Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Third Sunday of Lent.
Jesus had to go through Samaria. He came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, which was near the land Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there. Jesus was tired from his journey, so he sat down at the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to the well to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me some water to drink.” His disciples had gone into the city to buy him some food.
The Samaritan woman asked, “Why do you, a Jewish man, ask for something to drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” (Jews and Samaritans didn’t associate with each other.)
Jesus responded, “If you recognized God’s gift and who is saying to you, ‘Give me some water to drink,’ you would be asking him and he would give you living water.”
The woman said to him, “Sir, you don’t have a bucket and the well is deep. Where would you get this living water? You aren’t greater than our father Jacob, are you? He gave this well to us, and he drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.”
Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks from the water that I will give will never be thirsty again. The water that I give will become in those who drink it a spring of water that bubbles up into eternal life.”
The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will never be thirsty and will never need to come here to draw water!”
Jesus said to her, “Go, get your husband, and come back here.”
The woman replied, “I don’t have a husband.”
“You are right to say, ‘I don’t have a husband,’” Jesus answered. “You’ve had five husbands, and the man you are with now isn’t your husband. You’ve spoken the truth.”
The woman said, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you and your people say that it is necessary to worship in Jerusalem.”
Jesus said to her, “Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you and your people will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You and your people worship what you don’t know; we worship what we know because salvation is from the Jews. But the time is coming—and is here!—when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth. The Father looks for those who worship him this way. God is spirit, and it is necessary to worship God in spirit and truth.”
The woman said, “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one who is called the Christ. When he comes, he will teach everything to us.”
Jesus said to her, “I Am—the one who speaks with you.”
Just then, Jesus’ disciples arrived and were shocked that he was talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?” The woman put down her water jar and went into the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who has told me everything I’ve done! Could this man be the Christ?” They left the city and were on their way to see Jesus.
In the meantime the disciples spoke to Jesus, saying, “Rabbi, eat.”
Jesus said to them, “I have food to eat that you don’t know about.”
The disciples asked each other, “Has someone brought him food?”
Jesus said to them, “I am fed by doing the will of the one who sent me and by completing his work. Don’t you have a saying, ‘Four more months and then it’s time for harvest’? Look, I tell you: open your eyes and notice that the fields are already ripe for the harvest. Those who harvest are receiving their pay and gathering fruit for eternal life so that those who sow and those who harvest can celebrate together. This is a true saying, that one sows and another harvests. I have sent you to harvest what you didn’t work hard for; others worked hard, and you will share in their hard work.”
Many Samaritans in that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s word when she testified, “He told me everything I’ve ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to Jesus, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. Many more believed because of his word, and they said to the woman, “We no longer believe because of what you said, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this one is truly the savior of the world.”
Our scripture this morning begins with a lie.
John says “Jesus had to go through Samaria,” and that’s not quite true. Yes, Jesus was traveling from Jerusalem in Judea to the Galilee in the north, and yes, Samaria lay between the two. To go through Samaria was certainly the quickest route home. But there were other roads, and in fact, a really pious Jew wouldn’t go through Samaria, wouldn’t run the risk of all that unclean territory. He or she would go the long way round, skirt the edge. Jesus didn’t have to go through Samaria. He chose to.
I just said a really pious Jew wouldn’t go through Samaria, but I just as easily could have said a really pious Jew wouldn’t leave Samaria. You see, the natives of Galilee and Judea, and the natives of Samaria—they were both Jewish. John won’t call them that—a flicker of his own prejudice showing through. But both groups considered themselves Jewish. They were both pious. They were both committed to their faith, their God, their people, their histories—much of it shared. Yet at some point, centuries ago, their paths had forked, and the Jews we know best, the Judean and Galilean Jews, they decided to build God’s house in Jerusalem, and worship God there, and the Samaritans decided to stick to the holy mountains, and worship God where their ancestors had, no temples needed.
There’s an old cartoon that shows two people stranded on a desert island. One has a lean-to with the sign First Baptist Church of the Island. He sits by it, arms crossed. A few feet down the beach, the other has built another lean-to: Second Baptist Church of the Island. Or Methodist, or Lutheran, or whatever is popular in the cartoonist’s community. The joke is that people will always find a reason to be split off, to disagree about how their faith should work.
The prejudice between the two groups of Jews only grew as time went on—the kind of harsh prejudice we reserve for people most like ourselves. I know I have been harder on the perceived failings of Christians than I have ever been about people of other faiths. If you’re going to claim to be Christian, then it’s like I get the right to hold you to some standards—my standards, usually. And even though I try to stop myself, I occasionally find the dreaded words coming out of my mouth—“yeah, I’m not that kind of Christian.”
So it was with the Jews of Judea and Samaria. Each group angry that the other was so close, and yet so far from the truth. And that anger turned into arrogance and prejudice and all manner of foolishness, as it so often does.
Jesus has no time for any of that. He has important ministry to be getting on with. And while the most pious of the Judean Jews travelled around the edge of Samaria, that was hardly a practical solution for anyone on a timetable, or a budget. It wasn’t unheard of that a Galilean Jew might wander through Samaria. But it was unheard of that he would show anything but disdain for the people he met along the way.
You can hear it in her question, the woman who came to the well. “Why do you, a Jewish man, ask for something to drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” There’s a note of astonishment in it, cynicism too. Even a subtle reminder that Jesus is breaking the rules. Men don’t talk to women they don’t know; Galilean Jews don’t speak to Samaritan ones.
But there’s curiosity in her question, too. After all, she could have just said no, I won’t give you a drink. Or refused to answer altogether. Both might have been more proper ways to handle his breach of etiquette. But instead she asks him why. She invites him into conversation.
