A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on March 27, 2011
Third Sunday in Lent
Exodus 17:1-7; John 4:5-30
Quick, tell me, what did Nicodemus, whom we considered last week, and the woman at the well at Sychar have in common? No, they weren’t both Jews. She’s a Samaritan, and while she does have Hebrew blood in her, she’s what they would have called in the old west days a “half-breed.” Not only is Nicodemus a Jew, he is a Jewish aristocrat, and would no doubt have had nothing to do with this woman or anyone of her kind because of her ancestry.
If my use of the term “half-breed” offends your sensibilities, and you think it a pejorative expression, you would be absolutely right. But that is the way the Jews looked upon Samaritans. In fact, they may have had uglier names for them than that, they hated them that intensely. And, by the way, the feelings on the part of the Samaritans were mutual.
Did Nicodemus and the woman have it in common that they both gave themselves in their devotion to Jesus? No, there is no evidence that Nicodemus ever came to believe in Jesus, certainly as his Savior and Lord. If anything, he kept to the fringes – not to mention the darkness – and whatever interest he had in the Nazarene seems to be more out of curiosity than dedication.
Okay, then what is it? Nicodemus and the woman at the well at Sychar not only have something in common, but it is a theme you’ll find throughout John’s gospel. A number of the people Jesus met during his public ministry misunderstood him in their first encounter with him.1 Of course, some of them misunderstood Jesus in their last encounter with him, but for our purposes today we’re considering those who eventually came to look upon Jesus at least with some favor.
It’s not as if John didn’t warn us that this would happen. You’ll find it right there near the beginning of his gospel, in the very first chapter. “He was in the world,” John tells us, “and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him” (v. 10). Those who liked him, those who didn’t, those who were completely indifferent to him... it made no difference. “The world did not know him.”
Some things never change.
When it comes to this unnamed woman at the well, it was definitely not her first inclination to look upon Jesus with any favor. That has to do, no doubt, with her discomfort in meeting Jesus at all. First of all, she had come to the well in the middle of the day to avoid any other human contact... of any kind... Samaritan, Jew, whatever.
It’s kind of funny, isn’t it? Nicodemus comes to see Jesus at night, perhaps to avoid being seen. The woman comes to the well in the middle of the day, in the brightest sun, for what purpose? To avoid being seen. She certainly didn’t want to run into those busybodies from town, the ones who, whenever she approaches, always whisper to one another and cast disparaging looks her way. “Look, there’s that slut, the one who’s been married so many times that we can’t even keep track of it. And now she’s living with that worthless piece of trash.”
You won’t find that in John’s gospel, of course, but my guess is that this is pretty much the way it was. The women of the village always drew their daily water early in the morning before it got so unblessedly hot. Not this woman. She’ll put up with the sweat if it means she won’t have to endure the whispers and the... the looks.
And then she unexpectedly runs into this Galilean. It is an uncomfortable encounter. First of all, because he’s a man. Men and women – good men and women, that is – did not speak to one another in public; not in that society. So, by taking the initiative and speaking to her, asking for a drink, he must have been as fallen as she. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have said a blessed thing to her, would have walked away and pretended she didn’t even exist... which, of course, is the way she would have preferred it.
And he’s a Jew. There’s certainly that. His presence would have surprised her. After all, they didn’t see many of his kind around there. Most Jews, if they’re traveling in these parts, go out of their way to avoid Samaritan villages. Bad enough they have to journey through Samaria, but they’ll carry a month’s rations if need be to keep from having this type of experience. They’ll generally skirt the boundaries of Samaritan territory in an attempt to avoid any ugly confrontations. Like a deacon in one of my former churches, who would go miles and miles out of his way to avoid driving through Mississippi. He had once had an encounter with a state patrolman, and a judge who presided over his “court” in a barn out in a field in the middle of nowhere. Cash only. It probably didn’t help that he was originally from Alabama.
The Samaritans didn’t mind that the Jews would have nothing to do with them. If they never had to meet a Jew in their lifetime, that would be just fine with them. Jews and Samaritans hated one another.
But Jesus doesn’t think that way, nor does he operate that way. He is willing to talk to anyone, regardless of race, especially if it gives him with the opportunity to share his vision of the kingdom of heaven. You see, as far as Jesus is concerned, the kingdom is for everybody. And that, my friends, was a pretty novel idea in those days and in those parts. Come to think of it, there are a few places around here where people still think pretty much the way the first-century Jews and Samaritans did. So in some places it’s still a novel idea. With some people, Jesus is still a novel idea.
Evidently, Jesus finally convinced his followers that his way of thinking was God’s intent. Luke’s gospel is just filled with Samaritans, and he always paints them in a favorable light. Here, in John, “Jesus talks longer to the woman at the well than he does to anyone else in all the Gospels” – longer than he talks to any of his disciples, to any of his accusers, even to anyone in his own family. She is the first person he reveals himself to in the Gospel of John. She is the first outsider to guess who he is and tell others. She is the first evangelist, John tells us, and her testimony brings many to faith.2
For a fallen woman, she’s done all right, hasn’t she? I mean, songs have been written about her and preachers are still telling her story two millennia later. Why? Because this strange, strange man from over Galilee way asked her for a drink of water. And because, when he told her what he could give her in return, she believed him and accepted his offer.
