A Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Katherine Grieb
Meade Professor of Biblical Interpretation and New Testament at Virginia Theological Seminary
In Fort Washington, Pennsylvania
On Sunday, March 19, 2017
Hello, St. Thomas’, Whitemarsh, it’s great to be back with you again. I bring you warmest greetings from Virginia Theological Seminary, where the Zabriskie name is well known, from where Daniel and Lara Stroud have come to you, and where we are enjoying our time with Michael Palmisano, who is a current student at VTS. We very much value our special relationship with this parish and particularly with your clergy team.
I was tempted to preach on the lesson from Exodus 17, because of its wonderful first line about how “the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed, by stages, from the wilderness of Sin.” You couldn’t get a better first line for a Lenten sermon than that! But then I saw the Gospel lesson , which is one of my favorite stories, and which always seems to have something fresh to say to us today.
Our story begins when Jesus arrives at a Samaritan city called Sychar. You probably know it by its traditional biblical name, Shechem. It was an important city: Joseph’s bones, which the Israelites had brought with them out of Egypt, were buried there (Joshua 24:32). Jacob stopped there and built an altar to the Lord there. His daughter Dinah was raped there and her brothers exacted a terrible revenge on the men of the city (Genesis 34). Jacob gave the land to his son Joseph, which is why Joseph’s bones were buried there. A lot happened at Shechem or Sychar, modern day Nablus.
And although we are not explicitly told in the Old Testament that “Jacob’s well was there,” that tradition was clearly known to the writer of John’s Gospel, because it is used to identify Sychar, to remind us that we know the place. Jesus was tired from his journey and “he sat down by the well” about noon. A Samaritan woman came to the well to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” We have a note from the narrator that Jesus was alone, because his disciples had gone into the city to buy food. So the stage is set for the conversation, which is about to happen at the well.
Now if the story of a stranger in a distant land coming to a well and meeting a woman there seems vaguely familiar to you, that’s because you have actually heard it before – at least three times! This is called a type-scene: a man walks into a bar and sees a woman at the other end of the counter and the air is filled with possibility. Anything could happen – who knows? It might even lead to marriage.
So: flashback # 1 to Genesis 24:10-61. Abraham, advanced in years, is worried that his son Isaac will not marry, or worse, might marry the wrong woman, like some Canaanite woman. He makes his servant promise, even swear, to find a wife for Isaac from his own people. So the servant dutifully takes ten camels and a whole lot of beautiful presents and goes to the city of Nahor. There he makes the camels kneel down by the well outside of the city and he prays (I’m paraphrasing): “Lord God, I have no idea how to find a wife for Isaac; I don’t know which girl it should be, so please help me. If I ask a young woman to give me a drink of water and she does and also waters the camels, please let her be the right one.” It was actually a pretty easy test, a nice low bar, and immediately Rebekah shows up and passes the test. She ends up marrying Isaac.
Flashback # 2 to Genesis 29:1-20. Jacob is on a journey and comes to a well in a field where people come to water their sheep, near where his kinsman Laban lives with his two beautiful daughters, Leah and Rachel. Rachel comes to the well with her flock of sheep to water them and Jacob is completely smitten with love for her. And – you guessed it – Jacob ended up marrying both Leah and Rachel, because of that meeting at the well.
Flashback # 3 to Exodus 2:15-21. Moses was on the run, fleeing Pharaoh after having killed a man. He arrived at the land of Midian and “sat down by a well.” The priest of Midian’s seven daughters came to the well to draw water there, but some mean shepherds tried to drive them away, until Moses intervened on their behalf. He drove off the shepherds and he watered their flocks. They ran home and told their father about this wonderful man who had helped them. Their father invited him home and, sure enough, he ended up marrying one of the seven daughters, named Zipporah.
So what we have in John 4 is a type-scene: a stranger in the land meets a woman at the well, asks for a drink of water, and it ends in marriage. The first hearers/ readers of John’s Gospel would have been curious about that: this is Jesus! And the woman is a Samaritan! But back to our story.
When Jesus asks her for a drink of water, the Samaritan woman points out that Jews don’t usually speak to Samaritans; implication: he must be really thirsty, desperate. Once again the narrator intervenes to explain to us that Jews and Samaritans have little in common. That’s an understatement! Jews despised Samaritans, who only recognized the first five books of the law as scripture, and were worshipping God in the wrong place, on Mount Gerasim, instead of Mount Zion. In fact, the Jews had destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerasim about a hundred years earlier and the Samaritans had not forgotten it.
But now, there is a Jewish man alone, stranded in Samaritan territory, suddenly asking this Samaritan woman for a drink of water. She is aware of her power over him. “How is it that you, a Jew, are asking a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?”