And it’s some conversation! The longest one we have on record for Jesus. And unlike last week, where poor Nicodemus could hardly get a word in, here the woman and Jesus seem evenly matched. She’s clearly intrigued by this Jewish man, with his promises of Living Water—but she’s also not about to let him get the upper hand, as she deftly reminds him that she’s in her territory, that her ancestors have been drinking from this well for thousands of years, generation upon generation, stretching all the way back to the patriarch Jacob. She’s proud of her people, her heritage. She’s not going to give an inch.
But then again, Jesus doesn’t seem to be trying to take one. Instead of looking down on her for being a woman of Samaria, he offers her a gift instead—Living Water. Anyone who drinks of it will never thirst again. For a woman whose job it is to haul heavy jars of water back and forth from the well, that’s too good to pass up. “Sir, give me this water!” she says.
And then their conversation hits what appears to me to be a giant brick wall. “Go get your husband,” Jesus says, and I’m left scratching my head. Why on earth does he need to get her husband involved? How is he relevant?
It’s an odd, quick back and forth. “Go get your husband.” “I have no husband.” “Right, you’ve had five husbands, and the one you’re with now isn’t your husband.”
I have to admit, this isn’t my favorite Jesus moment. She says “I have no husband,” and he says “you’re correct” and I’m left thinking, duh, of course she knows what’s going on in her own life, you didn’t have to explain it to her. And furthermore, I have a bone to pick with the centuries of preachers who have taken these three sentences as an opportunity to jump on this woman, to paint her as a prostitute, or a harpy, or a lost puppy dog looking for love in all the wrong places. “I have no husband,” she says without shame, and so preachers have tried to add the shame in themselves, because shaming women has been second nature for so long. And in doing so they miss what Jesus actually says—I’ve missed it too, listening to this passage my whole life. Jesus doesn’t say, the one you’re with now isn’t your husband, shame on you. He doesn’t even patronize her and say, you’re forgiven, but don’t sin again. The only moral comment he makes on her life story is this: “you’ve spoken the truth.”
“You’ve spoken the truth.”
I really think Jesus is rather pleased. This woman is a truth-teller—even when that truth might get her dirty looks, or worse. She won’t pretend to be someone she isn’t, and she won’t apologize for her own life story. She tells the truth to a man she doesn’t know and who doesn’t know her, simply because that is who she is. Honest, open, truthful.
Suddenly their conversation kicks into a different gear. Jesus has been talking riddles and metaphors—Living Water and internal bubbling springs. But as she tells the truth, he does too: the time is coming when the divisions between Galilean and Judean and Samaritan Jews will be dissolved. The time is coming when it won’t matter if you worship at the mountain or the temple. The time is coming when putting up shows of bravado over who’s right and who’s wrong simply won’t matter. God is on the lookout for those who are worshipping in spirit and in truth.
In spirit, and in truth.
Echoes of Nicodemus, in spirit. Echoes of the Samaritan woman, in truth.
I have to think that this woman, who is brave enough to talk to a Galilean stranger, and curious enough to ask for living water, and open enough to admit that she is partnered but not married—well, I have to think she’s had good practice for worshipping in truth. I have to think she’s probably pretty good at bringing her true self to God, and seeking the true God out for herself. She is not the kind of person who comes half-heartedly to worship—or to anything.
“We know the Messiah is coming,” she says, “and that he’ll explain everything.” You can almost see the gears turning in her head.
And then Jesus drops the biggest truth bomb of all: I AM, he says, the one who speaks with you.”
I am the Messiah.
It’s the first time Jesus says it to anyone. The first time he reveals himself to be the Messiah, the one God has chosen to bring salvation to God’s people—all God’s people. It’s his “Clark Kent reveals he’s superman” moment. His own chance to tell the truth, the whole truth, even it might get him funny looks, or laughed out of town—or hounded out of town.
But that’s not what happens. The disciples interrupt them, and the woman leaves. But just as she was brave enough to speak her truth, she’s also brave enough to hear his, and to tell this new truth, too. “Come and see,” she says to her friends and family, using the same words Jesus used to call his disciples just a few chapters earlier. “Come and see. This one might be the real deal.”
And so it comes to pass that Jesus and his disciples, a bunch of Galilean Jews, end up as houseguests in Samaria, and they become the first to believe that God’s plan is at last underway.
All because two strangers were willing to have an honest conversation, without prejudice or judgment.
Honesty is revolutionary. In our culture as in Jesus’, we are tempted to bring only our shiniest selves to our family, our friends, even our God. We are told—overtly or subtly—that we won’t be loved if we tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. We’re told to tone it down, hold back, polish up. We’re told that lying is bad, but that full honesty can be worse.
And there are certainly times for tact. Not everyone has to know everything. But deep relationships cannot flourish without honesty, because honesty is built on trust that love is strong enough to cover whatever that honesty exposes.
That is why we confess our sins each week, together and individually. Not to turn ourselves in to be judged, but to turn ourselves in to be loved. We speak the truth we know—that our lives are speckled with mistakes and imperfections and sometimes worse—so that we can hear the truth Jesus speaks: I love you regardless. I am the Messiah, the Savior. You can’t drive me away. Cross my heart.
It takes courage to tell the truth about our lives, but it’s the kind of courage we as Christians are called to practice. If there is something you’ve been trying to say but can’t, or need to say but won’t, I encourage you to start where the woman at the well started: with Jesus.
And it is my prayer that his honesty—I love you enough to die for you—will give you the courage to share with the rest of the world.
Because the world needs to hear our truth. The world needs to hear the truth of a God who loves us inside and out, no matter what. The world needs to hear a truth beyond labels and stereotypes. And perhaps if we are the ones brave enough to start, others might respsond. Perhaps then, we’d all have the confidence to get to know each other as people, and not as prejudices. And perhaps then, none of us would be strangers when we meet at the well.