Sunday Night Worship – 2/17/08

“At the Well”
John 4: 5-42

Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: Jesus could have taken another route. He didn’t have to travel through Samaria. The first few verses of this chapter (which we didn’t read) set this story up with a description of Jesus traveling from Judea back to Galilee and claim that “he had to go through Samaria” (John 4: 4). I don’t buy it.

I mean, this is the gospel that begins with that great echo from Genesis, declaring Jesus to be the very Word of God, with God from the beginning of all that is. This is the gospel where Jesus’ first miracle – at Cana – is turning water into wine. This is the gospel in which Mary of Bethany not only anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume, but then wipes them with her hair. This is a gospel with some inherent tensions: Jesus is Word (capital W) and yet he is sensually human, someone who enjoys Mary’s elaborate foot treatment and someone who sits down by the well because he was “tired out by his journey” (v.6). So, when Jesus takes a notion to go through Samaria, when a thirsty Jesus decides to sit by a well in the desert at noon and wait until a Samaritan woman approaches before he does anything about getting some water – we should pay attention. There wasn’t any other road for him to travel, was there? Well.

This is a gospel where Jesus’ seemingly random conversation with an unnamed woman of an enemy people gets 38 verses – one of the longest conversations he has with anyone. It’s tempting to contrast this story with the one we read about Nicodemus visiting Jesus in the night. It is interesting to consider the curious contrasts: a named male Jewish leader seeks out Jesus in the night; an unnamed female Samaritan is minding her own business when Jesus seeks her out. Most biblical commentaries contrast the woman at the well with Nicodemus, using her as an example of someone who accepts Jesus’ message and casting Nicodemus in less favorable light as one who couldn’t get past his silly questions to grasp what Jesus was trying to tell him. There may be something to these comparisons but that’s not where we are going today.

She may not have earned a name in the biblical account, but this Samaritan woman is the first person in John’s gospel to hear Jesus reveal himself as the Christ. And this after a strange ramble of a conversation, touched off when Jesus presents his simple request for a drink (v.7). He’s a foreigner in her land, thirsty from the travel, and in need of her hospitality. The woman’s initial reaction is to question him right back, wondering at his flouting of Jewish purity laws. By this point it would seem Jesus should be very thirsty and intently focused on getting a drink to his lips, but he answers her back: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (v.10).

What begins as a relationship of hospitality continues as one, but it becomes less clear as the conversation continues who is giving and who is receiving. Jesus seems to be both asking for a drink and offering to quench the woman’s thirst. The woman moves from considering his request to imploring him to give her the strange water he calls living water. Who is asking whom for what?

This scene reminds me of a letter one of our past Wesley Foundation student presidents sent out to area churches one summer, inviting them to help provide meals for our Thursday night dinners. A week or so after the letters went out I ran into a pastor who mentioned the letter, chuckling a little and saying, “David invited us to partake in the opportunity to cook for the Foundation students.”  To which I said, “Well, isn’t it an opportunity, to serve?”

Hospitality is a wily endeavor. There have to be two sides, two roles, to the relationship. But without some fluidity of roles, you end up with handouts or mooching or self-aggrandizement or any number of other distortions. If you enter into a situation of hospitality convinced that you know all the rules, chances are you don’t. If you like to have a script in advance and follow it without wavering, then hospitality isn’t the thing for you.

Jesus and the woman know a little something about hospitality. Each has something to offer and to receive and it seems that only in this dance of an encounter at the well, where the roles of giver and receiver flow like water, are they each affected by the other person. By the times she pleads with Jesus for some of this crazy living water “[the woman] has moved from seeing Jesus as a thirsty Jew who knowingly violates social convention to seeing him as someone whose gifts she needs” (NIB, p. 567).

How does this happen? How does the skeptical woman end up trusting the strange man with her life?

I think the trust begins with him.

I told you Jesus could have traveled by another route. Sure, he could have stayed safely out of Samaritan territory, clean away from that estranged part of the Jewish family tree. He could have set up just at the edge of Samaria and called to them across the border, offering living water from a safe distance, in a more respectable manner. He could have.

