Haven’t well all heard the same sermon on this poor woman? As Fred Craddock writes: ” Evangelists aplenty have assumed that the brighter her nails, the darker her mascara and the shorter her skirt, the greater the testimony to the power of the converting word.” Let’s try for something else, shall we?
Imagine high noon in the high, rocky desert region of Samaria. The arid landscape is practically shimmering beneath the burning sun. Jesus and his disciples, weary and thirsty from a day’s journeying, stop outside the city of Sychar. Jesus sends his disciples into the city for food and waits for them in the withering heat, taking a seat near the town’s well – the one made famous by ancestor Jacob.
He notices a lone woman emerge from the city gate and make her way toward the well. She is carrying a large earthenware jug balanced on her shoulder. Jesus knows what an odd thing this is. Ordinarily women came to the well early in the morning, when the day was still cool, to draw water for the day – and of course, to socialize and gossip.
A great deal of ink has been spilled about this woman and her supposed “shady past.” But before we make any hasty judgments about what this woman as been up to, what kind of past she carries with her, or how many men she’s been with, let’s do what exactly what Jesus does in this story: let’s encounter this woman on her own terms, listen to her story, and let her tell us about her encounter with Jesus.
We meet this woman at a well. This is not an incidental detail of the story! Wells are important places in the Bible. They often form the backdrop for narrative drama. Especially in the Hebrew Bible, the well is a classic setup for important plot points: when people gather at a well, something important is about to happen. They are often a place of revelation, rich in spiritual and emotional meaning.
Let’s think about a few famous “well” stories in the Bible. It was at a well that Isaac’s servant met Rebekah and knew, because she drew water for him and his camels, just as he had prayed, that she was meant to be Isaac’s chosen wife. Moses met his wife Zipporah at a well – although in that case it was Moses doing the watering! And it was at a well that Jacob first laid eyes on his beloved Rachel, where Jacob kissed Rachel and “wept aloud” for sheer love of her.
In each of these stories, when the characters gather at a well, a thirst is quenched: a thirst for authentic love, connection, and relationship. We could even say that the well itself serves as a symbol of deep emotional thirst.
So in the Bible, wells can be a place of rich and unexpected encounters: a place where love is discovered, uncovered, or revealed. And wells are often the place where a love story begins.
Let’s travel together back to Samaria, to Jacob’s well, and ask this nameless woman to tell us her story. I think we will find out that her story, too, is a love story.
If we could ask her, perhaps she would tell us about how a series of husbands had cast her off – which was easy for men to do in those days – or maybe they all just died. (We don’t know!) Perhaps this woman would like to tell us what it’s like to be a perpetual outsider: a marginalized woman in a marginalized people group, the Samaritans: a woman doubly excluded. Or she might have a few choice words to say about the women of the town, who fall mysteriously silent and exchange meaningful glances when she comes around the corner. She might tell us how one day she just stopped trying to fit in and resigned herself to being the subject of everyone’s gossip.
But then one day… one day everything changed. One day when she went to draw water from Jacob’s well, she discovered she wasn’t alone out there. When she went out that day, there was someone waiting for her at the well: a dusty traveller, looking weary from the journey. His sandals and tunic were covered in brown dust, there was sweat on his brow, and he looked thirsty and tired. And then he spoke to her, which, technically, he shouldn’t have done at all: a Jew and a Samarian, a man and a woman, all alone at the well. “Woman, give me a drink,” he says.
To me, this is not a promising start to a conversation! But the meeting quickly turns into a genuine and authentic encounter of two persons, a meeting of two passionate hearts and minds. The conversation that Jesus has with the woman at the well in John chapter 4 is the longest Jesus has with anyone, anywhere recorded in the gospels. The conversation is leisurely and rich in detail; it involves an intellectual sparing match, a constant back and forth with witty word play and Greek puns; and it culminates in a revelation of secrets from both sides. As it turns out both Jesus and the woman of Samaria have plenty to reveal.
The woman comes to the well for water: surely one of the most important of her daily household tasks. But she is also emotionally thirsty for genuine encounter. We see that from the way that she jumps into the conversation and so clearly enjoys the banter and back and forth conversation with this wandering prophet. Maybe it’s the first time in a long time that someone has encountered her like that: seen her, really seen her. Jesus encounters her with respect, listening carefully to her and taking seriously her spiritual inquiries.
