A reading from the Gospel of John 4:5-42
Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink,” you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!”
The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.
Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, “Four months more, then comes the harvest”? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together.
For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.” I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”
The gospels are filled with stories about Jesus. Some tell of miracles, like when he turned water into wine or brought a child back to life. Some tell of his closest friends, men and women who are mentioned by name. Some tell of his teachings, like “love your enemies,” or of parables, like the one about the Good Samaritan. Some tell of his birth and of his death. And a few tell of encounters, like this long passage from John chapter 4 that tells of a time when Jesus met a Samaritan woman at a well in Sychar.
All of these stories, just like the stories of our lives, happened in real life, in unfolding situations. That’s what makes them powerful. Because Jesus wasn’t seeking out opportunities to prove his manhood – or messiah-hood. He was human – and divine. So these stories show us how Jesus – as human as any of us are — “leaned into” life, how he was drawn to, not away from those who suffered, who were marginalized, who were left for dead. Furthermore, the stories are even more powerful when we learn about the racial and ethnic and religious divides of his day. Because He managed time and time again, to overcome those divides.
Hatred between Jews and Samaritans dated back to the days of the patriarchs. Jacob had twelve sons, whose descendants became twelve tribes. Joseph was despised by the others, and his brothers tried to do away with him. But God intervened and not only preserved Joseph’s life, but used him to
preserve the lives of the entire clan. Jacob the father gave Joseph the son a blessing before he died, a blessing in which he called him a fruitful bough by a well. Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, lived in the fertile land that became Samaria. In 722 BC, Assyria conquered northern Israel and took all but a few thousand Jews into captivity. Those remaining Jews lived in Samaria. They stayed and intermingled with others who were brought in to inhabit the land.
Meanwhile, the Babylonians conquered southern Israel, and took its people into captivity in 587 BC. Its people were deported. Then, 70 years later, 43,000 were allowed to return. They encountered the Samaritans, who had intermarried with non-Jewish people. From that time on, the Jews hated the Samaritans for intermarrying with Gentiles, and the Samaritans hated the Jews for judging them harshly. (1)
That’s the backstory for the encounter between a nameless Samaritan woman and Jesus. On a hot day, with the sun at its noonday peak. There’s no way these two should have had a conversation. The walls between them, although invisible, were well in place. He was the wrong person to ask her for water, and she was the wrong person to give it. Yet from their encounter unfolds a conversation about water, the kind of water that we are made of, that we must have to survive, and water that Jesus calls living water, water of eternal life, water that is not from a well.
As Melissa Bane Sevier notes in her blog, “encounters, by chance or design, have the power to change us and help us grow. And they are sometimes challenging. When another person makes a request that is uncomfortable, they invite us to make decisions that we might prefer to avoid. When a lonely person seeks out conversation, do we avoid them? When a child yearns for affirmation, do we have time to offer it? When a person of another race and ethnicity who speaks a foreign language needs help, are we willing to offer it? When life requires unusual action, are we willing to break down the boundaries of our own comfort zones to do the right thing?” It’s strange how chance encounters can reveal truths about ourselves and others. Sometimes painful truths, sometimes liberating truths. Sometimes when truth is revealed, as with the woman at the well, we discover mercy in places where we didn’t expect to find it. (2)
In a story from his book entitled Earthy Mysticism: Spirituality for Unspiritual People (3) , an Episcopalian named Tex Sample reflects decades back on a summer when he worked in a Mississippi oil field. He had just graduated from high school, and his partner, an African-American man named Jim, was about 35 years old. Jim and Tex were a team – but even though Jim was the seasoned oil field hand, Tex drove the truck because he was white, and Jim took orders.
Each day that summer, they traveled around rural Mississippi, to pullout and disassemble the large pipes used for drilling, and then to carry the pipesback to the company base. Jim and Tex had worked together for a month when one morning, someone stole the water can off their truck. Tex thought they could stop at a store for water, so he decided to head out to work without the water can. They were at a gas station, so without saying a word, Jim went around to the back of the gas station and returned with a rusty syrup can. He filled it with tepid water from a faucet by the gas pumps and set it down between his feet. Tex looked over to see the water with flecks of rust, and the swirl of an oily stain floating across the top.
Tex drove 15 miles to the first hole, where at sun-up the two disassembled the first set of pipes and loaded them on the truck. It was a tough job, and a hot day. When they finished, they were both wringing wet. They climbed into the truck, and Jim picked up the can of water and took a long slow drink. Never looking at Tex, he stared straight ahead. Meanwhile, Tex tried to look self- sufficient, like he didn’t need water!
They got back on the road, but on the way to the next hole, their truck got stuck in a wetland. So in addition to doing the job, they had to get their truck out of the mud. By the time they got the truck out of the hole, Tex was showing signs of dehydration. He had a terrible headache and his eyes were blurry. It was 10 am, and Tex had worked for four hours without fluid of any kind. Getting in the truck, Jim reached down and picked up the syrup can and gulped down a third of it, again looking straight ahead. Having lost hope of finding a store in this godforsaken rural backwater, Tex was desperate to find a creek, anything with water. But he saw nothing. From here on, I’ll quote the story:
“I was feeling woozy. I had to have water, but I was a white boy who had never knowingly drunk from the same glass or anything else with a black person. My own racism was at work in my head. “Uh, Jim, could I…would you mind if I….had…a drink…of water from your can?” “No suh, boss. Hep yourself.” With that, Jim handed me the syrup can and again looked straight ahead. When I looked into the can, it had a heavier film. But it looked like the finest vessel of water I had ever seen. As I drank, it hit me. This is the cup of salvation given for you.” In my stark need Jim became a priest to me, and I felt that I was being given life, and in a very literal sense I was. That syrup can was a chalice, and that hot water, permeated with rust, compromised with grit and topped with a film of oil became the blood of Christ.”
My brothers and sisters, there is much at stake when we ask for or hand over that literal – or metaphorical — cup of water. Yet in these troubled and troubling times, G-d calls us into encounters that can and do break down the walls that divide us. Generational walls. Cultural walls. Political walls. The walls built up to protect us. They are the same walls that can keep God out. And in these encounters, we sometimes are given to see connections between our needs and God’s supply. Come to communion this morning assured that God Himself offers us the living water we most thirst for. And then let us leave and go out into the world, ready to offer and receive life itself in holy encounters of His making.
1 https://bible.org/illustration/hatred-between- jews-and- samaritans
2 https://melissabanesevier.wordpress.com/2017/03/13/the-rewards- of-encounters/
3 Earthy Mysticism: Spirituality for Unspiritual People by Tex Sample, Abingdon Press, 2008.