Text: John 4:3-30, 39-42
Today is a day for stories about wells, and they are legion. We all sit riveted to the television when children are rescued from wells they have fallen into.
That’s how I planned to begin my sermon today. Then, lo and behold, Friday night CNN announced that yesterday was the 25th birthday of the child who prompted that statement. Baby Jessica McClure was the 18 month-old whose tense rescue from a narrow well in Midland, Texas touched the hearts of people all over the world. Now that she is 25, she can access the funds donated when her life was saved 23 years ago. It is indeed a day for stories about wells.
But I must say that my favorite well story is about a farmer’s donkey that fell into a large, dry well. The neighbors who came to observe the donkey’s predicament saw no solution to the animal’s plight. They suggested all kinds of things to ease the old donkey’s inevitable passing, but the farmer would have none of it. He insisted that his friends help him drop shovels full of dirt into the well in spite of their resistance to such a plan. The shoveling went on for hours until finally the donkey’s ears could be seen above the edge of the well. A bit more shoveling and the tired but grateful animal jumped out of the well and ran off. It seems that the farmer and the donkey were smarter than the neighbors. The animal simply shook off each shovel of dirt that fell into the well and then stepped onto the growing pile. Little by little, the bottom of the well rose until the old guy could step out of the well and into freedom.
Wells played a critical role in Hebrew culture. In Palestine, the rainy season is very short and rainfall is sparse. It’s kind of like Raleigh, until this weekend at least, only the condition is permanent. The whole region is very dry. If you have been there, you know what I mean. It is so barren in so many places that it is easy to wonder why in the world the Jews and Palestinians would fight over it.
In such a barren place, water is almost as important as air. It is said that if sheep go without water for three days, they will become ill. In five days they die. In Genesis, we read that when Abraham came to a new place in Canaan, the first thing he did was build an altar to the Lord. The second thing he did was dig wells for his household and his cattle.
Several beautiful stories about marriages recorded in the Bible occur at wells. The servant of Abraham who was sent to find a wife for Isaac, the beloved son, prayed at a well that God would lead him to the right woman. Before he finished praying, Rebekah came out with her water jar on her shoulder. She did just as the servant had prayed; she gave him a drink and drew water for his camels. Then the old man knew in his heart that she was the one God had prepared for Isaac. Isaac’s son Jacob met his wife Rachel beside a well. When Moses was fleeing a pharaoh who wanted to kill him, he sat down next to a well. Women came for water and some shepherds drove them away. So Moses helped the women water their flock and wound up marrying one of them, the oldest daughter of the priest of Midian. So wells were a source of life and much more.
Our text for today is one of the well stories. It’s a familiar tale of a conversation between Jesus and a woman he meets when he stops at a well to get a drink of water. In one of the longest dialogues in John’s gospel, Jesus makes two requests of the Samaritan woman: “Give me a drink” and “Go, call your husband.” Through both of these appeals, Jesus teaches his new friend and us about going deep.
Let’s start at the beginning. Jesus is with his disciples in the southern region of Judea and heads back to Galilee in the north. Samaria is the central region between the two. It was like being in Savannah, Georgia and heading back to Raleigh. To do so, you have to go through South Carolina unless you fear or dislike South Carolinians so much that it’s worth going around it. If you do, don’t tell me because that’s my home!
In any event, to go from Savannah to Raleigh and avoid South Carolina, you would either have to go by boat or go across the state to north Georgia, enter North Carolina through the mountains, and then drive across our state to get here. Some Jewish pilgrims who feared Samaritans did that kind of thing. From Judea they would go east, cross the Jordan River, and go around Samaria to get to Galilee. It was a long way out of the way, but many did it because Samaria was home to the enemy of the Jews. You see, Jews and Samaritans represented cultures steeped in mutual hostility and mistrust. Their people had been mortal enemies since they argued six hundred years earlier over who would rebuild the temple after the Babylonian exile. That’s the point of the story of the Good Samaritan, who came to the aid of a Jewish person that according to his culture he should have despised.
