John 4:7-15 (New Revised Standard Version)
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.”
Carrying a heavy, empty water jar, she came to the well alone at noontime, not expecting to encounter anyone, let alone a stranger, a tired Jewish man resting at the well. I have to wonder if there was a moment when she first saw Jesus there, and paused, unsure of whether she should approach. After all, she had no protection, no friends, no family with her to ensure her safety. Maybe she should just return home, and come back another time?
But, no, she had already walked the long, dry mile from the city of Sychar, carrying her empty jug. She needed water for cooking, for cleaning, for drinking. Her throat would already have been parched from the dust she had kicked up while walking. No, she was not going to let some Jewish stranger stop her.
Gathering her courage, she would have walked around the resting man, not making eye contact. Placing her jar on the ground, she would then drop the rope and bucket into the deep well, dug by her ancestor Jacob about 1700 years earlier.
Jacob’s Well. That’s where this interaction takes place between Jesus and an unnamed woman of Samaria.
Verses 5 and 6 of the 4th chapter of John, just before our scripture passage for today, tell us this: “So 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.”
That ancient well still exists today. And it’s about 3700 years old! In the city of Nablus, in the West Bank, about 30 miles north of Jerusalem, you can still visit Jacob’s Well. It’s in a beautiful church there called St. Photina’s. The Eastern Orthodox Church tradition has given the Samaritan woman this lovely name: Photina, from the Greek phos, meaning light.
The well itself is located in the lower crypt of the church, down a set of stairs into a small room. In the middle of the space is a deceivingly humble looking opening, with the arch of a hefty winch over it.
The opening to the well itself is only about 2 feet wide, just large enough for a very brave person to fit through, with arms pressed to their sides. About four feet down, though, it widens to just over 7 feet in diameter.
The Samaritan woman questioned Jesus, saying, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep.” That is an understatement! Jacob’s Well is an incredible feat of ancient engineering. When measured in 1935, it was 41 meters deep. That’s 135 feet deep.
It’s only (only!) about 65 feet deep now, thanks to decades of religious tourists curiously dropping stones in to hear the very delayed splash in the water far below.
The day that I visited St. Photina’s church this February, my group was the only one there, and, after receiving a donation to the church, the parish priest was happy to allow us to lower the bucket down into the water, so that we could take a drink together from Jacob’s Well.
The women in my group took turns slowly lowering the bucket down the long tunnel, until finally it made contact with the water. Then, even more slowly, laboriously winching the now quite heavy bucket back up to the top.
Leaning over the well, I tried to take a picture, but even with a powerful flash, the depths would not light up. All you can see is the narrow opening, down four feet. Then, a cavernous nothing. It is a deep well, indeed.
Think about it! 135 feet deep. At its highest point, from the floor to the peak, the Sanctuary of my church is just 23 feet, 5 inches tall. We measured it with a laser this week. The Samaritan woman had to lower a bucket almost six times that depth… then bring that heavy, full bucket back up again. On her own. Every day.
From where I usually stand to preach to the glass doors of our lobby leading outside, that’s 95 feet. A rope stretched all the way back there would still have dozens of feet to go before striking water. I’m exhausted just thinking about the sheer effort that would have taken!
But water was necessary for life. This lone woman, she needed that water. She didn’t have another option. So she risked coming up to the well where a strange, Jewish man was resting.
First, he surprises her, asking for a drink of water. Then, he outright shocks her by offering her something: living water. The Greek words used here mean a water source that bubbles up, gushes up, healthy and refreshing. He tells her: “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
How many of you know what its like to feel thirsty? I mean really, really thirsty. The thirst of a long, hot, hard-working day. So thirsty that your throat feels dry and scratchy. Thinking about it, can you remember how that felt? Now think about what it felt like to take that first cold sip of clear water. That soothing smoothness rolling down your dusty throat. A wonderful feeling!
The woman at the well that day, she knew thirst. She was more than familiar with that stretch of road between her home and this only source of water in the area. She had travelled through its hot dust every day for years. And now this strange man is offering her something absolutely amazing: fresh, bubbling, pure water that would gush up forever!
Is it any wonder she jumps at the chance?
“Sir, give me this water!” she exclaims.
But, then, verses 16-18: 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!”
She has been married five times. So, likely this is not a very young woman, as is sometimes depicted in art. She has probably lived in this village for most of her life. So why was she there, by herself, in the heat of the day? Most women would walk the road to Jacob’s well in the cool of the morning, before the sun rose high in the sky.
This woman came at noon,
at the apex of the sun’s arc,
when she knew she would be alone.
Many people have expounded on their theories about this woman over the years. General consensus seems to be that she lived a sinful life, and her alienation is her own fault.
As an example, here are two quotes from one popular preacher, from sermons written 25 years apart: In 1984, he described her as a “worldly, sensually-minded, unspiritual harlot from Samaria.” And then, in 2009, declares that “in her present condition, she doesn’t even have a living spirit. She is dead and hard and blind.”
All that judgment, when the only data we have is that she has been married five times, and is now with a man she’s not married to.
It’s actually very un-likely that she was a “harlot.” It’s not likely that she was promiscuous, adulterous, for the simple reason that if she had been, she wouldn’t have made it through five husbands! She would have been stoned to death long before. The Samaritans may have had many theological and practical differences with the Jews, but they agreed on the Torah, the first five books of the Jewish scriptures, our Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
And Leviticus, chapter 20, verse 10, makes the penalty for adultery quite clear: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.”
