Gospel Reading: John Chapter 4 (The Woman at the Well)
This reading we have just heard is so rich with meaning that hearing it is like tasting a fine pastry and wanting to savor it and linger with each layer of flavor one has been treated to. So I recommend we do that this week – live with this story a bit. Go back and read it over again, once or twice, or three times and see what layers of meaning you might discover anew with each bite.
OK, I won’t push that metaphor any further. What I want to do in is provide a bit of background and interpretation on several points, to deepen our awareness of some of the subtleties and to then suggest some connections it might have to our common life at the moment.
The larger context of this passage is important. It comes directly on the heels of the passage we read last Sunday – the story of Nicodemus. The thing to note is the counterpoint between these people and their encounters with Jesus. First of all Nicodemus is named, the woman at the well is not. He is well off and literate, while she comes from humble means and is likely uneducated. He is a Jew; she is a Samaritan – the highly mistrusted distant relatives of the Jews. He is a respected leader and politician, while it is only after her encounter with Jesus that she becomes someone others will follow. He seeks Jesus out by night; she is sought out by Jesus at high noon. His conversation with Jesus is rather brief, while the conversation Jesus initiates with the woman at the well is the longest recorded conversation he has with any single person anywhere in scripture. And finally, Nicodemus goes away puzzled and only over time gets the meaning of Jesus, while she immediately perceives the truth Jesus makes known, and running to tell others she becomes the first evangelist. From the counterpoint between these people and these encounters one might conclude that Jesus understanding of God’s purposes for his life leads him to push some pretty significant boundaries of social class, gender and race and bring very different people into one body.
Now, leaning heavily on what Bishop Mary Glasspool, Suffregan Bishop of the Diocese of Los Angeles, shared in one of her reflections with us at our Diocesan Clergy Retreat in February, I want to comment on some of the subtleties of this passage that are worth drawing out . In one of her reflections with us Bishop Mary noted:
In the First Century C.E. there was a very common custom related to the offering and receiving of water. If a person offered another a drink of water, and the act was accepted, this gift became a social contract of friendship for one year.
This helps clarify the Samaritan woman’s reaction to Jesus’ request that she draw him a drink from the well. After all, he was a stranger, a man, a Jew, and they were alone in a public place, and he trampled decorum by asking her for a drink, which was basically saying, “I want to be your friend”. All the social constraints she had been raised with told her this was not right. But notice she does not flee. She holds her ground.
So he takes the conversation deeper into the well. He begins to speak to her on a spiritual level. She catches his drift pretty quickly, and extends the conversation further by mentioning the name of their common ancestor, Jacob, whose well they are seated at.
What happens next is pivotal to how this woman has been understood over the centuries. Jesus tells her to go call her husband, and she says she has no husband, and he counters that he knows she has had 5 husbands and the man she is with now is not her husband. As Bishop Mary told the clergy at our February Retreat:
“These verses of the story have been consistently misinterpreted, resulting in the popular portrait of this woman as a sinner. But there is nothing in the text to indicate this being the case. Most obviously, Jesus does not judge her – any moral judgments are imported into the text by interpreters. There are many possible reasons for her marital history other than moral laxity. She may, for example, be involved in the custom of levirate marriage – the custom that demands that the next available male in a family take the place of (usually) a brother who has died – by marrying his widow. And the last male in the family line could have refused to marry her. Significantly, the reasons for the woman’s marital history have intrigued many commentators – but do not seem to concern Jesus in the least. This part of the conversation between the woman and Jesus about her life’s situation is a
moment of confrontation with truth. Jesus reveals himself as someone who sees deeply into the very essence, the heart of people. And the woman, recognizing this as the case, declares Jesus to be a prophet.”
Whereas the truth that Jesus revealed to Nicodemus made him step back a bit and ask “How can these things be”, this woman quickly recognizes the prophet in Jesus and furthers their conversation by bringing up the most significant theological question that divided their two peoples – the right place for worship of God. Was it on the holy mountain or was it in the temple of Jerusalem, she wants to know. In that moment Jesus pushes her past the human constructions of place to grasp the vision of time in which no place will divide or contain the worship of God by those caught up in spirit and truth.
Still she takes the conversation deeper – What about their differing understanding of the Messiah. Again to Bishop Mary who offered us this analysis of the Greek – the original language of this passage:
The Samaritans called their Messiah, “Ta’heb” (translated “the one who
returns”). The Samaritans thought of the Ta’heb as a teacher, which may explain why the woman says “he will proclaim all things to us.”
Then Jesus utters the climactic statement of the entire engagement. In the Greek, he utters two words which are simple and bold: (ego eimi) which translates simply as “I AM” . . . and then he adds ” . . . the one speaking to you.” Translators have added a predicate to the statement – that is, “I am he.” which takes away from the boldness of what Jesus is saying to the woman. Jesus is saying “I AM.” It’s how God identified Godself to Moses. “I AM.” It’s akin to how the Gospel Writer John introduced this Gospel – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
It should be noted that this is the first time in the Gospel that Jesus reveals his divine identity to anyone. She is the first – something that will be echoed at the end of the Gospel when the risen Christ reveals himself first to Mary Magdalene in the early shadows of Easter morn.
But this moment of revelation at the well passes quickly-as most do- with the disciples returning from town with bread for lunch. But this moment of revelation was all it took for the woman of the well to run back to town to tell others about it. She makes no grand speech; rather she just tells them about Jesus, that he is a prophet and draws them in with a question, “He could not be the Messiah, could he?” That draws a crowd, and soon Jews and Samaritans are mingling over the waters of the well of their common ancestor, where they drink deeply together of the living water of Jesus.
What an awesome story of bold and inclusive faith! I think there are two important “take-aways” for us here and now.
First is the message about moving past human made walls and barriers to share friendship and to worship One God. Our Lenten Sunday Morning Forum series on the Abrahamic Faiths has afforded some of us a good bit of time to consider how we can join hands with people of other faiths, and while respecting our differences and honoring what each brings to the table, we can share in helping manifest the One God in the world. This Gospel seems to affirm that movement of the spirit and our following it through.
Second this Gospel illustrates that to be an evangelist all one has to do is offer an invitation to others that is based in the truth of how your own life has been transformed by knowing Jesus. It does not take fancy words, but rather authentic words. A simple “come and see” can be powerfully attractive when there is fire in the eyes of the one that utters it. And it is the funny thing about this faith of ours, which is at the heart about knowing God among us – that it only grows stronger when we give it away to others. “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” Come and see my friends, and bring others. In memory of her and in Christ’s name. Amen+