Sunday, 19 March 2017

The Woman at the Well

Mentmore – Lent 3 – 19 March 2017

Gospel John 4:5—42

5 He came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.

7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, ‘Will you give me a drink?’ 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

9 The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

10 Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.’

11 ‘Sir,’ the woman said, ‘you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?’

13 Jesus answered, ‘Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again,14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’

15 The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.’

16 He told her, ‘Go, call your husband and come back.’

17 ‘I have no husband,’ she replied.

Jesus said to her, ‘You are right when you say you have no husband.18 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.’

19 ‘Sir,’ the woman said, ‘I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.’

21 ‘Woman,’ Jesus replied, ‘believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.’

25 The woman said, ‘I know that Messiah’ (called Christ) ‘is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.’

26 Then Jesus declared, ‘I, the one speaking to you – I am he.’

27 Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, ‘What do you want?’ or ‘Why are you talking with her?’

28 Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, 29 ‘Come, see a man who told me everything I’ve ever done. Could this be the Messiah?’ 30 They came out of the town and made their way towards him.

31 Meanwhile his disciples urged him, ‘Rabbi, eat something.’

32 But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you know nothing about.’

33 Then his disciples said to each other, ‘Could someone have brought him food?’

34 ‘My food,’ said Jesus, ‘is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. 35 Don’t you have a saying, “It’s still four months until harvest”? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. 36 Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. 37 Thus the saying “One sows and another reaps” is true. 38 I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labour.’

39 Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I’ve ever done.’ 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. 41 And because of his words many more became believers.

42 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 Saviour of the world.’


Last Sunday, I was taking a service of HC at Stoke Hammond. The lectionary reading was from John 3: the visit of Nicodemus to Jesus by night. Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be born again, in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

After I finished the sermon, I received a letter from the Rector, John Waller, telling me he had designed a special Lent Course for the benefice. The gospel reading would be from John 6: Jesus after feeding the 5,000, crossed the Sea of Galilee walking on the water, and when the crowds who had been fed caught up with him again, he told them they must seek out the Bread of Life, which he represented.

I tore up my original sermon, and rewrote it. As I started to look again at the Bread of Life, I remember being struck by how similar the exchange was to Jesus’s conversation with the Woman at the Well. Then Gill got in touch and asked me to cover today for her absence in Burundi, so I get the chance to enlarge on what I said last Sunday at Stoke Hammond.

I bet you have a picture in your mind of the Woman at the Well, which you have developed over the years. You probably think this Samaritan was a fallen woman, who had lived with 5 different men, and was a model of sinfulness used by Jesus to illustrate that salvation could come to everyone, regardless of their condition or behaviour.

My picture of the Woman at the Well is rather different. Firstly, I have a picture in my mind of the time when Vicky and I walked across the Sinai with 7 camels, and came across a woman with a flock of goats, sitting on a well cover, shocked and immoveable, having been surprised by a group of western walkers as she prepared to water her goats from the ancient well. She was dressed head to foot in black, and did not move a muscle until we had filled our water bottles and continued our trek.

Secondly, and here I put my cards on the table, I don’t think she was a fallen woman, or even particularly sinful: in fact, over the centuries, we seem to have read between the lines and, like Mary Magdalene and other women in the gospels assumed an interpretation which may be completely unjustified.

Read the passage again, and you will see Jesus does not accuse her of anything, does not call for repentance, does not forgive her, but makes a statement about her history which is purely factual. She may have been sent away from her husband by divorce. Her next husband may have died, and she may have been taken in by his family. If childless, she may have married her dead husband’s brother. This was called a Levirate marriage. There could be all sorts of reasons. To be widowed 5 times might be heart breaking; it was certainly not impossible. We can imagine this woman’s story was more tragic than necessarily scandalous.

The difficulty with jumping to conclusions from what Jesus said to her is that our judgement colours the rest of the encounter, and makes it hard for us to understand the teaching. Immediately after Jesus mentions her history, the Samaritan woman says: “I see you are a prophet.” In John, the word “see” means to observe and note, but also has a deeper meaning—to believe. What the woman is saying is that Jesus’s knowledge of her past leads to her belief he is a prophet.

Jesus has recognised the woman’s plight—how dependent she is on men for her survival. He recognises and accepts that she has little alternative but to adopt a dependent lifestyle, or face penury and immorality. Jesus “sees” into her soul.

Can this man be the long awaited Messiah? The woman wonders. Jesus confirms he is. At this point, the disciples return with food and water. They are shocked to see Jesus conversing with a woman, and a Samaritan one at that. The woman, having “seen” Jesus’s identity, leaves her water jar (an authentic detail in the account) and goes to announce in the village that she has “seen” the Messiah. ‘He told me everything I’ve ever done’ she tells her friends and neighbours.

This woman—this early Christian evangelist—was not endowed with fancy words and cogent evidence. She just told people of her own experience. Many of her friends and neighbours became believers. They tell us why, in the last verse:

42 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 Saviour of the world.’

This is where I felt the eco of other passages. Nicodemus coming to Jesus secretly, and later on openly helping with embalming his body and arguing with the Sanhedrin. Andrew who was told by Jesus to “come and see” then seeks out his brother Peter. Philip who tells Nathaniel. And this nameless Samaritan woman—the least likely of all—who just relates what she has “seen.”

Next on the list of missioners might be you or me. Isn’t this what John the Evangelist wants us to see? The Samaritan woman is seen by Jesus, and loved by Jesus. She has the capacity to bear witness to the one who comes to enlighten our lives. He is the one who will give us living water to satisfy even our deepest thirst. What she can do, so can we. Amen

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