or stereotype – waiting for someone who will treat them with dignity and respect, listen to their questions, accept them, and love them.  Will we be like Jesus, willing to break whatever taboos exist in order to reach out? And at what well will meet them? Here at church? Or out there, at work, at school, even Starbucks?

How many people like the woman at the well sit in church on a Sunday morning?  People who feel like, if these people knew me, who I am, what I’ve done, they wouldn’t accept me. And yet exactly what this story reveals most clearly of all, is that whoever we are, whatever we have done, we are accepted and loved by God.

If this is true, what is holding us back, from the life God desires for us? What are the water jars we would like to leave behind, trading past tragedies and present challenges for the new life God offers us?

Is it a dead-end job or no job? Is it an unfulfilling relationship or no relationship? Is it a past wound of heart or mind? An illness of mind, body, or spirit?  Is it an addiction, or anxiety, or grief, or guilt, or sadness?  What is it we feel is holding us down, holding us back?

This woman has so many things stacked against her. Yet thanks to Jesus, and the water that changes everything, she leaves them behind to share the story of what he has done in her life.

Though not in the Bible, later Orthodox tradition gave her a name, St. Photini. According to that tradition, after her witness to her own people, she moved to Carthage, in North Africa, where she continued to a Christian witness until her death as a martyr under the Roman Emperor Nero.

Maybe, at the very least, we should do what they do in Oaxaca, Mexico, on the fourth Friday of Lent.  Churches, schools, and businesses celebrate the Samaritan woman by giving away fruit drinks to passers by.  In honor of the Woman at the Well and the water that changes everything. Jamba Juice anyone?

Let us pray:  “Dear God, you want for us only good things and yet sometimes we have a hard time accepting your gifts and being the people you have called us to be. Help us let go of those things that hold us back, remind us of your unfailing love, and create in us the hope and courage, not only to drink of the living water you offer us, but to also live into the future you have created for us. This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.”


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