Luke 6:46-49; John 4:1-15
There are certain storylines that work culturally because we value what they are offering to us or we are used to stories being told in a certain way. So in romantic comedies it is often the case that the two people who are going to fall in love meet in some crazy way at the beginning of the movie— maybe they run into each other and their books and papers go flying— and instantly you know those are the two who will be together at the end of the movie. Or in a mystery novel there are certain clues that are dropped throughout so that the puzzle comes together just in time for the main character to figure it all out. But these things don’t always work cross-culturally. I remember listening to an interview with the comedian Kumail Nanjiani who grew up in Pakistan. As a kid he loved American movies, but he said there were some that he just didn’t get until he came to America in high school. One of those was Ferris Bueller’s Day Off— a movie about a kid who skips school and convinces his friends to do things they wouldn’t normally do— like take out their father’s prized convertible—to make a great adventure. Nanjiani said he was horrified that a teenager would do that. Coming from a culture in which family is prioritized over individual desires, he couldn’t figure out why this movie was portraying Ferris Bueller as a hero, when he was convincing everyone to break all of the rules. It wasn’t until he was in America for a few years that he understood how that movie fits into one of our cultural norms about teenagers needing to rebel against rules and be individuals.
All of this is to say that there are cultural clues in stories that we sometimes miss out on because we read or hear a story and immediately put our own cultural lens on it instead of learning what its early hearers would’ve heard. And our story this morning, is one of those stories. So this morning I’m going to give you a few of the clues that are in this story that are meant to tell you something. The first clue, right away, is that it’s noon. We are in chapter four in the Gospel of John, and in the previous chapter, just a few verses before, Nicodemus, highly respected religious leader, came to Jesus at night— hidden, in the cloak of darkness, to ask questions he knew the other religious leaders wouldn’t want him to ask. So this story of the woman at the well, is in stark contrast to that. This woman is out during the day— she is transparent; she isn’t hiding anything; she’s also at the well at the hottest point of the day— which some people speculate was to avoid any crowds at the well. She’s alone, and it’s not too much to speculate that she may be isolated from her community.
The next clue that is dropped like a bombshell on the early hearers of this story, is that she is a Samaritan. Ironically, in our day today, samaritan has become another word for “someone who does good” precisely because of Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan. But this is the exact opposite for Jesus’ community. The Samaritans of Jesus’ day believed that God lived on Mt. Gerazim, and they built a temple there; while Judeans believed God lived in the Temple in Jerusalem. So the Samaritans are despised by Judeans— by Jesus’ people. Samaritans are almost seen as worse than those who believe in a completely different God because they claim to believe in the God of Abraham and Sarah, but they believe that God lives in a different place. So no one in Jesus’ community talked or interacted with Samaritans. But here Jesus is, at the well, and he’s the one who interacts with her— not the other way around.
The third clue, is that we shouldn’t get too distracted by the fact that the woman tells Jesus she has had five husbands. In our 21st Century minds, even though half of all marriages end in divorce, there is a ton of judgment that happens when we read this story. We hear about five divorces, and our knee jerk reaction is often one of failure and suspicion about promiscuity. So let me just say that the facts are, women in Jesus’ day, could not choose to be divorced. And the number one reason women were divorced in that day, was because they couldn’t have children. So I want us to step back a moment from the judgment ledge— both for this woman and for any of you who, in hearing this story, were already beginning to feel the judgment, and tell you that this is a moment for grace and nothing less.
Which, is exactly what Jesus offers.
Because here is the fourth clue— they are at a well. And not only are they at a well, but they are at Jacob’s well. And what did Jacob’s well stand for in Jesus’ day? Jacob’s well was a literal place to get water, which everyone needs, but it was also a symbol of life because of the relationship that Jacob found at that well. Jacob, the grandson of Abraham and son of Isaac, found his wife Rachel at that well— and it is from that relationship that the tribes of Israel were born. All of Israel traces its heritage back to this well— to this relationship— that God made happen so that God’s promise to Abraham, that his ancestors would be more than the stars— could come true.
Now Jesus, of course, is not offering this woman romantic love. Even though they’re basically at the most romantic spot in all of Israel, we know that’s not Jesus’ intention, and she’s mostly likely had more husbands than she ever wanted anyway! But they do engage in conversation. They begin to build a relationship. They both come with some sort of mutual vulnerability, Jesus is physically thirsty and asks for a drink; the woman is thirsty in a way she doesn’t know how to quench. And in this interaction, between a Samaritan and a Judean; between a man and a woman; between someone with power and someone without much power at all, something happens. Through a misunderstanding about what Jesus’ is talking about, this woman comes to see that there is something different about this man. That he is offering her life and life abundant— that he sees her for who she is and accepts her.
In the Story for All Ages we read the scripture about building our lives upon the rock that is Jesus rather than the sand of this world, and here we have a perfect example of that because all of the clues add up to this fact: This woman, whoever she was, had been trying to live on the cultural norms of her day. She had tried repeatedly to get married and have children and live happily ever after— but she didn’t fit into that cultural norm, so she was suffering because she didn’t fit the mold that her community told her she had to fit into. And then here comes Jesus who says to her, “what’s important is the truth of your heart.” And he gives her the news that he is the Messiah. In fact, this is the first person in John’s Gospel to whom Jesus will say, “I AM”— the same name God gave Moses. She is the first person Jesus is straightforward with about who he is!
There will be many people Jesus will interact with who will turn and go home and won’t be able to change their lives to build upon the rock that is Christ. But this woman is not one of them. She leaves this interaction and she is empowered to share the Good News. She shares it so widely with her community in Sychar, that a few verses later we are told her whole community was transformed.
You see this is the good news. Her witness did not depend on her understanding perfectly what it was that Jesus was about— she questions whether he’s the Messiah even as she tells people who he is. Her witness does not depend on her being the model example of what it meant to be a Judean woman— she was a kind of outcast. What made her able to be courageous and to share the good news, is that she spent time with Jesus and in that relationship that she had with Jesus, she knew she was loved and accepted. And that made all the difference in the world— not just for her, but for everyone.
That is our goal this week with Vacation Bible School— that every child that comes into this building will leave knowing that they are loved and accepted. And that is my hope for you. Because when we start first with love, the world changes. When we start first with love, our lives can be transformed. When we start first with knowing that we are loved no matter what— then the good news can come pouring from us that Jesus has come to bring life and life abundant— not just for some, but for all.
Do you remember that famous verse in the third chapter of John— “that God so loved the world that God gave God’s only son, that whoever believed in him shall not perish but have eternal life? For God did not come into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Ten verses later, Jesus shows us what it looks like to love the world. Ten verses later Jesus lives out what it looks like to save the world. It looks like loving our neighbors. It looks like loving those others call our enemies. It looks like being present to the people who are right in front of us, listening well to who they are, and extending grace beyond all measure. What does that look like for you this week? What do you need to do to build your relationship with God and to build relationships with your neighbors so that your life can be built on the rock that is Jesus?
Resources Consulted: “Sermon Brainwave” podcast Lewis, Kate.Workingpreacher.org