This Sunday’s Gospel, John 4:5-42, is a fantastic encounter with Jesus. Jesus’ conversation with “the woman at the well” is rich and powerful — and extremely long. I’m glad that the compilers of the lectionary didn’t chop it up (like last week when they hacked the end of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus). It needs to be read whole to be coherent. But the sheer length of the text means I’ll only touch on a couple high points and curious bits.
Combine that with a very complicated week (as well as other issues this week I’m quite obsessively following the COVID-19 pandemic news) and I’m barely eking this meditation out at all — and at the opposite end of the week from Monday. Thanks for your patience.
Like in last week’s text, there is very little action here. Jesus is at a Samarian well. A lone woman approaches to draw water at midday. Jesus engages her in conversation.
He goes deeper and deeper, asking for regular water, offering spiritual water, revealing her secrets, and drawing her to faith.
The real mystery here: Does anybody ever get Jesus a drink? The text doesn’t actually say.
John, John, John, work on your storytelling skills. This is a crucial detail.
One thing worth noting at the outset is how the text highlights Jesus’ basic humanity. It’s not what we expect. This is John’s Gospel, remember, the one that begins with Jesus as the incarnation of the eternal Word, who is God.
This is the Gospel of the “I Am” sayings. Some of these, the most famous, are his affirmation of a metaphoric role — the good shepherd, the vine, and so on. Others, often lost in English translations, are simple statements at crucial moments when “I Am” is either ambiguously or unambiguously a declaration of his deity.
So here, in John, when Jesus’ human weakness is on display, it is worth noticing.
- Jesus was tired, and decided to rest, sending his disciples into town to get food.
- Jesus was thirsty — natural enough on a hot day.
- Jesus was helpless — though he was beside a well, the water was out of reach.
The Church’s teaching that Jesus is one Person with two natures, truly human and truly divine, is inherently a mystery. It solves a number of serious theological problems in other ways of describing Jesus, and it accounts for the biblical witness. But it is mysterious.
In a text like this we get to relish the clarity of that mystery.
Something else I find fascinating and delightful in this story is the way Jesus crosses so many boundaries.
Jesus and his friends have blithely wandered to another country. Their more obvious mission is in Judea, but here they are in Samaria — a hint of the larger mission that is always at work. I’m thinking Jesus just doesn’t care that much about the borders of human countries.
Jesus starts chatting with a local woman. He isn’t only unconcerned with political boundaries. He cares nothing, it seems, for social boundaries. I think the woman shows her shock at both these boundary crossings in her response:
How is it that you,
ask a drink of me,
of Samaria?” (John 4:9 NRSV)
In a religion, and a part of the world where, even today, men and women are often kept quite separate, it must have been pretty startling for her when Jesus jumped into a conversation.
Then there is a third kind of boundary crossing: manners. At least in my opinion, Jesus was really bold in raising the topic of her marital history and current relationship status.
He doesn’t let on how he knew, exactly, that she’d had five husbands and was presently living with someone, as they used to say, “out of wedlock.” Was it something people had been talking about on the street as they walked along? Was it divine omniscience? The text doesn’t say.
But it couldn’t have seemed like good manners to bring it up.
I don’t think she was exactly surprised to have it tossed in her face. When she said
Sir, I see that you are a prophet.” (John 4:19 NRSV)
I think it sounds pretty sarcastic. Like
And who doesn’t know that!
But she goes with the prophet thing and switches to less personal topics: politics and religion.
Her strategy: Get the guy to declare his views on the schism between the Jews and the Samaritans and their different worship practices. That’ll get the focus off of the most embarrassing bits of her own past.
All this boundary crossing was Jesus’ way of getting the topic away from the silence of social custom, away from the trivial of social propriety, away from the impersonal of politics and religion, and squarely onto what matters most: Her relation to him — her salvation.
He’s always shifting the conversation that way:
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.” (John 4:10 NRSV)
Then when she tries to keep the conversation about literal things,
The water that I will give
will become in them
a spring of water
to eternal life.” (John 4:14 NRSV)
She wants to talk about practicalities. He starts talking in symbols. Rich and beautiful symbols — water, not just as something to drink but the very source of life. She had to be intrigued.
And as symbols go, water is a great one.
- It’s there in creation, when the Spirit hovered over the waters.
- It’s there in redemption, when God parted the waters of the Red Sea for Israel to escape slavery in Egypt.
- It’s there in the Prophets, when Elijah parted the waters to cross with Elisha.
- It’s there in the Gospels when John came baptizing in the Jordan.
That’s just a few of the high points when it comes to water in the Bible.
I think it is an interesting strategy.
The situation is a common enough one in ministry: you want to get people thinking about the big stuff, like their life in Christ. They want to talk about practicalities, like the lack of volunteers for Sunday School, or whether to buy new music for the choir.
What would happen if we started intentionally people asking about the symbolic things, like living water?
It worked for Jesus. In just a couple dozen verses he had her thinking about eternal life, living water, worship in spirit and truth — and she started wondering about God’s promises.
I know that Messiah is coming
(who is called Christ). …” (John 4:25 NRSV)
The amazing thing is that in this conversation far from town, in a foreign land, with a woman, with someone who had a troubled past, her tremulous musing about the Messiah prompts something quite unique: Jesus comes right out and tells her that he, himself, is the Messiah.
I am he,
the one who is speaking to you.” (John 4:26 NRSV)
Contrast that with all his beating around the bush at the far end of the Gospels, before his interrogators and judges in Holy Week.
- To the powerful he would say nothing.
- To someone poor, rejected, foreign, socially inappropriate, he said everything.
- To save his life, he would say nothing.
- To save her life he said everything.
Actually this is one of those hidden “I Am” sayings I mentioned at the start.
Ἐγώ εἰμι, ὁ λαλῶν σοι.
It isn’t so much “I am he, the one who is speaking to you” as
I am — the one speaking to you.
He’s acknowledging that he is the Messiah she asked about. But more than that, she’s telling him that he’s the one who spoke to Moses at the burning bush.
And what does this have to do with Lent? Well, I suppose you could say Lent is about encountering Jesus, whether for the first time, like the woman at the well, or again after a lifetime, like you and me.
When we encounter Jesus, we find he tries very hard to move us past the distant and the political.
We find he tries very hard to move us past the socially acceptable.
We find he tries very hard to move us past the personal and the shameful.
We find he does everything in his power to bring us to himself — the source of living water, springing up from within, and overflowing to everlasting life.
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