We haven’t done much Bible study together in worship recently, so I thought we’d spend
a little time on that this morning. Besides we have our Confirmation students with us this
morning and I know they’ll be a big help.
If you haven’t already I invite you to find the Scripture lesson that Dan read for us in
your pew Bible: John, chapter 4, starting at verse 5. Put your finger there as a marker,
and turn just a page or two back to John, chapter 3, starting at the first verse. Dan is
going to read for us a second passage about another encounter that someone has with
We have heard about two meetings with Jesus: on the one hand, a religious leader named
Nicodemus, and on the other hand, a Samaritan woman. Let’s do a little compare and
contrast between the two passages.
Both encounters happen at a certain time. What time is that? (Nicodemus – night;
Samaritan woman – noon) What significance might that time of day and night have?
(Nicodemus – under cover of darkness; Samaritan woman – in the heat, when no one else
is at the well.) 2
Both of these are stories in which a social boundary is crossed. What are the social
differences in each story? (Nicodemus – a Pharisee, critic of Jesus; Samaritan woman –
both a female and a Samaritan)
Lastly, both Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman misunderstand what Jesus is trying to
tell them. What is it they misunderstand? (Nicodemus – birth and re-birth; Samaritan
woman – water and living water.)
But here’s an important contrast between them – Nicodemus gets stuck, the Samaritan
woman moves forward. The last we hear from Nicodemus is…what? (
9 Nicodemus said
to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel,
and yet you do not understand these things?)
But while the woman at the well is confused at first, she engages Jesus in a real
conversation… and her life is transformed because of it. Keep your finger at John 4;
we’ll be coming back to it!
Jesus and the woman meet, under the hot noontime sun, in Samaria at the location of
Jacob’s well. Jacob was the common ancestor of the Jews and Samaritans, but the two
groups were not happy to be related to each other. The Samaritans had continued the
ancient practice of worshiping God on a mountain rather than at the Temple in Jerusalem.
But there was more to this enmity than a disagreement about worship. 3
The Jews regarded the Samaritans as following a corrupt form of Judaism – made impure
by mixed marriages and indigenous elements. They were “half-breeds,” with all the
negative stereotypes that term carries. A good Jew, in fact, would take a long detour
around Samaria rather than traveling through it to go from the southern part of Israel,
which included Jerusalem, to the northern part, which included Jesus’ hometown of
Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee.
Not only didn’t Jews and Samaritans get along, but women and men in this culture
generally kept a safe distance from each other. So the woman is doubly surprised when
Jesus asks her for a drink. Jesus’ answer adds to her confusion: “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.” “Where do you get this living water?” she
asks. Eventually, Jesus invites the woman to call her husband and when she replies that
she has no husband, he agrees: "You have had five husbands, and the one you have now
is not your husband."
That sentence, that single sentence, has produced generations of sermons that have called
this woman a sinner, a prostitute, “a worldly, sensually-minded, unspiritual harlot.”
Preachers have long used this story to demonstrate Jesus’ mercy – an example of how he
forgives even the worst of lifetime sinners. 4
But take a look at the story for yourself. Does the narrator say anything about the
woman’s sinfulness? Does Jesus? Does Jesus offer any word of judgment against her?
Does he say anything about forgiving her, or encouraging her to change her life? He
does not. Jesus at no point invites her repentance or, for that matter, speaks of sin at all.
What might have happened to this woman that she had five husbands? (She could have
been widowed, divorced, abandoned.) Five times would be heartbreaking, but not
impossible. It could be that now she is living with someone that she depends on for food
and shelter, since unmarried women had no way of supporting themselves. She could be
in what's called a Levirate marriage in which a childless woman is married to the brother
of her deceased husband in order to produce an heir. Women in these arrangements were
not always technically considered the brother's wife. There are any number of ways, in
fact, that one might imagine this woman's story as tragic rather than scandalous.
It is the case that the woman is alone, fetching water in the heat of the noonday sun.
Something – some series of sad events -- has caused her to live a lonely life, apart from
the community of women who would go together in the safety of a group and in cooler
times of day to fill their water jugs.
Jesus is dry and parched from the sun overhead; he asks her for a drink. The woman’s
whole life is dry and parched from isolation or sorrow or poverty or perhaps all of these
together. He offers her more permanent re-freshment. 5
"You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you
have said is true.” He has seen her plight -- of dependence, not immorality. He has
recognized her, spoken with her, offered her something of incomparable worth. He has
seen her -- she exists for him, has worth, value, significance and all of this is treatment to
which she is unaccustomed. And so when he speaks of her past both knowingly and
compassionately, she realizes she is in the presence of a prophet.
“I see you are a prophet.” In the Gospel of John, “seeing” is all-important. “To see” is
often “to believe.” Jesus has seen her differently; now she sees Jesus differently. The
conversation goes deeper; the woman turns out to be something of a theologian herself.
