John 4: 1-42
Pastor Fred Phelps, founding pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas died this week. If you don’t know who he is, Pastor Phelps and his flock, mostly family members are known for virulent anti-gay protests at events, funerals, and military funerals. He preached hatred unbridled under the guise of Gospel, in my opinion.
He once told the Wichita Eagle in 2006, “If I had nobody mad at me what right would I have to claim that I was preaching the Gospel?" Under Phelps' leadership, Westboro members have preached that every calamity, from natural disasters to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, is God's punishment for the country's acceptance of homosexuality.[i] That hits close to home. Really Pastor Phelps? That is just not how I understand the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Your ministry did not reflect, in my opinion, the inclusive invitation of Jesus.
You don’t hear many prophetic, pushing the envelope sermons from me, I’m usually a bit more pastoral in my approach but today you will because it is what is on my mind and heart and it intersects with today’s proscribed text from the lectionary. So here we go.
We have for our consideration today a very long text. I probably could have spent all of Lent on this beautiful text of restoration, witness and hope. Referred to often just as ‘The Samaritan Women at the Well’, it pours out redemption and love for us to consider. I’m going to start at verse 1 because it really sets up why Jesus happened to wonder off the path and wind up in foreign territory and why this story is so important to the witness of Jesus Christ. I’ll also be stopping with some explanation along the way to break up the reading.
Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John” —although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria. 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.
It’s notable that he stopped in Sychar because Sychar (today Hebron) was a Samaritan city and a Jew wouldn’t have been caught dead in Samaritan territory and especially in the middle of a hot day making a stop. There was a long-standing hatred between the Jews and the Samaritans because of their differences in cultic and religious understanding and practice. It would have been dangerous for Jesus to expose himself like that. But he does and in doing so he cultivates a new witness that we will see.
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.”
Unlike Nicodemus from last week’s scripture who comes at midnight, this woman comes to Jesus in broad daylight which also could have gotten her in trouble. Unlike Nicodemus who was religiously well bred, an insider and a male with a name, this woman was an outsider on several levels, a female without a name that has been recorded. But this woman has chutzpah! She challenges Jesus to a theological debate and ultimately his authority, she is not passive by any means yet she recognizes her limitations. And yet Jesus, God bless him, he lets go of created social barriers that enforced human division in his day.
Unlike Nicodemus this woman recognizes what Jesus can provide her with, she see’s his identity. What’s interesting is that Jesus comes to the well unprepared, he has no bucket, no visual aid to help us understand the difference between the water in the well and living water. And yet she gets it, and hopefully we do too. The woman doesn’t need a bucket to fill with the living water that Jesus offers, she needs an open heart and a willingness to accept that which Jesus offers. They both were thirsty that day and I believe both were quenched from their encounter.
This is one of the longest conversations that Jesus has that is recorded. And we see that the story hasn’t ended yet.
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.”
It is here that his divine nature is really revealed, she knows he is a prophet with the things he has told her about herself, her former marriages, her current situation. And we also see their differences- that her ancestors worshipped on Mt Gerizim in Samaria and Jesus ancestor’s worshipped on the mount in Jerusalem but those Jesus says, who worship the true God will neither worship on Mt. Gerizim or Jerusalem but in true spirit and energy because God is spirit, and God is love. She becomes a believer that blistering midday at the well. Living water and spirit. This divine aha moment however is interrupted….
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. 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.”
This woman, of insignificant beginnings, becomes a witness for Jesus’ miraculous mercy and healing. She has been given a drink from the well of living water, Jesus Christ. What was her unquenchable thirst and her questionable status came to an end. Jesus met her in her most vulnerable state and took what she was offering which was an open heart and she in turn received acceptance, forgiveness and clean, refreshing, rehydrating, life giving and life informing water to drink.
This is a good text if you’ve ever doubted your identity, if you’ve ever doubted that you are worthy of God’s love because what this text shows is that everyone, EVERYONE, is worthy of that incredible love. It shows us that we are acceptable in God’s sight just the way we are, warts and foibles invited! We don’t have to be the best or the greatest or the smartest to earn God’s love. We don’t have to be a certain color or a certain gender or sexual orientation to receive grace. We just have to be who we are and, like Jesus meeting the woman at the well, we will be met with wide open acceptance. All we have to do is show up and we too will be met at the metaphorical well and be filled with the living water of Christ.
But the woman takes it one step further and we need to as well. She goes out and tells other people of this transformation of her life. That she is no longer a nobody tossed of and swept away by society. She is a somebody, included into the fabric of life rather than excluded. As theologian Brian Blount says, “This thirsty man (Jesus) who was the source of living water provided the model and the modus operandi for letting go of division”.[ii] Through his acceptance of this woman he shows us the way to inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness. Isn’t that the God we all want and desire? Don’t we all want to be included in God’s merciful love? And doesn’t God want union rather than separation?
Can’t we share this really great news with others, can’t we let others know that they too can come and be accepted and cared for just the way they are? The church has that potential. We have that potential as a community who loves one another. There is no room for prejudice in the church. The church can be that well, offering living water, offering hope and a place of acceptance to all people from whatever path they have taken to get here. Let us not be even one iota like Pastor Phelps congregation spewing hatred. The Samaritan woman was not turned away from the well and no one should be turned away and feel as if they can’t come to church because of who they are by nature and grace. And no ones funeral, the final most sacred act in life that we can give to another should be tainted with hate.
The well of God’s love is deep and you will be able to get water when you need it. There is plenty for all. The well never runs dry there is enough sustenance for everyone. Black and white, rich and poor, young and old, gay and straight. God’s love is unbelievably wide, non judgmental, sacred, and all encompassing. May we emulate God’s love today so that all may drink from the well of salvation, and affirm each person’s living as a beloved child of God.
For God so loved this world.