03/12/23 “Encounter with a Woman”

John 4:3-30

They couldn’t have been more different.

He met Jesus in the dark of night. She meets Jesus at noon, when the sun is at its brightest. He met Jesus in Jerusalem, the center of Judaism. She meets Jesus in Samaria, the home of those considered enemies by the Jews. He is an acknowledged leader of his community. She is, through no fault of her own, an outsider. His reaction to his encounter with Jesus remains a mystery. Her reaction is plain: she goes and tells others what she has seen, and invites them to come and see for themselves. He had a name, and John tells us what it is: Nicodemus. She has a name, too, but John doesn’t bother to tell us what it is.

But that doesn’t mean that she is unknown, though. She is known by Jesus. We learned last week that Jesus know what was in everyone’s hearts, and she’s no exception. And, because he knows this woman, many others came to know Jesus through her.

After his encounter with Nicodemus in Jerusalem, Jesus decided to return to Galilee—through Samaria. That makes sense; that’s what Google Maps would have suggested since it’s the shortest route. But, Google Maps wouldn’t have taken into account the fact that Jews avoided that route at all costs. They preferred to take the long way by going east across the Jordan River rather than travel through Samaria. The Jews and the Samaritans had been at odds for centuries. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear today, some followers of YHWH had built a temple on Mt. Gerizim in Samaria. They believed that was where God was to be worshipped, rather than the temple in Jerusalem. About a hundred years before Jesus was born, the Samaritan temple and the city around it had been destroyed by a Jewish leader named Hyrcanus.

Jesus’ decision was based on theology, not geography. Jesus had just finished explaining that God so loved the world that he gave his only son for its salvation. The world God loved included people whom the Jews might not have expected—or even wanted—to be included. Where better to demonstrate this fact than in the land of Samaria? Jesus had to go there, because it was the place where he could show the extent of God’s love for the world.

Jesus came to a place that was important to all those who traced their roots back to Jacob and Joseph—a plot of land on Mt. Gerizim with a deep well that Jacob had given to his son, Joseph. It’s nearly forty-seven miles from Jerusalem, a trip that would take about fifteen hours on foot today. So, Jesus was understandably tired by his journey and probably hot and thirsty, too, since it was noon and the sun was high in the sky.

The disciples had gone grocery shopping, and Jesus was alone by the well. The woman, whom we only ever know as “the woman,” arrives to draw water. Imagine her surprise at finding him there—a man alone, at noon, and a Jewish man at that, right there at one of the holiest sites in Samaria. And then Jesus surprises her even more by telling her to give him a drink. It sounds a little rude to me—a “please” would have been nice—but that’s not what shocks her. She doesn’t even seem all that surprised by the fact that this strange man had spoken to her. What shocks her is that a Jewish man had asked for drink from her, a Samaritan woman. Just in case we missed the importance of this, John reminds us that Jews and Samaritans don’t share anything, let alone drinking out of the same container.

Jesus says to her, “If you knew what gift God has given, and if you knew who it is that’s asked for a drink of your water, you would have been doing the asking instead. You would have asked him for water—living water.”

She replies, “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?” There’s nothing in the story to tell us what tone of voice she used when she answered him. She begins politely enough, but maybe she’s just being practical. (The guy’s offering her a drink but he doesn’t have a bucket, let alone a way to reach into the depths of this very deep well.) Is she being sarcastic, or confrontational? (“Just who do you think you are, buddy? Are you just another Jewish guy who thinks he’s better than us, even though Jacob is as much my ancestor as yours?”) Or is she intrigued by the stranger’s words and the strangeness of the whole encounter? (“What and where is this living water?”)

Jesus doesn’t answer her question directly—typical Jesus. But he continues to describe the water he offers. It’s different from the water she’s there to draw from the well, which can only quench one’s thirst temporarily. No, when someone drinks of his water, they’ll never be thirsty again. It will be a spring within them, gushing up and offering eternal life.

Water that never leaves you thirsty? Water that would make these constant trips to the well a thing of the past? Who wouldn’t want that water? “Yes, please, sir! I’ll take that water of yours!” she says.

