In the series: “Heart-to-Heart Talks”

John 4:4-42

By Rev. Becky Schofield Motter

We have come to week three of Lent and our series Heart-to-Heart Talks. The last two weeks we have seen Jesus in two very different situations: an encounter with Satan and a heart to heart conversation with Nicodemus. We have contemplated temptation and eternal life. Today, we look at the way we are known by Christ and the response we might have to that.

Our scripture reveals an example of a woman who had a very personal and profound encounter with Jesus. I think it is rather unfortunate that John did not take the time to get her name, so she is known in church land simply as the Samaritan Woman. She plays a significant role in scripture and has much to teach us.

In the region that Jesus traveled and much of the Middle East, wells are not so easy to come by. In fact, the well in our scripture this morning was quite deep.  One could not simply put one’s cupped hands into the water and drink freely. No, to get this water, one needed a container of some kind and a rope to bring the water to the surface.  This well was known as Jacob’s Well, because tradition held that Jacob, the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, had purchased this land to make his home.

On his way from Judea to Galilee, the most direct route took Jesus through the region of Samaria.  We find Jesus at this well, in the heat of the day, after traveling for a couple of hours. He is most likely hot, tired and sweaty. The disciples have gone into town to find all of them something to eat. He is left there, alone, with no vessel, nor rope.

About noon another person comes to the well, someone who has a vessel and a rope, and so he humbles himself and takes the inferior position by asking for some help and a drink of water. Occasionally, we find ourselves asking others for a favor and some help, and on rare instances we may even find ourselves asking a stranger. What is different about this particular case is that by Jesus asking this favor he is crossing two major boundaries that causes confusion and concern. 

First he is crossing an ethnic boundary, Jews and Samaritans have been feuding for many generations about a variety of issues. The other person is shocked that this Jew would ask anything from them – Jews and Samaritans don’t mix. The second boundary Jesus crosses is gender.  In his time and society, men, especially rabbis, did not acknowledge, let alone, converse with or ask assistance from women. 

The Samaritan woman can hardly believe what is happening.  Where there should have been silence, he has addressed her – he should not even be looking at her.  And he wants a drink of water that could only be had by sharing her jar! She chooses to respond to him with questions and apprehension. What we discover in their conversation is that she is a bright individual. She is aware of the cultural expectations; she is well informed of the historic feud, and she is well versed in tradition and religion.

Jesus speaks of living water, which will prevent her from thirsting again. Well, actually, it would be nice if she could cut down on the number of trips out to this well, especially in the middle of the day. She had so many tasks at the house to accomplish and this traipsing back and forth prevents her from getting all those things accomplished. And to avoid the feeling of cotton mouth or nagging to stop a task to take a drink, “Sir, give me this water.” Don’t just tell me about it, I am convinced, where can I get some of this living water? 

Just as she is hanging on his every word, he throws a curve ball, “Go, call your husband and come back.” That stops her in her tracks. Husband, why did he throw that in her face and how does he know of this struggle in her life?  Is it written on her face? This was not the life she had imagined. She had longed for a household filled with love, a happy marriage and family. But life had turned out differently for her, and his request touches a deep pain in her life.  Yet, in these past few minutes, this man has given her more respect and consideration than she has known in a lifetime. She does not want this conversation to end, so she tells the truth, without revealing too much. “Well, actually, I have no husband.”  She fears the fallout of her revelation.

To her amazement, he responds by affirming her vulnerability and recognizing her struggle, her history, her story. And as he speaks to her, his voice lacks the contempt, judgment and pity she has gotten from so many for so long. When he tells her the details of her life, she is awestruck.  She calls him a prophet, as something stirs deep within her.  

If he is a prophet, maybe he can answer the question that has been nagging at her and will redirect the conversation to more important matters. “Where is the proper place to worship?” 

He has offered her so much already; there must be something more here with all he knows and the way he speaks. He speaks of worshiping God, not in one particular location, but encountering God in spirit and in truth.  She acknowledges that Messiah is to come, and he startles her with his response: “I am he.”

Just as he says the most important thing, his disciples come back from town and are incredulous that he is speaking to a Samaritan woman.  

This woman teaches the disciples a great deal in this encounter. They obviously expected that Jesus would encounter a Samaritan, after all he sent them into a city full of them to get food. What they have a hard time believing is that he is talking to a woman in public with no one else around. That was unheard of for Rabbis in that day, so they try to talk with him about this conundrum. They hear him say, well, actually and then he says things to them that they simply do not understand. And the more he says, the more they are just feeling out in the dark about this conversation.

