A congregation of the United Church of Canada
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Yr A ~ Lent 3 ~ John 4:5–30
It was absolutely scandalous!
If you knew more about their culture you’d know just how scandalous it really was.
Women and men simply didn’t speak with one another if they weren’t with others, and it was definitely a no-no for a good Jew to speak with the despised Samaritans, and even more so a Samaritan woman. Speaking to her would have made Jesus “unclean” by Jewish standards.
On top of all that, women normally gathered for water early in the day and it was a social time for them – but this encounter takes place at noon suggesting that our heroine was not welcome in the morning group. That makes her an outcast – probably because of her multiple marriages.
And in the conversation between her and Jesus she is certainly not demure and deferential – she’s giving as good as she gets! So this is a culturally scandalous scene.
And if you knew more about theology you’d know that it was indeed absolutely scandalous, but for completely different reasons.
It was absolutely scandalous that Jesus’ disciples would look at something that Jesus, their mentor, was doing and because it crossed some of the accepted social norms of their day they assumed the worst. It was scandalous that these religious guys were so quick to judge.
It was scandalous that they couldn’t see the transformation that had just happened.
And it was scandalous that the disciples didn’t see that while they were off trying to meet their low level need for sustenance this ostracized woman was awakening to a much deeper need within herself.
The storytelling here is problematic because there are several things that don’t make much sense. Jesus and the disciples were travelling through somewhat hostile territory because Jews and Samaritans were enemies, so for a dozen disciples to all go into town for food and leave Jesus all alone is highly unlikely.
And the bit in the middle about Jesus telling the woman how many husbands she’d had doesn’t serve much of a theological purpose other than sullying her character.
But if we take the story in broad strokes and don’t get too hung up on some of its quirks there is some wonderful theology and spirituality in it.
It’s no accident that this story is placed right after the story of Nicodemus that we looked at last week. The juxtaposition is intriguing! Nicodemus was an upstanding man who came to Jesus under the cloak of night, representing secrecy and unknowing.
In contrast, this woman was presumably a disgraced person who came to Jesus in the full light of day.
You’ll notice that Jesus welcomed them both. He made no judgements.
And to both he offered profound insights into the nature of spirituality – and both of them pretty much missed the point. At first.
Like we talked about last week, Jesus is offering a profound paradigm shift from a religious world of rules and regulations to a personal, spiritual relationship with the Holy Mystery we call God. Nicodemus learned that to embrace that new paradigm is like being born anew. Now it’s the woman at the well’s turn.
She comes looking for water. A basic human need. Jesus greets her with his own request for a drink of water. She responds appropriately according to their cultural norms and wonders why he would ask such a thing of her because it was not allowed. And Jesus immediately pivots to a theological question instead of a literal question.
He says, John 4:10 “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.”
We’ve had this story for 2000 years so we pretty much know what he’s talking about here. But this woman is encountering Jesus and his message for the very first time, so her response is completely understandable, and hilarious!
John 4:11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?”
“Buddy, you don’t even have a bucket, and a second ago you were asking me for a drink. How on earth are you going to give me water?”
Let’s pause here.
Clearly she’s still thinking about H20. She heard “living water” and understood it as fresh, moving water which would be a desirable thing, as opposed to stagnant water.
So her questions are still about meeting a basic need, while Jesus is answering her about a deeper need that she hasn’t yet put into words, or maybe even realized she has.
Although, coming to a well in the heat of the day because you’re ostracized from society would no doubt provoke some deep angst and questions about one’s spirit – but those questions were not the need she came to get answered.
I raise this point because inevitably we’re going to start thinking about how we might apply this in our own lives after we understand this story. Sometimes I think church people imagine that the greatest need of people “out there” is to just find the right church to join. So when we have conversations with people we talk about how much we enjoy our choir, or our sermons, or our spirit of friendliness and welcome, or our outreach programs. And their eyes glaze over – because that’s not their primary need.
You see, we have all more or less found that this place is a good place to wrestle with our spiritual questions and needs. For whatever reason our life experience has brought us to the place where we recognize church as a place where we can potentially have our deeper thirst quenched.
So we’re up against two challenging groups in the world.
One is those who haven’t brought to mind or articulation their need for things that are deeper than the surface aspects of life – food, shelter, work, possessions, family and friends – all of which every one of us also fundamentally needs – those folks may not be ready to hear us because they’re on a different wavelength – like the woman at the well was at the start.
The other group is more worrisome. They’re the people who have given thought and articulation to their deeper needs and looked at churches and judged that we don’t have the kind of water that will quench their thirst – not that they’ve checked it out for themselves necessarily, but that’s just what they “know”.