“Give me a drink,” he says to her. And when she questions why he would ask her such a thing, he responds, “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.”
And that is when she misunderstands him. Remember, that is what she and Nicodemus, and just about everybody else, have in common. At first, they misunderstand Jesus. She does so by taking him literally. “You have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” When he tells her the source of his water, she wants it; wants it badly. But Jesus knows there’s still some business to be conducted between them. The only way for her to know him is for him to show her how much he knows her. “Go, call your husband, and come back.”
“I have no husband.” Not that she hadn’t had a husband... or two or three or five. And the person she’s with now, well, they didn’t bother with the nuptials. Maybe he didn’t want to be husband number six. Besides, there wasn’t anyone around who would conduct the ceremony anyway. She’s used up all the ministers in town who would be available to officiate; probably all the justices of the peace as well. And Jesus knows all this. When he reveals to her just how much he does know about her, if you think she was uncomfortable before, imagine how’s she’s feeling now. The stakes have been raised, haven’t they? How does he know all this?!
When I was a kid, one of my favorite pastimes was reading comic books. My dad, who was in the wholesale grocer business, did all the grocery shopping... usually on Saturday night when there were fewer customers and Dad could take his time and find the best bargains. I generally went with him, and if I was good he’d give me a dime so I could buy a comic. These comics had ads in them, and I remember that one of the items advertised was x-ray glasses. Supposedly, you could don these glasses and see through things... like dresses. At least, that’s what the picture in the ad revealed.
I doubt they worked. I certainly wouldn’t know from personal experience. Never had the nerve to order a pair! Scout’s honor.
Jesus didn’t need such gimmicks. He had a way of seeing through this woman – not to mention everybody else – in such a way that it must have been quite unsettling. But what he saw was her heart, and nothing else. The multiple marriages, the fallenness meant nothing to him compared to the grace he was about to give her.
So what does she do when he reveals to her that he knows so much about her? She changes the subject, or at least she diverts the conversation to a discussion of religion. It’s not the first time people talk about religion to avoid Jesus. People do that all the time, you know. Religion is a lot easier to talk about than devotion. Besides, it seems to be about the only thing these two have in common. And when she reveals that, despite her lifestyle, she knows a little theology, he comes right out and says to her what, in John’s gospel, he has yet to say to anyone. When she starts talking about the coming Messiah, he says, “I am he.”
Whoa. “It is the first time he has said that to another living soul.”3 We’re not surprised that Jesus would get around to it eventually, but why her? Of all people? Why not Nicodemus? He and Jesus had more in common, and he had the kind of influence to take that information to the right people. Nicodemus could have put Jesus on the map, gotten him in to see those who could help Jesus reach his full potential in the religious community.
This woman is not just a nobody, she’s a nobody whose way of life is a disgrace even to her own people. Think of all that stands between these two people who are having this conversation beside the well at Sychar – the religious rules, the cultural taboos, the history that separates them from one another – and yet, when it comes time for Jesus to say it – to actually say it... “I am he” – he says it to her.
Why? I can think of only this... God has the desire to grace her, as well as power to do it. Why her? Why not?
All the while this is going on, Jesus’ disciples are in the village picking up some supplies. Don’t you know they didn’t want to do it... go into a Samaritan village where they would be looked upon with contempt. No doubt they would be cheated by the merchants and treated most unkindly. But, they were hungry, so they did it.
When they return to the well, the woman can’t leave fast enough. Not only does she not want to put up with their questions – though John tells us they didn’t have the nerve to ask any – she’s excited about having received grace from this man “who told me everything I have ever done!” She can’t wait to tell everybody, even those busybodies who have been so ugly toward her.
Did you notice one of the little details John gives us? It’s hardly worth mentioning, but then again, maybe it is. When the woman leaves to go back to town, to tell all the townspeople — the very ones who no doubt hate her and look upon her with such contempt — she leaves her water jar behind.
What a powerful symbol of faith! She needs her water jar no longer. Why? Because this man has filled her cup with living water. She now has a different story to tell. Her story no longer involves how many men she has known, but the one Man she now knows who has made the eternal difference in her life. This nameless woman has been given the gift of God, and she has received it! She has left her water jar behind.
Where is your water jar? Do you carry it around with you everywhere you go? If it’s sitting there beside you in the pew, come to the One who is the eternal Gift of God. Leave your water jar in the dust of your past, and come to Jesus. You won’t need it any more. Your cup is now filled with Living Water. And that is all you will ever need.
Lord, fill our cups with the water that only you can give. Grace us with your kindness, redeem us with your grace, and find us sharing this good news with everyone. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.
1George W. Stroup, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010),, p. 92.
2Barbara Brown Taylor, “Living the Word,” The Christian Century, February 12, 2008 p. 19.