Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
John 4: 5-42 – The woman at the well. See the end of this document for the text.
Last week in the story of Nicodemus, he came to see Jesus under the dark cover of night. But he couldn’t understand what Jesus was saying. He couldn’t comprehend the idea that he must be born from above or anew or again. He didn’t get it. And walked away, back into the night.
By contrast, in the bright light and intense heat of the noon day sun, a woman with a “dark” past got it. She understood. This woman of Samaria experienced a sudden reversal of fortune – just like Mary said would happen. While she was still pregnant with Jesus, Mary sang:
God has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.
God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.
God has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
Nicodemus is an insider with a name. To be fair, by consorting with Jesus, he had everything to lose – the respect of his peers, his influence on the Sanhedrin... And eventually he did get it, ultimately offering his own grave as the place of Jesus’ burial.
But, in this story, by contrast, this woman of Samaria is an outsider with no name who had everything to gain by listening. And she did. Jesus gave her respect. He engaged in serious theological conversation with her. He answered her questions and then revealed, for the first time to anyone, “I AM he.” Not even his disciples understood this yet. And then she ran to share the Good News.
It’s important to understand the detail of the time of day when they met. Most women came to get water early in the day, in groups, laughing and sharing stories, in the cool morning air. She was there during the hottest part of the day – alone.
Why? We imagine it is because the villagers treated her like an outcast; we imagine it is because of a checkered past.
In fact, a shocking number of biblical commentators sound exactly like Rush Limbaugh: describing this woman just like he called Sandra Fluke a slut in need of birth control because she has such “uncontrollable whorish” ways.
You wouldn’t believe how many so-called scholars try to delegitimize this women by writing such things as – she obviously had a “dubious lack of morals” and exhibited “aberrant sexual behavior,” (what?!!). There are “scholars” who actually call her a “5 time loser” and a “tramp…” “Mixed up with the wrong crowd.” These men reveal much more about their own attitudes toward women than anything found in the text itself.
Karoline Lewis is a biblical scholar who said “too many commentators are preoccupied with sex and the woman’s so-called ‘sin’ and how Jesus ‘forgave’ her. The text itself says nothing of any sin she has committed, nor does Jesus ever forgive her. Jesus’ question about her husband is not a [judgmental dig about] her marital status.” We may hear “Go, call your husband and come back” as a judgment. But why would we hear that and think ‘sin?” That’s not even something she could have controlled anyway – which, of course, doesn’t stop judgers from judging. And haters from hating.
After all, remember that women were the revolving property of men – of fathers and husbands and sons. In fact, if her first husband died, in the custom of levirate marriage described in the Bible, she might have had to marry his next available brother, and so on, one after another. No choice involved. Maybe “like Tamar she had been trapped in the custom of levirate marriage and the last male in the family line refused to marry her.”
And yet these scholars persist. She is worthy of Jesus’ attention, if she promises to repent. Or they preach that we should “love the sinner but hate the sin.” As though that looks anything like love. But, as Lewis writes, “sin in the Gospel of John is unbelief.” It is about hearing and then doing nothing with the grace of God. It is seeing people who are thirsty and claiming they wouldn’t be thirsty if they didn’t buy so many iPhones.
Sin is whining and complaining to Jesus, asking but:
"Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?" ,
But I tell you, what is sin?
Lord, when did we see you? Shrug…
What “sin” is this woman accused of? Jesus’ retelling of the fact that she has had 5 husbands was simply a statement of understanding. She’s had a hard life. She’s been judged for having a hard life. For whatever reason, she’s been shut out, left out, and put out of the community. And that is precisely why Jesus sought her out. It wasn’t just a coincidence that they met at the well. She illustrates one of the points of Jesus’ life and teaching – healing divisions among people. Divisions between enemies.
The fact that this woman is from Samaria illuminates the point made only a few verses before – that God so loved the world. Even those dreadful Samaritans. What is all that about anyway?
The feud between Jews and Samaritans was really a family affair between people of the same religious heritage. Among their issues, in the time of the exile, 500 years before, Judeans were carried off to Babylon. Samaritans were not. Jews accused the Samaritans of taking advantage of them in their absence. The Samaritans accused those who returned from exile of having altered and amended the religion of the ancient Israelites – and so therefore, the Samaritans were the defenders of the true religion.
Jesus chose to pass through Samaria. It would make geographical sense to travel through Samaria when going from Judea up to Galilee, but due to their long standing feud, Jews took the long way around instead. Imagine driving to Limon to get to Colorado Springs in order to circumvent driving through Castle Rock – to avoid those people.
Jesus passed through Samaria, when, like many of us, we might prefer to take the long way around. Avoiding one another.
