Sunday, March 12, 2023
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Third Sunday in Lent
Preacher: Pastor Day Hefner
watch this service online (readings start around 19:57; sermon starts around 30:08)
(another 2020 throwback)
Our gospel text for this morning picks up about half a chapter after our gospel reading from last week. Last week, you might remember, Jesus was in Jerusalem, where he received a nighttime visit from our friend Nicodemus, the Pharisee.
Well, now, in the first few verses of John 4, Jesus learns that trouble might be brewing with the rest of the Pharisees, who are feeling a lot less friendly toward him than our pal Nicodemus. So Jesus and his disciples decide it’s time to hit the road. In verses 3 and 4 of chapter 4, John writes that “[Jesus] left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria.” And that is where our story begins.
John writes that Jesus “had” to go through Samaria to get from Judea to Galilee – and if you look at a map of the area, that seems totally logical. These three regions were all right next to each other: you had Galilee to the north, Judea to the south, and right in between them, you had Samaria (with mountains to the east and the Mediterranean sea to the west).
However, as logical as it might seem, the road through Samaria is actually not the route that most Judean folks would have taken to get to Galilee. And that’s because of something a map wouldn’t show you, namely: a long, painful history of religious and political conflict. Because of this history, Judean people would do practically anything to avoid having to set foot in Samaria. Instead, to reach Galilee, they would cross the mountains to the east, travel up the Jordan River until they reached the Sea of Galilee, and then cross back over the mountains again. And remember, this was all on foot!
So when Jesus decides he “has” to go through Samaria, he’s clearly not talking about geography. He seems to have some other reason for choosing to go this unusual route. If you read this whole chapter of John, you’ll quickly notice that there is only one story that happens on this journey through Samaria – and it’s the story that we read today. And knowing that really starts to make Jesus’ meeting with this woman look a lot less like a chance encounter and a lot more like a deliberate, divine appointment.
Jesus and the disciples come across this woman at a well – at Jacob’s well – outside the Samaritan town of Sychar. Right off the bat, the fact that they run into her there at all is unusual and unexpected, in and of itself. For one thing, Jacob’s well was far enough from the city that it probably wasn’t the first place most local folks went for water. For another thing, it was noon. And noon is hot! Most women would have gone to draw water in the evening, when it was cool; and they’d usually go there together in groups. To encounter a Samaritan woman by herself, at Jacob’s well, in the middle of the day was very strange indeed.
This woman shows up as Jesus is resting by the well, waiting for the disciples to bring back some snacks from town. He asks her for a drink of water and the two of them end up in conversation. And as they talk, we learn more about this woman; and we start to get an idea of just why she is out here, in the middle of the day, all by herself. Jesus mentions her husband, and it comes out that she has had five husbands and that the person she’s with now is not, in fact, her husband.
It’s a situation that sounds quite scandalous to modern readers. Even though divorce is pretty normal now, five marriages is still a lot. And it’s tempting for us to immediately jump to the worst conclusions: that this woman has terrible judgment or she has been unfaithful, or perhaps something even worse.
But we should remember that marriage was a very different business for women back in the first century – a business in which they really didn’t have a lot of say. Only men were allowed to initiate a divorce, and anyone who was known to be an adulterer usually did not live to tell the tale (let alone have four more spouses). So it is probably not by choice that this woman is in the situation she’s in – whether widowed or divorced or whatever the case may have been. However, it does certainly seem that the people of her town are blaming her and ostracizing her anyway. It’s possible that they interpret her apparently very bad luck as some kind of sign of God’s disapproval.
But when it comes to her interaction with Jesus, that is not the vibe we get from him at all. Jesus doesn’t say a word to her about being a sinner or about needing to repent. In fact, he commends her for being truthful in what she says, and he speaks to her with respect. He treats her as someone with worth and value in her own right. And there is a particular overtone to this whole encounter that would have signaled to this woman something even more profound.
Throughout the scriptures, whenever there is a scene of a man and a woman meeting at a well, it is virtually always a scene of betrothal (or one that heralds a betrothal): Isaac and Rebecca, Moses and his wife Zipporah, not to mention Jacob himself, and Rachel! No doubt this woman would have been familiar with these stories; she would have recognized the intimate implications of this encounter with Jesus. And I can’t help but think that this was a deliberate choice on Jesus’ part. He chose to come meet this woman who had been passed around and cast out and rejected by her community. And he chose to meet her in the exact circumstances that would have most strongly communicated to her a sense of faithfulness and promise and love.
And this whole encounter has even more far-reaching implications for this woman’s community. When the disciples come back from their snack run, they are (understandably) shocked to find Jesus sitting at the well talking with this woman. They are at least smart enough to keep their mouths shut about it – but they are eager to get back on the road, so they urge Jesus to eat something and keep moving.
But Jesus is not ready to leave yet. Instead he tells the disciples to open their eyes to what is happening around them. He has been preparing them for the work of the “harvest” – the work of inviting people with open and ready hearts into the good news of the kingdom. And here in Samaria – in probably the last place they expected – that work is already well underway. Jesus says to them, “Look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting… Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
The Samaritan woman leaves her water jar at the well and runs back into town to tell everyone what she has seen and heard – this man who knows everything she’s ever done and who might be the Messiah. And despite her reputation, she is so breathlessly moved that the townspeople start showing up, eager to hear what Jesus has to say. They end up asking him to stay with them another two days, and many people come to believe. What started out as a quick roadside pit stop becomes a powerful evangelizing event that transforms the lives of many.
It seems to me like this is why Jesus “had” to go through Samaria. He was determined to bring the word of life to the people who were ready to hear it, whoever they might be. He came to meet people where they were, regardless of the scandal or the sin or the social barriers. And he was especially determined to bring the water of life to the outcast and the unloved who thirsted for it most of all.
Such is the heart of Jesus. He is drawn like a heart-seeking missile to the outsiders of this world, to bring love to the marginalized and the vulnerable who need it the most. It perfectly reflects what we read last week in John chapter 3: that Jesus came into this world not to denounce or to condemn, but to save; that God so loves this world – enough to slip into human skin, enough to meet humanity in our most unlikely and unlovely places with unending love and grace.
Just as Jesus went out of his way to meet the Samaritan woman at the well, he comes to meet us where we are, especially in the places in us that feel most vulnerable.
Jesus is the Savior of the world, who knows “everything we have ever done” – he sees us and knows us as we truly are; and, however we are, he meets us with deep love and abiding faithfulness.
Jesus meets us in the parched places in our souls; he comes to quench our thirst forever with springs of water welling up to eternal life.