Third Sunday in Lent (Year A - Lutheran Service Book readings)
Sunday, March 27, 2011
This is the story of a woman, a different woman. This is the story of today’s Gospel reading from John. Not a story as in a fable or fiction, but a description of an event that really took place. I’ve expanded this story with details to help us understand that woman, to help us see ourselves in her story.
She didn’t have time for this. The day was hot—the kind of hot where the wind just moved the heat around, kicking up some dust to stick to your skin and sting your eyes. She just needed to get the water and get back home. She didn’t have time to make conversation with a stranger. She didn’t have time to get water for this strange, traveling man.
And yet, it didn’t really surprise her to meet a man at the well. Every once in awhile there was one waiting for her. She guessed that they figured she was easy picking, easy to lure. There weren’t many reasons to be fetching water from the well in the heat of the day. Men knew to hang around a well at midday if they were looking to meet a woman who was unattached and already had a damaged reputation. She was one of those women. She figured he was one of those men.
So it didn’t surprise her that he asked her for a drink from the well, but that didn’t mean she had time for this. Just because she had a damaged reputation, was a social outcast who couldn’t fetch water in the morning with the other women, didn’t mean that she wanted to get picked up by a man. Not today.
So his request didn’t surprise her—but his accent did. This strange, traveling man asking for water was a Jew. Jews hardly ever traveled through Samaria, and even if they did, they’d never talk or associate with Samaritans. On top of that, Jews knew just as well as Samaritans what kind of women went to the well at noon.
She decided to try to blow him off as directly as she dared. She just wanted to draw the water and get home. She says, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan, a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” And what she was thinking to herself was, “Are you dense? Are you that thirsty that the fever has clouded your better judgment? Do you not care about your own sacred rules?”
The man says to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and if you knew who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
She could’ve kicked herself. Her blunt way of pointing out their differences was supposed to end the conversation, but instead, it seemed to make this man more interested in chatting. Couldn’t he see that she was different, different from him by race and culture and faith and gender? She was a different woman. She was one of those women. He wasn’t supposed be to talking to her.
And yet, she thought, and yet what was it that he just said? If I knew who he was, I’d be asking him for water? Then he’d give me water, living water, water that brings life, water that is a gift of God? This thought was intriguing, and for a moment, she forgot her frustration with the conversation.
She puts down her water jar and says, “Sir, you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water?” She thought she had him there.
But before he could answer she realized this man was claiming to be able to give her water that was better than the water from the well. That was a claim that stood in the face of history, so she says, “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his flocks and herds?” Not even a Jew would claim to be better than Jacob, the father of Joseph, the father of 12 sons, the father of the Twelve Tribes, Jacob also known as Israel, the father of the nation.
The man answers, pointing towards the well, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
The woman no longer was concerned about what was appropriate or what she had to do that day or what her reputation was like. She wasn’t worried about being a different woman. This man was offering her something special, some kind of special water, some kind of elixir. To her it sounded like the way to end these daily trips to the well and the daily embarrassment of doing it at noon. She says, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
To this, the man says, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
The woman sinks to her knees. For once, someone was offering her something special—water to keep her from being thirsty. For once, she wasn’t a different woman. This man had been looking past the fact that she was from a different country and a different faith and a different reputation; he was looking past all of this to treat her like she was important and special. For once, her dream of being loved was almost coming true—and then he had to ask about her husband.
She couldn’t hide. She couldn’t leave. There was no use in trying to lie—sinking to her knees gave her away. She might as well tell this strange, traveling man the truth. Could it be that he’d still look past her bad reputation when he knew the truth?
She says, “I have no husband.”
Even as she said it, she lost all hope that this man would really continue talking to her. Before, her bad reputation was just a guess. But now there it was, out in the open. Now he knew for sure that she was a different woman. Her eyes drop to the ground in shame waiting for the ridicule or the snide remark or the slap or the lewd request.
