Sunday, March 12, 2023 – Lent 3
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
John 4: 5-24, 27-30, 39-41
So he 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.”
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.
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.
My grandfather, Staff Sergeant David Campbell, was part of the D-Day Invasion. He died a couple of weeks later, in one of the many skirmishes in the villages of northern France. And he is buried in the American Cemetery in Normandy. Marcos and I are the only people in my family who have ever been privileged to visit his grave. It was a profoundly moving experience. -- Some of you have family stories like that too. Some of you have made tremendous sacrifices for this nation and its noble ideals.
Recently, I’ve wondered what my grandfather would think of this flippant talk of a national divorce, or the casual references to a new Civil War. Didn’t we do that already? And didn’t we already pay a horrible price?
But that’s the thing about political hatred and the lust for power. They care nothing for those kinds of sacrifices. And once the seeds of discontent and distrust are sown, they grow like weeds, and take on a life of their own.
Once upon a time, there was another deep division among people, and one that influenced the entire ministry if Jesus. It was the enmity between Jews and Samaritans. And it was all about politics and religion.
On this particular day, Jesus and his disciples had been out on a dusty road, underneath a broiling sun for hours. They were traveling north from Judea up to Galilee. And in between those two regions was a place called Samaria – a place to be avoided at all costs because… Samaritans lived there. Most Jewish people would walk an extra nine hours around Samaria just to avoid “those people.”
So, who were they? Well, Samaritans were the descendants of those Jews who, centuries before, had inter-married with the invading Babylonians. They had slept with the enemy, so to speak. And not only that, but over time they had integrated with their new neighbors, and had accepted some of the culture and customs and religious practices of the invaders. That made them collaborators and pagans in the eyes of the faithful. – But Jesus, as was his want, walked right into the middle of it all.
The disciples had gone ahead to buy some food and so, Jesus was on his own. And John says that Jesus was tired. And that little detail says a mouthful about the fulness of the Incarnation: our Lord, dusty and tired and thirsty.
Jesus came upon the legendary well of Jacob, and he sat down to rest. Maybe he could smell that cold, crisp, delicious water. But he had no bucket to lower into the well and nobody was around during the heat of the day, since water was routinely collected in the early morning before it got too hot.
Just then, through the shimmer of the radiating heat, Jesus saw a solitary figure approaching. It was a woman, alone, carrying her water jar. And when she got close enough, Jesus asked her to give him a drink.
Now, maybe it was his clothing. Or his accent. Or something about the way he looked, but she knew that he was a Jew. And she knew that he didn’t belong there. And she wondered if he was lost or just looking for trouble. And so, she looked this stranger in the eye and said: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman… of Samaria?” And then the Gospel writer adds this note of explanation, just so we don’t miss it: (“Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.”).
What follows is the longest conversation that Jesus ever had with anyone in any of the four Gospels. And when you read this whole passage (which we abbreviated for today’s reading), you will notice a kind of ebb and flow to it. This conversation moves back and forth, like water, between the Son of God and this “other.”
A lot has been said and written about “The Woman at the Well” as she is known – most of it is bad. Lots of preachers concentrate on what they perceive to be her sexual misconduct because of all those husbands. And they cluck their tongues, and marvel that Jesus could forgive even that, and then tell the rest of us to behave. But we have no idea of why she had been married so often. Maybe her first husband died and then she was passed down to the surviving brothers, as was the custom of the time. Or maybe she was thought of as defective because she couldn’t have children, and that was cause for a husband to divorce a wife. At that time, only men could initiate divorce. --So, her many marriages are interesting, but they don’t seem to be the issue. Instead, her home life is an avenue for the kind of honest conversation where the truth can be told and received, and new life can begin.
What’s really interesting here is that in a world where women were second class citizens, Jesus treated this woman with respect. And she responded to that respect with trust. And in the ebb and flow of that kind of communication, salvation came to her – even those she was one of “those people.” Because for Jesus, it was people over politics. It reconciliation was the greatest good.
Perhaps the best-known part of this story is something Jesus called “Living Water.” That’s what he offered to the woman. And that’s what he offers to us. The woman wanted to know where to find this magic spring. And most of us are looking for it too – the answer to all of our problems. And so, we grasp onto the latest fad or podcasts or supplements. But Jesus said we don’t have to look any farther than our hearts. Jesus said that the living water is already inside of us. It’s just that sometimes the pump needs priming. We need Jesus to ask us for a drink. We need some truth-telling and honesty and willingness to love our enemies in order to get those waters flowing again.
That’s exactly what happened to her. She engaged with Jesus and got him a drink. And those waters bubbled up and quenched her thirst for respect and acceptance and salvation. --She dropped her water jar and ran back into town and told anybody who would listen: “Come and see a man who told me everything I’ve ever done.”
I was fascinated this week to learn that this woman, so often stereotyped as immoral, is actually celebrated by certain Christians around the world. In southern Mexico, La Samaritana is remembered on the fourth Sunday in Lent, when people share cool water flavored by fruits and spices in her honor. For Orthodox Christians, she is known as St. Photini. And her name means “equal to the apostles.”
Why? Well, maybe because she was the very first person in the Gospel of John to announce that the Messiah had come. She was the very first evangelist; the first to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ. And apparently, her preaching was quite effective! John says that Jesus and his disciples stayed there for two more days, and that many Samaritans came to believe in Jesus because of her testimony.
Jesus ignored the calls for political division and the dehumanization of the other. He marched right into so-called enemy territory and then stayed there for a few days, accepting their hospitality and learning their stories. And if we claim his name; if we call ourselves Christians, then we have our marching orders too. We are called to be agents of reconciliation and peace in a divided and bitter nation and world. Notice that Jesus and the woman did not agree with one another on the finer points of theology and politics. But Jesus showed us that we don’t have to agree with someone in order to serve them and receive from them and to stay with them. We just need to let the living water do its work in us – washing us clean and quenching our thirst.
Now I know that sometimes, my water is rather brackish. It gets stagnant. Sometimes it’s even a little poisonous. Instead of the gush of living water, it’s just a pool of pride and arrogance.
But I also know how to prime the pump to get down to that living water. And so do you. You start by having an honest talk with Jesus. And then, you get out in the world and serve others - especially the ones you don’t like. And you tell the truth about yourself and trust that the love and grace of God can handle it.
That’s when the living water begins to flow again in me. And I am washed clean again. And my thirst for purpose and meaning and dignity and salvation is quenched again. And I can stand in this place, or any place, and say with amazed joy: “Come and see the man who told me everything I have ever done… and loves me just the same.”