A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
March 23, 2014
Third Sunday in Lent
Exodus 17:1-7; John 4:7-15
If you were here last week, you may recall that we talked about Jesus’ nighttime conversation with Nicodemus, the esteemed Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin. While Nicodemus began the conversation, it wasn’t long before Jesus turned it in the direction that was of interest to him, confusing Nicodemus in the process. I admitted to my own sense of bewilderment as to just exactly what Jesus meant by what he said.
The story – or at least the portion of the story – that we read earlier, recorded in John’s gospel just one chapter later, is quite a contrast to the one that precedes it; that is, the Nicodemus account. We can’t help but notice the obvious differences. The encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman occurs in the full light of mid-day, not at night. The conversation is initiated by Jesus, for obvious reasons, and rather than being fairly convoluted and difficult to follow, what Jesus tells the woman is really quite simple and direct, if not a bit surprising. It would not have been unusual for two male religious leaders to converse with one another, even if it were in secret. But for a man to initiate such a thing with a woman, especially in the full light of day, went beyond any normal expectation for that culture and that time.
In other words, these two stories could not have been more different… except for at least one thing. That has to do with one common thread that you’ll find running throughout John’s gospel. Very often, when people first encounter Jesus, they misunderstand him.1 That certainly is true of Nicodemus and the woman at the well.
Jesus has left the confines of Jerusalem, where his conversation with Nicodemus took place, and headed to the nearby Judean hills. But the hills do not shield him from controversy. His detractors attempt to drive a wedge between Jesus and John the Baptist, claiming that Jesus is garnering more disciples than is the baptizer. They use that information, by playing the numbers game, in an attempt to breed jealousy in John’s camp. “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”
That game is still being played today, unfortunately.
A story from my college days… A tiny, rural church in Dallas County, down between Sparkman and Fordyce, had called me to be their pastor. The term pastor is a euphemism for saying that I went out each Sunday and preached for them. I was hardly ready to be a pastor. But you’ve got to learn somewhere, sometime, and that small congregation graced me with the opportunity to learn a few things about serving a church. And for that, I’ll always be grateful.
The experience proved not to be free of issues. I quickly discovered that there were a couple of nearby pastors who were engaged in a baptism competition. At the annual associational meeting, held that fall, one of them was program chair. He produced a bulletin for the meeting that had a cross on it. Fair enough. The names of the churches in the association were on the bulletin cover as well, along with the number of baptisms they had experienced during the year. The higher the number, the closer the church’s name to the center of the cross. Needless to say, his church was in the very center crosspiece.
What the number didn’t reveal was that many, if not most, of those baptisms were of his own members who he had convinced were not truly saved in the first place. So they were, in truth, re-baptisms. Unfortunately, it’s these kinds of games that drive wedges between people and give reason for many to leave the church, if for no other reason than it just isn’t honest.
Jesus gets wind of this latest scheme by the Pharisees and decides the best thing to do is remove himself from the situation. He plans a trip back to Galilee where his public ministry began. That journey takes him through Samaria, not because it was the most direct route but obviously because Jesus wanted to go through Samaria. Most Jews, when making that trip, went out of their way to avoid Samaria because of the hatred between the two peoples. But not Jesus. We all know it was not in his nature to do such a thing.
Eventually, he and his disciples reach the outskirts of a Samaritan village called Sychar. Jesus’ disciples go into the village to buy supplies while he remains at the village well to rest. He’s tired from the exertion of his trip, which is perfectly understandable since Sychar is forty miles north of Jerusalem. And it is about noon, approaching the hottest time of the day. Jesus finds some shade in which to rest.
That is when the woman appears, and Jesus sees this as a serendipitous opportunity to strike up a conversation. To you and me, this seems to be a harmless thing to do. But this is the first century, please remember. Those kinds of things weren’t done back then and there. In that day and time, the prevailing attitude among men was, as John Claypool reminds us, that women “possessed neither the intellectual or the emotional capacity to deal with anything but the most menial sort of things… No rabbi would have thought of wasting his time trying to teach women the Law, because it was not believed that they had brains enough to grasp matters of that sort.”2
Plus, she is a woman of Samaria. That could have made Jesus’ attitude toward her doubly prejudicial. And she knows it. The woman is uncomfortable and embarrassed because it was a cultural commandment that men and women did not speak to one another, certainly in public, and especially if they were not of the same exact race. In other words, she would be wary of Jesus at best.
Even husbands and wives were forbidden to talk to one another in such settings. That means the only conversations between men and women were between spouses, and then only in the confines of their homes. There are places in the Middle East today that still operate this way. It is a centuries-old custom. That would have been just as true of this woman, even though she has a track record of evidently being attracted to, and by, men. After all, she has had multiple marriages, as we will find out. That means she is not exactly a poster child for Amy Vanderbilt or Emily Post… or even Martha Stewart.
And what that means initially to her is, that by asking her for a drink, Jesus is just as fallen, just as sinful, as she is. That, you would think, would put them on level ground. Except, as she quickly points out, he is a Jew and she is a Samaritan, and even people of the same gender who represented these two ethnic groups did not speak to one another… privately or in public. 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. It is not an understatement to say that Jews and Samaritans hated one another.
