Let It Flow
When last we met, Jesus was talking to a leader of the Pharisees by the name of Nicodemus. Nicodemus was curious about Jesus, but as a member of the Sanhedrin, he had a reputation to maintain and consorting with someone as disruptive as Jesus could have compromised his good standing.
So he sought out the young rabbi by night, in secret, so as not to be seen. He took in what Jesus had to say and then he faded back into the shadows to consider what it all might mean.
Nicodemus will appear again in chapter 7, to gently remind his fellow Pharisees that they can’t condemn Jesus without at least giving him a proper trial. But his mild attempt at protecting Jesus won’t do any good.
When last we see Nicodemus, it is at the side of Joseph of Arimathea, his arms full of burial spices. John identifies them as secret disciples of Jesus, men who believed but kept the truth to themselves for fear of what others would think of them, or worse, what others might do.
In the end, these two men who might have done so much more for Jesus while he was alive, pool their resources and at least give him the burial he deserves.
Whether you were here last week, or not, you probably know that one of the things Jesus said to Nicodemus was that "God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17).
And now in this morning’s reading, we see those very words put to the test in the presence of a woman who is as far removed from Nicodemus as is the glow of a crescent moon at midnight from the glare of the noonday sun.
For you see in the Jewish imagination of the time, if there was anyone who stood outside the bounds of God’s love, it was the Samaritans. If there was anyone worthy of condemnation it was their sectarian enemies to the north.
I say sectarian, because the Samaritans considered themselves Jewish as well, and for good reason. They were a remnant; the descendants of Jews left behind after the Babylonian exile who had intermarried over generations with gentiles.
They still worshipped Yahweh on Mount Gerizim, the holy places of their ancestors: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But they were not recognized as orthodox by the Jews who worshipped at the temple in Jerusalem.
In fact, in 128 B.C.E., about 100 years before this conversation took place, the temple on Mount Gerizim was destroyed by order of the Jewish high priest in an effort to bring the Samaritans back into the fold and under the rule of the Jews in Jerusalem.
It was an age-old conflict very similar and just as violent, destructive, and bitter as the ones that have raged throughout Europe between Catholics and Protestants or the enmity we sometimes see between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
So if ever there was a test case for John 3:16-17, for God loving the whole world, it would be a conversation between Jesus and anyone from Samaria.
But Jesus, being Jesus, didn’t just choose anyone from Samaria. He chooses to speak to a woman of Samaria. Now scholars are somewhat divided on this, but most agree that it would have been improper for Jesus to speak with a woman in public to whom he was not related, and indeed both the woman herself and the disciples are shocked by his behavior (Amy-Jill Levine takes issue with this idea http://church-hsb.org/newspdf/pdfdocs/Great Figures-Outline.pdf).
So we already have a triple taboo at work here. Jesus is crossing gender, religious, and ethnic lines to have this conversation.
But as it turns out, she’s not just any woman from Samaria, she’s a woman with a complicated past who is living in a very lonely present. A chore like fetching water from the well would have been done at dawn or dusk, and the women of the village would have gone out together.
The fact that she’s out at the well during the hottest part of the day by herself, means that she either doesn’t want to deal with the other women of the village or that they don’t want to deal with her.
Something is off here and Jesus, being Jesus, already knows what it is. Somehow he knows that she’s had five husbands and that the man she is living with now is not her husband.
Which doesn’t sound good, but not necessarily for the reason you might think, and before we go any further, I’d like to clear some things up about this woman and her “reputation.”
Preachers and commentators have made a lot of hay out of that piece of information, but I think it’s really important to note that Jesus doesn’t. Historically people have assumed the worst about this woman, that she was wanton or loose or living in sin, but the Rev. Dr. Karoline Lewis points out that Jesus, “does not forgive her,” in the course of this conversation which is a pretty good indication that she’s done nothing wrong ( https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent/commentary-on-john-45-42-2 & http://chqdaily.com/2018/06/lewis-tackles-sexist-interpretation-of-samaritan-woman/).
The fact is, there are any number of reasons why she might have cycled through 5 husbands already. Mortality rates being what they were, it’s very possible that she is simply an unlucky widow.
Or perhaps her husbands have divorced her, one after the other. Which, again, doesn’t mean that there was anything wrong with her as a person. The most likely reason for divorce would have been because she was unable to bear children.
In which case she would have been sent back to her Father’s house or possibly taken in by one of her husband’s brothers who could have married her according to the customs of the time but didn’t want to because he already had a wife and felt that one is enough. (After all their ancestor Jacob had tried to make a go of it with two and that was a mess.)
There is no sin in any of that, but there may well have been tremendous sadness and certainly stigma. This poor woman may have felt or been made to feel that she was a failure, a burden, worth less than the other women who all seemed to be able to do the one thing she could not.
Whatever the case, no one is willing to marry her now, so our story begins with this single Samaritan woman setting out alone with every expectation of being left alone, only to encounter a single Jewish man at a well of all places.
A well. (For those of you in the cheap seats, please note, I am winking).
‘Cause you all know what that means, right? A well?!?
Okay probably not. Nowadays this detail goes right over most of our heads. Jesus is traveling. He’s thirsty. There’s a well. Cumbies has yet to be invented. So in our minds, of course he’s going to stop there for a drink.
