(At Presbyterian Church of Henderson, we have started using fill-in-the-blank outlines in the bulletin to accompany each Sunday’s sermon. This has added a new dimension to preaching for me, but the hearers of the word seem to appreciate having an outline to follow. One thing I’ve learned is that it makes the sharing of a manuscript a bit clunky in this format. The following sermon has 3 “bullet points” and I have identified those by putting them in bold print and using blue text to indicate the words that fit in the blanks.
And my usual disclaimer: sermons are meant to be heard, not read, but this is the manuscript I used to preach this morning. This one began with a dramatic reading of the scripture by three members of the congregation.)
We come this morning to a story that I have always loved. No doubt, I’ve read this passage of scripture more than just about any other. I’ve written papers about it. It’s regularly taught in youth group or Sunday School classes around here. I’ve preached about it from this pulpit at least one other time, but I think maybe twice.
This passage contains the longest recorded conversation in any of the gospels and it happens between Jesus and a woman of Samaria. I love the rhythm of the conversation, the flow of topics from actual thirst and actual water to spiritual thirst and spiritual water. I love the way God changed this woman’s life in the course of an afternoon.
And I love the way that we once again bump into The Kingdom of God. Even when Jesus wasn’t explicitly talking about the Kingdom of God, Jesus was always talking about the Kingdom of God. And once again, we are reminded that when the Kingdom of God is set against the kingdom of this world, they could not be more different.
And right away we see that in the Kingdom of God,
outsiders become insiders.
Jesus and his disciples, walking the distance between Jerusalem in the south and Galilee in the north, make a stop mid-way between in Sychar, which is well within Samaria. It is noon and Jesus is tired, so while the disciples go to try to buy lunch, Jesus sits down by a well.
“A Samaritan woman came to draw water” is how the interaction begins. Two descriptions about her that make her an outsider to Jesus and his disciples. First, she’s a woman. The societal norms were clear on this one–a man, and especially a man who is a Rabbi, should not speak to a woman that is not his wife or family member. Further, she’s a Samaritan woman, which also makes her a religious and political outsider, since the Jews considered the Samaritans to be unclean.
Jesus obviously knows all of this. He knows she is a woman, he knows she’s a samaritan, he knows the expectations and he willingly reaches out to her with a simple request for a drink of water. Time and again, we see Jesus do this with folks he encountered, whether it’s touching a leper to heal him from disease to engaging a sychophonencian woman in a theological debate.
But there’s something else. It is noon and this woman is coming to the well. In the middle eastern desert during the hottest part of the day. Other women would have already been to the well, choosing instead to go in the cooler part of the day when the sun was just rising. A village well was, and still is in communities that have a common well for water, a gathering place. A place where women gather in the cool of the day before the chores at home need attention. For some reason, this woman goes when she knows she would be there alone. I imagine it’s more than the possibility that she was an introvert who wanted some time to herself.
If we jump ahead for just a second, we realize that this woman has been married multiple times and she’s currently residing with a man who is not her husband. Jesus will tell her this and she will confirm its truth.
Often we read scripture through modern eyes. In this instance, we might assume this woman is somehow to blame for this, that she was rightfully ashamed of how she had been living and that’s why she came to the well in the middle of the day and that’s what Jesus is going to talk to her about. But we have to read this passage in the ancient context. In the ancient Middle Eastern world, this woman had little or no agency. We don’t know the circumstances of her five previous marriages, whether her husbands had died or abandoned her, how she even came to enter into those unions or even if she had wanted to be married. In the ancient world, no one really cared if a woman was willing to say “I do,” and marriage was more of a transaction, usually arranged by the father of the would-be-bride. Further, it was not advisable or even possible for a woman in the ancient world to live without a man. Women couldn’t provide for themselves. It’s possible that just about everything that was true about her situation were things she could not have changed.
But the actual circumstances do not always matter when it comes to shame, do they? Often, people with little ability to change their circumstances are blamed for the circumstances and are shamed by their communities, whether it’s deserved or not. I think about groups of people in our society in this day and age who are often blamed or shamed, maybe those who are dealing with disabilities or living in poverty. Or people who contract lung cancer–because lung cancer is the cancer that people assume must be the sufferer’s fault. Or I think about circumstances that cause individuals to feel private shame for things they could not have ever controlled, perhaps couples struggling with infertility or who have experienced reproductive loss and struggle in very personal ways, often quietly and alone. People can experience this isolation and separation from their neighbors for lots of reasons, many beyond their control, and I think this is where the woman here now at the well has been living.
This woman is an outsider to Jesus’ Jewish disciples, and she is also an outsider in her city or village, possibly all for reasons beyond her control. It is here where Jesus meets her and invites her into a different, wonderful story. And I think it is a beautiful thing that Jesus met this woman right where she was, and that it was Jesus who crossed those boundaries to reach out to her. She had no idea when she walked to the well, her head bowed, her eyes to the ground, that she was going to meet the one who created her and that he was about to change her life forever.
In the Kingdom of God, outsiders become insiders because in the Kingdom of God, there are no more outsiders. The King of the Kingdom welcomes all to himself. This is good news not just for the woman standing with Jesus at the well, but for all of us who have found ourselves on the outside, separated from God or from each other.
And so now we come to the rest of the story. Our second point on the outline is that in the Kingdom of God,
dry wells are abandoned and living water flows.
Jesus has crossed lines to engage this woman in conversation and then he does something interesting. Out of the blue, he instructs the woman to go and get her husband and come back. And then, of course, she tells the truth, but in an ambiguous way–like we all do sometimes. “I have no husband.” And then Jesus speaks truth to her about her situation.
