John 4, Lent 3, March 19, 2017
Last week, while at an antique shop in Gibson’s Landing (the site of the filming of the Beachcomers), I got into a discussion with the shop’s owner. In the early moments of our conversation, we exchanged small talk about our occupations. I told him I was a pastor, and he told me he was an atheist, with some title that was over two feet long (with few, if any clues in the title that gave me the slightest idea what he might have done for a living). A moment of awkward silence followed. What would an atheist and a pastor have to talk about? Or a pastor and someone with a job title that was unintelligible?
We encounter what was undoubtedly a similarly “awkward moment” in today’s gospel reading where Jesus encounters a woman at a well in Sychar. In the verses preceding we discover that Jesus is leaving the area of Judea in the south, and heading to the northern region of Galilee (possibly to evade an unwanted controversy surrounding baptism). To make that journey, the text states that he and his disciples had to travel through the region Samaria. Those of you who are a bit familiar with the Old Testament will be aware of the history of the Samaritans, and how they had at one time been a part of the larger nation of Israel. In 722 BCE they were conquered by Assyria, and many of its inhabitants had been taken into exile. Those who were left behind intermarried with those from other conquered nations that were resettled there. Suffice it to say that Jews saw the Samaritans as “half-breeds”, and traitors to both their race and religion.
In this hostile environment, Jesus, exhausted from the morning’s journey, takes a seat by a well to await his disciples who had left to find something to eat. While there, he encounters a woman who had come to draw water from Jacob’s Well, and he asks her for a drink. For us this may not sound particularly out of the ordinary, but for a Jew (especially a rabbi) in Jesus’ day to speak to a woman (let alone a Samaritan woman) would have been unthinkable.
She is initially taken aback by the fact that Jesus would speak to her, a woman, and that he would humble himself by asking her for a drink. As is not uncharacteristic in the gospel of John, Jesus’ response to her does not bring much clarification initially, but rather he begins to tell her of another kind water… one that quenches a different kind of thirst.
At this point in the discussion, Jesus bids her to call for her husband. Her response is guarded, but truthful (at least in part) as she tells him that she does not have a husband. Jesus gives a more complete analysis of the woman’s marital status in stating that, although correct, she has in fact had 5 husbands prior, and the one with whom she is currently living is not truly her husband. Although many commentators assume this is descriptive of the woman’s promiscuity (and it may well be), it is also quite possible that she may be as much a victim of these failed marriages as an instigator. At this time in history a woman could not initiate divorce, so either she had been widowed several times over, or previous men in her life had divorced her for reasons unknown. From what we are given in the actual text, it is hard to tell if this woman’s current status is due to bad luck, promiscuity, or abandonment (or bits of each). Whatever the case, Jesus does not ascribe to her any blame.
She quickly shifts the conversation from the personal to the theological, and questions Jesus as to the true place of worship. I won’t go into much detail here, but the place of worship had been a contentious issue between these two people groups for generations, and if there was a question that could either stump or redirect this young rabbi, this would be the one. As it turns out, neither the Jews nor the Samaritans held complete bragging rights regarding the superiority of their worship sites. True worship would not be found in either of these places, but rather in a person…and that person was now within her reach.
The woman reveals an expectancy of the coming of the Messiah, and Jesus then “drops the bombshell” saying “I am” (the word “he” is added in English translations)”. She needn’t look any longer. The Messiah has come. The Eternal “I AM” is now present to, and for her. As she begins to come to grips with the significance of this encounter, the two are interrupted by the returning disciples (who were probably a bit worried at seeing Jesus speaking with a woman, at a “well”, for in the Bible, wells often functioned as kind of eHarmony site), and she leaves hastily back to her village (forgetting her bucket in the process). She is beginning to discover the reality of this new “living water”, as she forgets the more literal, temporal water that had brought her to the well in the first place.
Her response is to go back to her village and tell others the events of her encounter with Jesus (the fact that others in the village relate positively to her would tend to favor the notion that promiscuity was not her primary identity). They respond with belief (to a point at least), and head back to the well with her to check this mystery man out for themselves. In so doing, they also discover this source of living water.
Although the text just prior to today’s reading states that Jesus and his disciples “had” to go through Samaria, there were other roads they could have taken. Roads that would have circumvented this God-forsaken land. Roads that most other self-respecting Jews would surely have taken, and most assuredly the disciples wished they had taken. Jesus “had” to go this road that lead through Samaria for the sake of the woman, and those who would come to believe as a result of her testimony. This land, as is true of all other lands, was anything but “God-forsaken”.
It’s hard to encapsulate a huge text like this into one simple sermon, with one simple application. Last Sunday we encountered perhaps the most significant text in all the Bible that speaks to the salvation of our souls (see John 3 if you weren’t at church last Sunday). Today we discover Jesus’ concern for both the eternal soul, and the person who is “here-and-now”. Here Jesus encounters a person that is probably as much an “other” as anyone could ever possibly be. We see and hear of such “others” in our world as well. I saw many walking down the streets of Vancouver this past week. I’m afraid I can identify with those who would rather take another road to avoid these “others”- drug addicts, beggars, men dressed as women with piercings and tattoos in every possible location. It’s easier (and perhaps safer) simply to go around them.
Perhaps one take-home piece from today’s text is that Jesus is very much interested in the “other”, and as his disciples, we would do well to do likewise. Perhaps we, like our Lord, need to get out into these “Samaritan lands”, and simply engage the “other” in conversation. Greet them with a smile, let them know our names, and tell something about ourselves. As for the atheist at Gibson’s Landing, after we got past the initial awkwardness, we went on to have a very cordial conversation. We shared our common love of grandchildren, and we parted knowing each other’s names. I now pray for this atheist (but still don’t really know what he did for a living).
Who knows, as the Holy Spirit gives you and I opportunities, perhaps we can direct “others” to this “living water”…to Jesus…the Eternal “I Am” Amen.