She asks Jesus the central question that has divided Samaritans and Jews for centuries:
Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must
worship is in Jerusalem.”
Jesus surprises her with an answer that is more hopeful than she expected: Woman,
believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this
mountain nor in Jerusalem. […] God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship
in spirit and truth.” The woman suggests that Jesus is the Messiah and he says he is.
This is the only time in John that he does this. She leaves her water jar behind and runs to
tell her neighbors about this man. 6
She has seen who he is, has been given the gift of truth that leads to real worship and now
she becomes the conduit for the living water that is Jesus.
This is not a story about immorality or even about Jesus’ forgiveness; it's about identity.
In the scene from chapter 3, Jesus was encountered by a Pharisee, a Jewish religious
authority figure who could not comprehend who or what Jesus was. In this scene, he
encounters a person who is the polar opposite of Nicodemus. Perhaps precisely because
she is at the other end of the power spectrum, she recognizes not just who Jesus is but
what he offers -- dignity. Jesus invites her to not be defined by her circumstances and
offers her an identity that lifts her above her tragedy. And she accepts, playing a unique
role in Jesus' ministry as she is the first character in John's gospel to seek out others to tell
them about Jesus.
In a number of ways, this text is telling us that it’s not about what we know but who we
know. It is about having an encounter with Jesus, experiencing his deep knowledge of us
– not our accomplishments and failures, not our circumstances, not what others think of
us – but the core of who we are. It is about having the courage to go and share what we
know (not what someone else knows, just what we know) as witnesses to this abundant
grace that floods us with living water.
In May of 1998, the Sun, a suburban Chicago newspaper, ran this headline: “Teens
choose beloved janitor as their baccalaureate speaker.” The students at Waubonsie 7
Valley High School had asked the school custodian, Gaylan Gunn, to address them.
Upon receiving the invitation, Gunn told the students he would have to pray to God
before he could accept. He went into his broom closet, cried and prayed, and then came
out to say yes.
It turns out that Gunn had a Bachelor of Arts degree in career development. But he
drifted after he graduated and his life, as he described it, became a “shambles.” He saw
his best friend shot and killed in the friend’s home before his friend’s two children. The
long term result of that tragedy for Gaylan Gunn was that he turned to faith and made a
Christian commitment. He felt called by God to help students…with a different kind of
In the course of his work at the high school, Gaylan Gunn would talk to students,
especially the students headed in the wrong direction – the smokers, the class-cutters, the
cussers. “When kids do things deliberately, like kick holes in the walls or stuff paper in
the toilets just to aggravate me, that’s when I go to the Lord,” he told the Sun reporter.
Then he goes back to the students.
Given his educational background, why does he work as a janitor? the reporter asked.
“God is not into high-echelon people” Gunn answered, “only those who are truly humble
can do his work.” 8
It’s not what you know, it’s who you know…and who knows you. When an encounter
with the living God teaches you that you are fully known and fully loved for exactly who
you are – you have no choice but to share this powerful good news, this living water that
never runs dry.
Being truly humble, as Gaylan Gunn called it, doesn’t mean hiding your gifts. It doesn’t
mean locking yourself behind doors of safety and risk-avoidance. It takes courage to
stand up and be the person Jesus knows you really are. In his presidential inauguration
speech in 1994, the late Nelson Mandela quoted author Marianne Williamson:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate; our deepest fear is that we are powerful
beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask
ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who
are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the
world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel
insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within
us. It is not just in some of us. It is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine,
we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated
from our own fears, our presence automatically liberates others.
True worship, Jesus said to the woman he met at Jacob’s well, takes place not at a sacred
mountain, not at ancestral well, not even at a glorious Temple in an important city. True 9
worship takes place in a relationship with the one who is the wellspring of hope and
peace, Christ our Lord who models for us a new way of knowing one another.
On another day, also about noon, Jesus will again confess his thirst, as he faces his death
on a Roman cross. On that day, only vinegar will be offered -- in mockery. The gift of
his living water will not be apparent to the one holding that sour sponge. But today, when
Jesus and the Samaritan woman meet, they each offer what the other needs: a cup of
water from an ancient well, and a fountain of grace from the spring of divine love that
never runs dry.
Patricia Farris. “Unlikely Messenger (John 4:5-42)” The Christian Century, February 13-20, 2002, p.16.
David Lose. “Misogyny, Moralism and the Woman at the Well. Posted March 21, 2011 at
Meda Stamper.. “Commentary on John 4:5-42.” Posted March 27, 2011 at WorkingPreacher.org.
David Beswick. “The Man at The Well.” http://www.beswick.info/rclresources/L3A96OS.htm
Sun article cited in:
Martin Marty. “Teen Idol.” The Christian Century. July 29-August 5, 1998, p. 735.