Text: John 4:1-29,v39-42
It’s a shame we don’t have more wells around town. Wells are interesting places – the perfect locale to meet your friends who are drawing water too and share the day’s gossip. And heads up all you single ladies, a well is a great site to meet new and interesting visitors who may later turn into something more. A woman named Zipporah met her future husband, a nice Egyptian fellow named Moses, for the first time at a well. And if we’re talking about wells, we can’t forget that sweet Rachel meets her future husband (and future brother-in-law) Jacob at the wellside.
A well is a great place to make such connections because it is teaming with life. At least during the morning and the evening. The well at noon, however, when the sun is at its highest and hottest, is clear of any of the gossiping crowds. The well in our story this morning is free of any gossiping gaggles – but it is not an empty scene. As we sit beside the well with Jesus, a woman approaches both the well and the man sitting by it – a woman who has chosen to fill her jugs of water during the worst time of the day.
Even before we hear her speak, we know there is something different about this woman. A woman who comes to the well at noon, when she is almost assured of meeting no one else, very likely has a reason for taking such pains to avoid making connections with those she might find at the well.
Just as the woman’s presence at the well is a little surprising, so too is Jesus’ – though it has nothing to do with the time of day. That Jesus would be in Samaria at all would have been more than enough to raise the eyebrows of those pious Pharisees he left behind. As John mentioned a few weeks ago when speaking about the Good Samaritan – Jews and Samaritans did not mix. Though descendants of Abraham, the Samaritans intermarried with the foreigners and began worshiping God (and sometimes other gods) on a mountain temple other than Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. These offenses were enough for the Jews to despise the Samaritans as heretics.
Into a land filled with these heretics comes Jesus. Our text tells us that on his way from Judea to Galilee, to continue his ministry among the Jews, he has to pass through Samaria. Jesus’ “had to pass through” wasn’t about getting from point A to point B – like we may have heard before. Geographically, he had other options for going from Judea to Galilee, options that didn’t include Samaria. Jesus “had to” pass through because of whom he would meet, what he would do, while in Samaria. He had to pass through because of the people he would encounter and the lives he would change. The first person he meets is this woman who has come to draw water.
“Give me a drink of water” – are his first words to her. Though Jesus’ request for water is a perfectly reasonable one – such basic hospitality was an acceptable expectation – the woman immediately questions him, given their hostile heritage – “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Jesus, oh Jesus loves a good question like this. Give him a slight crack of the door, and he’ll burst it wide open. And he has a way of not actually answering the question asked. Here Jesus doesn’t speak of some sort of ethnic equality, rather, he speaks of living water – something which this poor woman takes rather literally, not unlike the Pharisee Nicodemus whom Jesus encountered in Judea just before he met her. Also not unlike his encounter with Nicodemus, Jesus does not let this woman’s concrete thinking stop him from talking about this living water that will quench every thirst and gushes up into eternal life.
Now while the woman may not fully understand what Jesus is speaking of, she is still thinking in earthly terms, she is not a fool – she knows she wants this living water. In the face of her request, Jesus doesn’t reach down deep into the well and offer her baptism (as we might have expected given that his ministry in Judea had revolved around that act). Instead, he reaches deep into her, revealing to us why she wanted to avoid the people of her village, revealing to her that he is more than a man that can speak poetically about water.
This woman – as it turns out – may have found more than enough success at meeting men at wells for she has had five husbands. Five. Now, we don’t know how much Samaritan laws differed from Jewish laws, but we do know that at this time, 3 husbands in your lifetime was the limit for a Jewish woman. To a Jewish man, as Jesus was, this woman was two husbands past decency. To top it off, the man she is with now is not even her husband. No wonder this woman avoided those gossiping groups – they were very likely gossiping about her.
The man she meets at the well this day, does not gossip about her. He tells her what he knows of her, not in derision, not in contempt, but in care – Jesus is showing her how much he knows her and as he continues to speak to her, he helps to develop a bond between them by letting her know him. When asked, he tells her he is this Messiah she has heard about. We read in our text that Jesus responds – I am he – but the Greek reads only “I am.” As an awed Moses once heard those words from a burning bush, this Samaritan woman hears Jesus claim not only his position as Messiah, but as the one who is known only as “I am” – YHWH.
Though it is different than Zipporah and Moses’, or Rachel and Jacob’s, the Samaritan woman and Jesus share a deep and meaningful connection. They know things about one another that two strangers meeting by a wellside never would. It is this connection that stirs this woman to action. Though she still may not be clear about living water or about salvation, she believes in this connection. And her belief prompts her to no longer avoid her fellow Samaritans, rather to actively seek them out. When she meets with her fellow Samaritans, she does not timidly offer witness to what she has experienced – she boldly speaks up, commanding the people to “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!”