She is spiritually thirsty as well. When she hears what Jesus is offering she is immediately ready for the living water that he promises. “Sir, give me this living water, that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
We don’t normally stop to think about Jesus’s side of the story. But we see that Jesus is thirsty, too. His human nature is physically thirsty for a drink of water. But his divine nature is also thirsty – thirsty to share his identity, his Messiahship, and his living water. God’s thirst, made visible in in Jesus, is to share God’s self with the people of the world. In this story, God, in Jesus, is thirsty to share God’s presence and God’s very self with God’s people.
Specifically, in this settings, Jesus is thirsty to reveal himself to the men and women who most need to hear the good news of reconciliation – in this case, the outcast Samaritans, long separated from the Jews. This is the point of Jesus’s emphasis, in the story, on his coming to bring reconciliation between Samaritans and 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.” Jesus thirsts for all people to be true worshippers of the Father. Jesus thirsts to share the secret of who he is with all peoples. And he chooses as his missionary to the Samaritans – of all people! – the woman at the well at noon.
One encounter changes everything. A woman with no name and a hurtful past discovers that someone has “found” her and loved her at last: not unlike when Jacob saw Rachel at the well and wept for love of her. All of the secrets this woman thought she had to hide are laid bare in the bright noonday sun. The well at noon on a hot day in Samaria becomes, for a half an hour, a place of grace and encounter, where this woman’s deepest spiritual and emotional thirsts are quenched in Jesus.
And Jesus, who thirsts to reveal who he is to God’s people, but who is not having an easy time of it with the Pharisees and the Jews of his day, has found another disciple in the Samaritan woman. He has found in her someone with eyes to see and ears to hear: a woman ready to see God in him. Not everyone wanted the water Jesus was offering. Not everyone wanted to hear who Jesus really was: the Messiah, the Christ. But this woman does! Her spiritual thirst gives her open ears and an open heart. In her thirst she laps up the living water. She becomes one of the first Christian missionaries: a woman! from Samaria! of all people and places! … who can’t wait to set down her water jug to run and tell the people that she’s met the Messiah and, by the way, he’s practically on our doorstep.
You remember that a few years ago it become popular to ask, “What Would Jesus Do?” Maybe you even had a bracelet. J Here in this story we have a clear example of what Jesus did do, and it is a powerful and challenging model.
Jesus goes to where the outsiders are, and waits patiently for their arrival. He engages in authentic encounter with those who are outside of his own social and religious group, and shows no signs of disgust, discomfort, or judgment at the secrets they divulge. Jesus makes no assumptions about this woman’s past, her choices, or her personal morality. Instead, he encourages this woman to acknowledge the truth about herself and to see for herself who she really is – not by accusing her or damning her, but by practicing the art of compassionate listening. He withholds all unnecessary judgment about her past, her pain, and her history. He goes out to meet her where she is, he encounters her with her authenticity and honesty, he respects her and listens to her, he offers her living water, free of charge, no strings attached.
Whew. Now that is a model of ministry. Could we dare to dream of encountering one another in this radical, life-giving way? Could we, as a church, dare to encounter one another like that?
We have come here this morning, I think, hoping for just such an encounter: an authentic meeting with one other, and with Jesus our loving Messiah. It is he who has seen into the depths of our very souls, and who knows the deepest thirsts of our hearts. If your heart feels like a dry well this morning, rejoice in the good news that the living water gushes forth freely and abundantly for all who thirst.
We have come here this morning because we, too, want to be in a holy space, full of memories and sacred traditions – a place where our ancestors in the faith are still with us, and still worshipping. This morning, this room is Jacob’s well, where we encounter one another as Jesus once encountered a Samaritan woman: spiritually thirsty, but with ears open, listening to one another, encountering one another and encountering our blessed Christ.
And we have come because we still believe in that promise of living water that satisfies thirsty souls. This is the gurgling of the Spirit that, in the words of John, is “gushing up to eternal life.”
We, like the Samaritan woman, have known what it means to be thirsty: and we, too, have encountered the One who offers us living water, so satisfying that we will never thirst again.
Artwork by Huibing He:
“MULTIPLE FUNCTIONS OF WELLS IN THE TANAKH” by Ronald T. Hyman (http://jbq.jewishbible.org/assets/Uploads/343/343_WELLS.pdf)
Joan E. Cook, “Wells,Women, and Faith,” Proceedings of the Eastern Great Lakes and Midwest Biblical Societies 17 (1997) pp. 11-18.