Despised, Outcast, Apostle

A sermon for Lent 3

Exodus 17:1-7, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42, Psalm 95

Living water, domestic abuse, culture and faith wars, evangelism, metaphoric literalism, Christology, discipleship, and salvation; all this is in a story where not a single line is straight forward. Some of the muddle is the characters in the story following Nicodemus’ example, of taking metaphorical, mystical language literally. Some of the muddle is us, following our predecessors’ misinterpretations at best or at worst misogyny – unaccountably detesting women. Some of it emerges from John’s literary manner of telling a very complex story in a mere 37 verses.

I’m really not sure how best to do this, so we are just going to walk through it, and learn what we learn when we get there.

At the beginning, we actually ~ well we have to go all the way to 2nd Kings,  and the destruction of the Northern Kingdom. Their descendants become the Samaritans, and Alexander the Great allowed them to build a Temple in Gerizim. [i] That intensified Judah’s, the Southern Kingdom’s dislike for all things Samaritan, because the only proper home for God is the Temple in Jerusalem. Hundreds of years later, when Jesus stops by a well, it is still controversial.

Jesus is headed from Judea to Galilee and to get there he has to go through Samaria; only not really. Many good Jews go around in order to avoid traversing the unclean lands. [ii] Not Jesus. So, he gets to Sychar, and stops at Jacob’s well for a drink. This puts him in line with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Israel’s patriarchs, founding fathers. He asks a woman there for help. No big deal, except

Point 1: Men, especially holy me, do not speak to unknown women.

Point 2: Jews don’t talk to Samaritans.

Point 3: Why is the woman at the well in the heat of the day? Traditionally water is drawn in the morning and evening; and all the women gather to help each other, to socialize and to chat. [iii] [iv] and

Point 4: is the history of men women and wells: the betrothals of Isaac, Jacob and Moses are at wells; and there is Elijah asking the widow Zarephath for water. [v]

The woman seems to know all this and so she asks Jesus why he is asking her for help. Jesus replies if she knew who he was she’d ask him for living water. Normally living water refers to flowing water, which is cleaner, and fresher than well or cistern water. [vi] She misinterprets Jesus reply, and asks for the water so she won’t have to get water from the well again. [vii] Like Theresa [viii]  in Looking for Mr. Goodbar, for all the wrong reasons, she asks Jesus for help, but unlike Nicodemus, she senses he can help. [ix]

Out of the blue Jesus tells her to go get her husband. She tells the truth, which Jesus expands upon revealing her five previous husbands. It may be coincidence, but there are five false gods the Samaritans worship on Mount Gerizim;  but there don’t seem to be any coincidences in this Gospel tale. However;  there are lots of misunderstanding on our parts. Traditionally the woman is considered a harlot, I mean five husbands, and her town rejects her. However, Jesus never condemns her harlotry, and he is not shy of doing so. [x] There are many reasons for her circumstances: she could be widowed, or caught in a unfulfilled Levirate marriage, passed on to a dead husband’s brother, as Tamar [xi] was. She could be divorced, after all- all a man has to do is take his wife into the street and say I divorce you three times and that’s it. [xii] There is a similar story in Saturday’s New York Times. A Jewish man and wife are divorced in civil court; he refuses her divorce in Jewish court, keeping her from getting married again, meanwhile he remarries in civil court. [xiii] The woman by the well could easily be in a cycle of domestic violence.

David Lose thinks all that misses the point.  He doesn’t even think Jesus forgives her, the language isn’t there. Lose thinks Jesus is calling her to life giving faith. [xiv] Lose continues:

…  Jesus has “seen” her. He has seen her plight of dependence, not immorality. He has recognized her, spoken with her, offered her something of incomparable worth. He has seen her — she exists for him, has worth, value, [and] significance … [this is the] part of the story that witnesses to her transformation. [xv]

There is a little book I read as a junior in college that posits we cannot see ourselves directly; we see ourselves as we see others see us. [xvi] Jesus sees the woman differently and now the woman begins to see herself differently, as worthy.

