Scripture: John 4:5-42
Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink." (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 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 have given you living water." The woman said to him, "Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?" Jesus said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life." The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water."
Jesus said to her, "Go, call your husband, and come back." The woman answered him, "I have no husband." Jesus said to her, "You are right in saying, 'I have no husband'; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!" The woman said to him, "Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem." Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." The woman said to him, "I know that Messiah is coming" (who is called Christ). "When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us." Jesus said to her, "I am he, the one who is speaking to you."
Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, "What do you want?" or, "Why are you speaking with her?" Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, "Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?" They left the city and were on their way to him.
Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, "Rabbi, eat something." But he said to them, "I have food to eat that you do not know about." So the disciples said to one another, "Surely no one has brought him something to eat?" Jesus said to them, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, 'Four months more, then comes the harvest'? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, 'One sows and another reaps.' I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor."
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman's testimony, "He told me everything I have ever done." So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, "It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world."
Lord, help us to worship you in spirit and in truth. Amen.
When I was at seminary at Drew Theological School, everyone in the Masters of Divinity program was required to take a Cross Cultural trip for two or three weeks, ideally in the middle of their three years of seminary. I went to Mexico. To Mexico City and to Chiapas, a state close to Guatemala, in the southern part of Mexico, through a program called Global Awareness Through Experience.
This program is designed to give opportunities to learn from with community and nonprofit leaders who are working for change in their lives, working against oppression in many cases. On our trip to Chiapas, we stayed in the town of San Cristóbal de las Casas and took day trips to surrounding areas.
We met with an engineer, who had himself come to Chiapas in the sixties or seventies, intending to stay for a year after college and instead stayed for decades to assist indigenous communities. We went to visit a stream where they were hoping to put in a water filtration system, and to the mountain village it served. The goal was to cleanse the water that was used for all domestic and agricultural purposes in each of the small homesteads in the villages. As a group, we visited the stream that was the source of water for the village community and the sheep, and often at risk of being contaminated. And then we visited the village itself.
One of my professors had been on this trip a few years prior. Before we went he urged us to pay attention. In many parts of the world gathering water is still entirely women's work. And because it is women's work it is a low priority. Even though we might think - in a world where we get our water easily by turning on a faucet -
we may think that clean water is essential for the well-being and health of a community. But because it is associated with women - it's the hard labor that women do, dragging gallons and gallons back to the village - clean water is low on the list of priorities. So, when a local politician (or political party) is seeking to curry favor, he's more likely to build a basketball court or a community center, than to provide clean water. And that's what we saw in evidence as we drove into the village. The basketball court, the community center, and women's work that was still not worth funding.
Jesus enters women's space when he goes to the well. The story begins with him resting, but he is resting in a place where he is not welcome. Jesus is not welcome because it is women's space and he is not welcome because he is in Samaria. For centuries prior to the days of Jesus, the Jews and Samaritans were at odds. Just like many other groups around the world who have plenty in common, they were at odds. And yet, they shared a common ancestor, whom you hear the woman mention, Jacob, whose well this is.
Western Christianity often misses the point of this story. My aunt and uncle are here today. Growing up we sang a folk song, whic
h comes from a gospel song, that I am not encouraging them to sing right now. My uncle would if I let him. It's called "Jesus met the woman at the well."
The song narrowly focuses on the moment where the woman says she has no husband and Jesus tells her she's had five and the one she has now is not her own. Western Christianity focuses on this moment in a way that Jesus and the woman in the story do not. Jesus is often portrayed in the Gospel of John as seeing and knowing in a way beyond the average person. But Jesus does not condemn this woman for having five husbands. We don't hear the explanation for this marital history. There are a number of reasons why this could be the case. Jesus doesn't portray her as immoral and she does not reflect this as a sin either. She doesn't seek forgiveness for any particular reason. But Western Christian interpreters have chosen to portray her as immoral and sinful.
In contrast, the Eastern Orthodox tradition lifts her up as a saint. And they give her a name. You may have noticed in the Bible that there are plenty of nameless people, and in stories we tell as well. Sometimes we identify someone by a category. We label, instead of giving a name. Withholding a name or labeling a person in place of a name are ways of limiting someone's agency, diminishing her and her subject po
The Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition views the Samaritan woman, a woman from an enemy people, as a saint, as a disciple, and they tell us more stories about her life.
In baptism she was given or chose a new name, Photini, which means "the enlightened one." This woman grows in her faith in dialogue with Jesus throughout this story and then returns to her village. She is elevated in the Orthodox tradition. As Western Christians, we can also choose to lift her up and learn from her. We can brush aside the interpreters who have pushed her down, who have said that she doesn't really dialogue with Jesus or she couldn't really be an evangelist to her people. We can instead listen to what we hear in this story from the Gospel of John.
This is only the fourth chapter of John. This story isn't tagged on at the end among a list of witnesses to Jesus. It's the fourth chapter of John and she's the first person who identifies Jesus as Messiah and to whom he reveals himself in the Gospel of John. Why this story? It may be that there are Samaritans within John's own community and this one of their stories of becoming a part of the follower of Christ. We don't know the answer, but it's possible that John sees that the message of God in Christ is for a broader community than just the Jews.
For us, this imagery of living water offers an opportunity to think about the truth that we find in our lives and in our faith. To think about something that we seek, something that helps fill us in a way that quenches our thirst for life. We can identify such longings in our lives, paying close attention to whether they tear us down or build us up. It's important to think about what actually nourishes and feeds us, and to share our stories. There's lots of conversation about the church dying, or the church not having a purpose in the world today. Part of our challenge, certainly as Episcopalians compared to other denominations, is learning a language to tell our stories of faith. And trusting that that language doesn't need to be churchy.
Our faith doesn't need to be told with words that have become opaque, or no longer useful for us. Perhaps telling our stories is just a matter of inviting someone else to participate in something that builds us up. It may not be telling your own story of meeting Jesus, but instead bringing something to volunteer at Grace's Kitchen, the soup kitchen in Plainfield. Or encouraging a teenager or adult to help with our tutoring program, and seeing God in the children we serve without ever talking about God. There are many ways that we can be like this woman, St. Photini, and return to our communities, the people in our daily lives, and say "Come and see."
I'm taken by the way that she returns to her community. She doesn't go back and just tell a few people. She doesn't go back full of fear or worry. She goes back and she says, "Come and see." St.
Photini says to the people, "Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?" And then the people whom she tells leave the city and go on their way to Jesus. When they return, they tell Photini, "We no longer believ
e because of your testimony, but because we have met him for ourselves." You can read into their words a diminishment of what Photini has to offer. But the model in the Gospel of John is disciples who invite, disciples who welcome, so that people can experience Jesus for themselves. This saint fully fits into that model. Sharing her experience of Jesus expecting them to go and encounter him for themselves.
That's why her question is so brilliant. She doesn't come and tell them the meaning of life, or what they're supposed to think about this prophet over there at Jacob's well. St. Photini invites them and she welcomes them and then they take it from there. This story gives us the opportunity to consider what it is that draws us to this community and to God. What compels us to worship God in spirit and in truth in our daily lives and interactions? How can we invite someone else into that conversation? So that we can listen for what others find as truth in the world, or what their hopes and dreams are, or what nourishes and quenches their thirst. This imagery of living water is an opportunity for us to see how, as John believes, eternal life exists in the here and now. The kingdom of God is in the present and we together are co-creators with God, of this kingdom. Amen.
Gail R. O'Day. "John" in Women's Bible Commentary. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, eds. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1998. pp. 383-385.
Gail R. O'Day. "John," in Women's Bible Commentary. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, eds. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1998. pp. 384-385.