It is not very often that I come across well-known Gospel stories that I haven’t written a sermon on previously! The story of the Samaritan woman at the well is rich in meaning and there are many threads to pull at and we won’t do it justice in a few minutes this morning.
There are many threads in both the Exodus and John readings that involve water. Water also featured in our Lent Course/devotional booklet this week. With the amount of handwashing we should be doing, we are hopefully using more water than we usually do!
I am going to use the headings, physically, socially and spiritually, as I try to highlight some of the significant details in these stories.
Moses had only very recently led the Israelites across the Red Sea to escape slavery in Egypt. Almost immediately on arrival into the wilderness of Shur, the lack of water is an issue. The first water found at Marah was bitter and undrinkable. Their immediate reaction is to complain to Moses who in turn cries out to God.
God’s reaction? He provides Moses with a piece of wood that is to be thrown into the water to make it sweet.
God then leads Moses and his people to Elim, where they camp by 12 springs of water and 70 palm trees. But they have to move on, and it is not long until a lack of water is again a problem. Same response – complain to Moses with even more anger than last time. They are blaming Moses for bringing them out of Egypt because he wants to kill them, their children and livestock. Woe is us!
God again responds by providing more water. This time Moses must strike the rock at Horeb. Water comes out and the people drink. Problem solved, for now.
What does the say to us today?
God provides. Let’s not forget that today and in the current situation with Coronavirus and the uncertainty we all face. God provides all that we need. We do need to cry out though! Make our needs known to God and to others.
God will use other people to answer our prayers. He gave us family, friends and our church family. Look around, don’t touch each other, but the people sitting around you could be the answer to prayer. They can certainly help to meet any needs you might have right now.
The story of the Samaritan woman at the well is a fascinating one! She too has a physical need for water but her social circumstances dictate that she had to collect her water when no one else was around. The well would have been a place of social gathering for the women of Sychar. Kind of like the modern-day equivalent of the workplace water cooler.
But not for her.
The time of day is also significant. Noon day – the woman was at the well at the heat of the day. Why? Who would want to schlep heavy jugs of water at the hottest point in the day?
She was on the margins on society. There is nothing to suggest she was a prostitute or promiscuous although that is often read into this story. There may have been many reasons for her five husbands. Maybe she married young. Her first husband could have died, and she was passed along to his brothers. She could have been infertile as there is no mention of children. She had no power to divorce her husband as that power was given only to the man. Whatever the reason for her 5 husbands it might not have had much to do with her. She would have needed the protection of a man to survive.
However she ended up in the situation she was in, it meant that she was socially unacceptable, left alone to collect her water at the hottest point of the day.
Then one day, she meets Jesus at the well, at the loneliest and hottest point of the day. There are huge social implications for Jesus and the disciples.
In the wider story, Jesus and disciples are travelling around Judea and Galilee to teach, preach, heal, cast out demons. They have arrived in Samaria – a place that was traditionally hostile to the Jews. They did not like to share things in common with each other. Jesus is not only in Samaria and talking to a Samaritan but an unaccompanied woman at that. Jewish men did not speak to lone women in order to avoid any form of sexual temptation or impropriety.
Jesus is not bound by these conventions and the longest recorded conversation he ever has with anyone begins. This is an astonishing thought.
The Samaritan woman spends more time in conversation (as is recorded) than anyone else. This woman on the margins, judged and looked down upon, with virtually no control over her situation gets the most face time with Jesus at the most socially active place in the city at the most deserted time.
What does the say to us today?
We may be facing time in the very near future when we have to self-isolate physically and this will likely be difficult for us. We were made to live in community. The social and mental health implications may have a greater impact than we can anticipate right now. Some people live in isolation under normal conditions which can only get harder. There will be people for whom any social isolation is the worst thing they can imagine.
There are some practical things we can do. Maybe make a list of things you could do around your house, a list of people to call, email or write to, a list of books to read or films to watch. Build a schedule – might sound silly but we all need purpose. I will be so crass as to suggest more prayer and Bible reading – you might have the time! Watch out for people around us who might be more isolated than usual.
Despite our circumstances, Jesus will meet with us when we want to meet with him. The Samaritan woman was getting on with the business of everyday life when she met Jesus. He was waiting for her. He is waiting for us too.
There are many times in reading Gospel stories that I would love to hear the original tone of voice in them. One commentary suggested that the woman comes across as cheeky, brave, vulnerable and a bit flirtatious. Jesus responds to her with warmth and humour yet continues to push her beyond the superficial. You can see a quick wit in her responses. Jesus responds on that level but everything he says has a serious point to it.
Jesus tells her that everyone who drinks the water from the well will be thirsty again, but those who drink the water He offers will never be thirsty again, this water will become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life (John 4:13-14). This is of course the water that the Samaritan woman wants.
But I think she wants it because it will stop her from having to come to the well by herself in the heat of the day to avoid the other women who judge and condemn her. She sees this invitation as a solution to her external problem. But she is thirsty for more than just that even if she doesn’t see it yet.
Jesus responds by asking her to call her husband, another external problem she has. By his asking her to call husband six, Jesus shows that He knows what is going on internally too.
From Live Lent: ‘She longs for a more satisfying life. From freedom from the shame that made her go to the well when she expected no one else to there. Jesus treats her with respect and dignity.’
The woman responds by creating some distance and distraction. She agrees that what Jesus says is true, she acknowledges that He is someone special and then brings up the differences between Jews and Samaritans. She’s good!
What does this say to us?
Anyone else try to do that with Jesus? Try to distance and distract? Not letting Him get too involved in your everyday life and business – thank you very much. He wants to be with us – if we will let him! It is helpful to remember what Jesus doesn’t do: He didn’t tell her to sin no more, blame her, condemn her. Works with her where she is at.
The woman does admit that she knows that the Messiah is coming (verse 25) as an attempt to create even more distance. Yet again she is matched by Jesus. The Messiah she has in mind is safe and impersonal and won’t interfere too much in her daily life. That is not the Messiah she met though. She met the Messiah who very much wants to be involved in our lives and knows every detail.
She went away changed; the small but not insignificant detail of the left-behind water jug tells us that. She went for water as in H2O and came away having experienced some of the living water Jesus offers. She still had some doubt, ‘He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ We are told at the end of the story that many Samaritans came to believe in Jesus because of her story.
It is a time of great uncertainty across the world. We may feel isolated, but we are not alone. Jesus is the living water we need to satisfy our thirst. He will provide for our physical needs as he did for Moses and the Israelites. He will provide for our social needs if we find ourselves alone at the well in the heat of the day. Jesus will meet our spiritual needs with his living water in whatever way we find ourselves isolated.
I will leave you with this final thought: I heard in another sermon an explanation for what the Samaritan woman found in Jesus that day. She had five husbands, was living with man number six, when she met Jesus, number seven. Seven, is the number associated with perfection. In Jesus, that woman met perfection. We too meet perfection in Jesus.