Summit Presbyterian Church
March 27, 2011
Hearing for Ourselves
This conversation that Jesus has with the woman at the well is one of the longest dialogues from any gospel, and it's not easy to follow. Jesus and the Samaritan woman often seem to be talking at cross-purposes, and the conversation takes some mystifying turns. We aren't told what the woman and Jesus are thinking during their talk; we can only imagine. I'd rather not try and guess what Jesus was thinking, but I do wonder: what was going through the woman's mind?
When she came to the well in the heat of the day, she saw a tired Jewish man, with no bucket and no water jar. He asked for a drink -- and although she didn't refuse, she seemed puzzled, perhaps wary: why didn't he get it, that Jews and Samaritans didn't mix it up, that men didn't talk to lone women at wells. "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria? I can't imagine his answer was reassuring: If only she knew better, said this man without a bucket, she'd realize he was God's great gift to humankind, that she should be asking him for a drink, for he had living water. At this point she might have been getting nervous, if not downright frightened -- the two of them alone at this well -- but she's polite, if guarded. "Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. 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?" The man replies that the water he gives will leave her never thirsty, that it will become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.
Now, we know that Jesus is Jesus, that what he says is true, and many commentators think that with her next sentence the woman shows that she's beginning to understand, even if she's taking his words n literally. But the woman still only knows that this tired, thirsty, Jewish man who asked for for a drink is promising her a miraculous spring of water that will make her live forever. So I'm inclined to think she's humoring him, the way a hostage negotiator might go along with the crazy person waving a gun: "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water."
But then the conversation gets really interesting. Jesus says to her, "Go, call you husband, and come back," and she replies - "I have no husband" He then says: "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!" Here's the turning point. It's here that Jesus reveals himself to be not a heat-crazed simpleton talking nonsense, but a man who knows her past - a past of pain and loss and shame - and who still wants to talk with her. This revelation sheds a different light on their conversation up to now. He knows everything she's ever done -- perhaps he does have water that will lead to eternal life. So they continue, talking about true worship, and the Messiah, and the day he will come, when Jesus declares, "I am he" and their conversation ends with the return of the disciples. The woman is in such a rush to get back to the city she leaves her water jar: she's not sure who she's seen or heard, but she wants others to see and hear, too: "Come and see a man who has told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?"
The woman's testimony must have been powerful, because it says that many from that city believed in him because of it -- even though she was still not sure herself. So the people invite Jesus to stay with them, which he does for two days; it says many more believed because of his word. They said 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."
They heard for themselves. But what exactly? We're not privy to the conversations that Jesus had with the lonely sheepherder, or the overworked farmer, or the sick woman, or the confused young man, or any other citizen of that Samaritan city he may have talked. But if they heard what the woman at the well heard, it was not an exposition of scripture, a prediction of his passion & resurrection, or some obtuse theological doctrine. If they heard what the woman at the well heard, they heard that Jesus knew everything they had ever done, and still offered the spring of living water that would never leave them thirsty. No matter what skeletons they had in their closet, no matter what follies the committed in their youth, no matter what their criminal justice record, no matter the level of indifference or betrayal they had showed loved ones, no matter their addictions, Jesus offered acceptance, salvation, a spring of living water gushing up into eternal life.
On Sundays when we recite the Apostles or Nicene Creed, it may seem that the hardest thing to believe as a Christian is that Mary was a virgin, or that Jesus was fully human, fully God, or that he descended into hell and ascended into heaven; or that Christ will come again in glory. In reading scripture, it may seem that the hardest thing to believe is that Jesus turned water to wine, calmed the sea, or raised Lazarus from the dead or appeared in flesh to the disciples after he was buried. But the hardest, and most important thing to believe as a Christian is that Jesus knows everything we have ever done, and loves us still. That God in Christ knows our equivalent of the five husbands and one boyfriend and still invites us to drink of the living water. It's the miracle of forgiveness and acceptance that the woman of Samaria testified to -- and it's this miracle that we're invited to hear for ourselves and believe. In Jesus Christ we are forgiven. That forgiveness calls us to new life and right living - Christ is not indifferent to sin and evil in the world and in us, but first comes acceptance, forgiveness, and the invitation to trust in Christ. To drink of the water that will never leave us thirsty, the living water that will gush up to eternal life. Such is the love of God and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ!