Texts: Ex 17.1-7, Rom 5.1-11; Jn 4.5-42
The Bible was written before romantic comedies had been invented, but this scene still existed, though in a slightly different form. In the Bible, when somebody wanted to convey that two people were going to fall in love, the setting was not a busy street corner, but a well. The woman would come to a well to draw water, and there she found a man instead, and we all know what happens next.
Zipporah met Moses at a well, where he fended off some shepherds so she and her sisters could water the flocks. Isaac’s father, Abraham, sent a servant to go find his son a wife, and that servant met Rebekah at a well. Isaac and Rebekah’s son Joseph met his beloved Rachel at a well—this very well, as it happens. So when this unnamed Samaritan woman meets Jesus at a well, we all know what happens next. Kind of.
In this common trope, the woman goes to the well to get something she needs (water) and comes away with something she needs even more (a husband).* The Samaritan woman, we soon learn, has been married 5 times and is now living with a man who is not her husband. The story has sometimes been told as though she were immoral for this reason. The reality, though, is that she has either been divorced or widowed 5 times. If she has been divorced, it may be because she is unable to produce children, another shameful stigma she must carry. Since she is not married to the man she is currently with, we may assume that he is unwilling to marry her, perhaps because 5 other men didn’t want her.
In short, we get the impression that this is a woman who carries with her a great amount of grief, shame, and hurt. The fact that she is coming to the well at noon might support this idea. Normally, the women of town would all go to the well together in the morning or evening when it was cool; yet here this woman has come by herself at noon—when the day is hottest. It would seem that she might be avoiding them. Whether that is her choice or theirs, she is isolated.
She stands in stark contrast to Jesus’ conversation partner from last week. Nicodemus was a male Jew and, as a Pharisee, was probably a learned man. She is a female Samaritan, and for all we know an uneducated peasant. Nicodemus, who came after dark (perhaps so he would not be seen by his fellow Pharisees), never quite gets what Jesus is trying to tell him. John makes a sideways rebuke of Nicodemus and others like him when he says, “The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” (Jn 3.19-20)
This Samaritan woman, however, encounters Jesus in the full light of day, at a well, where according to the popular culture narrative of her time she might well find a man to rescue her from her situation by whisking her away to be his bride. We know, of course, that Jesus does not marry her, but he does see her. I don’t mean he merely sees her, but that he sees her—all of her. Even in this brief, chance encounter, Jesus can see who she is, and can tell her all about herself.
Her neighbors know all about her, too, and that is why she avoids them. However, when Jesus says, “you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband,” it is not with pity or judgement, but with sincerity, perhaps even empathy. Where others in her town might say that with a sidelong glance or lowered eyes, Jesus asks her for a drink of water from her jug, breaking all the rules about how men are not supposed to talk to strange women in public, and Jews are not supposed to share dishes with Samaritans.
In the trope, the woman goes to the well and comes away with a husband. In this story she goes away with neither (notice that she left her jar to run back into town), but she does leave with something more important than either. Nicodemus was a privileged Pharisee; he could not understand what Jesus was trying tell him because he didn’t think he needed what Jesus was offering. On the other hand, this woman knows how thirsty she is—not just for water, not even for a husband who will love and support her, but for real, life-changing relationship with God. Nicodemus, who came at night, could not see his own need, and presumably left confused. In the light of day, this woman could see that Jesus was offering her something she needed desperately.
If there is a common theme in our scripture readings this morning, it may be that in each case, God gives what people need even when we don’t know we need it. At Rephidim, the Israelites thought they needed water, but what they really needed was reassurance that God would not abandon them. The Samaritan woman thought she needed water, too, but found that what she needed more was somebody who would love her fully for who she was. Paul tells us that, whether we know it or not, we need to be reconciled to God, and God has already accomplished this reconciliation through the blood of Jesus. Notice that Paul does not say through his death, but through his blood.
In the Hebrew way of thinking, the life force of a creature resides in its blood. When Paul says that we are reconciled to God through the blood of Christ, he is not indicating that Jesus died as punishment for our sins, but rather that through his blood he shares his life with us—the life of God’s only, beloved Son. He shares with us the life of one who can see a person truly and fully for who they really are and love them unconditionally. When he says, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sins,” perhaps this is what he means: that when we drink “in remembrance of him,” his blood gives us the ability to see people as he sees them, to love as he loves. To be seen is to be loved, and to be loved is to be seen.
Jesus sees the woman for who she is, and loves her, even daring to ask a drink of her, to treat her like a person rather than a strange woman or a Samaritan, even talks theology with her. But the point at which she receives what she needs—that mysterious ‘living water’ he keeps talking about—is the point at which he tells her who he is, helps her to see him. “I know Messiah is coming,” she says, to which he replies, “I am he.” But that’s not really what he says. What he really says is “I AM,” recalling the holy name spoken to Moses from the burning bush at Sinai, the holy name that led the people through the wilderness, that gave them safe passage though the sea and provided manna from the sky and water from a rock. When the woman sees that this is not just a strange-but-kindly Jew, but I AM—the God of Abraham and Jacob and Moses—who sees her and loves her, she leaves both man and jar and runs to share the news. And, of course, we all know what happens next.
Her experience of Messiah is so life-changing, so fulfilling, that she cannot keep it to herself. She may have felt isolated from her community, but that did not stop her from running to share the news with them: “Come and see! See a God who loves and accepts me and all of us for who we are, a God who is with us!” Jesus offers her “living water,” and water is called living when it is flowing, like in a river or bubbling up in a fountain. Living water is the opposite of stagnant water that grows stale and brackish. The living water she receives from Jesus bubbles up inside her and spills out so that she cannot help but share it. And we all know what happens next: when the townsfolk come they, too, receive this water. They, too, are changed by their encounter with Messiah, and they say to her, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe: we have heard for ourselves and we know that this is truly the Savior of the World.”
This is a story about a woman who came to a well looking for water and found something better. Not a husband, like we might expect from the setup, but an experience with I AM, a life-giving encounter with God’s Messiah. Like her, when we gather here, we meet God in the flesh—the embodied presence of I AM. We encounter this God in the most unexpected places: in bread and wine, in water and word, in the God-given and gathered community around us, in the miraculous water from a rock in the desert, in a chance encounter at a well, even nailed to a cross. Our God meets us in these simple, sometimes even god-forsaken places; and we all know what happens next…