But then Jesus gives her an odd instruction. “Go, call your husband, and come back.” She answers truthfully: “I have no husband.” Jesus knows she’s telling the truth, because he knows her. He knows her past. He knows her hurt. He knows that she is probably seen as cursed, and not because of being sexually immoral as she is so often painted to be. There’s no suggestion of sin here. There are no offers of forgiveness, no instruction to go and sin no more, because the state she’s in is likely due to circumstances beyond her control—circumstances Jesus knows and understands.

Thanks to laws that made it easy for husbands to divorce their wives, she might have been divorced by her husbands for any reason, including being barren (which was always thought to be the woman’s fault). Or, she might have been widowed multiple times without bearing a son and had been handed off each time to a brother-in-law, according to the levirate marriage laws. And maybe now, the man who was supposed to be her husband was dragging his feet, or was being prevented from marrying her because of a fear that she was a kind of black widow and that he’d die, too.

Remember Tamar, from Genesis? Something similar happened to her. Her first husband died (not her fault—Genesis tells us he was wicked in God’s sight). Then her father-in-law sends the next son in to get her pregnant, but not necessarily to marry her. It doesn’t work because that son just fakes it, and then he dies (due to the same wickedness problem as his brother’s). Their father, Judah, tells Tamar to go wait for the third son to grow up, but when he did, Tamar still wasn’t given to him after all. She had to resort to posing as a prostitute with a man not her husband—her father-in-law Judah—to get what she was due.

So, Jesus might say to us, “Do not be astonished” that this woman has been married five times and is now with a man who’s not her husband. It wasn’t unlikely for a woman to find herself in such a position, through no fault of her own. But, that doesn’t make her any less of a pariah—a woman who’s been widowed or divorced many times over, who appears to be childless, and now depends on a man who can’t or won’t marry her, must be cursed.

That explains the trip to the well, alone, at noon. And, maybe it explains why she’s willing to engage in conversation, even debate, with this Jewish stranger. She had nothing to lose. Maybe she’d learned that, if no one else respected her, she needed to respect herself—that she could stand up for herself and hold her own. Or, maybe, she had the feeling that this man was different from the ones who had abandoned her before. Maybe this man has something different to offer. Because he knows and tells the truth, as prophets know and tell the truth.

But, there’s still a barrier between them. Her ancestors worshipped on Mt Gerizim, where she and Jesus are standing but, as she sees it, Jesus would claim that Jerusalem is the place where people have to worship. What could possibly bridge such a divide? The bridge is made of Jesus’ words: “The time is coming when geography won’t matter when it comes to worshipping God. In fact, that time is now, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. God is looking for people like that, because God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth, not in a particular building on a particular piece of real estate.”

The woman offers her own piece of theological truth: “I know that the Messiah is coming, and when he does, he will teach us everything we need to know.” She has entrusted Jesus with her the truth about herself. And then, in return, he entrusts her with a truth about himself. Trusting her as he has trusted no one else, Jesus tells her something that no one else has yet been privileged to hear. Jesus identifies himself to her with God’s own name: “I AM. The one who is speaking to you is I AM. The Messiah is speaking to you. God is speaking to you.”

At this critical moment, almost as comic relief, the disciples return. John tells us that none of them dared ask Jesus what they were thinking, which was “What in the world are you doing?” And I imagine they weren’t just thinking of the strangeness of a Jewish man talking to a Samaritan woman alone. A meeting between a woman and a man at a well might have conjured up for the disciples a whole new set of worries about the still-unmarried Jesus. Wells were famous as the setting for betrothals. If the ancients had made rom-com movies, the lovers would have met at a well. Abraham’s servant chose Rebekah to be Isaac’s wife by a well. Jacob met Rachel at a well. Moses met his wife Zipporah at a well. Maybe the disciples were worried about just how far Jesus might take this message of God’s inclusive world.

