Sunday, February 2, 2014

A Question of Living Water: A Sermon on John 4:1-42

Jesus and the Samaritan Woman by He Qi

Scripture can be found here...

Let me introduce you to someone very special to me. Someone I’ve known at least since I was 28 years old, studying for ministry, but never, ever, dreaming I might one day be called upon to stand in front of a congregation and speak about scripture. Someone I was introduced to because a Boston College chaplain nevertheless asked me, one winter day, “How would you like to preach during Lent?” To which I instantly replied, YES, almost without thinking about it, and which is how I met her. And, as near as I can calculate, that is how on March 18, 1990, the third Sunday in Lent, I stood in the Trinity Chapel at the Newton Campus to preached my first sermon ever, on the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well.

There is so much to say about this passage. That is the peril of preaching on a passage you truly love. Too much to say, too much risk of what one generous-hearted preaching mentor kindly called, “a kitchen-sink-sermon,” as in, everything but. So, I’m going to let her lead the way. Specifically, I’m going to let her introduce herself by means of the questions she asks Jesus—four reasonable, challenging, sometimes impertinent, and ultimately, soul-baring questions.

Question #1: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”

It is the first century of the common era. This is Samaria, which is to say, non-Judean, non-Jewish territory. Jews and Samaritans had been one people, once upon a time. But after the split into northern and southern kingdoms, they had evolved into bitter enemies, and a central wound in that division had to do with where one could truly worship God. For Judeans, those in the southern kingdom, that was Jerusalem.

So, the first part of her question has to do with the woman’s incredulity that Jesus, a Jew, would ask a drink of water from a Samaritan. The second part of her surprise is that Jesus would ask it from a Samaritan woman. To this day, in some expressions of Judaism, men and women who are neither married nor related in some way simply do not speak to one another when unchaperoned. The Samaritan woman has noticed that Jesus has crossed barriers of religious belief, and of ethnicity, and of traditionally permitted gender interactions, in order to ask her for water. She demands to know why.

Question #2: “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?”

In Jesus’ response to the Samaritan woman’s first question, he tweaked her for not knowing something she could hardly be expected to know: that he was the bearer of something he referred to as “living water.” In her very reasonable response, she asks where and how Jesus expects to get it. I imagine her, arms akimbo. I see her with a raised eyebrow. I hear her, and her voice is dripping with sarcasm.

Question #3: “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”

Her third question follows right after her second. Are you greater than our ancestor, Jacob?

Hear how many ways we can hear this question. First, most obvious, is “Just who do you think you are?” Second, a more toned down, sincere query as to what exact power Jesus is claiming to have, he who claims to be able to give something that appears to be nowhere in sight—living water, which to the woman, still means fresh water, flowing, and not well water.

But hear that word: Our. Our ancestor. This woman, even while she is challenging Jesus, even while she is acutely aware of the differences between then—Samaritan and Jew, woman and man—she asks her question in a way that pushes Jesus to recognize, instead, what binds them: their common ancestor, in Greek, “the father of us,” Jacob. They are connected. They are kin. Jesus cannot deny it.

Jesus replies with an enticing description. The water from the well will eventually run dry. But the water Jesus is offering… the living water… will never run dry.
“The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

And now it is the woman’s turn. “Sir, give me this water.”  And in that entreaty, we learn so much about her. We learn her deep thirst for more than a cold cup on a hot day. We learn of her longing for something that will quench her soul as well as her body, something delicious to her heart as well as her mouth. Give me this water. We learn of her boldness. We learn of her deepest hopes. Give me this water.

Jesus’ response is curious, and leads to what is perhaps the most misinterpreted of all the conversations in the gospel of John. Jesus says, “Go get your husband.” “I don’t have a husband.” “No kidding. You’ve had five, and that one you’re with isn’t your husband at all, is he?”

It might surprise you, and then again, it might not, that this has historically been read as an indictment of the woman’s marital and sexual history. Although—it must be mentioned, if Jesus is referring to the woman’s track record of marriages and divorces, women had no power to divorce men. Men had all the power to divorce women, for any reason whatsoever, including a woman’s failure to bear a child. So if, let’s just say for the sake of argument, Jesus is really referring to the woman’s having been married so many times, and the fact that she is no longer considered marriageable, I can only imagine Jesus to be referring to it in a way that lets the woman know he sees her pain. He sees her powerlessness. He sees one of the reasons, perhaps, why she is so very thirsty for that living water.

However, this is John’s gospel, let’s not forget, and so we have a Jesus of metaphors, and a Jesus of symbols. One of the charges Jews made against Samaritans was that they had five gods, because the northern kingdom territories had five sanctuaries. But the Hebrew word for false god is ba’al, a word that means, god, lord, and also, husband. It’s not only possible, it’s highly likely, that Jesus was making that charge here—Samaritans have five ba’als, five gods. In one scenario, Jesus is engaging in shaming of a personal nature. In the other, he is taking on the woman’s theology. This is the gospel of John. What do you think he is most likely to be doing?

And this is why her response—“Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem”—is not a non sequitur. She gets exactly what Jesus is saying, and it has nothing to do with her marital status. It’s about meeting God on God’s terms. Worship in Spirit and in truth. And in the next breath Jesus says, in effect, In the long run, it doesn’t matter where we worship. What matters is living water. What matters is your deep spiritual thirst. What matters is the Spirit—who, remember, blows wherever and however she chooses—and what matters is the truth.
Question #4 (paired with Statement #1): “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!”  “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

I have introduced you to someone very dear to me: the first female evangelist of John’s gospel (though not the last). After the banter and the sparring, and, by the way, the non-existent cup of water poor thirsty Jesus never does get, after Jesus’ enigmatic and dangerous answer to that last question (“I am he.”), after all that: Come and see. The unnamed Samaritan woman would like to introduce us to Jesus.

Come and see one who doesn’t get put out when you ask questions.

Come and see one who knows you better than you know yourself.

Come and see one who offers endlessly quenching living water for thirsty, parched, even dying souls and bodies.

Come and see the one who merrily breaks down barriers of religion, of race, of gender.

Come and see the one who invites us to sit at table to be strengthened so that we, too, can go and be living water for a thirsty world.

Come and see.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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