A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on March 12, 2023 by Revd Sally Hitchiner
Reading for address: John 4: 5-42
Have you ever longed to have an honest conversation with someone? Perhaps with a colleague, perhaps a friend, perhaps one of your parents, perhaps a spouse, perhaps God. Have you ever spent so long with people missing the heart of who you are that you feel like you are parched, desperate for an opportunity for a conversation that is honest, desperate to reveal who you are and have a meaningful connection with someone.
It often happens, like in our Gospel, with someone you’ve just met. Sometimes it’s easier to have that conversation with a total stranger. You get into a conversation with someone on a train or aeroplane, you’ll never see them again, so you end up opening up to them. Sometimes they ask you the right questions, sometimes they don’t but you are so desperate to be honest with someone, that in spite of their bumbling you end up being more real with them than you’ve been with a person for a long time… revealing to them who you really are.
Our Gospel today is the longest conversation in the New Testament. It’s the longest conversation with Jesus we have recorded… by a long way. I’d like us to consider why this might be the case. What is so significant about this story that it is given this much air time?
Most people miss the point with this story. The standard way it’s told is that this is a sinful woman… a woman who has jumped from man to man like Zsa Zsa Gabor – the 1950s Hollywood star who had 9 husbands and said “Oh Darling, you never really know a man until you divorce him.”
Let’s be clear, in the first century Palestine, women could not divorce men. This was not the twentieth century. Women did not have independent sources of income, they didn’t own property, in fact they were property. Women did not arrange their own marriages, they were commodities, traded by male relatives or village elders based on what was good for their male agendas. The word “wife” doesn’t exist in Greek or Hebrew, we translate it as this but the original languages say “Peter’s woman”, as if they’d said “Peter’s cow”. And it was about as easy for Peter’s woman to leave him without his consent as it was for Peter’s cow to leave him. For this woman to have had 5 husbands, she has to have been actively rejected by five men. Perhaps she couldn’t have children. Perhaps she was preyed upon by a series of abusive men. Now she has been through the mill and the man she is with currently won’t commit to her. Her life is like her bucket. There are times it is full but then it becomes empty again and she has to drag it out to the well in the middle of the day and go through the painful process of finding something to fill it again.
What’s striking about this woman is how much chutzpah she has left. Read it again when you get home. She’s sassy. She’s intelligent. She spars with Jesus. This is more like a Tango than a religious conversation. But there’s a tragedy to her conversation too. Jesus seems determined to be real about who she is and who he is but as is often the case with people who have been through the mill, there are a number of moves she uses to prevent the conversation getting too real. She is afraid to have the honest conversation that Jesus seems so intent on.
Firstly she anticipates rejection.
Jesus asks if she will draw him a drink from the well. She replies “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans). It actually says “For Jews do not drink from the same bowls as Samaritans.” She reminds him of the society prejudices and apartheid rules. Don’t forget, you’re not supposed to be sharing a cup with me. Though the Samaritans also kept kosha the Jews in Jerusalem didn’t share food serving equipment with them as a way to say the Samaritan kosha didn’t count. There’s something especially insidious about hygiene rules whether it’s not sharing a cup or not sharing a water fountain. They imply the people are different species.
Jesus ignores this and hints at something about who he is “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
She responds with her second line of defence – cynicism. She mocks his claims of abundance by bringing him down to size. You can imagine her looking him up and down. He’s a sweaty mess, far from home, sitting alone, exposed in the midday heat, tongue sticking to his mouth… “Mister, you’ve not even got a bucket… do you somehow imagine you’re a big shot like Jacob the patriarch who fed his sons and farm animals from this well?”
Jesus responds with a bit more self-revelation. “I’m bringing water that will keep bubbling up to Eternal Life.” He’s not just like Jacob one of their patriarchs. He is like the Creator… he has an eternal fountain of life giving water to give her.
She responds with the third defence mechanism – Transaction – she misses his self-revelation, asking instead for just the stuff he can offer her. “OK then, Mister, give me this water so that I won’t have to keep coming here.”
Jesus takes the fact that she’s finally interested in something and reaches out to her… gently inviting her to talk about what she’s really thirsty for. This water isn’t the heart of it, is it. What’s really going on in her life that is leading her to have to get her water in the middle of the day when no one else is around. He invites her to open up about her life to him. “Call your husband and come back”
The fourth defence – She blocks “I don’t have a husband”
That would ordinarily have been the end of it, but Jesus is so serious that he wants to have a real conversation with her that he goes deeper. “I know you better than you think. You’ve had five husbands reject you and the man you’re currently with won’t commit to you.” He says.
She freezes. He knows. She is in a really tricky situation now. For many men, this knowledge would mean there was nothing, no one to stop them assaulting her. She thinks “What do I do now?”
