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