This is the text of the message I preached at Lake Tyers Beach on Sunday 19th March 2017, the third Sunday of Lent in Year A.
Sometimes I am truly fascinated by the lectionary. Now there’s a preaching nerd statement if ever there was one! But it’s true. Each week and for some midweek holy days as well, on a three-year cycle, many Christian churches read through the greater portion of the Bible by following a series of set readings. Each day’s feast includes a passage from the Old Testament, a Psalm or portion thereof, a passage from one of the gospels (and in 2017 we’ll mainly be reading Matthew), and a passage from one of the New Testament’s letters. Oftentimes these readings are collected around a common theme. Remember last week, case in point, when the Old Testament reading was about Abram’s call to follow God to Canaan in Genesis 12 and Paul’s commentary upon Abraham’s life of faith in Romans 4. One of the gospel alternatives was Matthew 17 and Jesus’s transfiguration, and the Psalm was 121 where I lift my eyes to the hills which might connect with either the transfiguration or with Abram the trusting nomad. Since we’d heard about the transfiguration separately a few weeks ago, I went with the other three passages. As a preacher, I can see each week that a theme has been recommended to me in the choice of which readings go together, and generally I have been able to follow that theme.
So, this week the gospel reading is John 4:5-42 and the story of the woman at the well. It is paired with Exodus 17:1-7 and the Hebrews whinging for water, Psalm 95 where the Jews are reminded not to whinge like they did back in the day, back on that day, and Romans 5:1-11 which follows last week’s message on justification by faith and not by ancestry or obedience. Maybe we can link Paul’s words to the Psalmist and the writer of Exodus: in stark contrast to the sooky behaviour of the Chosen People God is looking for trust-filled Christians.
So, what’s the theme? Well, maybe it is that pro-trust and anti-tantrum story. That would make a great sermon. But why, then, the woman at the well? As I said at the outset, sometimes I am truly fascinated by the lectionary.
So, today, I’m going to both break with tradition, by ignoring the other lectionary readings and their suggested theme for reading John, and embrace tradition by suggesting another set of readings and a new theme.
First, a different “other New Testament reading”, this one from the previous chapter of John and the alternative gospel reading. The idea was that if I’d preached on the transfiguration a few weeks back, on Transfiguration Sunday, the lectionary offered me this passage to preach on last week alongside Abraham and Paul. I won’t bother connecting this story to last week’s message, although it does fit, but I do want to flag it for this week. So, next to the Woman of Samaria we have Nicodemus the Pharisee in John 3:1-11. Hold that thought.
Second, a different Old Testament reading. Genesis 24:12-20, and we could add Genesis 29:6b, 10-13. Abraham’s most-trusted servant goes to a well in a foreign country and Rebekah brings him water. Abraham’s servant takes Rebekah home and Isaac marries her. A generation later Jacob goes to a well and Rachel brings him water. Jacob goes home with Rachel and marries her. So, next to the Samaritan Woman at the Well (in Sychar) we have two foreign women at wells in foreign countries meeting Jewish men. Hold that thought.
John tells us in chapter 3 that Nicodemus is one of the leading Jews of the day and comes to visit Jesus at night. He is taught that what is born of the spirit is spirit. I heard it said recently in defence of the Bible that scripture remains the key source of our knowledge about what Jesus is like. I want to say that as much as I value the Bible I’m not sure that that is entirely true. It is true to say that we begin with the Bible, but as we wish to learn more about Jesus and come to know him as a present reality and not an historical figure, albeit the greatest man of all time, the Spirit takes over and we are born anew of the spirit in our understanding of God. Someone who follows the Spirit would always be living in accordance with the Jesus portrayed in the Bible. But you can, in a sense, “obey the Bible” but not live like Jesus if you are legalistic and literalist about it. The Pharisees were great Bible scholars and obeyers of the Law, arguably they were more obedient of the Law than was Jesus, but were they as obedient of God? Were they born of the Spirit in the way that Jesus was? Nicodemus certainly wasn’t. He was a scholar and a leader, but he was blinded by the page to the glorious freedom of “Life in the Spirit” that was waiting to be drawn out. Yet in John 3:2 Nicodemus recognises that the presence of God is upon Jesus, that Jesus is more than a teacher is obvious to the Pharisee. Those who follow God closest follow God as wind and spirit, not (primarily) as scholarship and interpretation. Go beyond the book says Jesus.
