The woman at the well (John 4). This is the longest recorded conversation Jesus has. It’s the only time in John’s gospel where Jesus is referred to as the Savior. And it is most often wrongly assumed that the woman is a sinner – that she has five husbands because she is an adulterer and Jesus knows this, talks to her anyway, and forgives her for it. Centuries of Church tradition have a habit of doing that with women in scripture – from Bathsheba – to Mary Magdalene – to this woman here – of adding a risqué or shameful backstory that isn’t actually found anywhere in the text – and that is a fascinating topic – for another time.
There is no reason to assume that this woman is at fault for having had 5 husbands. She could be a widow five times. She could be unable to have children – and therefore was given a certificate of divorce five times. Given the position of women in those days – she was a victim of circumstance not of her own choosing. And, unlike the woman who is later accused of adultery and almost stoned to death (Jn 8:1-11) Jesus never says, “go and sin no more.” Jesus never tells her she is forgiven. Jesus doesn’t need to her repent – Jesus needs her to know she is worthy of a most holy conversation – that she matters and she belongs.
Because clearly she is ashamed. If you live in a village in middle-eastern Samaria, you don’t go fetch your bucket of water at high noon under a blaring sun. You go early in the morning, not just because it’s cooler – but it’s social! You check in with all the other women (maybe a little gossip) and partake of the water cooler conversations of the day.
But this woman goes alone – when no one is there – so she doesn’t have to face accusing stares or under the breath comments. Can you remember a time when you felt that? Can you call to mind that hot rush of disgrace – when you know (or think you know) everyone knows something about you that makes you feel less than? Unworthy?
Jesus didn’t have to go through Samaria to get where he was going (Gaililee) – in the sense that it was the only way to get there. But Jesus did have to go through Samaria. For the same reason that in Luke’s gospel Jesus has to tell a parable we know called The Good Samaritan (10:25ff). You know - the man laying by the side of the road – beaten, half-dead and the Levite and the priest walk right on by. The only one to stop, care for him and bring him to an inn to recuperate is the Samaritan. This isn’t really a big deal for us – but for the Jewish people – the first hearers of Jesus’ stories – this was astonishing.
As the woman points out – and the gospel writer underscores - Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans – let alone speak to them or take water from a cup they would have touched. So why do you think it is important for Jesus to reach out to – and to tell “go and do likewise” stories of mercy about Samaritans? How does that translate to the 21st century? If Jesus says "Samaritans Matter" then - who is that referring to now?
The conversation with this woman comes directly after Jesus has a conversation with Nicodemus – which we heard last Sunday – it’s the conversation about being born again and Nicodemus being stuck in his literal understanding of that statement. You see these two stories are like two sides of a coin. They have a parallel structure. We’re only in chapter 4 of John’s gospel – but clearly one of the important – good news - themes of this gospel is transformation. Our willingness to have our lives utterly transformed – when we live within this holy relationship when we trust that we abide in God.
Chapter 1 – and the word became flesh and dwelt among us. God is transformed from being something out there – to a person – living and breathing – right here. To be in relationship with us.
Chapter 2 – Wedding at Cana – Jesus takes water and transforms it into wine – as a sign that he is the Messiah who is here to save – to transform the world.
Chapter 3 – Nicodemus seeks out God – by himself – because he has heard of the signs Jesus does and he wants that. But Jesus tells him – its not about getting something of God – its about the relationship – of allowing God to be born in you.
Chapter 4 – Jesus seeks out this woman – not the other way around – who is trying to isolate herself – and Jesus asks her help – he needs a drink of water. Jesus invites her to name what she works hard to hide – and she does. And Jesus doesn’t shame her for it – he doesn’t even offer a “solution” or advice – he simply commends her for her courage in speaking her truth. And tells her that the time is coming when all people – Jews and Samaritans – will recognize that a relationship with God isn’t about where or when you worship.
A relationship with God is about naming your truth, claiming who you are and believing that in God – the truth will transform your life – the truth – will set you free.
And that holy acknowledgment is life-changing. She is still unsure – she says, could this be the Messiah? She still has questions – she doesn’t have all the answers – but she is empowered to go and be an agent of transformation for her whole community. And she doesn’t go and tell them all what they have to believe and do to belong – she simply goes and tells her story – she goes and shares her truth.
Nicodemus – well he had a name – he was a religious leader – a well-regarded member of the community and he surely knew the bible inside and out. But – something keeps him from seeing. His ego? His intellect? The shame maybe of other people knowing he sought out this itinerant prophet from Nazareth – he goes to talk with him at night. Nicodemus keeps his armor up – something keeps him from letting God in.
The woman at the well – she doesn’t have a name – she isn’t a leader of any kind – she is most definitely not well-regarded – and I imagine just wanted to get her chores done under the radar – and make it to the end of the day. God sought her out – Jesus talks to her longer than anyone else we know of. And Jesus doesn’t ask her to change for God – doesn’t ask her to “do” anything. He wants her in the midst of her circumstance to know she is worthy and to offer her living water – something you drink in, that nourishes, quenches, restores and refreshes.
Where are the watering holes in your life where you are afraid to meet God? What are you thirsting for in your holy conversations? Jesus wants a relationship with you, with us where we take in all the parts of our story – where we trust that in God – it is through all of that stuff – that we are made whole.
Living water is a relationship with God where you feel worthy to share who you are – your circumstances with God. That relationship is what empowers us to listen as others share who they are circumstances and all – withholding our assumptions and our judgment – because we believe that God brought us to truth in giving us a Savior – who came – not to condemn the world – but in order that the world might be saved. (Jn 3:17). Amen.