A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on March 27, 2011.
Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; John 4:5-15
The famous British playwright Noel Coward once sent an identical note to twenty prominent men in London. Each note said the same thing: “All is discovered. Escape while you can.” Reportedly, all twenty men promptly left town!
And who can blame them?!
It’s been a long time since I have reviewed the commonly agreed upon list of our greatest fears as human beings. I know that fear of public speaking usually heads the list. But I suspect that competing for the top spot is a fear that virtually anybody with much life experience has—the fear that somebody, somewhere will find out something about us that will destroy our reputation and good name forever.
The problem is if we are self-aware at all and honest in the least, we have to admit that we have said, and thought, and done things we hope will never see the light of day. In order to get the approval of others, we learn at an early age to manage our public image by carefully controlling the information they have about us. We want them always to see and hear our best side, to know only the good things about us, for one simple reason—we’re convinced if people ever knew us for who we really are, they’d never accept us.
Our greatest nightmare is that somehow some way, everything about us, including our carefully hidden dark side, will be discovered. If that ever happened, we might be like those twenty prominent men from London who fell for Noel Coward’s terrible prank, and scatter like buckshot.
Actually, we haven’t identified our worst nightmare yet. Our worst nightmare is that on Judgment Day we will stand before God. Everything we’ve ever said, thought, and done will come out in the wash. The thought of standing before the holy God with every sordid, unholy detail about us exposed is…well, to call it “humiliating” doesn’t even begin to do it justice!
Maybe that’s why I had such a strong reaction to the story of the Samaritan woman at the well as I read it again this week.
One of the spiritual practices we’ve been talking about these days as we embark upon the journey of spiritual formation is called lectio divina. Lectio divina, which (literally means “sacred reading,”) is a wonderful way of reading scripture that allows the Holy Spirit to lift to mind what you need to hear in the moment. The practice involves slowly and prayerfully reading and rereading a passage of scripture, listening carefully for the word or phrase that causes either deep resonance or resistance in your soul.
Several weeks ago I read John 4 in this manner as I was thinking about preaching on it today. On that occasion the word that lodged itself in my heart was “gushing”—“The water I will give,” says Jesus to the Samaritan woman, “will become… a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” There was something about that word “gushing” that grabbed me because I don’t want my spirit to feel like stagnant water. I want my soul to be alive with God, as though it’s filled with a perpetual gusher of the living water of God’s Spirit. And so I selected “Gusher” as the title of today’s sermon.
But this past week as I reread the scripture through the practice of lectio divina, I had a different experience around a phrase that appears much later in this extended dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Before I identify the phrase, let’s take a moment to understand the background of this famous story in John.
As John 4 begins, Jesus seems to be going out of his way to violate well— established cultural, religious, and gender norms. Because of a long-standing feud between Jews and Samaritans, good Jews don’t normally travel through Samaria, even to save time. But as Jesus journeys north from Judea to Galilee, he elects to travel as the crow flies right through the heart of Samaria to just outside the village of Sychar.
Most Jewish men wouldn’t think of speaking to a Samaritan man, much less a Samaritan woman, and even less a Samaritan woman who appeared at a well in the middle of the day. Most women come to the well of a village in the cool of the morning or early evening to draw water. For this woman to come at noon in the heat of the day could only mean that she was a social outcast, a likely commentary not only on her questionable reputation but her chronic loneliness.
Nevertheless, Jesus, tired and hungry and thirsty from his travels, asks the woman to give him a drink of water. Puzzled, the woman who is never named in the story, asks how it could be that a Jewish man would ask a Samaritan woman for anything, including a drink of water.
“If you knew the gift of God,” Jesus says, “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.”
Now even though the woman obviously does not understand Jesus’ comment, she is immediately drawn to the possibility of having access to “living water,” which she probably understands to mean running water in the middle of the desert. After asking Jesus how he intends to draw water from Jacob’s one hundred feet deep well without a bucket, she wonders aloud if he can make the water bubble up to the surface, in which case he would even be greater than Jacob himself. When Jesus offers to give her a spring of water gushing up to eternal life, she says “ Great! Bring it on!”
