Gospel According to John 4:5-42
March 12, 2023: Lent III
The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Trinity Episcopal Church, Brooklyn, CT
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 stretch in the Holy Season of Lent bestows on us a four-week series of blockbuster stories from the Gospel according to John. And each os these stories is unique to John’s Gospel. All but the first one run almost 40 verses long. And the cast of characters is impressively diverse.
Last week we heard from the Pharisee Nicodemus. This week the multi-marginalized woman at Jacob’s well. Next week the average-Joe, but blind, man spontaneously healed with mud and spit. And the final Sunday before Holy Week is the grand finale – Jesus’ raising of his friend Lazarus.
Yesterday in our Quiet Day we read these four stories in tandem so we could discern and delight in the common threads that John is weaving together into his very clear and unequivocal message that Jesus IS God. Period. Jesus is the light of the world who overcomes all darkness and saves us, heals us, resurrects us for nothing more or less than our unwavering belief in him.That is all that John has to say.
But says it in four thoroughly distinct ways in these four readings. This morning’s reading is the most challenging and the most enlightening of the bunch. 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. A woman. And although she is unnamed, she has a voice. And she uses it.
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 is the abject opposite of Nicodemus in terms of social location. But 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, the mother of our Saviour, humble and without status, who’s soul magnified the Lord, so too does this unnamed Samaritan woman, who is as marginalized as anyone Jesus encounters.
And yet she is the face of true discipleship. She listens. She understands. She believes. And then she heads to town to spread the Good News. And on account of her witness, says the scripture, several other Samaritans also come to believe. Among the main divine differences between Nicodemus and this unnamed woman is her willingness to cross myriad boundaries. This story is all about boundary crossing.
At the start of the 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 crosses over into Samaria, a foreign land to a Jewish rabbi.
Nevertheless, there he is. And at midday, 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 community well until a Samaritan woman approaches.
Please note that everything about this encounter between Jesus and this unnamed woman, from the get-go, is a cultural boundary violation. And so this unknown woman is about to have what Elizabeth Kubler Ross has called a radical and scandalous encounter with the divine.
But, she is the living lesson that sometimes God meets us only when we are willing to swim against the tide.Only when we are willing to cross a few boundaries.
The first boundary crossing is in the timing of this event. Noon is absolutely not the acceptable time to draw water from a well in the middle of 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 puts us on unconventional ground.
And, it is ground that is initiated not by Jesus, but by this unidentified woman who approaches him.And at high noon. Notice this is the abject opposite of the encounter between Jesus and the Pharisee Nicodemus which happened in the dead of night, under cover of darkness.
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 thinks.
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.
Anyway, Jesus is sitting alone at Jacob’s Well, where Jacob offered his son Joseph the gift of living water in the Book of Genesis. It’s all woven together! 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 offering of life, not to mention hospitality and friendship. In the desert, the offer of water is a foundational bond.
So Jesus says to the woman as she approaches him: “Give me a drink.” And given her social status, which is none at all, she might easily say: There’s the well, help yourself. But she does not. She fills his cup. She gives the water. She forges the foundational bond.
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. A thirst for eternal life. And at first she doesn’t get it. But as soon as Jesus identifies himself as the Messiah. Her thirst is immediately quenched. She believes. And she heads straight into town to spread the Good News….just as the disciples are coming back from their excursion to the Samaritan Stop and Shop.
This woman is the ultimate disciple in John’s Gospel, because she believes. The Gospeller John does not much care about whether or not we follow Jesus, he cares only about our belief; that we believe that Jesus is THE Savior. John’s Gospel is all about believing that Jesus IS God. Drop the mic.
And the Samaritan woman believes enough to spread the Good News! Although she is unnamed, she is not anonymous. And actually, she is only unnamed until her story becomes our story.
One of the ways I have related to this story is through Neal LaBute’s gut wrenching play, Reasons to be Pretty. Neal LeBute is not my favorite playwright. But he always leaves me with a lot to think about….usually about how much I hate his plays. But this play is a bit of an exception.
It is a harsh and deeply unsettling slice-of-life that peeks in on the relationships between four twenty-something friends who are paired in couples, until one of the couples shatters under the weight of a sort of off handed remark made between the two guys over a beer, in what they thought was a casual and private setting. Maybe they should have ordered living water instead!
I won’t recount the whole plot for you, but the core conflict arises when Greg, thinking he is affirming his relationship with his girlfriend, says to his drinking buddy that “Stephanie is regular looking, BUT HE WOULD NOT TRADE HER FOR THE WORLD.”
Of course this conversation is overheard by Stephanie’s friend. And when Stephanie hears what Greg has said, she hits the ceiling. She is furious and hurt and angry. Because all she hears in Greg’s statement is that she is not attractive. All she hears is the part about her being “regular” looking. i.e. not hot. She completely misses the part about his undying love. Greg’s intended compliment lands as a slap to Stephanie’s defensive face. The words are the same. But the message got lost in translation.
And the remainder of the play is consumed with the vicious and hurtful unraveling of their relationship. All from a single utterance that neither party disputed word for word, but that each heard so differently that the very fabric of their life together was changed forever.
This unbalanced hearing of undisputed words is why I think I have struggled with this passage for so many years. Because although it begins with Jesus saying to the woman: Give me a drink. I typically blow right by that opening line and focus only on the deep and heady spiritual teaching that comes next. The part about thirsting for something more than well-water. The part that usually leaves me falling short of the mark.Because who can forsake well-water for spiritual water? That is a very tall order. Too tall for me.
And so sometimes I hear this passage with a dismissive yeah, yeah, yeah. Thirst only for living water. Let go of everything else. Moving right along.
But I think that like Stephanie in Neal Labute’s play, I have been stuck on the wrong part of the message. I think the real living water is in the very first line. The first words that come out of Jesus’s own mouth. God’s own mouth, according to this Gospel. Give me a drink. Give ME a drink.
This passage is not just about my thirst for God, it is also, and maybe foundationally about God’s thirst for me.The first thing out of God’s mouth is: Give ME a drink. God is thirsty. THAT is the pearl in this passage. THAT is the punchline. God’s thirst comes first.
Our job to quench God’s thirst.
As the today’s hero demonstrates, the proper response to a thirty God from a true disciple is to fill God’s cup. And, holy cow, I can drink to that!
© March, 2023 The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw