This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: John 4:1-30
Sermon prepared by Rev. Michael Winnowski, Waterloo, ON
Dear friends of Jesus Christ,
"Will you give me a drink?" It seems a natural enough request for a weary traveler to make beside a well in the Palestinian desert at the hottest part of the day. "Please give me a drink." A simple act of human kindness.
That is what you see on the surface of this story. But the Gospel stories are deep, far deeper than the well at Sychar. We need to look beyond what we see on the surface, and search the depths of God's Word. And John's Gospel in particular requires deeper reflection. Nothing in John's gospel is ever quite as simple or straightforward as it seems. It's always necessary, and always rewarding, to peer through the various layers of meaning, and to notice the different levels of surprise and irony that every story in this Gospel contains.
Consider just one example of irony in our story, one hidden level of meaning. This weary, hot, thirsty traveler sitting down to rest by a well is the one who was with God in the beginning, and who was God. He is the one through whom all things were made. If there is one drop of water to be found anywhere in all the world, it is there because he commanded it to be so, and it was created. And yet, he asks one of his creatures for a drink.
Here, in this Gospel, we get a peek at just how low a gracious God is willing to stoop in order to save us, just how far down he is willing to reach in order to lift us up. There is a distance so vast separating us from God that we could never really comprehend it. He is the eternal Spirit; we are children of dust. He is holy; we are sinful. We could never, never cross that distance. But a gracious God reaches across to save us.
But there is more to it than that. There are other obstacles that separate us from God besides the difference between creature and Creator, between the Holy One and sinners. Sometimes, even when God builds the bridge, we are not willing to cross it. Sometimes we are bound by our fears and resentments. Sometimes the sense we have of our own identity keeps us from being open to God's transforming and redeeming grace. Sometimes there are things we are not willing to let go of, things that we must be emptied of before God can fill us.
Sometimes we make choices that separate us not only from God, but also from other people. And that is probably true of every human being to some extent. In this story we see not only how God reaches across that terrible gulf that keeps us far from him, but we can also see also how God's Messiah leads one person across many of those obstacles. We see Jesus lead her forward, until she is not only willing to be saved, but until she is hungry and thirsty for fellowship with God, and until she is restored in her relations with other human beings. And it all starts when Jesus makes a simple, humble request: "Will you give me a drink?" You may have noticed that the woman in the story does not respond as if this Jesus were seeking a simple act of human kindness. She seems not only surprised when Jesus asks her for a drink, but in fact she seems a bit defensive, even suspicious: "How can you, a Jew, a Jewish man to be exact, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?" We may not easily appreciate the vast distance Jesus was reaching across when he asked this Samaritan Woman for a drink. We may not immediately see or understand how thick and high were the walls of resentment and mistrust separating Jesus the Messiah from one Samaritan Woman. But let's take a look at those walls of separation.
We all know that many of the Jews of this era despised Gentiles. But if there was anything worse than a Gentile, it was a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans hated each other the way only people who are close to each other can hate each other, especially if religious differences are involved. You can probably think of various nationalities who have age-old rivalries. They may share a common culture and even a common language, but political and religious differences combine to form a deadly antagonism. But let's keep it close to home. Let's not forget the bile and spleen that some Reformed Christians have shown towards other Reformed Christians over issues like common grace, or baptismal regeneration, or women in church office. Sometimes the closer you are, the more clearly you see the differences, and the more deeply you care about them. The Samaritans and Jews shared a common ancestry. Each side claimed to be the true descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Each side claimed to worship God in the proper way, in the proper place, with the proper rituals. And each side at one time or another became offensive or even violent in expressing these differences. One Passover (around 400 B.C.), the Samaritans polluted the temple by scattering parts of dead bodies all over the temple grounds in Jerusalem. Some time later the Jews attacked and destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim. The rivalry was bitter, and sometimes deadly. For a Jew, there wasn't much worse than a Samaritan.
Unless it was a Samaritan woman. I don't want to belabor the point, but Jews of this time, for reasons related to Jewish purity laws, considered Samaritan women to be in a constant state of ceremonial uncleanness. Jewish men would literally have crossed the street to avoid physical contact with a Samaritan woman. From 26 a Samaritan woman's point of view, you could pretty accurately say that the Jews added insult to injury.