Meanwhile, the woman, whose name we do not know, has taken off. But she hasn’t left in fear of the disciples and their disapproval. She’s left because she has news to tell. She doesn’t even take time to retrieve her water bucket. She just hustles back to the city and starts telling people about the man she has met. In the exact same words that Jesus spoke to the first two disciples, the woman, whose name we do not know, invites the people to come and see. She’s still not sure of exactly what it all means, but she knows enough to raise the possibility that this is indeed the Messiah. This moment of uncertainty is also a moment of promise. Her excitement is so contagious that the people do just what she urges them to do. They come, and they see, and hear Jesus’ word, and they believe.

This story is about encounters between strangers. The woman was a stranger to the disciples, by virtue of her nationality, her religion, her gender, and her marital status. They treated her as an outsider, even though they were the ones who had invaded her space. Their astonishment and their questions suggest that she’s the one who doesn’t belong.

Like the disciples, we often act as though wherever we are is our turf and the people we meet there are the outsiders. But, when I talk with my African-American friends. I see that in many ways I am a stranger in their world, and the things I assume are universally true aren’t true for them. When Marc and I have traveled to other parts of the world, we are frequently embarrassed by Americans who assume that everyone should speak English (American-style), and that food should be made to their America tastes, and that local customs and rules shouldn’t apply to them. Like the disciples, we often lack the humility that comes with realizing that we are the outsiders.

When we meet people who are strange to us, we like to give them labels. Like the woman in the story, whose name we don’t know, we lump them into a group, or identify them by some superficial characteristic. They’re the black guy, the woman who talks funny, the kid who acts weird, the family that doesn’t observe our traditions. They are people whose names we don’t know and don’t want to bother getting to know.

Knowing someone’s name suggests that we’re letting them into our lives, and letting them into our lives may mean that they’ll disrupt our comfortable routines and our even more comfortable ideas. It’s easier to write them off with a label that keeps them at arm’s length than get to know who they are. We may not be keen on Jesus getting to know them either, because if Jesus knows them, then he’s going to want us to know them, too.

It’s so easy for us to be like the disciples in the story. “Why are you talking to her, or him, or them, Jesus?” Of course, Jesus has given his reason. It’s because God so loved the world that he gave his only son. Jesus became a stranger in Samaria so that he might welcome everyone into God’s kingdom. He had to go to Samaria, so that his disciples could see the astounding fact that the world God desires to save is much bigger than their idea of it—or ours.

Jesus and the woman are also strangers to each other. They had never met before, and Samaria was not the home court for Jesus. But, John tells us, Jesus “knew all people.  He needed no one to testify about anyone, for he himself knew what was in everyone.” He knew that the woman whose name we do not know was more than simply a woman from Samaria, or a woman alone at a well. He knew she was more than the incorrect and unfair label of a woman steeped in scandal and sin. He knew her story, and he knew the pain that her past was inflicting on her present. He also knew that she had the potential to be a witness and an evangelist for him.

The first disciples invited their friends and family members to meet Jesus. But, after her encounter with Jesus, the woman whose name we do not know spread the news about Jesus throughout the city. She started a movement of people who came to call Jesus, “Savior”—the only people in John’s Gospel to call Jesus by that name. The woman whose name we do not know made Jesus’ name known to entire community.

We may not know her name, but you can bet that Jesus knew it. There is a tradition in the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches that says the woman, whose name we do not know, was eventually given a name. At her baptism, the story goes, she was given the name Photini—“the luminous one.” It’s a fitting name for someone who brought the light of Christ to so many. But Jesus would have known the name she had before, and he would have called her by it, just as he calls each of us by name. “I have called you by name, you are mine,” God assures us through Isaiah. “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” Jesus knew te woman’s name, and he knows ours.

Jesus crossed into the foreign territory of Samaria as a stranger to make God’s love known. But that wasn’t the first time he had done something like that. The first time was in a stable in Bethlehem. In that stable, the great I AM took on human form and was born as a baby named Jesus.

God in Jesus came as a stranger into our world to show us just how much God loves us. Jesus came so that he could meet face-to-face with human beings who have become strangers to the God who loves them. God’s own Son left his rightful place at the Father’s side, because he had to come into the Samaria of our world, to enter into and share the truth of our lives. The Savior meets us next to our own wells and invites us into a relationship as intimate as the marriages that began at other times beside other wells. Jesus comes, knowing what is in each of us, calling us by name, and offers us living water. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young