Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from god our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In his book, “Thirsting for God,” retired Augsburg College professor writes Brad Holt writes, “I have a problem listening to my body. I get tired or listless during the day and take a break to eat. Or I get upset and discouraged and eat. I smile at the refrigerator magnet, ‘If all else fails, eat!’ For a long time I did not know that my body craved water, not food. I have since discovered that just plain water will usually perk me up better at mid morning or late afternoon than the various combinations of caffeine, sugar, and fat on my front.” What we long for, you see, is not always what our body needs. This is especially true in matters of faith.
No story in the Bible, tells of longing and desire more than the chance meeting of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. So this morning, I would like to share with you again the story of the transformation that occurs when seeking men and women find Jesus. They are the willing to let everything else go and tell everyone they know about what God has done.
Historically, the story of the Samaritan women has been grossly distorted. And I am just as guilty as many pastors. This past Tuesday evening, the women’s Bible study had a lively discussion about this character portrayed as one of the Bad Girls of the Bible. A single verse spoken by Jesus has been misinterpreted throughout the history of the Western church. Jesus said, “You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” And ever since knowledgeable theologians and common preachers have repeatedly taught that this sinful, Samaritan woman was longing for forgiveness for her loose, immoral life.
Orthodox Christians in the Eastern Church would be shocked to hear this interpretation. Although the woman’s name was unknown at the time of her meeting with Jesus, according to tradition, she was later christened as “Photini” or Svetlana, which is one of the most popular names among Russian Christian women. Even today, Photini is celebrated as a saint, “Equal among the Apostles.” If we read St. John’s gospel closely we discover that neither the Evangelist nor Jesus ever says that the woman’s station was the result of sinful behavior. Nor does Jesus admonish her to repentance or speak of sin at all.
There is no doubt, however, that she suffered greatly. She might very easily have been widowed or have been abandoned or divorced. Five times would be heartbreaking, but in the ancient world, not impossible. Further, she could have been living with someone such as her late husband’s brother who had taken responsibility for her. She was at a cultural and social disadvantage in her encounter with Jesus. She was first and foremost Samaritan, who were shunned by their religious Jewish neighbors. There were no relations between Jews and Samaritans. This was a world, not unlike the American South in the 1960’s or during period of apartheid in the history of South Africa. Whites and Blacks, Jews and Samaritans did not drink from the same well, nor would they have used the same cup for water. Second, she was a woman, nothing more than a piece of property in a man’s world. Men did not even speak to women without their husband being present. And third, as a woman, a rabbi would never dare to speak to her. They were wont to ignore all women. Yes, there were any number of ways that this woman’s story might seem tragic and painful rather than scandalous.
And yet, in spite of the culture distances between them, Jesus came to Sychar, to the well of Jacob, and spoke to her. He and his disciples could have chosen the normal route from Jerusalem to the Galilee along the River Jordan, but for some wonderful, and unexpected reason, Jesus journeyed on the road less travelled through Samaria and met this woman at the well. She was merely going through her daily routine seeking the water she needed to move on from day to day. As for Jesus, he was preparing his announcement that he would be the Messiah for Jews and Samaritans alike.
The two spoke in riddles, as they together gazed into the watery reflections of Jacob’s well. They gazed at their images side by side on the water’s surface. Jesus told her her life story, and she listened to his compassionate voice, and then trusting that he was a prophet, she asked him the one question which separated the Jews from the Samaritans. “Where is the proper place of worship? You worship in Jerusalem and we worship on Mount Gerazim.” Jesus then spoke of a coming age where there would be no temple in Jerusalem or on Mount Gerazim and that all would worship the Father in Spirit and Truth. Nodding in agreement, the woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming, and when he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” To her surprise and ours, and in the most baffling statement, Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” All along she thought that Jesus was talking about water. It was at that moment, that she understood that he was talking about the Holy Spirit.
The early church father, St John Chrysostom wrote on this story, “Scripture calls the grace of the Spirit sometimes ‘Fire,’ sometimes ‘Water,’ showing that these names are not descriptive of its essence, but of its operation.” It was at that moment, that the women discovered what she never knew she was missing. She encountered the power of the Holy Spirit. It gave her a peace of mind, a comfort she had been longing for, a solace that had seem impossible to grasp, – and nothing could prevent her from telling others about the gift she had received in Jesus. Nothing could hold her back, not even the water jar which she left at the well. She ran back to the city, and said to the people, “Come and see man who told me everything I have ever done!” The story of the woman at the well teaches us that our personal testimony about Jesus however personal and painful is a powerful witness in leading others to believe in him.
There may be times in life, perhaps even now, when you do not know what you need or long for. You know that something doesn’t seem fulfilled or satisfied, and you go back to the well day after day. Or perhaps, life seems a bit out of control. The death of your father, the sickness of your daughter, the downsizing at work, your unfulfilled dreams have left you searching. But you don’t know exactly what you are searching for, so you try to satisfy your needs with possessions, foods or relationships that ultimately do not satisfy and may bring about disastrous side effects.
I remember once browsing in a Christian bookstore one day, where I discovered a shelf of reduced-price items. Among the gifts was a little figurine of a bride and groom, their heads lovingly tilted toward one another. “Happy 10th Anniversary” read the inscription. To me, it appeared to be in perfect condition, yet its tag indicated Damaged. Examining it more closely, I found another tag underneath that read, “Wife is coming unglued.” It could have just as well said “Groom is coming unglued.” Every one of us can find ourselves searching for something. We may think we are hungry- but instead, it may be an unquenchable thirst. The story of the woman at the well teaches us that that regardless of what may be searching for, Jesus goes out of his way to meet us and to guide us to what we really need.
The early church father Saint Augustine said it best, “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are always restless till they find thy rest in thee.” When you find your true longing is met, you suddenly discover that are willing to leave everything else behind and move on in a new direction, with a new hope, with a renewed zeal for life. That is what the story of the Samaritan woman teaches. Deep within each one of us, there is a thirst, a hunger, a desire, which only Christ can satisfy. And once it has been satisfied, we can never be the same again.
My friends, what are the water jars which are weighing you down that you would like to leave behind? What are the past tragedies and present challenges that are holding you back that you would like to trade away for the living water Jesus offers? The transformation begins by recognizing the trials, then turning to the one who can make all things possible, and finally letting God’s living water, his Holy Spirit enter in.
According to tradition, the unnamed Samaritan woman was baptized after Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. In a continuation of that earnest, heartfelt call begun at the well of Jacob, to share the Gospel of Jesus with others, Photini preached in many areas, including Carthage and Smyrna. In Carthage she was arrested and taken to Rome in the time of the Emperor Nero, and thrown into prison. Photini, who first encountered the light of truth by a well in Sychar, was cruelly cast into a well in Rome, where she died a martyr. In the Orthodox Church, her memory is celebrated on February 26th, and each year on the Fifth Sunday of Easter which is known as the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman.
My friends, do you know what you are longing for? Perhaps you too are searching for God’s Holy Spirit- the living water. The Samaritan woman walked away from Jacob’s well leaving everything behind. She left not only her earthen jar for water, but she left behind her past, her regrets and her sorrows. And she began life anew. St. John records that “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” Yes, they were changed because of the Samaritan woman’s testimony. Will the same be said of you? Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.