All of this helps explain the woman's surprise when Jesus asks her for a drink. Is this a cruel joke? And it explains the level of suspicion and challenge that the woman has toward Jesus as their conversation unfolds. "How can you (a Jewish man) ask me (a Samaritan woman) for a drink?" And then Jesus replies in this way: "If you knew the gift of God, and who is asking you for a drink, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water."
That reply is curious. On the one hand, it moves a step closer to the woman. Actually, it's not so much that I need a drink; I'd like to give you a drink. It's bridge building. It's reaching out. It's inviting. It appeals even to the woman's natural human curiosity.
On the other hand, it tends to emphasize the distance between Jesus and the woman. It suggests that the woman needs something Jesus has more than Jesus needs what the woman has. Of course we know that, as readers. But from the woman's point of view, it might seem to raise the tension rather than lowering it. The woman responds to Jesus as if she were responding to a challenge. If it's going to be a contest, she's not going to lose. So she jabs back at Jesus: "So what were you going to use to dip the water out? The well is pretty deep."
This woman knows how to use her mind. And she knows how to use her tongue. But Jesus knows what he is doing. The longer this conversation goes on, the more it draws the woman in. And the more Jesus talks, the more he zeroes in on the really central questions. The next words of Jesus seem to plug back into the Jewish/Samaritan issue. But really, they are spiritual issues. "If you knew the gift of God...."
I think we can imagine where Jesus wants to go with this. But to the woman, it probably seems like just one more example of the Jews claiming religious superiority. And the woman's answer sort of fights back on that basis. To paraphrase it a little, her response is something like this: "Oh, and I suppose you're greater than our ancestor, Jacob?" There is a lot of national and religious pride poured into her answer.
At this point, the dialogue is pretty fragile. We as readers know that Jesus is in fact greater than Jacob. But if he came right out and said that, you can be pretty sure that would be the end of the conversation. But look at what Jesus does say. He manages to make his point without saying it in so many words, and in a way (once again) that draws the woman in, arouses her interest. "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give will never thirst."
Now he really has her attention. Now she is interested. Now she replies, "Give me some of this water, so I won't have to keep coming out here to get water. I want what you've got."
Jesus worked hard to get the conversation to this point. It's what he had in mind all along. He has drawn her in until she is ready to accept his offer. So it's a bit curious at this potentially rewarding moment to hear Jesus say what he says next: "Go call your husband and come back."
At first glance, it seems like Jesus is blowing up the bridge he has just finished building. He has walked a tightrope between acceptance and rejection, between suspicion and trust, and just at the moment when acceptance and trust seem to gain the upper hand, Jesus touches a nerve. And that's really putting it mildly. Jesus now mentions right out loud the most sensitive, personal, private thing in this woman's entire existence: "Go call your husband and come back." There's no getting around the fact that Jesus wants to talk to this woman about her moral life. About her lifestyle. About the particular choices she has made, and the things she has done. What else could he possibly mean when he says, "Go call your husband and come back?" And in case there is any doubt about this, look how Jesus responds to the woman's halfway true evasion. When she says, somewhat lamely, "I have no husband," Jesus answers, "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."
That is almost what we might call rubbing her face in it. Jesus does not pull his punch – not now. Why is he suddenly so relentless? Why does he have to talk about that? Why does he have to bother her about the way she is living? Well, for one thing, consider what this woman's lifestyle brought into her life. Certainly it brought her a certain amount of companionship. And let's face it, who wants to be alone? But it also seemed to create as many problems as it solved. It put a distance between this woman and the people of her village. Remember that all of this took place at "about the sixth hour." That's midday. Noon. The point at which the sun would be at its most intense. That would not be the normal time to draw water. You would either do that in the morning or the evening, when the sun would be less intense. Consider this sentence from Genesis 24:11: "It was toward evening, the time when the women go out to draw water." So why was this woman coming at noon?