At this point our scripture for today ends, but the story continues. Jesus inexplicably changes gears and asks the woman to go home and get her husband and return. The woman answers, “I have no husband.” Jesus acknowledges her answer is true…as far as it goes. “You are right in saying,’ I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband,”(vv.17-18).
If you were with us last week, you may remember that, Dr. Gail O’Day, Dean of the Wake Forest University School of Divinity and renowned scholar of the Gospel of John, noted that we should pay close attention to what John says, and doesn’t say. Here’s one time when we should notice what John does not have Jesus saying.
Jesus does not say to the women at the well, “You’ve been married and divorced five times. And by the way, young lady, did you forget that God hates divorce, and the Jewish Law provides for a maximum of three divorces in one lifetime! And did you forget that living with a man outside wedlock is a sin punishable by death?”
Those stinging words of condemnation are missing. I can’t help but remember the words of Jesus quoted in John 3:17 which we heard last Sunday—“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Undoubtedly undone, the woman calls Jesus a prophet, and then resurrects an old argument about worship that had raged for centuries between Samaritans and Jews. Remember— Samaritans resulted from the intermarriage of Jews with despised foreigners. And Samaritans insisted you worshiped God on a certain Samaritan mountain, while Jews insisted you worship God in the temple of Jerusalem. (And you thought only modern-day Christians in America argued about worship!)
Before we get to Jesus’ answer to this line of argument, we should note how Jesus addresses the woman. In English, Jesus calls her “woman”. But the word in the Greek is gune (as in “gynecology”). Gune can be term of endearment; it’s the same word Jesus uses to refer to his mother at the wedding in Cana and at the cross. Amazingly, Jesus is referring to this woman who is unwelcome in respectable company as a “special lady” or “dear woman”.
Jesus goes on to clarify that it’s not where you worship that’s important, it’s who and how. We worship the Father, he says in spirit and truth. And when the woman says she’s confident the Messiah will one day clear all this up, Jesus responds, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you” (v. 26).
At this point, the disciples who have been out looking for food return and are stunned when they see Jesus is talking with the Samaritan woman. The woman leaves quickly, so quickly says John, that she leaves behind her water jar. That’s not an incidental detail. That’s an admission that this woman has found something far greater than a supply of cold water.
See, this woman had every reason to expect Jesus condemn her. At first, she had just seen Jesus as a thirsty but friendly Jewish man. As the conversation continued, he looked more like a prophet. Now, it was clear he was somebody very special, maybe even the Messiah sent by God.
And since Samaritans were half-Jewish, the Samaritan woman probably knew enough Jewish history to know that God could and would punish those who disobeyed him. After all, when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness, they pushed God to the limit and beyond. God parted the waters of the Red Sea and freed them from the Egyptians, and the Israelites complained about a lack of fresh water. He gave them water fresh, and in no time they were complaining about being hungry. So he rained manna and quail down from heaven, and they complained again about being thirsty.
They were so upset with their leader, Moses, that they threatened to stone him to death if he didn’t give them water immediately. God miraculously provided water when Moses struck a rock with his staff. But we learn in Psalm 95 that the ungrateful and disobedient Israelites paid a terrible price for their sin…namely 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.
And yet, that’s not the way it went down with the Samaritan woman. When she ran back to the village, leaving her precious water jar behind, she rounded up the very people she normally avoided, and said, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” (v. 29)
Most of us operate with a theology that exceeds our experience. Our talk usually far exceeds our walk. With this woman, the opposite is true. Her experience with the Living Water is so fresh and powerful that it overwhelms her theology. But that doesn’t stop her from gushing with joy around with her fellow Samaritans whose minds are blown by this woman gushing with new life.
And why shouldn’t she gush! While she’s still making up her mind about Jesus, she intuitively understands that even though God knows everything about her, he still loves her, still treasures her, still views her as precious. She’s been longing for that kind of love her whole life. And as I reread her story this week, I realized the same was true of me.
Friends, listen to the good news of the gospel on this third Sunday in Lent. Jesus the Christ, the Son of the Living God, the only sinless man ever to live, can tell you every single thing you have done. And he still loves you more than you can imagine.
Jesus’ love for you doesn’t just flow like a fountain. It’s more like a gusher. So, why not take a drink—today!