But what does he do instead? He walks right into enemy territory and plops himself down at the well. And when the least likely candidate for divine revelation shows up….he asks her for something she can give. Then he asks her about her life, her family situation. He recognizes the truth when she speaks it. He lets her know he hears it, sees her, and wants to get familiar with the details of her life.

Some folks want to focus on the woman’s marital status and history. Jesus doesn’t do this. It’s of little importance. The focal point of this whole story isn’t a list of husbands.  It’s the jar.

That water jar she left behind, her one response to Jesus’ self-revelation. Like other disciples who leave behind boats and tax offices to follow Jesus, she leaves behind her water jar and runs back to town to give everyone she meets her testimony: “He told me everything I have ever done” (Storyteller’s New Testament Women, p. 128; v.39)

Just think how little Jesus had to say in order for her to feel that he had a grasp on her whole life. When’s the last time someone listened to you like that? When’s the last time you went out of your way to pay attention to the details of someone else’s life?

On several occasions I have heard my seminary professor Don Saliers mention somewhat wistfully that his singer-songwriter daughter Emily, of the Indigo Girls, can get 9000 people to sing along with every word of her songs, while he can’t get a congregation of 30 Methodists to sing a hymn. ( ) Our culture is thirsty for the living water that can quench our deepest thirsts, but too often too many people experience the church as just another parched patch of desert. Don’t get me wrong. I am one of the 9000 singing along at the Indigo Girls concerts and I am thankful for the ways God speaks to me inside and outside of these walls. What disturbs me is that too often we choose which side of the wall to live on.

I was flipping through The Christian Century magazine a while back and saw a seminary advertisement featuring a young man wearing a bandana on his head, an earring in his ear, and a wary scowl on his face. The copy was: “The last thing he wants is a sermon. How will you communicate God’s love to him?”

Indeed. You know, Jesus spends an extra two days in Samaria because of this woman. When she runs back to town she just keeps telling everyone she sees about this man who has spoken her whole life to her. “Come and see [the one] who told me everything I have ever done!” (v.29). And they come. Based on her testimony of this life-giving encounter, the people come in droves. Because she believed, they came to believe.

When’s the last time we ran from church on a Sunday afternoon, eager to proclaim all the good God has worked in our lives? When’s the last time we turned to each other in the pews to testify to our experience of the living God? When the last thing much of the world outside these walls wants is a sermon, how will we communicate God’s love, if not with the proof of our lives?

This is a week when the outside has come inside here on the Wesley block. Last night began our 2 weeks of hosting the PACEM homeless shelter here in our buildings. It’s a simple and life-giving idea: a moving shelter for homeless men in the coldest months of the year. Each church takes a week or two to offer beds, showers, hot meals, and companionship in the evenings.

We could take another route. It’s easier for us not to learn each other’s names, to stick to the rules, to go straight through on our journeys without stopping at foreign wells. We are hosting a group of unnamed men these 2 weeks. People who our society likes to blame for their circumstances. People who might need someone who can tell them everything they have ever done. Or who may be able to see you clearly enough to tell you about the things you’ve done.

It’s easier to let them remain unnamed. But we have the opportunity to tarry. We can stop by the well this week and next. Take a load off. We can offer hospitality – and receive it – with thirsty, nameless, strangers passing through.

Maybe we think we are the ones who can offer a cold draw of water from the well. Maybe we can. But sometimes the rules and the roles of hospitality get confused and the one who comes asking is the one who bestows the gifts.

What if the living water Christ promises is to be found among the community in the church basement every night? What if we miss out on it because we think we’re not thirsty or because it’s been so long since we relied on someone else for a cup of cold water?

Leave your jars, your boats, your tax offices….your tax returns, your load of laundry, that pile of reading and study problems…Try it this week…Come by the well and drink deeply. Leave your jars behind and receive the water, like a stream that catches your whole life up in its course.

Thanks be to God!

© 2008 Deborah E. Lewis