The Woman At The Well: a sermon delivered to an unknown community

I. Some general observations about John’s Gospel

Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well is one of those very rich stories that functions for John as one of seven Signs of the Kingdom. We love these stories from John, especially– the wedding at Cana, Nicodemus’s night-time visit –which formed last week’s Gospel reading, and of course the raising of Lazarus and the story of Mary and Martha. Today’s story of the woman at the well, like the others Sign stories, appears only in John’s Gospel. Why is this?

John’s Gospel is the last of the Canonical Gospels to be written. John writes within the context of the Christian Community in Jerusalem. It’s fair to assume that already possessing the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, John’s community didn’t need yet another synopsis of the events of Jesus’ Ministry. After all, by now everyone knew the story back to front.

Although Matthew and Luke follow Mark’s blueprint, they each add additional stories while also bringing their own theological and community context to bear on Mark’s blueprint. Therefore, John’s adding of new story material is in itself, not remarkable. What is remarkable is that John’s purpose in writing seems so very different from the other synoptic writers. John is not telling the story of Jesus’ ministry through the chronology of times, places, and events. John is building a theology of Jesus’ ministry around his series of seven stories, each intended to be sign that in Jesus, God’s Kingdom breaks into the human dimension of the here and now.

II. Approaching the text

On the face of it the story of Jesus and the woman at the well is rather complex with a number of different moving parts. It could be thought about as a play in three acts.

The first act of the story opens with a conversation between Jesus and a woman he encounters at Jacob’s well.  This is a place of significant religious and historical controversy. Both Samaritans and Jews claim Jacob as their ancestor. Jesus surprises the woman by asking her to give him a drink of water. From his request there then ensues a conversation about living water.

You might ask, what is so surprising for the woman that Jesus should ask for water from her? In order to answer this question, we need to know something of the social and political context for this encounter.

By asking her to give him a drink, Jesus is challenging social convention. He surprises the woman with his request because as a man Jesus shouldn’t have spoken to her in public. She was neither his wife of a female relative. In fact, he addresses her, ‘woman’ , implying a relationship of equality, not hierarchy existing between them. This Samaritan woman is doubly taken aback because she can see that Jesus is a Jew, and Jews don’t speak to Samaritans. In asking the woman for a drink Jesus is not only challenging social custom he is also challenging political and religious exclusivity. In order to more fully understand this we need to take a detour into historical context.

After Solomon’s death the United Kingdom of Israel, united by his father David breaks apart into the Northern Kingdom of Israel with its capital at Samaria and its Temple on Mt Gerizim, and the Southern Kingdom of Judah centered on Jerusalem and The Temple. Here is where the similarity to Crimea comes in. In 722 BC the Assyrians destroy the northern Kingdom of Israel and deport around 30,000 Israelites in order to relocate five other ethnic groups to replace them. Over time the remaining Israelites intermarry with the foreigners. In 587 BC the southern Kingdom of Judah falls to the Babylonians and the people in Jerusalem are taken off into captivity in Babylon. However, unlike the fate of the northern exiles who never return, in 538 the Jerusalem exiles are allowed to return and begin to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. The Samaritans object to this and petition the Persian King to withdraw Persian support for this initiative. thus cementing the hatred between Samaritans and Judeans.

The core of the enmity centers on notions of pollution. The Judeans despised the Samaritans because of their intermarriage with non-Jewish populations, rendering them racially impure. The Samaritans, on the other hand despised the Judeans whom they saw as having polluted the Law of Moses through the Levite reforms instituted during the period of exile in Babylon between 587 and 538. For the Samaritans had despite intermarrying remained faithful to an older operating system – to borrow from the language of computer software, i.e.the Law as it was understood in 722.

There is a dramatic shift of focus as we move into the second act of the story. Here Jesus requests that the woman go fetch her husband. Her response opens the way for her to recognize Jesus’ true identity. Taken by itself, this section alone has led to the familiar misogynistic (women hating) patriarchal treatment of the woman as a prostitute, or even worse and adulterous. Yet, Jesus, nowhere implies that the woman is of anything but impeccable character. Quite the contrary, he sees her as an evangelist, who not only recognizes him as a prophet but also brings the rest of her community to faith.

Jesus’ reference to her five husbands is a historical metaphor for the five foreign peoples with whom the Samaritans had intermarried. The man she is currently with, and who is not her husband, extends the metaphor to include a sixth group of foreigners introduced by Herod the Great in 37 BC. Unlike the first five this man is not her husband and this alludes to Roman occupation, which had forbidden intermarriage between this last group and the Samaritans population.

In the third act we see the return of the disciples who had been shopping for supplies. They arrive back and totally misconstrue the situation they come upon. They are scandalized that Jesus should risk both social and religious criticism by talking to a woman and a Samaritan woman to boot. This final act of the play concerns Jesus’ discussion with the disciples about mission. Mission, is an important theme for John who introduces the metaphor of gathering in the harvest – a harvest that someone else has planted. Here Jesus is telling his disciples to embrace the Samaritan converts, that through her testimony the woman is bringing to Jesus. This woman, whom they condemn has recognized his true identity as the Messiah. As a result, she now brings her neighbors and friends to also believe in him. This is a harvest, the seeds of which the disciples have not sown, but yet now must bring into the community of Jesus’ followers. 

