As we move through this season of Lent, we are taking a look at the stories of those whom Christ encountered in the Gospel of John. These are stories that invite us to see ourselves through the eyes of Christ, and to then move through Lent with a renewed understanding of who we are as God’s beloved.
It’s hard not to love this story that we call The Woman at the Well. It speaks so deeply to us of redemption, hope, and the joy that comes from a living God. Today we are invited to consider how Christ encounters each of us at the well and names what we are thirsting for. It is there that we meet ourselves and become fully known by a loving God.
The woman at the well was three things: She was a woman. She was a Samaritan. She was someone who’d had her identity defined by her relationships with men. And Jesus knew all of that about her. What’s remarkable is that any one of those things could have turned him away, and yet he stayed, her persisted, and her life was changed because of it.
Last week we learned about Nicodemus- a Pharisee who was sure of everything. And yet, he snuck away in the dark of night to visit with and learn from Jesus. Today, we heard about this woman- who is not sure of much of anything. And yet, she also sneaks away- in the heat of the day – and there she encounters Jesus.
In the beginning of this story we learn that a woman comes to draw water where Jesus has been sitting to rest. Jesus engages her in conversation. He asks for a drink of water, and then begins to share with her the insight he has into her life. According to the social customs of this time, a Jewish rabbi would have been forbidden to speak to a woman in public- let alone have this intimate conversation with her alone at the well. What he is doing is revolutionary.
We know that the woman came to the well at noon- not the typical time of day to be drawing water. She clearly wanted to avoid being seen. She was not engaging with the other women of her community. She was sneaking to the well at a time when she expected no one else to be around. She didn’t feel known and did not try to be known. But Jesus saw her, and spoke to her, and showed her who he truly was. He didn’t simply make a request of her. He engaged in conversation with her!
She must have been so perplexed by this teacher who was investing in her. By this man who asked nothing more of her than a simple drink of water. By this Messiah who promised her a new life in her soul. Because nothing about her life would have made her think she deserved this conversation. Everything in her should have felt skeptical or dismissive or even frightened by this man who claimed to know everything about her. She was used to hiding. Used to running away from the glares of those around her. She was used to being dismissed. And she certainly believed that she deserved that way of living.
How often do we feel like this woman did? How often do we feel like we have done nothing to deserve God’s love, attention, or relationship? Instead, we believe that we are unlovable. We believe that we don’t fit the mold of what it means to be a Christian. We tell ourselves that we are unworthy, unforgiveable or simply unwanted. And we tell ourselves that, because we have heard that message from others. We have heard that we have failed to be who someone wanted us to be. We have heard that who we are is not good enough, smart enough, beautiful enough, or wealthy enough, to be loved or accepted.
And yet, we see Christ go to this woman- to a person to whom he would not be expected to pay one moment’s attention. And he simply invites her into the conversation. Before she says a word, he extends welcome. Before she says a thing about who she is or admits any part of her life’s story, he offers love.
This is the attention Christ desires to give us. Attention that has nothing to do with what we look like, who we are, what time of day it is, or how we have perceived ourselves. Instead, Christ comes to each of us equally with an interest in seeing and knowing us.
By living out the example Christ offers, we have an invitation to extend that same care to others. We are invited to welcome and love each person we lay our eyes on. Not in spite of their stories, but before we even know their stories. Simply because they are children of God.
It is not our role to make someone feel unlovable or ashamed or unwanted. Instead, we are called to exactly the opposite- to not perpetuate myths of worthiness, but to remind each person we see that they are beloved of God.
Next, we learn that the woman is a Samaritan. After the exile, Samaritans had been excluded from the rebuilding of the Jewish nation. Although both Jews and Samaritans stemmed from the same branch in the history of ancient Israel, and their religions were fairly similar, there was a lot of hostility between the two groups. Samaritans were viewed by the Jews as too different, not in alignment, and certainly not able to be considered equals in faith.
