Sermon: 3 Lent Year A – The woman at the well
Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen
May I speak to you in the name of the father, son, and holy spirit. Amen
I laughed a little bit when I saw what the gospel lesson is for today.
This story, Jesus and the woman at the well in Samaria. This has been one of my favorite Bible stories for 20 years. Back then, what I liked about this story was how Jesus connects with the people he encounters. How God, through Jesus, met these Samaritans face to face. I was inspired by the Samaritans listening to the woman who shared the news about Jesus visiting, but then they really believe when they hear Jesus himself.
It was this story that set me on the academic path of linguistics. I wanted to be a Bible translator, so that people could encounter Jesus’ words for themselves. I wanted people to believe what Jesus says not because I told them what I heard, but because they heard for themselves. I still believe this most days. In fact, usually I don’t want to preach my own sermon at all, I would rather just read the lessons aloud again. That direct connection to the spring of living water from Jesus…..that’s more powerful than any sermon I could give.
I saw a report this week that 50% of teens in the 1990s met up with their friends almost every day, but today only 25% of teens hang out with their friends almost every day. The reporter attributed the shift to increased phone use and especially social media in the past 15 years. I don’t know. It’s not a surprise to me that teens aren’t hanging out every day as much. We don’t make it easy. When I was 16, River Park here in Fresno tried to implement a 6p curfew for teens. Where were we supposed to hang out with each other?
We don’t do a very good job as a society of encouraging young people to just hang out with their friends. We schedule education and activities almost every day. We don’t have very many places where young people can meet up with friends or meet new people safely. We try to protect our young people, we try to make the best of the time with our families. We try to keep people out of trouble. And then we also complain when people aren’t hanging out with their friends and become isolated! And really, human society has always been this way.
How can we encourage more connection and less isolation?
Jesus breaks through all these rules and stereotypes of society to connect with people. Jesus knew what he was doing. The town well was basically the ancient near east version of the mall hangout spot. Everybody went there. There’s even a bunch of stories in Genesis and Exodus where men meet their future wives at a well. Jesus hanging out at the well was kinda like if he were in the opening scene of a rom com. Everyone knew where this story goes.
What was weird was going to the well in the middle of the day, when you’d have to carry your water back when it was all hot. But that’s what the woman in the story was doing. I wonder if she was going to the well at that time to intentionally avoid meeting people. I wonder if she felt isolated in her community. We get a little of her story in her conversation with Jesus. She’s had several husbands. We don’t know the circumstances, but even today, that kind of thing makes someone the target of gossip. It’s no wonder she might want to avoid the busy times at the well like I might avoid going to the mall when I didn’t want people to see me.
But Jesus is there, waiting for her. A Jewish man, waiting for her, a Samaritan woman. The Samaritans and Judeans were not friendly. They were both descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They shared the same heritage and many of the same religious practices. But they had suffered differently under the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. Assyrian settlers moved in and married those Samaritans who were left in their land. The Judeans were deported to Babylon and they came back to an empty and destroyed Jerusalem. They shared so much, but war and empire had separated them. Some Jewish travelers going between Judea and Galilee went the long way around just to avoid going through Samaria. And Jesus waits at a Samaritan well to make a connection with an isolated woman.
He meets her alone. Probably not the safest move, if she’s trying to avoid gossip. What will people say if they see her at the well alone with a strange man? Because, let’s be honest here, Jesus is being a little weird. At first he’s like “give me a drink” and then he says he can give her a source of living water? If he can do that, why do we have to lug heavy water jars back to town? Maybe he’s a weird guy, but he’s intriguing. He knows how to make an impression. He know how to connect with what is important to people.
As far as gossip goes, Jesus does not seem to be concerned. He does not shy away from associating with this woman, even if it attracts gossip. He knows all the gossip already, and he states the woman’s story clearly, but without judgement. She is free to meet Jesus without having to hide part of herself. The truth is not something that separates people. It’s speculation, it’s rumors, it’s ignorance and lies that cause division.
The Samaritan and Jewish people were isolated from each other, and they didn’t understand each other. There was a lot of ignorance and not much truth between the communities. Jews didn’t share things in common with Samaritans, John’s gospel says. And yet Jesus asks this woman for a drink. He knows everything about her and it doesn’t scare him away. Who knows, maybe she had been widowed 5 times, and she was afraid of hitting it off with the new guy at the well for fear that he would get caught up in her curse. Maybe that’s why she goes to the well alone. But Jesus breaks through her isolation. He is not afraid to share her water. He’s not afraid to talk with her. Jesus makes a connection with her, despite all the things that should have kept them apart.
Who knows how many Jewish men this Samaritan woman has had a chance to honestly ask questions. Probably not many. She asks her question about where the proper place to worship God is. The mountain here in Samaria or the temple mount in Jerusalem? Both places have history, have generations of precedent. …And Jesus says that the physical place is not going to matter. True worshippers will worship God in spirit and truth. That connection with God in worship does not depend on the place or the customs and traditions.
True worship happens in spirit and truth. True connection with God happens in spirit and truth. And that’s what Jesus makes happen. He connects with this woman even though there are so many reasons they should have been isolated. He knows the truth, and connects with her not despite knowing the truth, but because of it.
And that’s the thing she is so overcome with excitement to share: come meet this man who knows everything about me! Come meet this man who knows the whole truth, and still hung out with *me*. And they do. They meet this Jewish man who wants to talk with them, who wants to hang out even though Samaritans and Jews don’t do that.
John’s gospel doesn’t say what he said to them. But that wasn’t the important thing. The important thing was that he broke through the isolation, ignorance, and distrust. He connected with them. He didn’t go around Samaria in his travels. He went right through the middle and hung out with the people he met. He knew the truth of their lives because he was there with them. It doesn’t matter what mountain you worship on if God is already there with you.
Jesus connected with them in spirit and in truth by being there with them.
So, how can we encourage more connection and less isolation? We hang out with people. We meet people. We meet people in their isolation. We meet people regardless of the gossip, or fear, or misunderstanding. We meet people in the truth of who they are. We connect with people in spirit and truth by being there with them.