But like everything else in John, nothing - be it water, wine, or a well - is just one thing. If you were all hearing John read out his gospel for the first time and you heard that Jesus had stopped at a well and started talking to a Samaritan woman, you’d all be buzzing, because wells were …like… the masked balls of the ancient near east… the book stores or elevators or intersections where the Montagues and Capulets, the Beatrices and Benedicts, the Harry’s and the Sally’s of the world were most likely to meet up and meet cute.
Moses and Zipporah? Met at a well.
Isaac and Rebecca? All started with a well.
Jacob and Rachel? Friends, they met at the very well where Jesus and this woman are talking right now. (Which is still there to this day, if you’re single and hoping to find that someone special).
First come wells, then comes marriage…but Jesus, being Jesus, is here to subvert the paradigm. He is here with a proposal alright, but the love he has to offer this woman is so much better than anything she’s ever heard or received before.
Because you see, Jesus has not come here to find a wife, he has come here to find a witness; someone with the courage to proclaim that God has drawn near and desires to be united in love not just with one kind of people but with all kinds of people, not just the right sort of people but all sorts of people.
Someone willing to join him in eradicating all of the taboos and traditions, the rules and expectations, the grudges and enmities people themselves have created over the years to mediate, control, or withhold the love of God from other people, but most especially from “those people.”
You picking up what I’m laying down? Good, because she’s about to, as well.
God has come, indeed God is here, standing right in front of her with a proposal because God loves the whole world… the whole world… beginning with her.
Think about that for a moment. God loves the whole world not just including this woman, but beginning with her: this literally nameless, nobody… this woman who by the standards of the day is no one…. no one’s wife, no one’s mother, no one’s friend. God longs to be united to the whole world beginning with this outsider amongst outsiders; this woman on the margins of the already marginalized. That’s where God begins.
So if you’ve ever felt like no one, like a burden or a failure, a nameless nobody who just never got it together or has watched it all fall apart, others may not see you, but I want you to hear me when I say that God sees you. God knows your worth, just as God knew hers. God’s love doesn’t just include you. God’s love begins with you.
You know how water runs down; down to fill the low places? If you are feeling low this morning, I pray that you would let that love flow all the way down to you, just as she did, because that love is life. You need that and she did too.
Because if anyone is really thirsty in this story, it is her. She was so thirsty for someone to see her as a human being, as someone who was worthy of love and connection, as a person who still had something of worth to give beyond the narrow roles she had been unable to fulfill.
Jesus sees her and she sees him and the rest is history. She drinks deep of the love he has to offer and then runs to share that love with everyone in Sychar. In so doing, she becomes the first apostle.
The people of Sychar ask Jesus to stay with them, literally abide with them, and he does. Salvation may “be from the Jews,” as Jesus says, but thanks to the woman at the well, the Samaritans - of all people! - are the first to get the memo.
Unlike Nicodemus, who heard the good news but kept it to himself for fear of losing all he had, she drops the one thing she has, her water jug, and shares all she just heard. Whereas he pondered it all in silence, she wonders out loud what it all might mean.
Nicodemus withdrew and watched Jesus from afar, but she ran back and invited her people into conversation with the one who told her everything she’d ever done…everything… and loved her still.
Last week, when we studied Nicodemus, we talked about how not knowing was okay. We talked about how not having all the answers or understanding how it all works or what it all means is a faithful response to God; a faithful posture to hold in this world. And that was good news for many of us.
This week, the news might be a little more challenging, because we are meant to compare and contrast the response of these two characters: Nicodemus who came to Jesus at night and this woman who is spoke with him in the full light of day.
Nicodemus - the ultimate insider - a wise and respected leader amongst the holiest of holy men, and this nameless Samaritan woman who wasn’t even respected amongst her own people.
And what we see in her is that not knowing does not exempt you from being a witness and a powerful one at that. She doesn’t just show us that Jesus loves everyone no matter how marginalized, she shows us what it looks like to advance the kingdom.
She isn’t sure what to make of Jesus, but she knows that there is something about him that is good, life-changing and life-giving, and unlike Nicodemus, she shares what she does know. She has no expertise, at least not yet. All she has is her experience of Jesus, and lo and behold, that is enough.
Friends, we can keep quiet about our faith because we’re not sure what we think or what others will think, what we should say or what others might do. We can take our faith straight to the grave like Nicodemus did and you know what? Jesus will still love us.
But as we watch this gospel unfold, I think we’re meant to feel the tragedy of that. I think we’re being invited, just as she was, to live out our questions even as we share with others what God is doing for us, in order to give others a chance to experience what God might do for them too.
Like water, if you keep the good news to yourself it grows stagnant. Water needs to flow. So does love. So does truth. In order for it to live…in order for us all to live, we need to keep all this goodness moving from one heart to the next.
So let me close by simply saying this: I think there’s something beautiful happening here in our church. I think people are finding love and acceptance, grace and belonging, healing and hope…the same living water that Jesus held out to her all those years ago.
We don’t understand how it all works. We don’t always know what to say. But I know there are people out there as thirsty as she was, as thirsty as you and I are, for what we are finding here. I think what we have here is a good thing; a good thing worth sharing. I hope you do, too. And just like her, I hope you will.