Bethany Lutheran Church - Ishpeming Michigan
This is the year of long Lenten gospel readings, at least after the first Sunday in Lent. The first Sunday is always the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and a couple of weeks ago we had Matthew’s version of that. This year we then move from Matthew to John for the next four Sundays with John’s stories of Jesus’ encounters with a series of representative figures; last week it was Nicodemus, this week the woman at the well, next week the man born blind and the following week Jesus encounters Lazarus or you might even say that rather than encountering Lazarus, Jesus encounters the reality death. All of these stories are unique to John or at least they’re unique in the way that he tells them.
The tradition calls John “The Theologian” as his gospel contains many of the seeds of what became accepted Christian theology as formulated by ecumenical councils at Nicea in the year 325 and in Constantinople in 381 resulting in what we call the Nicene Creed. The creative genius of John though, comes in how he conveys the theology that winds up in the creed not using flat, creedal statements but in and through the stories he tells imaginatively and poetically. Stories like the ones we have during these weeks are rather long though, because John doesn’t write in straight ahead linear fashion with one thing logically following another. Instead he kind of builds on words and images, adding spiraling layers as he goes.
The woman Jesus encounters in today’s reading is the polar opposite of Nicodemus from last week. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews as the text says, hence a well respected man about town. For anyone who was skeptical about Jesus, Nicodemus would be viewed as a potential positive influence. Not so the woman at the well. She was essentially a nobody, maybe even less than that, a Samaritan for one thing and Jews were not to have any contact with Samaritans. In addition, she was a woman and women had little status in that culture. On top of that we find that she was working on husband number six which would have made her an object of scorn and gossip even among her own people. All in all, someone Jesus should steer clear of if he wants to be viewed with respect.
On the face of things then, by speaking to this woman Jesus is identified as a boundary crosser, someone who frequently disregards the laws of clean and unclean, the societal and religious rules concerning who’s in and who’ s out. His life and ministry aren’t just about the chosen people of Israel: as we heard last week “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son;” the world, that’s all people, not just the people of Israel. It’s an important point, but…it’s one we already know from the other gospel writers; they too have Jesus interact with people outside the boundaries.
Remember that John is written later than Matthew, Mark and Luke, as much as twenty years later. John’s voice is important because while he does reinforce things that the others said, with additional years of reflection, he also tends to go deeper into what he believes about Jesus, especially who Jesus is and what he signifies.
So John takes this boundary crossing encounter of thirsty Jesus asking the woman from Samaria to give him a drink of water and quickly moves it to deeper things; he doesn’t dwell on the boundary crossing aspect of the story. Instead, Jesus reverses direction from his initial request and says to the woman that while he asked her for water, she should have asked him for water because he has what he calls living water and right away we know that this isn’t just about quenching thirst on a hot day, nor is it just about crossing boundaries.
“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 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.” The most logical response to a statement promising eternal life and never being thirsty again would be, “Sir, you must be dehydrated from being out in the sun too long. Here’s a nice cup of the cold water you asked for. Drink up and if you’re still thirsty there’s more where that came from.” That would be a logical response but John isn’t interested in logic here because this is no ordinary conversation. Instead, in a remarkable expression of faith, the woman responds, “Sir, give me this water.”
John is going deeper here. First of all, he is making a claim that Jesus is capable of doing what only God can do. He’s drawing from the tradition and imaginatively retelling the water from the rock story, today’s first lesson, in which, by the power of God, a place of parched wilderness is transformed into a place of refreshment and new life.
In that story, the water question is really part of a God question, a “Who do you trust?” question when the people ask, “Is the Lord among us or not?” The Lord heard them; the Lord heard them demand of Moses, “Give us water to drink.” The Lord also heard Moses’ complaint concerning this complaining people. The Lord heard and by the hand of Moses, the Lord responded with water from the rock, a decisive “Yes” to the “Is the Lord among us or not?” question.
With the story of the woman at the well, John doesn’t portray Jesus as providing water in a literal wilderness, he has him offering living water to a life that’s lost in the wilderness. There is a “Who do you trust?” component to this story too, as the response of the Samaritan woman to Jesus does show absolute trust, trust based only on Jesus himself unlike the people of Israel in the wilderness who demanded proof. The woman didn’t need proof; the word of Jesus was enough.
What you could say is that she takes a chance on hope. The circumstances of her life would say that this woman didn’t have much reason for hope but somehow she was able to see the possibility that Jesus represented, possibility even for her. John puts a face on what Paul says in Romans about Jesus dying for the ungodly. But again…the other gospel writers do similar things with other characters. What’s unique about John is that with his word play, he invites us inside the faith journey of many of his characters.
When I read John these days, I read it through the lens of what he says toward the end of his gospel: “These things are written so that you might come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.” It comes toward the end, but it’s really his starting point. The way he writes though, indicates that John knows that seeing Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God isn’t necessarily immediately obvious. The woman at the well finally comes to statements of great faith, but she goes through something of a Lenten valley to get there.
She starts by addressing Jesus as “Sir.” Now sir is a term of respect but one that could be used with lots of people; it really doesn’t set Jesus apart at all. Then, following further conversation, she says, “I see that you are a prophet,” and it’s as if John is saying, “You’re getting warmer.” After that she talks about the Messiah who is to come, she’s kind of probing, the light is starting to come on, and then Jesus responds “I am he,” in Greek it’s just “I am,” the translation of the name of God in the Old Testament.
There are several of these “I am” statements in John and while we tend to miss it, they all have significant and dramatic shock value; they all witness to John’s radical and confident belief, John’s daring belief in Jesus as equal to God which would have been heard as blasphemy, a sin punishable by death. Following that shocking statement though, as John tells it, the woman goes and tells others about Jesus, saying, “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” and you know that she believes, that she now sees Jesus differently.
I think it’s funny too that when the disciples get into the mix in the last part of this story, they address Jesus only as “Rabbi,” teacher. The Samaritan woman winds up having greater understanding than those closest to Jesus. The story then ends with the crowd indentifying Jesus as the Savior of the World, John’s way of ending all this with an emphatic exclamation point. In 38 verses it’s journey into an through a Lenten valley.
Besides honestly considering who we are during Lent, especially who we are as sinners in need of forgiveness, Lent is or at least can be about asking ourselves what we really believe about Jesus. None of the titles used for him in this story are wrong, but there clearly is a difference between addressing Jesus as “Sir,” and addressing him as the Messiah or as the Savior of the World. What is comforting is that while John and the tradition have settled on right answers such as those we find in the creed, Jesus accompanies us regardless of the title we use, offering us that living water, helping us to new insights just as he did with the woman. He walks with us into our Lenten valleys until we too see what he offers as the source of all we really need, and then say in faith, “Give me this water.”
Rev. Warren Geier