The woman’s emerging sense of self, her observation of Jesus’ knowledge, a prophetic trait, allows her to ask Jesus the big cultural, religious question of the day: Who’s right, those of us who worship on Mount Gerizim, or the Jews who worship in Jerusalem? Jesus’ answer is complex. He says salvation comes from the Jews, indicating the Samaritans cannot write-off Jewish salvation tradition, remember Jesus is a Jew. But then he says it doesn’t matter because God is spirit, and true worshipers will worship God in spirit. The woman recognizes the eschatological the end of things shift in Jesus’ answer, and tells him  I know the Messiah is coming. Jesus says: I am, evoking God’s name given to Moses. True worship is no longer shaped by proper location, or proper lineage, but by the character of God. [xvii]

At this point we have two interruptions. The disciples return from grocery shopping. And the woman leaves them and returns to town. The disciples first. They offer him food. He says he has food. They make the error of the times, and misunderstand, and start wondering where he got it from. Jesus’ reference to food is about how his ministry, to do God’s will, sustains him. John’s inference is, you cannot speak about Jesus identity without speaking about his ministry. [xviii]

While all this is going on, the woman is in town sharing her experience with folks who heretofore don’t speak to her. She dares to ask if he could be the messiah. She is not sure, but doesn’t have to be, she, as Jesus invited Andrew earlier, simply invites them to come and see. At this point the scene is reminiscent of Matthew’s version of the hemorrhaging woman, who by healing is restored to relationship in her community.[xix]   We know the well woman’s relationship with the town’s folk is restored, because they do what she asks, they come to see Jesus.

It is not in John’s story, but I envision Jesus being in the middle of his remarks about the harvest, when the crowd from town shows up. So his remark: Look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. is a reference to the approaching crowd. This cast the disciples as the reapers, meaning the sower is the woman, that the disciples a moment ago at a minimum queried him about, if they didn’t dismiss her altogether. At the end of tale, the town’s people invite Jesus to stay with them. The implication is they want to be in relationship with Jesus. The results are: they come to deeper belief, which you’ll recall means have faith in, as the woman’s witness is replaced by their own experience of Jesus. [xx]

A couple of closing observations: The woman is conceivably the first apostle, the first person “sent” to proclaim Jesus as the messiah. Jesus reveals that God’s salvation is offered on God’s terms, not ours, and is available to anyone who accepts it. Just like the Jews and the Samaritans in the story, we are preoccupied with protecting boundaries between the choose, and the unclean. And it is a boundary we and the whole church are called to cross every day. [xxi] It may look like racial distinction, or a class, educational or wealth distinction but they are boundaries of our own making and we are obligated to cross them, to obliterate them every day. 

Finally, David Lose observes that in leaving her water jug behind the woman leaves behind all that burdens of her life enabling her to share what God is doing for her. He wonders: What is holding us back? What burdens do we need to allow God to take away from us? [xxii] At the end of her reflections Gail O’Day writes:

Jesus does not come to the well looking for a woman to be his bride, but for a witness who will recognize the Messiah and bring the despised people to him. [xxiii]

At the end of it all we don’t have a story of sin and forgiveness; we have a story of freedom, discipleship and evangelism, sharing God’s story in our story. In so much as our Lenten discipline is to reorient our lives to God, perhaps a despised woman, of an outcast people, offers a model of being stewards of Jesus’ ministry to proclaim that the Kingdom of God is near, and inviting others to come and see.



[i][i] Gerald Sloyan, INTERPRETATION A Bible Commentary  for Teaching & Preaching , JOHN  A BIBLE COMMENTARY FOR TEACHING AND PREACHING   James Luther Mays, Editor  Patrick D. Miller, Jr., Old Testament Editor   Paul J. Achtemeier, New Testament Editor , John Knox Press  ATLANTA 1988
[ii] Scott Hoezee, Center for Excellence in Preaching, The Lectionary Gospel Text is: John 4:5-42,  Observations, and Questions to Consider, 3/23/2014
[iv] Rev. Charles Hoffacker, Sermons that Work, 3 Lent (A) – 2014  March 23, 2014 Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42
[v] O”day, ibid
[vi] Hoffacker, ibid
[vii] Robert Hoch, Working Preacher, WP  John 3/17/2014 John 4:5-42 Commentary by Robert Hoch – Working Preacher – Preaching This Week (RCL) 1/3 RCL|Narrative|Evangelio|Index   Commentary on John 4:5-42  
[ix] O’Day, ibid,
[x] Hoch, ibid, O’ Day, ibid
[xi] Genesis 38
[xii] O’Day, ibid; Hoezee , ibid; Hoch, ibid
[xiii] Jennifer Medina
[xiv] David Lose, Working Preacher, Leaving It All Behind – Working Preacher – Craft of Preaching 1/5  Craft of Preaching Dear Working Preacher   Insights, ideas and inspiration by David Lose related to the coming week’s lectionary texts.    Leaving It All Behind Monday, March 17, 2014 9:59 AM
[xv] Lose
[xvi] I believe it is Eric From’s, “Looking Glass Self”, but can not confirm the source
[xvii] O’Day, ibid.
xviii] O’Day
[xix] Matthew 9:22
[xx] O’day, ibid
[xxi] O’day
[xxii] Lose, ibid
[xxiii] Oday, ibid


Where have you seen or heard God’s active presence this week?