Jesus responds, “If you knew the gift of God and who I am, you would be asking me, and I would have given you living water.” As in much Johannine dialogue, this statement could be read on several levels. “Living water” can mean running water, spring water, gushing up from a well, which is what the Samaritan woman probably heard. “Living water” can also refer to the water of life, the water of Baptism, which is what the Gospel’s first readers would have expected. But this could also be read as a pick-up line, a come-on, because “living water” was another name for semen. So we’re back to the well type-scene and the possibility for misunderstanding.
The woman plays along: “Sir, you don’t have any bucket and the well is deep. How are you going to get that living water?” They banter back and forth about the water that Jesus could give her (John’s readers would have been thinking Baptism; she would have been thinking something else) until Jesus suddenly says, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” She’s still playing along: “I have no husband.” (Yes, I could be available) when the conversation takes a different turn.
Jesus reveals to her that he knows she has had five husbands and that the man she now has is not her husband. “So,” he says, “you are telling the truth.”
Now we need to talk about the five husbands. Are they actual husbands or do they have some symbolic or allegorical meaning? Saint Augustine said they stood for the five senses. Others have tied them to the “five nations” in the anti-Samaritan story of 2 Kings 17:24-41. Still others have thought that they represent the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, which is the Bible that the Jews and the Samaritans do have in common. Many people have decided that the Samaritan woman is just the Elizabeth Taylor of the New Testament who liked to change husbands often. But there’s another possibility to consider.
It was not all that unusual in the ancient world for one woman to survive five husbands through misfortunes of sickness or war. A woman who outlived her husband would re-marry as quickly as she could, because a woman alone would have a hard time making it. It might also be understandable that someone so unlucky in marriage might be seen to be cursed, and a man, while interested, might be reluctant to actually marry her. Any of these is possible or John may be speaking allegorically about Samaritans who chose to become Christian and so “married Jesus Christ.” You will recall other references to “Good Samaritans” in Luke’s Gospel and in Acts. Or it may just be the Gospel writer’s embroidery on the well type-scene: somehow “marriage,” or at least a discussion of marriage, needs to be part of the story.
However we resolve that issue, and I’ve given you lots of options, the Samaritan woman and Jesus now begin a serious conversation about theology. She recognizes him as a prophet, and, because prophets often settled disputes, she asks him his opinion about which mountain (Mount Gerasim of the Samaritans or Mount Zion in Jerusalem of the Jews) is holy to God. As they continue to talk about these and other important things, she mentions the Messiah who is coming and Jesus tells her, “I am he.”
Now the disciples return, with the food they brought from the city. They are astonished that Jesus would be talking to a woman – but the woman herself has heard what Jesus said to her. She puts down her water jar and quickly returns to the city to tell her people that she believes Jesus might be the Messiah of God. She becomes an evangelist!
Our Gospel writer has constructed the end of the story so that just as Jesus is telling the disciples that “the fields are ripe for harvest,” the Samaritans are inviting Jesus to come and stay with them. He does that: he goes to stay with them for two days.
John tells us that many Samaritans believed because of the woman’s testimony about Jesus’ superhuman knowledge of her situation. And, after hearing Jesus himself, many more of them believed. They no longer have to take her word for it; they have seen and heard him for themselves; and now, they are ready to proclaim him “the Savior of the World.”
Now what might this story be saying to us twenty-first century Episcopalians who are so nervous – we admit it – about the words “evangelist” and “evangelical?” (You have probably heard the statistic that an Episcopal church member invites a friend to come to church on the average once every 27 years….”
The story tells us several things: One that we already know, if we think about it: that people get connected to Jesus in a variety of ways: there isn’t just one pattern. So if you don’t see yourself knocking on doors, handing out tracts, or preaching on a soap box in the park, that doesn’t mean you’re not an evangelist or that you are not called to be an evangelist.
Second, This woman was a seeker, but she didn’t really know what she was looking for – until she found it, or, rather, until he found her. There are so many people out there looking for God and not really knowing what God could mean for them, and for their families and friends.
Third, This woman was willing to take a risk. She could hold her own in the conversation she thought they were having, but when Jesus offered her a serious conversation, a real meeting, she met him there. She confessed her faith as it “welled up” in her. Each of us might ask ourselves: where is Jesus inviting me to go deeper, to come closer, to take a risk in confessing or practicing my faith? (a good Lenten question).
Finally, Jesus crosses boundaries of all kinds. If we are inclined to draw lines because of gender or race or class – as Jesus’ disciples were in the story – Jesus himself does not seem very interested in that project. He went and stayed with Samaritans he had never met and won them for the reign of God.
So we give thanks for the Samaritan woman and for this wonderful story that may inspire us to take more risks to bring people to Christ.