Sunday, March 19, 2017
Sermon: Drawn to the Water
Drawn to the Water
James Sledge March 19, 2017
In this sermon, people playing the parts of Jesus and the Samaritan woman come to the well. They speak the words spoken by these two while the pastor narrates and offers some observations at several pauses in the action. As such the scripture reading is woven into the sermon itself. The congregation joins in reading the last verse of the scripture which also concludes the sermon.
So Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. (Jesus walks out and sits down.)
7A Samaritan woman came to draw water (Woman comes to the well.), and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (8His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The 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.)
A Samaritan woman. I’m not sure it is possible for us to appreciate the force of these words. We have no experience with the enmity between Jews and Samaritans or the status of women in Jesus’ day. But there are those we’d rather not talk to if we met in a strange or unfamiliar place. Perhaps our Samaritan woman, the one we don’t share things in common with, is a black male, a Syrian refugee, an illegal alien, an unhinged conservative, a raving liberal, a transgender woman.
That doesn’t apply to Nicodemus, the last person Jesus met. He’s a respected, educated, religious leader, a white Presbyterian of his day. He came to Jesus in the dark of night, impressed and curious, but also wary. This unnamed woman, an outsider many of us would rather not speak to, is approached by Jesus, a man she has never heard of, because he is thirsty in the noonday heat and needs her help.
10Jesus 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.” 11The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but 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.” 15The 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.”
Living water. For Nicodemus the term was born again. In the gospel’s original language, both terms have double meanings. The literal meanings speak of being born a second time or of fresh, flowing water in contrast to that from a cistern. Figuratively they speak of being born from above or of life-giving waters. Both Nicodemus and this woman hear Jesus literally and so misunderstand him. For Nicodemus, this becomes a total roadblock.
But while this unnamed, female, outsider misunderstands as well, she remains open. Something about her, her lack of religious certainty perhaps, her need for water perhaps. “Sir, give me this water. I’m tired of being thirsty and I’m tired of having to come back here over and over. I’m tired of the all the drudgery and barely keeping my head above water. I’m tired of whatever I do not being enough. Sir, whatever it is you have, please give it to me.”
16Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17The woman answered him,]* “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’ 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!”
I confess that I have often jumped to conclusions about the woman at this point. I’ve assumed she has questionable morals. She’s in a mess of her own making, on welfare because she won’t work, without a job because she won’t look for one, on drugs because she won’t exercise self-control. But Jesus’ words speak more of her vulnerability and powerlessness. Men divorced women in Jesus’ day, discarding them into need and poverty in a world where woman had no rights, little means, and a man was the only source of security.
This woman’s story is not a pretty one. It is a difficult story that only added to her outsider status. The ladies from the tennis club looked down their noses at her. People with prettier stories often avoided her, and she came to the well at noon, in the heat of the day, so she wouldn't have to look at them. She did not fit in easily with those who thought they had better stories.
Jesus somehow knows her story, even the parts she rarely shares, the parts all of us keep hidden, and still he is there, talking with her, offering her living water.
19The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
“Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Not so many decades earlier, the Jewish chief priest had led a group of soldiers that destroyed the Samaritan temple on this mountain. Violence and blood between Samaritans and Jews echoed on this mountain, one more obstacle, one more barrier between her and this strange Jewish man. No doubt he is a prophet, but a Jewish prophet, a prophet of people who have no use for her.
Jesus does not back off the truth claims of his faith. Salvation is from this God the Jews know so well. But the day is coming, is now arriving, when distinctions between Jew and Gentile won’t matter, a day when all God’s children, black and white, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, gay and straight, Republican and Democrat, native and immigrant, will be able to join hands and worship together as one.
“I’ve heard of that day,” says the woman. “I know that Messiah is coming.”
“I am he,” says Jesus, but that’s not exactly what he says. It can’t really be expressed in English, but in the original gospel language, you hear the first of Jesus’ many I AM statements that are peculiar to John’s gospel. The form of this phrase recalls the divine I AM from when Moses first met God. It was sometimes used by Jews to speak of God without saying God’s name. Jesus knows this woman’s story, and now he shares his with her. The things that keep them apart keep falling away.
27Just 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?” 28Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”
“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” I suppose John felt no need to include the second part of this sentence, “and who loves me anyway.” This Samaritan woman has just met Jesus, and she struggles to understand him. But despite this, she goes to tell others, others who will come to Jesus because of her. This outsider from the wrong side of the tracks, this woman with a story she’d just as soon not share, becomes the first evangelist is John’s gospel.
Meanwhile the disciples have returned from their trip to the grocery store. They’ve missed most of what we saw, but they’ve seen enough to know this isn’t right. They know that Jews and Samaritans don’t share things in common, that people who didn’t grow up in church and don’t know about bulletins and hymns and the Lord’s Prayer really don’t belong.
So the disciples change the subject. “Here are the groceries, Jesus. Have something to eat.” Jesus says he has food that they do not know about, and like the woman and Nicodemus, they misunderstand, wondering if Jesus has a stash of snacks somewhere. Jesus explains, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” Then he speaks of the disciples’ work, of our work, a harvest that God planted, that prophets have tilled, that Jesus has begun to bring in and that we are now called to join.
I doubt the disciples yet understand what Jesus is talking about. Surely the Samaritan woman doesn’t understand, yet she joins that work before the disciples do. Her theology is pretty rough. She knows little of Jesus’ story or teachings, but she has nonetheless felt his presence, has been touched by this one who crosses boundaries and breaks down the barriers that keep people apart from one another and from God. She has encountered cool, refreshing, thirst-quenching, life-giving water, and so she goes to tell.
We modern people sometimes misunderstand faith to be mostly about knowledge and understanding. We’re not sure we can share our faith because we “don’t know enough.” But when we encounter this one who knows our entire stories, including those parts we never share, and still loves us anyway, when we taste the cool, refreshing, thirst quenching, life-giving water, then we too can join with the citizens of Sychar who said to that Samaritan 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 Savior of the world.”