Her conversation with him abruptly ends, but she can’t just stand there.  She has to go and tell someone. She cannot keep this amazing experience to herself. She races back to town, forgetting her jar, forgetting what others may think of her tale, forgetting her past and propelled by what will be. She tells them they have to come and see; she describes for them the conversation, the lack of judging, the value she felt in this encounter, and how transformed she feels. She tells them what he said at the end and adds, “Well, actually, could he be the Messiah?”  She can hardly grasp the situation. Could the Messiah really be here in our town, talking with me?  

She is overwhelmed by the whirlwind that she has experienced. And this man is so important she has to tell everyone. It no longer matters what they think of her, how they may have pitied her, how they judge her. They need to have an encounter with this man who might be the Messiah.  Nothing else matters. And because she risks sharing her emerging faith with them, the people of her town go to hear Jesus for themselves and come to believe that he is the Savior of the world.

This woman will never be the same again; her life has been redefined that will take her in a new, joyous direction.  She has been given value and worth, rather than contempt and judgment. She has encountered the One who called out the best in her and propelled her to the life of a disciple, before she realized she had been called. He left her past behind and opened for her a new future, which she had not even begun to realize the extent of where it would take her. 

Pam was not exactly welcomed with open arms when she first started attending the church in town. Some of the people who attended knew part of her history and most of them knew she was a bit rough around the edges. She didn’t dress properly enough for some or act respectably enough for other. Life had handed her more than her fair share of challenges, but with every one, she found a way to persevere. Most weeks they barely scraped by paying the bills and providing for the kids. Her husband’s inability to hold a steady job made life stressful and her boss at the factory did not make life any easier. 

When she came to the church, she was looking for a little hope, peace and friendship. She had recalled feeling that way as a child when she attended church, and she was hoping that by attending now, it would help her to discover a new life, defined by something other than the challenges of her past and present. 

She was glad that some approached her with the grace and love of God, which helped her to live into the definition she was beginning to understand about herself in the eyes of God. And some in the congregation were amazed or shocked at the people she kept inviting to hear how their lives could be redefined with the love of God.

We are living in an uncertain time right now with CoVID-19 changing so many things about how we live our everyday lives and how we live in community with others, especially in the church. The reality of this woman is that she cared more about the needs of others than she did herself. She wanted them to have an encounter with Christ. She wanted them to have a more fulfilling life, to know that they are valued, loved, cared for and can have the living water that has transformed her life. 

What would it mean in this uncertain time in our lives together to dream of being the church and considering the needs of others more than our own needs and what they might think of us? What will it mean for families who struggle to not have school and potentially not childcare; which might result in the loss of a job? What will it mean for families with food insecurity, that rely on the school breakfast’s lunches and weekend take home food bags to go three weeks without that community offering? What will it mean for small businesses to not have the traffic through their doors and have to make a decision about remaining open? What will it mean for community leaders to shift funds to support those most vulnerable when it might take away from our pet project? How lonely might those in care facilities feel when they are prohibited from receiving visitors and feel even more forgotten about? How might someone whom we interact with on a regular basis at church interpret our relationship as not being significant because during this crazy, uncertain place we find ourselves they do not hear from us and so our relationship is simply one of convenience? 

The current events are throwing us into a different place of having faith and providing ministry. And all of us are in the process of figuring out what that means for us individually and as a church community.  We will need to be more creative and consider the needs and safety of the other.

Well, actually …

This may be a Well, Actually moment, where God is transforming what seems like a terrible thing into an opportunity to share the Good News in ways that we never imagined before. What would God think about this Well, Actually moment that we just let slip by, wait it out and don’t act like the church?

The Samaritan woman leaves her bucket, she leaves the conversation and she goes with confidence to tell others.  She forgets about herself and her concerns and she focuses on the needs of her community. This woman who avoided, who was shunned, who was gossiped about and mistreated; is the one who goes and proclaims.  This woman who does not interact because life is hard; is the one who boldly tells the Good News, who unashamedly tells that Christ knows all of her life; the one who usually talks to no one, tells everyone.  The one who is shunned becomes the light; the one who is the unacceptable, proclaims the accepter.

She, a Samaritan, a woman, becomes the revealer of who Christ is, a proclaimer of the Good News, to a town that was not interested in her because of her past, but her testimony changes their future.  This Samaritan, woman, becomes the first one to preach and invite others to come to Christ.

Barbara Brown Taylor says of this passage, “The Messiah is the one in whose presence you know who you really are – the good and bad of it, the all of it, the hope in it.  The Messiah is the one who shows you who you are by showing you who he is – who crosses all boundaries, breaks all rules, drops all disguises – speaking to you like someone you have known all you life, bubbling up in your life like a well that needs no dipper, so that you go back to face people you thought you could never face again, speaking to them as boldly as he spoke to you, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done.’”

May each of us truly encounter the Christ today and share with others in the same excitement as the Samaritan woman!  May it be so, Amen.

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