That Jesus would take the shorter route through unfriendly terrain makes logistical sense. Yet many scholars believe his journey through Samaria was not just the product of a geographical decision, but also a theological one. The Greek for “had to” in the phrase “had to go through Samaria” is a term associated with God’s plan elsewhere in John’s gospel. So it’s possible that Jesus journeyed through Samaria in order to be kind to his tired feet. But it’s more likely that he chose to travel through the land of his ancestor’s enemies in order to meet persons whom social convention considered unacceptable.
The person Jesus met at the well was clearly one of those people and worse than that, she was a woman. In that day, men did not speak to female strangers and a Jewish teacher was never to speak to a woman in public. The Talmud taught that “he who talks much with womankind brings evil upon himself” and will wind up in purgatory. This woman is an unnamed female of an enemy people and Jesus is a rabbi forbidden from talking with her. Yet they have a life-changing encounter by an ancient well.
When Jesus meets this woman of an enemy race, he not only speaks to her, but has an extended conversation with her. And he seems not to care that he is breaking all the rules. He uses his physical need to quench his thirst to share the much deeper truth that God offers spiritual nourishment as well.
This is a crucial lesson for us, especially in the season of Lent. We all need food and water, clothing, shelter, and transportation. Our calling as people of faith is to insure that these basic needs of all people are met, regardless of who they are or where they live even if they have historically been our enemies. But we know there is more to a life of meaning and purpose than meeting our physical needs. Our American fixation on the right foods and designer clothes and big homes and classy cars fails to meet our deep spiritual yearning.
In contrast, fasting, which is a careful, healthy practice of giving up food for a period of time, helps us see past our physical hunger to the longing in our souls. It is a common Lenten discipline that creates a space for God to help us understand the true hunger we feel—hunger that we Americans often try to satisfy with food and drink. Dressing appropriately but more simply can be a difficult but revealing spiritual practice that can help us realize how much we worry about the opinions of others. This kind of simplicity can lead us away from our addiction to looking good that hides a soul-deep need to know that we are good regardless of our appearance—that others will love us even if we are not “beautiful” by the standards of a consumer culture. Leaving our cars behind and walking can be a valuable Lenten practice that thrusts us into nature at a glorious time of year. Yes, we need to get from one place to another and sometimes the distance is too far to walk. But when we look for opportunities to put our feet on the earth that gives us life, we can experience a sense of awe at the beauty of God’s creation and our connection to all of life. Restoration of damaged relationships or daily reflection on where we are feeling God’s presence can also be especially meaningful during Lent.
Yes, the conversation between Jesus and the woman he should have ignored began over water for drinking. But this counter-cultural exchange was really about watering the soul, which is our special calling in Lent.
On the surface, Jesus’ second request of the woman seems like a simple one: “Go, call your husband, and come back.” It could easily sound like he wanted to meet her family. Maybe he wanted to add a level of propriety to this forbidden conversation with a female stranger by inviting her husband to participate. But just like the request for a drink, Jesus had much more in mind than that. In fact, he knew that the man with whom she was living was not her husband.
Based on the text itself, we have no idea why this is the case. Jesus never calls her a sinner. In fact, he calls her a truth-teller. She doesn’t offer any explanation or any defense of her living situation. But preachers and commentators through the centuries have jumped to the conclusion that as a woman who was living with a man to whom she wasn’t married, she is a dreadful sinner. All you have to do is Google “woman at the well” and you find sermons galore about the woman’s sinfulness.
