Scripture: John 4: 5-42
Lent 3, a, March 19, 2017
This past Friday many celebrated St. Patrick’s Day, with many a green beer hoisted in honor of the patron St. of Ireland and the greatest missionary ever to Ireland. You may recall that when Patrick was about 16 years old he was captured by Irish pirates from his home in Britain and taken then as a slave to Ireland where he looked after animals and lived in captivity for six years before escaping and returning to his family. After becoming a priest, he, of his own volition returned to Northern and Western Ireland as a missionary. In later life he served as a bishop. In the Anglican Communion, the old Catholic Church, and the Eastern Orthodox Church, Saint Patrick is seen as equal to the apostles and known as the Enlightener of Ireland.[i]
Today we celebrate the life of another apostle of Jesus Christ. In our long Scripture reading for this morning we have the full and rich story of Jesus in a significant dialogue with the woman at the well. You may not be surprised to hear that Jesus talks longer to the woman at the well than he does to anyone else in all of the Gospels. Jesus talked to the woman at the well longer than he talks to any one of his disciples, longer than he talks to any of his accusers, longer than he talks to anyone of his own family.
She is the first person to whom Jesus reveals himself here early in the Gospel of John. By the end of our passage she becomes both the first outsider to figure out who Jesus is and to tell others about it, and she becomes the first evangelist. The Gospel of John tells us that it is her testimony that bring so many to faith.[ii]
What is so intriguing to most of us is not what she brought to the conversation that day, but the number of obstacles that she overcame in this tête-à-tête with Jesus. It is hard to imagine her being any more of an outsider than this woman was. In the first place, she was a Samaritan, which in the eyes of the Jewish people made her a half breed and a full pagan.
And of course, she was a woman. As we have noted on numerous occasions, women in the time of Jesus were not anything like liberated. They weren’t allowed to worship with men, whose morning devotions included the prayer “thank God I’m not a woman.” Women literally had no place in public life. They were not to be seen or heard, particularly not by holy men. In fact, one of the groups of the Pharisees were known as the “bruised and bleeding Pharisees” because they would close their eyes when they saw a woman coming down the street, even if it meant walking into a wall and smashing their noses.
These two characteristics of being a Samaritan, and a woman, have inappropriately paled over the years in the Western world where the fact that she was also a woman held in low esteem by her village seems to have taken first billing. She had had a passel of husbands. Some have made comparisons to Elizabeth Taylor.
We don’t know what happened to those husbands, and we don’t have any reason to believe that her serial monogamy was in any way her “fault,” but she did seem squeamish about admitting the fact that the man she was living with at this time was not her husband. So, whether it was somehow by her own actions or whether it was just by poor circumstance and bad luck, it is a good guess that the reason why she was at the well in the middle of the day was so that she could avoid running into any of the other women of the village there drawing water for their homes. Sane people would not be out at midday in Middle Eastern heat. People who wanted to visit with one another would come early in the day or late in the day when the sun was low in the sky. What is the saying? Only “mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.”
So, I’m betting that she was use to going to the well at the middle of the day and expecting to find that she had the place all to herself. So, imagine her surprise. Imagine her implicit fear, when she found herself not alone at the well. Not safe, but in the presence of a man who could take advantage of her, and there would be no witness.
It must’ve been a relief for him to address her, “Give me a drink.” As best we can guess, Jesus’ physical facial features or his clothing or even his voice’s accent, would likely have given away his background. This man was not a Samaritan. This man was a Jew. What was this unwelcome foreigner doing in the middle of her nation?
Perhaps she remained fearful, because this fellow was not following conventions, not following the rules of how it is that her people and his people related to each other. Beyond the fact that a woman would not talk with a man in such a situation, the Jews seem to have endless rules about who they might or might not eat with or drink with and she knew for sure that he was not conforming to that guidance now. She also knew for sure that at least he, if not she, would be breaking their law if she let him sip from her supposedly contaminated, “impure,” Samaritan water jar. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”
What follows next is already familiar territory- that will become more familiar- as we move forward through the Gospel of John. Jesus is speaking with this woman at the well on one level and she is hearing and responding on another. Just like Nicodemus last week who could not follow what Jesus was trying to get across, Samaritana, as folks in the Spanish-speaking world know her, Samaritana is both intrigued by, and mightily confused by, what it is that Jesus is trying to relate to 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.”
She is still talking about well water itself, while he has already upshifted gears to something more profound, more spiritual, and far more essential.
Without the water of the well only the body will die.
Without the living water of which Jesus speaks, one’s spirit will simply never be born at all.
For Samaritana, though she is a little slow in grasping it, this close encounter of the Jesus kind, and her simple, straightforward, witness to it, quickly becomes the vehicle ferrying her to a new life.
She went back and told her estranged villagers,“A man …told me all that I ever did” which is not exactly the Westminster Confession of theological profundity, but her very honest and very probing question, in the original Greek is, “This cannot be the Christ, can it?”
In a world where witnessing so often seems like a triumphal whacking over the head with a Biblical club, her sincere, her enthusiastic sharing, even with her questioning, is as refreshing as water from a well on a blistering day.[iii]
It is as if she’s saying to the village that had ostracized her, “this is what I heard. What do you make of it?”
And “What do you make of it?”…. hat is the everlasting question coming to those searching and seeking after God in every age. It comes to me and to you. What will we make of Jesus’ challenge to receiving the gift of living water… and then welcoming a new and transformed life, stewarding God’s blessings in every way?
We may thank God, that in a rare expression of community wisdom, her village welcomes her witness: “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.”
And soon thereafter, following their own exploration, as is always the case when we follow the trail of revelation with an open mind and an open heart, the villagers themselves confess:
“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.”
This past Friday we lifted up St. Patrick in the gallery of those whose witness of faith drew so many to their spiritual well in Christ Jesus.
This coming Friday in the Mexican city of Oaxaca, and in many other places as well, the celebration of Samaritana is celebrated on the fourth Friday of Lent, during which it is customary to offer toasts in honor of this first Evangelist, the woman whose station in life not only didn’t hinder her witness, but through her transformation into the first evangelist, Samaritana elevated the gift of salvation through Christ. [iv] As Jesus says to another in Luke’s Gospel, let us “go and do likewise.”
[ii] from Face-To-Face with God by Barbara Brown Taylor, the Christian Century The Christian Century, 113 no 7 Feb 28 1996, p 227. This description and several of the following ideas are attributable to this article.
[iii] This tack taken in “The Witness at the Well” by Fred Craddock, the Christian Century, March 7, 1990, p. 243.