The nature of Christian Community

This is an important story for John and his community. The core of John’s teaching centers on the primacy of love – a kind of love conquers all, approach to faith. In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ central commandment is to love: as the Father has loved me, so I love you, therefore you must love one another. 

John’s community comprised a number of different groups with different theological understandings. In the absence of common agreement between them, this teaching on love holds them together in some semblance of community. Like our own Anglican tradition, John’s community is defined not by agreement on shared belief.  It is held together by an emphasis on right relationship. For Episcopalians, right relationship rests on our behaving with love towards anyone who is willing to join us in worship. Our unity lies in our being able to recite the words of the Book of Common Prayer, despite holding different understandings as to what these words might mean. For John, the woman at the well is a Sign of the Kingdom because it powerfully depicts Jesus reaching across the social divisions of gender relations, as well as the political and doctrinal divisions rooted in a history of conflict and mutual antipathy.

Text and context

Understanding biblical texts is usually a more complex business than we are often led to believe. We see in this story of the woman at the well the interlacing of three layers of context:

  1. We have the historical context within which an event takes place, i.e. a meeting between Jesus and a woman at Jacob’s Well sometime between 30 and 33 AD.
  2. We have the reporting of the original story by John writing about the event many years later, probably around 90-100 AD.
  3. We have our reception of John’s text in the first decade of the 21st century. This is always how the ministry of Jesus comes to us – transmitted across two thousand years of time.

Of the three layers, it is the third layer, our reception of this text and the meaning we give it, that is our chief focus. Therefore, I ask the question: what might this text mean for those of us sitting here this morning?

Receiving the text in the here and now

There is a trap that a visiting preacher can fall into if he or she is not careful. The trap is to speak with certainty or authority, assuming a knowledge of his or her hearers and their community that he or she does not possess. I have only the most general awareness of how my reflections on this story might be received. All I can say is that this story introduces a conversation that God is intending to have with this community. Lacking specific knowledge of this community, I would like to make some general points from my experience of how God might intend to have this conversation with any Christian community.

This story from John’s Gospel depicts Jesus demonstrating what a relationship of love, looks like.  This is not erotic or sentimental love I see here. I see a love of mutual respect emerging between Jesus and this woman. I note a growing tenderness, which differences of gender, ethnicity, and religion cannot frustrate. In contrast to the worldview of his disciples, Jesus values diversity! This is often a real issue for Christian communities. You know the old joke: the Episcopal Church welcomes you – but only if you are like us. As a Church, we may be very theologically inclusive, yet the fact that our parish communities are shrinking indicates another old adage: that we behave as if everyone who might become Episcopalian – already has.

In our communities, we must examine and uncover attitudes of mind and heart that result in our clinging to safety rather than risking to reach out to those who are different from us. Our Anglican tradition has so much to offer the modern world and it continues to amaze me how it remains America’s best-kept secret. Through the sheer accident of history, Anglican Christians have developed an idea of Christian Community that is not a community defined by shared believe, but one defined by the generosity of God experienced in common worship.

We are the community where traditional worship and a radical commitment to face the challenges of our contemporary context, meet and engage one another. Our parish communities are rooted in the local, rather than the universal. We are Catholic Christians of place and locality and this must embolden us to embrace new populations whose arrival can be seen as a challenge to our sense of privilege  -which to be honest, is a boat that sailed a long time ago.

Let us not only love one another but love the stranger. Let love empower us to catch up with the world around us, embracing it as it really is, and not retreating into fantasies of how we still long for it to be. Let us offer the deep richness of our Anglican Tradition’s valuing of toleration and welcoming of diversity. These are two qualities so badly needed in a world of increasingly polarized divisions.  We offer an appreciation of dignified worship through which the echo of the ancient Church can still be heard. Accompanying this is an appreciation of beauty.  Our Anglican Tradition commits us to sitting in the tension between being faithful to the Tradition with a capital T and being open to the challenges of being Christian in a world of rapid and bewildering change where many are alienated, cast adrift without the anchor of traditions of any kind.

However, what we have most to offer the world around us that simple truth lying at the heart of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman. This simple truth is that the only thing that matters is the quality of our relationships. Individually and communally we are only as good as our ability to build effective and loving relationships with others. Through relationships that we build connections. Through relationship, that weave webs of mutual support based on the simple notion that my prospering is dependant on my concern for your wellbeing.

The world is sorely in need of receiving the Signs of the Kingdom. These signs become our expectations for the continued realization of the Kingdom of God, something that is already here as well as still in the process of unfolding. As Episcopalian Christians, we are called individually to lives lived in, and through community defined by right relationships, not shared belief. We live out the Signs of the Kingdom through the promises of our Baptismal Covenant  .

Like the woman at the well, may our neighbors say to us: 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 Saviour of the world.

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