Suffice it to say that preachers over the years have not been kind to the woman who takes centerstage in this morning’s lesson.
All we know from the Gospel of John is that she’s had five husbands, and in the setting of this story, the man with whom she’s now living is not her husband. Yet that hasn’t stopped preachers – mostly men, myself included – from casting her as a lusty, oversexed harlot of a whore.
And this naughty woman’s filthy sin apparently is so salacious and horrendous that she doesn’t even deserve mention by name. She’s known generically, with plenty of condescension, as nothing more than “the woman at the well.”
Truth is, John provides not even the first clue about why this “woman at the well” has been married so often.
Maybe, she’s a teen bride who becomes a widow. Then, she gets passed along like chattel through a seedy line of her dead husband’s brothers. That is how they handled widowhood back in the biblical day.
Or, maybe her many husbands filed for divorce, because she couldn’t bear children. That happened a lot then, too.
Or, maybe she’s running some sort of fatal, criminal enterprise that lures men into a death trap of murderous demise. That surely makes for the titillating stuff of made-for-TV movies, but there’s nothing to suggest that’s what’s driving this woman’s many marriages.
Who knows the specific details of this woman’s story? And her many trips to the altar? And her current living arrangements?
So, I’m not comfortable toeing the line of her traditional characterization. I’m less apt to see this woman as vixen and more so as victim – somehow or other emotionally and spiritually wounded by something that happened in her past. And her wounds – self-inflicted, inflicted by others, or some combination of the two – still fester in her present.
Regardless of who did what to whom and when, this woman, I believe, bears a wound – just like the rest of us.
And with her she carries all the shame, embarrassment and judgment that come when you’re wounded in body, mind or spirit – just like the rest of us.
When you’re lugging around that kind of emotional baggage, when you’re the perennial subject of incessant town gossip because of who you are or what you supposedly have or haven’t done, the easiest way to avoid the finger-pointing, snide comments, and sideways glances is to keep a low profile.
When you don’t belong to “the club,” when you’re not welcome at morning coffee, you keep your head down and avoid letting yourself be seen.
That premise goes a long way in explaining what compels this woman – heck, let’s give her a name and call her Ashley – what compels Ashley toward the well to gather water in the heat of the noonday sun and not in the cool of the early morning light, which is when most womenfolk tend to grab their water jars and head for the well.
Because you certainly know that when women – and men – gather daily in the public square, there’s bound to be an “exchange of information” that’s not entirely true and a “comparing of notes and observations” that’s not always complementary. One way of avoiding all the foul air – particularly when you’re the one everyone’s yapping about – is not letting yourself be seen, which I believe is Ashley’s choice when it comes to the daily drawing of water.
Being seen is a double-edged sword. On one hand, being seen is painful, and you prefer being invisible. On the other hand, being seen is the very thing you really want to happen. You want to be noticed for the simple humanity God created you to carry.
And on this particular day, in our lesson from John chapter 4, Ashley’s preferred plan of invisibility unravels when she’s seen by Jesus, who knits her life back together with unexpected grace and mercy.
May the Holy Spirit open your heart and mind to new possibility and new understanding, as you listen for the Word of the Lord. As we enter the story, Jesus is on his way to Galilee, but first he has to pass through Samaria.
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.
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” 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!”
The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”
Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
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.”
Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?”
Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”
They left the city and were on their way to him. (John 4:5-30)
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word.
They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” (John 4:39-42)
At some point in my younger years, I kept a diary – in theory, a place to daily record my innermost thoughts and feelings.
But in practice, my entries were mostly routine and mundane: It rained today. I had a test in math class, and we played kickball in phy ed. Mom made meatloaf and mashed potatoes for supper.
I never felt comfortable writing down what really was on my heart and mind – the good stuff from deep, down inside, because brutal honesty and bare-naked transparency surely seemed like risky business. Even though it came with a locking clasp, I always worried that someone would get hold of my diary, break through its easily breached security, and discover all the things about myself that I’d just as soon keep hidden.
That same insecurity halts me from keeping a diary even today.
Which is strange – a swirling mass of contradiction, because from time to time I step into the pulpit and fess up to my sin and brokenness with a willingness to let the chips fall where they may.
Not long ago, when I was participating in the Sunday morning radio broadcasts from St. John’s, I confessed over the very-public airwaves to calling 9-1-1 and reporting “a Hispanic guy sitting on my porch.” The man was experiencing some physical and mental distress, and he needed more help that I could offer.
But, in the heat of the moment, in my report to the 9-1-1 dispatcher, he wasn’t “a man who needed help” but rather “a Hispanic guy sitting on my porch.” I felt like the white suburbanite calling the police to report a black man jogging through the neighborhood.
The whole sordid incident made painfully clear that I’m not as colorblind to race and ethnicity as I’d like to think and portray that I am.
That’s the dirty, little secret of people who self-report their sin and brokenness.
In reality, we’re running a carefully worded, tightly controlled public-relations campaign to make ourselves look good on the surface. The narrative we craft isn’t entirely a lie, but neither is it the whole truth and nothing but the truth. There’s always more to the story, and that “always more” always lurks below the surface. And we’d just as soon keep it neatly tucked away deep within.
