Gospel According to John 4:5-42
March 19, 2017: Lent III
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
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.
This morning we heard one of my favorite Gospel stories. It is the story that my long time former spiritual director most often suggested I turn to when asking the question, where is God in my life?
It is the story of the Samaritan woman who has a life-changing encounter with Jesus at Jacob’s well. This passage contains the longest conversation between Jesus and anyone, in our canon. It is also among the few places in the Gospels where Jesus’ conversation with someone he meets on the road does not end in a monologue. The woman in this passage, although unnamed, has a voice. So this passage is not just about what God wants us to know, but how God wants to be in relationship with us, and how we become agents of God’s grace in this world. It’s a great passage to read in a season when we are cultivating spiritual practices of resistance.
Last week we heard Jesus explaining the finer points of the spirit to the privileged yet thoroughly thick Nicodemus, who never quite got the message. In today’s story, the woman at the well, who is the abject opposite of Nicodemus in terms of social location….she gets it. Not at first. But in the end, she is the model of apostolic discipleship, even when compared to Jesus’ hand picked disciples who spend this passage shopping for supper rather than spreading the Good News. In comparison with Nicodemus, the elite Pharisee, this woman – unnamed, uneducated, unacceptable as she is on any sort of social scale, in her time and place – she is the model of Gospel discipleship. Like Mary, humble and without status, who’s soul magnified the Lord, so too does this unnamed Samaritan woman.
But, she is only unnamed until her story becomes our story.
Jesus is on his way from Judea to Galilee. Galilee is the site of Jesus’ first miracle in John’s Gospel; the changing of water into wine and the wedding at Cana. And he is heading back that way. But with no easy route, he ends up in Samaria, a foreign land to a Jewish rabbi.
But there he is. At mid day, high noon, says the scripture, tired and thirsty from his long journey, Jesus finds himself at Jacob’s well in the center of the town of Sychar in Samaria. His disciples have gone to fetch supper. And so he is alone at the well until a Samaritan woman approaches.
Please note that everything about this encounter between Jesus and this unnamed woman, from the get-go, is pointed toward public reproach, headed for a cultural train wreck of gigantic proportions. This unknown woman is about to have what Elizabeth Kubler Ross has called a radical and scandalous encounter with the divine. And although her assumed intent is to fetch some water from the well, she ends up resisting the foundational cultural norms of her social location and shattering the boundaries that would otherwise have precluded this encounter with the divine. She is the living lesson that sometimes God meets us precisely when we are willing to swim against the tide.
Because, first of all, noon is absolutely not the acceptable time to draw water from a well in the desert. The sun is too high, the stones are too hot, there are no shadows for relief or cover. So, right off the bat, the very timing of this event puts us on unconventional ground….and, it is ground that is initiated not by Jesus, but by this unidentified woman who approaches him…..at high noon. Notice this is the abject opposite of the encounter between Jesus and the Pharisee Nicodemus last week, which happened in the dead of night, under cover of darkness. Not even close to the brightest light of the noonday sun.
And the unsanctioned timing of this encounter is just the beginning of the scandal in this story. A woman would never typically approach a strange man in public. Further, this strange man is not even a Samaritan. He is a Jew. And as the woman says, Jews and Samaritans have nothing in common. Or so she thought. It is hard to overstate how unlikely and radical is this encounter between a Jewish man and a Samaritan woman in the center of town in the middle of the day. She has no earthly business approaching Jesus, and he has no earthly business speaking to her.
Everything in this story goes against the grain of convention. This encounter might be akin to a Muslim woman approaching a white American male in the center of Bagdad….without her burqa. Or a community inviting an immigrant family of strangers to take shelter in their space. This encounter is an obliteration of a whole set of boundaries: cultural, class, and religious, to name but a few.
So Jesus is sitting alone at Jacob’s Well, where Jacob offered his son Joseph the gift of living water in the Book of Genesis. Water has always been the scarcest of resources in the tradition of the Israelites, the Red Sea not withstanding. As we heard this morning in our reading from Exodus, water is among the number one commodities in the business of sustaining life, it is right up there with breath. There are biblical scholars who believe that the stories of the Hebrew Bible and the current situation in the Middle East are fundamentally and primarily about the control of sources of water. And so this is a land in which the social custom of water-giving is more than a blessing, in fact, it is tantamount to an offer of friendship. In the desert, the offer of water was a lifesaving act and likewise resulted in a foundational bond.