She does not say “come and see a man who speaks of living water… or a man who tells of worshiping in truth and spirit,” rather “come and see a man who knows me.” And though she still wonders if he could really be the Messiah, she believes in what she has experienced with him and she speaks to all those around her of that experience.
In this story where Christ engages a shamed woman in serious conversation, there are many things we might learn from our Savior. We might glean information about eternal life, about how to worship, about not condemning those who have fallen from our moral standards. We could learn much from Jesus, but on this day as we celebrate the gifts of women, it is the Samaritan woman and her bold, brave speech that perhaps should inform and inspire.
As you may have noticed by looking through your bulletin, this year, 2006, is a big year in terms women and the life of the church. It’s the 100th anniversary of women being ordained as deacons and it’s the 50th anniversary of women being ordained as Ministers of Word and Sacrament. As wonderful as those celebrations are, there’s another anniversary that bears notice.
In 1916, 90 years ago, Katherine Bennet, the president of the Women’s Home Board, made a report to the General Assembly, the national governing body of the Presbyterian Church. This report marked the first time a woman was allowed to speak at a General Assembly. This report was the first indication that the previous attitude toward women speaking was going to change. Women not being permitted to speak in church had been the standard. In fact, just 25 years prior to Bennet speaking before this body of the church, the General Assembly had this to say – “It is the settled doctrine of our church that women are excluded from licensure and ordination by the plain teaching of the Scriptures and, therefore, cannot be admitted to our pulpits as authorized preachers of the Word; and, also, that they are prohibited from speaking by way of exhortation, or leading in prayer, or discussing any question publicly in the meetings of the church or congregation as a mixed assembly.”
Women who a particular connection to Christ and wanted to share what they knew of him, had to work hard for the right to speak, to overcome such views. And they did work. Sometimes they went further than the church allowed – several women were ordained by sympathetic presbyteries only to find that ordination later revoked. Sometimes they waited for the church to approve before they spoke in public assemblies, yet worked hard to get that approval.
Women like Margaret Towner who was the first woman ordained in our Presbyterian church, or Louisa Wooley who was the first woman ordained by the Cumberland Presbyterian Church (a sister to our own denomination), these women struggled to be heard and yet they did not give up and they did not keep quiet.
These women followed in the footsteps of our Samaritan woman. Today as we celebrate gifts of women in the church – it is this gift, this particular gift of speech, we all can celebrate. Each of us, male or female, has been given the gift of examples like Margaret and Louisa, of the Samaritan woman who spoke out so long ago. And in these examples, we have exciting hope and a certain challenge for our own life in Christ.
As believers in the faith, we are each called to be a witness, to proclaim what we have seen and known of Christ. Each of us, whether or not we have been called to ordained ministry, has been called to speak. Our speech doesn’t have to be grand statements before governing bodies, or sermons before congregations. We speak when we feel that tug on our hearts to share our experience of Christ. When Jesus commanded his disciples to be his witnesses, he did not only mean those who stood before him in that time and place. We have been called to be witnesses to Christ in deed and in word.
Like the women who were the first to speak in our church, we may comes across that which may try to keep us from speaking. People may dissuade us from speech because of who we are – because our gender, our age, education, class, any myriad of classifications others might feel should prevent us from speaking. Our own insecurities may push us to keep quiet – I’m not good enough, not smart enough, not eloquent enough. We may doubt that others would want to hear what we might say, doubt that they would listen when we spoke of our faith, our experience, doubt that the Spirit could speak through us.
But no matter what others may say, not matter what insecurities we may feel, not matter what doubts may plague us, we must believe. Believe in our own connection with Christ, even those connections that leave room for confusion. Believe that even if some may not show it, all are longing to know and be known by Christ. Believe that Christ may indeed speak through us.
We must believe like the Samaritan woman believed because when we do, God’s power and glory can shine so brightly. The Samaritan woman believed in the moment she had with Christ, believed in the feelings it stirred up in her, and look what happened when she believed. She did not let her fear of judgment stop her from seeking those she once avoided, she spoke what she knew, even though she still had questions, and through her testimony, the Spirit sparked a desire to search in those she met. After hearing her, other Samaritans sought Christ and came to believe for themselves.
The Samaritan woman believed, women like Margaret and Louisa believed, and now you and I are called to believe. Believe and speak of the one who inspires such belief. Though you may not stir a whole people to search out Jesus with your speech, though you may not find yourself as the first to break down barriers, your speech, your witness to the Christ whom you know and who knows you is precious. It is a gift, one that, be you man or woman, we celebrate this day. Amen.