Samaria represents God’s love for the world. But the woman of Samaria is a representative of many of us. We can see her in our own stories.
Maybe we get her because we’ve been judged too as religious outcasts – because we’ve been divorced, or for our identity or orientation. Skeptics. Maybe you know what it feels like to be disowned by your family. Or what it’s like to be left out and put out. Cut off from community.
Maybe we understand her because we too are stuck in a place we don’t want to be in the hot sun – trapped in a miserable job, a failing relationship, or fighting a frightening disease.
Maybe we get her because we too know the loneliness of not trusting another living soul, not daring to share, for example, that we love someone who is an addict, or that we know abuse. Caring for someone who doesn’t care about us.
Maybe she wasn’t shunned but she chose to keep to herself. Going to the well at noon by choice. Unable to bear the pain of sharing our failures and disappointments with another person – so we avoid other people altogether.
Her story is big enough to include all of us it in somewhere. And she shows that the kingdom of God is big enough to include all of us in it too.
She represents all the people who are the “other.” People who are misunderstood. Of whom leaders can make us frightened – to label as sluts or whores or terrorists or takers and slackers. Jesus treated this woman as equally worthy. And it shocked his disciples. But the truth is that, if we really take it seriously, the grace and love of Jesus is a scandal that should shock us too.
Remember: Jesus didn’t just stumble upon this woman. She was exactly the kind of person with whom he wanted to share this news, this hope – to symbolize that it’s the least-likely in the eyes of those who judge who personify the kingdom of God. For lack of a better word – the least of these who are hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, or in prison.
Jesus restores the long standing divisions between people, some whom we would go so far as to call enemy – conflicts often started by small misunderstandings. And he starts by asking for a drink of water to quench his thirst. Starting a conversation.
I’m thirsty too. My soul is parched. To that, Jesus seems to suggest that I dare ask a drink of someone on “the other side.”
Jesus was supposed to hate the Samaritans. It is what his people had been taught for hundreds of year. To be afraid of them. Jesus was supposed to avoid speaking to a woman, let alone one of “those” women, and avoid the intimate act of asking to drink from her bucket. Jesus was supposed to… avoid, fear, judge…
It makes me wonder: What are you and I “supposed” to do? Who are we supposed to avoid? Or maybe more to the point, who do we try to avoid? Shut out, keep out, put out…
Who do you demonize? I do it. I hear something and shake my head and call them stupid or idiots. I heard the comment about surveillance microwaves and said something very unkind about that person. I’ve thrown epithets and cursed at people with whom I disagree. What if, instead, I went to places I’m not “supposed” to go, people I’m “supposed” to avoid, and simply said, “I’m thirsty. Would you give me something to drink?”
Like, I’m thirsty for our feud to end. I’m thirsty for our family to be restored. I’m thirsty to be your friend again. I’m thirsty for our country to be reunited again.
And yet, I’m not so thirsty as to paper over all our differences or accept excuses because I’m also thirsty for justice. I am thirsty for justice to roll down like water, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. When “let’s all get along” means “let’s leave some behind on the other side,” then that is not acceptable. I couldn’t meet Jesus at the end and answer "Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?" I couldn’t answer, I sacrificed you in the name of getting along.
Perhaps what I am most thirsty for is civility. Respect. Truth. Compassion. What are you thirsty for?
More importantly, what drink might we offer a parched world?
And so we gather, in turbulent times, Thirsty.
Thirsty for connection to our deepest self
Thirsty for real connection to others
Thirsty for a greater connection to the universe and our purpose in life.
Give us this Living Water, our Creator God.
We pray to drink only of love,
that all who gather here may be filled:
Filled with courage and hope
Filled with compassion and a passion for unity.
So that we may pour ourselves out
for the sake of the world, for justice.
For the poor, the immigrant, the refugee, the misunderstood, the abused, the lonely and afraid.
In Jesus’ name, we pray, give us such abundant Living Water that we may forever live in harmony with nature, your people, and you.
Our thirst quenched, ironically, only in giving drink to others. Amen
John 4: 5-34, 39-42
5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9 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.)[b] 10 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.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 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.” 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.”
16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you[c] say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But 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. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 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.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I am he,[d] the one who is speaking to you.”
27 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?” 28 Then 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,[e] can he?” 30 They left the city and were on their way to him.
31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33 So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” 34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.
39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 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 Savior of the world.”
 Luke 1: 46-55
 Karoline M Lewis, “Exegetical Perspective on John 4: 5-42.” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, page 93-95
 Gail O’Day, “John,” The Women’s Bible Commentary, page 296. The story of Tamar is in Genesis 38
 Matthew 25: 31-46