A Sermon for February 19 on John 4:5-42
It is a long gospel reading tonight, with a lot to hear, and a lot to absorb. The architects of the lectionary have set things up so that over four of these Lenten Sundays we’re challenged to hear long sections from the Gospel according to John. Last week it was Nicodemus, this week the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, next Sunday it is the story of a blind man’s healing which triggers a dispute with the Pharisees, and the Sunday after that it is the story of the raising of Lazarus. Each of these stories is unique to John, and each presents extended dialogue between Jesus and the other characters in the scene. Each is also full of word play, and tonight’s reading is no exception.
To listen to the sermon, click play:
It is all so characteristic of John, whose gospel is the last to be written and the one with the longest view of the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Right from its opening Prologue celebrating the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us, it is clear that John’s project is distinct from the other three gospel writers. He moves episodes around, placing the cleansing of the temple near the beginning of his gospel rather than during the final week of Jesus’ life. He has Jesus visiting Jerusalem three times during the course of his ministry, rather than just once at the end. He alone writes of the deep and aching doubt of Thomas, and only John includes the closing story of Peter being called to “feed my sheep.” It is John who writes of Jesus’ washing his disciples feet at the last supper, without so much as mentioning the sharing of bread and wine. What you need to acknowledge is that John with his long view is not attempting to offer us anything like a biography, but instead a proclamation of who Jesus is. In this, John is a poet, an imaginative theologian, and an artist of imagery and words. It doesn’t make it any less true… in fact, what he offers is some of the deepest truth thirsted for by the people of God.
I like this story we tell tonight. I’m struck by how Jesus almost casually knocks over a series of social conventions and deeply rooted prejudices. He’s not supposed to be speaking with a woman, but never mind that. He not only speaks with her, he engages her in a real conversation. He, a Jew, is not supposed to be talking with a Samaritan, much less asking to drink water from a Samaritan bucket, but never mind that. They talk, and in the end they go back to her town where he stays for two days. Imagine what was going through the minds of his disciples… we’re staying here? With them? Not only do they stay, but Jesus offers them his teachings. In a cultural context that was all about exclusion and division, he offered them inclusion. It is like a lived expression of Paul’s declaration that in Christ there is no longer Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, slave nor free.
I like this Samaritan woman as well. I like her edge, her nerviness, her apparent complete lack of anything resembling intimidation. She’s got a bit of a past; on that John is abundantly clear. Actually, she doesn’t just have a past, she clearly has a bit of a present, too. She’s been married how many times? And she’s now living with a man to whom she’s not even married? That would have cost her in that cultural context. Maybe her edge and toughness comes from having to keep steeling herself against judgment from the others in her village. She’s that sort of woman.
When Jesus asks her to give him a drink of water from the well, she doesn’t avert her eyes or back away from speaking with him, as social mores would have dictated. No, instead she replies, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” And from there, they’re into a conversation marked by all of that word play. As N.T. Wright describes it, “The dialogue is a long string of double meanings and misunderstandings.” He even wonders, “Did John actually intend it, perhaps, to sound funny, a semi-comic scene with a serious point hidden among the to-and-fro of the repartee, like some of Shakespeare’s clown scenes?” That’s a very real question. All of the back and forth about water—water from Jacob’s well and living water and water that so quenches your thirst that you never need to drink again—she assumes one thing, Jesus replies out of a deeper place, and she comes part of the way along in understanding him. It is comic and dramatic and playful. I think they’re both smiling as the conversation unfolds; he because he knows he is drawing her to that which she most needs, and she because it is a way to keep your guard up, but also because she can sense that there is something very real and very good in his words.
And then comes the question of her husband. Once more from N.T. Wright:
Repartee again: ‘Call your husband.’ ‘Haven’t got one.’ ‘No – five down, one to go.’ Oops, change the subject… are you a prophet by any chance? We have this thing about which mountain we should worship on.’ Objection over-ruled. ‘Spirit, not mountain, is what matters; and the one God is looking for Spirit-people right now.’ ‘Oh, very interesting – of course one day the Messiah is coming. He’ll explain all that complicated stuff.’ Phew. Let’s not get too far with this
Pause. No way off the hook. Jesus holds her gaze. ‘I am, who am speaking to you.’ Messiah, and … ‘I am’? End of repartee. Time for action. Sower and reaper are about to rejoice together.
By this time the disciples have arrived and are astonished to find Jesus talking with this Samaritan woman. With their arrival, she’s off to her town to tell of what has happened to her, and John offers another conversation marked by word play, this time with the astonished disciples. It is about food, not water, but it is essentially the same sort of conversation. They’re thinking he must be hungry and in need of food, while he responds by talking about being fed through doing “the will of the God who had sent him.” All the while John wants his readers to eavesdrop and to delight, because we know, right from the opening verses of the gospel, more about Jesus than do the disciples.
And then right away that woman is back, accompanied by others from her town, asking that he come and stay with them. They’re thirsty too; they want to know about this living water. They want to know more about what has put such light into the eyes of a woman they all had considered disgraced and questionable.
And he goes with them, and he spends those days. Dividing lines fall, old prejudices evaporate. The light they’d seen in that woman’s eyes was real. Exclusion has been trumped by this radical and generous inclusion, and over those two days they hear it in his words, they see it in his face, they feel it in their souls.
Two days. That means that we can be pretty sure that the woman did offer him cups of water to drink, and it means that Jesus and his oh-so-Jewish disciples did sit down with Samaritans and eat Samaritan food from Samaritan dishes. They had to swallow their own deeply rooted prejudices before they could swallow that food. That’s often the way when Jesus challenges us.
Now look at the empty chair behind me, and ask yourself those questions it symbolizes:
- Who need a place at this table, and how can we make space?
- Whose absence are you especially aware of in this season?
- What are the parts of our own selves that we withhold from the welcoming presence of our inveterately hospitable Lord?