One last attempt to evade, like any high school class trying to distract the teacher, she flatters and tries to get him onto a topic he won’t be able to resist.
“I can see you’re a prophet. Can I ask you a religious question? You Jews say we can only worship God in your Jerusalem but we think we should worship God on this mountain. Who’s right?”
“The time is coming” Jesus says “in fact it’s come now, when true worshippers won’t worry about where they worship God. They’ll worship in spirit and truth. That’s what God really wants.”
She relaxes. This man is different. He knows what she’s been through, and he sees more to her than this. He sees that beyond her thirst for water, beyond her thirst for a decent relationship, or even a more just world, is her thirst for a God who is serious… a God who doesn’t focus on externalities and doesn’t right people off because an accident of birth meant you were in the wrong sect or the bad luck of life meant you were outside of an upstanding relationship. A God who sees the heart. A God who wants to be worshipped in Spirit and Truth.
The climax of this story… the big reveal, isn’t about her. It’s still to come.
The penny is starting to drop for her… she starts to think “who is this person I’m talking to? This isn’t like any other religious leader I’ve met.” She adds up the evidence… and finally the covers drop.
“People say there’s a Messiah coming” she says.
“I, the one who is talking with you” Jesus says “I’m he”.
Jesus didn’t just want to have an honest conversation about her reality. Jesus was thirsty to reveal who he is to her.
It’s gripping. No where else do we get so much attention for a conversation with Jesus. Why IS there so much given to this one?
John isn’t just writing all this detail about a woman who has had a tragic domestic life, this is really a story about Israel. Israel had a series of oppressive nations rule over them. First Egypt, then Babylon, Assyria, Persia and now Rome. Five in total plus the informal ruler of their internal oppression. They like to think they are an independent nation but they’ve been passed around and abused by so many nations down the centuries, they’ve forgotten who they are. They meet their Messiah with attempts at rejection, cynicism, transaction, blocks and evasion. But Jesus is unperturbed.
This isn’t any old well. Twice the Gospel points out that this is Jacob’s well. Jacob the patriarch who met the young, beautiful and kind Rachel at this well. Meeting here is the first century equivalent of having this conversation around a balcony in Verona. Israel might be weary and beat up from abusive relationship after abusive relationship but Jesus to Jesus she is Juliet. Jesus is standing under her balcony like Romeo holding out his arm comparing her beauty to the sun. Israel, to Jesus is fresh, loved, new. Just as a spring bubbling up has fresh, new, water – better than the well of historic water, the stale relationship Israel had got used to with God, Jesus reveals that he is the source of the stream. “Behold” says Jesus “see I make all things new.”
Jesus knows Israel’s story.
Just like Israel this woman is looked down on by her neighbours. No one with choices gets water in the heat of the day. She is alone without friends. She is thirsty. Thirsty for water with her empty bucket but also thirsty for a more righteous world. Thirsty for an honest encounter with a more righteous God. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Jesus meets her in this. This isn’t just the story of a woman. This isn’t even just the story of Israel. This is really the story of Jesus. Jesus is misjudged by those around him. No one with choices travels through a foreign land, in the heat of the day. John notes that Jesus is without his friends (temporarily here as his disciples have gone ahead but he will be totally without them at his death). Jesus is thirsty. Thirsty for water but also thirsty for her. I wonder how long he waited at this well for her to arrive. At the cross he will be achingly thirsty for water but also for meaningful connection.
When his friends return with food, Jesus isn’t hungry anymore… this conversation of being really known has been satiating for him. The woman too leaves her water jar to run and tell her friends… She has forgotten her physical thirst, as her deeper thirst has been satisfied.
But there’s even more… Why is there so much airtime given to this story in the Gospel compiled for us to read? Why does it go back and forth with “he said” “she said” in all this detail?
John’s gospel does this a lot, though none as far as this story. This is a story John really wants us to enter into.
John was writing at a time when the eyewitnesses to the gospel stories were dying out. John writes detail to reassure, to draw us in and make us feel like we’re there personally. This isn’t the executive summary of what happened.
Ultimately, this story has so much airtime because this isn’t just a story about this woman having a meaningful connection with Jesus. This isn’t really even just a story about Jesus. This is a story about you… if you’d let it be.
Are you thirsty? Are you tired of this world with it’s misjudgements and cruelties? Are you weary and longing for a conversation so real that brings you life that isn’t a quick fix and puts a spring back in your step? Are you thirsty for a conversation with God where you can be really honest about what life is like for you? Are you thirsty to be really known and to really know God?
Jesus is thirsty too.
Ultimately this story has so much airtime in the Gospels, in the Bible… because Jesus is still hanging out by this well, in this book, parched, waiting for you to show up with your empty bucket.
This Lent, Jesus wants to reveal who he really is to you.