“At the Well” Colchester Federated Church, March 15, 2020, (John 4:5-42) Third Sunday in Lent (**Virtual Worship)
As we continue on in this Lenten season, we find ourselves with Jesus and his disciples at a well in Samaria this morning. Jesus’ disciples go into the city of Sychar to buy some food and Jesus stays alone at the well because he’s tired from his journey. It’s about noon, so he sits down at the well to rest. Along comes a Samaritan woman alone—she had come to draw some water. Jesus asks her for a drink, and a remarkable conversation begins. Again, this is another amazing one-on-one encounter where Jesus extends new life and transformation. Just like Jesus did with Nicodemus last Sunday and just like Jesus will do next Sunday when he encounters a man born blind from birth.
Professor Karoline Lewis in her Commentary on the Gospel according to John reminds us that it’s not necessary (geographically speaking) for Jesus and his disciples to go through Samaria to get from Judea to Galilee. Jews like Jesus and his disciples would most likely not travel out of the way to Samaria because of the risk of running into Samaritans. The history of the feud between the Samaritans and Jews is complicated. Basically the Jews considered Samaritans outsiders and even idolaters. However the Samaritans understood themselves to be descendants of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The Samaritans (yes, they are still around!) still hold as sacred the Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. And the Samaritans always considered their place of worship Mount Gerizim not Jerusalem, that helped maintain this schism for centuries. At the end of the day, Samaria would be the last place that Jesus as a Jewish man would ever be expected to journey to show people how deeply and God loves this our world.
But there we find Jesus—in Samaria alone with a Samaritan woman who is also alone at the well. Now we’re supposed to be a little nervous when we read or hear this story because so many boundaries are being crossed. As Lewis explains, “We have a man speaking to a woman, a rabbi speaking to a woman, a Jew speaking with a Samaritan, a Jewish rabbi speaking with a Samaritan, and now, we find out, they are alone.” And it’s all happening in public in the middle of the day out in the open for anyone who happened to pass by to see! Yikes!
One of the boundaries not being crossed though are moral boundaries if you will. Jesus as the pure and sinless Son of God speaking to this sinful woman with a sketchy past—that’s not what this story is actually about. Often people interpret this woman as having “loose morals” because she’s had five husbands. Given sexism present in society and definitely in the Church, that interpretation is not a huge surprise. In actuality, the Samaritan woman at the well was probably barren and had husbands either divorce her or die over the years of her own life. Women couldn’t divorce men, and barrenness was always blamed on the woman.
When Jesus says in the story that she’s living with a man who’s not her husband it doesn’t mean that she’s shacking up with some guy. Not that we should be so judgmental about that anyway. She’s most likely living with her dead husband’s brother which was stipulated in Deuteronomy (remember that Samaritans adhered to the Five Books of Moses) and this all just shows how vulnerable and marginalized this Samaritan woman happens to be.
We can notice that Jesus doesn’t say to her (like the woman caught in adultery in John 8 for instance)—“Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” Jesus doesn’t have to tell the Samaritan woman at the well to not sin again because she’s the victim here. The victim of this patriarchal society where she gets passed from one man to another because she’s seen as damaged goods or defective for not having children. The blatant sexism present even when most folks interpret her story today is hard to take.
We have clues that this woman had a hard life because it was the duty of women to get water for the family. Women would typically go twice a day—early in the morning and in the evening when it was cooler. In some parts of the world, this is still the case: the women in Mainalli, India are always the ones to go and fetch the water from wells in town I’ve certainly noticed on my visits to India. Though water fetching is a communal activity that women often do with other women. Meanwhile, our Samaritan woman is there by herself at the well at about noon.
In the heat of the day she’s walking alone to the well. There she encounters Jesus of Nazareth feeling tired out by his own journey. One can imagine her as marginalized within the community of Samaritans who were themselves marginalized within the larger Jewish context. Other women were probably cruel to her—she’s had five husbands and no children, what’s wrong with her? What sin do you think she or her parents committed that led to her fate? Do you think she’s cursed? Women sometimes do incredible damage when we tear down fellow women, still happens today. So this Samaritan woman just doesn’t deal with those petty mean girls who gossip. Instead, she trudges out to the well by herself in the heat of the day to get her water in peace and go back home to an uncertain future awaiting her.
But one day a remarkable Jewish man named Jesus is just sitting there resting at the well. Jesus sees her and talks to her and fundamentally changes her life by offering her Living Water. Jesus startles her with this good news of new life, and she leaves her water jar behind and goes back to the city to tell people (yes, even those people who may have made her life a living hell)—“come and see.” These are the same exact words Jesus uses in John’s Gospel to call his own disciples—“come and see.” As Professor Karoline Lewis writes, “She leaves behind her ostracism, her marginalization, her loneliness, because Jesus has brought her into his fold. She leaves behind her disgrace, her disregard, and the disrespect she has endured to enter into a new reality, a new life that is abundant life.”
My friends this Gospel story this morning is one of encounter and relationship. Made all the more compelling considering the many boundaries that were crossed in order to have this relationship begin in the first place. Boundaries crossed to have the Living Water offered from Jesus to the Samaritan woman at the well. And that new life extended by Christ was accepted by her so that she (this Samaritan woman whose name we will never know) received new life and had it abundantly.
We can ask ourselves who are those people marginalized in our own communities and how do we come to truly see them as Jesus saw this woman at the well?
As disciples of Jesus Christ in the world, how do we offer this spirit of abundance to others? How do we stand in solidarity?
Because make no mistake, we are the hands and feet of Christ in the world. We are called to show compassion just as Christ showed compassion to this ostracized woman in Samaria long ago. Jesus gave us an example. Now we are living in uncertain and difficult times. Having never pastored during a pandemic before—I myself and our church staff and our lay leaders are doing our best to show the compassion of Christ knowing that social distancing is the best way to do that right now. As much as we may want to be physically together (especially in a time like this), we listen to the advice of medical experts who tell us that the wise course of action is to keep our distance. Hence this cobbled together worship video this morning that we will keep making and send out for as long as we must.
Yet even though we are not physically together, the Living Water that Christ offers somehow unites us across the distance. In these days and weeks ahead as we focus on being healthy and washing our hands super well—imagine as you wash that you are washing with the Living Water that Christ offered. Imagine as you wash and I wash and we wash—we are still connected. And thanks be to God for that, Amen.