But as one more open-minded commentator suggests, there are many possible reasons for her marital history other than immorality. In fact, she could be trapped in the custom of levirate marriage outlined in Deuteronomy. In this system, if a woman’s husband dies, his brother is obligated to marry her. If the second husband dies, the next brother has the same obligation and so on, although along the way a brother could refuse. Given how hard it was for a woman in that day to get a divorce, a history of five husbands certainly hints that her current status may not have been of her own doing. We simply don’t know and shouldn’t jump to conclusions. What we do know is that her living situation may have intrigued many a righteous preacher over the years, but it was not a concern for Jesus. He simply named her status and she confirmed it. He then knew she was a truth-teller and she knew he was someone special. She called him a prophet.
From there they go straight into a conversation about worship. The woman presents Jesus with one of the most pressing problems that stands between Jews and Samaritans: “What is the right worship site, this mountain or Jerusalem?” she asks. Some have argued that the woman was trying to change the subject with this question. More likely, she was intrigued that this obviously wise man was willing to ignore social convention to talk with her. She asked the question because she really wanted to know the answer and there weren’t many Jews she could ask.
Jesus’ reply directs her away from the present, toward the future, and then back to the present. “The time is coming,” he says, “when neither will be the place of worship.” In other words, true worship is not determined by its physical location. It isn’t an act whose meaning or significance is based on connections like race or clan, or by its form or geography. Rather true worship is shaped by the openness of our hearts to the living water God offers. The implication for the Samaritans and Jews, and for us, is profound. All who truly worship God share in the spirit here and now. The time is coming, and is here now, Jesus says, when true worshippers will worship God in spirit and truth. Spirit and truth are not superficial realities. They are about depth and meaning.
It’s important that we understand what John intended his readers to hear in this conversation. Jesus is God’s agent, John says. He speaks for God and reveals the nature of God, so what he said and did matters. Like the Jews, the woman and her people were waiting for a Messiah. Jesus says to her, “You don’t have to wait any longer. I am the one in whom God is known. What you are looking for in the future is happening now. You don’t have to wait for God to act.”
The teachings that follow the question about her husband draw this woman into deeper engagement with Jesus. He seems to say, “Your life circumstances matter to me,” but focusing on them is not my purpose here. There is something else more important. Regardless of who you are or where you are in life, the One who sent me wants your truest worship… wants you, regardless of your circumstances, to search for living water—for depth, for freshness, for something that will quench your thirst for spirit, for truth. That something is connectedness to the Holy and it is available right now. What I hear in this story is that we don’t have to wait for something new to happen in this life nor in the life to come. We don’t have to wait for God to act. In fact, the opposite is true. God is waiting for us to act. The Holy One is waiting for us to find a sacred place, a holy space in the midst of our busy lives.
You know, when the Worship Council and staff considered a theme for Lent, we were aware of the irony of choosing “creating space for God.” In truth, the Holy doesn’t us need us to create space for her/him/it. Divine presence is all around us all the time. The problem is this: we often act like we don’t know it. So as a practical matter, we do need to create a space in our hurried lives for us to give attention to this Presence. Otherwise, we just rush through the activities of our days missing those sacred moments when God is trying to get our attention.
For me, the conversation between Jesus and the woman at the well is fundamentally about welcoming the spirit into our lives. Yes, he breaks down barriers of ethnicity and gender, and that’s really important in our day. Yes, he cares about the circumstances of her life. But ultimately, this encounter – one made possible by his decision to go through risky territory—is about worship, about consciously coming into the presence of the Holy One.
Jesus says it doesn’t matter where we do it. He reminds us that this divine presence is a reality available to us at any moment. We can fast or pray or journal or meditate or walk in nature or listen to music or gaze at art or do anything else we feel drawn to do. We can be part of this gathered community each Sunday morning. The requirement is simply that we leave our busy world behind and open ourselves to the presence of the Holy.
It is no accident that Jesus sat by a well to teach a Samaritan woman about the importance of going deep into her soul. Water from the deepest part of a well is the purest, the most thirst-quenching. So in this Lenten season, we are invited to go deep. For this to happen, we don’t have to wait for God. God is waiting for us.