A sermon delivered by Robert Browning, Pastor, Smoke Rise Baptist Church, Stone Mountain, Ga., on March 27, 2011.
Did you ever live in a place where you had a well your family depended upon for water? My grandparents did. Their well was outside the backdoor, next to a large oak tree.
By the time I came along, this was not their main source of water, but it was still in working order. This meant it had a pulley and a bucket.
I had a love/hate relationship with this well. I loved playing around it, throwing rocks down it to see how long it took them to hit the water and what kind of splash they made. I also enjoyed dropping the bucket down the well and pulling it up to see if I could catch a snake or turtle.
At the same time, I would peer down that dark well and wonder what it would be like to fall in. I don’t know if I was more afraid of being unable to get out or the fact that snakes were down there. Either one struck fear in my heart.
So, I know what it is like to be uncomfortable around a well, which everyone in this story seems to be, with the exception of Jesus. He appears to be relaxed and quite comfortable.
The uneasiness of the woman at the well is understandable. Jewish men rarely spoke to women they did not know and teachers refused to engage women in public conversations. As a matter of fact, there was a sect among the religious leaders called the “black and blue Pharisees.” They were referred to this way because they would shut their eyes when an unknown woman approached them, and as a result, they were constantly running into objects.
The disciples, on the other hand, had been uncomfortable ever since they crossed the border into Samaria. Most Jews avoided Samaria when traveling from Judea to Galilee, even though it doubled the length of the journey from three to six days by heading east across the Jordan and traveling north.
There had been bad blood between the Jews and the Samaritans ever since 721 B.C. when the northern kingdom was occupied by the Assyrians. Many of the occupants of Samaria worshipped idols and inter-married, which was strictly forbidden in the Law of Moses. Years later, negative feelings intensified when the Samaritan’s offer to help rebuild the temple after it was destroyed by the Babylonians was rejected.
The most intense rivalry, however, began about 200 B.C. over a dispute about the correct location of the cultic center. The Samaritans built a shrine on Mount Gerizim during the Persian period and claimed that this shrine, not the Jerusalem temple, was the proper place to worship. The debate raged until the shrine at Mount Gerizim was destroyed by Jewish troops in 128 B.C.
By Jesus’ time, almost all communication between Jews and Samaritans had ceased, which made Jesus uncomfortable and, no doubt, led to his decision to go to Galilee through the heart of Samaria. He came to tear down walls separating people and build bridges of reconciliation. What better place to start than with the Jews and Samaritans and what better time to begin than on this journey.
Perhaps this was why John wrote in 4:4, “Now he had to go through Samaria.” Why did he have to go through Samaria? It had more to do with theology than geography. This was God’s will and his mission.
After Jesus and his disciples arrived at Jacob’s well, he sent his disciples into the town of Sychar to get lunch while he rested. When a woman arrived at the well with her water jar, Jesus asked for a drink. This began a dialogue between the two of them, which was similar to the discussion Jesus had with Nicodemus in the previous chapter. Both private conversations focused upon the mysteries of life and faith and were laced with intriguing questions and confusion.
So impressed was this woman with Jesus and inspired by their conversation, she left her water pot at the well and ran into town to tell her neighbors what she had experienced. It is obvious the “living water” Jesus offered her was more important than the water in Jacob’s well and inviting others to meet him was more important than filling her water pot.
Evidently, many dropped what they were doing after she shared her testimony and followed her back to the well. They, too, were impressed with Jesus and asked him to stay with them, which he did for two days before moving on to Galilee.
I can only imagine what the disciples were thinking when they realized they would not be moving quickly through Samaria, but would stay a couple of days. I would be willing to say there was some pillow talk going on behind Jesus’ back.
This story, which contains one of the longest recorded conversations Jesus had with a person, raises not only eyebrows, but questions. Let me explore some of them to see if we can understand its significance for us today.
