The Samaritan Woman at the Well

Sermon John 4:5-42 preached at Bishops Cleeve Methodist Church 15th March 2020

If we were to head back to the previous chapter in John’s gospel (Chapter 3) we would find another encounter Jesus had, this time with Nicodemus, a leader, a teacher, a Pharisee. He comes to Jesus at night, curious, wanting to know more, but not prepared to ask questions under the scrutiny of his companions. He has a detailed theological conversation with Jesus, where Jesus says some peculiar things about being born again, about how it is necessary to be born both of water and of spirit. Nicodemus is a clever man but doesn’t get it. He might have been told there’s no such thing as a stupid question, but oh boy does he get it wrong by asking about crawling back up the birth canal.

And now we have another encounter and there are some points here to make about the differences between these stories. The first encounter was with a man, who is educated. Here we have an encounter with a woman, highly likely to be illiterate. Nicodemus is named. The woman, like so many others in the bible is not. Nicodemus is like Jesus; he shares the same ethnicity, the same religion, he occupies the same space and frequents the same places. The woman, by comparison, is an alien, a foreigner, and a hated one at that. The Samaritans had a different way of worshipping God, a different temple, a different moral code. Nicodemus is respectable, he holds a position of influence. The Samaritan woman is morally dubious with a messy sexual history. And finally, Nicodemus comes under cover of darkness, ashamed we assume. The Samaritan woman is out in the open in the middle of the day for all to see.

Women sometimes get a raw deal from the lectionary – the three-year cycle of bible readings Methodist preachers are encourages to follow, which misses out great chunks of the bible (some for good reason!), and the lectionary is not terrific on focusing on the female voices and stories. But it should be pointed out that nowhere else in the Gospels, do we have virtually an entire chapter taken up with a women’s story. Peter might go off and build the church, but the block of verses he occupies are not as many as this unnamed woman.

The woman comes to the well in the heat of the day and she comes alone. Only mad dogs and shunned Samaritans go out in the midday sun. It suggests that she was ostracised by the other women in her village. Women generally would go together to collect water – safety in numbers and all that. But she has to wait. Her solitude and the timing are dangerous to her, but she has no choice. Her sexual past is known about and gossiped about and judged and she is pushed away.

And she comes to the well and there is a man, sitting there. She would have been afraid. Another man who would want something of her. To use her, to exploit her. But she sees that he is a Jew. Relief would have flooded through her. At least he would leave her alone. He wouldn’t want anything to do with her. Her very presence would offend him, and he would surely walk away. He wouldn’t risk being alone with any woman, let alone a foreigner. Let alone a Samaritan.

But he speaks to her. Perhaps he hasn’t heard of the Billy Graham rule, that rule that states a man should never be alone with another woman who isn’t his wife. He asks her for a drink. She is puzzled. He would have to touch something she has touched and surely that’s against the rules? But he’s already spoken to her, so clearly this guy doesn’t play by the rules.

And they strike up a long conversation about the essentials for life; water and God. And things seem to be going so well, until he suggests drawing her husband into the conversation. Uh-oh. Now he’s ruined it. Perhaps with hesitation, certainly with shame, she stammers, I have no husband. And then he tells her he already knows about her life. He knows her but isn’t interested in gossip or judging her. He has seen deep into her and hasn’t condemned her. And there is no awkward pause in the conversation; it moves on and suddenly they are talking about the common roots in their religions and now he’s talking about spirit and truth and life.

To be known is to be loved, and to be loved is to be known. Well, that’s not been her experience. She isn’t loved and no-one truly knows her – they know the labels they put on her, but they don’t know her. They see her but only to whisper in corners. The bits of her that are known are hated and she is castigated because of them.

But suddenly she knows what it is like to be loved and known and known and loved. And that feels extraordinary. That’s never happened before. And despite the fact she shares NOTHING in common with Jesus, her gender and ethnicity and religion pose no barrier to her evangelism. And suddenly she is full to over bursting and she can’t keep it all in. Like a bucket that has water poured into it, if it doesn’t stop it can’t be contained. It spills over and yes, that’s a bit messy and she’s messed-up, but for the first time in her life she is known and loved, and loved and known and that’s like feeling clean for the first time in she can’t remember when.

