March 23, 2014

3 Lent Year A

The story of the Samaritan woman at the well is full of surprises.

The first surprise is that the conversation happens at all. Jesus is a Jew and the woman is a Samaritan. Between Samaritan and Jew there is a wall of separation much like what separates Israelis from Palestinians in our time.

 The Jews and Samaritans are related peoples. Both are Hebrews. The Samaritans are from the old northern kingdom of Israel, while the Jews are from the old southern kingdom of Judah. The Samaritans inter-married with non-Jewish peoples, and lost much of their ethnic identity, while the Jews maintained theirs. Each group ended up with their own temple and forms of worship. Most good Jews chose to avoid travelling through Samaritan territory, but then Jesus seems to always be pushing the boundaries of his people’s exclusionary legalism. And so, he strikes up a conversation with a Samaritan when they are alone at the well. 

There’s something additional that makes this conversation beside the well a surprise. In that place and time, men and women were not to talk to one another in public. It was not considered proper. This is especially so when the man is a rabbi like Jesus. And so, when the disciples return, they are astonished that Jesus is speaking with a woman.

Not only is this nameless woman a Samaritan, she is also rejected by her own people. She comes to the well to draw water at noon and she comes alone. Noon is the hottest time of the day. Morning and evening are times to do the hard work of drawing water from the well.  This is work that women do in company with one another. It is a chance for some social contact. But this woman goes to the well at a time when she will be alone. She sees herself as a misfit. She avoids others in order not to be hurt yet again by their words, their attitudes, their hard looks.

Another surprise is that Jesus promises the woman living water. Living water is water that flows, that runs, that sparkles. Such water is a welcome change from water in wells or cisterns that may be flat or even stagnant. 

At first the woman presumes that Jesus is talking about some hidden stream he knows that is far better than this well. She wants the equivalent of a faucet in her kitchen, so she won’t have to haul buckets any more, and who can blame her? But what Jesus promises is a source of water so that she can truly live. She is confused about what he offers, yet she understands it is something she needs, and needs desperately.

It’s a surprise that Jesus knows the details of this stranger’s life. Why has she had five husbands. Why is her current husband not truly her husband?  We don’t have answers to these questions, yet we recognize that this woman feels alone and has been exiled from her neighbors.

The woman is surprised that Jesus knows the truth about her. She is even more surprised that, knowing the truth, he accepts her. For her, this is an encounter with the holy. The man must be a prophet.

And so we come to another surprise. The woman asks Jesus to resolve the long-standing and divisive question of who is right: Jews or Samaritans? Which is the correct temple: Gerizim or Jerusalem? The surprise comes when Jesus raises the issue to a new level. True worship will no longer be dependent on location, but will be a matter of spirit and truth.

The conversation ends with one more surprise. The woman confesses her faith in the messiah who is to come, and Jesus says that he is that messiah. Jesus reveals his identity not to his disciples, not to his own people, not to their religious leaders, but to this person who is marginal three times over: she is a Samaritan, a woman, and an exile among her own people. We do not even know her name, yet Jesus entrusts her with his deepest truth, the truth of who he is.

The conversation ends because the disciples come back from their trip to buy food, but the surprises do not end.  The woman leaves her water jar there at the well.  It is valuable, yet it is heavy, and she wants to be unencumbered as she runs back into the city.

There in Sychar, she tells people to come and see Jesus.  “Come and see the man who told me everything I have ever done!  Can he be the messiah?”

Soon a crowd follows her out to the well.  So large is this crowd that Jesus compares it to fields ready to be harvested.  These people have accepted the woman’s testimony, and they are coming to Jesus.

It’s a surprise that someone like this bears witness.  After all, she is a reject among her people, a woman with no name, no social standing.  Her experience with Jesus is very brief, she has no training, she has not been given a commission.  It’s a surprise that people heed her.  Yet they do, for there is something attractive, compelling, authentic about her witness.

Here then we have yet another surprise in a surprising story. This unlikely prospect becomes a witness to Jesus. She may be a woman of questionable character; at the least she has had plenty of experience with the rough edges of life. True, her understanding of Jesus is far from complete. Yet she bears witness based on her personal experience.  She speaks of what she knows.

Her focus is on Jesus, not on herself. And not only does she point her own people to Jesus, but she shows us how we can find the living water Jesus offers.

We must be willing to acknowledge our thirst and what stands in the way of getting our deepest thirst quenched. Usually, the obstacle is a matter of pride; we want to go to the well by ourselves and draw our own water, over and over again.

But Jesus meets us at that same well if we will but open our eyes and ears and hear his invitation to drink from his well, from the living water that will not run dry and will always quench our deepest thirst.

We don’t need to have our life together in every way.  We don’t need to know all there is to know.  All we need to do is come to the well that is Jesus and drink.