Year A, Lent 3 John 4:5-42
Three strikes. The woman in our Gospel reading for today had three strikes against her—three good reasons for Jesus to avoid her. First, she was a woman. Men and women who were not related didn’t interact, especially if they were alone. It would have been scandalous for a man, especially a rabbi to have an extended conversation with a woman he had just met. Second, she was Samaritan. The Jews and Samaritans didn’t get along—they hadn’t gotten along for centuries. It was unusual for a Jew even to be in an area populated by Samaritans. Third, she was not married and had 5 husbands in her past. Some have described her as a harlot of even a prostitute, but let’s remember that women didn’t have the right to divorce their husbands at this time. If she had 5 husbands, it was because they died or they divorced her, probably because she was barren. Regardless of the reason she had gone through 5 husbands, she would still have been judged harshly by the people in her community.
Any one of these reasons would have been a good enough reason for Jesus to avoid her. Instead, he engaged in a rather lengthy theological dialogue. In all the Gospels, in all the recorded conversations that Jesus ever had with anyone, this was the longest. Why? Was he just passing time until the disciples returned? Of course not, if John felt this was important enough to include in the Gospel, then this conversation had a purpose. It meant something—not just for the woman and Jesus, but for the people in the new Christian community, for whom the Gospel of John was written.
It starts with a simple request on the part of Jesus. He’s sitting by a well in the heat of the day and he is thirsty. So he asks the woman with the bucket if he could have some of her water. Seems like a perfectly natural and reasonable request. She is shocked by this request because Jews and Samaritans didn’t share things and why in the world is this man sitting by a well without a bucket. (It’s not like there was a hose attached.)
And then, because this is the Gospel of John and John likes to use symbols as much as possible, Jesus starts talking to the woman about living water. Now you might remember that just last week, in the chapter before this one, Jesus tried to have a similar conversation with a learned Pharisee named Nicodemus. That conversation was much shorter because Nicodemus either didn’t understand or didn’t want to understand what Jesus was saying. However this woman, who would not have had the education of Nicodemus or the confidence that would be required to converse with a man like Jesus— this woman engages with Jesus. When Jesus starts talking about living water she asks how she can get this water instead of dismissing the idea. When she thinks she understands what it means, she asks him for the water. This is an extraordinarily brave dialogue for a woman with little social standing and probably considerable shame to have with a man like Jesus.
Then Jesus asks something rather peculiar, at least to my ears. He asks her to get her husband and then come back. Now, if I was in her situation, I think I would have just said, “Sure, I will do just that.” Then I would have just not come back. I mean really, what does she owe this stranger? He doesn’t need to know anything about her personal life. Either she wasn’t as ashamed as most women in this period would have been or she could tell Jesus was special and she wanted to continue the conversation. She responds with a statement of her own, one that spoke to the difference between the Samaritans and the Jews. She points out that they worshipped at different places. Some people think that she was just trying to change the subject, that he had gotten a little too personal and it was better to delve into theological differences instead of her marital history.
But I think that when Jesus reveals what he knew of her she could tell that he wasn’t just any man…not only because he knew something he had no reason to know, but because it doesn’t seem to bother him. It doesn’t end the conversation. He doesn’t judge her the way others might have.. because perhaps he sees her for what she is, not a cast off wife of 5 husbands, but a child of God who wants to know more about God. She does the thing that Nicodemus (a supposed man of God) could not do. She continues the conversation. She allows herself to be known by this holy man she didn’t quite understand. And in return, Jesus revealed himself as the God he is.
He speaks the word that eventually gets him killed. “I am he.” Literally translated, “I am.” This is how God refers to Godself in the Old Testament. When Moses asks God to tell him his name, God responds with, “I am.” This became the name of God, the name that cannot be pronounced. At this time, to say the name of God would be blasphemy. Thus Jesus reveals to this woman the greatest and most dangerous truth of all. He bears his own soul, which is what allows her to open herself to him and to start believing in him.
How do we know she now believes? Remember this is the Gospel of John and symbols matter. She leaves the well, but also leaves her water jar. Most people only had one water jar. It was the only way to collect water. Without it, she would die of thirst. So either she was coming back or she understood more about this living water thing than most give her credit for. Or maybe it was both.
She returned to the town, to the people who probably had all judged her for going through 5 husbands and told them, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” She still isn’t sure. You can tell by the way she asks the question. She is expecting a negative response. Yet she also knows that there is something there, something worth sharing.
She is the first person in the Gospel of John to spread the news about Jesus. She is the first evangelist. And guess what, many came to believe because of her message. It wasn’t just her message. Her message led them to Jesus and he ended up being the one who convinced them. That’s how evangelism works.
We introduce people to Jesus and Jesus does the rest of the work. Sometimes I think people assume that they have to be secure in their faith and be outstanding Christians before they can possibly pass on the good news of Jesus Christ. Yet this woman, this very first evangelist, still had questions when she passed on the news. She also had passion and excitement. Maybe that is what we are missing more than assurance. We have forgotten what it is to be excited about what Jesus has to tell us and teach us. It’s possible we never had that excitement.
I think it’s harder to get excited about your faith when you been in it most of your life. We also don’t have the benefit of a face to face conversation with Jesus. That doesn’t mean all hope is lost for those of us who can’t meet Jesus at a well. It just means that we have to try a little harder. We have to keep having the conversations with God and also having the conversations with others about God. This Samaritan woman came to know Jesus through questions and conversation. It wasn’t a miracle or a revelation.
Perhaps that is the exciting part—we don’t need to wait for miracles or revelations in our faith journey. No, we just get in there and talk to God. We talk to God, we worship God, we serve God’s people and we talk to God some more. It’s not always fun or exciting. Sometimes it can even feel a little dull. That’s ok. They key is that you never stop talking to God, never stop asking the hard questions and never be afraid to show your true self to God. The more of ourselves we can share with God, the more God will share with us.