So, all kinds of rules are being broken by Jesus’ simple request, “Give me a drink.” He knows that and so does she. But since he initiated the conversation, she’s got nothing to lose by responding. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”
Please understand, this has nothing to do with hygiene. Speaking of hygiene, are you familiar with the five-second rule? If you drop a portion of food on your kitchen floor – say, a bite of cookie or a potato chip – do you pick it up and put it in your mouth? I watched a discussion about this on television last week. It included a medical authority who expressed the professional opinion that it’s all right to eat something that has just been dropped on the floor, depending on where it falls and what kind of food it is. The kitchen floor is okay. A public sidewalk… probably not.
Janet and I have a sister-in-law who quickly disregards the five-second rule regardless of where the spill may occur. She loves Mexican, but when you go out with her you better be prepared to get your own salsa or cheese dip. She won’t share, even if you don’t double dip your chip. She has a phobia about germs and sharing food with others.
This is not where the Samaritan woman is coming from. This has nothing to do with hygiene. It has to do with cultural hatred. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”
And that is just the question Jesus is waiting for. He pounces on it like a hungry lion on a piece of meat. In fact, we get the sense that he asks a drink from her, not so much because he is tired and thirsty from his forty-mile journey, but because he wants to share with this unnamed woman his vision of the kingdom and his ability to embody for her the gift of eternal life.
Oddly, referring to himself in the third person, he says, “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 she immediately understands what he means, doesn’t she? Of course not… not any more than you or I would had we been in her sandals. Remember, in John’s gospel, many of the people who first encounter Jesus are puzzled by his behavior toward them and by what he says to them.
As far as this woman can tell, Jesus isn’t just a stranger, he’s a Jew… a Jewish stranger who’s willing to talk to a woman he does not know. This may not have been exactly a public conversation, with others to see or hear, but who’s to say someone isn’t listening in? She’s obviously a woman who has learned over the years to get by on her wits, and to know how to deal with a salty reputation that has been justly earned (I mean, just look at all those marriages and her current situation). She has learned to deal with life, and all its harsh realities, straight on. Her mindset is not to deal with nuance. People who are just getting by can’t afford the luxury of being philosophical, and for that reason she doesn’t understand what he means by living water. Water is water, right? Everybody needs water in order to live, don’t you know.
“You have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?”
“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.” He’s abandoned the use of the third person and speaks directly. “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” Now that sounds like a proposition! She’ll take it! “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
But you and I know that if it sounds too good to be true, it is too good to be true. Right?
For example, we won’t ask for a show of hands of those present here today who have ever bought a time-share. We don’t want to embarrass anybody. But we will point out that businesses which buy back time shares are about as prolific as those who sell them. They do have a way of making it sound so enticing, don’t they? There’s just no way you can lose. But, in order to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity, you have to make a decision right here and right now! Otherwise, the deal is off the table.
Yeah, when it comes to such things, you can lose all right. You can lose quite a bit. If it sounds too good to be true, it is too good to be true.
Jesus comes across like a time-share salesman, and the woman bites on the very first sales pitch. “Give me this water,” she says, “so I don’t have to come back to this well in the middle of the day to avoid all the gossip my presence generates.”
We didn’t read the rest of the story, but my guess is that most of us are familiar with it. Or we think we are. Jesus reveals to the woman that he can look right through her, and tells her things about herself that he shouldn’t have had the ability to know… namely, that she’s the first-century equivalent of Elizabeth Taylor, has been married five times and is currently involved in a situation with a man who is not her husband.
But Jesus isn’t like any time-share salesman you ever encountered. First of all, what he offers is free. And what he offers is full and complete acceptance. Her past, her present, don’t matter. Her willingness to accept what he has to give is all that counts.
Just about everybody in this room has done that already. We’ve drunk from the gushing stream of water that Jesus offers us. We’ve encountered Jesus at the well. So what is our place in all this? Does this fascinating story still have something for us?
I think it has, and offer this to you for your consideration. Continuing to drink from the well we call Jesus is to be the presence of Christ to others and to offer them the same water he has given us. And how do we do that? We can’t see in someone else’s heart and know what is there. Not like Jesus can. But we can know that everyone we meet – everyone we meet – is struggling to some degree. And we can accept others as Jesus does, and give him the opportunity to do for them what he did for that unnamed Samaritan woman so long ago. The water is already there. All we have to do is show someone else where to drink.
You see, she had spent a lifetime trying to fill her bucket in ways that did not satisfy. And all her efforts – her marriages, her relationships – amounted to little or nothing. Now, Jesus offers her that which fills one up to eternal life. I checked my thesaurus. Another word for “satisfy” is fill. Everywhere we go, you and I, we encounter others who are making vain attempts to fill their lives with that which ultimately does not matter. It is to these that we must be Christ embodied.
If that is true, how are we doing? Well…?
Lord, give us, we pray, your water to drink. Then, put your cup in our hands that we might offer it to others. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
1George W. Stroup, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010),, p. 92.
2John Claypool, “Adjectives, Nouns and Redemption” (unpublished sermon, July 16, 1978).