So Jesus says to the woman as she approaches: “Give me a drink.” And given her social status, which is none at all, she might easily have said: There’s the well, help yourself. But she does not. She hears his request for a sip of friendship and she responds in kind. She fills his cup. And he takes the water and proceeds to talk to her about a different kind of thirst; a thirst for God, a thirst for God’s friendship. And at first she does not get it. But when she does, she heads straight out into town to spread the Good News…. just as the disciples are coming back with their food.
For a variety of reasons, this story, this week is viscerally reminding me of my first encounter with the divine through pastoral ministry. Maybe it’s because I just saw Manchester by the Sea and the scene in the ER at Beverly Hospital was where I was on call every weekend for six months during my CPE. Maybe because on Friday, Thalia’s father was admitted to the hospital with end stage renal failure and my site assignment at Beverly Hospital was the dialysis unit. So this is on my mind.
I saved CPE until the very last possible minute in my ordination process. CPE stands for Clinical Pastoral Education. I needed 400 hours of it in order to be ordained. There is no way around CPE in the ordination process, believe me I tried everything. And it was my most dreaded requirement, mandating at least 200 hours of direct patient care as a hospital chaplain. And so in January of 2004 I began my stint as a chaplain at Beverly Hospital.
Now, for those of you who knew me before I encountered CPE, pastoral care, especially in a hospital setting, was not my long suit, shall we say…it was not even my short suit….in fact, it may not even have been in my wardrobe! I was not designed to deal directly with sickness and suffering. And so I dragged my faint hearted feet until the very last possible moment. Oh sure I took the requisite pastoral care classes in seminary. And I read a slew of relevant books and material. But I summarily avoided the hands on experience of ministering to strangers….strangers who would be facing pain and fear, and that terrified me. But I could not avoid that pain and fear forever. If I wanted to be a priest I had to first be a hospital chaplain.
In addition to being “on call” in the Emergency Room, the Intensive Care Unit, and the locked psychiatric ward each weekend, my primary assignment was the dialysis unit. For six months, I spent 14 hours a week as the chaplain to the good people who had indiscriminately been faced with end-stage renal failure. That means that both kidneys are out of commission and are no longer able to filter toxins out of one’s blood. Only 10% of one kidney needs to function in order to live without dialysis.
Unlike the site assignments for my fellow CPE chaplains, who were mostly assigned to hospital floors where patients rotated in and out on a daily or weekly basis, I would visit and re-visit my same patients (and my growing edges – failures – as a chaplain) every week for the entire length of my chaplaincy. Unlike most of my classmates, my patients never got discharged, and they never, or rarely, got better. They only got worse. And over the six months, 11 of the 121 dialysis patients died.
In the unit itself, there were twenty one beds in one large room with a nurses station at the center. Each patient was hooked into a machine that circulated and filtered one cup of blood at a time until the whole body’s worth had been chemically balanced and cleansed of all toxins. The whole process took about four hours and it needed to be done three times every week, forever and ever, amen. There was a lot of blood. There was a lot of discomfort. There was no privacy. There was no way out. And it was sooooo not fair. And if ever there was a time when I wondered where God was in the midst of suffering, it was during my time in the dialysis unit. And so I was not at all sure that I was cut out for this calling.
For starters, I dropped out of premed in college because, well partly because the chemistry labs conflicted with the field hockey schedule, but also because I had a very low gag threshold. And the dialysis unit is….well, not the place for someone with a low gag threshold.
More importantly, what could I possibly say that would be of any comfort to these people? How could I possibly allay their fears? What if they wanted to talk about God: God’s role, God’s wisdom, God’s mercy, or the seeming lack thereof given their excruciating situations? What if I could not feel their pain? What if I could not feel anything but their pain? What if all I had to offer them was bumbling prayer. What good could I possibly be to them?