So, for some time now, I’ve been thinking and reflecting about the dark secrets hidden deep within me:
The damage of sin to which I simply cannot admit, the details of my brokenness that I’d rather die than have come to light, the shame of things I’ve done and left undone that I simply cannot shake.
Those shady ingredients of sin, brokenness and shame create a potent mixture that fuels my living. Those wounded parts of my being – whether injured by my own sin or the sins of others – are what keep me going, because I’m always trying make amends for what I did or didn’t do, what I said or didn’t say.
I vainly try to convince myself and everyone else that the wounds I bear and the wounds I’ve inflicted simply aren’t there. Or, I unsuccessfully seek healing through unhealthy means.
Neither of those cures – doing or denial – ever brings any meaningful, lasting relief. But that never stops me from grasping at false hope.
And so, I can relate to this “woman at the well” – lost in her own thoughts, trapped in her daily guilt of shame and embarrassment, beaten down by judgment and scorn, the unrelenting heat of the midday sun baking her skin, salty sweat stinging her eyes as she makes out someone else who’s stopped at the well, too.
Her gut tightens and her pulse quickens as she breathes deeply, bracing herself for whatever comes next – which surely won’t be good. Maybe she’ll stay hidden if she just avoids eye contact.
It’s all for naught, though, because, for whatever reason, he starts talking to her – a woman, a woman who’s an ethnic outsider, a woman who’s an ethnic outsider with five husbands, give or take. And talking to any woman – especially that kind of woman – simply is NOT what a pious, upstanding Jewish man does. The rules demand he avoid at all costs such impure contact and contaminating interaction.
But Jesus is a rule-breaker not known for polite conversation.
When he says that he offers her living water gushing up to eternal life, and when she demands this water so she will not thirst, Jesus pokes deep into her wound, picking at the scab until it bleeds, with an awkward-but-direct question about her husband. Jesus doesn’t tread lightly on sensitive emotional ground but instead cuts straight to the quick.
“You want to stop trying to quench your thirst with things that’ll never satisfy? You want this eternal life?” Jesus in as much asks.
Well, then, it starts with being seen. It starts with the truth: The naked truth of your original wound, and the divine truth of your original beauty – everything that’s good and bad about you all wrapped up into one.
Water always flows to the lowest point, and this living water that Jesus offers is no different.
It finds this woman at her lowest point. The living water that Jesus offers always finds your lowest point. It always flows to your original wound – the very thing you spend so much time and energy trying to cover-up and heal through all the many insufficient and ineffective means: Money, possessions, relationships, scholarship, athletics, exercising, therapy, counseling, support groups – trying to get someone to love you more.
There are millions of ways we try to employ as substitutes for God to try and make sure our damaged souls and ailing spirits remain hidden.
Friends, faith is not a “head thing.” Faith is not wrapping your mind around a set of theological beliefs and memorizing the Apostles’ Creed.
No, faith is not a “head thing.” Faith is a “heart thing.”
Faith is abiding and relaxing – abiding and relaxing in the heart of God, in the loving presence of Jesus, in the precisely the way you relax and abide in the presence of someone you know without a doubt loves you. For if you know in your heart of hearts that someone loves you, then there’s no reason to pretend or hide anything.
That’s what happens to this woman at the well.
Living water seeps into the sagging foundations of her life until it finds a crack in her defenses. And then, that living water trickles down into her lowest point, into her deepest wound, into her greatest need.
And finally, after years of holding her breath, she finally exhales – so relaxed, so relieved, so renewed, that she forgets about her water jar and leaves it behind at the well.
Perhaps, then, the take-away of this story is the leave-behind at the well.
Maybe those water jars we constantly keep filling with those things that we think will quench our thirst – but never really do – are what the Spirit of God in Christ would have us leave behind: All those many things we think will make us whole, make our wounds go away, make us somehow more loveable.
Because being known, and loved, and forgiven, in our true form, by our true God, can quench your spiritual thirst in ways that no amount of success, or admiration, or romantic love, or professional work ever can.
In God’s economy, our greatest wound, our deepest shame, our gravest sin, is also our greatest gift, our greatest teacher, our greatest liberator.
At the well, when the Lord glances over and speaks to you at your lowest point – whatever the deepest wound, whatever the vilest sin, whatever the damage within, the living water of Christ’s grace, mercy and compassion can find it, will find it, and has found it.
So, leave your jars behind!
Jesus loves me this I know. For the Bible – and the woman at the well – tell me so: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! “He cannot be the Savior of the world, can he?”
Indeed, Ashley. He is.
Amen, and amen.
Pastor Grant VanderVelden shared this message during morning worship on Sunday, September 13, 2020. It is the seventh sermon of his series, “Unraveled: Seeking God When Our Plans Fall Apart.” Commentary, reflection and scholarship by James Allison, Viann Clements, David Lose, Gail R. O’Day, and Nadia Bolz Weber inform the message. (Artwork: Hannah Garrity, You Ask of Me?, SanctifiedArt.org)