Scripture Reading: John 4:5-42
One commentator called the Women at the Well text the scripture a pastor can always fall back on. It is so deep with meaning, a pastor can always pull something out of it. Like today. I’ve preached on it before, but when Laura and I decided to do the sermon series on “Giving it up,” I had to look at the text another way then when I did in the past. Now we didn’t come up with this series on our own, but all we were given when we found it was a title and a scripture verse. But the title handed me a theme: superiority.
To share with you what I found, I have to do something a little different. We are going to use the sanctuary to make a map. Now, I need Lucas to come stand with me and Don to stand in the middle of the aisle. What we are making is a map of Palestine as it was in Jesus’ day. Lucas and I are up here in the north, representing Galilee, an area that is primarily Jewish. Down on that end is the Jerusalem area which is also Jewish, but also has the temple. So all the big Jewish holidays happen over there, which means all the Galileans who want to go to Jerusalem for Passover have to travel from here to there, about a journey of about 3 days. But something was in between. Samaria. Now there was a long standing feud between the Jews and the Samaritans. We won’t go into great detail about it but it basically dealt with how they came to live and worship as they came out of their respective captivities. They had been family, part of twelve tribes of Israel united under King David and Solomon. But like most families, there was tension and it split into the northern kingdom of Israel. Judah was the southern kingdom. Both fell and were taken into captivity, Israel by Assyria and Judah by the Babylonians. Now, it was what happened after captivities that caused the major split. The people who came back into the area known as Samaria had intermarried with the Assyrians and built a new shrine to God in the mountains, actually following many of the old traditions that occurred in the temple in Jerusalem. But during the captivity of the southern kingdom, those Jews strongly enforced a no-interfaith marriage with the Babylonians. When they came back to Jerusalem, they quickly rebuilt the temple (see the books of Ezra and Nehemiah), looked and what the long lost cousins were doing and said, “your not part of the family any more.” and the fight was on.
So, I have Lucas up here to help me. Here we are in Galilee and you want to get to Jerusalem for a festival. You have three routes you can go. You can go straight up the middle, the quick road, taking about 3 days. But, you have to go through the scary, unclean land of Samaria. You have been told your whole life that these people are stinky and scary and bad things happen to good little boys who go that way. If you make it, you will smell of Samarians for days and need to take 10 baths to get the smell off you.
Or you can go up the road to the left, the road that follows the Jordan River. It is pretty easy too. It is down hill all the way until you have to do the steep climb up from the river to Jerusalem. It also is longer. It takes about 5 days. But you don’t have to go through Samaria.
Or you can go up the road to the right. It leads along the coastline of the Sea. It is a pretty nice walk, too. Steep at the end when you have to turn and head back up into the hill country that surrounds the hill country of Jerusalem. And it too takes about 5 days, and again, you don’t have to go through Samaria. So, Lucas, which way do you choose?
Basically, Lucas chose what most Jews at the time did. They avoided Samaria. They took the long route. When they did go through Samaria, it was usually as a large group to avoid conflict and contact. I read one account where a solo rabbi was headed through Samaria and foolishly told someone he was headed to Jerusalem to worship in the temple. An argument followed on ‘proper’ worship and this rabbi was run out of the territory, narrowly missing his death.
But here we find in our text this morning an encounter that probably should have never happened. Here was a Jewish rabbi and an unnamed Samaritan woman. Several worlds collide in many ways at this historic well: Jewish, Samaritan, Male, Female.
She pretty much sums up what is at stake after Jesus asks for a drink from her, ‘how is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ Jesus starts breaking down the walls of those worlds in two directions when he asks for a drink. His entire cultural/religious background looks down on her. First, based upon Jewish custom, he is forbidden to talk to any unrelated woman unless her husband is present. But if she had pulled up water from the well for him to drink, it was the same Jewish customs that would have forbade him to drink from the vessel she presented the drink from. For a Jew, a Samaritan woman was always unclean. If he touched her water jar, he would be ritually impure.