Jewish purity laws would have made it especially uncommon for Jesus to request a drink of water from this Samaritan. No Jew would accept water from the drinking vessel of a Samaritan- it would have been considered unclean! Requesting and receiving a drink from the woman is a sign of Christ’s emphasis on the importance of relationship over law. To him, she was not unclean. He fully embraced her humanity, regardless of religious barriers. But even the disciples reinforce these cultural and religious norms when they return to find Jesus speaking with the Samaritan woman, and they are shocked!
Like the disciples and the Samaritan woman, aren’t we also guilty of letting religion get in our way? I don’t mean our shared faith in Jesus Christ and the things we do in these walls. I mean the religious traps to which we are each prone. Just as the Samaritan woman could have hidden behind her religion- expecting a Jewish teacher to ignore her- we too hide behind our religions. We hide behind the religion of perfectionism. We hide behind the religion of achievement, the religion of the pursuit of beauty or wealth or power. We hide behind the religion of busyness or productivity. It’s so easy to allow our religion to become our work, our hobbies and even our families.
And yet, Christ calls us, as he did the Samaritan woman, to no longer be defined by religion. To no longer be defined by the labels we give ourselves and others. Instead, Christ reaches out to offer us a fullness of life that comes, not from our doing, but from our believing. Christ invites us to stop judging ourselves, comparing ourselves, believing the lies that come with envy and greed and vanity. Instead, Christ offers us living water- freedom from the trappings of life’s expectations, and freedom found in drinking deeply of all that God offers and promises.
Upon offering living water to the Samaritan woman, Jesus also revealed that he saw and knew her. There was no need for her to hide who she was. He knew she was a Samaritan. He knew she was a woman. And while John doesn’t tell us the exact circumstances of her relationships with men, we know that Jesus knew that her life’s story was not healthy for her. And so, there was no reason for her to pretend she wasn’t any of those things. Instead, in this text we can hear her as overcome with relief, saying with a sigh, “You’re right. What you’ve said about me is true.” She realizes that he knows exactly who she is and still wants to be with her. He still wanted a drink from her, still sought conversation with her, still accepted her for exactly who she was. And this reminds us that there is no need for us to hide our stories.
When I was in seminary, I chose to take a lot of classes in pastoral care and counseling. Most weeks we were asked to write papers exploring a particular topic affecting mental health- topics that we might one day encounter as we ministered to those in our churches. We were given books to read, but were also invited to include firsthand experience when writing these papers. It became a bit of a joke every time I called one of my parents to talk about the topic of a given week’s paper. We laughed that I didn’t need to rely on any assigned reading because I already had firsthand knowledge or experience with almost every assigned struggle. Because, in my family of origin, you don’t have to go very far onto my family tree to find addictions to alcohol, drugs or pornography, death by suicide, infidelity, depression & anxiety, and financial distress. BUT also in my family, you don’t have to go far onto that same tree to find a great deal of love, joy, faithfulness, laughter, selflessness, support and grace.
My family shares these stories- not as sources of pride, but as ways to reveal who we are, where life has taken us, choices we’ve made, and ultimately, to express gratitude to the God who has seen us through our struggles. When we attempt to hide these types of stories- when we whisper them in hushed tones, when we call our struggles by names other than what they really are, we are doing a disservice to ourselves, to our relationships with others, and to our relationship with God.
When we hear the stories of “everything someone has ever done”, we also hear a re-telling of our own stories. When we share what we have done, and what has been done to us, we speak truth into the world- we invite others into our life. We allow God to love us, see us, know us, and heal us
We need not hide ourselves or our stories. God knows, forgives, and loves us- not in spite of, but because of who we are and because we can’t do this life alone. Instead, our choice to depend on God offers us a promise of abundant life. Not a life free from pain, but a life where we can drink from the living water- finding joy, satisfaction, peace and hope in the God that is greater than anything we can attain for ourselves.
