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03-19-17 - The Well of Living Water

"The Well of Living Water"
Bountiful Community Church, United Church of Christ
The Rev. Jodi Bushdiecker

March 19, 2017

Exodus 17:1-7

John 4:5-42

            Last week we heard the story of Nicodemus, who met with Jesus by night to receive new spiritual insights. Today's gospel text recounts the story of the Samaritan woman who discovers the living water Christ offers through her encounter with Jesus at the well. According to Bible commentator Debra Kapp, the intentional juxtaposition of these two stories in the Gospel of John is meant to draw our attention to the striking contrast between them, and to invite our reflection on their meaning for our lives.1 

            Let's take a look at the differences between Nicodemus and the woman at the well. The woman is uneducated; she is a seeker and a learner. In contrast, Nicodemus is an educated man whom Jesus describes as a teacher of Israel. The woman is a Samaritan; Nicodemus is a Jew. She has a shameful past; he is a respected moral leader in his community. Nicodemus' name is known to us, while the woman remains unnamed. Nicodemus is an insider; the woman is an outsider.

            As a woman in a man's world – as well as a foreigner and a stranger to conventional morality –  we would expect that people would try to avoid or ignore the Samaritan woman Jesus encounters at the well. Aware of her social status, she comes to the well in the heat of day, when others are not likely to be drawing water. Her gender, religious orientation, social standing, and personal habits distance her from her community, and from Jesus. She does not even merit a name in our Gospel story. In the eyes of society, she is a nobody.  

            But Jesus does not see or treat this woman as a nobody. Jesus does not turn away from her when he meets her at the well. Rather, he engages with her in conversation, takes her seriously, and spends several days in her village. Jesus' request of her for a drink is daring because he crosses significant social boundaries of religion, ethnicity, and gender. Yet, this woman, her community, and their welfare matter to Jesus, regardless of the opinion others have of her.

            Most of us want desparetly to avoid the pain of being seen or treated as the outsider or as a nobody. The desire to be recognized and cherished as a somebody who matters is universal to all human beings. In my work as a pastoral caregiver, I have discovered that for most people, the greatest source of pain is not the loss of a loved one or the loss of one's physical or mental abilities. Rather, for most of us, our greatest experience of pain results from feelings of shame, feelings of unworthiness, feelings of not belonging, feelings of being unloved and unlovable. Our pain comes from being viewed and treated as an outsider and a nobody. This text is good news for those of us who have ever felt the stigmatization of being an outsider and those of us who have ever experienced the humiliation of being a nobody.

            Yet, it is also challenging news, because it reminds us that people whom we see and treat as outsiders and nobodies are somebodies in the eyes of Jesus. Who are these nobodies? They are the people we avoid and ignore: the addict, the felon, the alien. They are the helpless and the hopeless...the lost, the least, the left out and the looked over. While we often prefer to leave out the nobodies, this text reminds us that sometimes our attempts to draw the boundaries of the faith community are too narrow. But Jesus does not do that. He welcomed outsiders, as well as insiders, into discipleship.      

             Jesus does not make fun of the woman at the well, as he does with Nicodemus, and he does not chastise her. Unlike Nicodemus, she has previously seen nothing of Jesus' signs and has not heard he is a teacher “who has come from God.” She is a newcomer to faith. Jesus' willingness to abide, to stay with the conversation and to stay with her people, is in stark contrast to his impatient discussion with Nicodemus.Though he is hard on Nicodemus, Jesus is kind to this woman. Jesus nurtures her, nudges her along, like a parent teaching a young child. In this story, the good news for the Samaritan woman, and for us, is that Jesus welcomes people who are just starting the journey of faith.

            In the conversation between Jesus and the woman, she slowly moves from unbelief to belief, from ignorance to knowledge, from misunderstanding to understanding. Jesus' question to her about her husband is not a comment on her marital status. Rather, his words are meant to move her to the next level of understanding of who Jesus is, to move her forward in faith. She responds to Jesus in a way that leads Jesus to reveal his true identity to her. In doing so, her own identity also evolves.