Another possibility raised by scholars is that she was subject to the marriage rule found in Deuteronomy 25:5-6: When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.
This woman’s first husband may have died, and she then was required to marry his brother — she wouldn’t have had much say in this. Then that brother died, and she married the next… and so on, through five brothers, all of whom died. A seriously unlucky family!
Here’s another possibility, raised for me by the fact that she has come alone to this well, in the heat of the day when most people would avoid walking the hot, dusty roads, not in the company of other women from the city of Sychar, and, this is important, with no children of her own accompanying her to help carry the load of water. After five marriages, you would think she would have at least one child to help her on the way.
So, she may well have been infertile, unable to conceive and give birth. In that society, a woman could easily be divorced for such a reason. With each marriage, with each failed pregnancy, with each passing year of her life, with each divorce, she would have sunk deeper and deeper in the eyes of the community, and in her own. She would have carried with her, everywhere she went, a feeling of deep shame.
And, then, why is she now with a man she’s not married to? There weren’t a whole lot of options for unmarried women in those days. She couldn’t take up a trade, couldn’t get a job, other than selling her body for money. She must not have had family who could — or would — take her in. So she settles for a relationship that wasn’t acceptable to her faith or her community.
Whatever the reason, she comes to this well, about a mile outside her city, at a time of day when she was certain she would be alone.
No one to whisper rumors about her.
No one to avoid talking with her.
No one to judge her.
This poor woman. But… this on-the-periphery, outsider woman in an outsider community: she is the one chosen by Jesus to reveal himself to!
Verses 25 and 26: 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.”
“I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” Jesus doesn’t speak in his usual metaphors here, he doesn’t beat around the bush.
“I know the Messiah is coming,” the woman says, “and when he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
Jesus points to himself, and says,
“Yep! Messiah! Right here, in front of you.”
This is the first time in the Gospel of John that Jesus reveals himself. And he declares to this woman that he is the Messiah for which the people had been waiting so long!
“I am he,” Jesus proclaims, using words that would have reminded the woman about the conversation between God and Moses at the burning bush in the book of Exodus: Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.”
“I am he,” Jesus says to this isolated, sad woman.
Every time I read this story, I am amazed at its beauty. This woman, shunned by her community, choosing to endure the heat of the day rather than bear the scrutiny of others, comes to the well alone. For so many years she has been judged, found unworthy. She has worn a path on that road from Sychar to Jacob’s Well. And that hot noontime, she knew that her life would remain in that rut. Forever.
Then, at that place of necessity and labor and effort, she encounters Jesus. Who rebels against social convention, a Jewish man talking with a Samaritan woman. He challenges her, reaching straight into her pain. He speaks plainly to her, immediately naming her deepest wound. “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!”
At first, this may seem so harsh to us. I mean, why couldn’t Jesus have eased into it? Maybe brought up some lighter, less threatening topics before launching into the very issue that has brought her such pain?
This is what I believe: God loves us too much to let us get away with surface healing. God cares too much to give us love that just glosses over the top. God is the opposite of superficial. God’s love is deep. God’s love is thorough. And so Jesus offers her healing and acceptance at the place of her deepest pain.
When you pour water, it automatically seeks the lowest point. Gravity pulls it down through any space, any crack large enough to allow a few molecules through, down and down and down, until it reaches a place where it can go no further.
Living water… it does the same… in our spirits. God’s love, it flows deeper and deeper in us, calling to our attention our wounds, our hurts. It brings to light the dark places in us that we don’t really want to see. It seeks out the lowest parts of who we are.
And that… it can be uncomfortable.
But that… is where true healing begins.
Jesus reaches out to this woman, not in judgment, but in bare honesty. He looks at her — sees her, knows her — this woman who preferred to be unseen, to be left alone.
And he gives her a priceless gift. He offers her living water. He offers her God’s love.
And she is so excited that she completely forgets the task she has come to the well for, and runs back to the city to spread the news with joy of the Messiah’s arrival to everyone she meets.
So… this day… are the dry and cracked places in your spirit crying out to be quenched? Are you yearning for God’s acceptance of you as you are, and God’s healing touch upon your hurt? Are there wounds in your soul you’re afraid to have God see?
That same offer that Jesus made
to the woman at the well
is still open to us today.
Here’s the reality: God already knows you. Really, really knows you. God knows the pieces of yourself that you show proudly to the world in the full light of the day. And God knows the pieces of yourself that you find deeply shameful, and would prefer never came to light. God knows your deepest damage, your most hidden pain, the cracks that splinter in your soul.
And God offers you living water
God’s own healing love
that can seep through every broken place
around every bend and twist of our souls
into every part of who we are
bringing grace and forgiveness and healing.
So I pray — with everything in me — that we would know that love in a real and powerful way this Lent. That we would reach out to accept the gift God offers to us. That we would allow God’s love to trickle… no… to flow, to bubble up through our spirits, cleansing us and making us whole!
And then… I pray that like that woman, we would go out into the world, overflowing with, bubbling over with God’s love, becoming God’s ambassadors of living water in a parched and thirsty world.
May it be so! I offer this to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!
For a video of this message as delivered at Plantation UMC in our 11am Traditional Service, click here!