And so on my first day the charge nurse escorted me over to my first patient. I took a series of deep breaths and clutched my chaplain’s bag as though it were an organ for transplant. “Beth (not her real name),” said the nurse, “this is Gretchen, she’s the new chaplain.” And there I was…face to face with my deepest fear.
She was a lovely, fragile looking woman in her mid-seventies, I’d say. Her left arm was tethered to the dialysis machine. But there she lay in her St. John’s knit dress with a matching scarf around her neck, in nylon stockings and meticulously shined high-heeled shoes; her pocket-book perched neatly on the bedside table. She looked like she was on her way to the wedding at Cana. And despite her recently set blond locks, she was the spitting image of my grandmother. And to my shock and surprise, she bore the same name. My heart simultaneously sank and rose. As it happens, my grandmother had only one kidney. She lost the other one during a very difficult pregnancy. She also lost the child. And she spent the rest of her life in a frail and vulnerable state of poor health. But I looked up to her as one of the most courageous and wise women I had ever known. If there has been a woman at the well in my life, it was my grandmother.
I pulled up a short rolling stool to the side of Beth’s bed. She reached out her hand and smiled. I took it and smiled back. She told me she was having surgery the next day. Serious vascular surgery. I asked her if she was frightened. She said yes. We talked about football. She asked if I was Catholic, and proceeded to explain that both of her previous husbands had been Catholic, but that she was a Protestant. I told her that I was in the ordination process to be an Episcopal priest. Then she confessed and almost apologized that she was not a regular church go-er….and neither, for that matter, was her current husband – who sadly had no religious affiliation whatsoever. She wished she had been to church more often. She wished she had a better relationship with God. She wished that she could be certain that God would remember her “when the time comes.” I reminded her that she was born in God’s hands, was etched with God’s image, and that “when the time comes” she would die in God’s arms – and that nothing she could do would ever change that. Nothing would ever diminish God’s love for her. She began to sing “Jesus loves the little children.” I could hear my grandmother’s voice. We sang nearly the entire song together. Softly, as the chairs were in very close proximity. She asked if I had a Bible and if I would read her something from it. The bookmark was in the start of this series of healing passages in John’s Gospel, the Wedding at Cana. And so I read it to her. And she looked at me with large wise eyes and she said, “water into wine – that’s not such a big deal. Wine is mostly water to begin with.”
And the living water began to flow. I told her that she was my first patient and that this was my first experience with chaplaincy. She reached out her hand and asked me if I was frightened. I nodded, my eyes welling up with tears. She smiled and said, “don’t be, you’ve got the face for it.” And the living water continued to flow…down both cheeks, I can still taste the salty reminder on my tongue to this day.
There she was, frail, fragile, frightened out of her own skin, facing serious surgery in the morning and she was my chaplain; she was ministering to my fears, she was tending my need. I smiled and squeezed her hand. And as she continued to talk freely about her family and her medical history and the inconveniences of end stage renal failure, and a host of odds and ends including sports and warts and eligible bachelors on TV, I felt a trickle of the living water of which Jesus speaks in this morning’s Gospel. I felt grounded in her openness. I felt fortified by her trust. I felt comforted by her company. And I felt the well of my spirit begin to fill with the living water of our mutual connection.
We prayed. We wiped our eyes. I kissed her hand. And I was on my way. The next patient, of course, realized my true greatest fear by summarily up-chucking on my shoes….but that is another sermon for another day.
My transformation that day at Beverly Hospital was in large part due to the holy power that flowed through the heart of one small holy woman who felt my thirst before I even knew to ask for a drink.
The living water of which Jesus speaks in this morning’s passage is the same spiritual practice that undergirds all of our authentic practices of boundary breaking and resistance. It is the living water of holy friendship. Inviting each other into thirst quenching relationship. Across all boundaries. And without any reservation.
Margaret Atwood said: “Water does not resist. Water flows.”
And that sounds right to me. So maybe we should replace our spiritual practices of resistance with spiritual practices of persistence. And so maybe in the vernacular of the Womens’ March, the woman-at-the-well was the founding member of what we might call today, the persisterhood.
And I can drink to that!
© March, 2017 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw