Lent Week 3: A Woman at a Well

This year during the Lenten season we have been looking at events and conversations in the life of Jesus on his way to the cross.  This week we stay in John for another reading that is likely familiar to many of you.

Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John— although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.

Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.

When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

“I have no husband,” she replied.

Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”

–John 4:1-26

She lived in a town called Sychar, in the heart of Samaria. Samaria was right smack in the middle of things; if you wanted to go from Judea to Galilee or vice versa, you had to go through Samaria.

The Jews hated the Samaritans–so much that they avoided Samaria if they could at all help it. Anytime they needed to get from Judea to Galilee or vice versa, they would cross the Jordan and detour via the east side. The feeling was probably mutual on the part of the Samaritans. Jews saw the Samaritans as half-breeds–people who intermarried with foreigners out of convenience and disrespect for the ways of God. The Samaritans worshiped on a different mountain. They used a bastardized version of the books of Moses.

So here she was, coming to the well, lugging her jar all the way up the hill under the oppressive heat of the noonday sun.  You didn’t come to the well to get water in the middle of the day unless you had a really good reason.  It was just too hot.  Lugging that water jug all the way to the well and then all the way back home was hard enough; why add to your trouble by dealing with the heat of the noonday sun as well?  For this reason, the vast majority of the town’s women went to the well at twilight; there was just enough light to see where you were going but not enough to be oppressively hot.

And therein was her problem.  You see, this woman had some baggage.  She had had five husbands; each one had divorced her and cut her loose for some reason or another.  We don’t know.  Now she was living with another man, “living in sin” as we might say.  The rabbis wouldn’t grant her another marriage; they had been lenient enough with her as it is with numbers four and five.

Though we don’t know the details of this poor woman’s personal life, that didn’t stop the other women of the town from speculating and formulating their own judgments.  Said judgments were often communicated in whispers just loud enough for her to hear–intended to be loud enough for her to hear–whenever she was around.  Given the choice between dealing with that and dealing with the noonday sun, she preferred to take her chances with the sun.  The noonday sun was crazy hot but at least it didn’t gossip behind your back.

But on this day, things were a little different. There was a man sitting there at the well. A man who wasn’t from around here. Now in that culture, Jews just didn’t associate with Samaritans. (You knew that already.) And men didn’t associate with women. Women were viewed as second-class citizens and there were all sorts of complicated cultural protocols that you went through to arrange a marriage and you just didn’t step outside of that.

But Jesus didn’t care about such things. (You knew that already too.) And so he asked this Samaritan woman for a drink. Really he didn’t need it, but when you’re chillaxing at the local well, that’s as good a conversation starter as any.

Now in John, Jesus is all over the place. He will start in one place and then quickly jump to something completely different. We saw this last week with Nicodemus, and we see it again here. After the woman expresses her incredulity that Jesus would ask her for a drink or even talk to her in the first place, he starts talking about living water. “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

The woman obviously is thinking of well water. This kind of water requires work. Hard work. “You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?” But Jesus is talking about something completely different. Water that bubbles up from inside of you and never runs dry. You can drink this water and never be thirsty again. This water does not come from Jacob’s well or from any other source here on earth. This water flows from the Lord, the fountain of Israel.

Now the woman’s interest is piqued. “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” Not quite, but close. She is still thinking well water and not having to come up to Jacob’s well every day. She still doesn’t have a clue who this Jesus is, other than some stranger claiming to offer her water that is better than what she can get at the well.

“Go, call your husband.” Ah, now the truth comes out. Jesus doesn’t go there in order to shame her or accuse her, as the other women of the town would, only to show her that he is much more than anything she had ever suspected up to that point. He is greater than Moses or Jacob or Abraham. She senses that he is some kind of prophet. Good. Maybe he can settle that age-old question that had divided Jews and Samaritans: Which mountain? But worship is not a matter of which mountain when the Son of God is standing right there in the flesh, right there in front of you.

“God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” True worship of the Father is through the Son who is the Truth in the Holy Spirit. In Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus last week we saw that the Father begets the very worshipers He seeks through water and the Spirit. Worship is not a matter of finding the right mountain–or the right church, or the right denomination–but of being found by Jesus.  You don’t get close to God by climbing up mountains to get to him, or by searching for the one true Church or the place that has it all right doctrinally or that offers a smashup musical worship experience or whatever.  God gets close to you by coming down to you, putting on human flesh and taking it to the cross.  You worship by receiving what God has to offer you.

“I know that the Messiah is coming, and he’ll straighten it all out.” So she says to Jesus.  But she doesn’t know the half of it. “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.” One of the very few times in all of the Gospels when Jesus comes out and says straight up that he is the Christ. He doesn’t say this to any of the high and mighty religious types of Israel–not this directly, at least–but he says it to this poor, miserable train wreck of a woman with a train wreck of a life, who had had five husbands and was now living with what would have been number six.

Remember that we, too, are the Samaritan woman. The only difference is that we have superior means at our disposal to maintain the illusion of respectability and of having it all together. When you have the cushy job and the new house in a fashionable part of town, when you have the 2.6 kids and the minivan on a quiet and safe suburban street, it is so easy to pretend that you have it all together. But scratch a little below the surface and it gets real messy, real quick.

“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) This is grace–pure, unmerited favor from God. While we were still sinners. A Samaritan woman at a well. And each of us.


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