Why did Jesus talk to the woman at the well? The obvious answer is that he was thirsty and had no way to draw water. From the conversation that ensued, though, Jesus saw beyond his need to hers. Her life was in turmoil and she needed someone to listen to her story who would offer encouragement and hope. So, Jesus took advantage of the moment.
What was going on with this woman? Who knows for sure, but it is safe to say her home life was unstable, contributing to a lot of fear and anxiety. Five times she had been uprooted and displaced, either by the death of a mate or divorce, which made her vulnerable in a dangerous world. At the time she met Jesus, she was living with a man who was not her husband, probably a relative who, by law, had to take her in and provide for her.
One thing we know about this woman is that adversity and challenges were no strangers to her, in addition to grief, fear, worry, and maybe even shame. Her life had not been easy or predictable, and did not ever look to be.
What did Jesus do for her? The first thing he did was notice her and treat her with respect. He affirmed her as a person of value and worth. He taught her things about life and faith that no one ever had and lifted her spirits with words of encouragement and hope.
What was her response? She ran back to town to share this experience with her neighbors and invite them to come to the well to meet this remarkable man, which many of them did. They, like this woman, were just as impressed with Jesus and invited him to stay with them in Sychar, which Jesus did for two days.
Let’s not leave the disciples out of the story, though. They play a significant role, as you would expect. What was their reaction when they returned from town with lunch and saw Jesus talking to a woman? They were so shocked that they could not even voice their questions, which is saying something, especially for Simon Peter. This was one of the few times he was unwilling to speak!
What was John’s purpose for telling this story? He used it to introduce his readers to Jesus, just as he used the encounter with Nicodemus in the previous chapter, and in so doing described Jesus as compassionate, courageous and inclusive, one on a mission from God. He wanted his readers to understand that God is known through Jesus and just as he fulfilled this woman’s messianic expectations, he could theirs, too.
He also used it to connect Jesus to the Old Testament. Jesus’ request for water recalls the story of the prophet Elijah and the widow of Sidon (I Kings 17:10-11). In both stories, a man interrupts a woman engaged in household work to request a gesture of hospitality. The parallels between Elijah and Jesus suggest the image of Jesus as a prophet, a theme that occupies a pivotal place in Jesus’ conversation with the woman.
In addition, the scene of a man and a woman at a well recalls the betrothal stories of Isaac (Genesis 24:10-61), Jacob (Genesis 29:1-20) and Moses (Exodus 2:15b-21). Unlike these scenes, Jesus does not come to the well looking for a woman to be his bride, but for a witness who will recognize the Messiah and bring outcasts to him.
I believe he also used this story to send a strong message to his readers that in God’s kingdom, everybody matters; no one is to be left behind. Could there have been two people more different than Nicodemus and this woman? He was a prominent religious leader in Jerusalem and she was an unnamed peasant woman from Samaria. However, both received personal attention from Jesus.
In light of this, I believe John was encouraging his readers to adopt Jesus’ mission and follow his example. He wanted the first century Christians to get out of their comfort zone, take advantage of opportunities to build bridges of reconciliation between enemies and notice others’ pain, responding to it with the same compassion and grace Jesus did. Their fields, just like Jesus’, were ripe for harvesting. There was no shortage of people around them who were just like the woman at the well, in need of the “living water” Jesus wanted to give them and a healing touch from them.
There is no shortage of people around us who are troubled and afraid, too. Do we even notice them, though? Do we respond to them with compassion and grace or just go on our busy way? What difference could we make in their lives? How could we lift their spirits and give them hope? Do we realize the gifts of respect, time and compassion transform people’s lives and all of us have these gifts to offer? Do we also understand that reaching out to others in Christ’s name feeds our spirits and allows “living waters” to flow through our lives?
Ponder these questions as you continue your Lenten pilgrimage and make yourself available to be used of God as Jesus did, even in the unlikeliest of places. I assure you it will make a difference in your own life and those you touch.