            When the woman successfully moves to a new level of understanding of who Jesus is, Jesus reveals that he is the very presence of God. As Jesus makes his identity known to her, he also makes her a co-witness to his work in the world. While she is not absolutely certain that Jesus is the Christ, she does not let that stop her from leaving behind her water jar, which represents anything that might hold her back. Going into the city, she invites her fellow townspeople to their own encounter with Jesus.

            The woman's breakthrough experience not only transforms her own life, but also the life of her people. The setting for this scene between Jesus and Samaritan woman is Jesus' leaving Judea for Galilee, going by way of Samaria. While this route is geographically necessary, there is a greater theological significance to Jesus' stop at the well in Sychar. Through his encounter with the Samaritan woman, he fulfills the claim of last week's gospel story, "For God so loved the world."

            Both the toughness and tenderness of Jesus is revealed in this story. Jesus can be confrontational, and he can be compassionate. He can be unyielding, and he can be generous. Jesus' tenderness is seen in his encounter with the woman at the well as he encourages her growth in faith. Any believer who feels like a newcomer to faith can take heart in this. Jesus supports us, as he did this woman, as we move toward him and grow in understanding. He wants us to deepen and extend our faith, to recognize and acknowledge him for who he is.

            There is also a toughness in Jesus' encounter with this woman. His forthrightness leads to her self-exposure by laying open her past. Yet she is not shamed by her conversation and confession. Instead, her encounter with Jesus emboldens her to go and tell all her friends and neighbors about him. The woman is freed for discipleship through both the tenderness and toughness of Jesus' love.

            When the woman comes to the startling recognition that she has been talking to the Messiah, she leaves her bucket and runs to the village with the news: "Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!" Bible commentator Anna Carter Florence notes that this sentence has an unfinished nature to it, especially given what we know about the woman's history.2 The woman's proclamation leads us to imagine the unspoken words at the end: Come see a man who told me everything I have ever done … and loved me anyway! The woman does not say these last four words, but they are implicit in her action, and in the joy with which she runs. Her life is saved through the love of the one “who told her everything she ever did” … and loved her anyway.” In that moment, she sees God. She receives Christ—and she leaps up to tell others the good news. This is the living water Jesus offers her... and it is the living water offered to you and I.

            Diana Butler Bass compares the story of the woman at the well to the story of Eve in the garden of Eden.3 Both women are seeking transformation: Eve eats of the fruit of the tree of knowledge in pursuit of spiritual wisdom, and the Samaritan woman, who is thirsting for greater life, receives the “living water” offered by Jesus. Butler Bass argues that the entire story of the woman at the well is a reversal of the creation account, as Jesus and the woman reenact Eden with a different result. In the Gospel of John, sin is not understood as a moral category related to behavior. Rather, sin is unbelief—the inability or unwillingness to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and God. Through her encounter with Jesus, the Samaritan woman's eyes are opened; she understands, and she believes. She is blessed with the water of salvation and she blesses others with the spiritual wisdom she has gained: Water is life; life is water. Living water is God; God is living water.

            The encounter at the well is a powerful story of breakthrough. Jesus breaks through barriers of nation, race, religion, and gender to give the Samaritan woman living water. The woman experiences transformation as she moves from being seen as an outsider and a nobody to one who becomes a witness to the messiah. The woman is also transformed as she moves from being a beginner in faith to an apostle sent by Jesus to testify on his behalf. As such, the Samaritan woman is a model for those of us who feel shame about our past, who feel we are unworthy of love, who feel like we don't belong. And she is a model for newcomers to the faith just beginning the journey of spiritual understanding and practice.

            The irony of last week's story about Nicodemus and this week's story about the woman at the well is that it is not to Nicodemus, who is an upright leader in the religious community – an insider and a somebody – that Jesus first proclaims his identity as the messiah. Rather, it is to the unnamed Samaritan woman with a questionable history – an outsider and a nobody – that God's love for the entire world is made known. The gift of living water which Jesus offers this woman is available to all of us– insiders, outsiders, somebodies and nobodies. And this is good news indeed!

1 Deborah J. Kapp, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary - Feasting on the Word – Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, Lent 3 – Pastoral Perspective.

2 Anna Carter Florence, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, Lent 3 – Homiletical Perspective.

3 Diana Butler Bass, Grounded: Finding God in the World, A Spiritual Revolution (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2015), p. 76 – 77.