Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
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.
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.’
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 worshipped 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 worshippers 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.’
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.
Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, ‘Rabbi, eat something.’ But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ So the disciples said to one another, ‘Surely no one has brought him something to eat?’ Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, “Four months more, then comes the harvest”? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.” I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour.’
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 for 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 Saviour of the world.’
“Water changes everything.” That’s how Church World Service begins their description of the work they do to help people get access to clean water. Water changes everything. Water is utterly necessary for life. Water builds our bodies and nourishes our crops. With water, we clean ourselves, our food, our clothes, and our homes. There are so many things a living being, human, animal, or plant, can live without. Water is not one of them. This is the reason why Church World Service focuses on access to water, sanitation, and hygiene. Water changes everything.
Water is not magic. And, its power is sometimes terrifying. We need only look at this week’s footage of flooding in Monterey County, California or remember the toll of last summer’s flooding in Eastern Kentucky and Pakistan, to remember that water is powerful and often beyond our control. Remember when we had leaks in our church roof, and they did so much damage to our ceiling? Water changes everything. That is also true in the Bible.
Last week, we spent some time with the story of Nicodemus, a well-respected leader in the community who felt like he had to go see Jesus in the dark in order to ask him questions in secret. In her book about the Gospel of John, Karoline Lewis says that “There can be no character more opposite Nicodemus than the Samaritan woman at the well.” It is too bad we don’t know her name. Because her story shows us something powerful about Jesus, who was willing to cross lines of difference for important things, and about what it means to ask for and receive help.
In this story, Jesus is traveling through Samaria. He left where he was because his disciples had been baptizing people, garnering the attention of leaders who were suspicious of Jesus. See, water was already changing things. We should remember that Judeans of this era and Samaritans, though they both traced their lineage back through to Abraham and upheld Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy as their holy texts, were in deep conflict, especially over where they understood the proper center of religious worship to be: Mount Gerizim or the Temple in Jerusalem.
Judeans, descendants of the Southern Kingdom, like Jesus, and Samaritans, descendants of the Northern Kingdom, did not hang out. And, they didn’t spend a lot of time in each other’s cities, even if there were religiously significant sites, like Jacob’s Well, in those cities. And, yet, Karoline Lewis notes, here in John, where Jesus is said to be the expression of God’s love in the world, it seems appropriate that he would go right through a place and spend time with a people whom his community mistrusted. Lewis puts it this way, “There is nothing in God’s creation that God does not love, not even the least anticipated persons.”
Wells are places where a lot of important men and women of the Bible meet. Jacob and Rachel, Moses and Zipporah, and Isaac and Rachel all meet at wells and later marry. Carrying water for a whole family is a difficult chore, often left to the women and girls to complete. This is a job often done in a group, with multiple women and girls, sometimes from more than one household, going out together. It is interesting that this woman has gone to the well alone. I read somewhere (and I don’t remember where) that some scholars wonder if she’s there alone because she is an outsider in her own community, ostracized by other women who refuse to help her. Why else would she be out at the hottest part of the day to get water unless she didn’t want to run into some folks who didn’t like her.
Those details aren’t in the story though. If she is intended to function as kind of counter-example to Nicodemus, a respected Jewish leader who came to see Jesus at night, over course she, a Samaritan stranger, would talk to Jesus during the day, in a casual encounter that grows into an intimate conversation about faith. Also, Jesus’ strikes up a conversation with her, not the other way around. Because he asks for her help first. He asks her for a drink.
It can be challenging to read tone, but I’m inclined to hear her words with some humor or incredulity. “Me? You’re asking me for water?” Yes, this Judean man is asking this Samaritan woman for water. Yes, this rabbi is speaking to this woman about faith? Yes, this single man is speaking to a woman who is not in his family while they both are alone, even though they are in a public place. She is wise to ask for some clarification. Because people like them do not usually hang out, much less share drinking utensils and talk about God.
In her commentary on this text, Jennifer Garcia Bashaw notes that this conversation at the well is the longest conversation that Jesus has with any one person in any of the Gospels. She gently ribs Jesus about not having a bucket and also reminds him of both of their ancestral connections to Jacob, who had built the well to take care of his family. See, water was necessary, even for Jacob. It is also necessary for Jesus the traveler. But, something else is also necessary. His mission, which is spoken of here as “give Living Water of eternal life,” is also necessary.
Because seeing is believing in John, we see Jesus do something that is a little miraculous... he knows something about this woman’s marital history that one wouldn’t necessarily know about a stranger. Remember, wells in the Bible are places where people get betrothed. According to Bashaw, it makes sense that something about marriage would pop up in this story. But, yet again, Jesus turns that expectation on its head. Rather than make a hasty proposal, he asks about her husband, to which she replies that she doesn’t have one. He goes on to say, “you’re right. You’ve had five and you aren’t even married to man you’re seeing now.” There’s no way a stranger would have known that. While their conversation about water and living water laid the groundwork for her belief, it is this miraculous bit of knowledge about her history that convinces the woman that Jesus is special and holy... that he is the Messiah.
Water changes things. Had Jesus not been thirsty, he and this woman may not have met. Had he not been brave enough to reach out to someone he had been raised to avoid, and ask for help, he would have struggled on his journey. Had the woman chosen not to share a drink with this stranger, she would have missed out on a life-changing interaction. John goes on to tell us that she becomes one of the earliest preachers, going about Samaria, telling the people about Jesus who “told her everything she had ever done.” Many Samaritans grew hopeful because of what she had said and sought him out. Then, once they saw him, they heard for themselves and began to believe he was the Messiah. Water changed the Samaritan’s life and the course of Jesus’ ministry. May we, too, be so fortunate to give water to one in need, and in so doing, meet the Christ whom we have been looking for.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
More information about Church World Services work to help people access clean water: https://cwsglobal.org/learn/hunger-and-poverty/water-sanitation-and-hygiene/
Karoline Lewis' John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014)
Jennifer Garcia Bashaw: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent/commentary-on-john-45-42-6
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.