5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)[a] 10 Jesus answered her, “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.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” (Continue reading on Bible Gateway).
This lengthy passage that begins with a conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman and ends with the confession on the part of her Samaritan neighbors that Jesus is the “Savior of the World” offers us a wealth of possibilities. We can dip our buckets into this well and find multiple images and opportunities – especially for the preacher. As Anna Carter Florence puts it:
If I were asked to pick one story that shows us the most about who Jesus is, it would be this one. Here is a passage for a preaching life and a lifetime of preaching. Here too is a text with its own bucket, ready for the filling. Let it down again and again, and each time it comes up with another sermon of living water, another deep drink from the well that will not go dry. [Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 2: Lent Through Eastertide, p.93]
The preacher can go in any number of directions, mining the riches that are found in this portion of John’s always revelatory text.
This is a passage of scripture that is rich, as well, in irony. George Stroup, offering a theological perspective on this passage, offers the suggestive idea that John chooses to use irony to tell his story—consider that the Samaritan Woman thinks that Jesus is the one who needs water, when in reality it is she who needs water. John uses irony to tell the story because Jesus is the “ironical Christ.” Consider the confession Christians make that Jesus is “fully human and fully God.” That is, Jesus cannot be Word of God without also being son of Joseph. Stroup writes:
From “the beginning” the son of Joseph was the Word made flesh. John tells his Gospel the way he does, not because he is fond of irony. The story that he tells demands irony. [Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 2, p. 96].
Jesus is on his way back from Judea to Galilee. To get there they must traverse Samaritan territory. As many will know, Jews and Samaritans weren’t fond of each other. They have rival visions of how and where to worship God. They even have rival Scriptures. There is much about this passage that speaks of crossing boundaries. Jesus crosses theological, spiritual, ethnic (perhaps), and gender boundaries to have this conversation with a woman who John describes as an outsider. After all, she’s coming to the well in the middle of the day – alone – perhaps signifying that she isn’t considered welcome in polite society. Otherwise she would have come in the company of the other women from the village. She’s been married five times, and is living with another man who isn’t her husband. This is intriguing, in part because while Jesus notes this reality he doesn’t offer any word of judgment.
It should be noted here that this conversation follows upon that with Nicodemus – a leader of the Jewish people, a man of means and education. While Jesus encounters the woman in the light of day, Nicodemus comes under the cover of darkness. Nicodemus has much to lose by coming to Jesus, but the woman at the well has nothing to lose.
Deborah Kapp writes that “in the eyes of the Gospel writer this woman is a nobody. She does not even merit a name, and her gender, religious orientation, social standing, and personal habits distance her from Jesus and her community” (Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 2, p. 94). In this story, Nicodemus was a religious insider; the woman stands on the outside. But who is the most responsive, most open to the message of Jesus? Who sees who Jesus really is? Nicodemus or this unnamed Samaritan woman? What does this contrast say to us?
The conversation begins with Jesus asking for water, which leads to a theological conversation about where God should be worshiped. There is a Temple in Samaria and one in Jerusalem – who owns the rights to God? Jesus offers a different path – one that bypasses both humanly built temples, which cannot God and offers worship in Spirit. As the conversation proceeds, Jesus reveals his understanding of the woman’s life situation, which leads her to see him as a prophet, but because she brings up the coming Messiah, Jesus identifies himself as the expected one.
It is at this moment that the disciples return from their shopping trip in the village and to their amazement find Jesus talking to a woman. This upsets their categories of appropriate relationships, but Jesus is known to cross boundaries. In this story he crosses two. It is then that the woman drops her water jar and goes back to the city and begins to share the good news (evangelize). She proclaims to all who will hear that she has found the Messiah. Her evidence is that Jesus can read her life story – he can peer deep inside her and reveal her innermost secrets. This message gets through and the people join her in going back to Jesus
While the woman at the well is evangelizing, Jesus is teaching. Having been to the store, they want Jesus to have a bite to eat. And as often happens in John the physical leads to the spiritual. Jesus has food they don’t know about – a hidden stash? No, it’s not a hidden stash of food, it is the knowledge that his food “is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.”
Yes, it’s harvest time. As we see with the way the message penetrated this Samaritan community, there are many seeking a word from God. It’s not four months until harvest time. The need is immediate. Get out the threshers, pull in the grain, it’s ripe for harvest. For many mainline Protestants this is a difficult word to hear. We tend to shy away from speaking too loudly about faith – myself included. As Martha Grace Reese demonstrated in her book Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism, mainliners are very uncomfortable with the “e-word.” And yet here we have Jesus, inviting us to not just sow seeds, but harvest the grain. The seed has already been sown. To the disciples is given the task of reaping the harvest – “I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered their labor.” Who it is that has sown the seeds – John doesn’t say. Though, from the text it is Jesus who has sown the first seed, and the woman has taken up the task of the sower as well. Now it’s time for them to reap what she has sown.
At that moment, the people from the city of Sychar come out to see Jesus. They’ve believed the woman’s testimony. It must have been the joy on her face. She must have experienced liberation. She has experienced salvation. And so the people come and they meet Jesus, and they too believe. Indeed, their encounter with Jesus confirms her message. They too can affirm Jesus as “Savior of the World.”
Returning to Deborah Kapp’s commentary on this passage. Kapp notes that this is the story of dramatic transformation.
She begins the story as an outside and becomes a witness; from her status as a beginner in faith she becomes an apostle sent by Jesus himself to testify on his behalf. As such she is a model for other women, for people who feel like nobodies, for newcomers to the faith, and for people with a past. Jesus encounters and welcomes many into the household of faith – even the least likely and maybe, even, you and me. [Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 2, p. 96]
Or, in the words of a Brian Wren hymn:
This is a day of new beginnings, time to remember and move on,
time to believe what love is bringing, laying to rest the pain that’s gone.
Then let us, with the Spirit’s daring, step from the past and leave behind
Our disappointment, guilt, and grieving, seeking new paths, and sure to find.
Yes, today is a day of new beginnings, and we have the opportunity to participate in a work that brings transformation and hope. It doesn’t matter who we were or what we’ve done – in Christ all things are made new (2 Corinthians 5:17).