Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
My mother hated camping. One could easily imagine that she didn’t like sleeping bags or sleeping on the ground. She could fall asleep anywhere. Or that she didn’t like stoking a fire to cook. No, she grew up with a wood burning stove in the kitchen. Maybe she didn’t like mosquitoes or wood ticks. Growing up on a farm, she was used to lots of unpleasant beetles and insects. No, what my mother didn’t like about camping was carrying water. Apparently, my father only brought her up North once, and even though she was relieved to see the sign posted at the campsite, “Hot and cold running water,” she was not pleased to discover that “running water” meant running to the faucet with your own bucket and then running it back again. For better or worse, women have historically been the bearers of water for their homes. It is still true today in much of the developing world. And that is where our story begins.
St. John artistically contrasts this morning’s story of woman at the well in the light of the noontime sun, with last Sunday’ story of Nicodemus and his night visit to Jesus. The Pharisee had a name, a profession and privilege. The evangelist states that Nicodemus was teacher and leader of the Jews. In contrast, the woman at the well is merely described as a Samaritan, and as St. John notes, Jews did not share things in common, personal things with Samaritans. According to ancient tradition for Jewish men were commanded to begin their day with this prayer. “Blessed are you O God, King of the Universe, who has not made me a Gentile, a slave or a woman.” For devout Jewish men in Biblical times, a Samaritan women would have been suspect, subordinate and second-class.
Although many contemporary theologians portray the Samaritan as an immoral, loose woman, I believe she actually is a tragic figure. She has had five husbands, all who presumably died before a son was born who would take care of her. Even now she was living with a man who was probably a former brother-in-law or uncle who was required to take care of the widows in the family. Stranger things happened in the ancient world. Unlike the Pharisee Nicodemus who was pursing Jesus out of curiosity and a love for theology, the Samaritan woman wasn’t searching for anything more than the bare necessities.
And why should she have expected anything more from life? Many disillusioned people in the world today lose heart spending their time and energy collecting only what is needed for another day. They don’t know what to search for. Of course, when you’re a child, you dream of the possibility of second Christmas morning. You’re pleased to read the sign outside the department store. “Five Santas, no waiting.” When you’re young you dream of the future and look to companionship and marriage, and hopefully, you will meet the person God has created for you. But for many people, somewhere along the line, there is a sudden reality check when life doesn’t unfold as they once dreamed. You are reminded that work is not an occupation you need to enjoy, but one to make a living. As I was told when I was young, that’s why your job is called work. In your middle years, you may become frustrated and complain that your grown-up children don’t visit enough; and when they do, you can’t wait for them to leave. Finally, when you’re very old you seem to long for nothing more than another day of grace. Jeanne Calment, at 120 years old, was asked to describe her vision for the future. She replied simply, “Very brief.”
The woman at the well didn’t have any dreams or hopes for her life. Instead, she simply attended to her daily tasks at the time of day when she would receive the least curious glances. But as she drew near to the water, she saw an exhausted, a Jewish man resting by the well. As she lowered her wooden bucket, the woman was startled by his voice. “Give me a drink.”
She looked up from the well in disbelief. The man had spoken to her. She stared at Jesus. His word was a request, and not a command. It was an invitation, and not a criticism. The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” 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 give you flowing, living waters.” At that point, she must have thought that Jesus was delirious and mad from the warmth of the noon day sun, and so she answered, “Sir, you have nothing to draw the water with, and the well is deep; where do you get this living water?” And Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks from this well’s water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the living water that I shall give will never thirst.” And the woman, half hoping, and yet half sarcastically responded, “Sir, give me this living water, that I may not thirst… and never have to come to this well to draw water again.” For the first time in years, the Samaritan woman felt as if her life mattered. Perhaps, that is what you hope for yourself.
My friends, the story of the Samaritan woman should remind you us that regardless of how overlooked, distant and forgotten, you may feel, God sees you and comes to you. In the ancient world, many devout Jews would have gone out of their way to avoid Samaria, but Jesus walked straight though it. Others would have avoided foreigners and engaging in conversation with them, but Jesus went directly to the place where he knew people must go. There at Jacob’s well, the word spoken to the privileged Pharisee Nicodemus became real, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whoever believes in him should have everlasting life.” That is your promise as well. No matter how suspect, subordinate or second-class you feel, Jesus will come to you. And that is only the beginning. The gifts of forgiveness, grace and mercy and meaning he offers freely in his living water can turn your whole life around. Yes, in the parched moments of life he comes as a flowing stream bringing encouragement and a promise of new growth. In the moments when you feel isolated and alone, he surrounds you with encouragement. When you are heavy laden with burdens and sorrows, he fills your dry soul with joy. Unfortunately, many people fail to see that something is missing in their life. It is why they need someone to share the good news of Jesus with them.
I remember once browsing in a Christian bookstore, 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.” After all, aren’t we all searching for that something that truly makes us whole again, something that will quench our thirst and satisfy our hunger?
To be honest, the Samaritan woman wasn’t sure about this Jewish rabbi, but she took a chance. At the very moment Jesus announced to her that he was the Messiah for whom all the nations were waiting, his disciples reappeared. It is hard to know who was most surprised, the Samaritan women or the disciples. We read that they were astonished that Jesus was speaking to her, but no one said, “What do you want?” or ”Why are you speaking with her.” Instead, all we read is that Samaritan woman left her jar and went back to the city. Indeed, she was so transformed that day that instead of avoiding her neighbors she went out to meet them; she took a chance to tell them about Jesus. “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done? He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”
According to tradition, the unnamed Samaritan woman was baptized after Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and given the name Photini or the Enlightened One, In the Slavic world she is knows as Svetlana, one of the most popular names among Eastern Orthodox women. Even today, Photini is celebrated as a saint, “Equal among the Apostles.” 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 Northern Africa. In Carthage she was arrested and taken to Rome in the time of Emperor Nero. Ironically, Photini, who first encountered the living waters of Christ by a well in Sychar, was cruelly cast into a well in Rome, where she died a martyr.
My friends, every day we meet men and women who sullenly return to the same well seeking a water that ultimately does not satisfy. As followers of Jesus, we need to be prepared to guide them to the living waters. The woman at the well didn’t have all the answers. She wasn’t even sure of all the question, but she knew that this man, this Jesus understood. You never know where and when you will meet the stranger, but our lives cannot be like the unfortunate sign board outside one church. “We care about you. Sundays 10 am only.” Instead let it be said of our lives as St. John writes of the Woman at the Well that “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.