Rev. Danielle K Bartz March 12, 2023
John 4:5-30, 39-42 “A Conversation at the Well”
When the Gospels were originally created, they were stories that were told. Meaning, the Gospels were not written documents first, they were oral stories that were shared by the disciples and early followers of Jesus. Eventually those stories were written down and then, sometime later, the Gospels were compiled. The Gospel writers took those early oral stories, organized them into a complete narrative, added literary elements to them in order to make them compelling, and then presented them as a full document.
It is important to understand this because the stories contained in the Gospels are most authentically heard, instead of read. That is the reason we read aloud the scriptures still today, to give us a chance to hear the story told just like our ancestors did thousands of years ago. It was the stories of Jesus – his life, miracles, ministry, and teachings – that were what compelled people to believe in him. And then, more importantly, the stories were meant to be passed on. That was how Christianity was formed – one person hearing an extraordinary story about an extraordinary man doing and teaching extraordinary things about God, and then that person telling someone else. The stories had to be compelling for this to happen, and today’s story is one of the most compelling in the all the Gospels.
I am tempted to simply let the story speak for itself, however the most compelling elements need to highlighted – which is the role you have called me to do here. To help you understand these ancient stories in a way that speak to us today. So, we are going to hear the story, which is quite long, with Karl’s help. And I will periodically interject to highlight what I would like you to pay attention to. My hope is that this story will become so compelling to you, that maybe you may share it with someone else when they ask you about your faith.
We are going to begin in the region of Samaria, as Jesus is journeying with his disciples from Judea to Galilee. He could have, and quite frankly should have, taken the longer route to avoid Samaria, but he didn’t. The Judeans and the Samaritans, despite having a similar faith and a shared heritage, despised one another. They avoided each other’s territory, they spoke with prejudice about one another, and both would have liked the other to not exist. So, Jesus choosing to travel through Samaria was a risk, and an oddity that would have immediately gotten the attention of the earliest listeners to this story. And everything that follows is punctuated by this unlikely, and even suspicious, start:
So he came to the 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.)
The Gospel writer wanted to make sure everyone who heard this story understood that this interaction between Jesus and a Samaritan woman was something that the conventional wisdom and practices of the day would have forbidden. It was noon – meaning they were alone because groups of women went to gather water early in the morning before the heat of the day. Why was this woman there at such an odd hour? Why would Jesus speak with her, a woman and a Samaritan woman at that? And why, in the world, would she speak back to him? That was not at all acceptable.
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.”
We have entered into the single longest conversation in all of the Gospels between Jesus and anyone else. Nowhere, in all four Gospels, does Jesus have this long of conversation with someone. And yet here we are, the two of them sitting at the life-giving well of their common ancestor, Jesus speaking with a Samaritan woman, who is with audacity and bravery, speaking back to him. And quickly, in the role of rabbi, Jesus begins to teach. And unlike the story we heard last week with Nicodemus, a Jewish leader of the faith, whose first response to Jesus’ complicated lesson is to doubt, the woman believes him.
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!”
Ah! You see, if we were hearing this story 2,000 years ago, we would have be waiting for this. Encounters at wells were a literary type. Just like today when we hear, “It was a dark and storming night” we know that something foreboding is about to happen. In the first days that this story was told, an encounter at a well was about marriage. Two people meeting at a well? Then something about marriage is going to follow. Abraham’s servant meets Isaac’s wife Rebekah at a well. Jacob meets his wife Rachel at a well. On and on it goes. But, wait, does that mean then that Jesus and this woman from Samaria are going to marry? That would have been a question the first hearers of the story would have asked. No, it turns out, they are not to be married, but they are going to talk about marriage. We now understand why the woman was at the well at noon, instead of early in the morning with the rest of the women – she was an outsider, having been widowed or divorced several times. So, we expect that Jesus, like everyone else of the time, would shame her. But he doesn’t – he says nothing judgmental to her at all. He simply understands. How extraordinarily odd that would have been for those that heard that story, not to mention the woman.
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. For 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.”
Now, it was one thing for Jesus to speak to this outsider woman. But for her to engage him like this, to ask questions of deep theological wondering and sophistication – that is simply unheard of. He should have, according to the traditions of the day, walked away from her. Or, at the very least, shamed her publicly for her audacity to speak with him. But he doesn’t. He sees in her a student, a student worth sharing the complexities of what he is trying to do in and for the world. He has a lot of faith in her, and we are about to see why.
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.”
She understands. And then he says something that he says to no one else in the entire Gospel – he tells her that he is the Messiah. He says this to no one else in the Gospel of John. No one. Not even the disciples. She is the only person to whom he reveals this to. The only one.
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.
The very first preacher of the Good News that Jesus is the Messiah – a Samaritan woman whom society would have shamed because of her questionable marriages. A Samaritan. A woman. An outsider. The only one to know the truth about Jesus and the first to bring people to him in that truth.
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.”
The people listened to her, followed her, even though they shouldn’t have because of her profoundly marginal status. But what she had to tell them was so extraordinary, they listened, they followed, and they believed.
The encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well is so much more than the beautiful metaphor of Jesus being the source of water to forever quench our thirsty spirits. It is a story that makes it undeniably clear that the Good News of Jesus and taught by Jesus is for everyone, everyone. The most unlikely person possible is the one to whom Jesus teaches the truth. He doesn’t see her the way the rest of the world does, he sees her as God does – a beloved child of God with the capacity, the calling, to be a teacher of the faith herself.
This story is why I am a Christian. This story is why I continue to follow the difficult but beautiful lessons that Jesus taught – even in a world that tells me to do so is silly. Because this faith is one that is for everyone. It is one that sees in every face the face of God. It is one that is for the unlikely, not the powerful. Jesus lived this inclusive, all encompassing, justice oriented, and peace-filled Kingdom of God and asks us to live it as well. He did so in such a way that the Gospel writers, very human people filled with their own prejudices, could not tell his story any other way. These remarkable encounters with the most unlikely people were so central to the life and ministry of Jesus, and therefore central to the Christian faith, that there was simply no other way to tell them. Yes, the institution has too often been co-opted by those with nefarious motivations, but at its core, the Christian faith, with Jesus as its guide, is one that is meant to welcome and celebrate and empower everyone.
This story is why I am a Christian. And when you are asked by someone who has fallen into the jaded nature of this world; who questions why you choose to believe in such an ancient faith with a troubling history; who laughs when you say you spend your Sunday mornings worshipping God in the name of Jesus – maybe you will tell them this story. Because this story is who we are. And it is how we are meant to be. Amen.
God of all-inclusive love, you have created each of us in your image. And no matter how the rest of the world may view us and judge us, we know that we are reflections of you. This is a gift freely given and gift that we are so humbly grateful for. It is in this gratitude that we come before you now in prayer.
God, we have chosen to worship you in the name of Jesus Christ, your beloved son. Help us to remember the lessons he taught, to treat others the way he did, to share your love as extravagantly as he modeled for us. Help us to embody him through the Holy Spirit, spreading your love and light to all we encounter by telling his stories and ours with open and joyful spirits.
Jesus often turned to you in prayer, sometimes with others, sometimes in solitude. Following his example, we now open our hearts and spirits to you, lifting to you the prayers we carry for ourselves and the world…
Great and Good God, you are the source of living water that quenches our thirsty souls. May we always remember to draw near to your well, sharing in encounters with others, to feed our spirits and theirs. We pray all of this in the name of Jesus Christ, our teacher, guide, Savoir, and friend. And now we pray in the way he taught us…Our Father…