She came at a time when no one else would normally come. Because bearing the sun's heat would not be as bad as bearing the disapproval of the community. That would not be as bad as hearing the things she would have to hear, and getting the looks she would undoubtedly get, and who knows what else. This woman's lifestyle separated her from her fellow human beings.
But worse than that, it separated her from God. It's a pretty basic idea in the Bible that sin separates us from God, that it cuts us off from the source of our light and life. It's a basic idea, but maybe it's a basic idea that needs to be repeated, unpleasant as it may be. Sometimes we may all need to be reminded that the gospel which Jesus preached went like this: "The time has come! The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news." Jesus didn't offer peace and pardon without repentance.
"Go call your husband and come back." Jesus didn't say that because he was moralistic. He said it because he was pastoral. Because he was wanted to be redemptive. Because he knew that as long as this woman lived the way she was living, she could not drink the living water. The road to eternal life begins with repentance. And, in a sense, is repentance.
And that is true for each and every one of us. We surely don't have all the same moral struggles, but we all do have moral struggles. For some of us it may be greed. For some it may be alcohol or drug addiction. For others it may be honest dealings with our employers or our customers, or our suppliers, or our clients, or Revenue Canada. For some it might be the way we treat our children or spouse. Or it might be compulsive gambling. Or gossip. Or bearing grudges and not forgiving when people ask forgiveness. Or it may be a problem with our sexual morality (whether with partners of the opposite sex or the same sex). The point is we all face moral issues in our lives, and we are all called to obedience. Certainly, when Jesus invited people to be his disciples, he didn't tell them that they had to bring their lives into perfect conformity with that pattern before they could even think about following him. But the very heart of discipleship is our willingness to be transformed by God's grace. And the way we move forward in discipleship is by letting go of the things we love more that we love God.
That letting go, as we all know, is never easy. In our story, we see that the woman, after Jesus confronted her, and after she acknowledged the facts, wasn't done with her struggle. She still trotted out a sophisticated religious argument. A question of interpretation, a way by which she could dismiss Jesus as just another one of those party-line Jews. But I think we can all recognize what she was doing: she was stalling. "Change me, Lord, but not today." But Jesus didn't leave any more room for stalling. "I who speak to you am he." We have all heard the voice of Christ. We hear it every day, just as the woman heard it back then. We recognize the call to repentance. The question is, how do we respond?
And you know what's really curious here? It seems to me that the woman, when her resistance is finally overcome, is relieved. A weight has been lifted from her.
Not only that, but she seems excited. She even seems joyful. A person who once shunned other people now seeks them out. Come and see! Come and see! In fact, if you think about it, she was one of the very first Christian missionaries. It didn't take long at all for the living water to become a stream in her, springing up to eternal life.
John records a curious detail in this story. In her excitement and her haste, she left her water pitcher behind. It's tempting, especially because this is John's gospel, to look for a symbolic meaning in this: to see that pitcher as the symbol of an empty way of life now left behind, in favor of a new life. Even if John didn't intend the symbolism, we can't help noticing that the woman in the end has completely forgotten the purpose for which she came to the well, and has found a new and greater purpose in her life.
We can't romanticize this story. We can't let ourselves imagine that from now on this woman had no further moral struggles in her life, and that no one ever spoke an unkind word to her again. But we have every reason to believe that when she did have moral struggles, she remembered her encounter with Jesus. And we have every reason to believe that the new life Jesus created in her continued to spring up, and to carry her forward in God's grace. We have every reason to believe that the transformation of her life which began on that day continued throughout her life. We have every reason to believe that, wherever she started, in the end she did know the gift of God, and she did know who it was that had asked for a drink. And she did ask him to give her the living water.
May we also recognize the gift of God. May we also realize what God's Messiah offers to us. May we, too, drink deeply of that living water, this day and every day. May our lives be so transformed that we can't possibly contain the geyser of living water that might gush forth from our hearts and minds and mouths. May we let Christ overcome our resistance, and our fear, and our pride, and our sin, and our blindness and our ignorance. May we, like this woman, have the sense not to walk away until Jesus has done what he came for: until he has satisfied us with living water welling up to eternal life.