The Holy Gospel according to John 4:5-42
5So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The 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.) 10Jesus 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.’ 11The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ 13Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but 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.’ 15The 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.’
16 Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ 17The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ 19The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ 21Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ 25The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ 26Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’
27 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?’ 28Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ 30They left the city and were on their way to him.
31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, ‘Rabbi, eat something.’ 32But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ 33So the disciples said to one another, ‘Surely no one has brought him something to eat?’ 34Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35Do 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. 36The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.” 38I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour.’
39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ 40So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. 41And many more believed because of his word. 42They 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 Saviour of the world.’
The Word of the Lord.
It was a typical Tuesday morning. I was doing my chaplain hours at the cancer center, visiting with people, both new and people I had visited with before. I came up to Helen. She was a friendly face that I had visited three or four times before. Helen was in her 80’s. She had white hair, was a thin woman, but relatively tall. Her hair was always done up so nice. She was the type of person who made sure that, no matter where she went, she always looked presentable and her clothes were always wrinkle free. She was full of life and loved to talk, especially about her family and her church. This day would be no different.
Helen told me about what was going on with her family – a grandchild who was having a child – she was of course so very proud of this. Helen also told me about her church. The seminarian that was there assisting was leaving in May to go on to her first call. She was happy for the seminarian, but sad for the church. There would be a dry spell in which the interim pastor would be there by himself. The congregation enjoyed having seminarians in the church, it was like having fresh water to drink.
All while Helen was talking, I could see in her face that something just wasn’t quite right. For one thing, her eyes were a bit moist. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I knew something wasn’t right. We visited for about half an hour. Then Helen’s face got serious and she looked at me and said, “would you pray for me?” “Of course Helen. What would you like me to pray about?” I asked. This was the opportunity I was waiting for to understand what was going on.
“I’m afraid. I have to keep drinking water because my body is losing too much. I’m having a hard time keeping up with so much water. “ said Helen. She had a tear in her eye. She was awash with fear.
“Sounds pretty scary,” I said. “I can hear the fear in your voice. You sound like you are drowning in it. What exactly do you fear?”
“I’m afraid that I’m not going to be able to keep enough water in me and…and…die.” Helen said, on the verge of tears.
“The doctors don’t know what’s going on, and I just don’t know how much longer I can keep up with all this water.” Said Helen. “Pray that they figure out the water situation in me, please,” implored Helen.
In our Scripture passage this morning, we meet the Samaritan woman who is comes to Jacob’s well with one understanding about water and in the course of a conversation also tries to figure out the water situation, and eventually Jesus gives her a new life-filling understanding about true living water.
We are flooded with contrast between this weeks reading and last week’s reading about Nicodemus. Remember, Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a synagogue leader, who comes in the middle of the night to talk with Jesus and feel him out. The woman in today’s Gospel reading is for one thing a woman, and a nameless woman at that, without any position in society, and a Samaritan – a group of people the Jews did not get along with to say the least. This nameless woman is pretty low on the social ladder of society. There is an ocean of difference between these two figures.
The woman at the well is going about her daily activities – getting water. She needs water to live and one can guess that she has been coming to this same well, day after day, after day for many years, drawing water to stay alive until the next day, when she would draw new water yet again. It must have felt like a never ending cycle of labor, just to survive.
This woman’s understanding of water was that it kept her body alive, but it came at a cost – drawing water at the well every day. This was not life giving water, certainly not living water, but only life sustaining water.
Then Jesus comes on the scene and as usual, when Jesus shows up, things change.
There is a shift for the woman from the material needs of life to the spiritual. She doesn’t recognize who Jesus is, but understands that Jesus is speaking of an unusual type of water. She is still focused solely on the body, the here and the now.
The author of John has given us the drama of a soul struggling to stay afloat and rise from the things of this world to belief in Jesus. We may imagine that she is thirsty. The thirst that Jesus recognizes in her is more than the longing for cold water. This is a woman who has a hard life, to say the least.
Many people describe her as a prostitute based on the part of the conversation about her having had five husbands, but we really don’t know. She could be a widow five times over, for all we know. We just don’t know much about her life situation beyond the fact that she’s at the well at the hottest part of the day. In one sense, she represents a whole lot of people. Maybe she represents the outcasts of our society. It’s not too far fetched – she comes to well at the hottest part of the day, well after others have been there. Maybe she represents the widows and widowers and anyone else who have lost love ones and feel lost. She comes alone, maybe in too much pain to be around others. Maybe she represents those that suffer in life wanting, desiring to be washed clean of pain and suffering. Maybe she is nameless because she represents so many people.
Jesus sees in her a deeper thirst – a thirst of the soul. She comes to Jacob’s well, as usual, but also finds Jesus’ well – that well from which we may draw the refreshing gift of God’s grace. Here is a cistern that never runs dry; a spring that overflows because its source is God.
And because of this, her understanding of who Jesus is changes. It goes from seeing him as a thirsty stranger, just like herself and the many people who come to the well day after day, to a prophet – one who knows things that are hidden away, and finally, ultimately she comes to understand Jesus as the Messiah – the one who brings true life, who fills the emptiness within her, quenches her thirst for life, true life in God. Jesus gives her this and changes her. She becomes alive again, dropping what she is doing, and runs to the town to share the good news with others. And we know from the Gospel that others in the town hear about this, they go out to Jesus and he changes them too. It’s not stated in the lesson for today, but you have to wonder if there weren’t a whole bunch of baptisms. You see, when Jesus gives living water, it has a tendency to change things and change lives.
Helen needed a change. It started when she asked to pray. It was difficult for her to ask. She was a woman who, at least on outward appearances, had her life in order. In reality, she was drowning in fear.
“Pray that they figure out the water situation in me,” was what Helen asked. She was drowning in a deluge of uncertainty. She was full of the water she was drinking, but it never satisfied her thirst. She thirsted for more. And Jesus provided, just like he provided for the woman at the well.
We prayed and we cried. We prayed for strength for Helen. We prayed for healing and for God’s presence in her life. We prayed for comfort and for the doctors to be able to figure out what was going on inside her body. We prayed that Jesus would be with her in her fear.
When we ended the prayer, I opened my eyes, and looked at Helen. Her face had changed. The fear had gone. She had a sense of peace about her. Helen said, “thank you. That’s exactly what I needed.” “Oh, in what way?” I asked. “I had been so focused and worried about drinking this water and what was going on in my body. It was consuming me and drowning me in fear. I talked about church and family as a way to distract myself from the fear I was feeling, but it didn’t work. I couldn’t face this fear on my own. I was too weak. So I finally stopped pretending. I remembered a different type of water – a water that not only quenches the thirst I have, but also reminds me of the promise that was made to me by God.”
Helen continued “when we prayed, Jesus was present. Not only present, but Jesus was what I needed and he provided, just as he promised so many years ago. When we prayed, Jesus swept away my fear. He gave me living water that quenched my thirst. I now know that I am not alone as I face this. And being alone was my biggest fear. That’s been washed away. Thank you Jesus.”