But the same goes for her, too. Now, we don’t know much about her standing in the community. Some commentators have said that because she was at the well mid-day, she must have been a woman of ill repute, not allowed to go there in the morning with the rest of the women. (many husbands) We don’t know for sure. So, I’m not even going to speculate too much. But what is most important is that her entire cultural/religious background looks down on Jesus. He is actually the ‘lower class citizen’ in this meeting. His people were the ones who did everything wrong since the time of Solomon and she had religious teachings that knew what to do with someone like him. He shouldn’t be at her well. He shouldn’t talk to her, and if he does, she shouldn’t respond.
But he does talk to her. Here are two worlds that look down on each other colliding at a well that is important to both historically. Why would Jesus open up this dialogue? I think Jesus knew that they needed each other. They both needed a drink. They both needed their physical and spiritual wells filled with what the other had to give. Jesus needed a drink of water. He had been traveling all day and he was thirsty, he was tired, and he was hungry. She could give him what he needed. And she needed living water, water that only quenches the spiritual thirst of that human need to know God and pursue the eternal. He could give her what she needed.
Now, we never do read that Jesus took a drink that day, but I think he did. When the woman took off, I can picture him taking up her water jug and drinking up his fill. But what I do knowis that a whole lot of people were filled with something they never expected. The women and the people of the town met the messiah, a messiah who came from the group they had despised. And Jesus’ own disciples were now surrounded by new followers of Jesus, new followers that just a few moments before they were afraid of. They were no longer Jew or Samaritan, but disciples sharing the good news of the kingdom of God everywhere.
Now, in light of giving up superiority, this text tells us three things. First, we can never assume we know what a person needs. Jesus knows, but we have to ask. This woman came to the well, because she too was thirsty. Besides physical water, Jesus recognizes that she also needs eternal water. But we don’t have that insight and can’t walk into a situation knowing that we can solve ‘the problem.’ I don’t know how many times I’ve gone to the hospital to visit someone before or after surgery and asked them what they would like to pray for. You would assume it is for healing, but so many times it is for children, a spouse, or a situation that isn’t even related to why that person is laying in the bed. At a moment when I would think the physical needs of healing are the most important, we end praying about forgiveness. It is in those moments when deeper needs are recognized and then can be addressed.
The second thing is we can’t rank people’s needs. Spiritual needs aren’t superior to physical needs and vice versa. We are physical and spiritual creatures, and when part of us thirsts, the rest of us thirsts as well. Feeding someone food or giving them drink or clothing them is just as important as praying with them and sharing the good news of Jesus with them. Here and other places in scripture, Jesus addresses both physical and spiritual needs at the same time.
Physical thirsts and hungers, spiritual thirsts and hungers, “Your sins are forgiven, get up and walk.” When we are physically hungry, it affects our spirit. And I firmly believe when we are spiritually hungry, we often time reach for physical things to try and satisfy that hunger, like another bag of potato chips or even drugs, when only Christ can satisfy.
And last, this passage says Christ needs us and we all need each other. I even think it says we need the people outside the walls of the church. Christ has given gifts to everyone sitting here, young or old, college degree or only an eighth grade education. Everyone has something to offer and give to the community and the world so that God is glorified and walls of division are torn down. Some of you have physical gifts to share, some of you have the physical stamina to build and move and carry things, some of you financial resources to give, and all of you can pray, all of you can be a spring of living water that Christ becomes real in the lives of others.
But also have to recognize that living water flows out of others for our sakes as well. It won’t be long before you will be walking out the doors of the church back into the world. You will run into someone that maybe you didn’t even consider worth talking to because they have nothing to offer. When you do, consider the woman at the well. She had something to give to Jesus that was just as important as what Jesus had to give to her. Say hello. You may discover what they have to give you fills your well beyond your greatest expectations. Amen.