Lent III: Woman at the Well

Lent III – March 19, 2017

John 4:5-42

Woman at the Well

A sermon preached by Rev. Beth Orling (Lutheran) at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA.


Note: The was presented via a cast of characters.. The words in bold are the actual Gospel.  Words in italics indicate a bit of motion.

Preacher: We’ll read the Gospel in a moment, but due to its length, I invite you to be seated.  First a quick question: Have you have ever run into a friend whom you don’t see very often and asked how she and her husband are doing?  She answers, “Well, we are reevaluating our relationship and looking at our personal options,” and you say, “Yeah, my marriage is falling apart too.”

One person says something and means something else.  The other understands and comes back with a word of truth.  That’s what’s going on in today’s Gospel.  You’ve heard this story before: the longest recorded conversation between Jesus and another person.

I invite you to listen to the story with one thought in mind.  What is Jesus saying to YOU?  What would LIVING WATER mean in your life this morning.  How can Jesus’ living water wash over you and give you new life today?  Let’s begin.

Jesus comes in and sits in chair.  Woman waits over by the organ. Disciple(s) and Samaritan(s) remain seated in congregation.

Gospeller: So [Jesus] came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.  Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.  A Samaritan woman came to draw water…

Woman walks toward Jesus.

Preacher: Great, she thinks.  I came here at noon to get away from everybody –what is this guy doing here?  I have enough troubles with men in my life.  Maybe I can just get my water and leave quickly.

Gospeller:  and Jesus said to her,

Jesus: “Give me a drink.”

Gospeller:  (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)  The Samaritan woman said to him,

Preacher: …thinking, he would have to talk to me…

Woman: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”

Gospeller: (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)

Preacher: The woman is suspicious….what does he really want?  You see, there is very strong, ancient prejudice on the part of the people Jesus represented.  Women were considered inferior, were not spoken to.  And people from Samaria and other places and religions were also harshly judged and avoided.  Sadly, we have our share of nationalistic, racial and gender prejudices to this day as well.

Jesus: “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.”

Preacher: Jesus changes the subject.  He moves right away from her angry challenges, and begins to speak about LIFE.

Woman: “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep.

Preacher: The woman changes the subject back to regular water – who needs a philosophical discussion in this heat?  But she is intrigued and picks up on the line about living water.

Woman: Where do you get that living water?  Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”

Jesus:  “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.”

Preacher:  Jesus seems to recall the reading we just heard about water gushing from the rock in Moses’ day to save the bickering people from both physical and spiritual thirst.

Woman: “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

Preacher: The woman’s back probably aches; anyone who carries water becomes weary. She counts on her ancestors’ well for water, but does confess a thirst.

Preacher: Jesus – knew thirst too –remember he asked her for a drink a few minutes ago.  He DID become one of us.  But now he’s not talking about physical water.

He wants to offer her new life; he wants her to heal; but first her trouble, her brokenness, her pain, her rejection, must be brought to light.  He changes the subject again.  He gets personal.  He goes right to her place of hurt, to her core vulnerability, to her heart.

Jesus: “Go, call your husband, and come back.”

Preacher: Is this a trick question….it DOES lead to truth.

Woman: “I have no husband.”

Jesus: “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!”

Preacher: Many of us know the pain of divorce or the pain of the death of a spouse.  This woman has suffered such pain at least five times.  We don’t know if she was passed from brother to brother at the first brother’s death, if she was dismissed by five husbands for being uppity or unable to have a child, and we don’t know why she is living with a man now with whom she is not married.  Has society branded her with the reputation of killing or losing husbands and now her only hope for sustaining her livelihood is living with this last man willing to take her in?

The woman fends off this exposure of her pain.  She thinks she can lead Jesus away from the painful heart-talk. So she replies with a lead-in to a  question which had divided Jerusalem Jews and Samaritans for a long time.  We have those kinds of divisions among us today as well.

Woman: “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.  Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”

Preacher: The woman is clever.  She initiates a theological discussion with Jesus about the differences between Jerusalem temple worshipers and Samaritans who, it is believed, worshiped on Mount Gerizim.  Will this shield her from the heart-talk Jesus offers?

Jesus: “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.  You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.  But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

Preacher:  Jesus seems to be dismissing the institution of temple.worship. The community for whom this Gospel was written had moved into the wilderness and no longer had the Jerusalem temple as their forebears in Jesus’ time had.  This gives John’s community a warrant for non-temple worship.

But, significantly for the woman, Jesus cuts right back to the truth.  He represents the Father’s hand reaching out to her.  Where and how she might worship is not important.  Worshiping in spirit and in truth IS.  Will she – will we – respond to the invitation – or will she change the subject again to avoid the gracious point Jesus is making?

She decides to put off the acceptance of life-sustaining truth until a later date – a time when the Messiah would come, a time in the future, less personal, less engaging than right now.

Woman: “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”

Jesus (slowly and significantly): “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

Preacher: Jesus – for the first time in John’s Gospel – reveals this truth about himself.  His disciples have not yet grasped this – and he reveals it to a woman of a despised nation.  He IS “The Word made flesh!”

Traditions, Jerusalem, places to worship, words of habit are swept away and a window to eternity is opened.

How does Jesus do this for us when we gather here to worship?

He offers us – in all our unloveliness – the same gift he offered the woman at the well: the gift of being fully known, the gift of being fully loved.  Can the woman believe it?  Can we?

Disciple(s) stand up, walk toward Jesus.

Gospeller:  Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?”  Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people,

Woman walks half-way down the aisle and addresses the congregation.

Woman: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

Preacher:  She sure sounds like an evangelist to me.  Her story has been heard, and held and loved – she is empowered to go to the people who had judged and rejected her and share with them the beginnings of her faith.  Come and See … Christ himself.

Gospeller:  The [Samaritans] left the city and were on their way to [Jesus].

Preacher: The disciples are still confused; they take up the tried and true words of their mothers.

Gospeller:  Meanwhile the disciples were urging him,

Disciple(s): “Rabbi, eat something.”

Preacher: The disciples have brought food from town.  Is this not what we do when we bring our bread and wine forward each Sunday to the table?  We ask Jesus to bless it and share it with us – right now, in the midst of our struggles, to empower us for living.  And he does just that.  But now he talks with them of God’s will and of God’s reaching out to strangers.

Jesus: “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 

Gospeller: So the disciples said to one another,

Disciple(s): “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” 

Gospeller: Jesus said to them,

Jesus: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.  Do you not say, “Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you (gesture at congregation), and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together.  For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.’  I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”

Preacher: Just now!  The woman has labored.  Jesus’ love has been poured out like a giant healing waterfall on a thirsty woman, a person not used to respect or regard.  She is so moved that she has invited her neighbors to come and hear Jesus for themselves.  Jesus will now do the spiritual sowing and reaping.

Gospeller: Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.”  So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days.  And many more believed because of his word.

Samaritan (stands up from the congregation and speaks with conviction and strength to the woman): “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” Samaritan sits down.

Preacher, after pause: What else are the words we speak in worship but a dialogue with Jesus?  If our prayers rationalize or defend or excuse – Jesus turns them back to us with words of truth – a truth that relieves us from relying on ourselves, our appearance, our traditions.   Jesus and the woman begin the story as strangers – he is thirsty and needs water, she has water and needs acceptance and truth.  What else are we if not a congregation of strangers, joined together by the Ultimate Stranger – by God in human flesh, meeting us at the village well of life.  Living water – so linked to Baptism and life!  Jesus takes our ordinary lives and exchanges them for eternal life shared by all of us and intended for the entire world. Amen.

Gospeller: The Gospel of the Lord.