Suddenly she forgets that her village hate her and judge her and gossip about her, because of course, it is only a woman whose sexual history is gossiped about and never a man’s. Suddenly, she forgets she has no friends and no husband, just a man who has moved in because she is considered easy because she is clearly damaged goods with so many men in her past. Suddenly she forgets that she’s considered worthless, I mean, a woman with that kind of past can’t be respectable can she and if she’s already damaged doing a bit more harm to her won’t matter. Suddenly she forgets that she has lived her life afraid, afraid of men and neighbours even the other women. Suddenly she forgets that she has no voice, no power, no-one normally listens to her. Suddenly she wants to share this experience of being known and loved, share it with people who have made her life so difficult, because she knows this feeling is so extraordinary that even those who have done her harm she wants to experience the same. Suddenly her past, her unhappiness, her loneliness and her fear are forgotten. Because she has been known and loved and loved and known.

And you see, that’s what love does; it drives out fear. Now where’ve we heard that before – perfect love driving out fear. That passage starts by saying, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. It goes on to say, God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. We love because God first loved us. It is, as you will know, from the first letter of John.

Jesus doesn’t tell this woman, I will love you, but you really ought to have a ring on your finger first. I will love you, but first you need to become a Jew. I will love you, but you need to say sorry first for your past. I will love you, but first you need to learn to read so you can study the scriptures. He doesn’t even say, well ok, I will love you straight away, but I will be wanting some evidence that you have been changed by this. Love is the primary reaction for Jesus. His love is indiscriminate and has no strings attached.

We are living in times of fear. There have been incidents of supermarkets running out of basics such as pasta or toilet rolls, because peoples fear has taken over. There have been incidents of people of east Asian origin who have been subject to violent attacks because peoples fear has spilled over into causing harm. People are behaving badly because they are afraid. A few years ago I read Albert Camus’s book, The Plague, about a French town that becomes exposed to a deadly virus. Whilst the virus itself is to be feared, the more frightening aspect of the novel is the reaction of the people. Suddenly money and power provide no protection against this disease and normal rules of behaviour disintegrate. Perhaps it wouldn’t be good bedtime reading right now…

Perfect love casts out fear. It casts out fear of those who are different from us. Whilst fear stops us from seeing the humanity in other people, love ensures we look with compassion. Love stops us from being selfish and putting our own needs first.

Jesus, in his encounter with both Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, demonstrates his understanding of the physical and the spiritual. He doesn’t put one above the other, he knows in order for us to live, to flourish and not just exist, we need our physical needs to be met, and also our spiritual needs. We are diminished if we neglect one of them.

Was Nicodemus changed by his encounter with Jesus – we are not told. Perhaps he was. Perhaps he went away examining again the scriptures he has studied for many years and found he is now reading them through the lens of Jesus. I’d like to think that’s what happened. But perhaps his position of privilege prevents him from allowing Jesus to change him because he knows that to change risks him being shunned by his companions and that might be a step too far. The Samaritan woman was utterly transformed by her encounter with Jesus and her testimony and faith changed her village and changed how her village saw her.

Just like the waters of baptism are about our belonging, belonging to God and belonging to each other, symbolising growth and refreshment, this story has much to teach us about how when we don’t fear one another, we can be known and loved, and we can come together without shame or judgment. Some of us might identify more with Nicodemus, educated, privileged, questioning, curious, but not quite ready to commit. Some of us might identify more with the Samaritan woman, a shady past with shameful secrets, lonely and careworn. Jesus seeks to know us to show we are loved. And when we accept that we are known and loved and loved and known, it transforms how we see ourselves and it transforms how we treat other people. We want them to know this experience too, we want them to belong to Jesus, so that like an overflowing bucket of water, our experience of love overspills into everyone we encounter. And like Jesus, we don’t allow social boundaries to put limits on who we love. Amen. 

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