In a way, the woman at the well represents both of these groups, and we’ll see the second part in a minute. Jesus starts by trying to awaken her to a deeper set of needs that she hasn’t given voice to yet with him. After their initial exchange he continues to probe this living water image:
John 4:13-14 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this (common H20) 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.”
Ok, let’s pause again.
Don’t let the “never be thirsty” bit throw you. I’ve been a minister for years now and I’m still thirsty for more of God’s love and Presence.
That will never be quenched.
The “never be thirsty” bit means that once you’ve turned on to the new spiritual paradigm of a deep spiritual relationship that Jesus is talking about, and continue to nurture it, you will never feel like you’re lost and thirsting for something that’s missing in your life again.
Notice I said “keep nurturing it”! You don’t get to say, “Yes Jesus”, have a drink of living water, and walk away all filled up forever.
So he’s saying that if all you think of is meeting basic needs, like H20, you’ll never be satisfied and always be searching for something More. But once you’ve drunk deeply of Jesus’ living water you will satisfy the deepest longing your spirit has, and then spend your life continuing to drink from the internal springs that are gushing up within you as your faith grows and grows.
Does she “get it”? Not quite.
4:15 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.”
Sadly, she is still not catching on to the metaphor Jesus is offering her. So like any good teacher, he switches gears and changes the metaphor. Well, truth be told, she does!
After a bizarre and totally unhelpful interchange about her previous marriages, she recognizes Jesus as a prophet and asks him a question about worship. This is where she’s part of the second group I mentioned who know about some religious answers but reject them as unhelpful.
She says that her people worship on the mountain they were currently on, but Jews say worship can only happen in Jerusalem at the Temple.
Jesus then probably completely shocks her when he says that as far as he’s concerned neither the Temple nor the mountain matter in the big picture – what matters is that a person worships in Spirit and in truth. And anywhere that happens is a good place!
It doesn’t say how she reacted to that, but I’d assume very positively.
You see, he basically said that the strict religious rules about things didn’t really matter compared to one’s heart orientation and relationship with God.
To an ostracized woman who had likely been excluded from all sorts of things because of societal and religious rules this would have been an incredible revelation.
I say that because the next thing she utters is a wonderance about the Messiah who is promised to come and make everything clear and right. She’s asking without asking. Jesus responds that he is that Messiah.
Ok, let’s pause yet again.
John’s gospel is decidedly different from the other three. In Mark, Matthew, and Luke Jesus keeps his thoughts about his ultimate identity to himself and swears everyone to secrecy when they even hint that he might be special. He speaks in short, pithy sayings and rarely has long dialogues.
But in John’s gospel Jesus goes on for pages making long-winded speeches and can’t wait to tell everyone and their sister about who he thinks he is. John’s gospel says from the start that it’s designed to dazzle us with signs and wonders – and Jesus shining a spotlight on himself is the greatest wonder of all.
I’ll leave it to you to wrestle with which version of Jesus works best for you. But I will say this.
To that woman – who was lonely, rejected, disgraced, and ostracized – who had a deep soul need whether she’d put it into words or not – for her a man who would say with authority that what was in her heart mattered infinitely more than what the rules said about her, may as well have been the Messiah for her – because the encounter transformed her and saved her life.
She came thirsting for water. By the end, John 4:28 The woman left her water jar and went back to the city.
She left her jar behind!!!
The theological revelation is that she left it behind because she didn’t need it anymore because now SHE was the water jar – a vessel filled with the living water Jesus awakened her to.
And she went to the city and told everyone she saw about her encounter, and what happened?
Instead of shunning her they listened and they came looking for that living water themselves.
This nameless, shamed woman encountered Jesus and it completely changed her life.
Her deepest need (a need for a spiritual relationship with God), that she couldn’t even articulate, was met in a transformative spiritual awakening.
I don’t know what all your needs are.
But I know the very best way to even start to meet them is to awaken to the paradigm shift that Jesus has been telling us about these past few weeks. Once a person awakens to the presence of God nothing looks the same – and from that new perspective our needs take on a very different shape. Mostly because, like the woman at the well, we don’t feel so alone anymore.
We can’t really know what other people’s needs are.
But we can learn from Jesus, and engage people in conversation even if society tells us we shouldn’t, and we can look for ways to talk about how our own deepest needs are being met in our spiritual relationship with God.
And just like Jesus we will probably run into people who completely miss what we’re trying to say.
And unlike Jesus we probably won’t be able to turn them around and change their life in 5 minutes!
But that’s ok. We’re called to be like him, but not be him.
In fact, we’re probably a lot more like her.
Having had a spiritual encounter we leave what we thought were our needs behind, and with living water gushing up within us we go excitedly to tell people that we’ve experienced something awesome, and we pray that they will be moved to go and see for themselves.
And the only scandalous part about this whole thing would be if we cherished our living water, but never showed anyone the well!