A sermon on Exodus 17:1-7 and John 4:4-29 preached on March 23rd, 2014.
Jesus does something very dangerous. It isn’t the first time he breaks age-old rules in an attempt to get to know the hurt and the disenfranchised among him—to offer them healing and new life simply by being in their presence.
Jesus approaches people who have been deemed by law or by social convention unapproachable, he reaches out to heal those who are considered un-healable. He speaks to people who he should not speak to. And this time it’s a woman, not only that: a Samaritan woman.
The social and religious boundaries in place during Jesus’ time never kept him from connecting with the wounded and the humiliated. And here we have the deepest example of Jesus’ compassion. Here, Jesus ignores so many different taboos by speaking to this woman at the well. Among all 4 gospels, this is the longest conversation that Jesus has with anyone, including his disciples. And if he cared at all about the social and religious rules of his day, he wouldn’t have had this conversation at all.
Jesus is going through Samaria. No, there’s a better way to say that. John, this gospel’s writer, says it like this, and I wonder if you heard it:
Jesus had to go through Samaria.
Jesus is well into his journey to Jerusalem. And Samaria was in the way. John says it like it’s the worst place in the world, there’s so many other nicer ways to put it than this: “Jesus had to go through Samaria.” What a terrible place filled with even worse people—those Samaritans!
In Samaria there was a well. Jacob’s Well. Both the Israelites and the Samaritans claimed this ancient well as their own. And, for both, it was a holy place. This well in the middle of this contested land was the very same one that Jacob and his 12 sons—the sons whose decedents became the 12 tribes of Israel—drank from. Jacob was the father of Israel and of Samaria. And this water was still flowing through this ancient well just as it did thousands of years ago. It still gave water to the parched people who traveled to it everyday. Women hiked up its hill with their jars in tow, gathering enough water in their jars to keep their family hydrated—a little to cook and clean with, too.
This is no place for a man to be. It was the women who fetched their family’s water, and a man going up to a well when he knows he will encounter a woman. Not a smart idea. Husbands jealously claimed their wives as their own, and there was no good reason for any man to approach a strange woman—and it was even worse for a man to put himself in a situation where he was all alone with one. Jesus knew better. But up to this well he climbed anyway.
Village wells were the water coolers of their day. Women congregated at Jacob’s Well in the early morning before sun made the day unbearable. They brought their jars and the latest gossip and up at the top of the hill they stayed, kibitzing, commiserating, and socializing. Being a woman in Samaria was oppressive, and time spent away from husbands and fathers—time spent with other women was as refreshing as the water they had come to fetch. It must have been something all the women of the village looked forward to each day. But that was in the morning and maybe later in the evening after the sun went down. It was high noon in Samaria when Jesus came trekking up the hill to ask for a drink. It could be that Jesus thought they’re wouldn’t be anyone up there that time of day. It was way too hot. But there she was.
This one Samaritan woman must have been an outcast among all the rest of the women in her village.
We don’t know why, but if she was up at Jacob’s Well at the hottest part of the day, then she knew she would be there well after all the other women had left. She may have been banished from their presence. Unaccepted by all the rest. But whatever the problem was, it was bad enough that she came to the well when she knew she would be there all by herself.
Jesus approaches her and asks for a drink. The woman at the well (notice we never learn her name) must have felt nervous. This was not the situation any woman of her day wants to be in. Frankly, she probably just wants to be left alone.
Jesus is thirsty and asks her for a drink. But as this conversation unfolds, we find that there is more than one person on the hilltop who needs their thirst quenched.
This Samaritan woman thirsts for something that this water has never satisfied. She doesn’t even know what can quench her thirst—this unmet need she has. All this scrambling everyday—trudging up to the top of this well in the scorching sun. Something to fill more than her jar. Something to fill the parched places inside of her. Maybe she’s been looking for something like living water all of her life. Those parts of her that thirst for something deeper—that need to be brought to life again.
This woman has been married 5 times and is now living with another man.
Whenever we read this story, we think that Jesus is calling out this woman for doing something sinful: for getting divorced 5 times. But as we learned a couple weeks ago when we were going through the Sermon on the Mount, that’s not what’s happening here at all. You’ll remember that women had no control over their divorces in Jesus’ time.
Husbands were well within their rights to hand their wives divorce papers and send them out of their house whenever they wanted and for whatever reason they wanted. Wives in this day were completely disposable. So when Jesus tells this woman her own story—that she has been divorced 5 times—Jesus isn’t trying to humiliate her by bringing up something she’s ashamed about, Jesus is saying that he knows how unfairly she has been treated by others. He is being compassionate to her and telling her that he understands the hardship that she has been through.
Can you hear her sense of frustration? Her disillusionment? Do you see the drudgework assigned to her? Can you feel the weight of her life hoisted upon her shoulders—dropped like a ton of bricks onto her chest?
Jesus seems to know that this woman carries something a whole lot heavier than this water jar by her side. There’s a heaviness to her being. She is seeking deep relief. Jesus knows that she has had enough hardship and disappointment in her life—that she has been treated unjustly for far too long and that she thirsts for something more. Deeper relationship. Something trustworthy and reliable. Something that would bring her more life.
This is a story of transformation and liberation. There are so many who live parched lives—who seek to be refreshed and restored by a different sort of water: a kind of water that revitalizes our spirits.
Yes, Jesus knows we thirst—and what we thirst for, and Jesus has a selfless and insatiable thirst to restore us all to wholeness and to free us from our burdens.
And that water jar. Everyday she trudged along with that heavy thing. That was one of the weights this Samaritan woman carried. Walking back and forth across her village—up and down that hill where Jacob’s Well stood.
That jar was her burden. One of many. Maybe that heavy water jar was a symbol of all the things she carried inside of her. Its load was just a sliver of the entire load she carried in her heart and in her soul. All those broken relationships. Her husbands who threw her out on the street. Those other women who congregated every morning at Jacob’s Well—the ones she used to get along with.
Yes, the weight of that water jar represented the weight of every burden she every carried.
Did you catch the part where she left her water jar behind? Up there on that hill on that particular day, this woman was freed from what brought her down for so long, and she ran down into her village—the very village full of people she was estranged from, and she said to those same people, “Come see!”
Come see a man who has told me everything I’ve ever done!
Presbyterian pastor Anna Carter Florence stops us there and suggests there is more hidden inside these words from the Samaritan woman…
Come see a man who has told me everything I’ve ever done…and loved me anyway!
Jesus is the One who finds us where we are—in the bone-dry places where we have for too long carried our too heavy loads.
Jesus finds us there and offers us living water.
All praises to the One who frees us. Who loves us just as we are…who made it all and finds it beautiful.