There are other readings this week than the Gospel according to John. As compelling as it is these readings also deserve contemplation. As I reviewed my first reading notes, I was drawn to one by verse 9 of psalm 95; actually verses 8 & 9.

8 Harden not your hearts, as your forebears did in the wilderness, *
   at Meribah, and on that day at Massah, when they tempted me.

9 They put me to the test, *
    though they had seen my works.

My note reads: what works have you/we seen / heard? I am sure it comes from a challenge David Lose of Working Preacher issued a couple of weeks ago to invite our congregations to share where they have seen God in the past week.  I passed on the direct method, though I have inserted the question in an intervening sermon or two, and have used it in bible studies prior to committee meetings and so on.  The question is, without a doubt, an underlying dimension in the reading Exodus, which tells the tale the psalm  refers to. After all, the Hebrews have experienced, first-hand, God’s liberating power, an expression of God’s abundant love. And yet only a little time later, the memory of God’s love fades; the memory of God’s power diminishes to the point of non-consideration. Why?

Today, psychologist, nuero-scientist, and others who explore human behavior might well point to how our brain is wired, and how overpowering fear is, in part because of where in the brain, the more primitive parts, fear is processed. But that’s the point isn’t it. To recognize our fear, stop ourselves, our family, friends and neighbors, from reacting out of primitive animalistic perceptions, and make use of the higher functioning parts of our brain (pun intended) to see or heard God’s active presence, and then prayerfully discern what to do. My wife is fond of saying that life happens to everyone; the question is: are you going to allow life’s events to define you, or are you going to turn to God’s presence for the wherewithal to determine how to respond.

Part of being a faith community is to coach each other turn to God. Perhaps part of the psalm’s purpose is to serve as a prayerful or liturgical reminder to turn to God. Part of Lent’s intent is to rehearse turning to God, so as to change the very nature of our bodies’ natural reaction; much like athletes retrain their bodies’ reaction to the challenges of their sport.

It all begins with realizing that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves (collect for the 3rd Sunday in Lent). It continues by looking for and listening for God’s presence and actions. It goes on by helping others to do likewise. And while we can change our response, at least some of the time, we can not all the time, so it all ends in gracious judgment of our savior Jesus Christ.

Where have you seen or heard God’s active presence this week?

Abuse at the well

The more I read about this passage from John, the more I see the subtle presence of domestic abuse in the history and behavior of the woman at the well.  She has been in a series of marriages that did not end well.  In the day, choosing to end a marriage is a male prerogative. It is very likely as each bad marriage ends, and her self-respect further declines, her decisions get poorer and poorer as she desperately seeks security.  Her presence at the well at noon alone (she is not expecting Jesus) is an indication of her rejection by the community, a form of blaming the victim. The abuse continues for centuries the misreading of her behavior to be a prostitute is emblematic of domestic abuse (we continue to blame the victim).

Jesus sees her for who she is, a beloved child of God. He offers her new life, which at first she misunderstands, and he inspires her to share with the community who has rejected her, the promise Jesus offers. They listen to her (a miracle?); they positively respond and go see Jesus. The woman, whose name we never know, is restored to relationship to her community. There is powerful similarity to Jesus restoring the hemorrhaging woman take heart daughter; your faith has made you well. [i] In calling her daughter Jesus restores her to her community.

Part of breaking the cycle of domestic violence is restoring the victim’s self-worth and restoring them to a loving community.  Part of breaking the cycle of sin is restoring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. [ii]


[i] Matthew 9:22

[ii] Book of Common Prayer, 855

Confusion abounds

Last February was the Creationism Vs. Evolution Debate featuring Ken Ham and Bill Nye. Not long after that I hear our bishop say the most notable thing of the debate was each proponent inarticulately trying to use the other’s language to prove his point. Last week we read as Nicodemus misinterprets Jesus because he hears mystical language literally. This week we read the same confusion only more so. The woman at the well misunderstands Jesus’ ‘living water’ twice. The disciples misunderstand Jesus’ reference to food they “do not know about.” Last night I watched Bill Maher’s brutal review of Noah which is actually a brutish critique of Christian belief. (You can watch it on U-Tube, be forewarned).

The gleaning I am drawing from his rant is that when mystical language of faith is taken as literal language huge confusion occurs. As people of faith we must know our language, including its faith and mystical elements. If we do not, and if we attempt to defend Christian faith against such critiques, we will come off like Ham and Nye, inarticulate.

The reading from John also reveals a faithful approach to such criticism. The woman at the well returns to town, and shares with everyone her experience with Jesus at the well, and wonders, out loud, if he is the messiah. In short she simply invites them to come and see. They did, and they came to believe. Rather than argue, perhaps we should simply invite those who do not see to come and see, and leave the rest to the transforming power of the Spirit.