Unexpected Guides, Surprising Directions

A sermon for the 3rd Sunday in Lent: Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42

The Jewish-Samaritan rivalry dates all the way back to the 7th century under Assyrian occupation. Temple was built at Gerazim and became the center of worship in the 4th century under Persian occupation. The Samaritans worship at this Temple, but the Jews believed that worship must be in the Temple in Jerusalem. Although Gerazim was destroyed in 128 BCE, the schism continued at least to Jesus’ day. (Ellingsen, O’Day, Sakenfeld). It is part of the reason that the Jews avoided Samaria. When Jesus leaves Judea and heads back to Galilee, the typical route would be to go around Samaria. Jesus goes through Samaria. It has long been held it was simply a short cut. But if we listen closely we hear that John writes “[Jesus] had to go through Samaria” (John 4:4). In truth, it becomes Jesus’ first venture into the rest of the world (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner).

I hope you have heard the contrast between Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus as you listened to the John’s Gospel story of Jesus meeting a woman at a well. They are many, and they are interesting.

We have been so well (pardon the pun) taught all about the social dynamics between the woman, men, and Jews we overlook the scandal of the well. In the Old Testament, a well is an archetype for marriage  (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). Moses meets his wife Zipporah at a well in Midian (Exodus 2:21). And Jacob meets his beloved Rachel at this very well (Genesis 29:1) (O’Day). We all know Jesus does not marry. However, the marital implication hints at the depth of intimacy in the story to come.

The encounter begins with Jesus’ polite request for water. The woman asks him Why are you asking me for water? Jesus answers If you knew me, you would ask me and I would give you living water. The term ‘living water’ has two meanings; it can be flowing water like a stream, or it can mean life-giving water. The woman misunderstands what Jesus is saying; sound familiar.

After their convoluted conversation and she asks for the water, that Jesus is really offering, Jesus, asks her about her husband. She says she doesn’t have one, and Jesus goes on to tell her all about her history with men. But note; there is not a single word of judgment; there is not a single word of forgiveness; because there is no need for one. The woman is likely barren, and her husbands have simply divorced and abandoned her. Jesus reveals that he knows all about the tragic story of her life, which she confesses is true. Jesus also knows she has been abandoned, again, and again and again and again. He knows she is lonely. And perhaps in the greatest gift of all, Jesus sees her; a beloved child of God made from the dust of the earth. Jesus values her (Lewis, O’Day, Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). Thus, far their story has progressed from protest to misunderstanding to confession to divine recognition and love (Harrelson).

Now knowing that Jesus is a prophet, the woman risks asking him if the proper place to worship is Gerazim or the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus replies “Gods is seeking those who worship him in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23) Revealing more of her theological knowledge and understanding, the woman goes on to say I know the Messiah is coming. Jesus replies I am he. (John 4:26).

“I am” is an intentional referral to the revelation of God’s name to Moses (Exod. 3:14) (O’Day).This is Jesus’ first “I am” statement, the first full revelation of who he is, is to a rejected, abandoned woman, in a foreign land (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). And in doing so, Jesus encourages her role as a witnessing disciple ~ before she even begins to act. As for the rest of the world, in doing so, Jesus crosses boundaries of gender, and race, and religious traditions (Vena).

This morning’s Gospel story opened with a lonely rejected woman coming to the village well to get water at high noon, hoping to meet no one; and she runs into a Jewish rabbi. She leaves the well having abandoned her water jar, her source of life, to go share her story (Hoezee). In her absence, the disciples arrive.

Jesus’ discussion with the disciples is quite cryptic. The language is all agricultural; you plant, and you wait for the harvest. The Messianic implications are that you wait for the Messiah. Jesus message to the disciples is that the waiting is over. Jesus is prompting his disciples to open their eyes and to see who the harvest is, that is already being gathered; in part, this is a reference to the woman who is in the village sharing her story at that very moment. Here we learn from John, the mission to the rest of the world is not after Jesus’ death or any other marker, the mission for the rest of the world beings right now (O’Day).

As this conversation is going on the woman has gone to town and is telling the villagers everything. She invites them to come and see, which is my favorite evangelical invitation. I suspect to everyone’s surprise they believe her, at least enough to follow her back to the well of life. When they get there, the villagers’ experience with Jesus expands their faith and believe because of their own experience (Vena). They invite him to stay, and that invitation has implications that they are seeking a relationship with Jesus (O’Day). What more could a witness ask for?

The story of Jesus meeting a woman at the well is the story of the making of a disciple. It begins with both the witness’ and the audience’s mutual vulnerability. Jesus risks talking to the woman. The woman risks accepting Jesus’ invitation. It grows as the audience lets go of their or our most precious traditions as we realize they do not nurture our relationship with God (Lewis). Discipleship grows as we as we are released from our fear of overcoming old prejudices and are willing to break the social conventions that dehumanize us (Vena). We see traits of being an effective witness. The woman offers her experiences as they are. When she is, tentative or isn’t certain of the answer, she shares them as that; for example, she asks “Jesus really the Messiah?”; she shares that as it is. Curiously enough, it adds to her credibility. The woman brings the villagers to Jesus, and her job is now done, and her witness decreases, as did John the Baptist’s, as the villagers’ have their own personal experience with Jesus. If we can have our personal experience with Jesus, which we share with others, certainly these villagers can. A witness cannot replace an immediate experience with Jesus; a witness leads others to it. An effective witness knows salvation is offered on God’s terms and often is not in the terms a witness may have preconceived (O’Day).

It is a reasonable Lenten discipline to examine our witness of Jesus. It does not matter what our life’s experience is, whether we have been planted in the best soil or on the rocky path, either way, Jesus will nurture us. It does not matter the depth or certainty of our theological knowledge, and if you are here you have some theological knowledge; even if you don’t know what you know, Jesus will lead you into bearing fruit, which is continuing to do the work of God given to Jesus. It does not matter how long it takes, different fruit and crops mature at different rates. It does not matter how magnificent our story is; it only matters that we know our story, in Jesus’ story, well enough to share it.

Last week I invited us to consider Nicodemus, a leader with rank, education, and influence, to be our Lenten guide. Today I invite us to invite a woman, of unknown birth, without rank and without status, to join our team (Gaventa and Petersen). It seems our Lenten journey seems to be led by unexpected guides, showing us surprising directions to living waters.


Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 19 3 2017. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 19 3 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel John 4:5-42. 19 3 2017.

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 19 3 2017.

Kesselus, Ken. “Trust in God’s Love, Lent 3(A).” 19 3 2017. Sermons that Work.

Lewis, Karoline. Holy Conversations. 19 3 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lose, David. Lent 3 A: Living Water, Living Faith. 15 3 2017.

O’Day, Dail R. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of John. Vol. VIII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Vena, Osvaldo. Commentary on John 4:542. 19 3 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.



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, episcopaldigitalnetwork.com http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2014/03/06/3-lent-a-2014/ 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) http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1984 1/3 RCL|Narrative|Evangelio|Index   Commentary on John 4:5-42  
[viii] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0076327/
[ix] O’Day, ibid,
[x] Hoch, ibid, O’ Day, ibid
[xi] Genesis 38
[xii] O’Day, ibid; Hoezee , ibid; Hoch, ibid
[xiii] Jennifer Medina http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/22/us/a-wedding-amid-cries-of-unfinished-business-from-a-marriage.html?_r=0
[xiv] David Lose, Working Preacher, Leaving It All Behind – Working Preacher – Craft of Preaching http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=3111 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