Scripture Reading: John 4:5-42 (NRSV)
5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)[a] 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you[b] say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I am he,[c] the one who is speaking to you.”
27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah,[d] can he?” 30 They left the city and were on their way to him.
31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33 So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” 34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35 Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36 The reaper is already receiving[e] wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”
********************************************************************************************I've preached on this particular passage several times. It does come around in the lectionary once every 3 years, after all. Most of those sermons I have preached in the past have focused on the woman as a woman, as an outsider, as someone Jesus, as an observant and law obedient Jew, would never have talked to in public. A sinful woman, perhaps. Certainly one rejected by most of the other women in her community - although possibly not the men, although they, too, would have probably shunned her in public. Just sayin'. I have focused on Jesus' radical inclusion of everyone, even a Samaritan, even a woman whom he believed was busily committing adultery with one of the village men. Drinking from her cup, and offering in return water that was different from any she had ever tried. I have talked about how the message of God's forgiveness sometimes comes best from someone who has been forgiven. I've even sometimes focused the work of Church World Service, which includes helping villages suffering from a lack of water build wells right in their central square, so that the women don't have to walk miles and miles for clean water - and about the lack of drinkable water even here in the US - on the Navajo reservation, for example, and now in Flint, Michigan. I've taken this passage in all those directions, but the one I haven't touched on is that soul deep hunger and thirst that clearly this woman was experiencing.
As I’ve often said, every time I read any passage of Scripture I see something different than I have seen before. It happens to most of us, I think. It depends a lot on where we are in our lives at the moment we are reading. Sometimes we see something that helps us through whatever we are going through in our lives. Sometimes we recognize something after we have come out on the other side.
For example, look at the woman in the picture on the screen. Some of you may have been seeing this picture on Facebook with a caption about health insurance, but that’s not where this image originated. This image of a woman and her children is used as an illustration in the Hunger and Gender section on Wikipedia. Look at her. You can almost feel the hunger and thirst she is feeling. Hers isn’t the “I missed lunch today cause I was busy doing stuff” kind of hunger that most of us have experienced, or the “I’m hungry because I have made a commitment to eat less and get more healthy,” kind of hunger that comes with a new diet plan. No. Hers is that soul deep hunger for, yes, food, but also for hope. Hers is the kind of hunger that can’t be satisfied with a hot meal at a church, although, trust me, that is greatly appreciated. Hers is the kind of hunger that can only be relieved by knowing that there is something more out there, something better, some hope that the future won’t just bring more of the same. Hers is the kind of hunger that wants to have hope that at least her children will know something better, even if her life will never change. That kind of hunger isn’t just about food. The thirst that drives her isn’t just about water.
I recognize that feeling in her because I have felt it. I have often said that the day when I woke up feeling empty inside and knowing it is the day I made the decision to change my life, stop using drugs, and find a new way to live. Just getting clean helped me feel better, hopeful that my life really could be different. Discovering that the God I had been taught about in the church I grew up in wasn’t at all the sort of God that these new people in my life believed in also helped. As time passed, my emptiness started to fill up with faith. When I found the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and began attending worship, learning more about this loving, caring, forgiving God, I could feel my soul filling more and more. It has been a process. There have been times when I felt completely filled, and other times when I still felt like I was lacking something. There have even been times when I felt that pain, that emptiness again - after my brother died, for example - but because I knew that God was with me I was able to get through. It was a terrible time for me. I could barely function, but I had to. Thankfully, I had faith, a teensy itsy bit of faith, small as a mustard seed, that I would get through that, that the pain would lessen over time, that no matter what, I was going to be ok, and that we would be reunited eventually.
When I recognized myself in that woman’s picture the very week that the Samaritan woman at the well came around in the lectionary, I knew that her soul deep hunger and thirst was, for this year at least, the part I needed to address.
Maybe you haven’t ever felt this hopelessness, this depression, this despair. But I suspect most of us have, even if just for a short time. But if you haven’t, consider that Samaritan woman. Alone. Rejected by her neighbors. Separated by history and conflict from the religion of her ancestors . . . because the Samaritans were what was left of the ten tribes of Israel that broke away when Solomon’s son Rehoboam took the throne. They couldn’t go to the Temple in Jerusalem, so they built their own. . . and she was unlikely to be welcomed there, anyway, even in the court of the women. And suddenly here is this man, this Jewish man, who speaks to her when no Jew ever spoke to a Samaritan, no decent man spoke to a strange woman in public (and vice versa). He spoke to her of water, living water, and she didn’t understand. Until suddenly she did. And that hole in her soul began to fill. That soul deep hunger and thirst became satisfied. Her healing had begun. So she went to tell everyone, and brought them all back to him, to the one who had brought her salvation, healing, and changed her life.
When I was in seminary learning all kinds of theological goodies, I listened to all of the professors and read all of the books and thought most of the discussion around who God is and what God wants from us were word games, right up there with the arguments over the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin. None of it sounded like it was something to do, only something to believe and talk about. My advisor was not pleased to hear this. But then I took a course on Liberation Theology from the Rev. Dr. Carmelo Alvarez and for the first time encountered a kind of theology that has us out doing what Jesus said to do, working together to change the world the way Jesus was trying to change his world. And I knew I had found the thing I needed to fill up my soul the rest of the way. It was what was missing. It was the “how to heal the world” part of Christianity that I had been yearning for. Coming to understand that salvation is healing, that Christianity is an active faith, not a passive one, was my Samaritan woman at the well moment. Suddenly, it all made sense to me. And I knew I was in the right place.
A while back my friend Danny Bradfield, pastor of Bixby Knolls Christian Church in Long Beach, wrote this. “SALVATION. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. The way Jesus used it, it means finding wholeness. "To save someone" meant to rescue them from oppression, from poverty, from being cast aside or thrown out by society. But that's hard work, so Jesus's followers soon decided that salvation simply meant believing in Jesus. After all, it's a lot easier to walk around saying "believe, believe" than it is to actually help those who suffer from all the classism, racism, sexism, and other sins of society.
The Greek word SOZO is often translated as "saved" (salvation) in English but it really means being made whole/well, starting now (in this life)...The Greek word that is translated as "believe" actually means "be passionately committed to." The Greek phrase for "eternal life" would be better translated as "the life of the ages," referring to a life of wholeness now as well as in the future. Jesus LIVED so that ALL may experience this life of wholeness, but those who did not like his message killed him because of it. But God showed his approval of all Jesus stood for by raising him back to life, to show that the way of life will prevail.”
The Samaritan woman went back to her village and told everyone what Jesus had said. Of course they all ran back to hear this for themselves. And they kept him there for two days, to feed their soul deep hunger and assuage their thirst. The villagers heard the word from her and that was good but then they heard it from Jesus. That was like the difference between drinking a cup of water someone brought you and drinking directly from the spring. Have you ever done that? We had a spring house when I was young. The water came through pipes into our house and it was good. But there was just something about going into the spring house and reaching down with my hand to scoop up that cold, fresh water straight into my mouth. I imagine it would have been like that. And then, at the end of two days, “They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”
This is truly the Savior of the world. The Word that he brings is the living water, the eternal food, that heals our souls and enables us to go out to heal the world. It is that Word which feeds our soul deep hunger and thirst each time we gather for worship, each time we come together at the table, each time we share the Word of our Lord with another. My sisters and brothers, when we go from this place today, let us go forth ready to share that water and that food, that healing love of God, through our every word and action, with each other and with the world.