Yr A ~ Lent 3 ~ John 4:5-30
They started with a boundary crossing, then went onto a philosophical discussion about thirst, then they touched on status, then they debated religion, and they ended with Jesus apparently making a bold claim of authority and the woman walking away pondering the significance of this encounter. It’s quite a story that we get to explore on this third Sunday of Lent!
The boundary crossing is first of all that men and women who were not married to one another really weren’t supposed to talk together in public, and second that Jews and Samaritans were not friendly to each other at all – kind of like estranged relatives from a nasty family fight that happened years and years ago and got worse. And on top of that this woman is quite a piece of work! You have to dig in to the cultural cues to realize why.
A well in their day was one of the town’s meeting places. Obviously there was no indoor plumbing – if she could have turned on a tap we never would have got this story. Everyone in town had to go to the well. Usually people went in the morning and evening, in the cooler parts of the day, and while there they’d socialize and build community.
Now look at the clues. The woman comes at noon, and she’s alone. Just from this one piece of information we know that she has been excluded or shunned or ostracized from her community. She is an outsider, presumably because of her multiple husbands, possibly because she may be a prostitute, either way she is not a respectable lady in society’s eyes. Knowing all this you can understand why she might have a rough edge and not be a pushover when challenged!
Jesus is there at noon too. For all she knows he’s just as unrespectable as she is! So she goes right at him in their banter. It’s really one of the best give and takes in the Gospels, and it’s between Jesus and a supposedly disgraced woman. This and the boundary crossings we just noted would’ve been shocking to the first audiences who heard this story.
My favourite part is verses 10 and 11. The banter is great! “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 gives it right back to him, “Sir (which really meant “you big dummy!”), you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?”
Jesus explains some more about living water that quenches compared to always being thirsty, and she likes the idea of never coming back to this well so she says “Sounds great, lay it on me!”
Realizing she hasn’t quite understood, Jesus goes into something more personal. Honestly, the bit about the five husbands confuses me. I’m not sure what the point is here. It must be more than just a parlour trick of reading her mind. My best guess is that it shows that Jesus is cutting through her barrier of supposed disrespectability to show her that ‘even she’ is loved by God, but it might just be a clunky way to show he’s special.
The woman declares him to be a prophet and launches a debate about religious understandings, which Jesus artfully undermines by telling her that religious rituals and locations are all secondary – the primary thing is to worship God in spirit and truth – and you don’t need respectable society’s permission to do that!
The dialogue ends with her suggesting Jesus doesn’t really know what he’s talking about so she’ll wait for the Messiah to come before she listens to some man lecture her about religion, and Jesus stopping her in her tracks saying she doesn’t have to wait for some future spiritual thing, she should listen now and hear his voice AS the Messiah’s voice! It is an absolutely astounding interchange!
I want you to notice something really significant here: Jesus does not “fix” the woman’s problems. He does not give her a husband, cure a disease, or restore her to societal respectability. In fact, it doesn’t even say that she really understood him. At the end she goes off and tells the people in the town about “a man who told (her) everything (she had) ever done!” and she wonders aloud if he’s the Messiah, but that’s all we get. So what exactly did this encounter with Jesus do for this woman? You have to read between the lines. It’s very subtle.
The woman went to that well that day with a specific purpose in mind. Yes, spiritually she was a woman limited by her understanding of her place in the world, but practically she needed something in her life – water.
She wasn’t looking for a spiritual experience, she wasn’t wrestling with profound questions about the meaning of life, she was just a woman doing the routine, mundane task of fetching water for her day. She wasn’t searching for an encounter with the Sacred, but that’s exactly what she got. Right there in the midst of her ordinary chores she had a spiritual moment. That’s awesome! Jesus did the most wonderful thing for her – he opened a window.
How do I know this when the story is ambiguous at the end? The answer is in verse 28 “Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city.” She left her water jar! She came looking for one thing and left with something better. She came with an understanding of her lowly status and left with the possibility of spiritual communion with God despite her status. She was focused on an ordinary thing like water and brought a container to carry it home in.
But she left AS the container carrying LIVING WATER with her wherever she goes, so she left her water jar behind. And no, that doesn’t mean that being spiritual means you get to leave your chores behind. It’s exactly the opposite. Being spiritual means your mundane, ordinary things are actually infused with the extraordinary power and Presence of God – if we had eyes to see.
I have two big questions I want to pose about this story. The first is this: Who are you in the story? Can you see yourself as the woman? Can you see yourself as Jesus? I hope the answer is yes to both!
