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March 14, 2004

The Woman at the Well

(John 4:5:42)

I would like to look at this great story from John’s Gospel and see what we can learn from it. The first to notice is that Jesus is in pagan territory, in Samaria, in enemy territory, where he is absolutely not supposed to be, but as usual, Jesus disregards the rules and regulations and national borders and he loves his enemies. He is tired and thirsty, sitting by the ancient well which belonged to Jacob and something remarkable happens. Jesus is approached by a woman, engages her in spiritual conversation and opens up to her in ways that he does for no one else and completely changes her.

It begins when he asks her for a drink, and she says how could you--the hated enemy, a Jew--ask me--the hated enemy, a Samaritan--for a drink, and he says, “If you knew the gift of God and who was saying this, you would have asked him and he would give you living water.” Jesus is the real well! If we drink from Jesus we will never be thirsty again. If we make Jesus the center of our lives, we will have a spring of water welling up from within us, giving us life, no matter what is happening around us! Now unlike the men who would immediately start challenging Jesus, this woman is smart. She says, “Give me some of this water.”

I think she was a remarkable person, one of the greatest characters in all the Gospels. But what do we know about her? It’s noon. She’s all alone by herself, far from town, not with the other women, and that’s a clue. In those days, when there was no indoor plumbing, the women went to the well at 6 in the morning when it was cool, to draw water and hear the news, but this woman goes by herself at high noon which means she’s an outcast. She is ashamed of something. She has a history, a reputation. And anyone, including Jesus, would have recognized this because women would not be alone talking to the enemy.

But Jesus doesn’t avoid her. He doesn’t reject her. He starts talking to her about her life, and tells her about herself, and she says, “I see you are a prophet,” and starts talking to him about God and they engage in spiritual conversation, moving from the practical matter of drinking water to the spiritual question of living water and worshipping God. Notice that Jesus calls her “Woman,” using the same dignity he used toward his mother at the miracle in Cana, and says, “The hour is coming when true worshippers will worship God in Spirit and truth.” This is completely shocking, totally radical because it means Jesus is changing everything and announcing that God is not confined to geography or national borders. God is no longer just in the Temple; no longer just for the chosen people, but available to all people everywhere; not just for us, but everyone; that God is found in the search for truth and through the Holy Spirit, through the living water within. And though she’s not a Jew, this great woman accepts this and says she knows the messiah is coming and will explain everything.

And Jesus does something absolutely astonishing. He tells her who he is. He becomes vulnerable, opens himself up and reveals himself to her, calling himself, “I Am,” the name Yahweh gave to Moses in the burning bush. “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” This is the only place in John’s Gospel where Jesus says that he is the Christ. He never told this to anyone else--the disciples, the religious leaders, or even John the Baptist, only this hated Samaritan, an unclean woman, a notorious woman--the last person on earth he should be talking to, much less confessing to. Jesus is remarkable!

I suggest to you this morning that this is what happens to us when we pray--Jesus reveals himself to us. This is what happens when we sit with Jesus in meditation--Jesus tells us who we are and who he is. This is what happens when we engage in spiritual conversation with each other--we recognize who Jesus is; our lives get better; and a spring of living water flows within us.

Just then, the disciples arrive and they’re shocked to find him talking with the enemy, with a notorious woman, and she runs off to town, but she’s completely changed because he has removed her shame, given her new dignity, and she starts telling everyone about him. I think she is the first apostle, greater than the male disciples; that she, not St. Paul, is the first apostle to the gentiles, the first missionary, because the whole town listens to her, and they all come out to meet him. And the male disciples are totally clueless. They start talking about food. Jesus is tired, hungry and thirsty, but they’re probably feeling guilty because they’ve been off eating and drinking and having a good time.

Jesus sees the entire town coming to hear him and so he says, “This is my food. This harvest, these people coming to me, this is what feeds me.” And we’re told finally that many people start to believe in him and they start calling him “the Savior of the world,” which is also amazing because the emperor issued a decree saying that he was to be addressed as “The Savior of the World,” and so these Gentiles are saying Jesus is greater than the emperor, which is not only political but treasonous.

Finally, I just want to point out that Jesus never gets his drink of water. He is still thirsty. According to John, he dies on the cross saying, “I thirst.” He is still waiting for us to give him water, still wanting to give us his living water, still trying to explain our lives to us, to tell us who he is so that we might reap a rich harvest for him and call him--and no one else, not the president, the vice president, or anyone--the savior of the world.

So what do we learn from this?

  • That Jesus is thirsty and needs us to give him water
  • That Jesus is living water and if we make Jesus the center of our lives we will have a spring of living water within us and never be thirsty again
  • That we need to practice spiritual conversation with one another and talk about God
  • That the way to worship God is to seek the truth no matter what and live in the Holy Spirit
  • That Jesus wants to reveal himself to us.
  • That we too are called to be apostles, to go out and tell everyone in town about Jesus.
  • And, that, from now on, like the woman at the well, everything has changed for us too.

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