John tells us in chapter 4 that there’s a new Rebekah and Rachel story going on at Jacob’s well. This woman is not necessarily the town slut; she may have been legitimately partnered in levirate marriages (to a dying line of brothers) like the woman in the story of the Sadducees in Matthew 22:23-28. John is mucking around with the romance stories of his culture to make a point about the new way of Jesus: one part sociolinguistics, one part Mills and Boon. Jesus calls the woman “Woman”, a way he also addresses his mother in John 2:4 and Mary in the garden in John 20:15. In John Jesus uses this form to address any female conversation partner when he is about to reveal something of importance her. Like with foreign Rachel and Abraham’s grandson the conversation between the Samaritan Woman and the Judean messiah is loaded with meaning.
Now, I’m sure you’ve heard that the Samaritans were considered by the Judeans to be an unclean race living on an unclean land. Alongside the regular division of adult male from adult female to whom the man is not related, Jesus in speaking with the Woman at Sychar must also overcome the barrier of Judean and Samaritan, and rabbi and outcast. There is the tradition that she is an adulteress, which may not be true as I said before, but may be true too. (The point is that they are talking at a well in the middle of the day, not the scandal of why she was at the well in the middle of the day.) When the woman leaves the well she does not go home to her husband, which is what Jesus asked her to do, rather she goes into the town and rallies the men (invariably) in the town square to come and meet Jesus.
Much of this story hinges on the ideas of private (appropriate to female) and public (appropriate to male) spaces, and the introduction of the idea that the people of Jesus are like brothers and sisters, which allows for all social barriers to be crossed. Everything that is wrong about Jesus drinking with this woman is made right if she is his sister. Jesus meets the woman in what should be a private space (the well is secret women’s business) but which is made public space because of the time of day at which the meeting takes place (secret women’s business takes place at dawn). But Jesus speaks to the Woman as if it is private space (between siblings) thereby drawing her into a form of relationship with him, and she responds. The woman then leaves the now-private place to go to the most public space imaginable, the town square at midday, from where she brings others back to the place where Jesus is. When they come, in broad daylight, in public, he invites them to hear the private wisdom he has already shared with her. Pause and consider, take a Selah just for a moment: think how this picture contrasts with Nicodemus sneaking about after dark to meet with Jesus in secret. A senior Jewish man meets with another respected Jewish man, Jesus, at night and inside, (so in secret), while the whole town of Samaritans comes to Jesus in broad daylight and outside. The result is that the men of Sychar invite Jesus (and presumably the Twelve) to stay on in their town, thereby including him in their private space, and Jesus is hailed as Saviour of the World (John 4:42), an ascription ordinarily reserved for the Caesars and never used by the Jews to refer to Jesus anywhere else in John.
So, in the long history of “boy-meets-girl”, where if he’s an Israelite then she’s a foreigner and they’re meeting at a well, this is an amazing story. John’s story looks back at John 1 where Jesus is the living word of God, John 2 where in the wedding at Cana Jesus is the symbolic bridegroom, and John 3 where Pharisees visit alone and at night. When in John 4 the entire village of Sychar flocks to see Jesus in daylight, in public, in Samaria, in the box of a traditional boy-meets-girl story, Jesus’ identity as saviour of the whole world is thrust down our throats even without the Samaritans saying anything. But they do say it, for good measure.
So, there you go. And yes, this story does of course fit with the whinging, thirty Hebrews and Paul’s argument that salvation comes by trust. As a Samaritan, female, outcast, the woman of Sychar had no right to approach Jesus, so he went to her. He didn’t owe her anything, she wasn’t relying on him like the Hebrews were relying upon the Pillar of Cloud, she wasn’t trying to prove her worth by her obedience, she was just there and Jesus spoke the grace-filled message of living water to her. But I think that knowing what we do about Nicodemus, about Rachel and Rebecca, and about the way in which John wrote and organised the rest of his gospel, the whole story makes an even deeper point.
You are loved, you are included, you are wanted, you are provided for, and if you want it you are saved.