You and I are the woman – coming to the well, thirsty for something but not being satisfied, longing for something that I may not even be aware of and certainly don’t have the ability to put into words, thinking that I already know everything I need to know about the religion thing and have conveniently filed it in my “no big deal” receptacle, ready to feistily chirp at anyone who tries to take me and my understanding on, and then out of nowhere, in the midst of ordinariness, I encounter something Sacred – ‘Something More’. A spiritual glimpse, a drop of profound refreshment which reveals a deep well, an invitation to drink deeply of something that will satisfy thirst like nothing else can. The encounter happens beside a deep well, but the reality is that Jesus IS the deep well – and you and I are now or have been the woman come to drink!
And you and I are also Jesus – exhausted from my work yet always ready to share the love of God, hanging out in the midst of life rather than sequestered away in a hermitage, ready and willing to offer a glimpse of something that I know so intimately and is so overwhelmingly wonderful that it practically oozes out of me, being mindful that it isn’t my job to fix anyone or harangue anyone but simply to be available and passionate about what I know is really real, and to look for ways to open a window for the people I meet so they might see, experience, and know that Something More too. You and I are definitely supposed to be Jesus in this story.
My second big question is ‘are we drinking living water from the deep well?’
You can say this a number of different ways, but essentially this story tells us what church and faith are supposed to be about. We, individually and collectively, the church, are supposed to be Jesus in this story. We are supposed to be the door openers to the thirsty people of the world, awakening them to God’s Presence all around, inviting them to quench their thirst from the living water that flows from the deep well of the Spirit of God.
People, friends, neighbours, family members, strangers, they won’t walk up to you and ask you to tell them about how God’s love has changed your life. Like the woman with Jesus in this story, they’ll probably come looking for something entirely practical, but at the heart of it is an opportunity for a spiritual awakening. Our calling is to offer them something they may not even realize they’re thirsting for.
On the surface that may sound a little patronizing – like we know something that they don’t. Well that’s absolutely true! At least we’d better! This is the source of my second big question – are we ourselves drinking living water from the deep well? Are we filled to overflowing with the Holy Spirit? Are we oozing living water from every pore of our bodies and glowing with radiating spiritual light?
I believe we are, and if we’re not then we’d better get drinking! If I may paraphrase: the short definition of evangelism is one thirsty person showing another thirsty person where they found water. You can’t show someone something you haven’t found for yourself. I believe this is why we come here each week: to drink refreshing, rejuvenating, living water from a deep, deep well…SO THAT we can share it with others.
We are in the living water business. We are in the abundant life business. But if you’re ‘out there’ and you think what you’re thirsty for is ‘the good life’ as defined by the advertising industry then living water and abundant life may not compute – at least not until you witness someone living it.
If I may be crass for a moment, the challenge churches have is that our “product” is about the long game while the world is about the short game. The long game is a much harder sell. We used to be in the “ticket to heaven” business, which is actually the short game – it’s a quick fix, a check-list item, a commodity. Now we understand that we’ve actually been in the “communion, compassion and connection” business, the “journeying ever deeper into the Way of Jesus” business all along – but a long journey is the opposite of a dazzling event.
We’re not about the flashing neon signposts of life we’re about the road. The old joke was that the purpose of church was to hatch, match, and dispatch – baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Those are great things but if that’s all faith or religion is to a person then those things become commodities.
We’re not just about baptisms – we’re about a journey of lifelong faith formation.
We’re not just about weddings – we’re about growing deep, loving people who become ideal marriage partners through life.
We’re not just about funerals – we’re about journeying with a person through their ups and downs and ultimately celebrating their earthly journey when it comes to an end.
That’s all long game! But people will never discover all that abundant life stuff unless we’re ready and willing to share our living water with them – and we can’t share it unless we ourselves are drinking deeply of it. This is the stuff you can’t get at a hockey rink, or a rock concert, or a shopping mall.
We offer a lens for seeing the Really Real.
We offer a window to Something More!
Church isn’t sexy, it’s deep.
Church isn’t obvious, it’s subtle.
Church isn’t wild water rapids, it’s a deep well.
We are Jesus offering living water from the deep well we’ve discovered.
The world is the woman not sure of what she really needs.
Our job is not to satisfy her, or fix her, or correct her, or straighten her out, and it certainly isn’t to judge her or criticize her for her choices.
Our job is to share our water.
You are Jesus. They are thirsty.
Show them the deep well!