Considering the context and all of the things about shame and her outsider status, I do not actually think Jesus is talking about a sin problem, here. This is an assumption that is often held about this text. But I don’t think Jesus is addressing unfaithfulness in marriage…I think what may be happening here is that Jesus is acknowledging a deep emptiness and longing that has not yet been satisfied for her. The love she had experienced had not lasted, for whatever reason. Each relationship had led to a brokenness of some sort. She kept hoping for security or love with each dip of her bucket into the metaphorical relationship well, and that thirst was never permanently quenched.
Jesus offers her living water–a love that will never abandon her, a God who will always meet her needs. This is truly an opportunity for this woman to experience a permanent change in her life.
So I started thinking…what would Jesus have said to me if we had met at that well? He wouldn’t have asked about my husband, I don’t think. I thought and I thought and then it hit me.
Jesus would have looked at me from across the well and said, “Go get your perfect seminary transcript and bring it back here.” And I would have said, “Sir, I don’t have a copy printed.” And he would have said, “You’re right, because you don’t have a perfect seminary transcript because in Dr. Colyer’s doctrine class last semester you ended the term with a B.”
Because for me? That metaphorical well I keep revisiting hoping for permanent satisfaction is the well of approval. I want you, any of you, all of you, all of the people out there, all of my professors to approve of me and like me. It’s in my nature to go to whatever ridiculous length necessary to gain approval. But guess what? That’s a well that dries up fast. Because sometimes I make mistakes. Or I have to say something people don’t want to hear. Or someone just doesn’t like me. And even when I am well-liked, or my professors think I’m smart, that relief only lasts for a little bit…and then I need more praise and agreement and affirmation. But I was created and called to seek living water–the approval of ONE, the approval of God. That’s the water that will last.
What else might there be? What are the other wells that people go back to over and over again hoping for permanent satisfaction only to end up empty again?
On Sunday nights in the Fellowship Hall, a group of about 12 have been meeting to discuss Jen Hatmaker’s book “7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess.” As we read the book, we are thinking about the things that we have in our lives that we have a hard time using in moderation, and how sometimes those things become replacements for God. We’ve talked about food. We’ve talked about clothing. Tonight, Jesus be with me, we are talking about media.
One of the things we are really talking about, though, is that fact that in general, us humans have an emptiness inside of us, and that emptiness can be relentless. And sometimes, we try to fill that emptiness with…well, stuff. We buy bigger houses and seek promotions and we earn more money and we buy more stuff…and then we’re still empty, because those are not things that are eternal, and what we are really longing for, us humans, is something eternal.
So we go back to the same wells. For this woman, it was hope that the next relationship would last and bring security. For me, it’s approval and assurance that I’m good enough.
For someone else, Jesus might have talked about love of money or worldly success. Or the purchasing of new things–retail therapy. Or maybe about an addiction to drugs or alcohol or pornography or facebook. All wells that might fill someone up for a little bit, might quench a particular thirst for an amount of time…but not forever.
But Jesus offers another way, and a water that will truly quench those longings inside of us. If we would come to his well and drink deeply of the living water that comes to us through scripture, through prayer, through worship in spirit and truth, through trusting in God’s grace and listening for God’s call to us, seeking the Kingdom of God rather than the Kingdom of this world…we will never be thirsty again and our lives will be changed forever. And through our changed lives, God will change the lives of others. Because point number 3 is…
changed lives change lives.
In this one afternoon, this one woman’s life is changed forever. Jesus offers her living water and in it she finds a new identity as a child of God, loved and accepted, and a call to worship in spirit and truth.
And then God uses her newly changed life to change the lives of others in her community. This unnamed woman is often regarded as the first evangelist. She’s the first one who calls others to faith in Christ as the Messiah. Look–(read the come and see part of the passage).
All of a sudden the woman who went to the well at noon to avoid her neighbors is calling for them to come. In that interaction, Jesus changed her life, her identity, her understanding about who she was so dramatically that now she is inviting others to come and see.
And they did come, they left the city and came to the well and they heard this woman’s testimony and they believed in Jesus as the messiah. And they invited him to stay and even more Samaritans came to follow Jesus because of this one interaction at the well between Jesus and this woman whose name we never even learn.
She was living her ordinary life and Jesus broke in, reaching across many barriers, called her to him and offered her the thing she had been truly longing for, changing her life in such a way that God used her life and story to change the lives of so many of her neighbors.
Maybe you’ve been someone like this woman. Maybe God has changed your life in such a way that you’ve been able to offer this witness to others and maybe God has used your changed life to change the lives of your neighbors near and far. Maybe you’ve been unable to contain the gratitude you feel for a God who would call you in from the outside and claim you as God’s own, and you’ve shouted it from the roads and rooftops.
Or maybe you’ve known someone like this woman, and someone else’s story of how God has been visible and at work in his or her life has been the vehicle for change in your own life.
Did you know that this is God’s plan for evangelism? Did you know that God uses people–often ordinary, broken, flawed people at that–to bring the gospel to light for others? That the plan for the movement of the gospel involves one neighbor at a time, experiencing the love and grace of God and then sharing that same love and grace with others.
Where does Jesus find you this morning? Are you feeling like you’re on the outside, looking in? Is Jesus calling you to stop going to the same dried up well for joy or relief, and instead drink deeply of the living water that will bring joy and relief eternal? Are there people around you who are thirsty and in need of the hope that comes from the good news of a God who cares and loves and changes lives?
May we know Jesus’ calling, allow God to continue to change and challenge us, and be willing to bear witness to the goodness of God for the sake of our neighbors. Praise be to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.