Our gospel for this morning is one of the longest conversations recorded in all the New Testament. It is not some quaint country scene involving a holy man and a woman passing the time of day while having a drink of water. No, this is street ministry, involving a rebel preacher unafraid to break all the rules, and a woman of very dubious reputation. Our gospel for today much more resembles a scene from some late night drama like HBO’s The Wire, then it does anything you might see on the Disney Channel. It is a great story, a powerful story, that can and should have far reaching implications for all our lives.
This well, called Jacob’s well, located near the city of Sychar, was the equivalent of an ancient truck stop. Located at a busy crossroads, travelers came to water their camels here the same way eighteen-wheelers stop for diesel. And like any truck stop, you can meet all kinds of people in such a place and find your fair share of trouble if you have a mind to.
In Jesus’ day, women living around this kind of crossroads would have to come to the well to draw water for their families. But they would always have come in groups. There was safety in numbers. Modesty and propriety demanded that a lady never travel alone, without an escort. A woman who was alone had either been shunned by her peers and was considered an outcast and so had no choice but to draw water by herself; or she didn’t care about her reputation and water was not perhaps the only thing she was looking for. In either case, this Samaritan woman was someplace she was not supposed to be.
Jesus too is someplace he is not supposed to be. As Jews, Jesus and his disciples should have avoided this region full of Samaritans, a much-disliked group of people. They were on the wrong side of the tracks, taking a rest stop on their journey in a very seedy place. As a revered teacher, Jesus would have rested while his disciples went to look for food. In those days great rabbis never did menial tasks for themselves. People came to them, food came to them, water was brought to them. Jesus would have stuck out like a sore thumb sitting there beside the well. According to Jewish decorum, there were few worse places for an upright rabbi to be seen then outside a Samaritan city sitting by a Samaritan well.
But Jesus doesn’t care about social propriety. He doesn’t care that just being in that kind of place could ruin his reputation among “decent folks.” He doesn’t care that an encounter with any woman could make him ritually unclean and that an encounter with a Samaritan woman of questionable repute could in effect get him kicked out of the rabbi business. No, it is just the opposite. Jesus wants to have an encounter with this woman; he wants to reach out to her. He wants to cross the boundaries that aren’t supposed to be crossed, because he knows that on the other side of that boundary there is a person in need – a person in need of God’s love.
Jesus starts the conversation by asking for a drink of water. Immediately the woman knows that his kind of person is not supposed to be speaking to her kind of person. The fact that he is means this man must be after something. Responding to him, she points out the impropriety of a Jewish man speaking to a Samaritan woman assuming that what Jesus wants from her isn’t proper either. This woman at the well is probably quite cynical by this point in her life. She has become hardened by the realities of the world and living. She is used to using others and being used by others. She is used to being seen as an object. No man in the middle of this ancient truck stop would strike up a conversation unless he was after something.
And yet in this strange encounter she meets the unexpected. This extraordinary man wants nothing from her and seeks to give her everything.
Standing before her is a man who looks at her not as an object, not as an unclean person, not as a social outcast, but as a child of God. In her conversation with Jesus she discovers a man who touches her soul, who touches her life where she is most ashamed, and yet a man who cares about her essential wellbeing. She has been married five times and yet this woman has been coming up thirsty every time.1 In Jesus, she encounters someone who offers to replace her merry-go-round of failed relationships with something lasting she can count on. In Jesus she finds the living water. (I have to add here that I will never be able to listen to this passage again without seeing in my mind’s eye the amazing job Mignon and the Omega Group did in their beautiful interpretation of this passage. I hope you saw it at WomanKind or at the 11:15 service last week. It was an incredible gift.)
Two things I want you to walk away with this morning in regards to this passage. First, Jesus teaches us all today what it means to love our neighbor. Loving our neighbor means not only loving those with whom we are comfortable, with whom we have something in common. Jesus shows us today that to love our neighbor we have to be willing to rip down the boundaries that separate us, we have to be brave enough to take the risk to reach beyond what our society might say is acceptable. Jesus shows us there is no class distinction, national, religious, sexual, or racial distinction that should stop us from reaching out to another human being. It doesn’t matter what others think of us, it only matters that we be willing to share the water of life with Samaritans wherever we find them.
Secondly, the living Christ wants nothing more than to reach you. The Jesus who changed the life of the Samaritan woman is very much still changing lives today. He wants to touch that place of shame that you harbor deep inside and set you free. He wants to reach you where you feel most guilty and grant you forgiveness. He wants to heal you where you feel most broken and empower you for service. He wants to quench your thirst for meaning and purpose. All of us in some way stand in need of this water of life.
Read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest this point: the Gospel of Jesus lives moves and has its being independent of human righteousness. Samaritans, saints, sickos, slobs, – what have you. They’re included. The love of God is as unmotivated and undeserved as the sunrise, and it goes out to everyone.2 That’s the crazy and marvelous thing Jesus came to tell us. That’s the good news of the Gospel. Amen.
1. Alice Camille, U. S. Catholics, 2005
2. H. King Oehmig.