The man says, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
Even in her shame, she couldn’t resist looking right in his eyes after he said that. She stares at him in disbelief. He could’ve guessed about her reputation because she was at the well at noon, but there was no way that he could know her whole life story. No one in town really knew the whole thing—not about all five husbands. And he couldn’t have figured this out by watching her. There was only one conclusion to make:
“Sir, I can see that you are a prophet.” He had to have been a man of God to know so much. He had to be a holy man. Here she was suspecting that he was trying to seduce her, and he’s a holy man. Ah, enough regret, here was her chance. Since he was a prophet, he would know how to answer the question welling up inside of her. She had had five husbands, five divorces. She lived with a man now who wouldn’t even give her a legal marriage. She was a woman torn apart by sin. This strange, traveling man had seen that. And maybe this man would know how she, a Samaritan woman, could receive forgiveness for her sins.
She says, “Our fathers worshipped on this mountain in Samaria, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” It was a critical question. She wanted forgiveness for her sins, but meeting this Jew threw her world upside down. She doubted whether she could find true forgiveness without going to the temple in Jerusalem, but Samaritans were barred from that place.
The man says, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we Jews worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks.”
She wasn’t sure that she understood all he had said. It sounded like she didn’t have to go to Jerusalem to worship and seek forgiveness. It sounded like God was bringing His forgiveness to her, right there. And if that was true, the world would drastically change. If the world was drastically changing, maybe this prophet was saying that the time had come, the day of the Lord had come, God was sending the Savior. Soon. Now.
She says, “I know that the Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
The man says, “I who speak to you am he.”
The woman was silent. The man was silent, a grin on his face that lit up his eyes. The sound of moving water came up from the well which was fed by a spring that kept it constantly moving and kept it clear and clean and fresh.
This man is the Messiah, the woman thought. The Promised Savior wasn’t in Jerusalem. He was right there with her in the midday sun at the well. He had revealed his true identity to her even though she had confessed her sins to him. She had come before God’s Messiah, and she had been so spiritually unclean, so sinful, so blatantly unholy. And yet he had not rejected her. He had offered her the gift of God, living water. He hadn’t seen her as different; he had seen her as special. Even when he revealed how much he knew about her dreadful past, his words penetrated her soul like. . .cool, refreshing water.
He had given her living water. Applied it to her very soul where she needed forgiveness and life. Soaked her in it. Her soul wasn’t thirsty anymore; her soul drank from the spring of eternal life.
The woman was silent. The man was silent. The sound of moving water came up from the well.
Without a word, without picking up her water jar, the woman took off and hurried back to town. Momentarily she forgot about what other people thought of her, and she spoke to everyone she saw. She didn’t worry about her reputation, because this man, this prophet, the Messiah, had made her a different woman. She was different than the woman that had come to the well. She was more different than she had ever been. Now she was different because she was forgiven and freed and loved and special. She was a different woman because God’s Savior had given her the water of life.
So in town, she simply began speaking to everyone without giving it a second thought. She says, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?”
Her story intrigued the people even though normally they would have ignored her or shoved her away. And her theory that this man was the Messiah intrigued them even more, because even they, the people of the town, the people of good reputations, even they didn’t dare think that God’s Messiah would really come to them—the Samaritans. They were different; they weren’t Jews; they weren’t in Jerusalem. They knew there wasn’t much hope that God would choose to come to them. They were sinners. They were a different people.
Many of the Samaritans, though, already believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, the testimony she kept repeating and they kept repeating, “He told her everything she ever did.” This woman’s story was so convincing that they left town and went out to him.
And when they found him, sitting next to the well, the Samaritans urged him to stay with them, and this strange, traveling man, this Jew, this prophet, this man of God, the Messiah, stayed with these Samaritans, these different people, for two days.
And because of his words many more became believers. They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”
And they’d always emphasize that He is the Savior of the world, because like the woman, the town people realized that God had sent His Savior to them, a different people. God meant to include them in His salvation, His love, His mercy, His forgiveness.
Jesus came and gave them living water, the promise of eternal life. He applied it to their souls, and he made all of them different. Once they were different: thirsty, tired, sinful, forgotten, rejected, and now they were different: filled, refreshed, forgiven, remembered, loved, saved.
The woman’s water jar stayed at the well—empty, but she had brought back enough water for generations and generations.
Take a cool, refreshing, forgiving drink. This is the Gospel of our Lord.