John 4: 1-42
It was in July of 2008 that I went with seven other people on a tour of Nablus in the West Bank. Nablus, or Shechem, is a city in the West Bank, approximately 39 miles north from Jerusalem. It's an old, old city founded in 72 CE by Vespasian but before that the area would have been called Samaria.
We walked through the narrow stone corridors of the city and into the larger squares of this metropolis of about 140,000 people. We passed men smoking nargilla pipes, rug merchants with their wares in folded stacks and fresh vegetable stands. The women, dressed in their hijab’s or burka’s, hurried past scantily clad female mannequins. That always made me wonder…who knows what goes on behind closed doors when the burka’s come off.
We visited one of the oldest olive oil soap factories and a spice and Arabic coffee shop where we were treated to a hospitality cup of coffee before the expected price haggling began. We took another coffee break at a Turkish bath but of course it wasn’t Thursday so women weren’t allowed to partake. It’s unusual to see non-Palestinians in this troubled city where the population is predominately Muslim however there are some Christians and about 750 Samaritans still living there.
While the history of the city is quite interesting and varied I'm not going to go too much in it here. Biblically speaking, this is the place where Jesus met the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well.
We eventually made our way to a crypt of a modern and brightly lit Greek Orthodox Church name the Church of St. Photina. In the crypt is a well which is considered the most authentic sight of Jacob’s well since it is more than 40 meters or 131 feet deep and who can possibly move a well that deep??
This tiny replica of a water-jar that might have been like the woman of Samaria had carried that day to the well and left there, has been an enduring memory for me and a reminder of this beloved Biblical story. For surely I came to the Holy Land that year with a metaphorical vessel that carried so much that I needed to work through and when I left I no longer needed that vessel. I needed, and was given living water to sustain me these many years since.
We are finishing our seven-week series on the ‘Genius or Way of Jesus’. We have studied Jesus as encourager, balancer of power, resister of violence, seer of soul, ever present and today as refresher of souls. From all of this we see that the character of Jesus is complicated and has many facets all of which are available to us for our soul’s nourishment.
Today we have a very long text. It’s one that we have examined together in the past but today we will look at it through a different lens. It is a beautiful text of restoration, witness and hope. Referred to often just as ‘The Samaritan Women at the Well’, it pours out redemption and love. I’m going to start at verse 1 because it 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 character 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 or Shechem because Sychar was a Samaritan village 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 meets an unlikely character.
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.”
This woman comes to Jesus in broad daylight which would have gotten her in trouble, she was an outsider on several levels. 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. Jesus lets go of ancient social barriers that enforced human division in his day and speaks to her.
She comes to the well with her water vessel. What’s interesting to note is that Jesus comes to the well unprepared, he has no bucket, how was he supposed to get a drink? But of course well water wasn’t what it was about. This is one of the longest conversations that Jesus has that is recorded in the New Testament. 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 revealed; she knows he is a prophet with the things he has told her about herself, her former marriages, and 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. But then 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.”
The disciples witnessed Jesus meeting her in her most vulnerable state and offering her acceptance, forgiveness and clean, refreshing, rehydrating, life giving and life informing water to drink. She no longer needed her vessel, she no longer needed to carry the extra weight that she carried to the well. She was filled from within.
Let us think about the vessel, the water jar, the bucket or gourd or animal skins that the woman brought to the well with her that day to fill. She did have, as they say, a lot of issues but who are we to judge? I speak for myself, I’ve got some issues too and I’m guessing you do as well.
That year I went to Israel to live was a year in which I needed to sort out a few things about my life. Did I really need to go to Israel? Apparently I did. The point is I took my empty vessel hoping that it would be filled. And I was overflowing when it was time to come back. Just not in the way that I thought.
We all have this life that we have been given. At times it is filled to the brim and that’s when you are happy, content, and you are loving those around you and your life. You are in sync God and all is really good. You feel as if you are on top of the world.
And, at other times, not so much. Your life is void and anything that brings you some sense of balance is absent. God seems distant and unobtainable. It’s at those times that your vessel is bone dry. It’s at times like these that we can remember the woman at the well. Bone dry and desperate she was met by the living Christ because she was open to a new reality, because he showed up when she needed him, because she let go of the heavy vessel.
All we have to do is show up and we too will be met and be filled with the living water of Christ. The well of God’s love is deep, and God’s love and forgiveness for you is even deeper.