There is no reason for us to be anything but vulnerable and authentic when we are with God. And hopefully we then behave in the world, the way Christ modeled for us. Hopefully we offer to others that same love and acceptance that Christ gave the Samaritan woman. He names what she had done, but without judgment. He invites her to a fuller life, but without shame.
Because of the Samaritan woman’s encounter with Christ, she trusts and believes him. As loving adults, our greatest desire for the children in our lives is for them to be fully themselves. And so, we guide them, love them, support and correct them. But ultimately, they must choose to trust us.
Choose to trust that we have their best interests at heart.
Trust that they can be honest about thoughts, feelings, mistakes made, questions
Trust that they will be met with compassion, tenderness and thoughtful guidance.
God is that parent-figure for us. We need not shy away from being our authentic selves before God. Instead, we bring our fullness to God- the parts we love, but also the parts that give us pause and the parts that cause us to struggle- trusting that God will fill in the gaps.
God promises the nourishment we need- a LIVING water that isn’t dependent on us filling a particular role, having it all figured out, or meeting the expectations (real or perceived) of those around us.
Because of her encounter with Jesus, the Samaritan woman can also see him! She asks if he is, indeed the Messiah, and he is honest in telling her that he is. Jesus doesn’t hide himself from her. He brings his true, authentic and honest self to this woman. Jesus reveals who he is for the first time in the book of John, and he does so to a woman who has simply been exactly who she is before him.
It is because of her experience with Christ- being seen, known and love, the Samaritan woman she ran off to tell everyone about the Messiah- the one who offers us all life. The scripture tells us that she set down her water jug. She left it where she was- because she knew that water she had paled in comparison to the good news she had to share about the living water of Christ. She set down what she thought she needed for what would truly fill her soul.
When we have accepted the living water for ourselves, we are then given the opportunity to tell everyone about. The Samaritan woman at the well runs off to tell others of the fresh understanding she has. She invites folks to see for themselves. And because of her- this ostracized woman- more people are offered living water- new life- and many of them are drawn to encounter Jesus for themselves.
We are a thirsty people. But it’s important that we are constantly drinking from the living water of Christ, and not the wells that will leave our hearts dry. Recently, I saw a meme with a woman standing beside her bed, about to go to sleep, guzzling a gallon of water. The caption asserted that she was making up for an entire day of not treating her body well by chugging as much water as possible before the day was done. Surely guzzling that water before bed would make up for the ways she had not nourished herself the entire day!
But what if we choose to drink from Christ’s living water throughout our days- not simply when remember that we have sought other ways to quench our thirst? What if the living water was our go-to instead of our last resort? We often try to cram our faith into our lives instead of drinking of the living water all along the way. But what if we laid down our water jugs in exchange for the love of a Christ who sees us, knows us, and longs to give us life that is not dry, but is full of hope, joy, peace and love?
What is in your water jug today? In what things are you attempting to quench your thirst in this life, when Christ offers us living water from a spring that does not run dry?
Jesus reminds us, in this story, that he desires to reconcile everything to himself. There no longer needs to be divides around how religion is practiced, or between men and women, friends and enemies, sinners and saints. We no longer need to feel separated from God’s love for us because of the stories we tell or that have been told about who we are.
Renowned professor, Dr. Angela Bauer, speaks to this text and says, “To drink the water of which Jesus speaks, is to be the despised wife of five husbands who is fully known, but who is nonetheless taken seriously, given dignity, and now lives life being healed.”
Friends, the Good News of the gospel is that we are extended that same invitation. Like the Samaritan woman at the well, you are taken seriously, given dignity and you are healed. God sees you, knows you and wants you to be fully yourself in the light of Christ.
Whatever your struggle. Whatever your pain. Whatever your trauma or unhealthy life experiences, Christ desires to fill your soul.
There is no need to hide.
There is no need for shame.
There is only the need to drink of the water that slakes all thirst.
There is only the need to turn to the one who sees us, knows us, and who promises to fill our souls with a water that will never run dry.
Thanks be to God.